Posts Tagged ‘packing’


Posted: April 30, 2013 in Short Story
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The sun is peeking through the heavy hotel curtains when Ellen Hayes wakes this morning. Not like yesterday. Yesterday was race day and the alarm had barely beeped when she’d slammed it off and sat up in the darkness of pre-dawn.

Today the sun is already warming the windows and the street below.

She stares at the sliver of light for a moment, blinks at it, closes her eyes tightly against it and breathes.

The soreness in her legs is there. Yesterday she’d stretched before and after and ice-bathed for a half hour before dinner. She’d stretched again before bed. Twenty six miles is 26 miles and you’ll be sore afterward. She knew that. This wasn’t her first marathon.

She flexes her feet, first the right, it’s on top, then the left. She rolls onto her back.

She’s not alone in the bed. She hadn’t been yesterday either. She can hear his soft snoring, sense the wave in the blanket where it stretches over his turned back.

Ellen turns her head to the left, stares again at the window, again flexes her feet, first the right, then the left. The hamstring muscles pull, tense, begin to stretch, and relax. She points her toes, rotates her ankles. The blankets roll with the motion, tighten and fall.

He stops snoring, turns over.

The air between them stinks of breath and sweat and the industrial detergent of hotel sheets.

Ellen turns her head to him. His eyes are open. He’s staring at the ceiling. She sees his profile, the eye lashes thin and tangled, the bulges still puffy, his nose still swollen. His right hand is on his forehead, the back of it pressed to his skin, the palm up and fingers barely twitching toward the ceiling.

She reaches under the covers and takes his left hand where it lays at his side and squeezes it.

It feels like Washington twelve years ago. They were newlyweds then, one of the six couples that got married in a ten week stretch that summer and fall. The wedding in Washington came just a week after their own so they’d made D.C. their honeymoon.

They laid quiet and awake in the bed at the Rosslyn, Virginia Marriot on Tuesday morning when a tremendous crash shook the building. At the window they’d watched the smoke billow up from the Pentagon, just a mile away.

This morning it’s quiet and dark in the hotel room but she can feel them both waiting for another crash.

Yesterday she’d nearly leapt from the bed. She’d found the Under Armor carefully laid out on the desk, removed her panties and stepped into the lycra shorts. She’d rubbed the gel between her thighs and tugged the shorts over her bare bottom. She’d reached into a snug sports bra, stretched it over her head and fitted it over each breast, reaching inside and positioning them.

Yesterday was race day.

Her pink race shirt bore the names of sponsors from her home town and the logo of the charity for which she was running. She put on lycra cotton blend socks and padded into the bathroom to brush her teeth. All before she’d turned on a light.

Yesterday the darkness had been thick enough to suffocate her nerves. She’d been dressing in the predawn for so long she moved as if in choreographed dance to prepare to run.

After she brushed her teeth she combed her hair into two messy knots and secured each tightly with hair bands. She rubbed a pea-sized squeeze of sunscreen over the part down the middle of her head. That stretch of scalp would burn; she knew it didn’t take long.

This morning she replays that pre-dawn ritual as if seeing herself across the room. She closes her eyes and remembers the anticipation, the deep breaths she took to calm herself down. Race Day.

Yesterday she’d gently woken him and said goodbye. She heard, “Good luck,” and then his snoring before she’d closed the hotel door behind her.

Not today.

Ellen squeezes her eyes shut and considers going back to sleep when Richard says, “What time is it?”

She shakes her head. “Late, probably.”

He snorts, one of those early morning inhales that sucks snot back into place. Then he coughs and rolls over and looks at the clock.

He has to take his glasses off the night stand and shove them onto his face before he can read the red electric letters.

“Nine,” he says.

“Yeah,” Ellen says. “Late.”

“We should get going.”

Ellen gets up first. Slowly. She takes time to stretch as she’s moving away from the pillow, to the side of the bed. Rotates her ankles again, feels the hamstrings pull again, not as tight as before. She stands and turns her torso one way and then the other, feels the small of her back tighten, pull, and loosen. Walking across the room, to the bathroom, she stops at the vanity. Feet together, right foot over left, she stretches her right arm over her head and leans to the left. A full-body-length stretch of her IT band first right side then left. Upright and feeling looser, she walks into the bathroom and closes the door behind her.

