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The Family House

"The doctor told him he wasn’t as young as he used to be, which confirmed Nathan’s view that medical school was overrated."

Published onFeb 21, 2024
The Family House

Photo by John Sheirer

Nathan House had been something of an athlete in his youth. He wasn’t blessed with an abundance of natural gifts, but anyone who competed with or against him back then would nod and acknowledge, “He does okay,” a reasonably strong endorsement in northern New England. But Nathan never expected that his quest to remain an athlete in early middle age would take him far from home and put him directly in the path of a deadly machine that threatened to tear him away from his beloved family.

Like many kids born and raised in Maine, he strapped on his skates and bundled up for pond hockey as soon as he could wobble around on the blades as the ice solidified on a mid-November morning. Average sized from toddlerhood, he grew to be just big enough, barely fast enough, narrowly skilled enough, and plenty determined enough to blend in on his clunky high school team. They won a few more games than they lost on lumpy rinks in chilly, barn-like structures scattered through the small towns of the Moose River Valley and the Highlands, venturing as far as the Mid-Coast, Down East, and even the big city of Portland to lose in the district quarterfinals at the end of his senior season.

After high school, he had as much chance to make the state university team as he did of suiting up for the Boston Bruins. He still loved to play but signed up for fewer and fewer intramural games each year as he skated toward his finance degree. After college, he never donned the pads again. Lou Gerhrig’s “luckiest man” speech echoed through his head when he married Claire, his high school sweetheart, whose all-conference college field hockey accomplishments for the UMaine Bears far exceeded anything he could imagine doing on the ice. They bought a house just two miles from where Claire grew up. Two children came into their lives at appropriate intervals to fill their hearts and the rooms of their home. A couple of decades into working his way up the ladder at his hometown bank, Nathan had somehow become “Mr. House,” a name that always made him think of his father instead of himself. He discovered that he could afford summer vacations in faraway, foreign Florida, one week every year with Claire and his now-teenaged kids in a place completely alien to his oft-frozen home in the New England town of his youth.

Nathan’s youngsters blossomed into better athletes than their father and even their mother had ever been, possessing a bodily grace and personal confidence Nathan could only imagine as he stumbled through his teen years. His son ran cross country and his daughter track for their high school. Jason took fifth place in 5,000 meters at the state championship meet, running through the first snow of the season, finishing his senior season on a high note. A combined academic/athletic scholarship offer made UMaine an easy choice. Judy, just a sophomore, placed a startling third in the 110 and 220 hurdles during that spring’s final day of flurries. Her coach was already hinting about her potential for a state championship.

Nathan and Claire, inspired by their offspring, talked of taking up jogging, something they hadn’t considered for years before watching their kids stretch their long legs through early morning training runs.

Within a month, as spring thawed into the potential for summer, Claire had worked her way up to two miles, three late afternoons a week, meandering their small-town neighborhood after coming home from her job as the office manager for a local legal practice. Nathan loved to see her splash water from the kitchen faucet on her flushed face after each run, droplets forming at the ends of her thick clumps of short hair before falling into mini-explosions on her bare shoulders, trickling along her curving skin, and seeping into one of the several tank tops she alternated for these excursions.

Nathan couldn’t match Claire’s pace, but he rose half an hour early on random mornings two or three times each week and dragged his cement legs around the block a few times before showering for work, feeling just a hint of the grace he sometimes experienced on the ice as a youth skating down an icy sheet divided by blue and red lines. Forty-three didn’t feel old, exactly. He was just surprised to discover that he was farther from nineteen than he had expected.

But Nathan was nothing if not motivated. He wanted Claire to look at him the way he looked at her with sweat and tap water dripping from her face, aglow in the slanting afternoon light. So far, though, he had hustled into the shower upon returning from his morning excursions, his face aflame with crimson exertion deepened by a blush of embarrassment at his inability to match not just his family’s running skills, but his own expectations for himself as well.

