Running To Keep Her Exercising and staying healthy is a way of life for Neil, but it isn't a life he chose. It's the only thing he can do to always be with his wife. One day something happens that could break the cycle forever. (Approximately 5,800 words)
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Running To Keep Her
© 2011 B.C. Young
Every time Neil’s feet hit the pavement, it sent a jolt through his legs. When he first started jogging, the vibration didn’t hurt, but afterwards, his legs begged for a hot shower. Every evening after work, his brain told him not to do it. It’d say it’s too late. He can’t run when it’s close to midnight.
He hated running. Sweat dripped into his eyes, causing them to sting. But he knew he couldn’t stop. His earbuds kept falling from his ears, he’d catch them, and put them back in and listen to the music—the beautiful melodies his wife, Sarah, recorded three years ago. When the music played, he’d forget his feet trudged along on concrete to a pointless destination. All he cared about was seeing her hands in his mind as they gracefully stroked the piano keys creating a beautiful song. Beads of sweat dripped from his eyes and onto his cheeks.
As he ran through the park, the dark silhouette of pine trees greeted him. For a year, he traveled the same path. Sarah had mentioned it to him because she ran it all the time, too. Out of obligation, he ran it. He’d imagine his feet landing on the dirt, touching her footsteps from a previous run. The jolt they sent through his legs gave him a connection to his wife he couldn’t describe. He sometimes wondered how he got so lucky.
“If you’re a tree, standing alone, I’ll be sure to bring you home,” he sang aloud with his wife’s voice. “And if you ever feel despair, keep knowin’ that I’ll be there.”
The path transitioned from concrete to dirt and dropped in height three inches. Even though he ran the path three hundred times before, the dark night—made even darker by the trees above him as they blocked the full moon’s light—kept him from seeing the drop. He anticipated its arrival later and his right foot pounded the dirt as it dropped through the place he thought concrete would be. The drop caused him to lean forward and he reached his hands out on his sides as he tried to balance himself. As he moved at a full running speed, his body’s motion wouldn’t let him stop. He tried to plant his left foot on the ground to stabilize but overcompensated, and his foot kicked into the back of his right leg. His limbs went into a panic as they tried to balance and flailed all over. He couldn’t stop the fall and his face smacked into the dirt first as the rest of his body followed suit. His iPod popped out of his armband causing the earbuds to rip from his ears. Then he slid three feet before stopping.
Neil groaned and slowly lifted himself off the ground. He skinned his knees—blood dripped down his legs into his socks. He wiped at his face to get the dirt off, and blood came off on his hands. Nothing he couldn’t handle, he’d seen much worse in his life. A scraped up forehead and legs didn’t bother him at all.
Then the pain seeped into his body, but not a physical pain. This pain tore at his heart and filled him with sadness. When the iPod fell, it hit a large rock that cracked the casing open. He frantically ran to the device, picked it up, and tried to turn it on. When he touched the screen nothing happened. He banged it in his hands a few times to see if he could knock the piece back in that caused it to stop working. But nothing happened. The screen stayed black and cracked. He put the earbuds in his ear to see if the music kept playing, but he only heard dead silence. He fell to the ground on his knees, grinding dirt into the abrasions.
“Work you stupid thing. Work!” he yelled at the iPod. Sweat continued to roll down his cheeks, mixed in with tears. “How am I going to get home! Play the music!”
He tossed the iPod at a pine tree fifteen feet away. It hit the tree trunk hard enough to shatter into a hundred pieces. Then he fell to the ground on his back and started crying. He couldn’t run back if he couldn’t hear his wife sing and play. He just couldn’t.
Neil closed his eyes. A breeze blew across his face, cooling the sweat and drying the dripping blood. It relaxed him and calmed him. He dozed off on the ground thinking about running, eating right, and getting plenty of sleep. Sarah told him he needed to do it. It was for his health. She didn’t want to see him get older and suffer because he didn’t take care of himself when he was young. Do everything you can now so you don’t regret it in the future. She’d always say that to him, and he wouldn’t listen. It was nonsense.
“Is it really worth it, Sarah?” he said aloud. “Look where I am. Bloody and layin’ in dirt?”
A flash of light hit his closed eyelids. The moon made it’s way through the trees, and it surprised him how bright it shined, but then it went away as the trees continued to sway. Again the light hit his eyelids causing him to almost see complete white, and it continued to get brighter. He knew the light couldn’t be from the moon.
