Tell Yourself the Truth || Zary Fekete


Credit: Diego Lujan

Tell Yourself the Truth

by Zary Fekete

Just a few more minutes, she kept saying to herself. The treadmill churned beneath her feet as she ran. She could no longer concentrate on the television across the gym. She had been watching a weather report about the wind chill tonight, but now her breath was coming in gasps. This always happened near the end of the jog. During the last few weeks she had been trying to end her jog by bumping up the treadmill to a higher setting and finishing the last five minutes at a dead sprint. Just a bit…more…

The gym was almost empty. Laura, who owned the place, had checked out earlier in the evening. She told Julie she had something going on in Minneapolis. She left the gym in the care of Carrie, who never seemed to leave the gym. Carrie was standing behind the check-in counter and doing some last-minute paperwork, waiting for Julie to finish her jog so she could close up. It was almost ten.  

Just a few more seconds, Julie’s brain was almost bursting from the effort. Her lungs felt like they were on fire. Just a few more…3, 2… In a final burst of speed, she cleared the 30-minute mark and her hand came down hard on the stop button. Mercifully the treadmill slowed. In a few seconds Julie was able to slow her jog into a walk and then, panting hard, she came to stop, sweat dripping off of her face and peppering the now-still treadmill band under her feet. 

I’ll have to clean that, she thought. But first she needed to catch her breath. She slowly lifted her hands above her head and felt her lungs expand. That felt good. Then she lowered her arms and braced her body by holding onto the armrests built into the sides of the treadmill. She kept her feet planted and twisted her upper body to the right. A delightful series of cracks came from her spine. She imagined the little oxygen bubbles being released from between the sections of her vertebrae. Then she did the same on the left, making everything even.

She mopped her face a few times with her towel and then grabbed the paper towels and alcohol cleanser bottle. She hosed down the entire treadmill until it was glistening. She could smell the bright, fake pine smell. She wiped it down twice until it was completely dry.

“Good run?” Carrie said. Julie was crossing to the front door. 

“Ok,” Julie said. “Not as fast as I would have liked, but good enough.”

“How long have you been coming here?” Carrie said. “Must be at least six months now.”

“It’ll be nine on Saturday,” Julie said.

“Nine? Whoa. And?”

Julie groaned and stretched. “Lost some. Not enough. But…”

“Tell the truth,” Carrie said. Julie giggled, and looked up at the wall behind the check-in counter. The words TELL YOURSELF THE TRUTH were stenciled on the wall just under the sign which read “Laura’s Gym”. 

Julie kept looking up at the sign for a moment. She thought about the first time she read those words. It was two years ago, just after she and her husband Zach had moved to Cokato. The first week after the move, someone at the gym told her Cokato was a Native American word which meant “the middle”…which was exactly where the town fell in central Minnesota: dead center. This was easily the smallest place Julie had ever lived. She had grown up in Virginia Beach where her father was Captain of a navy ship during her teenage years. She went to college just outside of Washington DC. College was where she found faith in the modern parlance of the internet Christian community. What it really had meant for Julie back then was that she felt like there was a force outside of herself which seemed to be guiding her life…and she had finally just decided to accept it. The student group in her college had a few different names for this experience (trusting Christ, being born again, etc), and Julie went along with it even though it felt like something she had never really been able to put into words.

After graduation she met Zach, at a Christian conference where people were deciding whether or not they wanted to go into missions work overseas. No one in her Christian circles listened to her kind of music… The Smiths or The Cure or Bjork. She was amazed he knew the bands comprising the majority of her cassette tape collection; most other Christian guys she met seemed to only be into faith music. Zach not only knew the secular music Julie liked in high school but liked it too. She was initially horribly embarrassed when he started to rifle through her tape collection. The conference was in Raleigh, halfway home for her from where she had been visiting her mom in Charlotte and she was transporting a bunch of her childhood stuff back to the apartment she rented north of Philly. The very reason Zach stumbled onto her tape collection was because he offered to help her with the food for the evening meeting (something none of the other guys had offered to do) and when he lifted up a platter of cheese he stumbled across the box of music. 

“Whoa, yours?” he said.

“That? Oh, just junk from my mom’s basement.”

“No junk here,” he said. “In fact, throw it my way if you’re planning to get rid of it.”

She scratched her head and then leaned toward him to come clean. “Ok,” she said with a low voice. “You got me. It’s from high school.”

He smiled. “Sure is,” he said. “I have a few boxes of my own like this back in Minnesota.”

She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him for a few days after the conference ended. She managed to make an impression on him by getting into a playful argument over Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. He had a particular fascination with Kristy Kreme donuts (something they didn’t have in Hungary, where he grew up as a missionary kid). Julie told him a Chick-Fil-A sandwich was essentially the chicken sandwich equivalent of Krispy Kreme. He told her she was certainly wrong about that, but he said it with a smile. It led to plenty of flirtatious talk between them and they exchanged email addresses on the last day of the conference.

