She had to run despite the lateness of the hour and the frost in the air. All night, she had watched those thin, icy fingers creeping up the window panes, forming their silvery, lacy webs as the frames shivered slightly in the wind; she almost resisted the compulsion to run. But the glacial cold would also keep others inside, and on such nights—especially this night—she needed to be alone.
Still, she was well aware that venturing into those empty streets could expose her to the threat that had been terrorizing the city for the past two years.
But this last concern meant little to her: She had lived with a constant sense of mortality since the moment Eric had died. He had insisted that he'd never intended to infect her, that it had been an accident, that he would never do such a thing, but now that he was gone—and she began to consider their time together more dispassionately—she no longer believed him.
They had fallen in love almost from the day she had arrived at the research station in western Kenya, and from the very beginning, Eric had identified a certain affinity between them. How often, she asked herself, had he declared that they were one and the same, body and soul? He had even tried to convince her to share his passionate belief in the animistic religions they were supposed to be studying, but that was a line she refused to cross. “You’ll see,” Eric promised, as he lay dying in front of her. “We’re one in the same, and who we are transcends everything we know. Even this small world of ours. You’ll see.” But all she saw was that what had led to his death would surely lead to hers, and for that, she would never forgive him.
Once she had returned home, her anger and passion regularly erupted into a furious rage she could not control, and especially at those times she needed to be alone. Often, when the pressure became unbearable, she was obliged to run, running deep into the night and into the early morning hours, returning with the rising of the sun, weary and depleted but strangely at peace with herself.
She had always loved running. “You run like a girl! You run like a girl!” her brothers used to yell after her when she was very young. Perhaps that was the incentive she needed to train long and hard enough to qualify for two state championships in the middle distances. A torn Achilles tendon prevented her from competing in college, but although she could never regain the speed she had as a teenager, once her leg healed, she continued to run whenever she could. In fact, she had registered for a local marathon and had begun intense training for distance and endurance before she won the coveted research grant to study in Africa.
Running the marathon and completing her doctoral dissertation would have to wait for her return. And now, with her return, both were very unlikely to happen.
Although she never enjoyed running in the cold, she had become accustomed to it, and her gear, piled on the window seat covering the radiator, lay awaiting her. As she began to slip into her several pairs of fleecy sweats, she realized that the additional layers would not only provide sufficient warmth: They flattened the contours of her body and concealed her gender, and they would provide an extra touch of safety.
It had become dangerous for a woman to venture outside alone into the city at night. After the third murder, the papers had begun to notice, and now the count had reached ten. Most of the victims had been walking the streets for professional reasons. But then there was the middle-aged housewife on her way to an all-night pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her disabled husband. A student ornithologist, in search of a rare owl, had been found in the wooded bird sanctuary. In the past two months, a pair of young career women had been added to the list, one a lawyer and the other an investment banker, both of whom could find the time to jog only at night or in the pre-dawn hours. The first had been found in a dry creek bed crossing through Northern Park at the other end of the city, and the second in a ravine bordering the reservoir.
The ski mask she slipped over her hair and face would contribute to her anonymous appearance, and this she covered with a woolen cap. Over the cap, pressed tightly against her temples, she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt. Still, she felt she had little to fear, as she was unlikely to encounter anyone on her nocturnal runs, even in warmer weather. The route she preferred to follow wound through a stretch of parkland largely abandoned by the municipal authorities and commercial interests. She would enter through a gate, which never seemed to be locked, and immediately turn into a side trail, bordered with dense shrubbery and lined with maples and elms whose branches arched low overhead. The path would lead her through a pair of underpasses, bringing her to the edge of an artificial lake that had been used for recreational boating. A pair of wooden docks—from which paddleboats and canoes had once been launched—had partially collapsed into the stagnant waters, complementing the remnants of a small bankrupt amusement park at the other side of the lake, its booths and sheds decaying along a short midway. The green surrounding the lake had turned largely into a swampy bog, but the path she would be following rose to higher and drier ground and then sharply descended into a long tunnel beneath the observatory through which a tram, connecting the park to the center of the city, had once run. From the tunnel, she would cross over to another tree-lined path—this one edged primarily with poplars—that would bring her back to the gate, where she would begin again, adding further laps around the park until she was exhausted. Until the turmoil howling inside her had largely been silenced.
