The Envelope

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It was a small town. It was a boring town. But boring was the way that Kevin liked it.

His life was fine until he’d gotten an envelope that couldn’t be opened.

He was a person who liked routine. He craved routine, to be more precise. Every morning he woke up, went to work, had lunch at the same café, and went home.

Kevin worked at a grocery store, working the checkout line on weekday mornings. Mornings were easy. The movements were so repetitive, the swiping of the barcodes, the sorting through the register… For hours at a time, Kevin could live with his eyes closed. He didn’t need to think. It wasn’t that he didn’t like thinking, he just never had much of anything worth thinking about.

After work, he went to the café. Everybody there knew him. It was a run by a family, the mom, the dad, the three daughters. They would share some small talk, but they weren’t precisely friends.

There was somebody new in the café that day. Kevin knew all of the lunchtime regulars. It was a young boy, probably still a student. He was sitting at the table next to Kevin’s, examining a crinkled white envelope.

Every once in awhile, the boy would look up, and their eyes would meet. Then he’d look back down at the envelope, flexing his fingers, making the paper crackle with every movement.

Kevin was eating a tuna salad sandwich. He almost always got the tuna salad sandwich on weekends. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were typically days for grilled cheese sandwiches, while the Tuesdays and Thursdays were for bacon cheeseburgers. The only reason that he would ever break from this tradition was if the café had run out of ingredients for his preferred meal. Often when he came in, he wouldn’t have to bother ordering. One of the daughters would simply gesture to a seat and bring out the day’s lunch.

He hadn’t noticed, so absorbed in his food, and so absorbed in trying not to think of anything, but the boy at the other table had stood up and wandered over. Suddenly the boy was sitting across from him.

Kevin looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t have a clue what to say.

“Hey,” the boy said. The envelope was tight in his hand.

“Hello,” Kevin said.

The boy tilted his head, as if searching for something on Kevin’s face. “Can I ask you a favor? It won’t be any trouble.”

Kevin’s eyes were on the envelope. “I suppose not. Who are you?”

The boy shifted in his seat. He was anxious about something. “My name’s Bryan.”

“Kevin,” Kevin said, reaching out a hand and shaking his. He did it automatically, feeling that he had no choice. “I’ve never seen you here.”

“I don’t live in town,” the boy told him, shrugging slightly. His eyes were on the envelope too. “I’m from a couple cities over.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “How old are you?”

Bryan smiled, like it was a joke. “Seventeen.”

“What are you doing out here?”

His smile grew. “I don’t quite know, to be completely honest. This morning I stole my dad’s motorcycle, and I started riding down the highway. No direction, no destination.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “You ran away from home.”

“I did,” Bryan said, flapping the envelope against his open palm.

“You have a license? You allowed to ride a motorcycle?”

“I suppose not. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Kevin studied his face. Bryan’s tone seemed politely cheerful, but there was still an ounce of disappointment hidden behind it all. “Why did you leave?” Kevin asked.

“I had some problems with my dad. Nothing special. But… anyway, I have a favor I need to ask you.”

Kevin said nothing.

Bryan lifted the envelope to eye level. “I need you to take this. I don’t want it anymore.”

“You don’t want it,” Kevin repeated.

“A few years ago, my mom was in the hospital, sick. The docs gave her a one in ten chance of living.” He flapped the envelope again, the paper crinkling. “My mom always liked handwritten letters. She said there was something nostalgic about them, something… melancholic.” The word sounded strange coming from his mouth.

“That letter is from your mother,” Kevin concluded.

Bryan looked at it again, as if he hadn’t realized he was holding it. “My dad didn’t like to visit her in the hospital. I wanted to go alone, so I could talk to her without him looming in the back of the room, listening and judging…” He sighed deeply. “About a week after we last visited, my mom sent this letter. But she was dead before the letter arrived.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say.

Again, Bryan flapped the envelope against his palm. “My dad never saw the letter. I got it out of the mail, and I hid it in my room.”

“Why?”

He sneered. “My dad didn’t deserve to see it, didn’t deserve to know her last words.” His face fell a moment later, like a deflating balloon. “I didn’t deserve to read it either. So I never opened it.”

“Why?” Kevin asked again.

Bryan looked away, his gaze on anything but the envelope. “I don’t know, really. I had a fight with my dad last night. Not a big fight, or at least no bigger than any of the others. But I was done with him. It was the last time. So I left, and the only reason I stopped here was because the bike was running out of gas.”

He set the envelope on the table and slid it over to Kevin.

“I need you to take the letter. I don’t want it anymore.”

“Why?” Kevin asked for a third time. He felt foolish for repeating himself. “Why me?”

Bryan smiled, puffing air out of his nose. “You’re somebody. As long as it’s not me or my father, I don’t care who reads that letter.”

Kevin picked it up. He’d expected it to feel special, have a certain weight to it, but it was just crinkled paper. He didn’t want it. It was difficult to say precisely why, but it seemed that this letter wasn’t meant to be read. “Do you have any idea what it says?”