“Write me,” she said. “If you feel like it.”

“Count on it,” he said.

They dated long distance for about three months, but she knew they were getting married after the first couple of weeks. Marriage happened quickly, and a fast first year of marriage led to an overseas mission assignment in Hungary, a homecoming for him and a crash course in cultural immersion for her.

It was in Europe that Zach slid into alcohol addiction which eventually led to the longest year of her life. Before he would admit it, he hid it. After he started to hide it she felt like she was constantly walking on eggshells around him, hoping he would just come right out and admit it. In the end it was when he passed out on the toilet one night that he was able to accept the fact that if this wasn’t rock bottom then at least he could see the bottom from there.

Julie looked up at the words TELL YOURSELF THE TRUTH on the wall of the gym. She looked at the other stencil over the entrance: EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS. They felt like her mantras these past few years. She still felt relatively new in town and was constantly having to tell people why she was living in rural central Minnesota. She and Zach had been in Cokato for the last two years after their mission agency had given Zach the ultimatum, “Either you go back to the States for rehab or you’re fired.” 

That’s what they did. They packed up their suitcases and had moved back to Minnesota where Zach’s parents lived. Zach checked into a three-month rehab program and Julie lived with his parents until he got out. Then they moved into a small basement apartment which was offered to them by a kindly elderly couple from one of the churches in town.

It was at church where Julie had met Laura, the girl who owned and ran the gym. Laura also ran an aerobics class which met almost every evening of the week. That’s where Julie had met Carrie and a number of other ladies, all in various states of either ill health or obesity or just wanting something healthy in their lives for a change. Wanting to tell themselves the truth, Julie had thought. Julie took the first week of aerobics classes when Laura offered them to her and after that she started to take weight loss seriously. She lost 30 pounds in the first three months and was still losing weight now nine months later. 

Another three months…and I’ll be where I want to be, she thought to herself as she looked up at the words again. She paused and reflected. Another three months…we’ll both be where we want to be.

She thought, not for the first time, that this was a starting over moment for Zach and for her. Neither of them planned on being back in America. But now that they were here, they both made friends they never would have met if they were still overseas. Julie considered the women she worked out with part of her extended support network. Some of their husbands had gone through their own struggles with addictions, and many nights after a particularly difficult phone call with Zach when he was still at the recovery center, Julie found comfort in conversations or text sessions with these intensely loving Minnesota women.

She waited while Carrie shut off the lights and they walked to the door together, chatting about what they would be doing tomorrow. Carrie and her husband were going up north where they had a cabin. 

“Ice fishing…” Carrie said. “I don’t know why, but he likes it, and… well, I’m going because it’s part of the job.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry,” she said when she saw Julie’s raised eyebrows, “I’m bringing four books. I’m not touching any fish.”

“Won’t that be cold?” Julie said. She still hadn’t gotten used to the fact that her nose hairs usually froze when she came out of the gym. It was mid-January and the perfect time for most people to either leave Minnesota for the south or to head north if they liked this kind of thing. Carrie and her husband liked it.

“Yep...” Carrie said. “It will be. Keeps out the tourists.  In fact, it’s forecast to be so cold the weather folks said they recommend toweling off quickly after a swim in the lake.” It took Julie a second before she realized Carrie was joking. Minnesota was different enough from Virginia (or Hungary) that she was gullible enough to believe most things her friends told her.

“Quit it,” she said to Carrie, Julie’s voice taking on the little lilt of the Minnesota accent. I’m starting to fit in here, aren’t I? Julie thought to herself. They both laughed. They walked together out to the parking lot. Carrie’s car was parked two slots over from Julie’s. Julie got in and pressed the power button, and it started on the first try. The car was a gift her father had given to her and Zach when they came back last year for the start of Zach’s recovery. It was a Honda Accord which her dad had bought for himself just the year before…still in perfect shape.

“Are you sure you want me to take it?” she asked her father.

“Yes,” he had said. “Minnesota’s cold and it has a remote start.”

She smiled as she remembered her father’s face when he got out of the Honda after driving it up to Minnesota. When he heard about Zach’s recovery he was all-hands-on-deck helpful. He immediately told her he was giving her the car and also told her he would drive it up the next day. He gave her a hug, and she felt his whiskers lightly scratch her cheek. 

He stayed two days before catching a flight back to Virginia Beach. The entire time he was with her he didn’t drink. She wondered if that took effort for him. She also wondered again if he was a functional alcoholic. She could remember more than one evening from her childhood when her father returned home from a night at the O Club on base. She was young enough not to understand all the words at the time, but the memories didn’t fade and she remembered shouted phrases from the living room as she tried to fall asleep. Her dreams were filled with the angry voice of her mother ridiculing her father with words like “soused pig” and “three sheets to the wind”.