One morning, Claire met him post-run in the kitchen as he guzzled and refilled the plastic Red Sox sports bottle that they got at Fenway when the whole family drove down to see the Sox hammer the hated Yankees. The bottle slipped from his hand in a blur of blue and red and bounced spurting on the floor. His head dipped and his field of vision narrowed, but he caught himself on the kitchen counter and stumbled to a chair to prevent his body from following the water bottle to the floor. Claire held and patted his hand for five minutes while his head cleared. Then she made him call his doctor.

A week later, his tests came back with lots of “normal range” notifications. Some normal results were high in their range and some low, but all his normals were normal enough. The doctor told him he wasn’t as young as he used to be, which confirmed Nathan’s view that medical school was overrated. But he more-or-less took the doctor’s advice to ease up. His morning jog became a morning walk with just a few seconds of running for each minute of brisk striding. But he didn’t stop pushing himself just a feather’s weight more each time. After a month, he had built up to running nearly half the route, maybe a mile, and he even experienced a few moments here and there when he broke into a hockey-rink-length semi-sprint, resurrecting some high school muscle memory. And, most important, his kitchen swoon didn’t return.

Then came the family’s annual week in Florida. This was the fifth consecutive summer that Nathan and Claire rented the same three-bedroom, two-bath house just a four-minute walk from the beach. The early years had required some financial squeezing to bring about even this modest Saturday-to-Saturday getaway, but recent years had seen their income rise enough to make the trip without having to scrimp elsewhere throughout the year. Jason and Judy loved every second of these trips. They were social creatures with a knack for meeting new people and had cultivated a good selection of friends among locals and recurring guests over the years. They even enjoyed spending some time with their boring, old parents, a quality Nathan and Claire knew made these teenagers rare among their peers.

Nathan had been so inspired by his family’s journey into running that he had secretly researched a 5k race at a local park near their vacation home and entered the House family as a team of runners. He even bought matching t-shirts with letters of their name in the shape of a house and squirreled them away inside cracker boxes at the bottom of a crate of dry-good supplies for the trip, quite a feat considering Claire’s oversight of the annual packing process.

The race was scheduled for Friday morning, so Nathan planned to tell everyone on Thursday to give them a day to prepare. He envisioned the House family running together for the first few hundred yards, holding hands, laughing, and snapping selfies for whatever social media the kids were into these days. Then he knew the youngsters would accelerate and compete against each other. Jason, the more mature distance specialist, would win, they all knew. But if Judy, the sprinting hurdler, kept within three minutes of his finishing time, then she’d count that as her own victory. Nathan planned to keep up with Claire as long as he could and then encourage her to move on ahead when, no doubt, he slowed to a fast walk.

On Tuesday, Nathan decided to take a last training run along the beach while Claire took the kids to an outlet mall for their yearly back-to-school clothes shopping bargains. Both parents were doing well at work, certainly, but that was no reason to break their New England habits of frugality and practicality. Nathan usually checked in with the bank during the shopping excursions, ever mindful of his New England work ethic. But this summer, he forced himself to only check his email to make sure there were no crises (none seemed to be brewing) before he ventured out for his training run. Tuesday was the perfect day because his legs would have those precious three days of recovery before the race on Friday.

Nathan had occasionally fantasized about running on the beach during their previous summers in Florida, but he settled for walks—sometimes holding hands with Claire, sometimes taking off with just his camera to spend some time alone with his thoughts outside the ordinary world on this exotic, sandy, salt-scented slice of land. That’s why vacations existed, after all: to embrace a new world. Now he wanted this vacation to exist as an excuse for his long-awaited run on the beach.

Within the first hundred yards of his inaugural beach run, however, he found his feet sinking four inches into the sand. It was worse than running in tan snow. He stumbled three times and worried that he might pop something in a knee if he kept this up. He felt his cartilage turning to mush within his bony joints. How did people run on the beach? He had no idea. It looked so easy in those promotional videos on the internet, everyone smiling as they ran, barefoot even, on beaches nothing like this grainy, gritty patch where ankles came to die.