Yesterday she’d met some other runners in the elevator. They all had their numbers secured to their chests with the tiny safety pins from the race packets. Everyone smiled. One man had a coffee in his hand.

“Your first?” the coffee man asked her.

Ellen shook her head. She was wearing her long sleeved jacket.

He refrained from suggesting anything. He sipped his coffee. The mug read, “Team Alice,” and was a brushed nickel color with red lettering. The drinker had bushy eye brows that peaked over the edge of the mug and looked like caterpillars.

“Will I be able to leave this someplace?” a youngish woman asked, tugging on her own jacket. She wore a pink hat and pink running shorts. Her shoes were pink and white as was the jacket. She had long hair she’d woven into tight braids and tied up with pink ribbons.

“On the bus. In the bag,” the coffee man said, and indicated the yellow bag another passenger carried.

The young woman looked panicked. “I didn’t bring mine,” she said.

“You can put it ‘round your waist,” another runner said in an accented voice. Ellen could barely see him around the coffee man’s center presence.

“Or, they’ll have more at the start,” Ellen said. She watched the crowd bow and shift in the reflection in the elevator. When the elevator arrived in the lobby, the doors slid open and she said, “Good luck, everyone,” as she exited.

The returned, “Good luck,” from each of them followed her as she walked through the elevator vestibule and into the open lobby of the hotel. More runners queued here and Ellen looked for those with shirts that matched her own.

“Ellen!” She was being waved over by her running partner.

The first time Ellen was part of history was the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco that stopped the World Series. She’d only been a kid then. Her family lived a mile from the epicenter but far away from the significant damage televised in San Francisco and San Jose. Back then when such things happened they occurred in the present. Each trembling, shaking moment, fifteen seconds worth of jarring chaos, simply happened and then was over. The broader impact and context of the event was not quite as well orchestrated. Ellen and her family stayed in the neighborhood four days grilling steak and eggs and pouring Clorox into the toilet. Returning to school after a week, Ellen told her where-were-you story to whomever asked and listened politely to theirs. A shared event needs to be shared. And then it was over. People rebuilt. Life continued.

“Ellen!” and knocking on the door. “I’m going downstairs to get breakfast. I’ll bring you a plate.”

“Okay,” she says loud enough that he can hear her through the door and over the rush of the shower. She peals her pajamas off and steps into the shower. It’s hotel hot and scalds her. She leans in, wincing, turns the knob to cool it down.

The temperature adjusts and Ellen turns on her heel, dunking her head under the shower stream. It’s her third shower since yesterday morning. She’s not sure what is left to rinse off but she lets the water course over her anyway, feeling the heat work into her stiff and tired muscles.

Yesterday in the lobby after she’d joined her group she turned and saw the girl from the elevator standing alone. She walked to her.

“Your first?” Ellen asked.

The young woman nodded.

“Got friends?”

The young woman shook her head. “Just a finish line friend. But she’s still sleeping.”

“Come on with us, then. I’m Ellen.”


Back with her group she introduced Maggie to the others and looked around the lobby to see if anyone had begun organizing participants onto the buses. The runners folded themselves in various positions of stretches around the room. Some stood tightly, legs together, arms wrapped around them. Others reached out, arms wide, chests open.

Ellen’s running partner was asking Maggie why she’d chosen Boston, how she’d qualified, how long she’d been running. Ellen listened politely and smiled when the younger woman said she’d been a chubby teenager and found a couch-to-5k program in the first year at college. She was twenty one, she’d been running three years, and had become a marathoner.

“Where do you expect to finish?”

“Probably in the 4:30 or 4:45 range,” she said. “My PR is 4:41 so I’d just like to beat that.”

Ellen’s running partner, Sara, smiled at the young woman. “For your first Boston, just try to enjoy yourself. Soak it up. The next marathon you can push to your best finish.”

Ellen laughed, “Sara is a low-stress runner.”

