Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

Chattanooga, here I come!

If you asked the me from 2008 if he would ever express the words: “I’m excited about running the Raccoon Mountain Marathon tomorrow. Actually, giddy would better define my current mood,” he’d have looked at you like your face began to bubble, but much has transpired since then.

Six days ago, I was up at 4 am–usual for a Saturday–getting my run in so as to not miss any family time. Not only are weekend runs good for building my serotonin levels, releasing endorphins, and testing the limits of my cardiovascular system, they also provide the opportunity to catch up with friends. This particular morning, five of us hit the trail together, which was quite a large group considering the temperature hovered around 25° F. (Look, I know our behavior is atypical, but when one finds friends who stick closer than brothers, you make sacrifices to spend time together.)

Since I signed up for a 50k in May, my training plan called for eight miles that morning, and when my buddies, surprised at the reduced mileage, asked what I would be running the next weekend, I surprised all of us by responding, “I’m running 26.2 miles next week.”

“Woah, a full marathon?”

“That’s what my plan calls for.”

Normally, I don’t check my calendar more than a week in advance, but for whatever reason, that day I knew what the following week held.

Then Dave asked the fateful question: “Well, are you going to run a race that weekend?”

You see, I have the equipment, fortitude, and route knowledge necessary to run a marathon all by my lonesome. I can simply step out my front door, do the distance, and be back in time for breakfast, but as a number of miles had already flown beneath our feet, a dangerous cocktail of serotonin, endorphins, and caffeine flowed through my system, and I wondered if anyone had put together a nearby marathon and scheduled it for the following week.

Alas, a quick Google search revealed no one had. Mid-March tends to be too chilly in the Midwest to warrant many marathons, but I found quite a few in Southern climes, particularly Texas.

The closest one I found meant a six-hour trip to a small town in Illinois where I could look forward to a five-mile-and-change course that looped out from a junior high school. Running that same course five times through a small town held little appeal, so I scrolled on.

What? A trail marathon? On a mountain? How far away is Chattanooga? Seven hours? I can drive that! Let’s see, it’s $100 to register, not bad for a week before the race. It’s near a campground. Let’s see what kinds of accommodations they offer… Ah, I’ll probably do better finding a cheap hotel. Looks like I can book a room at Red Roof Inn for a hundred bucks. I wonder if the wife would go for it?

All of this happened over breakfast following the eight-mile run. Then I actually checked the race website for nearby accommodations only to discover a hostel existed in downtown Chattanooga offering bunks for $35 per night. Sold! I just turned my $200 weekend adventure into a $135 weekend adventure.

Apparently my enthusiasm was infectious, because the wife approved just as long as I paid for it out of my personal funds. Agreeing to these conditions, I quickly registered for the race and booked my bunk.

I packed my bag last night after small group and stowed it in the car so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning and spent today at work smiling at my students and humming songs to myself. I made it to Chattanooga just ten minutes shy of eight hours, having made a single stop in Cincinnati for dinner and gas. I checked into the hostel, visited a local brewery, and stopped at the bar next to the hostel to sample some Kentucky bourbon one can’t get in Columbus. It’s almost 2 am now, but I wanted to share this with you before falling asleep reading Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road.

My last blog post surprised many people. Apparently, when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, I tend to put on a happy face. So I just wanted to let you all know that once again, life is good, and I’m enjoying it.

Please don’t worry; I’ll let you know how the remainder of my weekend goes. Wish me luck!

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

Responding to the Mass Shooting in Vegas

At least 50 dead with over 500 injured? What possesses someone to check into a hotel, arsenal in tow, and fire into a crowd from an upper story window? Hearing about this atrocity feels like a gut punch, rocking us back on our heels to leave us on hands and knees, desperate to breathe normally again.

It hurts, but we’re going to be okay… We can do this… Just breathe… Take it slow. Together we’re going to get through this.

