The Weightlifters

By on Mar 12, 2017 in Fiction

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Barbell in a weight room

They worked out every day.  Connor and Samantha arrived at eight in the morning and left at ten.  They lifted every weight they had stolen in every manner they could imagine.  Justin researched new exercises, and each day he brought new wisdom about strength and power and how to obtain it.

“Go slower on the negatives.  That’s when you’re tearing muscle fiber the most efficiently.”  “Don’t lift with your back or your knees.  Lift with your muscles, not your joints.”  He spoke as if he was imparting the holiest wisdom.  “Did you know there are guys who can climb a twenty-foot rope one-handed?”  “You know how Arnold got so big?  He reveled in the pain of it.  He said the burn of lifting made him feel like he was coming.”

“I don’t think I’m there yet,” Connor said.

“Did you know there’s a move called the Dim Mak where you touch someone in the exact center of their chest, and two minutes later their heart stops beating?  I don’t even know how you’d practice that.”

“You probably just touch a bunch of chests until someone drops dead,” Samantha said.

“I’d like to practice some chest touching on that redhead from the dance team,” Connor said.

Once a week they drove north into the cities and bought up as many new supplements as they could at the GNC in the mall.  Justin and Connor wore their tightest shirts and Samantha wore track jackets that could double as rain flies for tents, her whole form obscured beneath long pleats of fabric.  Connor plowed through his savings in three weeks.  The top of his dresser became a haphazard pharmacy.

“I’m low on cash,” he told them on a drive back south in late June.

“You should get a job,” Samantha said from the back seat.  “On weekends, I help my dad clean the school.”

“That sounds like hell,” Connor said.

The next week Justin flashed ten green twenties in front of Connor and Samantha.  “GNC’s on me tomorrow,” he said.

“Where’d you score two hundred bucks?” Connor said.

“Dad doesn’t miss it,” Justin said.  “When he gets this hung-over, he thinks he and Mom blew it up at Mystic.”

They all grew, but Connor couldn’t keep pace with Justin.  Connor examined himself in the mirror each day after he showered.  His chest and arms had shed the last remnants of adolescent pudge and carved in on themselves where the muscles plunged and coiled.  His smooth stomach now had a crease down the center of it, and when he flexed his quads, he could see the faintest trail of veins tunneling beneath his pale skin.

Justin was different.  It was as if his body was finally reacting to all the hours he’d put in over the last few months.  Thick acne sprouted on his forehead and mounding shoulders, on his ice cube tray abs and roadmap back.  He said he was doing two-a-days every day, lifting after lunch when Connor and Samantha left the garage for the afternoon.  He bought twice as much Creatine as they did.  He barely rested during their two-hour morning sessions, and by the time lunch rolled around his whole body was slicked with sweat and he wobbled on unsteady legs through the side door into his house.

“I don’t know how he can go like that for two hours,” Samantha said one day, a week after the Fourth of July.  The sun had boiled the garage into a sauna, and they had each drank a full gallon of water during their workout.

“He’s a machine.  If the police do come for us, he can take them.”

Connor grinned, but Samantha said, “Don’t say that.”

At dinner, Connor tried to explain his workout routine to his mom, but every few sentences she started laughing like he’d hit a punch line.  Connor didn’t know how a person grew up to become what his mother was.  She could hardly hold her head up.  He touched her in the center of her shoulder and pressed her a few inches off kilter before she caught herself and grinned at him.  His stepfather saw him and said, “Don’t be an asshole, Connie.  She’s tired.”

Connor left them in the kitchen and thundered down to the basement.  His stepfather had replaced the sheetrock last weekend and coated it with a creamy white eggshell paint.  Every other wall in the house was covered with photographs of Connor and his parents, his stepfather and the extended family.  His mom refused to take down the pictures of his father, vacation shots of them playing on a white sand beach near Tampa, holding Connor on a hayride when he was an infant, standing beside him after a tee-ball tournament.  All reminders of something that couldn’t be reclaimed.  Sometimes Connor fell asleep in the basement, and dreams of his father woke him sweaty and shivering.

Connor rapped the new wall with his knuckles until he found a hollow gap between the studs, then turned and elbowed a thick foot-long dent into the sheetrock.

His stepfather’s footsteps immediately pounded down the stairs, and Connor squared up, begging for it.  His stepfather rounded the corner and threw his arms up in the air.  “Goddamn it, Connie!”

Connor didn’t move.  “Sorry, Dad.”

His stepfather glared at him and stepped closer.  “You can cut that shit out right now.  Your dad’s in Florida with his teenaged whore.  Punching holes in the wall won’t bring him back.”  His eyes flicked from Connor to the fresh indented flap of sheetrock, and then he turned and left.