Maggie smiled.

“Run the best you can and you’ll have no regrets when you leave here,” Ellen said.

The words come back to her this morning under the hot shower. No regrets. She turns her face to the downpour and feels it penetrating her skin, pounding her eyelids. She opens her mouth and feels the hard rays of the hotel showerhead against her teeth like laser beams.

By 9/11 the world had gotten more anxious about identifying history. Ellen remembered Tom Brokaw at the earthquake site, a picture of him in the commemorative book her mom had bought, applying hair spray before going on camera. At the Berlin Wall he’d been pretty sure he was witnessing history and said as much. Starting with 9/11 everything that happened was destined for the history books. She and Richard had stood in the window of their fifth floor hotel room and watched the Pentagon smolder. The television reporters narrated the scene and footage rolled, but Richard and Ellen had tickets to the live event. They were afraid to move, afraid there were more missiles coming and that the hotel would be struck, too. They watched, dumbfounded, as the footage of New York City played over and over.

When the towers collapsed, Richard held Ellen and they wept softly. She ached for all those people. Brian Williams led the news that day and he reminded them they’d seen history. They weren’t living the moment like in 1989, waiting to fully understand what was happening; now they knew what the moment meant. They were watching it unfold and looking for their names in the credits reel. They had immediate perspective on why this was so important.

A reporter staying in their hotel interviewed people in the lobby before she could make her way to the Pentagon. Ellen and Richard listened to the guests tell the same story they had just lived. Then Ellen pressed her cheek to Richard’s chest and asked him to turn off the television.

Ellen knows the schedule for today. Today they’ll leave Boston. She pulls her head out of the shower stream and can hear voices in the other room. Richard left the television on.

She tells herself she can’t stay in the shower all day, turns off the water, and steps out into the foggy room. The mirror’s edges are clouded but she can see herself in the clear glass in the middle. Her slender body is wet and pale. She flexes a bit as she moves and she can see the sharp definitions of muscle in her back, her hips, her thighs. She’s not young or particularly beautiful but she’s strong and she knows strong is the new skinny.

The damage from yesterday’s marathon does not show. Her skin is red from the heat of the water but as she pats it dry the redness is fading. She leans deeper into the reach while drying her calves and feet and gets a good hamstring stretch out of the effort.

The voices in the other room are louder now with the water off. She wraps one towel around her head and one around her body leaves the bathroom. She can hear Matt Lauer as she nears the screen. It glows in the darkness of the room, competes with the slim line of daylight coming through the curtains. She sits on the end of the bed, an arm’s length from the television and watches the images moving slowly across the screen like scenes in the bus window.

“Are you nervous?” Maggie asked. They’d ended up herded onto the bus together and sat side by side midway to the back.

Ellen shrugged and then said, “A little. Race day can be stressful which adds to the nerves. But it will wear off.”


“Before the first mile is over.” Ellen smiled though Maggie was only nodding in a dazed kind of way. Ellen had the window seat and turned back to the scenery. She watched Boston inching by, not much faster than it would in an hour as she ran through it, back toward Richard and the hotel, toward the finish line.

“My first marathon was a disaster,” Maggie said.

“Oh yeah?”

“My running skirt was too big and the legs rolled up and just wore into the crease. Terrible burns. I didn’t notice them, just kept running. About halfway through the woman I was pacing stopped and puked and I stopped, too, not sure what was happening and then when I tried to start again, I felt the cuts.”

Ellen looked at Maggie.

“Equipment failure,” the younger woman laughed. “Or user error anyway.”

“Had you run in that skirt before?”

“Yeah, but nothing longer than a few miles.”

Ellen nodded, “It takes a few trips out to get familiar with how the clothes, or the shoes, or the music will behave. My iPod once got stuck on repeat and played the same song over and over. I had no idea how to fix it.”

“What did you do?”

“Turned on the ‘shake-to-shuffle’ and shook it every time a song started to repeat.” Ellen laughed. “First world problems, huh?”

Maggie smiled.