Yes, there’s a lot to deal with right now, and we’ve been through enough loss already without somebody deliberately firing assault rifles at a crowd. It’s one thing when a hurricane devastates several communities before another decimates entire islands, but when someone in the shadow of all the rest sprays bullets at innocents, you can’t help but struggle for purchase: What happened? Why would anybody do that? How bad is it? Oh, my God! Why is this happening? What are we going to do about it?

Some answers we’ll find, while others will elude us. Meanwhile, social media erupts with outrage and backbiting. People scream about gun control and the NRA, while others argue about why this man is not being called a terrorist. We want fixes for a problem we know exists but feel has no solution: How do you stop evil?

You overcome evil with good.

How does one counteract greed? With generosity. How do you stop injustice? By acting justly. Stealing is undone by restoration, and hate cannot stand in the presence of love. Fear loses its power in the face of courage, and there is no room for contention in the hearts of peacemakers. Yes, we humans have a huge capacity for doing wrong; we’ve seen it for centuries, but we have just as much capacity for doing good.

Open your hands to the poor and needy. Look for the helpers and join them in their work. Stand with those who mourn. Comfort the lonely and afflicted. Donate your time and money to efforts that drive the darkness away.

Turning strangers into friends may not absolutely solve the problem of evil, but it will stunt its growth, enriching the lives of others in the process. We see how misshapen this broken world has become, so let’s participate in the work of healing we all so desperately need.

What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

The Rift: A Short Horror Story

With a satisfied sigh, Helen glanced up from her book. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the large bay window, dust motes dancing in the glow. “Hello, Patsy!”

Purring, the cat sprang up onto the chair, kneading Helen’s lap and arching her back as Helen’s hand slid along the length of her silver fur. Once they settled in, Helen resumed reading her novel — something about unrequited love — allowing time to spin away.

Maybe the dust motes misstepped, or Patsy cut her purring short. Perhaps the late afternoon light took ill. Whatever indicated the change mattered little. The world seemed off; Helen could feel it in her sinuses. Glancing up from her book, she noticed the living room had somehow shifted to the left. Her stomach felt queasy, though nothing was out of place. No, that’s not right, Helen thought. Everything is out of place, but in the same way.

The living room appeared perfectly normal — the afghan trailing off her lap onto the hardwood floor, the big tabby sleeping in her lap, and the portrait of her late husband beaming at her from above the fireplace. “Jim, what has happened?”

There. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it. An absence where her tea cart should’ve sat. With a cry, Helen fixed both her eyes…on her tea cart. What was she thinking? There was no gap there. How silly! She resumed reading.

Unease twisted her stomach tighter. Helen looked again, saw nothing. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Some warm milk will do us good. Come along, Patsy. There’s a good girl.” The cat sprang down, shook herself, and minced her way into the kitchen with an expectant meow. Neither one noticed the ball of yarn bouncing away from the tea cart like a ground ball headed to left field.

That Thursday, the Lady’s Society for the Betterment of Newtown just moved on to the allocation of funds for a Medieval Dinner at the Moose Lodge when Mrs. Schwartz let out a low moan. “Ooohhhh, Glenna, did you see that? Tell me you saw.”

“Heavens above, Ruth, you’ve gone pale! See what?”

Helen sat up straighter on the chaise.

“There in the corner. A gap where the room should be.”

The other ladies gathered around Mrs. Schwartz, clucking their tongues and exclaiming, “Ruth, you’ve overtaxed yourself again, haven’t you?” Then in aside to each other, “Such a shame she overindulges on the sherry. Can’t help herself, can she?”

When Ms. Althea mentioned a slight indigestion and a few other ladies agreed to feeling the same, Mrs. Schwartz ventured, “I wonder if it’s the pie. It’s a lovely meringue, but one can’t be too careful when it comes to egg whites, can one?”

“Ladies, I think we’ll adjourn for today, but we’ll be sure to pick up this order of business next week at Mrs. Lockwood’s.”

