Featured Short Fiction: Elaine Atwell

atwell

The Park

Elaine Atwell

It was one of those days when the run was all Julia lived for. She’d slouched out of bed at nearly eleven and drifted around the house in her pajamas, aimless as a ghost. She began and then abandoned a pile of laundry. She microwaved the same cup of coffee three times. She read, but got no nourishment from it—just filled herself with the internet’s empty outrage, dutifully seeking out both sides of the argument until she was no longer sure who she agreed with. She worked too, but it was only minor edits to a client’s home page and it was over too quickly to feel like it really counted. So mostly she did nothing. (Nothing, Julia found, was like a cloud that looked soft from the outside, but when you put your hand to it was cold and damp and couldn’t support your weight.)

Still, she had the promise of the run. Her running shoes—orange and pink Aasics she had chosen for their manic unprettiness—leered at her from their spot by the door.

They were like the drill sergeant that was going to get you ready for the war. She grinned when she put them on.

She usually ran in the evenings, around the time Will got home. It was odd and a little shameful, that after spending the day alone she would choose another solitary activity over time with her husband, but somehow she always felt she needed a few more drops of solitude, and they were the sweetest for being the last.

There was a quiet resentment brewing there. She would sometimes invite him to join her but he’d had a long day (as opposed to her) and went straight for an IPA and last night’s downloaded shows. So she was staying relatively trim while he explored new and increasingly far-flung notches on his belt. The resentment went both ways, but neither of them had said anything about it yet. And maybe they never would, or her absence and his gut would just become a gentle running joke between them, one of the minor handicaps a relationship picks up after enough years.

Because, really, things were good. Will’s career was taking off. They no longer agonized over buying the nice coffee. And they allowed themselves the luxury of this house.

It truly was a nice house, the house on Whalley Circle. It had just the right amount of character: original doorknobs and a brand new gas range. If it had been anywhere else, then working from home might have driven her crazy, but Julia didn’t mind staying within these walls all day and tracking the passage of light on the ancient hardwood floors (turn of the century, so old they had acquired that beatific luminescence peculiar to Buddhist monks and knotty New England pine). There was even a studio for her to paint in, and though the Room Of One’s Own reference was lost on Will, he was gracious about ceding what might otherwise have been a (shudder) Man Cave.

He was gracious about a lot of things, actually, including her evening runs and the fact that he made almost all the money. The one thing he would say, as he was loosening his tie and she was preparing to walk out the door, was “don’t forget your pepper spray.”

They had been warned about the park. Their landlord (a brusque Orthodox man whose hand Julia had tried to shake before she remembered herself) had said: “Now this is a great neighborhood. Wouldn’t rent to you if it weren’t, but you’ll want to stay out of the park after nightfall. It attracts a bad element.” He actually used those words: “bad element.” It was fine during the daytime, though. Or better than fine. It had three ponds populated by half-tame waterfowl, well-maintained tennis courts, and several miles of trails which were densely forested enough that you could forget for a few minutes that you were in this rusted-over New England town.

But no, of course you wouldn’t want to be there at night. The park was littered with the reasons why. Little single-serving bottles of liquor, overtly threatening graffiti, and thumbnail-sized plastic baggies, some still with the residue of whatever sad substance people did in parks after sunset. Julia personally drew the line at the moment when the light changed from golden to blue: that was heading home time. But of course, with fall arriving and shortening the days, that time was a moving target.

“Don’t forget the pepper spray, Jules.” Jules. She hated it when he called her that. No reason; she just didn’t like it. But she kissed him high on his cheek and grabbed her keychain, crowded with discount cards and a bottle-opener and yes, her pepper spray.

And then, when she shut the door and stood on the porch, she dropped the whole thing in a Christmas tree stand left there by the last tenants. She didn’t want it jangling in her pocket while she ran. She had explained this to Will and he suggested she just carry the mace, but she never did. If it was in her hand then she could never forget about it, and somehow the slight feeling of safety wasn’t worth the constant reminder that she was in danger.

She stretched quickly, ignoring a slight pull in her left knee. And then she was off, past the big Connecticut houses which had once been grand and then decrepit and were now becoming grand again. (The landlord was right; the neighborhood was coming along.) She fell into a good pace and her lungs did that painful-pleasurable thing like the eager strain of an engine. The hundred lived-in pains in her body disappeared and she felt she would do anything just to keep her legs pumping and elbows swinging. She would do it forever.

When she got to the park she took the long way, which postponed the trails and took her down a long avenue of benches, clearly a tortured love letter to Central Park. There were a few kids still on the playground, which meant that it wasn’t too late to be running. Mothers hovered nearby, occasionally looking up from their phones to yell a perfunctory“get down from there!” There were men on some the benches, in pairs that fell into wary silence as she passed. They were dealers, she assumed, staking out territory for the evening’s businesses. And there were deadbeats, men and women both, who gave off that “nowhere to be” homeless vibe and stared her down, like animals at a watering hole. She never knew how to act towards the other people at this park; she never knew where to look. Not at them, because there was no right way to look at homeless men watching her run. The ground was too meek, the sky too proud. So she settled for straight ahead, unapologetically, determinedly ignoring them. Best of the bad options.

For a moment she was mad at herself for taking the long way, taking her past all these unknowable strangers, but then she remembered what a lousy day she’d had and how badly she needed to be really and truly exhausted at the end of this run. So she kept on. Three breaths in through the nose, three breaths out through the mouth. The crunch of gravel. The things she could control. She turned past a huge and hideous concrete sundial and deeper into the park.

The trees arched over the path here, and a few fatalistic leaves had already turned gold and given up on summer. The squirrels didn’t seem to be taking the seasonal changes seriously, darting across the path more recklessly than ever, fat on acorns. Julia didn’t like the squirrels. They’d lost their fear of humans, which she found vaguely insulting.

She followed the path until it came to a tunnel, under which it was already night. She used to force herself to go through it as an exercise in bravery, but she stopped after a man was shot nearby. His friends had filled the entrance with tall votive candles and after that she couldn’t bring herself to go in. No reason to put herself alone with the darkness and whatever was in it, not when the chances of a scream drawing anyone’s attention were so slim. (It was impossible to get the police to give a shit about anything that happened in this park; the neighborhood association had tried.)

So she veered away from the tunnel and up a steep set of stairs built into the hill. Her calves burned with the exertion but she didn’t break her pace, and at the top she turned off the gravel path and onto the trail.

Into the woods. It was immediately quieter and cooler, and the air was somehow denser. For the first time since leaving the house, she felt alone.

She’d gone just over a mile and a dark triangle of sweat was forming on her shirt. She ran faster, fast enough that it gave her a little jolt of excitement to jump over the tree roots. She ran until her muscles said “enough” and she whispered back “I love you. I love you. I’m doing this because I love you.” She gave herself permission to stop at the next curve, at the next bench, at the next knife-scarred tree trunk. But every time she passed one of these landmarks, she denied herself the out and kept going. She ran until she got to her favorite part of the whole park: a meadow that seemed to have been placed there for no reason but to acknowledge the basic human joy of running through a meadow. The fading golden sunlight played on the tall grass, and lulled her into a moment of sweet self-forgetfulness which, of course, was gone as soon as she noticed it.

On the other side of the meadow, the light was reduced to a few dappled spots in the dim green hush. She slowed down a little to let her eyes adjust, and then she saw it. Standing astride the path, its muscles relaxed but taut, like an athlete at ease, with at least as many antler points as she had fingers. It was so unexpected that she was ten feet away before her mind decoded the images and reassembled them into the recognizable name of “deer.”

She came to a shuffling stop and fought to get her breathing back under control. The deer regarded her coolly—or she thought it did, its whiteless eyes made it impossible to read. She had never seen a deer in these woods before, or heard of one either. It stood very still.

“Um.” She said, playing to an imaginary audience. “Excuse me, but I believe as the non-dominant species, you are required to move.” The audience laughed wildly. The deer dropped its head a little, angling its antlers toward her. She reminded herself that deer were not only harmless but symbols of harmlessness. Even so, it was big and mute and she didn’t want to be any closer to it.

She took a step backwards, not turning around. That was what you were supposed to do with bears, she thought, not deer, but even so she didn’t want to show this wild thing her unprotected back. The deer remained motionless as she backed away, until finally, fifteen feet from it and feeling ridiculous, she turned around and ran. It was a slower pace than what she’d been running before, and her breath didn’t come as easy. She was halfway across the meadow before she looked back. The deer was gone.

So that was creepy. But also it was irritating, since she was barely two miles in when the deer cut her off. To make up for her lost exertion, she decided to take a little offshoot trail that led to an exercise station. She would do some pull-ups. She was always neglecting her arms.

So it was back on the trail from the meadow. She tried to regain her earlier rhythm but kept thinking of the work she had to get done tomorrow and the dinner she had to figure out tonight. But then the running magic kicked in and she remembered how grateful she was to have a body and a mind that did the things she asked of them. She ran faster and resolved that if she couldn’t earn her endorphins with distance, she would earn them with speed. And those pull-ups. She swerved onto the offshoot trail. She wouldn’t normally take this route with the sun setting, since she’d seen evidence that the junkies liked to crash on the sit-up benches, but she told herself not to be so paranoid. She arrived at the place.

She started with a little leg-swinging exercise, lifting her feet over a pole until she couldn’t do it anymore and then five more times after that. Then the pull-ups. She was up to four now, and yes the last one was half cheating since she jolted and yanked herself up to the bar, but it was still four more than she could do when she started. She dropped to the ground, shaking, and then smiling at the way the muscles stood out on her arms. Next she did the high steps, straining her legs on a metal pole where she balanced for a moment and then came back down.

It was on the third one that her knee failed her. The pain came from out of nowhere; a cold, dirty knife. Her left leg collapsed and she fell hard onto the mulch, bits of it coating her sweat-sticky thighs. Her heart raced, adrenaline making it impossible to tell just how seriously she was hurt.

Gasping, she lay down on her back, touching two fingers to the pulse in her neck and staring up at a plastic bag caught in the trees.

This was her punishment. This was what she got for pushing too hard. She had a beautiful, obedient body, but she had abused it and now she was going to lose her running. She indulged in this black certainty for maybe thirty seconds when she heard a sound in the woods behind her. That was nothing; the woods were always full of sound–acorns falling and leaves blowing and small things moving in the undergrowth. But something in that tiny crack struck Julia as organized, as urgent, and her head shot up off the ground.

At the edge of the clearing, not more than ten yards away, were two more deer: a doe and a buck. They looked at Julia. The doe’s white tail kept flicking up and down, the buck stamped a hoof on the ground like an awkward adolescent. They were beautiful in the unsettling way of deer and horses, with every muscle and hair laid flat against a body made to run. Julia stared at them, wondering what they wanted in this clearing. Surely nothing to do with her. Nevertheless, she started rubbing at her knee to get moving again, get away from the deer. It was sore, but perhaps not really injured.

Then, from farther in the woods, she heard another branch break, a louder snap than before. She squinted in the direction of the sound and saw two, no three, more; one a huge stag whose head was so crowded with antler points it looked like a primitive crown. Arrayed against the hillside like that, they were not so much camouflaged by the forest as they were an extension of it. Their coats were the brown and gray of the undergrowth. Their antlers were sharpened branches. They were, all of them, walking toward her.

For the first time, it occurred to Julia that these animals were faster and stronger than her. The only thing keeping them from hurting her was that it had not occurred to them to do so. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the way they approached her, they just kept coming–stiffly at first, one bony leg at at a time, like they were walking on rotten ice. But the biggest one, with the antler crown, moved with more purpose, a fluid gait that quickly put it in front of the rest of them. It was coming fastest, but the others were coming too, forming a semicircle around her. It was all very quiet. The birds had gone quiet too.

There was never a moment when Julia decided to be afraid. It was just something that happened in her chest and pulled her up off the ground, even though her left knee felt tight and (in a horrible, wrong way) loose. She struck out for the trail, which brought her closer to the nearest deer, but she was still moving faster than it was. She wanted so badly to sprint but she clamped down hard on that desire and reminded herself that she would be useless if she spent all her energy in a sixty second mad dash. Besides, no matter how fast she ran, they were faster. Not that they were chasing her, necessarily. Not that they were anything more than a few deer that wanted their park back now that night was falling.

She looked back and saw only one deer on the trail behind her, and it was behaving strangely. It would walk a few steps and then break into a shambling run, and then walk again. As if it felt as strange about chasing her as she did about being chased.

