American Sad Coming of Age

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“With a mouth like yours, you better learn how to fight or run away,” is probably the second-best piece of advice I’ve ever received. I was given it by a big oaf that also happened to be my classmate. Can’t remember his name, but it starts with an A. Adam, Alex, Asshole? Yeah, that last one.

He taught it to me while he was smashing my face in, his buddies cheering him on and watching out for teachers somewhere behind him. I couldn’t see them. Couldn’t see anything except the concrete towers stretching up to blot out the only sunlight this little slice of nature in the middle of the city got, and then even that was blocked out by the bottom of his boot. Then I stopped seeing much of anything for a while.

I think that was the sum of my experience back then. Family packs up to move to the city and drags me along because I was too young to screw off somewhere elsewhere.

And too old to fit in. Too many other things too. Didn’t know how to leave well enough alone, so I’d respond to insults about my family and where I was from in kind. Might’ve been tall, but I was too scrawny to fight back when I actually struck a nerve, and my gangly limbs couldn’t propel me anywhere at a considerable speed except into the ground, which I preferred to make people like Asshole waste their time doing for me.

Another mark against me – apparently I had a chip on my shoulder. Whatever the hell that meant. As much as the principal, and my teachers, and even my parents and once in a while my siblings like to say that to me, nobody wanted to stop and ask why I was always ready to get my ass whooped.

My fuse was so short because it was always burning. Sensory overload, I guess. The neon lights, the constant noise, everybody with a word to get in last and a laundry list of shit to get done for the day. Back in the rural town we came from, people would say there was so much to do in the city. But they never said there was so much going on. I guess most people would figure those to be the same, but it never really clicked for me until I was there.

So I was always on edge, feeling like I was being bombarded because I was, and then Asshole comes along and calls me a sister-fucker because I’m from Virginia. So yeah, maybe I should’ve let it go instead of making some rude gestures…and maybe insinuating some incestuous happenings in his own family tree, given his general appearance which I would then go onto describe as-

“The wrong end of a diseased cow.”

That was when he punched me. He threw in some kicks, a kidney shot I really didn’t appreciate, and finally stomped me in the head and I blacked out.

When I came to, I was still laid out in the grass of the city park. It was darker than I remembered it being when I was getting my ass kicked, though the time of day wasn’t my focus. I also wasn’t alone.

“You look like shit,” that person said. Wasn’t Asshole or his goons, that much was clear since I wasn’t being kicked. Didn’t recognize the voice, must be some guy who found me afterward.

“Feel worse,” I croaked. Jesus, was that my voice? Sounded like I was on my deathbed.

“Yeah, I bet,” they chuckled. “Need a hand up?”

“Need a doctor…but I’ll take what I can get.” I reached up, and they moved into my field of view.

Yup, didn’t recognize them. He looked a little older than me, college-age, but like things were going much better in his life. He had a boyishly handsome face, dark eyes, and was dressed…I don’t know, athletically might be the word? Loose tee, shorts that were easy to move in, had a backpack on.

His hands, though. That’s what really caught my attention. There were rough, callused, and covered in tiny scratches. Like if you slapped your hand against asphalt. Not enough to skin your palms or feel anything but a slight sting and leave a red mark.

Later, when he took me back to his place to clean up so I didn’t have to go home looking like I was mugged, which I kinda was, I’d discover where those were from. Much, much later, this would be the man to give me the first-best piece of advice I’d ever receive.

Max is what he went by. What he did was free-run. Also parkour, but he was quick to differentiate the two.

“Art, man. If parkour’s a textbook, freerunning is like writing poetry.”

I figured that was a pompous way to say he liked to do dangerous stunts in places he shouldn’t be. And, yeah, that was kinda true, if reductive. But when that was what he’d been coming back from doing when he found me in a heap in the park, and decided to stick around to make sure I wasn’t dead and nobody did anything to me, I couldn’t complain too much.

No denying he was an odd duck, though. City-born and raised, so you know something wasn’t quite right in his head. The kind of thing that made him think running around and doing backflips off of twenty-story buildings was fun and not the sort of thing to make you shit yourself. But at least he was good at it, or must’ve been to make it this far without dying.

Or to think it was something other people should do. When I told him about what happened, mentioning what Asshole said, he’d laughed. Then, when he was done enjoying my misery, he suggested I learn how to do parkour. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard.

But nobody pegged me as being smart. I was hooked the first time I jumped from the top of a building.

Oh, I was terrible at it. I didn’t know how to bend my legs right, I nearly faceplanted, and I scratched up my hands so bad I thought I might need to go to the hospital. But it was exhilarating. The sense of having nothing below you as you sail through the air, briefly wondering if you’re going to make it or if this is where the falling begins…

Max helped me up and he knew too that I was in. It was written all over my face in the stupid way I was grinning.

It was only a matter of course from there. I stopped spending so much time at home and lied to my parents the few times they asked what I was doing, though I had to wonder if they’d even tried to stop me if they knew. School sucked same as always, that wasn’t going to magically change, but it’s incredible what having some release for your stress will do. I didn’t care that it was bad anymore.

What I cared about was getting out as soon as I could and running over to Max’s. Should go without saying I wasn’t taking the normal route, either. That was part of my practice.

