Running

Piper Rae Armstrong

The moon was an icy brilliant in a black band set with indiscriminate stars. Her breathing had begun to steady and her legs no longer protested at every step, but her hip had begun to ache. The wind snatched the dying leaves from the trees and whirled them up to meet the stars, then sent them skittering along the ground with a sound almost like the pattering of rain on the rooftops.

The nights had been colder lately as the fire of fall faded into winter. But it hadn’t snowed yet. She was grateful for that. When it got too cold or snowed, she might have to give it up until spring.

Just let fall last a little bit longer.

The wind swept ahead of her and rattled the branches of a tree that overshadowed the path. She ran through a shower of tiny leaves that gave the impression of snow in the streetlamps. She reached up to brush away any of them that might have stuck in her hair.

The darkness crept closer between the streetlights. She shivered. She knew it was stupid—dangerous stupid—to run all by herself at night. But it felt good to run when the darkness had sent everyone else into their homes. She preferred it out here where the closest people were shielded from her by bricks, and she was the only one that was part of the world’s darkness.

The wind blew from the north, icy, and rushed her along with the leaves, but she was still running slower than usual. She’d had a side cramp near the beginning of her run and had endured its pulsing. The pain was now only a tender ache, but it was still affecting her ability to run, slowing her progress.

The only problem was she needed to be home in time, in time to have a shower and make dinner and put on her makeup. It was especially important that she put on her makeup. He had never seen her without her makeup on, except maybe when he left early before she woke up.

He seemed to be leaving earlier lately, but he slipped away so quietly that he never woke her. He got home later at night too. If she asked him, he would excuse it with grading essays and exams or finishing the research for his own paper. He would be lying, so she didn’t ask. It was his secret, though she thought she could guess it.

She didn’t blame him.

Running was her secret. She was especially proud because he didn’t even suspect she had a secret. Yes, it was very important that she put on her makeup. Not that it would matter too much. He had come home so late the last couple of nights that dinner had been cold and she had been in bed. Perhaps he also saw her without her makeup when he came to bed so late. But then, it was dark, and maybe he didn’t see her at all.

She was never asleep when he came to bed, but she lay still and tried, by breathing evenly and deeply, to force her mind to sleep when he came into the bedroom. He would sigh, and she would feel the weight of his body on the mattress. Then, he too would lie still and breathe to himself. She often wasn’t sure which of them fell to sleep first.

Last night, she had wanted to say, “I know you’re awake,” but she had been afraid he would mumble something about the weather and turn to the wall. For weeks, the only thing he mentioned was the weather. He had noticed it was getting colder. He hoped it didn’t get too cold. He wished fall would hang on and the snow would hold off for a while. Then he would go back to his dinner or to his newspaper.

He wouldn’t understand if she told him about running. He would go out and buy a treadmill and a third T.V. and set up a home gym for her downstairs.

A cloud drifted across the moon, and the few leaves that still clung to the trees whispered together. She moved more smoothly now. It always became easier to run after the first few miles. That was something he wouldn’t understand, how the breath came easier and the pain didn’t hurt so much and the body felt lifted and carried outside of itself.

He had never run in high school even though the track and cross country coaches had begged him. He was tall and skinny—the perfect shape for a runner—but he had never been interested. In a way, she ran to spite him. He had always been smarter than her, better than her at everything. Now she was doing something he had never done. Something he would never understand.

She shouldn’t mind so much that they were growing apart. It happened to most married couples, didn’t it? Only, she knew he blamed her.

She reached the funny little house on the corner that leaned toward the street. This was where she usually turned around. But the house seemed to say, “Go that way,” as it bowed toward the street. Wisps of fog began to coalesce along the ground. She wanted to keep going.

If she crossed the street, she would come to the student apartment complexes with their loud, late, bright nights. And eventually she would come to the university. And if she ran up the stairs she could come to his office. And there would be the brass nameplate that announced James Allen Tanner, Ph.D.

He had been particularly proud of the nameplate when they first moved in and were given the tour. The best part of the tour was when they had come to his office and their guide had left them alone there. He had opened the door again and run his fingers over his name, then brushed the dust off the empty bookshelves and set his hand on the cheap, metal desk. He had looked at her then, his eyes sparkling. In two steps, he had her in his arms and was twirling her around the room. Then he held her and said, “We’ll be happy here.”

