by Gabriella Herkert
She runs. Out the door, down the stairs and away. Away from the shrilling telephone. Away from them. Haunting her. Hounding her. Tonight, so close. Reaching out with cloying hands to drag her back to the past, to the pain. The rain clatters against the street, dark sheets of mind-numbing cold, the icy drops stinging against her skin. Her pace slows, the steadier tempo a forced normalcy she doesn’t feel. Had never felt. Would never feel.
‘He’s dying. You have to come.’ The voice accusatory, a judgmental ringing in her ears.
‘The end came for me a long time ago. And I’m too old for make believe.’ Was that her voice? So calm, so removed. Trying not to wound.
‘You’re out of time. He’s out of time.’
She pushes the thoughts away. Not gone, never gone. Muted by the splash of her sneakers against the pavement. Away. Past the church, the white neon cross doing battle with the darkness of downpour. Past the hulking houses with their homefires gleaming behind shuttered glass. Cars pass her, their brake lights a scarlet slash against grey. The color of blood.
‘Chester. Chester, c’mon now boy.’ A stranger’s voice, equal parts frustration and fear. Calling a missing loved one home. Longing for reunion, with a hint of anger below the surface. A car passes too close and a wave of frigid water strikes at her legs and feet. The echoes return with the chill.
‘You’ll never get another chance.’ Her mother begging. For him? For herself? For all of them?
‘To do what? Make sure the son of a bitch is dead?’ Her voice again, conciliation gone. Striking out. Her father’s daughter. Silence, then disconnection. Too much said. Not enough said. Reach for the shoes. Tie the laces, right over left, left over right, double bow, tight, tight. Grab the key and out the door. No jacket, no hat. Shapeless grey sweatsuit no armor against the cold, not inside or out. It doesn’t matter. Away.
She crosses the street to the rumble of thunder, the discord muffled by years of practice. At the fence now, the even pickets a runner’s metronome in the gloom. The rain is lighter, more shower than deluge. The sky a trickle of tears, no longer shuddering sobs. Lulling. She reaches out a hand without slowing, her fingers grazing the soaked wooden talisman. A stabbing pain jerks her to a halt beneath a street lamp, its pale light barely sufficient to see the sliver. She pulls it free and releases a trickle of blood. More red. Her lungs heaving, she runs.
Through the gate, its arboreal sentinels standing guard, silently watching. Onto the path. Her path. No need to see it. So clear in her mind. On summer days, crowded with strollers and groups walking four abreast. A refuge. Past wooden park benches and stone water fountains. Her place. No one knew her here. Or them. Every runner waving a greeting, conserving air and energy for the long miles ahead. The cyclists in their brilliant jerseys, flashing by in columns of color and speed. The toddlers clinging to their parents’ hands. Different than the child’s place, the memory forcing its way to the forefront, not to be denied. A hidden place. Eyes tightly clenched, fingers plugging ears, covers pulled up over her head. Closets with their long coats, thick woolen shields. No protection from the cries, no screen from the blows. The attic, heavy with must and suffocatingly hot. The door bolted from the outside. A prison and a sanctuary. She takes a deep drink of rain washed air, the iciness rasping in her throat. She runs on.
Down the right fork, onto the gravel path. The comfort of routine. The path slick with rain, the pace disintegrating. Too slow to keep them at bay. She needs to think of something else. Happy thoughts. She remembers. No, not memory. Imagination. Okay. Kids of her own. Two boys. Always boys. Andrew and Ethan. Dark haired, dark skinned. So different from her, from him. Matching shades of chocolate brown eyes. No more watery blue. No more reddened rims, bleary in the early morning light. Her boys are smiling. Laughing. In the park, chasing squirrels and each other. Squealing in delight when one gets caught. No fear. So different from her. She’ll call them. They’ll race to her, hurling their small bodies against her legs. No withdrawal. Hugging and joking and shouting to be heard. She’ll drop to her knees and hug them back, hug them tightly. So small. So fragile.
She misses a step and sprawls. The hard gravel bites into her palms and her knees burn. Distant sobs. A lifetime away. Bitter tears. No. Through with that. Never again. Not for him. Not because of him. Never again. She can’t stop. She won’t stop. Lurching to her feet, she runs on.
The rain now a mist. Another runner heads toward her, a magenta light stick glowing in one hand. The path is narrow. She stops and steps off, giving ground. Nothing changes. He looms nearer in the purple glow. She braces, her senses shrieking as he passes close enough to touch. She sees his face, so calm. His hands relaxed, his pace smooth and steady. He nods a greeting and fades into darkness. Past her. She runs on. Away.
She passes through another gate and back onto the sidewalk. Emptier now. Parents and children nestled behind locked doors and drawn drapes. Supper on the table. A suburban myth. Evening has faded to night. The darkness real. Around the last corner and stopping, hands on her hips, chest heaving. Back where she started. Staring at her own door. Full circle. No lamp left burning. Feeling the cold now. Vision blurred by hair, she pushes it back. Her hands sting and her knees ache. External wounds shrouded in night. Sharper pain, throbbing and real, unseen but felt. Her clothes too, now. Sodden, their weight dragging at her. She climbs the stairs slowly. Unlocks the door. Steps inside. Reaching down, she unties her shoes in the dark, pulling at laces encrusted with mud and dripping icy water. She sits on the floor and tugs her feet free as the telephone begins to ring.