The Treadmill on the Beach

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Start your story with an unusual sound being heard.... view prompt

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Drama Fantasy Fiction

Tom dreams. 

He won’t remember the first dream or the second one. The third may come through only in flashes. The fourth and fifth will meld themselves together to create something odd and mystifying. 

In this narrative nightmare of a dream Tom is running a marathon, right foot forward, left foot forward, sweat dripping, in need of a cup of water. Only he’s not running, is he? He’s lying on the beach, a woman and a child playing next to him in the sand. 

He’s reading a book of poems and stories by Edgar Allen Poe. A Dream Within a Dream, perhaps? A Tell Tale Heart? He will not remember this detail when he awakens. 

Left foot forward. Right foot forward. 

Sweat drips from his chin onto his bare torso. The sun blazes. The sand radiates. He looks to the woman and child. Elle and Jamie. His woman and child. Elle looks back at him and smiles. 

You can do it, Jamie screams in Elle’s arms. Tom’s legs are starting to hurt now. There are still miles to go, though he isn’t sure how many. Could be a million. How long is a marathon anyway? 

Suddenly, crying. It can barely be heard at first over the wind on the beach. It comes as a low sob, enough to be mistaken for moaning if not for the sniffling every few seconds. Tom looks around, searching for the source of the sound. As he looks, he realizes he is the only one on the beach. His wife and child have gone. It begins to snow and Tom starts to shiver. 

Right foot forward. Left foot forward. Still that sobbing, though slightly louder now. He looks down to realize he is on a treadmill, and up again to see that he is back on the beach running toward the water but never getting closer. He increases the speed on the treadmill hoping that running faster will get him to the water. He wants to get to the water so badly. 

Darkness now. A cacophony of crying. It’s not just one voice but many. Tom puts his hands to his ears and curls up into a ball. Stop it now, he screams, stop it, stop it, stop it. 

He wakes up in a panic. The bed is wet, a combination of sweat and piss. He’s become used to pissing the bed now and again. He’s become used to waking up in panics. And of course he’s become used to waking up with a pounding headache, a result of late nights alone with a bottle, or bottles, of wine whiskey vodka beer. 

When his head stops swirling and his hearing comes back he notices the sobbing in his dream was coming to him from the real world. He can hear the sound coming from the apartment next to his. It’s quiet, as it had started on the beach in his dream, but still audible.  

Tom has never met his neighbors. He’s been living in this apartment since August, almost an entire year, and has never once spoken to another neighbor. He wondered who even lived next to him. He’d seen people coming in and out of the place of course, but he didn’t know if any of them were the person next to him. 

The apartment suited him. At least, it suited him in his current state. It reminded him of what it must look like inside of himself. It came furnished – sofa TV fridge table chairs bed – but everything looked brown, nearly rotten. There was an odor he never could place. Somewhere between mildew and week-old milk. The bathroom was all white tile, a grimy sink toilet bathtub. The place as a whole looked to be somewhere you might go to die. Of course, that was Tom’s plan. He wouldn’t kill himself, he felt he had enough dignity left to not do that, but if the alcohol killed him he wouldn’t quite mind. 

Tom gets out of his bed and strips out of his wet underwear. He takes the sheets and duvet off of his bed. In the center of the mattress is a large yellow stain in the shape of a kidney. Tom stares a moment, amused. He thinks of laying back down on the bed, naked, in his own piss, but that image is too sad for even Tom to entertain. 

He throws on some shorts and a white t-shirt, stained yellow with sweat, and takes the sheets down to the laundry room. As he heads down he hears the crying even louder now, though strangely it seems to be coming from above him rather than from the apartment next to him. He’s hungover, he thinks, it’s just his mind playing vile tricks. The laundry room is in a worse state than his own apartment. No one but him uses it, or at least he’s never seen it be used by anyone else. There are two washers and two dryers, only one washer works and both dryers have to be run twice in order to dry anything. It’s four quarters for each load, which makes one dollar for the wash and two for the double-dry cycle; three dollars in total. When he has to do multiple loads a week this starts to add up and cut into his alcohol money, which Tom despises. 

Load in the laundry, he walks back up to his apartment. For a moment he thinks the crying has stopped. Good riddance, he thinks. But then the sound reaches his ears again just outside his door. He could swear it’s coming from inside his own apartment now. He feels his flesh chill and rise with goosebumps all over. Reaching for the doorknob his hand trembles. With a gulp he turns the knob and throws the door open. There is nothing inside that shouldn’t be. No person sobbing. He does notice that the odor in the apartment is worse than usual. He thinks of plugging his nose but the thought of having to do that in his own apartment stops him. 

How pathetic, he thinks, and then shuts his door and walks to the fridge. Peanut butter beer bread ketchup eggs shredded cheese. He grabs a beer and shuts the door with his leg, twisting the cap off as he does so. There, in the kitchen, he takes a long pull. As he swallows he feels the ache in his head follow the liquid down his throat and away. He sighs a large, ahhhh, and then feels his spirits lift ever so slightly. 

