Anna didn’t like to run because, tethered as she was to me, she felt it was undignified. Which really was a joke, because generally she had about as much dignity as a rodeo clown. In all fairness, she couldn’t feel the ground as something beneath her to stand on, as compared to the air or any other possible place that her will might send her. So being pulled along behind me must have felt like the helpless fluttering of a kite on a string. Upsetting, if you are the kite.
To tell the truth, I was relieved that she kept herself elsewhere when I ran, which I did
most every day just to stay sane. She’d fold up small and compact inside my iPod or even wind herself up in my ponytail for the journey, though she preferred to make it seem a much larger imposition than that. Sometimes she showed herself standing
stiffly, a sullen monolith, her hair and clothes lashing about her in a wind that left the shrubs around her untouched. Or teasing the Johnsons’ dogs, sending them hurtling against the fence, desperate to get to an intruder they couldn’t see or even smell, just sense.
But running was a vital and liberating thing for me, so I shrugged off her displeasure and went anyway. My legs were strong. They reached out for the ground, pulling me away from the secrets and burdens that seemed almost more than one person should bear. My body occupied with its work, I could let my mind travel freely down one
imaginary path then another, exploring without staying anywhere too long. Or having to say what I’d found there. Discharging the contents of my overly full, overly active mind into the pavement with the jolt of each heel-strike was almost the best part of running. The best part, the most important part, was imagining myself alone. I admit it was a thin pretense of being alone, since I only had to stop for a breath, a heartbeat or two, and the illusion would slip away like the sudden clearing of fog from the fields.
But then, I was only fifteen, and I needed whatever privacy I could get.
In the late fall of 2010, the morning’s sharp cold came with bright sunshine and the damp smells of rotting leaves and wood smoke. Earbuds kept the morning chill out of my head and played my soundtrack du jour. I thudded along my well-practiced route through our neighborhood, passing sweet bungalow houses built in the 1920s and ’30s, with big old maples and elms shading their expansive lawns and softly linear hedgerows. There were newer, bigger homes nearby, but the sparse landscaping and the bold, angular garages made me feel exposed, even when I ran through like my Nikes were on fire.
I hurtled out past the Johnsons’ white picket fence into the harvested fields beyond my
neighborhood and through the fifty acres of pecans owned by some distant cousins of my dad’s.
Their trunks marched along in orderly rows, reaching upwards of forty feet high, bare limbs pruned twigless and skeletal. I jumped the piles of pungent leaves and branches gathered up for burning, and rocketed on and on and on.
When I finally turned the corner to my parents’ house, I slowed to a stop in the driveway and felt the simple happiness which had carried me along drain
away. Despite our pretty yard and inviting porch, I felt Anna’s impatience, her need for me to go in. As always, she was waiting to share my day. Equal parts resentment and guilt made me take my time.
Closing my eyes, I turned my face to the sun and rolled my head this way and that as my breathing slowed. When I finally opened my eyes and turned to mount the porch steps, something had changed there, in a way I couldn’t put my finger on at first. The furniture was all there, each piece where it always was. The book I’d left out yesterday was still tented face-down on the wicker chair. But the place was altered; fundamentally, ominously altered. The climbing vines that softened the lines of the porch suddenly seemed like they were devouring it whole, cloaking it in gloom, casting shadows that were simply impossible in the bright light of morning.
Uneasy, I stepped back and pulled the earbuds from my ears. The sudden silence was disconcerting and I had a childish impulse to put them back in. But even as I lifted them back to my ears, I was arrested by the sight of a figure, barely visible against the dark green siding of thehouse. It was a man, to be sure. Not one I knew. He stood there,
threatening in his stillness and though I couldn’t see a single feature of his face, I knew with a surge of fear he was watching me.
His regard slithered over me like a finger drawing across my face. Frozen there, terrified, a small part of me distantly noted that even the birdsong had died
In that cold, heavy silence, the whisper of something brushing across the grass at my feet made me wheel around as if a shot had fired. Anna hung over me, not more than a foot away, making a contorted, eyes-dangling version of something she’d seen in a horror movie. Too startled to be mad, I leapt back a couple of feet, almost
tripping over my brother’s bike where it leaned against the porch steps.
“Jeez, Anna! Really?” A glance up at the porch showed me nothing. No ominous
shadows. No malevolent watcher. Just the familiar, shady place where I’d spent so much of my summer. And hovering in front of me was Anna, looking very happy
with herself, indeed.
Satisfied with her little prank, she snapped her face back into its normal arrangement of features. That close to me she appeared very solid, and you could easily see the light spray of freckles across her nose, the wavy blonde hair floating around her face, her big dolly-blue eyes. When I was a kid she’d stick out her arms and make me call her
Sailor Moon. From where I stood down below, she’d looked just like that.