He was running.
Hurtling the guardrail and dodging the oncoming traffic. Ignoring the screech of tires and the frantic bellow of car horns, he escaped being run down by a careening Dodge pickup, and leapt onto a familiar side street. From there he turned west and faced the setting sun, it’s rays stretching toward him as it sunk below the purple landscape. Johnny slowed his breathing, allowing his athleticism to take over.
Only a few years earlier he’d been a star wide receiver on the high school football team. His speed had allowed him to break long touchdown runs regularly. Now as he rounded a corner, leaving pavement to bounce upon century old cobbled streets, he reached within himself, calling for one more burst of speed. A final run.
Despite the sun’s steady departure under a skyline smeared in copper, the temperature remained ablaze. He could see the heat radiating up from the sidewalk before him. Like transparent tentacles, waving in the thin breeze, reaching toward him, trying to slow his pace.
Johnny however, was no stranger to the intense heat of the south. Nor was he unfamiliar to running the historical streets of Charleston. He’d done it once before. On a breezy night a few years earlier. A night he’d never forget. No matter how hard he tried.
And as he ran on this day, veering around a couple of evening strollers walking hand in hand, getting yipped at by a stray spaniel lying under a park bench, memories from that night, not so long ago, began racing through his mind...
What he was doing was wrong. It went against every promise he’d ever made to her. And yet the fear he’d so easily recognized on her face, the tremor he’d felt when their lips touched, now justified his actions.
Jessica’s home was only a few short blocks from his parent’s two story colonial. And if you knew all the short cuts through little-known back allies, the trip could be made in minutes on foot.
As the shadows lengthened to night, and a hollow breeze nipped at his skin, causing gooseflesh to rise, Johnny found himself crouched behind a towering pine standing like an aging monument long forgotten, at the perimeter of Jessica’s ranch style home.
The house was small, resembling a large mobile home. The neglected white siding had grown cloudy over the years, changing it’s color to a dingy gray. A couple of maroon shutters were knocking against the house with the breeze, their fasteners having loosened, the threads long stripped. The square-shaped property hadn’t been mowed in weeks. Grass like jungle foliage sprouted in dense clumps throughout the backyard. The ideal hideaway for a copperhead in search of sleeping arrangements.
From his position, Johnny watched the silhouette of a lone figure moving behind the blinds from room to room. Tidying up the kitchen. Pushing a vacuum across the carpeted living room. And finally back to where he guessed was the bathroom, where she appeared to be standing under a showerhead.
Feeling guilty, Johnny was about to sneak back the way he’d come, when a car swerved into the driveway and screeched to a stop. The shadow of an elderly-looking man rose from the car, lunch pail in hand, and stumbled along the concrete drive to the front door. From where he remained behind the tree, Johnny could hear Jessica’s father mumbling to himself as he approached the house. The rambling slur of an alcoholic in full grace.
Johnny remembered the deep bruise Jessica had been trying to keep hidden under a tuft of curled bangs on her forehead. An ugly purple wound in the shape of a small egg, glaring out from the soft follicles of her hairline. Then Johnny thought of all the other bruises he’d spotted over the past month.
Jessica’s father fumbled with the doorknob, released a swear, and finally managed to fall into the house. Creeping along on the balls of his feet, Johnny quietly pursued...
Leather loafers were not intended for a spontaneous, two mile run along city streets, through a suffocating Carolina heat wave. The heels of each foot had eventually numbed from minimal arch support while pounding on Charleston’s ancient sidewalks. His beige trousers had grown heavy with either sweat or fatigue, or both. And he figured at this point he’d be able to peel off his collared, button down shirt and wring it out like a well-used dish towel.
He’d brought on the attention of many finger-pointers and confused expressions as he bolted for the outskirts of town. The rustle of aging palm fronds whispered encouragement as he passed beneath them.
A throb had begun twisting the muscles along his side as he fought to control his breathing. A few years ago he would’ve been able to run this distance without difficulty. In fact, a few years ago he had...
