Chapter 4: Wild run


Myra rolled out of bed, quietly pulled on sweatpants as the girls slept, and slipped outside. This early morning air was her favorite, invigorating and crisp. Just breathing it purified her lungs and spirit. She gulped greedy inhales and jogged down to the lake. The sun rose so early in the northern summer that it was a challenge to wake up early enough to catch the lakefront beauty as the day began, a challenge that she accepted and met.
She arrived to find Alex standing at the end of the dock, hands on his hips, looking out at the water. She was tempted to backtrack, but he’d heard her running footsteps and turned to face her. He waved her over and she reluctantly strode the short distance down to him.
“Good morning, Myra,” he said.
She took in his buoyant mood and alert expression. “You’re up early,” she said.
“Just following orders,” he teased.
She faced the water instead of him, taking her deep breaths, gazing out at the rippling red-orange water and the surrounding ring of emerald deciduous woods, the softness of the pink sky and cotton-candy clouds. The colors were richest at sunrise, when the sun painted a vividly surreal landscape. Later, when everyone else was awake, it bleached the colors into faded brightness.
“It’s a beautiful morning,” Alex said. “Perfect for canoeing. Not too windy.”
She nodded, and after a beat of silence, she said, “Anyway, it’s really early. We’ve got at least an hour before we need to start in on the canoes. So I’ll meet you at the boathouse in an hour.”
She turned to take the dock back to land, but Alex quickly said, “There’s nothing here. Where are you headed for the next hour?”
On her toes, eager to head out, she said, “Going running.”
“That sounds great,” he said. “I was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to get lost, or disappear on you. Can I come along?”
She eyed his clothing. He was fortuitously dressed, wearing a t-shirt, jersey shorts, and sneakers. “You should stay,” she said. “What if someone wakes up?”
He started warming up, doing arm circles and lunges. “You said so yourself, it’s early,” he said mid-lunge. “No one’s waking up at dawn after a day of swimming in the sun.”
Her gaze flitted back to the pastel sky, the crimson water. “Yeah, okay,” she said.
They ran up past the cabins, past the mess hall, and down the winding gravel road that connected the camp to the highway. But instead of going all the way out to the highway, Myra turned off onto a trail that was wide enough to run side-by-side but not even gravel, only a worn path of dirt and compressed fallen leaves. Their footsteps were muted as they tamped down the earth, making stray leaves shiver as their feet stirred up the air near the ground.
Alex ran with a loose gait, loping along with long strides. Myra ran more compactly, shorter strides and a lighter touch, taking nearly two steps for every one of Alex’s but pushing off so effortlessly that she almost seemed to float alongside his more vigorous efforts.
She started feeling properly warmed up, her body limber and her lungs funneling in oxygen to fuel her exertion. A rush of satisfaction spread over her that she was here, in these woods she knew so well, running like she was meant to be here, the same as the snakes and the owls and the deer.
She glanced over at Alex to see if he was enjoying himself as much as she was. He caught her gaze and grinned at her, his hair falling over his eyes and his cheeks faintly pink. She was glad he knew not to talk. This wasn’t a time for conversation, for noisy human disturbances, but for physical harmony with nature, for finding their place within the woods instead of pretending they were outside of and above them.
She was surprised that she liked his company. Usually she ran alone. In past years, other counselors either weren’t interested in joining her, or they were unaware that she ran at all. The young woman who worked the past two years started every day by drinking coffee and reading a romance novel as she sat wrapped in a blanket at the dining table. The woman before her needed to be pried out of bed every morning. Unsurprisingly she only lasted one summer. So Myra was used to taking this route alone, hearing only her own footsteps and her own breath. Everything was doubled now, but it didn’t seem doubly disruptive. Two people running together didn’t make twice the noise. They somehow merged together slightly, overlapped.
They passed familiar landmarks: the boulder shaped like a pyramid; the stream narrow enough that there was no bridge, just a carefully timed leap to get across; the tree that had been struck by lightning a few years back and was now a huge hollow stump that moss and ivy and small critters were steadily colonizing.
The trail wound in lazy curves, with no more than spindly brush-covered paths splitting off, until they reached the one major intersection. The trail peeled apart into two branches before them, the left one wheeling around back to camp, and the right one continuing on to arch around the perimeter of the entire lake. Myra leaned left, but Alex held back. She slowed, expecting him to want to retie his shoe or catch his breath or even take a piss, but instead he said, “Where does the other path go?”
He’d broken their unspoken pact of silence and harmony. Although that entitled her to be annoyed, she didn’t want him spoiling her running meditation, but then she just felt annoyed by his ability to annoy her.
“It goes all the way around the lake,” she said, shifting her weight from foot to foot, anxious to keep moving. “But it’s too long, we don’t have time. Which is why we’re going left, back to camp.”
He was planted, still and solid. He peered down the right-hand trail. “How long?” he asked.
“Around three miles,” she estimated. “Left’s only another one.”
Smirking slightly, he said, “You can’t do another three?”
“Of course I can do another three,” she said. “But we’ve got to get back so we can get ready—”
“I know, I know,” he said. “You’re always so diligent about getting ready. The thing is, you’re always overly ready. We’ve got plenty of time for three more miles.”