Every time she got into the car and pressed the starter she smiled softly remembering her father and his worried generosity. She also always remembered, just a few minutes too late, that she could have started the car when she was still in the gym with the remote start. She was usually shivering her way across the parking lot to a cold car and feeling her nose hairs freeze while the engine warmed.

“Want me to wait?” Carrie said from across the lot.

“No,” Julie said. “This will only take a minute. Have fun…what is it again? Ice fishing?”

Carrie grinned and waved. “I’ll get you up there one of these days,” she said.

“Tell yourself the truth,” Julie said. Carried laughed so hard she choked. She waved again and slid the car out of the lot. Julie heard Carrie’s car stop at the stop sign up at the next block, pausing for a second while Carrie was probably being very Minnesotan and looking both ways, and then the car sound disappeared into the icy night sky.

Julie waited for a few more minutes while the Honda warmed itself. She flexed her arms and felt the workout from earlier in her muscles. She wondered if Zach wanted her to pick him up anything for dessert. The Dairy Queen might still be open, she thought. Minnesotans, she thought with a shake of her head. 

She reached over to pull the door shut. Then she felt the cold touch of metal against her throat.

“Freeze, lady,” a voice said.

Julie didn’t move. She felt the metal move slightly on her neck. She tried not to flinch. It felt sharp.

“Good,” the voice said. “Now get out of the car.”

Julie slowly raised her hands. “Ok,” she said. “Please don’t cut me.”

“Get out,” the voice said, a bit louder. He sounded young. There was a small sound of his feet scratching on the crusted ice of the parking lot.

Julie moved her left leg out of the car. She kept her hands raised. Then she turned her body to get right leg out and she felt the blade ease up a bit at her throat as her head swiveled. She saw him. He was wearing a mask, but she could see a few wisps of blond hair peeking out near the top of the eye slits. He was holding what looked like a taut band saw blade in both hands.

Julie sat, utterly frozen and still. Her arms were still raised. 

“Ok,” the boy said. He quickly glanced around the empty parking lot. “Where are the keys?” 

Julie gestured behind her with her right thumb. “They’re…I don’t have keys. It’s electric. There’s a thing in my gym bag.”

He nodded quickly. “Turn off the car and toss me the bag.”

Julie thought about what was in the bag. Mostly it was just sweaty gym clothes. But there was also her wallet with a few twenties…and her new pair of spinning shoes. Oh, well… she thought. She turned back in just enough so that she could push the power button on the dash. The sound of the engine died immediately. The parking lot was plunged into the instant, no-sound silence which only happens from snow and ice. Then she leaned behind her and reached at the passenger seat for her bag. Her hand found it and she tugged it forward until it was resting on her lap.

“Toss it…slowly.” The kid said.

Her hands were freezing cold, it didn’t take long in below zero weather, but she managed to grasp the handle of the bag and tossed it lightly out onto the ground. It gave a muffled thump and then the silence in the parking lot was complete again. She could hear her breath in her throat as she tried to calm her heartbeat.

“Take it,” she said. “Just please don’t hurt me.”

Not taking his eyes off her, he slowly reached his free hand toward the bag on the ground. Once he had it he gestured sideways with the blade.

“Out,” he said.

“It’s… it’s freezing,” she said. “Could I get my sweatshirt from the bag first?”

His eyes dropped to the bag in his hand. He crouched down on the ground and unzipped it slowly, never taking his eyes off her. Her grey sweatshirt was on the top, concealing the mound of sweaty clothes below it.

“This it?” he said.

Julie nodded. He slowly stood, leaving the blade on top of the bag while extending her sweatshirt to her. She glanced down at his hand and saw he was shaking.

“What’s your name?” she said.

His eyes widened and he coughed out a short laugh. His breath came through the mask in a puff. She smelled an unexpected waft of a lollipop in the air and suddenly sensed how young he was. Fifteen? Maybe even fourteen.

“Like I’m gonna tell you,” he said. “First thing after I leave you’ll be calling the cops.”

Julie shook her head. “No,” she said. “Like I said… take it. It’s yours.”

His eyes narrowed into slits. He paused. Then he gestured again with the blade, moving her toward the empty spot next to the car. She took two slow steps and then a gust of chilled wind caught her hair and suddenly she was trembling uncontrollably.

He stepped toward the open door of the Honda and slowly pivoted his body around, always facing her. He switched the blade to his left hand and tossed her bag onto the passenger-side seat. 

“Which one’s the power button?” he said, not taking his eyes off of her. 

“It’s to the right of the wheel,” she said. “Next to the air freshener.”