The bus had gotten noisier. Voices carried to Ellen from the seats around them. She heard stories about other years at Boston, heard references to New York and Chicago. Veterans talking about race days like battles in a war.

The cadence of the stories had a calming effect. She knew this song, had even sung it. She said to Maggie, “My first Boston it rained. I mean, rained. I bought a hat to wear but I never run in hats and my head got so hot I had a terrible headache by about the half mark.”

Maggie nodded and pointed to her own head. “Broke this one in.”

Ellen smiled. She had a visor on, her messy knots peeking out behind her ears. “Visor,” she said. “Keeps rain out of my face, blocks sun, and doesn’t trap the heat.”

“Good thinking,” Maggie said. “What’s the course like? Any specific things I should look for?”

Ellen thought for a second, played the course in her head, flashing through it like a movie montage, thought to warn about hills or curves but decided it wouldn’t do much good to say anything and instead said, “Are you packing energy?”

“Sure, I have some gels.”

“Take them earlier than you’d planned.”

“I have them scheduled for particular miles.”

“Of course. Take them earlier. The crowd will give great momentum at the end. But you want to get there. Don’t save the gels. You won’t need them later. Take them about a half mile earlier than you’d planned.”

Maggie looked as if she wasn’t sure of this advice but then nodded.

“Anything else?”

“Have fun out there. It’s a great course, a great city, and a well-supported event. Smile at the clever signs, high five the little kids, enjoy yourself. You can PR anywhere. This is Boston.”

In the hotel room this morning, a damp Ellen stares at the screen. She can see the finish line in the photo. The finishing time reads 4:09.93. She sees a runner with a yellow jersey, several others in red, and one in orange. They look like running sparks as if they’d caught the wind after the explosion. But they’re just running, mostly unaware, because the explosion is just then happening.

It’s the same picture the news organizations have been showing ad nauseam. The edge of the frame is tinged with the orange and yellow fire of the blast. A plume of smoke is breaking loose. Somewhere in that smeary horror bodies are being burned, pierced, shattered.

The pictures change and then it’s back to Matt Lauer, standing on a street corner across from the police tape and debris. He’s talking but Ellen isn’t listening to him. She’s staring at the space where the finish line had stretched upward into the sky. A tall arch like a gate had beckoned her through.

Ellen lost Maggie almost immediately when they got off the bus. She found Sara as they’d planned and they started the race together. Sara’s family had moved in next door two years ago and when she found out Ellen had run Boston before, she immediately created a plan to get them back to the starting line.

It took two years to come out of her 5k, 10k habit and really build the mileage she would need to complete the 26.2. It didn’t have to take two years; Ellen knew people stepped up from the 13.1 to the 26.2 within a few months. But she and Sara took their time, adding mileage gradually and running when they wanted to.

In the second year they decided to get serious and began running even when they didn’t want to. They dragged each other out on long routes on Sunday mornings and kept a quiet, determined pace.

Sara’s young family had not come. Her husband had let their daughters stay home from school, though, to watch mom run even though the likelihood of more than a glimpse was small. Sara had transformed over the last two years. She’d lost weight and gained a taller posture. She smiled more and worried less. She had always been kind but now she was open, too. Running had turned her into a woman, fully realized, confident, and secure.

Ellen thought Sara was beautiful and told her so.

Sara said, “I feel beautiful.”

They held hands at the starting line. Told each other thank you for the hours of training. Wished each other good luck.

She’s sitting on the bed staring at the screen when the door opens. Before it she hears some shuffling and scratching at the door, Richard stretching the card key toward the door knob, swiping it, trying the handle, trying the card again, a beep, and then the handle turns. The noise of entry is just audible over the television. She’s still staring at the footage of the finish line.

The door opens and a shaft of light from the hallway frames Richard as he enters. His hands are full, two plates and a few bottles of juice pinned by his arm to his rib cage.

“Good morning,” he says.

Ellen nods.


She nods again. She’s staring at the footage.

When she’d neared the finish there were nine people in front of her that she could see. The course had been between barricades for the better part of a mile and banners draped along the short walls declared sponsors’ taglines and products. She always thought at least half of those ads were for the people standing behind them. What runner ate fast food? So many of them were from elsewhere, why would they need the name of a local church? How could the State Farm insurance agent really assist her?