All agreed, and Helen saw each of them out, complimenting this one on her new hat and that one on how brightly her eyes shone. With many a good luck and goodbye, she was left to tidy up.

Disquiet coiled in her abdomen. And all I ate was one small slice of cake. Taking a deep breath, she glanced at the tea cart, seeing nothing. To help her sleep that night, Helen took something much stronger than sherry.

“Patsy, dear, come get your breakfast! Patsy?” A line of worry formed between Helen’s sculpted eyebrows. I don’t usually have to call her at all.

Even before she knew what she was doing, Helen searched half the house, even opening the doors to the bedrooms now used for storage. Coming up from the basement, Helen, now frantic, called out Patsy’s name one last time before a wave of nausea nearly knocked her back down the stairs. “Ooooooooohhhh!” Gripping the banister with her right hand, Helen panted as she tried to regain her feet, pushing off the top step with her left. She wobbled but kept her balance and plodded into the living room. Something moved in the corner, the tea cart flickered back into existence, and Helen’s nausea lifted. “Patsy!”

The devoted wife, faithful mother, resolute widow, and pillar of the community knelt before the last thing in this world she still loved with all the rigidity her calcium-depleted bones could muster.

The once-beautiful cat lay wheezing, filthy with rust and blood. Her side torn open released viscera and feces; the tail broken neatly in half. One rear leg, now only a stump, looked like it had been gnawed off. The jaw hung by a few tendons, while the tongue sat useless, moving only as air gurgled in and out.

Her eyes! Her beautiful green eyes! Both were gone, ripped out with such force, one could see fragments of skull gleaming within the empty sockets.

Helen’s stomach lurched. Her equilibrium slid to one side — ears popping as the rift yawned open just beyond where Patsy lay, and this time, a stench of death and mangoes filled the room.

The cat’s body responded, it’s back arching backwards, muscles contracting all at once until the woman heard Patsy’s spine break with a moist snap.

Helen flinched then grew still as some nameless goblin reached out to her, feasting on her terror. Her face contorted with the realization she had fallen for the bait and was now being reeled in.

Tears leaked down her cheeks as the creature’s hot breath blew back her hair. Something pierced Helen’s mind. When she felt it sucking at her thoughts, her bowels released.

The radio crackled to life. “Bill, we’ve got a report of a strange odor on Park Street.”

The sheriff heaved a sigh and spoke into his shoulder mic. “Acknowledged.” Looking down, he gave a few shakes, zipped up his fly, and sauntered back to the patrol car. He could always nail some speeders later as most of Tuesday’s traffic had thinned out already. Bill gave a cursory glance down the road before nosing his cruiser back towards town.

Turning onto Park Street, Bill put both hands back on the wheel. The knot of people gathered outside the brick colonial told him all he needed to know. Several covered their noses. When the sheriff forced open the front door, everyone’s hands went to their faces.

“Damn!” Bill’s red bandana came out of his rear pocket to cover his own before he pulled his gun and entered the house. He didn’t see her at first; the stench made his eyes water, and gloom pervaded the living room. After a few steps, a shadow separated itself from the rest of the dark. Bill dropped the bandana and aimed his pistol with both hands. “Don’t move!”

She didn’t.

Bill unstrapped his flashlight and directed its beam at the shadow. “Mrs. Hawthorne!”

The smell only worsened as he approached.

“Mrs. Hawthorne?” She knelt by her tea cart, facing the corner, back straight and both arms stiff at her sides.

Touching her shoulder, the sheriff and Helen’s former student went to step in front of her before pulling up short. He stifled a yell.

She stared with empty eyes down at the bloated corpse of her cat now writhing with maggots. Helen’s mouth hung open, a line of drool trailing to the hardwood.

Neither Bill nor the paramedics who responded to the scene that day spoke of what Helen had done to her cat, though rumors circulated. The house never sold, and eventually the town tore it down.

Only the members of the Lady’s Society paid visits at the nursing home. They did well enough when Helen stared off into space and drooled, but even they stopped coming when her hollow voice started describing what it felt to have your memories swallowed whole.

