Critique My Writing

Where I share my fiction writing, accept critiques and suggestions, and be bold. 

August 29 2013 Studio 30 Writing Prompt


“Scratch”

Did you ever have one of those workouts that seems off before you even start? The other day the universe just seemed to be telling me to stay home. I stumbled around the house like a zombie, bumping into furniture, misplacing my water bottle and car keys. I forgot my Garmin. But I had a big race in a month and I was in the height of my training.  Finally after one last visit to the powder room, I stared at myself in the mirror.


“Run. Run. Run.” I chanted. I left the house.


On the way there I got a text from my husband,  he couldn’t meet me to run. So now I was stuck doing an evening run by myself. I drove to the huge wooded park where we often ran trails and pulled into the dirt lot of the little corner store that carried live bait, rented cheap bikes and sold candy bars. I saw the old guy behind the counter at the bait shop. I waved and he gave me a wink and laughed. Creepy old guy. But I did appreciate the ice cream Snickers bars after a long run.


One of my friends from the running club called our normal road route the “loop of monotony and despair.” He was right, after endless miles on that road you do kind of dread it. It was hard enough getting out there today so I decided to try one of the wooded trails. Tranquility Trail sounded nice. I had done it a few times with the club and knew to follow the white paint blazes on the trees.


After all the delays and distractions I was out there running smooth and easy. I kept thinking I’d run into someone I knew. It wasn’t that unlikely to see someone on these trails. But I didn’t mind being on my own, setting my own pace, getting some peace.


Somewhere in the first mile my ear phones started dropping out sound and then the music cut out all together. I was irritated but at least the app was still tracking my run so I tucked the ear phones into my inside pocket and kept running.


It was actually nice to hear the sounds of the forest, the cicadas and the birds. They were loud and cheerful and I pretended they were cheering me on. Every once in awhile I’d hear a rustling noise in the leaves. I couldn’t see them but I guessed it was squirrels or chipmunks. Probably.


I spotted little clouds of gnats swirling in the sunlight that broke through the trees but I couldn’t look around too much. I had to watch where I was going because there are lot of roots and rocks on the trail. I’m not that surefooted to begin with, I’m one of those runners who holds on to trees and branches going down a steep descent. When I run with my husband he just rolls down the hills at breakneck pace but I always hold back and slow down. It’s too scary to just let go and hope I’ll make it to the bottom alive.


I came around a bend in the trail and there was a huge mud puddle so I veered off into the woods and ran up onto a small ridge to avoid it. I ran along the ridge a bit until it was clear for me to jump back down on the path. The spot I picked seemed clear but I didn’t see the spiderweb spun between the trees and ran right into it.


I yelled “shit!” and didn’t care who heard me. The spiderweb grabbed me everywhere, I was totally tangled in tiny invisible threads. They clung to my face, my neck, my sweaty arms and legs. I danced around a little trying to wipe them all away but it’s impossible. You can’t escape. So I kept running. But I was still distracted and trying to pull the strands out of my hair, off the back of my neck. Finally I was able to run and not think about the webs and the size of the spider that spun something the size of my body. Only then did I realize I didn’t know this part of the trail. I ran on, expecting to see a white blaze, the paint marks that indicated Tranquility Trail, any moment. But it never came. And then I heard footsteps behind me.


I glanced back but no one was there. So I kept running.


A few minutes later I was sure I heard someone running hard right near me, almost in time with my own steps. I stopped and turned, but again there was no one there.


Should I have turned around, gone back the way I came? Maybe. But the woods looked darker that way. And besides, the trail couldn’t be that long. I’d already been running awhile, I figured I’d hit the road quicker if I went forward.  I started again, first at a jog, then picked up the pace. The trail was narrow here, only wide enough for one person. The ground to my right rose up sharply and off to my left dropped down a steep slope. I hated running on ledges like that and tried to stay calm and get to a flatter spot.


I told myself the woods were empty, it was just me and the trees. I was just hearing things. And then it dawned on me that
I wasn’t hearing things, there were no bird sounds, no cicadas, no leaves rustling in the wind. It was totally silent. And then I absolutely heard it again, pounding feet. I glanced around and suddenly in front of me something jumped on the trail.


I yelped. Was it a deer? A coyote? But no, it was a woman, about my age, about my height.


“You really freaked me out,” I accused.