So he detoured back out to the street, a narrow, straight stretch with more cars than seemed possible to fit in the whole state, each speeding faster than sensible driving would dictate. This was far from what he had envisioned for his Florida training run, but he kept going, huffing more exhaust fumes than was healthy and wishing for a wider sidewalk than the thin dirt path in a tourist town where no one walked and everyone drove. The only people afoot seemed lost, disturbed, or, like Nathan, partaking in some sort of plan B … or C or D.

The morning clouds parted, and the day’s heat came crashing down on Nathan’s bare head, unprotected by the sensibly short cut he’d worn his whole life. Back home in Maine, like every sane person, he wore a hat to keep his head warm three seasons of the year. But Florida is opposite world where nothing makes sense. Mainers generally don’t think about wearing a hat to cool a heated head. Within minutes, the sun began to bake Nathan’s brain. Sweat streamed into his eyes and he could feel the itchy beginning of a forehead sunburn. No other joggers passed by, and drivers gawked at him with concern from the river of cars as if they were contemplating the digits 9-1-1 on their omnipresent smartphones. He thought the moving air from the endless stream of passing cars might cool him, but it just shoved thick, meaty slabs of hot air into his face again and again.

Without warning, Nathan’s vision darkened and, unlike the near fainting spell in his quiet kitchen, he heard the jangling traffic sounds merged into something like a continuous, far-off car horn. His knees wobbled like they were still sinking into the sand instead of striking hard pavement. Then something roared in his ears and clawed at his shirt. He suddenly saw flat, tan-gray fiberglass just inches from his face. He managed to lurch away from the street traffic just as a passing RV brushed his shoulder.

The word “glancing” appeared in Nathan’s mind, distinct despite the limited blood flow to his brain. A glancing blow, like a door he hadn’t opened far enough to pass through closing on him before he stepped clear. His hockey instincts took over as if an opponent rushed in to check him into

the boards but he slipped his shoulder just enough to avoid a direct hit. His eyes were narrow but open, and he took in the surreal tableau rushing by: a large, tinted window, the toes of a bare foot propped up and wearing a loose flip-flop within, the upper corner of a glowing iPad screen, the bored face of a teenaged boy morphing into shock at the sight of a staggering jogger just outside the RV window, way too close. Beneath the window ran a long, improbably string of serial numbers, perhaps fifteen digits, but Nathan could only make out a clear 47-44 in the otherwise blurry numerical barrage.

Just as suddenly as it appeared, the RV hurtled passed him with hurricane-force wind. How he kept his footing, Nathan had no idea. Almost before he knew what had happened, he felt the air calm and noise diminish as he slowed to a walk along the scrubby grass a few yards away from the road. He watched the RV lumber away into the distance until it was nothing more than another in a long string of anonymous machines.

After a few steps, Nathan realized how close he had come to staggering into the path of the ridiculous behemoth as it carried someone else’s family to a vacation destination probably not unlike his own. If he had blacked out and been hit by that RV, the driver would have slammed on the brakes, and everyone inside would have gawked from the oversized windows to take in his twisted body. Each member of the RV family would have been shaken and shocked, devasted by the unfortunate turn of their lives. But, at least, they would have remained alive and together—unlike Nathan and his family.

Riding a train of thought he wished he could mentally evade, Nathan knew that his fate in such an encounter would have been deeply different from the dumbfounded RV family. His family would have suffered a tragedy beyond anything they could imagine. Without his phone or wallet or even the slim driver’s license that he had forgotten to slip into his sock, he might have gone unidentified for hours, days even, lying in a morgue thousands of miles from home while his family’s search for him grew more and more frantic in this strange, overheated place, his body broken, his dearest loved ones’ hearts on the brink of being broken in a way that could never be mended.

And what, he wondered, if he were to be the one left behind? He couldn’t imagine returning to his life if Claire or Jason or Judy were foolish enough to jog to the point of a mindless lurch into unstoppable traffic on a Florida-hot day that could suck the consciousness from a Maine-tempered body. The enormity of what had almost happened beat down on his shamed head with more heat than the tropical sunshine.