She hadn’t been to his office since, and if she ran there now, she would find his light out and him—James, well she wouldn’t find James at all.

The fog curled around the trunks of the trees like a lacy curtain, obscuring everything past the street sign that marked the intersection of Cherry Street and Pavilion Way and turning the streetlamps into fuzzy globules of suspended light. She realized that she had been running in place, still caught between the wish to run and the fear that every second she spent running away, the later she would get home.

She looked over at the leaning house and forced her legs forward and over the slight rise in the road, onward into the fog.

She had never thought of him as James before. When they had first met she had called him Jamie. Everyone else called him Jim. It was a joke. Her name was Jamie and his name was Jamie too. It was funny. That’s why they had named their son Jamison, after both of them. But ever since Jamison was born, she had called James “Dad” and she had been “Mom.” Their world and identity had begun to revolve around Jamison.

Up ahead was a world of light and sound, a late night party with blaring music and laughter. She turned down the next street to avoid it. The street seemed lonelier than most, the houses were small, run down, and set far back in their lots. Most were dark, and thick bushes and the trees obscured the light from those that were not.

She was glad really. She would have had to be one of those women who ran with their strollers, and that would have made her so awkward. That wasn’t what she wanted. Now, it was as if he had never been, had never affected them at all.

He hadn’t.

The aching in her side flared with pain, and she cried out. The pain shot from hip to shoulder, but she continued to run. A streetlight flickered out and the pain seemed to scream, “Jamie—Jamie—Jamie—” as she forced her muscles to work, and she didn’t know whether it was screaming for her or for him or for Jamison.

All of them. It was screaming for all of them.

She stumbled on, trying to push through the cramp, gasping for breath, swinging her legs forward one after the other, feeling as though at any moment her stomach would rip open. And then the pain left as quickly as it had come.

It was time to go home. The street came to an end, but a small path led off into a wood. Thick clouds had drifted in, and the moon wasn’t even a bright spot behind them. The only light came from the streetlights that drew her on and the soft purple light of the night clouds.

A figure appeared in the distance through the fog—like a dream, a memory, a man tall and skinny, moving with a runner’s grace. She was suddenly afraid. But he veered quickly off the path and into the woods. And then she was running to catch up, afraid, so afraid that she wouldn’t be able to catch him, that he would be gone when she turned after him. Her breath came fast and hard as she turned off the path.

She had to know.

As the light of the streetlamps faded, the woods became blackness upon blackness, the trees only visible as shadows darker than the surrounding darkness. She heard him up ahead through the trees, the whisper of leaves stirred by a passing phantom and the muffled crack of a branch underfoot. Her own foot caught on something, and she nearly fell but pulled her herself forward and onward. She could hear his breathing now, even over her own ragged gasps. She heard him grunt and a rustle of leaves and she thought that he must have fallen as she almost had. And then he was up and running, she was upon him, beside him, and the woods burst open onto a broad road.

Out in the open, she didn’t know how long she could keep up with his long stride. But for the time their feet pounded stride for stride. They slowed for a moment as they came to a crossroad, checking for cars. There were none. They ran on. The fog began to fade back into the night. Ahead again were the sounds of a late-night party.

She would have turned but for the man by her side. And then the apartment complex, lights blazing, appeared. The best of the music pulsed in time with their footsteps. Several of the young people in the street called out to them. “Doctor Tanner!” one of them shouted, and the man raised a hand to him.

They were past the apartments, the music fading into the background when the clouds surrendered and began to drop their burden of snow over the world. Suddenly, the air was full of silence, floating in cold, white flakes that caught the light of the streetlights and threw it back, shimmering and glittering. It melted away on their skin, and in the hush, the stillness, it seemed she could feel the heat of him in the space between their bodies, that it was the heat of his body that was turning the flakes of snow into glistening sparklets on her skin. She hadn’t expected it to be so comforting to run with him.

Soon afterward they came to the intersection of Cherry and Pavilion. He slowed and then jogged in place at the curb. She turned to look at him. The snow was sticking in his hair, turning it white. He gave her a tentative smile, and nodded, then turned and ran back toward the university. She watched as he reached the end of the block and turned down the street.