Chiffonier

Oh, he’d waited for this day. Feeling the old man’s breathing becoming shallower and shallower as he applied all his weight to the nonagenarian until one pathetic gurgle gave way to silence filled Chiffonier with such satisfaction, he felt his joints would burst. Ever since the master had sold his family at auction one by one, Chiffonier knew it would be his duty to end that monster’s life. How many other family sets had that man broken apart, their future reduced to smoke and ashes? Chiffonier refused to think about it. He can’t harm anyone anymore.

The first time Chiffonier had even considered paying back his master in kind, he groaned inwardly. Murder? Him? It went against everything he was designed to be. Talk about going against his grain! He pushed the idea far from him, refusing to even consider it, but the more he thought about his family members being hauled off one by one, the more the idea grew like a pile of dirty clothes beneath his smooth veneer. He had to end the suffering. Yes, but how?

Years went by before Chiffonier realized his greatest strength — steadfastness. Every morning, the master would come to him, trusting Chiffonier to dress him warmly, especially as the master’s limbs grew feebler, and his hinges rustier.

It all came in a flash of recognition. The master’s trust of his unwavering devotion would be his downfall. And so it was.

That afternoon, the old man’s nurse, horrified, discovered the dresser fallen over upon him. “Squashed him flat, like an ant. I told Mr. Wallace hanging onto that dresser was dangerous. He should have sold it when he got rid of the rest of that bedroom suite. That front leg was wobbly. Only a matter of time before it gave way. From now on, nothing but Ikea for me.”

Gooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!

Normally, this would be the point where I mention blowing the dust off my keyboard since I haven’t updated my blog since April. Thing is, I don’t have to do that as I spent the last month working on a fiction piece as well as transcribing interviews from our trip to Arizona over spring break, which resulted in about 10,000 words. Excuse me while I stand on my chair and celebrate with my own hearty congratulations.

Ooh, bad idea. The desk chair rotates as well as rolls. Lemme get down before I brain myself.

Thing is, I can’t take the credit for accomplishing what amounts to a monster level of writing for me. Ask any of the professors from my MFA, and they’ll tell you there’s no way Jake accomplished that much work by himself. I didn’t; I stole an idea.

Every month, there’s this very nice lady who creates an event in Facebook where the invitees post mileage and other fitness goals for themselves then provide posts, documenting their progress in achieving these goals. Because those who participate in the group are wonderfully generous themselves, whenever anyone posts, they get flooded with positive support along with a modicum of ornery banter.

In addition to the support I receive from this crew, I also gleaned ideas such as running twice in a day, setting a mileage goal for cycling, and adding whole body exercise routines to my repertoire, things I wouldn’t consider myself, which results in me feeling better and being far more confident than I ever have before.

So I stole this idea of doing a monthly mileage challenge on Facebook and created a monthly writing challenge after discovering one of my fellow runners is also a fellow writer with a similar need for accountability. I set it up, invited other writers, and set a goal of writing 25 hours in June.

Which I did.

After skipping a bunch of days.

You see, I figured I could write for an hour each day. (We were less than a week into June when I created the challenge.)

I found it was harder to carve the time out than I first assumed.

Which meant I had to up my daily production.

Forcing myself to write for two hours and forty-five minutes some days.

Which sucked.

And because I created this group challenge, there was no way I was going to miss my goal, so I kept at it.

And I learned something. Three things, actually.

  1. I learned that setting a goal and sharing that goal along with progress made in achieving it with others working toward similar goals nets you many cheerleaders.
  2. I learned that slacking off early makes more work for you in the end.
  3. I learned that spending time doing something important not only creates progress, it also reveals the person I want to be more often.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, procrastinating will get you nowhere. I should know.

Set a goal, share it with others pursuing similar goals, and root each other on till the end. You might not cross the finish line first, but you will move further down the road.

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.