"The Runner"


Sixteen miles.

Broken up, strategized, it had seemed utterly doable: two miles out and two miles back in each direction. Quantifying it. Breaking it down. Adding it up. That was the ticket.

Sixteen miles.

But when she’d passed the auto shop and the diner and hit two miles just after that strange, small school for an indeterminate student population from which she’d neither met nor heard of anyone in all her time spent growing up two miles away, the clean, straight sidewalk beckoned Rebecca onward. Even having prepared for the quadruple out-and-back for a week, when it came time to do it, turning heel, turning back, it felt like a small, boring admission of defeat.

So onward. Onward past the weird, little school, past neighborhood after neighborhood, past the lake and the golf course and the parkway. Four miles. Five. Six. To turn back now, to revisit the parkway and the golf course and the lake? And for what? Twelve miles? Twelve of sixteen? Nonsense. No. A loop. A loop was what was called for. A sixteen-mile route estimated and jerry-rigged by cobbling together the numbered highways and shopping centers within her normal driving diaspora.

But approaching mile ten without so much as a single retreaded step, Rebecca found the flaw in their plan.

The water.

Two miles out. Two miles back. A gulp of water every mile. Refills back at home base. That had been the plan ten miles ago. The boring, tedious plan. Now the water bottle was empty, periodically coughing out tufts of air when she forgot and went for a drink, dry little breaths on a dry tongue.

There would have to be a refill. There would have to be water or the cramps would come, locking up her calves like bear traps and dragging her to a humbled walk or a painful tear.

Stupid. Running out of water. Stupid.

Rebecca had imagined herself far nearer to a grocery store that just was not coming around. The promise of familiarity and commerce looking up from the bottom of every hill dashed at the top by another view of bland, infinite highway. The grocery store was up ahead, undoubtedly. Rebecca knew the road she was on. She had driven on it and knew where it went, but had no idea how long it took to get there. Time and distance were so different on foot.

At last, with her early morning start meaning less and less as the sun crept up and up, bogging her down in sweat, there came a church. No sprawling Baptist complex or Catholic campus, it was a small church with a gravel parking lot and Asian writing on the sign out front. Korean, she guessed, based on little more than the demographic of people she’d gone to high school with. It was small. Even compared to some of the less robust houses in the area it seemed small. The meager building was painted an immaculate white, but the sign was battered and old.

Asked twelve miles earlier or four miles later Rebecca would have expressed a sense of decorum, of courtesy, that would never allow her to intrude on some random church asking for water. It was an incursion. A minor faux pas. It was not done. But twelve miles in, four miles out, religion in its entirety was getting off far too easy. If organized religion was going to impede social progress in the name of methodically bolstering its own ranks all while enjoying a tax exemption for their trouble then it was going to do some good, to pay what it owed, to fill up a 24-ounce water bottle with a slip-on handhold and zip-up pocket for keys.

Do you knock on the door of a church?

Rebecca trotted down to a walk, knees groaning. In the movies where folks hung out in empty churches and plotted or brooded or did whatever extracurricular activities one does at a church in a movie, did they knock? The movies never showed.

Certainly one does not walk in unannounced. But to stand at the door, to knock and wait like a trick-or-treater, felt far too reverent, too submissive.

Turning the handle and pushing the door open with one hand, knocking on it with the other, she called out into the tiny lobby.

“Hello?”

At the end of the lobby opposite her were double doors. It was hotter inside than it had been in the sun and the air was thick and dusty. The only light came in from the windows, vertical rectangles up near the ceiling. There was a rack of pamphlets, presumably in Korean, tucked away in a corner, and doors leading elsewhere to the left and right of the lobby.

There was a man. Grey suit. Grey dress shirt, untucked. Bright yellow bowtie. Brown shoes.

“Oh, hello,” he gasped, a hand fleeing to his mouth. He was a stick, his body, his limbs, his fingers, all sticks. Though he was short, about even with Rebecca’s chin, his slight frame gave him the illusion of height, which had the strange effect of making the building’s interior appear just slightly larger than it was.

“Welcome,” he said, his mouth still hidden behind bony fingers. Even in silence, Rebecca could tell from his bouncing cheeks that his mouth flickered this way and that, perhaps flashing smiles, perhaps something else.

“Hi,” she said, affecting a casual, neighborly cool, eyebrows raised in greeting. “I was hoping I might be able to fill up my water bottle. Way hotter out there than I thought it would be.”