Nevertheless, the banners strung along the last mile talked her through the final leg of the race. Even as the spontaneous Y-M-C-A chant had caught her at mile fourteen and energized her. She waved at the spectators at mile marker nineteen with the whiteboard on which they updated the Red Sox score. There was a bagpiper around mile twenty that probably had access to a lot more oxygen than she did.

In the final mile, reading the sponsors banners and keeping pace with a woman in an orange jersey, Ellen had reached for more stride. Almost there. Not her first Boston. She could read the clock over the finish line. Watched the digital numbers click, 4:04, 4:04, 4:04. She moved closer, barely feeling her legs.

Richard is handing her a plate. She takes it. The towel she’s held around her drops a bit but she doesn’t tuck it back into place. The top curve of her breast shows, she’s still wet.

Richard reaches for the plate again. “Why don’t you get dressed first,” he says.

She shakes her head, pulls the plate out of his reach. “I’m fine.”

She can feel him move behind her, turn the lamp on between the beds. The light puts a glare on the TV screen.

It’s the same footage she’s seen a hundred times. The finish line clock is in the foreground, ticking off the numbers. In her mind she zooms into the clock, spins the angle, and pulls back like one of those perspective-change shots in the movie the Matrix. She remembers running toward the line.

Her body was slick with sweat and she imagined herself reflecting the light of camera flashes. She’d heard her training music, song after song, imagined in her head. Now she was playing the Rocky theme for herself. The last push, the last surge.

There was no energy left but she tried to summon it anyway. She watched the orange jersey lady’s back and kept stride. She read the clock: 4:07. Flags lined the sidewalk, standing upright and billowing in the breeze. People stood underneath them, crushed together shoulder to shoulder, cheering in the runners. The bleachers on her right side stacked up toward the sky, a calm but satisfied grey. Volunteers in yellow stood a few feet apart like traffic cones leading right up to the finish line.

A dozen cameras were aimed her way. She smiled. Almost there. 4:08.

Ellen lifts a piece of fruit to her mouth and takes a bite. The juice is sweet but she can’t really tell what it is. She’s transfixed by the glowing screen. She can see herself running toward the finish line.

In her mind the finish line looms in front of her, on the screen it’s between where she sits on the edge of the hotel bed and the figure she knows is her, pink top, tucked behind the orange jersey lady.

Ellen watches herself near the end of the race. She remembers how tired she was. How elated.

Richard moves closer to her, behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder.

The finish line clock ticks those electronic numbers, the way the white lines morph from one letter to the next, Ellen can feel them dragging her eyes through the moment. She watches her feet, watches the bouncy pace of the woman she was trailing.


The footage is security camera footage, the angle is still, the motion is everything in the picture. Ellen. Orange jersey lady. Bright green man in front of her. Yellow volunteers. Cameras and policemen.

Then boom. The camera shakes. An orange plume erupts on the screen. Ellen jerks with the appearance of it. In her mind the angle reverses again, matrix-style, and she’s looking to her left where smoke and flames have appeared. Smoke and flames. Chaos. Disruption. Violence.

She looked back up at the camera. 4:09.93.

She stopped eight strides short of finishing.

She’s watching it again, seeing herself see the bombing. Seeing herself flee the chaos. Seeing others run to the flames.

Richard’s hand is on her shoulder.

She chokes on the fruit.

“Come on,” he says, “Let’s get dressed.”

In the starting corral Ellen looked around and noticed how many people were running for others. She saw sponsors names on shirts, like hers. Local stores and businesses, insurance agencies and apartment home complexes with quaint logos screen printed on t-shirts.  But also homemade t-shirts with Sharpie writing messages of love and hope. One girl had Sharpie on her arms and legs. She’d sold those positions to raise money for the group she was running for.

Ellen felt grateful to be there. She felt grateful to be counted among the charitable, the strong, the runners who were carrying their inspiration with them. Scribbled words on shirts and skin, bracelets, tape, signs, and talismans of all kind, each meant something. Ellen tried reading them, tried understanding them.

