She watched him sometimes, watched him run down the shoulder of the dirt track that passed for a road. He never saw her, never took his concentration from the path in front of him. Never looked left, nor right.
He was young and strong, with a swimmer’s lithe build and close dark hair. Broad shoulders tapered to narrow hips, and his legs pumped like pistons firing on some inner bottomless reserve of energy. It was too far from her kitchen window to see his features, but the contours of his face were smooth, unmarred, subtly shadowed along jaw and chin.
When he ran past, she would stop what she was doing and watch, hidden behind the glass, behind too many years of sterility and ordinariness. Ordinariness. That was a new word. But it was what stretched out behind her. Days of rising at the same time, walking quietly through the same moments, over and over. Of chaste kisses and sleeping back-to-back, of cleaning and cooking and balancing the checkbook.
Then this beautiful boy started running down her excuse for a road. While she never saw deeper than the suggestion of him, he stirred a memory buried within all that ordinariness. It tore a rift in the transparent tulle that draped and clouded what passion there once was.
He ran right through it. Like a lion jumping through the paper hoop at the circus.
On this day, the fog almost hid the road from her. On this day, she stood in the yard in plain view but camouflaged by her drab clothing, by the fog and the misty rain that both was and wasn’t there. He’d run by a long time ago, and she waited at the window for him to return, but too much time passed. The quiet dread that gripped her was confusing. It wasn’t her place to be concerned. But it was there anyway, a whisper that something wasn’t right.
A truck rattled down the road. Old and colorless in the fog, its muffler loose and banging over the ruts. It cut through the cathedral-like silence. She waited.
The fog thickened and dropped, hiding the road completely. She was following her feet toward it, and the pounding in her chest and in her ears was like a heartbeat, but too intangible. A whooshing sound, like when water closes over your head and blocks out the world above.
When the toes of her shoes touched the line of loose gravel marking the road’s edge, she stopped. There were foot prints in the mud, his, and he’d been moving fast. The stride was long, each indentation gouged at the toe. Why did he run? Was his motivation the joy of the movement, the exhilaration of speed, or did he run to forget? To flee?
Without conscious decision she followed him. She walked beside his path and that pounding, whooshing inside escalated.
His stride, so measured before, suddenly shortened. The heels dug in as he shifted his weight back, coming to a full stop, both prints side by side and flat in the soft ground. Then a step forward. Then circling. She imagined he’d rested for a moment, hands on knees, then walked in a circle, checking his pulse, easing back, shaking out, keeping loose.
She tried to get her bearings in the fog. The only sound was the soft chatter of an unseen bird in the nearby grasses. And the water-whoosh. Her chest tightened. She hugged her arms around herself, beneath her breasts, and studied the tracks. The fog lifted enough that she picked them up again. They led across the road, disappearing over the hard-packed center, resuming in the soft shoulder on the other side, and they doubled back. The stride lengthened again, but now he moved more slowly, more evenly. These were fresher. Fresh enough that they should have passed one another back on the road as she walked out. Her own pace quickened, and she found her feet landing squarely beside each of his, running in tandem with an invisible partner.
Her lungs began to expand, sucking in the wet, heavy air, and her body lightened. Her footfalls became the rhythm pushing her forward, sending a heady rush of adrenaline coursing through her muscles. She remembered this feeling. It had been life when she was a child. Freedom. It came with joy and release. Later it came with sex. Then it stopped coming at all.
A sound foreign in the quietness of the gray day joined her. Anxiety replaced exhilaration. At first she thought it was only an echo of her own foot steps. But it was off-beat. Perhaps she was catching up to him. He could have taken a detour off the road so they’d not met. She slowed. She didn’t want him to know she’d followed him, how did one explain that? To tell him that she’d worried after him, a stranger, how odd.
When her steps slowed, so did those others. She picked up speed. So did they. But now she was confused- it seemed the sound was behind her. She’d lost track of the prints, and she looked, but there were none. Only her own trail stretched behind her. She’d gone much farther than she thought. There were no turns off this stretch. Unless he’d lain in wait for her, there was no where for him to go.
Her lungs collapsed in on themselves in a heavy exhalation, forcing the air out of her body. She stopped and leaned down, fighting for breath that wasn’t there. The pounding behind her drew closer, thrumming off her eardrums like a plucked guitar string. It was beside her, close enough to touch; then it quickly faded into pregnant silence. Something slammed into her subconscious, jarring the breath back into her body.
Her eyes flew open. The tile was cool and hard beneath her bare feet. She watched as the bright smear of yellow, the little goldfinch with staring, empty eyes, slipped down, down against the glass of the kitchen window.