He slid through the front door, left slightly ajar by the lumbering form of Jessica’s father. He eased one of his sneakers onto the foyer, stepping onto a departing shadow as it faded toward the back of the house. Footsteps thudding to a stop in the hallway.
Hearing the twist and click of a door latch, he peeked around the corner as Jessica’s father entered the bathroom. A wedge of light pierced the darkened hallway, causing Johnny’s shadow to loom. He froze in mid-step, studying the sinewy shape upon the aged, desert-colored carpeting, and again silently cursed himself for being there.
From behind the partially opened door he heard the gravely rumble of a voice. The tinny squeal of another. He tensed, his breath held in behind the constricted muscles guarding his lungs. A moment passed before a scream filled the house. Then Johnny knew why he was there.
He lunged forward. "Jessica run!" he hollered. "Get out!"
Jessica’s father turned with a start. His mouth opened, chafed lips forming into a silent O as a look of shock, or perhaps fear, passed over his face. There and gone in an instant, as if carried by an ocean’s breeze.
Johnny watched as the man’s brow lowered. Grizzled cheeks gathered around a jaw clenched in fury. Burly fingers stained to the color of rust from a lifetime spent hunched over machinery, now closed to form grimy clubs, wavering upon the end of each arm.
From out of her father’s mouth came a warning, painfully gargled as if the rust from his fingers had somehow found it’s way to the lining of his throat. "Get outta my house." Beads of phlegm followed his words, tumbling through the air in an arc before at last plummeting to the floor between their feet.
Johnny hastened a glance at Jessica, huddled upon the porcelain floor of the bathtub. Trembling arms were wrapped around her chest, and her knees were folded up, partially hiding her face while shielding her body. For a moment their eyes met. A silent understanding rendered. Then Johnny backed out of the bathroom, her father in pursuit.
Facing Jessica’s father, Johnny backed down the hallway, the shadows growing longer as he departed the bathroom’s florescent glow. He watched as the towering form bent forward to a crouch. He glimpsed the fleeting image of his girlfriend sneaking out of the bathroom and down the hall in the opposite direction. She’d slipped a thin nightgown over her head, the hem trailing behind her like the dwindling fragments of a ghost. As her father released a grunt and lunged, the sound of the front door opening with a creak of strained hinges assured him of Jessica’s safety. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and awaited the blow...
He passed into a city park. Towering live oaks, their skeletal branches ever reaching, entwining themselves into the wooded appendages of their neighbor, lined both sides of his path. Olive shawls of moss cascaded from overhead, brushing his shoulders as he sprinted beneath.
His breathing labored, grew ragged, his chest heaving. The gasping drew the curious gazes of many. Some pointing from park benches. Others relaxing hand in hand under the shade of the century-old oaks.
As evening matured to dusk, the sun now nothing more than a paint stroke over the distant hills of Columbia, Johnny stumbled onward. Somehow he managed to quicken his pace. Perhaps the knowledge of his upcoming destination allowed his weary legs a second wind. He was close now. Across an ancient wooden bridge passing over the marsh along the western perimeter of the park. Through a small meadow of wild flowers native to the south, and left untouched by local developers. Just beyond the meadow, the cemetery awaited. He hoped he wasn’t too late...
The back of his head made contact with the paneled wall at the far end of the house. The thud seemed to shake the foundation of the entire home. A crack of bone and splintered paneling, still echoing inside his head. Johnny sagged to the floor of a bedroom, he wasn’t sure which one, and for a moment, lost awareness.
A right hook landed above his eye, was actually what drove the fogginess from his senses. A sharp pain, like a needle plunged into his temple, caused him to open his eyes and focus on the lumbering adversary standing over him.
Jessica’s inebriated father. Mumbling something in a lazy drawl about punks nosing into his business.
Johnny could feel the throb of his right eye as it began to swell. If not tended to soon it would surely close up.
He sensed the presence of his girlfriend’s father looming closer. Preparing for another strike. With his right hand, he reached out into the darkness, searching...