Neil opened his eyes and sat up. Through the trees, he saw a bright light descending from the sky. It didn’t make any noise, but floated down until it touched the ground, and then the lights went black. He wondered if it was a helicopter landing, but he knew it couldn’t be because silence accompanied the light. When he tried to come up with another logical reason for what he saw, he couldn’t.
He wondered if he should investigate. Sarah would probably tell him to ignore it. Better to be safe than sorry. Who knows what’s out there? But she wasn’t always right, she didn’t always have the answer. She proved that. He looked at his bloody hands and knees and laughed. She’d gotten him this far, it’s not like it could get any worse.
After standing up and brushing the dirt off his clothes, Neil slowly walked off the path into the trees. His shoes crunched pine needles and leaves as he moved. Then he ducked under some low limbs, walked another five feet, and made it out into a wide circular clearing in the park. The moonlight shone down onto the grass. The light was so bright it looked like daylight. The recently mowed grass separated into quarters as four paths reached towards the center where a large bird bath and drinking fountain resided.
That’s when Neil saw her. The shadows cast by the moonlight made it difficult for him to distinguish her features. She had long hair, and stood slightly shorter than Neil. She bent down and took a drink from the fountain, and a whole minute passed before she came back up for air. He noticed something familiar. Her silhouette looked like something he’d seen before. It had been dark. The street lamp outside the bedroom shone through the window and cast a seductive shadow on his wife’s body as she moved towards the bed. He remembered the night well because he thought about it often. What he saw now, reminded him of that night.
Neil’s heart pounded in his chest. He knew his mind must be playing tricks on him. There was no way Sarah would be out here to drink from a fountain close to midnight. But despite his unwillingness to believe what he saw, he realized he started running again. His feet hit the ground hard as he approached the woman at the fountain. Pain shot through his knees where the dirt and blood dried to his skin, but he ignored it.
“Sarah!” he yelled. “Sarah!”
The woman turned towards him as he approached, the moonlight lit up her face. Neil expected her to jump back or run away, but she didn’t. She just stood there and looked at him. He finally reached her, out of breath from running so hard, and rested his hands on his knees as he sucked in big gulps of air.
“Sarah?” he asked between breaths. “It’s you. It’s really you. But how’d—” He examined her body. She looked at Neil just like she would when she didn’t understand something he said. Her nose scrunched up, her eyes squinted, and she rested her fist on her hip.
“I have to leave,” she said. “This...this isn’t supposed to happen. I’m sorry.”
She reached out to a pine cone laying next to the water fountain and grabbed it. Then she turned around and ran towards the trees.
“Wait!” Neil yelled. “Sarah! Come back!”
He was about to run after her, when she stopped. Then she turned around and ran back to him. She stopped again, twenty feet away, and held the pine cone out to him.
“What’s this, Neely?” she asked. Only she ever called him that.
She didn’t know what it was? Was this a joke? No. It couldn’t be a joke. Sarah didn’t joke around often. She was always serious. Everything was about his health, eating right, exercising. Being just like her. She took things too seriously to the point that she thought he would die of a heart attack at thirty-five because he didn’t treat his body well. No. Holding that pine cone out and asking what is was, wasn’t a joke. But why would she ask it then?
“It’s a pine cone,” Neil answered. “You’ve see a pine cone before. But you know that. Why ask me?”
“No. I didn’t. What’s it do?”
“Seriously?” Neil asked. After all this time not seeing her, she asks about pine cones. “They carry a seed that will grow into a pine tree.”
“How’s the seed get in there?”
“Somethin’ to do with the male cone pollinating the female cone. After it does, it dies.”
She turned around and ran back towards the trees again. Neil followed. But tired from running and with her faster than usual sprint, he couldn’t catch up to her.
“Why are you leaving! Will I see you again.” he yelled. He didn’t want her to leave. He wanted her to stay right there. He needed her to stay. He just wanted a chance to feel her skin.
She stopped and turned around before reaching the trees. For a moment, she stood there and just looked at him. His stomach formed knots and began to ache, but he remained frozen, unable to bring himself to run after her.
“I’ll be back again in one of your years,” she yelled to him. Then she turned around and ran back into the trees.