“Girl, you’re beautiful just the way you are,” read one runner’s leg. She wore a Girls on the Run jersey.

“For Kate,” said tape across one man’s back. He wore dog tags.

“First National Bank proudly sponsors Team Corey,” across a screen printed purple running jersey on three competitors nearby. Ellen smiled at them and wondered who Corey was.

Ellen felt grateful to be part of such a gathering. All of those runners finding cause to run and then lining up intending to finish, committed to at least starting.

The crowd stilled for the announcements, honors for various sponsors and organizers, and then the start. The mass surged forward, slowly at first so many feet and bodies, and then stretched as the faster groups went off and those in the mid-pack followed.

Ellen and Sara had a plan. They began with the tempo they’d agreed on, tugging one another through the throng until the mass thinned out and they found a solid gait, warmed up, and settled in.

The route was lined with onlookers, children with their hands outstretched. Ellen and Sara high-fived as many as they could. When they heard one kid they’d passed shout, “anyone?” Sara circled back, smacked his hand, and said, “Thanks for being here.”

“Reminded me of Carter,” she said when she rejoined Ellen who had jogged in place waiting for her.

Ellen smiled at her. “Let’s wave madly at a camera and see if we make the highlight reel,” she said.

Since 9/11 she’s been part of history six times. She was at the Super Bowl in Texas in 2004 when Janet Jackson stunned the American public with a bare breast on national television. In 2005 she was part of the Red Cross efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and earned a mention in Anderson Cooper’s book that provided perspective on the disaster less than a year later.

“Is it cold out today?” she hears herself saying to Richard.

“Not really,” he says.

He has turned the lamp on in the hotel room and now Ellen sees her running clothes hanging over the desk and chair. She stands and moves toward her suitcase, hoists it onto the bed, and flips the lid back.

Richard took her to Paris in 2005 and they watched Lance Armstrong win his seventh consecutive Tour de France. In 2008 she’d worked on the Obama campaign and was standing in the convention center in Charlotte, the Southeast headquarters for the campaign, when the country elected its first black president. On a trip to Florida in 2011 she and Richard saw the final launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

Then last year she had planned to run the Wichita marathon but tornados struck the town and the race was canceled. She and Sara went anyway and helped in relief and rebuilding efforts for the three days they’d planned to be there.

Ellen finds panties in the suitcase, a shirt, some capri pants, and lays them on the bed beside the bag. She turns and grabs her running gear in one hand. She lifts it to her nose and sniffs.

Sweat. Work. Stink. And smoke. Ellen closes her eyes. She sees the course. Hopkinton. Ashland. Framingham. Natick. She felt her shoes over the rubber bumps that sent text messages to Richard telling him her progress.

At mile 10 she felt good. She was fast enough the volunteers were still handing out cups. Sara was still with her, stride for stride. By mile 15, the Newton firehouse, more than half way, Sara had been slowing down. She waved Ellen on. They made eye contact and Ellen said, “Thank you.” Then she was on her own, pounding it out.

The Newton hills weren’t unexpected but they stung. At mile 17 a huge group of kids waving Boys & Girls Club banners and wearing matching t-shirts. At mile 18, the country club. The last one, Heartbreak Hill, stretched before her. Crest it and it everything else was down the other side.

Ellen pulled her frame up, shortened her stride, kept her pace, and stared into the concrete. “You can do it,” the mantra in her head repeated. “You can do it.” One foot after the next, pound pound pound, up the hill.

“You okay?” Richard asked.

She looked up. She’d been standing over her suitcase, holding her running gear. She dropped it. “Yes,” she said.

“We have most of the day,” he said, sitting on the double bed they’d left untouched. He was bare chested and the hair over his sternum glistened, still damp, in the lamplight. He had showered while she’d stood over the suitcase, remembering Heartbreak Hill.

Richard crossed one leg over the other and stretched a sock across his foot. First one then the other then he stood and lifted his jeans from the bed. He stepped into them, shaking them as he pulled them up over his knees and thighs. Ellen watched.