Late in July, they received an invitation to a house party through Samantha.  “Finally,” Connor said, “Being friends with Chins pays off.”

“You still call me that?  I’ve lost fourteen pounds.”

“Who’s going to be at this party?” Justin said.  “Plenty of girls?”

Who was there was everyone from the graduated seniors to the sophomores who had gotten their licenses days before.  Through an arched white gate into an unfenced backyard that ran out to a creek.  They’d laid down tarps and flat garbage bags and pinned them to the lawn with gardening spikes and soaked the whole thing with a hose and a steady stream of Dawn dish soap.  Guys in shorts and girls in bikinis hurtled down the slide, shrieking and twisting a hundred feet until they hit the drop to the creek and plunged into the murky water.  The run-up approach to the slide was bordered by a dozen red and blue coolers.

“This is the promised land,” Justin said.  His hair was combed and re-tousled, but his skin still gleamed with an oily sheen.

They stayed together until they each had a wet can of beer in hand, and then the redhead from the dance team appeared and grabbed Connor by the wrist and dragged him off toward her friends.  She wore a short teal sundress, and her coppery hair bounced in electric coils.  A fresh tattoo of white-feathered wings glossed in Vaseline stamped her neck.  Samantha leaned against a deck support pillar, her head tipped way back as she guzzled.  Justin followed Connor and the redhead.  The redhead and her friends stood by Connor and whispered to each other and nudged him like he was the newest kid in town.  They laughed when he crushed the empty beer can between his palms.

And then the sun set.  Flood lights flipped on above the deck, and half a dozen kids roared in on ATVs and set the high beams on each other so that the grass glowed green and black; and every pair of legs lit up like a low birch forest.  Someone cranked the music until it rattled Connor’s chest, and everything became a raucous dance of skin and laughter, limbs twining in the humid breeze, half-lidded faces split-grinned and sallow, chilled knuckles churning through the sloppy ice in the coolers and ripping out cans like the hearts of slain prey, lights in the house windows alternately flaring and blacking, everything moving and alive beneath the dying sky.

The girls danced around Connor, and when a blonde toppled into Connor and knocked him to the grass, he started doing pushups with her giggling body lying on his back.  Justin offered the same to the other girls around them.  “Come on,” he said, kneeling on the grass.  “Climb aboard.  We’ll race.  First to twenty pushups wins.”  But nobody came forward, and he knelt in front of Connor like a beggar.

Connor barely noticed him.  The first girl fell off of him laughing, and the redhead jumped on.  He told her she was light, that he barely felt a thing, but in reality, he felt everything—her long hair sliding down past his neck, her hot breath on his earlobes, her arms reaching around to run along the grooves of his stomach, her body shaking as she laughed and crooned.  He wondered how many hundreds of pushups he could do like this.

The redhead pushed off of him, and everyone began to holler and point; and before Connor could turn his head up from the grass to see what it was they were yelling about, Samantha lay down on his back and crushed the wind out of him.  “My turn,” she wheezed, beer breath reeking.

Connor struggled to get his hands flat on the grass.  The girls around him laughed, and Justin started a chant of “Chins wins!  Chins wins!”  Connor took as deep a breath as Samantha’s heavy frame would allow and pushed, his palms imprinting the soft plain of sod.  Slowly he rose up, quivering.  Samantha breathed rotten onto his neck and her arms dangled down.  He finally locked out one pushup, then collapsed to the grass, the force of the fall rolling Samantha off of him.

Connor panted and sat up.  “Down fourteen pounds, my ass,” he said, and the surrounding crowd howled.

Samantha got to her knees and wiped her hair back from her face.  She looked at him moonfaced, then wobbled to her feet and plodded back to the deck.  She leaned heavily against the support post and wiped her face over and over like it wouldn’t come clean.  Finally, she turned and left, striding away around the side of the house, breaking into a jog once she was out of the glaring floodlights.

Justin got to his feet and tried to resume dancing with the surrounding girls, but they all backed away from him.  The redhead grabbed Connor by the wrist and yanked him close and shouted at him.


“Can you please tell this pizza-faced freak to leave my friends alone?”

“Say that again, bitch,” Justin said.  He came up behind her, and his shoulders shadowed her completely.

“You’re the pervert who spies on us at dance practice,” she said.  “Nobody wants you here.”

“Says you, you fucking slut?”

She reared back with her flat hand for a slap, but Justin torqued around and backhanded her in the head.  She twisted, her arms helicoptered, her copper hair flared out, and she flopped to the grass.  Her sundress flipped up revealing a chartreuse thong and a kidney bean birthmark on her hip.  Connor couldn’t move.