“Running on your own?” she asked.


“No, my friend is waiting for me,” I lied. My heart was beating fast and I just wanted to finish my run. I wiped the sweat from under my nose. She stood there like she was waiting for me to say something. I looked at my watch.


“Well, I better go catch him,” I said.


“I’ll run with you,” she said.


“Great,” I muttered and started out harder than I wanted to in the hopes I might lose her.


She ran close behind me even though I kept the pace high. This is partly why I hated running with the club. Lots of runners want to turn even long slow distance runs into a contest. Very shortly we left the ledge portion of the trail and came to a flat stretch where we could run two abreast. She came up along side me and then we got into a great rhythm, our feet barely touching the soft dirt and pine needles beneath us, gliding past the trees, a slight breeze cooling my arms. For the moment, I felt good. Maybe having a running partner wasn’t so bad.


I glanced at her, evaluating her form. She ran smooth and strong but she was so very thin. Thin in a way that grossed me out. I’m not saying I don’t have sympathy for people with eating disorders but I could see her bones and her muscles looked all ropey under her skin in a painful way. Even her fingers looked extra long. And her skin wasn’t really healthy looking, it was very pale and almost greenish. I wondered how much she worked out. I bet she had some pure diet and ate only raw green veggies and drank expensive protein shakes. It wasn’t helping with her hair, which was stringy and wispy and so light it was almost white. I told myself again, starving myself wasn’t worth it if you looked like some kind of ghoul.


“I almost didn’t make it out here today,” I said.


She said nothing. So I went on.


“I’m a mom. Sometimes I’m so tired I don’t feel like running, but other days I have to run to get away from the craziness.” I laughed, hoping that would be her cue to tell me about herself. But she was silent.


“But I’m glad I came out today. I feel good now.”


“How fast can you run?” she asked suddenly.


“What?” I asked.


“How fast can you run?” she repeated.


“Not that fast. But my 10K is under fifty minutes,” I said modestly.


“There’s a bridge about a quarter mile away. I’ll give you a $100 if you beat me to that bridge.”


“That’s a lot of money,” I laughed. “I’d have to see it to believe it.” I wasn’t trying to accuse her, just show her I wasn’t gullible.


“Here it is,” she stopped. I jogged next to her and watched her pull a folded hundred-dollar bill out of her pocket.


“You’re running with a hundred dollars?” I asked.


“Beat me and you can have it,” she smiled.

“For reals?” I tried to act casual.


“Totes,” she winked. Her eyes were really abnormally enormous in her skull. Seriously, she looked like a skeleton. I wondered if she went to one of those ana-friendly gyms. Did they have those in this town?


“Let’s see what I’ve got,” I shook out my legs.


“Go!” she cried and we took off. I held back a little in the beginning to see if she would sprint and this was truly a stupid idea. But I was hanging with her. So I pushed it faster and faster. We were even, and then I was ahead. I could see the bridge. I tried to move my arms, quicken my turnover. We were steps away and out of nowhere she took a giant leap and damn it, she beat me.


I stopped and put my hands on my hips and walked in a little circle, trying to catch my breath. She pretty much stood there and I couldn’t even hear her breathing hard at all.


“That was a good race,” I said. “You’ve got quite a long stride.”


“Was that your fastest?” she asked.


“Pretty much,” I nodded and started jogging again. Now I really just wanted to go home.


“Want to go double or nothing?”


I glanced over at her.


“Double, like $200? You have $200 on you right now?”


She pulled the cash out of her sports bra and held it out between her two fingers. Who was this lady?


“What’s the finish line this time?” I asked.


“There’s an old cabin about a half-mile away,” she said.


“A half-mile?” I sighed. At the very least it would end the run quicker. “What the hell, why not.”


“Go!” she yelled with no warning and we were off again.

We flew through the forest, my breath filling my ears, my feet pounding on the ground, sweat pouring down my back. I was starting to feel the lactic acid in my muscles. My triceps actually started to ache and I wished I hadn’t done so many planks the day before.


Next to me, this strange woman who carried big bucks on a trail run barely made a sound. She seemed to glide through trees, her pale skin and white hair visible even in the dim shadows of the woods.

I glanced at my watch. We had been racing for about three minutes, we had to be closing in on the cabin. My legs hurt.


“You sure only a half-mile?” I gasped. She didn’t answer, she just kept running.


