It was barely spring and I was red-faced, sweaty and setting a new best time for the mile. But fear was at my throat, sweat stung my eyes and all I could think was how much longer I could hold on before something gave out.
It wasn’t too warm outside — the March sun in the Outer Banks wasn’t fierce yet — but I felt heat flowing through my body. My skin seemed too tight, the sun too hot on my bare shoulders. I pressed the pace, trying to exaggerate every liftoff and bounce instead of slam the road. I had to get home.
The black pickup truck was still behind me, too far to see the driver, close enough to hear the engine.
My friends, about a dozen 20-somethings who had come on senior year spring break with me, were a half-mile away at our rented house. It was too early for vacationers to return to the shore and I eyed every house I sprinted by for signs of life. One by one, I passed by blank windows, empty driveways and clean front yards. The truck had trailed me, steadily, curiously, for five minutes.
My fear, or maybe paranoia, pissed me off. I should be able to run without worry of guarding myself. I was somewhat satisfied with my body and thought a long run would be nice — to let it sun and bend and work itself in the middle of an otherwise rainy week. Now there was some stranger not only watching but following me, and I felt filthy.
The engine suddenly growled from behind me — a reminder — and in an instinctual twitch of panic, my legs swerved down a side street. Like pausing a particularly moving song, reality fell into place with one blunt move and my heart fell as I passed a familiar yellow sign. “DEAD END.”
The truck followed me and the “what-ifs” started. I felt light-headed, shrunken. Something stopped working. My pace slowed. I let it. I felt extinguished. My legs trembled, but my toes wiggled, calculating the need for an emergency liftoff. Both shoulders moved up and down in tune with my lungs. My body tightened and loosened like the waves behind our rental house. I moved along the curve of the dead end and paused for a moment. The truck slowed at the beginning of the curve and I forced myself to look up at the windshield.
A man and a woman. A short man with sunglasses, thin hair and a hat. A larger woman who hid herself behind him. Empty homes around me. Overgrown gardens. Open sky. The bottom of my feet burned. My toes continued to drum inside my shoe.
The driver stared straight ahead before slowly moving his head in my direction. The threat was suddenly real and steady and adrenaline shot from my brain to my ankles and in one, two, three great stretches, my legs were bringing me past the truck, around a corner and back on the main road. His engine protested and my brain screamed.
I wanted to have the strength to kick his truck. To yell, “Fuck you!” over and over and to convince him I wasn’t worth the test. That these thin and weak arms and bare stomach may have caught his eye, but he does not get to hold that in his hands. That belongs to me and he doesn’t get to play with what he is eyeing because I bite back and I have been sharpening these teeth for years against crude remarks yelled from dirty pickups.
I turned from the main street down the street our rental home was on before he had turned out of the cul de sac. I was now a ball of energy, full of more anger about my fear than the fear itself.
I hoped he hadn’t seen where I had gone. I didn’t want him knowing where I was staying the night. But as soon as I hit the driveway, panic once again overtook anger — to my dismay, helplessness and exasperation — and I couldn’t look back, I couldn’t hear anything and the sun was bright and sweat was in my eyes and I climbed the second-story front steps on all fours and ran along the deck to the back of the house and, finally, ultimately, climatically, stopped.
In the shade, I flattened myself against the home and focused on my breathing. I could hear some people upstairs playing a drinking game. I heard laughter. A couple people were in the hot tub below me. I listened, one hand holding my forehead, picking up conversations of cleaning up spilled beer, video game choices and dinner plans. Nobody mentioned an unfamiliar truck outside. Nobody was wondering where Stephanie was. Everything was familiar and easy and safe and I was maddeningly jealous and the world was spinning and my legs were still trembling and I bent over to cup my knees. Sweat dribbled into my eyes and I welcomed the familiar sting.
Was it because I was in a sports bra? Was it because I was blonde-haired, blue-eyed? Nightmarish thoughts raced through my mind and I looked around the corner of the house again to see the still-empty street. A bubble of air escaped my dry lips and like an alert deer, I walked gently to the front steps. An empty road splitting rows of empty houses. Aside from the cars in our driveway, there was not a vehicle in sight.
I would tell my friends later.
My muscles breathed and stretched, but my colorful imagination warned he could have seen me run up the steps. He could be back. With twitchy fingers, I walked to the sliding door to my bedroom and into the bathroom.
Behind a closed and locked door, I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my body. Burnt shoulders. Soaked-through sports bra. The way my loose shorts hung around my legs. My flushed face and bright eyes still showing a glimmer of terror. I blinked. My fear-infused face was exotic.
The shower water was warm, so I undressed and stepped in. As soon as the water hit me, I wrapped my arms around my chest.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t peek out of the shower to make sure I was alone. My eyelids closed and I let the steady stream of water hit them. I knew I would join in the drinking games and that night, eat dinner with everybody else and laugh at drunken foolishness. But I knew I’d also tiptoe around the house and lock all the windows and doors. And in between games, I’d glance out the window to the driveway.
I knew this as I stood in the shower. But for the time being, I had just the small space and water and that was okay, but at the same time, not enough. I pushed my hands against the shower walls, curling them into fists. After a mile of lighting my feet on fire, I wanted to extinguish them, but they, like the rest of my body, continued to burn.
Stephanie Butzer graduated from Elon University in May 2014 with a degree in journalism and creative writing. She currently resides in High Point as a reporter with the city paper. She’s an avid runner, photographer and writer.