Everyone within twenty feet was shouting.  The girls on the periphery screamed and rushed up to her and pulled her dress down again.  Three guys lumbered up with their arms wide and the curses flowing.  Justin backed out of the fray.  People threw their half-empty beer cans at him.  “You’re all worthless,” Justin shouted, and he left around the side of the house.

Connor tailed him.  “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Justin turned and jabbed a concrete finger into Connor’s chest.  “Go rip out a few more pushups you fucking sellout.”

Justin stalked away around the front of the house in the same direction Samantha had gone.  Connor waited in the darkness and didn’t leave until he was sure Justin was gone.


Connor and Justin worked out the next day in silence.  Samantha didn’t show up.  Connor had put together a back and biceps program with Justin’s help the week before, and after forty minutes it left him wasted.  He crouched below the pull-up bar, staring at the unopened boxes of melted candy bars and single wrapped ham sandwiches they had stolen from the school during the raid.  Only the Gatorade was gone.  The souvenirs on the particle board curled like dry lemon rinds.

Justin sat hunched over on the bench between chest fly sets, staring off at nothing.  He had peeled off his shirt, revealing thick swaths of white acne boiling down his back like a freshly skinned pelt.  The acne on his face had churned up overnight, forming a ridge across his brow that shadowed his eyes.  His hair clung wet and feverish to his neck.

“Stop resting,” Justin said.  “The program doesn’t work if you pussy out.”

“The program isn’t worth a damn if you’re gonna cold cock every girl I’m after.”

Justin laughed and stood up.  He crossed the garage to where Connor stood and smiled.  “You thought you had a chance with her?  A fiery eighteen-year-old redhead?  Shit, Connor.  Only your real dad gets girls like that, remember?”

Connor swung before he’d even balled up his fist, but Justin was waiting for it, and he ducked the punch and slugged Connor hard in the gut.  Connor doubled over and dropped to his knees.  He made faint whimpering sounds as he tried to suck in a breath.  Justin punched Connor in the cheek, then square on the lips.  Connor heard church bells and screeching tires and Samantha screaming.  Then Samantha was crouching next to him, sideways in his swimming vision.

She helped him up and half walked, half dragged him through the side door into the house to the small bathroom off the kitchen.  He sat down hard on the closed toilet lid, and Samantha ran water in the sink until it was lukewarm.  The mirror was spattered with dried bursts of puss.  Lined around the sink basin on the counter were all the bottles of Justin’s supplement pills.

Samantha dug a tan hand towel out of the cabinet beneath the sink and soaked it and wrung it out and turned to him.  Then she covered her mouth with the towel and shook her head.  Warm blood dripped onto his lap and shoes.  Through the walls, they heard growling and heavy thudding and the clang of the larger weights.

“You missed the morning workout,” Connor mumbled.  Samantha wore an exercise outfit he’d never seen before, blazing pink t-shirt and tight black athletic pants and all-pink tennis shoes.  She wore blush and eye shadow and shimmering lip gloss.  “You look like you’re going on a date.”

“You look like shit,” Samantha said.  “Do you feel all right?”

Connor shrugged.

Samantha helped him up from the toilet.  In the puss-covered mirror Connor finally got a good look at himself.  His face was a split prune with eyebrows and sideburns.  He now had four lips instead of two, and both cheekbones oozed through the fresh lesions.  Samantha turned him toward her and began gently dabbing at the wounds with the washcloth.  She worked around the cuts and excavated the unharmed patches of his fissured egg face.  After five minutes the rag was maroon.  She dropped it into the sink and said, “We have to go now.”

They went back into the garage.  Nothing moved.  No sound issued out of it.  On the stale air, Connor caught the faint carbon tang of a nearby grill, a flare of adult laughter far off, the long downshifting groan of a semi miles away, exiting the interstate.  He touched his split lips and wiped his fingers on his shirt, then balled his hands into fists.

Connor moved forward into the garage, stepping through the piles of stacked furniture and oil can husks they’d ignored all summer and found Justin sitting on the cardboard drop floor entangled in a rainbow of resistance bands and grip straps.  He was already staring up at Connor with tired waxy eyes, leaning against the side of the bench press.  “You gonna kick my ass?” he asked.

Samantha came up beside Connor.  “Why were you fighting?” she asked.

“What’s funny,” Justin said, “is that I lifted twice as much as you all summer, and still no one seems to care.”

“You could’ve killed him,” Samantha said.

“Chill out, Chins,” Justin said.  “I’m just talking.”