“I have no idea. I keep thinking about the kind of ink she used. Black ink? Red ink? Blue ink? Maybe it was written with a pencil. Maybe it’s written in perfect calligraphy. Maybe it’s meaningless scribbles, a desperate message from a dying mind. Maybe the pages are blank, one last crazy joke to infuriate my father.” He shook his head. “I have no idea. And I have no intention of finding out.”

Kevin stared at the paper, at the address on the front. The address was typed onto a sticker, likely printed off by the hospital. There really was no way of knowing what sort of ink had been used. You couldn’t see through the paper. “The town on the address,” Kevin said. “You really have come a long way.”

Bryan stood up. “I have.” Then as he turned away, he added, “I’m sorry.” It sounded like he meant it.

The boy returned to his table, eating the rest of his meal quickly. He was finished within a matter of minutes. He stood up, paid at the register, thanked the staff, and left. Kevin could hear the motorcycle revving outside.

Kevin wanted to open the envelope right there, right that instant. But something held him back. After he ate his lunch, he brought the envelope home, but still he didn’t open it. He decided to sleep on it, and save it for tomorrow.

Still, he didn’t open it.

The Silver Foot

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            My elementary school had this weird idea to promote exercise. Every spring they would mow the lawn to make a ring in the field, and the kids were supposed to run around it like a track. Every recess, you were “supposed to” run the track, and they even put a member of the staff on the side, counting how many times you went around. If you got around the track twenty-some times, then you’d get a really mediocre prize.

            I don’t know why, but when that track got mowed into the field, my entire school went goddamn crazy.

            And that was recess for the rest of the year. Maybe you run around the track as fast as you can, maybe you walk around and chat with your friends while you go, maybe you walk all by yourself because you actually wanted to play tetherball, but all of your friends are running around a stupid track and won’t play with you.

            How did my school manage to convince kids to give up their recess time for running around a track? Everything that I know about children says that this shouldn’t work. So why was it so successful?

            I’m hesitant to say that it was the prizes, because all that we would get is little foot-shaped trinkets to put on the key chains that children don’t have. Once a kid had earned more than two foot trinkets, they’d usually pester their parents for a key chain and have the feet hanging off of their backpacks like trophies.

            There’s the catch. That’s what made the track so popular. Kids were flaunting their prizes. It was a competition. Some kids would only have the green foot-shaped trinket, which they got after, like, twenty-five laps. Some kids had the green and the red, after running fifty laps. Some kids had the green, the red, the blue, the yellow, the purple… The teachers had created a ranking system.

            And there was one trinket that was only mentioned in whispers. After you had gotten through the entire color spectrum of stupid foot-shaped trinkets, there was the silver foot. It could be only earned after running a billion and a half laps, at least.

            I knew one kid who had a silver foot. He rode my bus to school. I tried to talk to him, tried to figure out how he had done it, but he didn’t have to answer my questions. He was obviously too cool for me. The best that I had was a yellow foot. I was nothing to him.

            But still, a yellow foot was something formidable. A lot of the kids couldn’t make it past red. But I was quick. I would scamper around that track as fast as I could, and someday I would have my silver foot-shaped trinket. It was plain to see that getting one was the only way to become one of the cool kids.

            Do elementary schools have “cool kids”?

            The end of recess was always an awkward moment for the teachers. They’d be trying to get all of the kids off of the playground, but a bunch of people would abruptly break into a sprint, begging, “Just one… more… lap…” The faster kids were sneaky, and they’d slip in an extra two laps.

            But then in third grade, something happened. Something horrible. Something so sinister that I couldn’t believe it.

            So how did the teachers count laps? It’s simple, really. A punch-card system. You get a little card, and it has a bunch of numbers on it, and you carry it with you while you run the track. When you run a lap, whichever staff member is at the edge of the track will give you another hole punch. The top half of the card was numbered one through twenty-five, and the bottom half was a bunch of multiples of twenty-five. Once you’d run twenty-five laps and filled the top half, you get a new card that has the next multiple of twenty-five punched in on the bottom. Then you count out another twenty-five until that card fills, and so on.

            One of the kids in my third grade class got a silver foot within four weeks of the spring. It was impossible. Usually the silver feet didn’t start appearing until the end of May, or even the start of June. So I asked the kid how he had done it so quickly.

            It turns out that every child has a hole puncher somewhere in their house.

            This kid had gotten his first card, one without any punches, brought it home, and punched in two hundred laps. Then he laid low for a few days, waiting for two hundred to be a near-reasonable number, and then he started running. Whoever was punching the cards didn’t need to recognize his face, because it was a new staff member every recess. This guy had supposedly run two hundred laps in the time that it would take most kids to hit fifty, and the teachers were impressed.

            And how did he explain not having the green, red, or blue trinkets that he should have already earned? He didn’t need to. He’d taken last year’s and hooked them onto his backpack.

            It was a kind of conflict that I’d never had before. I mean, hole punching sounded so easy, and it was a one-way ticket to being one of the cool kids. I could imagine myself showing that silver foot-shaped trinket to everybody on the school bus and being so unfathomably popular.