“What is there to do?” she asked absently.

“Lunch first,” he said. “With Sara?”

Ellen nodded.

“Then I’m not sure.”

“I just want to go home,” Ellen said.

“I know,” he said.

Heartbreak Hill hadn’t killed her and when she crested it she felt like she was looking down into a great prosperous valley. Her trot felt light and easy. Cleveland Circle, Washington Square, Audobon Circle, the bridge over the Pike, Hotel Buckminster, the Storrow underpass, Right on Hereford, Left on Boyston. Convention Center. Apple Store.

Ellen could feel the energy of the crowd, thicker now closer to the finish. She smiled. Actually smiled.

Later, after the chaos had subsided, she and Richard would find Sara sitting on the curb on Heartbreak Hill. She’d been told by motorcycle cops to stop and had been told why. She’d answered phone calls from home and friends. Yes, she was fine; no, she wasn’t near the finish line.

They’d made their way back to the hotel. They met a finisher in the elevator; she had her medal around her neck. Richard and Ellen walked Sara to her room. They gave her a tight hug before she went inside. They agreed to get dinner. But Sara hadn’t left her room. She begged off when Ellen called later. Said she was icing her legs.

Ellen hobbled into the lobby with Richard. They drank wine and listened to the low hum of post-traumatic sense-making in the conversations around them and the television news coverage. There was the finish line footage and there was Ellen. Eight strides from a 4:10 finishing time, her pink jersey visible behind the lady in orange. She was one of the charity runners, she was one of the less-elite. She was just trying to finish.

And there was the smoke. The orange plume of fire over the heads of those finish line wavers, those cheering sections hanging in there till the very end.

Richard had found her quickly. He’d seen her pass the grandstand and climbed down the stairs before the rest of the spectators tried to abandon their positions. He had jogged around toward the finish line, a few paces behind her, on the sidewalk.

When the explosion happened he raced to her, caught her, frantic, turning, searching, seeing. She reached out her hand and he pulled her to him, over the finish line.

Photographers and first responders rushed past them, ran toward the explosion. Richard pulled her closer, walked her away from the finish.

Chaos ensued.

Now the hotel phone rings and Richard picks it up off the receiver.

“Yes, hello. No, we’ll be leaving today as scheduled. Okay, thank you.” He hangs up and looks at Ellen. “Apparently people are staying extra days.”


He shrugs. “Not sure.”

“What were they saying at breakfast?”

“Nothing new from last night. Everyone knows what Matt Lauer knows,” he says, indicating the daytime talk show host on the screen to Ellen’s left.

She looks over her shoulder and smiles at Matt Lauer. Then the footage runs again and she looks away.

After they’d found Sara the three of them had located some race volunteers and followed the directions to get back to the bags they’d left at the starting line. As they walked they saw other runners, having abandoned the race, draping their bags over their shoulders, looking up with the wounded eyes of shelter animals.

Runners say that running is a visualization exercise. Competitors talk at length about seeing themselves achieve distance, speed, stride. Coaches teach runners how to see the miles passing, the end drawing nearer: see yourself cross the finish line. The Boston runners who knew the route were matching landmarks to their pace. Those that didn’t know the route were reading the mile markers and comparing strength to stride.

The competitive runners passed the finish line just after two hours had elapsed. They included foreign nationals and Olympians. Jason Hartmann, Shalane Flanagan, and Kara Goucher the top Americans to complete the race. They were iced, massaged, and showered when the charity runners neared the stripe after the four-hour mark. The competitive runners may have envisioned the finish they achieved. But the ones who came later, after Ellen, after the bombs, the end they’d experienced, no one could have visualized.

Everybody was just trying to make sense of what was happening. The news media were assisting by speculating and analyzing. Digital technology was assisting with more than 100 private citizens uploading the footage of the race site they’d recorded on their phones for use in the investigation. Faster than ever the event was rushing to conclusion. Even faster than 9/11. Faster than Katrina. Faster than Wichita last year.

After enough wine last night Richard had taken her upstairs, massaged her tired legs until she fell asleep. Now it was Tuesday, they still didn’t know what had actually happened, and they were heading home.