Tom had been a songwriter in the past. It was something he was good at and he happened to enjoy it. It was how he first met Elle. She was a singer from Louisville who came to New York to become somebody. She would have too, Tom knows, she was so talented. They married quickly, and had Jamie shortly after that. Every song he wrote was for Elle and Jamie. Some he sold so that they could live a good life. Others, the most intimate, he kept between them. 

Now he lived off of the royalty checks from the songs that went on to become hits. He didn’t listen to the radio anymore for fear that he might hear one of them. He’s not sure what he would do if he did. 

He leans on the fridge and listens to the sound of the crying. He’s sure now it is coming from the apartment next to his. He wonders when it will stop, how long can a person cry before running out of tears? He reflects on his own life and realizes the tears never really cease, so perhaps that crying would continue forever. Would he go mad? He thought he might but then wasn’t he already mad? 

Tom sits on the couch and takes another long pull of his beer. Perhaps alcohol will make the crying stop, he thinks, though he’ll need to switch to something stronger. Only when he sets the beer down on the carpet below him the sound of the crying grows louder. He stands up and puts his ear to the wall that separates him from his neighbor. A moment ago he’d been absolutely sure the sound was coming from there but with his ear to the wall now he’s almost certain it couldn’t be, as the sound grows no louder. 

He stands on the cushion of his couch and cranes his neck to the side. His ear doesn’t quite touch the ceiling but it reaches high enough for him to know it isn’t coming from there either. He drops to the ground, his head already turned for his ear to pick up any noise below him. Again, the sound grows no louder. 

He sits back on the couch frustrated, confused. If not above below beside him where could the noise be coming from? Ah, he says aloud, leaping from the couch. He runs to the window facing a small alleyway. Thrusting it open he leans his head outside. He hears nothing but wind and, from afar, birds cars trees. He closes the window wordlessly, his head ringing now with the horrible sound of the crying. 

Tom practically throws himself toward the beer on the carpet. He turns it all the way back, draining every last drop into his desperate throat. 

Please, cries tom, please please let it stop. 

He opens the cupboard above the sink and pulls down an unopened bottle of whiskey. With his other arm, almost in unison, he opens another cupboard and brings out a heavy glass. He opens the bottle quickly, with ease, and pours it into the glass. Tom drains the glass in one gulp and then pours himself another. 

Catching his breath he sets the bottle and full glass on the kitchen counter. When he’s steadied himself he has an idea. It’s in my head, he thinks, if not above below beside it’s all in my head. And so he dashes to his bed and lays down, unaware or without caring that the kidney shaped stain was still wet with his piss. 

He closes his eyes. Breathe in, he thinks and then does through his nose. Breathe out, he thinks and then does slowly through his mouth. This he repeats ten eleven twelve times. The sound lessens a moment. Yes, he sighs, yes be gone now, yes just disappear. Fifteen sixteen seventeen times. The crying is now nothing more than a whisper, barely audible over the sound of his breathing. 

Tom opens his eyes. Suddenly the sound of the wailing becomes unbearable. He puts his fingers in his ears and shouts, stop stop no more please I beg you please. He tries to close his eyes and breathe again but the agony of the noise is just too insufferable. 

He lifts himself off of the bed, the side of his shirt wet and yellow, and stumbles back to the kitchen. One glass then two then three then four. The whiskey in the bottle is getting low and the sound continues to grow louder. 

And though he couldn’t have possibly imagined the noise getting any worse, along with the crying he now hears the sound of one of his songs playing. This wasn’t one of the hit songs but one of the ones he wrote just for Elle and Jamie. Though it had never been sold or released it played out to him now as if on a fresh disc of vinyl. All guitar piano drums and lyrics so beautiful and so horrifying. 

Tom collapses, his legs now unable to keep him up. What have I done, Tom cries, what have I done to deserve this. Tears are streaming from his eyes, drool sliding down his cheek. Unable to locate the glass above and behind him, he closes his hand around the bottle and drinks directly from it. In three large, long gulps he finishes the bottle and throws it across the room. He can’t hear the sound of it shattering against the wall. He can’t hear the sound of a neighbor pounding on his door asking if he is alright, telling him that an ambulance is on its way. 

Tom dreams. 

He's on the treadmill again, running toward the beach. Elle and Jamie are playing in the water in front of him. There is no more crying, no more music, only the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the squeals of delight coming from Jamie. He increases the speed. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. He’s getting closer now, he must be. Thirteen. He’s breathing heavily now, his legs grow soft with exhaustion.  

He reaches out toward them. Elle smiles at him and reaches back. Fourteen. Her fingers are brushing his. One more inch and he can grasp her hand, she can pull him to the water. The water, he thinks, it looks so nice. 

November 10, 2021 00:05

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2 comments

22:46 Nov 17, 2021

Hi! Very "artsy". I wonder what happened to his family. Maybe that was just a dream too? - When he was awake, drinking. I've heard you are unable to dream when drunk. I felt a similar vibe watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Good work! All the best from Sweden /Viktor

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Chris Riffle
23:18 Nov 17, 2021

Thanks Victor! Eternal Sunshine is one of my favorite movies so love the compliment!

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