Nathan walked the rest of the way to their rental house, each step more careful than the last, ducking into the shade wherever he could, monitoring this body and brain the whole way. Once back inside, he noticed that a sharp edge on the RV’s armor must have caught the right-side pocket of his running shorts and torn a six-inch gash in the performance fabric just fractions of an inch from his undamaged skin. He stuffed the shorts into the bottom of the kitchen trash can. Then he examined the place on his upper right arm where the RV had struck him. He could barely make out a pinkish glow that could pass for the effects of Florida sunshine on pasty Maine skin. With luck, Claire wouldn’t notice.

He drained one of the kids’ sports drinks that tasted like bubble-gum-flavored sweat, lingered in the refrigerator’s cooling mist, ate seven fig newtons from a dish on the counter, and then leaned in close to the window-mounted air conditioner until chill bumps rose on his dry skin. He developed a familiar Maine-chill shiver as his head completely cleared, and he took an indulgent shower almost as hot as the steaming outside air.

I’m not a runner, he realized, speaking the words silently in his recovering brain. Never have been, never will be. And that’s okay. He thought of home, of the nearly innumerable trails and parks and lakes and bike paths and mountains, most less than an hour’s drive away, some close enough to visit on a summer morning before work. Those tests the doctor ordered were fine, normal, barely anything worth his attention. He wasn’t incapacitated. He could walk, hike, bike, kayak alone or with his family, without fear of flopping into oncoming traffic like a fish pulled onto shore. He was done with running. That belonged to his wife and kids now for as long as their better bodies could continue to lift their knees and pump their fists in runner’s rhythm.

Next time I’m in Boston, he thought, if I have to run to catch the T, screw that. I’ll just miss it and call a damned Uber. Or walk. He almost smiled as his mind made a Maine stereotype joke, complete with the Yankee accent: Ya khan’t run there from hare.

As he waited for his family to return from shopping, Nathan changed into his favorite L.L. Bean hiking shorts and a Maine Cabin Masters t-shirt. He sat in a cool rattan chair at the glass-topped dining table, popped open his laptop, and found the registration page for the 5k awaiting him at the end of the week. It was an easy task to switch his registration from “runner” to “walker.” The event would still be a fun surprise for his family, something fresh and different about this year’s vacation to reminisce about while buried in the long, upcoming winter. They’d walk to the race together, laugh, and poke fun at each other’s still-pale legs and arms. They’d line up in their matching House family t-shirts, an island floating among the ocean of other competitors, their own Acadia surrounded by this exotic Floridian peninsula.

When the race started, Nathan would admire his family of runners, cheering them on until they moved far ahead and disappeared from view. He’d stride along the one-mile walkers’ course and finish just before his loved ones crossed the runners’ finish line. Then they’d hug, exchange stories of their races, collect the medals Nathan was sure they’d win, stop for a late breakfast at a beach-side diner, and watch waves coming in from an ocean so unfamiliar that it could belong on a planet wholly apart and light years away from upstate Maine.

“Good job. You did okay,” each House family member would say to one another, lofty congratulations, indeed, roughly translated from the original Maine dialect as, “I love you.” And Nathan would walk toward a future that he hoped would include long lives together as The Family House.

John Sheirer lives in Western Massachusetts and is in his 31st year of teaching at Asnuntuck Community College in Northern Connecticut where he edits Freshwater Literary Journal (submission welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown Daily Hampshire Gazette. His work has appeared recently in Five Minutes, Iceblink, Fiction on the Web, Wilderness House Literary Review, Meat for Tea, Poppy Road Review, Synkroniciti, Otherwise Engaged, 10 By 10 Flash Fiction, The Journal of Radical Wonder, Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, and Goldenrod Review, among others. His most recent books are Stumbling Through Adulthood: Linked Stories (2021 New England Book Festival Award Winner) and For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (2023 New England Book Festival Award Runner-Up). Find him at

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