            Here’s the problem: I had already run fifty-some laps that year. My card already had the fifty punched in on the bottom, and the bottom half is only supposed to have one hole in it, the unit of twenty-five that you’re on. If I wanted to skip any more than twenty-four laps, I would need a fresh, blank card.

            So I schemed. Well, I half-schemed. I thought of ideas, but I was too afraid to act on any of them. I could try to pickpocket the staff member that handed out the cards. But that was risky. If I was caught, who knew what would happen to me? I could try to recreate the card on a computer and print out my own copy. But what if I missed a detail? What if the texture of paper wasn’t quite the same, or the font wasn’t perfect, or the spacing was wrong?

            I spiraled into a state of self-loathing. I stopped running laps. I even stopped planning to get a fake card. If you could cheat to get the trinkets, then the track meant nothing to me. All of the status that the trinkets provided was a sham. Had any student in the history of the school really earned a silver foot properly? Or had they all been cheaters?

            One time when I was in high school, I went to Fred Meyer and found a big basket full of ten-cent trinkets. There were multicolored feet in that basket. I guess the teachers had to be buying them from somewhere. Maybe the kids were buying them somewhere too. Ten cents for a silver foot, and therefore ten cents for all of the fame that a child can imagine? Sounds like a good deal to me.

Go

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            I’m travelling at approximately nine miles per hour and gaining altitude at nearly three feet per second. A signal is coming from my frontal lobe, travelling down into my cerebellum. It is transferred to the spinal cord, soon to exit through a series of ventral roots. The signal is arriving at my legs and forcing them to run as fast as they fucking can.

            They said that I had to push myself in order to improve. Then they said that I was pushing myself too hard. Sprinting until you collapse will accomplish nothing. You’ll only exhaust yourself and cause more pain than benefit. Why did I even decide to go for a run? I’ll never need to run again in my life unless I’m catching a bus. What benefit could there possibly be to all of this?

            My designated route is a little over three miles, somewhere around five kilometers. The path runs around the perimeter of Mt. Tabor City Park on the east side of Portland, Oregon. The route is considered one of the more challenging on Tabor, consisting of varying levels of steepness, starting with a set of two hundred and eighty-two stairs leading from the base of SE Tabor Drive.

            But I’m not following the route that I had planned. I’m just climbing up and down the stairs, over and over. Up. Down. Skip one stair each step up. Skip two stairs each leap down. They told me that I was going to get dehydrated. They told me that I was going to puke if I kept pushing myself. They told me that I needed to stop. They’re asking me if I brought a water bottle. They’re worrying about me. I understand. I’m worrying about myself too.

            My muscles are giving off energy in the form of heat. The heat is detected in my brain, which decides that I’m overheating. Another electrical signal is fired off, this time towards the hypothalamus, which alerts the rest of my body of the increased temperature. My eccrine glands are working in overdrive. Water gathered in small ducts beneath my skin start to excrete in the form of sweat.

            Why am I on the high school running team? They said that exercise made you feel better. I’m not feeling better. I feel like I’m torturing myself. I am receiving no benefit out of this other than an unquenchable thirst and the feeling that I’m wasting my time. This is hardly exercising. This is some sort of survival training. I could outrun a tsunami if I kept this up. I could sprint across a battlefield to avoid enemy fire. I could race a goddamn cheetah. They said that exercise made you feel better. I guess I’m not running fast enough.

            Due to my handedness, my right foot falls with slightly more pressure than my left. My right toes hit the ground hard, rubbing against the inside of my sock, which is rubbing against the inside of my shoe. Friction is created on the bottom of the foot, irritating the skin. A tear is created within the top layers of my skin. The rest of my body receives a signal from my sensory system. A fluid is sent into the tear as instructed by the motor response. A blister is forming on the big toe of my right foot.

            There is no reason to be running this fast. There is no reason to be trying this hard. I haven’t stopped for twenty minutes, but I can’t stop. As I charge down the staircase, the momentum in my legs keeps me falling down the entire eastern side of Mt. Tabor. As I sprint up the staircase, the momentum in my head keeps me climbing back up. You’re doing this to yourself. You’re doing this because you have to. You’re doing this to make up for your mistakes. You’re doing this to punish yourself. You’re doing this to make the guilty voice in the back of your head to dissolve into a buzz of agony.

            Information regarding my repetitive leg movement has notified my hypothalamus that I must be in some sort of danger. The alert of overheating and belief of peril is sent to my occipital lobe. Any sign of trouble means that hyperawareness would be beneficial. My eyes start to dilate in an attempt to take in more light. The assumption of danger makes my brain decide that leg function is more pertinent than clear thinking. The blood rushes from my head and is sent to my extremities. I’ve gotten pale.

            Time is up. It’s time for us to pile back into the van and get back to school. They say I look like I’m dying. They say I look like I’m about to faint. Two of them hand me their own water bottles. I drain each of them. The blood returns to my face. I can breathe again. The angry voice in the back of my head returns to the foreground. I close my eyes and wish that I had passed out.