This night, as soon as she stepped over her building’s threshold, the difference between the dry heat of the foyer and the glacial chill of the fresh air sent an uncontrollable shudder throughout her body. But it also invigorated her, and the shivering was quickly followed by a steady, animal energy that took her from a tentative jog to a faster pace, far too soon for the start of a long workout. After only five minutes, she was inside the park, and she slowed considerably as she headed down her usual path where the shadows seemed to welcome her. And on this night, she was surprised by the brightness of the moonlight, filtering through the linked branches and dead foliage overhead. Settling into her pace, she was comforted by the sharp crunch of the dried leaves that accompanied her every step. But upon entering the first underpass, which ran beneath a wide boulevard that cut through the park, the crackling beneath her footsteps seemed to have doubled, as if they were casting a shadow of sound. Was this simply the pounding of her running resonating against the walls of the enclosed space, or had someone followed her inside? Followed? she thought, questioning herself. And how paranoid is that? Although she didn't ever expect to encounter anyone on a wintry night such as this, she occasionally noticed a scattering of others, running and walking in both directions. As she exited from the shaft, the echoing sound behind her diminished, but it did not fade away. Someone was behind her and gaining on her fast. She thought for a moment about disrupting her workout to look back over her shoulder, if only to give the other person a sense of her awareness, but the woolen cap and the hood over it blocked her peripheral vision. To look around, she would have to come to a complete halt—something she was reluctant to do. Just prior to reaching the second underpass, she slackened her pace, as if inviting the other runner to pass her before they entered the darkness and narrowness of the tunnel. But he—and now she was sure he was a man—also slowed down, and he was now close enough for her to hear that he was breathing heavily, as if he had been struggling to overtake her. Once inside the cavernous space, which extended beneath a row of boathouses—she increased her speed, and he did, too, as if he had found a second wind. But he failed to close the short distance between them, and she emerged back into the moonlight that sent pillars of illumination through the archway of entangled branches above her.
Maybe I should slow down again, she thought. Let him pass me and be done with this silliness. He can’t even know I’m a woman. And then in the fraction of the second, between the concussion that shook the back of her head—that coursed through her nervous system like a bone-shattering electric shock—and her momentary loss of consciousness, she heard her brothers yelling after her, “You run like a girl! You run like a girl!”
She didn’t recall tumbling to the earth, but she must have instinctively braced her fall with her shoulder, since the soreness there was the first sensation she felt upon awakening. Flat on her back, she tried to prop herself up on her elbows, but her vision blurred as if her head were spinning and she probably would have fallen back anyway even if the crushing weight pressing down on both of her shoulder hadn’t forced her down to the ground. When the rear of her head rebounded against the surface, she again almost lost consciousness.
“Don’t fall asleep,” he said, as the pressure from one of his knees turned the soreness in her shoulder into a sharp pain. “I want you to be awake for everything, and tonight, I can take my time, since it doesn’t look like we’ll be disturbed.” He pulled off her woolen cap, and as he leaned forward, his shifting weight almost suffocated her.
“And, of course, we can’t have this, can we?” he said, gripping the hem of her ski mask in both hands. “It gives me such pleasure, you know, to see the fear in a face,” and then he ripped the mask off her head.
Instantly, he leaned back. “What have we here?” he said. “The bearded lady in the circus? Something from a freak show?” And then he realized what he had stirring beneath him, regaining full consciousness, and that the twisted rope coiled in his pocket—intended eventually to garrote his victim—would be far from sufficient to protect him.
For her part, she regretted, for his sake, that he could not see the look of fear—that he said gave him so much pleasure—in his own face.
After finishing her lap around the park, she ended her run with a sweet taste in her mouth and only one additional regret. The blood on her sweats did not bother her, since those stains would disappear completely after several wash and spin-dry cycles. But she was truly sorry that the sharpness of her claws had ruined another fine pair of leather gloves.
J. WEINTRAUB’s fiction, plays, poetry, and essays have appeared in all sorts of literary places from The Massachusetts Review to Gastronomica, from the New Criterion to The Dark City. As a member of the Dramatists Guild, he has had plays produced throughout the world, from Hollywood, California to Auckland, New Zealand. His translations have been published in the USA, the UK, and Australia, and he has introduced the works of the Italian horror writer Nicola Lombardi to the English-speaking public. His annotated translation of Eugène Briffault’s Paris à Table: 1846 was recently published by Oxford University Press. Website: https://jweintraub.weebly.com/