His eyes stayed on her for another moment. Then he chanced a quick glance at the dashboard. When he returned his eyes to her a split second later he moved his right hand toward the power button. A second later and the car gave off its warm starting sound and Julie was enveloped in a cloud of exhaust from the tailpipe.

“Stay there,” the kid said. “Stay there until I’m gone. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Julie nodded. The kid turned back toward the dashboard and was about to shut the door.

“Could I…” Julie said. The kid stopped and looked back at her. “Could I get one more thing out of my bag?”

The warmth of the car’s interior was steaming out into the cold air. The kid peered out at her. “What?” he said.

“It’s in the side pocket,” she said. “If you could just reach in there and hand it to me then you can be on your way.”

He leaned back from where he was sitting and tugged the bag into his lap. The blade was dangling more limply now from his hand. He had obviously decided she wasn’t much of a threat. She heard the sound of the zipper on the side of the bag. Then silence.

“This?” he said. He was holding her Bible.

She nodded. “It was my first one,” she said. “I don’t want to lose it. It’s kind of gone all over the world with me.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

She wasn’t sure how to answer. “I’m not from here. My husband and I just moved here.”

The kid’s eyes opened behind the slits in his mask. “Where are you from?” he said.

Julie was shivering so much she had to tense her neck muscles to keep her voice from quavering. “I’m from Virginia, but we just got back from overseas. We were missionaries.”

The kid looked like he was really listening to her in spite of himself. “Why are you back here?” he said.

“For my husband. We’ve been back here until he gets better.”

“What was wrong with him?”

She hesitated. Then she realized there was no reason to. “He drank.”

The kid looked at her for another second and nodded slightly. “That’s what my dad does.”

The kid nodded again and extended the Bible to Julie. She took a half step forward and took it.  A long moment passed. Then he sort of shook his head and put her bag back on the seat next to him. He started to close the door but then Julie took another half a step forward. He tightened up and held out the blade again, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“Could I say one more thing?” Julie said.

“What?” he said. Another gust of wind blew between them carrying some stray flakes.

“It gets better,” she said. “Here.” The cold was so great it took every ounce of her strength to keep her hand steady. She opened the Bible and turned a few pages. Once she found the one she was looking for she hesitated and then tore it out. She extended the page toward the kid.

“It’s my favorite part,” she said. 

An engine revved and a pickup truck roared down the street heading out of town. The kid jumped and stood up from the driver’s seat, turning toward the road. The truck’s lights flashed briefly across the parking lot, and from where Julie stood she could see the kid’s body illuminated by the bright headlights. He was thin and shivering in the cold.

The roar of the pickup faded into the night and the two of them were left in silence again. He looked back at her, still holding the blade, but it was now dangling in his hand. 

“What did you say?” he said.

Julie breathed once. Then she slowly held up the torn page and said, “Right here. It’s my favorite part of the whole book. I took it out to read every time my husband came home drunk.”

She extended the book to him. He stared at it. Then he took it with a barely trembling hand.

“Which part?” he said.

“It’s highlighted,” she said.

The kid slowly extended his hand and took the single sheet. He looked at the words on the page and then used the blade to straighten out the sheet so he could read it clearly.

Lord, you have searched me…” his voice trailed off. His breath seemed to catch in his throat.

“You have searched me and known me,” Julie finished for him. 

Another moment passed. The kid’s eyes were down, looking at the page. Finally, he looked up at her and said, “You tore out your favorite part.”

She said, “Keep it.” Then she tapped her head. “I’ve got it up here anyway.”

He looked back down at the page and then slowly sat back down in the driver’s seat. He looked frail and exhausted.

Julie plucked up her courage and took another half step forward. “Can I tell you something?” 

He looked at her and then nodded.

She gestured at the gym behind her. “I’ve been going here for a while. I started going to lose weight. But eventually I kept going because of the people I met there. Right inside those doors there’s a sign on the wall. It says ‘Tell yourself the truth’. Seeing that sign every day helped me remember how important that is.” 

He looked from her face down to the page and back up again. “I’m…I’m sorry,” he said. 

“Don’t be,” Julie said. “Just take the car. But take the page too. And try talking to him. He’ll listen to you if you ask for it.”

Julie didn’t know how much time passed. The two of them seemed frozen in a silent moment there in the snowy parking lot. Finally, the kid shook his head as though he were waking from a trance. A half smile crept across his face. “Thank you,” he said.

She nodded.

He pulled the car door shut. The engine started and then the car and the kid were gone, the engine’s sound dwindling off into the night air. Julie felt the silence settle in around her. She waited a moment. Then she turned and started to walk toward the highway.

Zary Fekete

…grew up in Hungary

…has a novelette (In the Beginning) out from ELJ Publications and a debut novella coming out in early 2024 with DarkWinter Lit Press in addition to two short story collections later in 2024.

…enjoys books, podcasts, and many many many films. Twitter and Instagram: @ZaryFekete

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