He was a good teacher, too. A week in and I stopped shaking before a jump. A month in and I could take a decent fall without too much trouble. Later we’d start getting into the freerunning aspects and focus less on the parkour.

He was right – it was poetry, or like music in motion. Parkour had been about getting from point A to point B, swift as possible. But this was new. It was the death of the ego that was me and the birth of something new that could only be expressed through fluid movement above the city. Far below everything continued on as normal, but it couldn’t reach up here. The noise was muted, the lights dim, the awkwardness I once felt in my own body moved to a world far away. Instead it was just Max and me, and the thuds of our footsteps, and the whistling air as we twisted, turned, rolled, pirouetted.

It would rain and the concrete would become slick and dark, but we’d still run once I became better at it. The thrill of it was intoxicating, knowing that death could be so close and the only thing keeping it away was a steady sense of balance.

A year passed. I hardly paid Asshole any mind when the new semester started, and didn’t have an issue in keeping away when he sought me out. My parents couldn’t care less I was never home because the school stopped calling them to complain. Things were going great between Max and me. We’d moved past being teacher and student, and were now more like partners as we leaped and bounded from the rooftops and slid down railings.

But here’s where reality has to come back in, and I had to learn the best piece of advice I ever would…or at least it was the one I’d never forget, no matter how much I tried since.

“Sometimes you need to let go.”

Yeah, ironic. And I don’t think he meant it to be prophetic. ‘Course not, how could he? But that’s what Max told me the last day I’d ever see him.

We met up same as usual and went out to eat some lunch before going on a run. I’d complained a bit about school – sure, things were going better, but nothing was perfect, and I wanted to vent about one of my teachers.

Nothing was perfect. Right. Yeah.

Should’ve been a normal day and a normal run. Done the path more times than I can count. Were we cocky? Nah, Max made sure I learned that lesson. Had something changed? Maybe. Maybe the ledge was worn a little too thin, didn’t offer enough traction. If I’d gone after him, it might’ve been me.

But I landed and rolled forward, and he landed a moment after me and slipped backward. Then he was gone. He fell from our heaven above the city into the hell below. I didn’t really know what to do about it except look down and watch. Then when the cops and the ambulance showed up, I ran.

Then I stopped running. Never started back up. I’m not really sure if it was out of fear or…or if it was my way of mourning, but I never did it again.

Things moved on. Nobody knew I was connected to Max or that I’d been there, though I had the irrational fear the cops would show up to ask questions about what we’d been doing up there for a few weeks after. Nobody showed up. I just numbly shuffled through life for a while until the numbness faded. Went to college. Got a job and the city stopped feeling like this weird place I was trapped in until I worked up the courage to move on. Then I met a nice guy, fell in love. We married, then adopted. My youth started to feel like it happened to someone else, but that’s time’s trickery for you.

Life continued as though nothing happened, but I carried the memory of Max with me.

“Funny how things work out like that,” I said to myself. “Not even sure why I came back here today.” That wasn’t true, actually.

I came back to say goodbye.

There wasn’t anything to mark the spot where he had fallen, but why would there be? It’d happened over a decade ago.

“I’m leaving, finally. We bought a quaint place out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Wish we could’ve spent more time together.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know what else I can say.”


I started and stopped a dozen times, searching for the right words. Something to close this chapter of my life that I’d spent in this city, some way I could wrap a neat bow over it all. But there wasn’t any way I could do that. There was no closure to be found, only what I made for myself. And while it would never be sufficient, I had to make do.

“Thank you,” I finally said and looked up the sky. “You taught me a lot more than how not to bust my ass, and I appreciate it.”

For what it’s worth.

September 19, 2022 03:11

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Michał Przywara
23:15 Sep 28, 2022

This was a fun read! Good opening line, and great voice on the narrator. There's an interesting observation there, about how overwhelming he found the city, but freerunning gave him an outlet to burn that off. A benefit that's often touted for sports and physical workouts. You manage to build some good dread, with Max's fall. We start the story with the second best advice, so the first best is always in the back of our minds. Then they go a long time with nothing but success, and there's a lot of danger in what they're doing. So when we l...


Show 0 replies
Marty B
01:03 Oct 01, 2022

Great story- I too find physical activity helps with calming emotions- to me this line was the theme of the story, balance between fighting and running: 'The thrill of it was intoxicating, knowing that death could be so close and the only thing keeping it away was a steady sense of balance.'


Show 0 replies
Danika J
02:01 Sep 27, 2022

Oh my GOD I absolutely loved this story! Honestly, I was hooked the whole way through. Your MC was so well-developed and the gradient in his evolvement was seamless. Beautiful story. Even though Max came half-way through and I never knew much about him, I loved him. God, that was good! Seriously. Every line had me racing to the next, and then once I started /seeing things coming,/ I kept skipping ahead a line to just try and GET there, but then I'd slow myself down realizing I wanted to take in the words I had skipped. Well done. I'm going t...


Austin Baker
08:47 Sep 27, 2022

Thank you so much for the kind words! I'm not sure if that's the right takeaway either, but I hope you have fun if you do and please be safe!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.