This story is by C. W. Murphy and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
After years of inactivity, I decided to follow my doctor’s orders and start exercising to prevent my heart from “exploding out of my chest,” as he so gently put it. I figured the blood test results were going to be considerably less-than-awesome but those cholesterol numbers and the doc’s grim predictions of my inevitable heart attack definitely got my attention.
Well, that and the mirror-related trauma I experienced when I accidentally caught a glimpse of myself while exiting the shower.
I couldn’t deny my physique was a product of my unwanted divorce. Three years of depression apparently has the same effect on your physical health as it does on your emotional well-being. Still, my doctor and my mirror had given my waning willpower and determination a much-needed boost. Armed with a growing resolve to stay alive, I entered Hell (henceforth referred to as “The Gym”) to begin my new, death-defying lifestyle.
The first day started as expected. I got a charley horse in my left calf while stretching my right one. No, scratch that. It wasn’t a horse. It was an entire herd of demon-possessed stallions wholly committed to pulling muscle from bone. Judging by the reaction of everyone in the gym, my lungs were the only part of my body that was in exceptional shape.
Upon recovering from my stretching exercises, I leaped upon the treadmill with the exuberance of an overweight, 45-year-old male with nothing to live for. The machine’s previous user must have been a Sherpa fresh from an Everest ascent. As soon as I hit the “start” button, it thrust me toward the ceiling like a breaching whale. My exceptional lungs immediately burst into flames.
I decided to postpone my cardio for another day and give the weight machines a try. My first attempt at a bench press instantly changed my workout goal from “get in an hour of cardio and weights” to “get through the next few minutes without needing medical attention.” To my utter amazement, I managed to accomplish this new goal without passing out. In fact, I was shocked my soreness levels were far lower than I expected. I left the gym with the hope this new lifestyle would not be as horrible as I anticipated.
Day two began at 2:32 am. Not because I planned to get up that early, but as punishment for the sin of moving-while-sleeping. The ensuing wave of agony ripped me from REM sleep like I owed it money. I briefly considered apologizing to my neighbors for the screaming before realizing I owed them for the four nights of fireworks serenades last fourth of July weekend.
I’ve heard extreme pain can cause a person to pass out. This must be what happened as I don’t remember anything until my alarm clock brought me to life again two hours later. My attempt to hit the snooze button came with tears, curses, and deep regret for ever signing a gym membership contract. My arms felt as if they had been torn off, filled with acid, snake venom, and rage, and reattached with an arc welder. If I hadn’t already been divorced, I would have been by the time I headed out for my second day’s torture session.
I figured I’d give the elliptical machine a chance to kill me. Things started simple enough until I hit the “fat burner” preset by mistake. Apparently, this setting contained a secret code to an undisclosed Nazi torture program. I had no idea the human body could vomit that much. I still don’t know how I got to work that day.
The third day was eventful. The first event occurred when I decided dying of a heart attack wasn’t a bad way to go after learning the meaning of “muscle memory.” By that, I mean my entire muscular system remembered its searing hatred for me. By the time I finished my stretching, I was seriously considering taking legal action against the makers of Tylenol and Advil for false advertising.
The second event made me nearly forget the first one. I accidentally made eye contact with a lovely red-haired woman while trying not to cry on the elliptical machine. I only noted this because it was the first time I had caught a woman’s eye that did not immediately result in her sprinting for the exit. In fact, instead of running, she actually smiled in my direction. Naturally, I assumed she was blind.
Yesterday was day four and it started on a positive note. My bathroom scale reported a weight loss of eight pounds. I thought this was due to my three-day exercise regimen until I realized it was more likely due to my inability to bend my arms to get food into my face. Sans breakfast, I shuffled into the gym with one goal in mind for this session: to bend at the waist without sounding like I was trying to pass an orchard of grapefruits through my colon.
I was on minute five of my thirty-minute elliptical routine when I noticed the same red-haired woman jogging on the machine next to me. What caught my attention was her stunning green eyes, her breathtaking smile, and the fact that both were unmistakably focused on me. The real shock came when she started a conversation by telling me she almost hurt herself laughing after I had announced my opinions about exercising to the entire gym. She explained she was obligated to meet “a kindred spirit.”
Honestly, I don’t remember yelling anything. I do remember quietly whispering something about how much I hated the elliptical machine. But, I may have said it a little louder than I initially thought. To be fair, it’s difficult to gauge how loud you’re actually speaking with Ozzy shrieking Paranoid into your ears. I suppose the looks I got from everyone in the gym should’ve been an indicator of my decibel level.
My workout ended with a very friendly conversation with her. She even told me her name was Samantha, adding, “but most people call me Sam.” I was a little disappointed when she announced she had to leave to get ready for work but I appreciated the attention. After spending so many years alone after my divorce, I had reached the firm conclusion the only way I would not die alone would be if I died at the gym.
This morning, I woke up before the alarm. I admit there was a little extra pep in my step when I got to the gym and any thoughts of quitting this nightmare were gone. But that pep disappeared when I neared the end of my workout with no sign of Samantha. A tiny sliver of sadness crept into my cholesterol-soaked heart when I began my post-workout stretches.
I was halfway through that routine when she finally arrived. I guess I got a little excited. I tried waving at her in mid-stretch which was apparently the precise summoning ritual for the demon-stallions to revisit my aching calf muscles. My reaction to this newfound level of pain brought Samantha to my side with a very worried look on her face.
I think she said something like “Oh my god, are you okay?” but all I heard was the sound of muscles tearing and my shrieking. Without another word, Samantha grabbed my foot and started pushing my toes towards my chest while massaging my calf.
“Just relax and breeeeathe.” Her voice was like a soothing siren song calling me to some heavenly realm and her touch had a power that seemed to instantly relieve my pain. Before I knew what had happened, the stallions released their hold, leaving me sore but undamaged and very confused.
“How on earth did you do that?”
Samantha grinned and helped me to my feet. “I’m a physical therapist. It’s what I do.”
I sincerely thanked her and gingerly hopped on the offended leg to see if the muscles were still there.
“Slow down, tiger.” She spoke with a lilt in her voice that was the most attractive sound I had ever heard. “You’ll need to give your muscles a little time to recover.” Then she cocked her head to one side and melted me with another breathtaking smile, “By the way, I don’t know what to call you since you never told me your name.”
It was my turn to grin. “You’ll never believe me.”
Her green eyes lit up like Christmas lights. “Please tell me.”
“My name is Charlie Sampson. But most people call me Sam.”
We both laughed all the way to the nearest diner for the greatest breakfast I’ve ever had in my life. As those life-changing minutes turned to hours, I realized I hadn’t been going to the gym to avoid death. I was going so I could learn how to live. Turns out it’s really easy to choose life when you’ve got something to live for.
I guess sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven.