by Brandon Taylor
Run, Miriam tells herself.
Speed has always come easily to Miriam. As a girl, she was the fastest person in any grade in her elementary school. It was a simple thing to run. She fixed her eyes on some point in the distance and ran toward it. She did not know about running form, had no way of knowing that a person’s body could be made to run in anyway except for the way that it had come into the world knowing to run. She had been made for this single thing, for dividing distance into smaller and smaller pieces until the point, at first so small and so far away, dilated, opened, threatened to swallow her whole.
Today, Miriam is running for her life. She is on the trail in the park in the city where she lives with her very serious boyfriend of some years now. It is a trail that she knows well and comes to often because she likes the way the water smells, loves to feel the cool air blowing in on her. She likes the pliant soil beneath her feet, threatening to give away, to betray her. But today, she is running for her life, from a man she does not know. She should have seen him coming. That’s the truth. She should have seen him coming because he had been coming at her from the place into which she always points herself, and how long had he been running toward her, not deviating, not changing his pace or his direction. He had been locked on to her and she had been locked on to him, and when she passed him, he reached for her, brushed his hand against her braids, and gripped them, almost throwing her to the ground.
She had only been aware of a sudden stopping, a sudden ceasing, seizing, and then a bright, hot pain along the edges of her hair. A snarl in her breath as she turned, but the man reached for her arm then, tried to wrestle her into the scraggly scrub lining the trail in the park. In the middle of the day on a Tuesday in October, bright and clear, a day so beautiful it hurts.
She wrenched her arm away and began to run. Not up the slippery slopes where she could easily fall or trip. Not along the craggy lakeshore where he could overtake her or throw himself on top of her. But on a straight path, running, running. She began to call out, “Help! Help! Help!” She didn’t know what else to say, how else to explain such a thing which was to her horrifying and random. It was the randomness of it, like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. She thought of Oliver, her boyfriend, of his ridiculous curls, which she missed. As she turned from the man, she thought of Oliver’s soft brown curls, and his smile, and how much she’d miss him if something happened to her.
But then, deep down in her belly, she thought with a crimson ferocity about how inane that was, how stupid, to think of a boy’s hair when her own life was in danger. And it was in danger. When Miriam began to run, when she pushed down into the damp ground and let go with all of her might, she felt that she was running for nothing less than her survival.
The man behind her is gaining on her. Miriam does not look back to ascertain this fact. She can sense when a body is closing in on her, trying to preclude her from reaching the point in the distance on which she’s set her sights. There is a slow darkening at the corner of her eye. The air grows hotter on the nape of her neck, and she can feel it on the smallest points at the ends of her hair, that he is growing closer. She can also hear his footfall, heavy and sure. He is an excellent runner.
She did not get a look at his face. She regrets this.
Run, Miriam, Run.
“Help! Help! Help!” she shouts into the trees, and her voice comes back hoarse and thin. She knows better than to yell while running. She knows how precious air is, how important breath is. They are coming around the bend. Her legs are getting sore. Sweat is stinging at the corners of her eyes. The air here is so dry and so cool. His breathing is audible to her. He is close enough that if he reached out, he might brush against her elbow with the proper timing. But such a move would be a disaster, they both know. It takes nothing at all to break a running rhythm, and the smallest misarticulating can be disaster—because running is nothing more than a controlled fall forward, and the best runners are the ones perched closest to the brink of disaster at any given moment.
Run, Miriam, she urges herself.
He is coming up on her right. He means to trap her between himself and the trees and the lake. He means, if he cannot catch her, to drive her off, to make her trip, to make her stumble. Where are the people? Yes, they are deep in the park, but not so deep that they shouldn’t be seeing anyone. Miriam sees the flash of his red jacket, the coarse beard. But they are moving too fast for any details to emerge.
She swallows, breathes evenly, and pushes ahead. She focuses on a small point in the foliage ahead, a flare of orange in the brown brush. More sweat. More heat. Her body aches all over. She thinks again of Oliver’s face, that stupid face, and its freckles. She thinks of how distant he has been from her lately, the way he withdraws into himself which certainly must be about Hammond.
She does not want to spend her last moments on earth thinking about Hammond. The man is slowing down. Miriam runs faster.
Run, Miriam, she says to herself.
There is another bend, and the lake is suddenly there, shimmering, luminous. She startles a group of large ducks, gray and white and brown, and they chatter loudly at her. They hiss and spread their wings and threaten to fly at her. They attempt to encircle her, to stop her, to slow her down, but she runs right through them, which at any other time in her life would have been impossible because, the truth is, she is terrified of birds.
Even after she has left them behind, they follow her, just a few feet, loudly honking, calling after her. She has ruined their day, thrown a fuss into their lives. The man is no longer behind her. She can feel it. She takes her eyes off of the narrow path head of her, a strip of pale yellow dirt and rocks and leaves. If he is not behind her, he could be anywhere. It isn’t that she feels that she’s lost him or escaped him, but rather that he’s slipped into the very air around her. There is a dark charge to everything. She looks to her right, behind her, over her shoulder, ahead, peering in and around the trees as she runs. She needs to slow down. Her body burns from the inside out.
Every part of her trembles. She takes out her phone and dials first Oliver. It goes directly to voicemail, and she lets out a small sob. There is a seething anger in her, like a second skin stretching everywhere beneath the surface of her body. She dials him again. Voicemail. She dials him again. Voicemail. She dials him again and again even when she should be calling the police. She is a rational, reasonable person. She is a good person. She is a good person.
The ache along the edges of her hair is throbbing, pulsing, but also there is something else, a black fear unfurling inside of her. She has been standing still too long. She is open. She is exposed, prey. She is prey even though she swore to herself in a tub in a dorm in a college across the country, a whole lifetime ago, that she would never be prey again. She is prey even though she told herself that she’d never be that way again, open, and left to the devices of the world.
Run, Miriam, she tells herself. She gets her body going again. The stiffness is there, flagging her down, but she runs beneath the shade of the trees, runs until she is reaches a place where there are people, which at first frightens her more because the last person she saw had tried to hurt her, had tried to do something unspeakable to her. So at first, when she sees the white man running toward her, she lets out a sharp scream and puts up her fists. He is shocked, aghast at her, but gives her only a strange look as he runs past her. There are more people here, a steady stream of joggers and parents with children walking and enjoying the peak fall weather. She feels wild among them, jolted into some state that she had not seen coming nor asked for.
People, when their eyes land on her, do their best not to see it in her, the rawness. She can see it in their faces, the careful calculation, the lowering of the blinds, the filtering out of what must be rolling off of her.
She is not normally like this. She is a good person, a rational person. She is a graduate student in molecular biosciences. She went to Yale, the first person in her family to graduate high school. She comes from a place where the weather is wild and the people are wild, and there is so much savageness running through everything that it’s hard to keep your eyes open to it all. She comes from a place where the soil is dark and ripe and full of things that people have put there for safe keeping. She comes from a place that she has put away in the back of herself like an old coat in the back of a closet. She is an expert at concealing beneath the sharp, clean lines of her clothes and the straight, silkiness of her hair, the clipped edges of her perfect, dull accent, all manner of terrible things. She is not normally like this. She is normally a polished dark stone that reflects back at people a ghostly likeness. She can feel the edges fraying, giving way.
She squats at a nearby bench, trying to haul her breath back into herself. She is staring down between her legs into the dirt, where there are some leaves and sticks. Spit and tears and sweat drop to the ground.
She tries Oliver again. Voicemail. He could be working, could be with patients, in a meeting.
Brandon Taylor is the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine and elsewhere.