She groaned. “There are eight sleeping children—sleeping if we’re lucky—back at camp that we’re responsible for. Don’t screw around with me.”
His smile only widened. “Worried you can’t keep up?”
The harmony was becoming cacophony. Nearly shouting, she said, “No, I’m worried that a child is going to get hurt while we’re on a fucking run.”
His eyes flashed and he said, “Get ready, I’ll race you.” He spun away and bolted down the right-hand trail.
Myra swore as she watched him shrink and disappear. Her blood trashed with angry adrenaline, she sprinted after him.
He had a head start, but she knew the trail and was highly motivated. She set a taxing pace, keeping her stride short but moving with astonishing speed, her feet barely touching the ground with each step. The curving path and dense woods prevented her from seeing far ahead, and he was wearing gray and black so she was less likely to catch a glimpse of him. But she didn’t even really care about him at all, this was all about negating him, quashing him to regain the tranquility he disturbed and the children he jeopardized.
At last she saw his figure up ahead, the gray t-shirt and the blond hair and the white sneakers pounding the earth. As she approached him from behind, sweat was painting dark spots under his arms and on the small of his back. She couldn’t tell if he heard her coming or not, but he was listing left so she stayed tightly along the right edge of the trail and pushed herself harder. He didn’t say anything when she overtook him, but she thought she heard a low husky sound that could have been a snarl, or a chuckle, or just her own fatigue as her heart thudded in her throat.
Her churning legs felt disconnected from her body and her vision streaked into a haze of green and brown, but she kept sprinting onward. She knew she was getting close. She ascended a slight slope and a stitch bloomed in her side, but at least the trail was straightening out and she didn’t have to worry about running head-first into a tree trunk.
She was on the final stretch and she felt weightless, her feet gliding unstoppably forward, her arms pumping instinctively and her mouth slightly open as she rhythmically sucked in oxygen. She careened up to the girls’ cabin and decelerated to a shaky stop, her legs trembling and her side knotted. But she straightened up, wiped the sweat off her forehead with her sleeve, and went inside. She saw the four lumps, ghosted a hand over each one to feel the warm body, then rushed to the boys’ cabin and repeated her inspection. Four more lumps, four more sleeping children, for a total of eight beautiful perfect sleeping children.
Alex jogged up and lay face-up on the picnic table, his feet still resting on the ground but his back against the wooden tabletop and his arms sprawled on either side of him. His chest heaved as he caught his breath for a few moments, but then he pulled himself back up to standing, smiling easily at Myra even though his face was mottled pink and his shirt was soaked with sweat.
“I think we set a new record,” he said.
She scowled at him, strands of hair clinging to her sticky forehead.
Cocking his head, he said, “You’re lucky I let you win.”
“I can’t even look at you,” she said, turning away.
“Hey,” he called. “We should head over to the boathouse now.”
She wanted to scream but there was no way he was claiming that kind of power over her. She shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and pretended he was a misbehaving child who didn’t know any better. He just wanted a little attention, a little reaction.
She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “I agree,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They walked over together to the crooked shack that held the boats and other assorted equipment. She fished her keyring out of her pocket, found the right key, and slotted it into the rusty padlock on the door. With a little finessing, the bolt clicked unlocked. She tugged the creaky door open.
The hazy interior was lit only by the light pouring in through the open door, the raw sunlight illuminating the dust and cobwebs that had collected over the past year.
Four kayaks were mounted on the left-hand wall, two canoes on the right. Mounds of lifejackets spilled out of a plastic crate, and various paddles occupied the far wall, some still leaning against the wall and others toppled over on the floor like oversized pick-up sticks.
“Have you ever carried a canoe with a portage yoke?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes twinkling at her no-nonsense demeanor.
“You're sure?” she pressed. “You can really kill your spine if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I’m sure,” he drawled.
“Fine.” She walked up to the canoes hung horizontally one above the other. Turning back to Alex and eyeing him to judge their heights, she said, “I’ll take the lower one.” He ambled farther into the boathouse. She ordered, “Stay by the wall. I’ll go out first, and then you can get your canoe and follow me down.”
She crouched and lifted the lower side of the canoe off the wall, slipping underneath the hull. With her upper body close to the wall and the canoe above her, she reached up and felt for the wooden yoke. She adjusted her body to fit the yoke over her shoulders before carefully straightening up, lifting the canoe upside-down over her head. She could barely see anything but she heard Alex applauding at her feat.
She took slow steps forward, getting used to the canoe’s ungainly weight, and inched through the doorway. She made it out and waited a minute for Alex to emerge with the other canoe before she headed down to the lake.
When they reached the beach, she knelt and cautiously hoisted the canoe higher off her shoulders, then around in a half-circle, setting it right-side-up on the sand. Alex followed suit, dropping his canoe to the ground with a thud. He stood, swinging his arms in circles and gingerly lowering his neck to each side, stretching out strained muscles.
“You’re fine,” she said dismissively. “It’s over.”
“Okay, Superwoman,” he said. “What next?”
She thought, then said, “Breakfast for ten.”