by Mark L. Keats —

The Story

The story was that a young man had gone missing in the mountains. Not odd, not for this part of the country. People had gone missing before, but they were always found, sometimes even alive. This one was different, though. And two things bothered people more than the young man’s disappearance, for that was a given. What concerned people was that he was from out of town, a stranger, and despite people searching for him, for weeks and then months, he was never found. No trace. Even the ones who had been found dead, though it wasn’t any less traumatic for the families, had at least been found. Or years later something was found that suggested that person. Even then the missing had always been a local and some fragment of clothing or other object—a backpack, a shoe, a wallet—had been found and positively identified. But this stranger, he had never been found; it was as if he had simply disappeared, vanished, vaporized in the thinness up there.

The Reporter

“Right behind me,” the reporter said. “You can almost make out the top of the mountain where our town holds the annual trail run on God’s Trail.” He picked up a pencil and held it eye level, then rotated it with his hands. “It goes straight up about two miles. I’d been fairly new to the area—a stranger myself—and I’d immediately participated in the race. I guess you could say I was drawn to it by the sheer idea of the challenge, the camaraderie, of going up where the air was fresh but thin. If you can believe it,” and he slapped his belly, “I even finished as runner-up one year. But now, nope,” he said and leaned back in his chair and gazed out the window. “Now, I’m too old.” He put the pencil down on his desk. “I’m just a spectator who writes about it every year now. It’s crazy how much it’s grown. We even get runners from outside of the country. Can you believe that?”

The Ranger

“5,000 feet up,” the ranger, a big barrel of a man with a hat, said. “Hell, I imagine by the time they reach the summit, their minds are practically fried from the elevation gain. It’s only about, what, two miles up?” He put his leg up on the edge of a rock by the trailhead to support his large frame and revealed new work boots, the kind that most likely held the ankles in place but the tops were hidden by his pants. “But,” he said, then spat and rubbed the area a bit with his boot. “It’s not the ascent that’s of concern. It’s the descent, the free fall down.” As he said this, his hand seemed to mark the apex, then cascade downward. “Hell if I know why people feel the urge to do it; I’ve lived here my whole life and never had the desire.” He turned slightly and looked up, then said, “Nope, never.”

A Local

“Yeah, I’ve run it twenty times, nearly every year,” the man said. “No—no, I’ve never broken anything. Sprains, for sure. But never broken anything. Actually, I’ve never had a broken bone, even as a kid. I’ve certainly had my fair share of tumbles. Who hasn’t, right?” He was sitting on the ground and tying his shoes. “Even had one guy this year grab my shirt as he fell past me,” he said, with a smile, then stood up and looked at his watch. “I hated that he was beating me by falling like that. He almost took me out. But, I got loose of him. And I made it down in one piece. That’s a victory right there.”

The Report

It is noted that a male, possibly in his early to mid-twenties, not local, went missing on XX-XX-2015 during the annual God’s Trail Run. Height: N/A. Weight: N/A. Eye color: N/A. Hair color: N/A.

An Old Man

“It—it must have been dark up there,” the old man said. He grabbed at his faded brown hat, pulled it down a little as if to adjust the fit. Or maybe it was just his way of handling the mysteriousness of the events like someone tapping their hands on a table, their leg beneath it without ever being aware of it. He took a sip of coffee, now lukewarm, seemed to roll the liquid around in his mouth, then swallowed, his Adam’s apple suddenly disappearing, then reappearing.

“…from wherever he was looking,” he added, blinking his eyes hard. Then he coughed, looked out the café window. Someone was backing a truck out. “You ever go hiking up there at night? No, probably not. Probably not a wise idea.” He leaned in closer, then said. “Me, okay, so sometimes I can’t sleep. This one night, maybe a month ago, for some reason I left the house and walked. You know, like the guy in that Frost poem. Anyway, when I got near the edge of main street…” he said, then looked around. “I mean, between you and me, I swear… I mean I saw lights up there.” He sat back a little in the worn booth. “Not like a UFO or anything like that. I don’t believe in that stuff. But, just, you know, like a flashlight, a singular flashlight.”

The Ranger

“You mean John,” the ranger said, then took his hat off, looked at it, scratched his head a bit then put the hat back. “Look, between you and me, the old man is fine. Too much time on hands since his wife passed. But—it’s just, I mean we’re limited in resources. We don’t exactly have people e-mailing us their resumes to work up here. And I can’t be jumping in the jeep and heading up the mountain every time John says he saw a light. Besides,” he said, and rubbed the stubble on his chin a bit. “Three months is a long time to be lost. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the guy survived.”

The Priest

“Oh, I imagine there’s a religious element to it for some,” the priest said. Isn’t that man’s hubris?—to reach the summit, to be closer to God? Maybe if we’re closer, he’ll hear us. But, no matter how hard it is to reach the top, and it’s always hard, isn’t it ironic how quickly we come down? No, no, I’ve never participated myself. I’ve never had the need.”

The Mountain

It sits or perhaps it rests or it merely exists. The sheer size of its materiality invokes both fear and calm; its presence felt for generations. When the men and women come every year, they do not bring offerings or incantations anymore. Instead, like children, they run and bound, their feet nearly imperceptible to the separation of the mountain’s exterior landscape and interior layering. Possibly, there are caves, nooks, virgin ground—secrets. Life and death.

The Reporter

“Most years, it’s the usual write-up, mentioning the craziness of the participants, the top male and female runners, the rather hallowed and ambiguous trail name,” he said. “The locals—they enjoy it because it’s their race. When there was talk of the sanity of the participants, the regulars knew outsiders were talking. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. Let them think we’re crazy—we do live in the northern most part of the country. Here,” he said and leaned back in his chair, “everything is harder, colder, more demanding on one’s ability to utilize common sense. But that’s fine with us. We’d have it no other way. Sometimes, I write about the injuries: the sprains, the breaks, the concussions. They’d always say the same thing, ‘It was really hard to go up, to even breathe. And then, coming down; it’s more like falling down. Sure, sure,’ they’d say, ‘I’d do it again. Craziest race ever,’” he said, then, “More often than not, I write dialogue into the piece after I interview a few regulars, the few visitors. I mean, now, it seems there are more and more new faces each year. The hotels are packed. It’s great for the local businesses,” he said.

“I tried a couple of different titles actually, things like “Man’s Disappearance Still Unsolved” and “Search Now Called Off for Missing Runner.” It seemed worse that I couldn’t even put a name to the runner in the actual article. I kept writing “he” or “the runner.” Police investigated the local hotels, searched for an errant vehicle, but found nothing, as if the man had fallen from somewhere and used the mountain to find his way back up. If this were the case,” he said, “that man must have wondered why so many people were racing up. Between you and me—it’s child’s talk, fiction. I went out again and interviewed people who had been there and even seen what had become of this now mythological man. That’s what the locals are calling him now.”

The Lost Runner

Running is such a simple action: one foot, then the other. Continual motion. A natural lean forward and the body falls. In that falling, the body is then propelled, albeit slowly. But it’s natural, the most natural movement for a human, a movement from childhood, when the body is perhaps its freest and most fluid. The secret, easy: run like when you were a child.

Mark L. KeatsMark L. Keats was adopted from South Korea at the age of three and raised in Maryland. He earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland and has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Joyland, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. He is currently a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.