Then we rolled up and over a small hill and there was the cabin. I found something deep inside and surged ahead of her. I was a good five strides in front, she was far enough behind me to be out of my peripheral vision and I actually found the energy to smile – you might call it a grimace – two hundred bucks for three minutes of work ain’t bad! And then out of nowhere that creepy skinny woman leapt through the air again and I’m telling you she flew! I had never seen anyone jump so far! And again she finished ahead of me!


I stumbled to a stop in front of the decomposing wooden cabin, breathing hard. I stared at that woman as she stood there, not winded at all. Something wasn’t right here.


“That was quite a finish,” the words came out of mein short bursts. No one could jump like that. No one normal. I decided to leave before things got worse. “Think I’ll head home.”


I walked and then eased into a very slow jog. I was tired but luckily I wasn’t completely dead. To my dismay, she fell into step next to me.


“Ready for the next race?” she asked.


“Actually I don’t think I could race again.”


“Come on, one more.”


“Carrying more money in that bra?” I joked even though I believed by now she could pull out anything.


“How about a race for something money can’t buy?”


“I like racing as much as the next one woman,” I said as we both scrambled over a fallen log then resumed our pace. “But you seem to be getting some extra help to beat me.”


For the first time during the entire run, the woman laughed. It was a much deeper laugh than you’d expect from such a frail woman, and it made me cold.


“No tricks this time,” she said. “Just you, me, the trail.”


“What are you offering?”


“Life,” she said. “A long happy life.”


I had been expecting something like this. I wasn’t a total fool.


“And if I lose?” I asked.


“Your soul.”


We ran side by side for several moments. I couldn’t look at her.


“Do I have a choice?” I asked.


“Not really,” she laughed again, a deep,

smoky chuckle.


“How far this time?”


“One mile. To the end of the trail.”


“You swear to God, no tricks!”


She smiled. Then she shouted, “Go!”


 We picked up the pace and again I was breathing hard and but she made no sound. Soon enough my quads were burning, my back was tired, my mouth was dry. But I kept running. I couldn’t even think about the trail in front of me, I stumbled over roots and rocks and kept running.


Then my tired foot hit a big rock and I bit it hard, slamming into the ground. My face was full of gravel and dirt, my hands scratched and bleeding, the wind was knocked out of me.


“Looks like I might win again,” she called as she ran away.


“Like hell you will,” I whispered and pulled myself up. With each step I closed in on her, eating the ground alive with my strides. My lungs burned, my quads burned, I didn’t breathe – I devoured air. I could see her stringy white hair, her greenish skin gleaming in the dark woods, her boney calves and arms moving in front of me and then suddenly we were abreast and I was pulling away from her. We came to a hill that was so steep I couldn’t stand up straight to ascend so I used my hands and fingernails and toes and every muscle in my body to force myself up the hill ahead of her. I got to the top before her and saw her a few feet below me. I considered waiting to push her down but she looked up at that moment and I felt a chill down deep in my stomach. I turned and fled down the hill, sliding, heedless of the steep ground, I just let it all go, and gave it everything I had to beat her down the hill. And then in the distance ahead of me I saw the end of the trail, the bait shop and my car parked in the lot.


I couldn’t see that running woman out of the corner of my eye, but I could feel her close behind me, hear her footsteps. She said no tricks but I couldn’t trust her. I waited, dreading the moment where she’d leap again and claim my soul for all eternity. But I couldn’t give up. I gave my entire body over to the final push out of the woods, to put myself between her and the finish.


“I win!” I cried, and collapsed. On my hands and knees I looked around the lot for her, ready to defend my victory. But it was empty, I couldn’t see her anywhere.


“Where are you?” I shouted. But there was no one there. Then the little old man from the bait shop shambled out of his store. He stared at me and I stared at him.


“You alright?” he asked.


“Did you see a woman, a skinny, scary woman? Running with me? She was right there, next to me, the whole way! I beat her here – but she was right next to me! ” I waved my arm at the woods, but I still couldn’t move my legs.


“Hang on there, lady, you’re all right now,” he said. He helped me stand and I took mincing steps over to the wooden bench outside his shop. “There’s nobody else here. I saw you come out of them woods and you screamed like a banshee, but you was all alone. There wasn’t any other woman there with you. You were alone, lady. Alone.”

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