Neil was dumbstruck. He didn’t understand how Sarah got into the park. Why didn’t he chase after her? He held his face with his hands and began to sob. As the tears dripped onto his dusty, blood-soaked hands, a bright light shone between his fingers. He looked up and a white light filtered through the trees. It lifted toward the tree tops until it floated above them, and then quickly ascended into the atmosphere until it resembled a star in the night sky before it disappeared.
Neil wasn’t sure what he had witnessed. But he knew one thing was certain. Next year, he’d make sure he came back, and he hoped he’d see Sarah again.
The following year, Neil sat at his desk at nine o’clock at night, busily filing documents for cases he had closed. The boss told him to go home, just about every day, at six o’clock, but Neil wouldn’t leave. Even though he knew he didn’t get paid overtime past five hours a week, Neil still stayed and worked. It didn’t matter to him, he had nothing to go home to anyway, except an empty home full of memories he’d rather forget. His time there consisted of getting home late, sleeping on the couch, and then leaving early in the morning.
He planned to finish up at ten o’clock and then head to the park for his night jog. While he wanted to stay away from the memories in his house, he couldn’t forget that he saw Sarah a year earlier at the park. She said she’d be back, and he had taken the run every day, hoping he’d see her again. If she wasn’t there when he went tonight, he knew she’d never be back. Ten o’clock finally came. He packed up his things and left the office.
Normally, he arrived at the park close to midnight. But tonight, he wanted to be early. He didn’t want to miss seeing Sarah. The entire year since their last encounter he thought about that night. The more he thought about it, the more it saddened him that she left. With everything she did to physically improve her life, she didn’t deserve to leave the way she did.
He arrived at the clearing in the park at 10:45 P.M. The night resembled the same one a year ago. The full moon hung in the sky and cast a bright sheen onto the grass. His Zune—there was no way he would get an iPod again after it let him down—played Sarah’s beautiful music and voice. He didn’t see Sarah anywhere.
Neil kicked at a rock. While the stone looked small, he didn’t realize it was a submerged boulder with its top poking through the ground. His foot hit the unmovable rock hard enough to send a pain shooting through his big toe. He let out a loud yelp, grabbed at his foot, and starting hopping on one leg.
The toe throbbed in his shoe. After he sat down in the grass, he took the shoe off to examine his toe. He knew it wasn’t a good sign when he saw blood soaking through his sock. He removed the sock and exposed the toe. The nail had cracked at the top and fallen off. As the cool night air hit it, a slight sting went through the open wound and into his foot. Sarah always told him to cut his toenails. Instead, he’d let a couple weeks pass before cutting them. She was right. If he had cut them at least weekly, he probably wouldn’t have hurt himself kicking the rock.
As he examined his foot, the familiar bright light started to shine in his peripheral vision. He looked up and saw as the light descended beyond the trees in the clearing and then everything went dark. He lifted himself up, favoring his good foot, and tried running through the grass. As he applied pressure to his right foot, the cool, damp grass, did nothing to soothe the pain in his toe. So as he ran, he limped, moving faster than a walk and slower than a jog toward where the light descended.
He made it to the center of the clearing, near the water fountain, and stopped. Something kept him from moving further. As she entered the clearing from the trees, he couldn’t tell if an invisible force or his apprehension kept him from approaching. She walked towards him slowly. Her movement was familiar, the erect posture undeniable. As crazy as it seemed, she was Sarah.
“You came back,” she said when she reached Neil.
“I was about to say the same thing to you,” he said.
“I have to, Neely. Have been for over forty years.” She walked towards the fountain, bent down, and took a drink for a full minute.
He wanted to say something to her, but he couldn’t think of words. She had Sarah’s voice, beauty, and quirks. But could it really be her. Was it even possible?
“So do you jog here every night?” she asked.
“I do. But only since you left. You’d be proud of me. I’m in the best shape of my life. Eating right, exercising.”
“Good. Nice to know the words effected you like that.”
He took a step back. This couldn’t be happening. It had been two years. Two years! Even then, she was only a shadow of her former glory. But now, before him, looking healthier than ever, was his wife.
“Is it really you, Sarah. Is this real?” he asked. Over the past two years, he’d imagine she was with him. When he worked late at night, he talked to her. When he looked at the piano, he saw her play. When he went to sleep, she laid next to him. If he could only touch her, reach out and feel that she was real. He put his hand out to feel her soft skin and toned muscles.