THE RUNNER • by Shinelle L. Espaillat

On the morning of her fortieth birthday, Lena took literal steps to reclaim her life. The weather had just begun to take notice of autumn, and a crisp breeze blew gray remnants of yesterday’s storms so that the sky was dappled with blue. Dense foliage choked the opening of the wide path before her, obscuring the view beyond the first curve. She could hear honking in the Bronx River just behind the trees, and wondered why the geese hadn’t yet begun their southern migration. She could imagine them, puff-chested and brash, insisting in Brooklyn accents that no skinny poet was going to tell them when to fly. But these were Westchester geese; they were more likely to give her a cold stare and then pretend she didn’t exist. She inserted earbuds, keyed up a playlist of Beethoven and Bach, and started a slow walk.

Her thigh muscles felt leaden from disuse. She hadn’t been running since she’d abandoned her New Year’s resolutions. Of course, that had been because of the incident that led to the accident that led to the emotional paralysis that led to her only leaving the house to go to work, which ultimately led to Devin leaving her, which led to the eating, etc. etc. She understood all of this, and she was tired of thinking about it. She was tired of living it. Tonight, she would be able to tell her therapist that she had made significant progress.

She began a mental list of things she wanted to accomplish. She would apply for a promotion at the bookstore. She would write more, submit more. She froze for a second when she saw a bench, and a man sitting there. He was filthy. Even though the bench was recessed into the trees, a good three yards away from the path, she could smell a miasma of alcohol and body odor. He held a brown paper bag clenched around the neck of a bottle. He was more of a cliché than she was. He stared back at her, and she quickly focused on the sign posted next to the bench: Stop 6. Yellow-twigged dogwoods. She did not care. Maybe if she cared, she would be a better poet. She forced herself to keep her breathing and pace steady as she passed him. If she could smell his breath, then maybe he could smell her fear.

Once she couldn’t smell him, she sighed and went back to her list. She would lose the 10 pounds that had embraced her midsection, and then she would look like the self she had been when she was happy.

She wanted so desperately to feel joy. In a year that had nearly killed her — no, no, a year that she had survived, she amended. She had to remember that she had survived. Yes, the attacker had broken bones, but he hadn’t broken her. Yes, she had lost the baby, but she hadn’t lost herself. Yes, all of her submissions had been rejected, but . . . She abandoned the positive affirmations and allowed the misery to flow. Why shouldn’t she be emotionally paralyzed? This damn year had been hell.

She rounded a curve that brought her closer to the parkway and saw a wooden bridge stretched over the river’s muddy currents. A few leaves, just beginning to embrace color, floated toward the water. Two trees — two yellow-twigged dogwoods — stood at either end of the bridge, their branches reaching toward each other. A sudden break of clouds spilled light onto the path. She looked up and grasped a railing. A double rainbow graced the patch of blue, arcing between the separated tree lovers. She couldn’t have said why the sight filled her heart, or why tears she spilled over her cheeks, but she let the feeling swell. There was beauty in the world indeed, and there was beauty inside her. She ripped out her headphones, paused the music and hit record, describing the scene before her and trying to convey what it meant. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t as though the rainbow had poured magic into her soul and spun it into poetic gold, but she could work with it. For the first time in months, she was ready to work.

Smiling, she reinserted the earbuds and returned to the path. She felt the vibrations of footsteps behind her and moved to the right, but quickened her pace. The steps behind her quickened as well. She pushed faster. The steps pushed faster. She was jogging, then running, and the steps were getting closer. Her pounding heart had nothing to do with speed anymore. She had reached the most secluded section of the path, where forested trees created a barrier from the parkway on one side and offered only glimpses of an empty building on the other. Not again, she prayed, not again, not today, not now. She sped up. So did the steps. Her heart shot up her esophagus. No please, not again. No.

No! Suddenly, it wasn’t a plea, it was a command. Not today! Not ever again!

She turned sharply, fisted hands pummeling the air. The drunk from the bench stopped, clearly startled. His face seemed confused, but he stretched out an arm. She raised her fists higher, then saw that he dangled her keys from his fingers.

“Dropped these.”

She blinked. She held out her hand. “Thanks.”

He released the keys, nodded, then started to turn away. She pulled out her earbuds. “Hey! Why didn’t you say something? Why did you just chase me?”

He started to answer, but then leaned over the grass and vomited. He wiped a sleeve over his mouth. “Good day for a run.” He turned and tottered away, pausing to look up, presumably at the rainbows, which were starting to disappear.

She watched him round the curve. She waited for the blood to stop singing in her ears. She replaced the earbuds and started to jog. There was beauty in the world, indeed.

Shinelle L. Espaillat teaches at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Her work has appeared in the collections How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems That Illuminate Emotions in Learning and Teaching and Shale: Extreme Fiction for Extreme Times, and in Ghost Parachute, Cleaver Magazine and Midway Journal.

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