Maybe she had left the rest of them behind in the clearing. She just needed to get back on the road; it couldn’t be more than half a mile away. The trouble was her knee. She forced it to take some weight, but that was only because her terror took a narrow priority over her pain. And adrenaline would only carry her so far. She had a clear vision of what was happening inside her body: the rubbery socket and the merciless bone, doing god knew how much damage as it flailed around in there. But it didn’t have to carry her much farther. The little side trail was about to join up again with the main walking path, even though the only people on it by now were probably the junkies. She would take the junkies.

She put on a little burst of speed as she approached the path and picked out a big Elm up ahead. Run to there, just make it to there and you can stop. She tapped into that last, secret reserve of runners, but it meant she had too much momentum to stop when the crown-antlered stag stepped out from behind the tree, right in front of her. She screamed a high, horror movie scream and whipped around, trying to reverse course. But it barely even had to move to catch her. It just lowered its head and stepped forward, driving the point of its antler into her thigh. Its hoofs thudded gently against the hard-packed earth, but other than that it was silent. Julia sucked in a breath the second she felt the antler touch her flesh. Not cold, not hot, impersonal as a fallen tree branch. It ripped and rooted and then pulled away. She couldn’t stand to think how deep it had punctured; couldn’t think anything at first except to register the astonishing warmth of her own blood.

She remained upright—really, she stood politely still—as the deer gored her and when it stopped she looked back, somehow expecting it to have disappeared, to have gotten whatever it was it wanted. But it was still there, betraying no visible signs of agitation other than the red dripping down its antlers. She began wondering, in an idle, analytical sort of way, if it meant to kill her when she heard the rustle and crack from the woods again and watched as the rest of the herd (herd?) materialized.

And then she came back to herself, pain receptors finally flooding her brain with urgency. One of the does took a four-legged leap at her but she brought her fist down hard, rock-paper-scissors style, on its flat brow and it stumbled away. “NO!” She shouted, in the deep voice her father had taught her to use on dogs. It was unclear whether this had any deterrent effect on the deer but it made her feel slightly clearer to hear her own voice. An adult was here to rescue her. She just tried not to be too disappointed that the adult was her.

“Get away, deer! You get away from me!” She yelled as she lurched into the trees. At least the crown-antlered stag had wounded the leg that was already injured, so she still had one strong one. Running was out of the question, though. Her only chance was to climb out of their reach. But all the trees she saw either had branches an impossible distance from the ground or else were saplings that could never bear her weight. She settled on the sturdiest looking one she could reach.

The tree wasn’t much thicker than a fireman’s pole. She snaked her arms around it and tried to drag the rest of her up behind. The bark dug into her cheek and forearms (remarkable how you could be aware of such a minor pain even in the face of a larger one). She tried to wrap her legs around it too, but was met with flat refusal from the left, still bleeding freely. The deer walked toward her slowly, betraying no intent but curiosity. And perhaps a vague sadness.

Her feet weren’t more than a few inches off the ground and she wasn’t climbing fast enough; the closest buck lowered its head to charge. Sobbing—when had she started crying?—she grabbed at the little nubbins of branches and pulled herself up. Her palms were tacky from trying to staunch the wound in her thigh. It helped. The right branch bent, broke, and hung in useless ribbons. But the left one held and she pulled herself up, screaming some birth sound. She found purchase for her feet. She was above them. The trunk was only the width of her forearm up here but as long as she clung to it she would be safe until…what? They got bored? She fainted from blood loss? She was rescued by a junkie?

The deer gazed up at her, six pairs of wet, black, expressionless eyes. They never looked at each other but Julia felt sure that they were communicating. Specifically: that they were devising a plan.

The crown-antlered stag went first. It sidled up to the tree and rubbed its horns against it experimentally, until one of the points snagged on the trunk. At first Julia thought it meant to saw it down, but then she realized it didn’t have to. It began to pull, digging its hooves into the ground and snorting quietly. Julia felt the tree register this new pressure, but it didn’t move. Then the next biggest buck approached the trunk and hooked his antlers as well. (Will would be worried by now but not yet worried enough to call the police.) A doe went around to the other side of the tree and pressed her head against it, in a kind of loving communion. It began to creak faintly but it held. It held until two more bucks flanked the big one and joined their antlers together. And then she heard the roots start popping from under the soil.

Her mind went distant and detached again as she watched their progress. It was only, it had always been only, a matter of time. In the last of the sunlight, Julia saw where a splash of her blood had turned the leaves scarlet: a little autumn come in September.

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