She turned and ran across the street past the leaning house. It seemed different with its lights out, slumbering peacefully in its quilt of snow. She began to run faster knowing that he was on his way home. The night seemed warmer than it had before, as though the snow in its closeness had immersed the world in warmth.

She ran faster—faster—faster, the flakes of snow plastered against her face. She could tell she had run much farther than normal. Her legs felt like lead. She was having trouble bringing one leg in front of the other. She fell in a heap once on a slick patch in the middle of the road. She found it difficult to get up again, her feet slipping on the ice, and her legs wobbling from exhaustion. She had to get home in time to have a shower and make dinner and put on her makeup.

Finally she made it home, barely running at all the last few blocks. She sat for a moment at the bottom of the stairs inside as her breath came in staggered gulps. She crawled up the stairs on all fours, as she might have chased Jamison up them, but slowly. She collapsed again when she reached the bathroom, and the cold tile pressed into her side. It took an enormous effort to pull herself up over the lip of the tub. She didn’t have enough energy to remove her clothes, but she ran the water and pulled the shower curtain closed. Then still lying at the bottom of the tub, she pulled the stopper so the water beat down from the shower head, the sharp spray stinging her body. The water burned for a moment on the cold skin of her feet.

Her body’s tiredness washed away with the water, but it left her mind fatigued. Her heartbeat slowed. Her eyes closed.

When Jamison was first born, James had held him so awkwardly, his muscles taut and his brow drawn down in concentration. But he had learned, and later, during the late nights when Jamison would cry, James would cradle him in his arms and mumble songs to him as they walked the floor together. Then she would come out to watch as James would sit down in her grandmother’s old rocking chair and rock both their son and himself to sleep. When both their eyes had closed, she would come out and try to slip their son out of his arms to take him back to his crib. But that always woke James, and he would place Jamison gently back in his crib. Then he would take her by the hand and tuck her in before climbing into bed himself.

After a lifetime, the water ran out. She wrung as much of the water as she could out of her clothing and climbed out of the tub. Her clothing clung clammy against her skin, and her hair hung damply to her waist. She shivered violently. Climbing out of her wet clothing, she wrapped herself in a towel.

It was James’s towel and it smelled of him; she pulled it tight around her, as tight as his embrace had been at first, when they still fell asleep in each other’s arms.

She turned on the hair dryer. Its warmth against her cheek and hair made the rest of her body feel colder by contrast. Soon, her hair was dry. She brushed it a hundred times until every single tangle was gone. As she reached for her eyeliner, she heard the front door open and close. Her hand trembled above the container and she paused.

Soon, she would be going to bed. She would by lying in bed, alone in the dark. She steadied herself and began applying her eyeliner, first to her right eye, then to her left. Next she applied her mascara, then blush, then lipstick.

She swept her hair back and turned to critically observe herself in the mirror.

James had been the first man she believed when he told her she was beautiful. It had been a long time since then. She wondered if he still thought it about her. She had always thought that he was handsome. Jamison had had so much of James in him. Even as a two-year old, his smile was a reflection of James’s and his hair was the same glossy black with the widow’s peak. James had thought he looked like her, mostly in the eyes.

The closet was full of outfits to wear. She chose jeans and a white shirt.

Now for dinner.

The air outside the bedroom was colder since it had mixed with the outside air when James had come in. Winter was here. How long would it be until she could run again? She pushed that thought out of her mind. And remembered how close he had been. How strong and steady he had seemed. How much she had wanted to touch him or say something to him. How much she wanted to run with him again. But it was getting colder. And it would keep getting colder. But spring would come. Perhaps they would run together then.

Descending the stairs, she saw him—James—Jamie standing at the stove, boiling water. Her heart beat a little faster and her breath came irregularly. He held his hands in the steam and massaged them vigorously. A box of spaghetti stood next to him on the counter. The floor creaked as she stepped out into the light of the kitchen. He turned, his hair sparkling with tiny droplets of water.

It must still be snowing outside.

He gave her the shy smile he had given her before.

She opened her mouth, “Well, Jamie, it got cold enough to snow.”