Samantha stood motionless for a moment, her lip gloss glistening.  Then she bent down and picked up a rubber-sealed dumbbell and hurled it at Justin like a boomerang.  It struck him with a hollow thud in the center of his chest, and he crunched over and wheezed, “Oh, fuck.”

“Don’t ever call me that again!  Either of you.  My name is Samantha.  S-A-M-A-N-T-H-A.  And the least you can do if you’re not going to treat me like a friend is treat me like a human being.  Because I’m a good person, and a good friend.  I’m standing two feet away, and you still call me ‘Chins.’  God.  You wouldn’t have any of this if it weren’t for me.  I wake up every night thinking the police are coming for my dad.  Now they are.”  She breathed hard through her nose.  “You fucking abandoned me last night.  I got you in, and you left me the minute something skinny walked by.  And then you embarrassed me in front of every single person I’ll ever know in this town.  I have two friends in the world, and they both abandoned me without a thought for something prettier.  I’m done with it.”

Connor couldn’t look at Samantha, couldn’t speak a word to her.

Justin rubbed the red blotch on his chest.  “I’m sorry, Samantha,” he said.

Connor knew Samantha was staring at him, waiting.  She folded her arms and shifted her weight to her other foot.  Finally, Connor looked up at her and held her dark eyes for as long as he could before glancing down to his blood-speckled shoes again.

“God,” Samantha said.   “I saved you from getting beaten to death.  I cleaned you up.  I came to save all of our asses, because we’re in deep shit from the raid.”  She exhaled.  “I dressed up for you.”  She stood there for another minute in silence, but Connor said nothing, his guts in turmoil.  Finally, she turned and went inside the house.  A moment later he heard the water running.  It ran for minutes without stopping.  The piping inside the wall thunked when it eventually shut off.  Then she returned, red-faced and gleaming.

“Please let me make it up to you,” Connor said.  “I didn’t mean to abandon anyone.”

“It’s already done,” she said.  “There’s nothing you can do.”

“Why are we in deep shit from the raid?” Justin said.

“Because they know it happened,” Samantha said.  “The school knows.  Dad and I cleaned the weight room last night.  They replaced everything with brand new equipment.”

Justin sat wide-eyed on the cardboard floor, and Connor raked at his hair.

“They’re going to find us.  They know it wasn’t a break-in, because nothing was broken.  So it must’ve been someone with a key.  They know everyone who has keys to the school.  They’re going to come for my dad.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  They’re going to come after my dad, because he’s the cleaning crew.  That’s where they’re going to go first.”

Connor suddenly wished he was in his basement, staring at all the sheetrock, hidden away from anything of real consequence.  He stepped toward Samantha.  “I have an idea.”


They loaded their cars and drove in the opposite direction of the high school.  Connor cut east on the highway toward the college and downtown Northfield, tailpipe dragging on the road and spraying up sparks.  Samantha followed him and Justin brought up the rear.  Connor gently wiped his eyes to see better in the setting sunlight.  They crossed under the freeway that led north to Minneapolis.  They passed a wood-planked skeleton of an old gas station.  In the distance the blades of a wind turbine slowly sawed the horizon and cut up through bruised clouds mottling the bloody rag sky.  They passed the college and crossed the river and doubled back on a gravel service road out into the darker plain.  Connor rolled down his window and let the wind thunder through the car.  His face stung, but he felt the pain was a form of penance.

They stopped beneath a water tower that sat across a gravel lot from an industrial bridge over the river.  Then they backed their cars side by side up to the steps leading onto the footbridge.  Their headlights shone into a far stand of trees, lighting the dense trunks like pale legs.  They grabbed dumbbells out of their backseats and hiked up the dozen concrete steps to a walkway abutting a caged wall of hydraulic turbines that whined in the falling night, and as they crossed to the center of the bridge they scanned the complex on the far side for movement, but they saw no one.  Then they turned and faced the river, black water rushing away, a dark quivering muscle.  They hoisted the dumbbells onto the guardrail and shoved them over the edge, tumbling twenty feet into the frothy wash.  They returned to their cars for the barbells, the straps and bands.  They trekked up onto the bridge and back to the gravel lot, ant-like and methodical.  Connor and Samantha carried the longer beams of the disassembled squat rack and hefted them over the bridge on a quiet three-count.  They became slicked with sweat, and when they reached the center of the bridge, they reared back and hurled their implements as far out into the river as they could.  Justin and Samantha frisbeed the plates.  Connor underhand tossed the medicine balls, and they arced out into the night, blacking out the wall of stars in their long meteoric trajectory.

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John Woodington is a writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared in multiple publications, including The Sewanee Review, The Cortland Review, Pens on Fire, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Slow Trains and Wild Violet. He holds an MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.