“Call Sara,” Ellen says.

She dresses and packs and then zips the suitcase and the sound of it closing echoes in the room. Richard’s voice is calm but low and she barely hears him before he speaks directly to her.

“Okay, all set. She’ll meet us downstairs.”

Ellen nods.

“Are you okay?” he asks again.

She nods then says, “I’m better than a few others.”

“Still sore?”

“Still grateful,” she says.

He pulls her into a hug, squeezes gently, kisses the top of her head. She steps away, leaves the room. He follows and the heavy door closes behind them.



Posted: April 17, 2013 in Short Story
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Just Write Short Story Challenge of 2013 continues with this offering. I broke my own rule and edited one I’d drafted some time ago. I think it’s appropriate, though, since my friend who inspired the story has now returned from Liberia. Your comments are appreciated. Please let me know what you think.



Dominique laid another tightly folded shirt into the suitcase. “Twenty-two,” she said softly to herself.

“Here,” Roman said, hoisting a full basket of dried laundry onto the bed next to the suitcase. The covers fell away from the pillows, created lumps, made the basket lean unevenly as though it might spill. He held the basket’s rims tightly, shimmied it to flatten the folds of comforter beneath it. Then released his grip and stepped back.

“Thanks,” Dominique said. Folded another shirt, pressed it into the suitcase. “Twenty-three.”

He lingered at her elbow. Waited.

She scratched 23 on the page next to the line item “30 shirts.” Then she turned to him. “What?”

He shrugged, but it wasn’t real. He didn’t really not know what to say. So much simmering beyond his tight lips, sizzling on his tongue. He swallowed.

Their eyes met. Large, brown, wide eyes on her narrow face. Squinting, lid-shaded green ones on his own face.

“What?” she asked again.

He looked away, his posture resigned.

“Thanks,” she said, clasping the laundry basket’s edge and shifting it. Reached inside, she pulled out another shirt, folded it tightly, laid it into the suitcase.

He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t left.

Another shirt. Folded. Laid. “Twenty four,” she said softly.

She could hear him breathing, not huffing or grunting, just breathing. Sharing the air with her. The room felt warm, late-day light streaming through the blinds, heating the carpet. The cat laid under the window, stretched luxuriously in the heat.

Dominique looked up at the ceiling fan, its blades still. She leaned toward the wall behind her, flipped the switch up. The blades began to rotate, a low whir as the fan came to life. The wind between them muted the sound of his breathing.

He sat on the edge of the bed, next to the basket. Out of her peripheral view now, forcing her to look at him as she reached into the basket for another shirt. Shake. Fold. Press into the suitcase. Twenty-five.

“I’m reconsidering,” he said.

“You’re sad,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

She stopped, looked at him, said, “no.”

Another shirt.

“Okay. I get it. Huge opportunity. Big deal.”

Really big deal,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “it’s a really big deal. It’s just…”

“A year.”

“It’s just a year.”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled. The smile pulled her lips away from her teeth, stretched across the entire bottom half of her face, made her look like a child. “I like it said that way.”

“It’s just a year,” he repeated. But he didn’t smile.

There’s a life here. Work and friends and afternoons at the beach and nights on the boat. There’s a life here. Her life is here. He didn’t say these things. He’d been repeating them silently since he said them three days ago. She knew them.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase. “Twenty-six.”

He folded his arms over his stomach, hugged himself. Watched her moving. Those long, thin arms, long skinny fingers, elbow bones, wrist bones, the slight jingle of a bracelet, brown skin freckled and aged by the sun, thick blondish hair on her forearm. She reached into the basket. He caught her hand.

“It’s just a year,” he said.

She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.

“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.

“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”

“It’s hot there.”

“So fucking hot.” She had rehearsed that phrase, knew it, meant to prepare for it.

“What are you packing?”

“Two shirts a day. Pretty sure my deodorant won’t help.”

He laughed, still holding her hand against his face.

She tugged gently and he released it. She took another shirt out of the basket. Folded. Pressed into the suitcase. Twenty-seven.

No questions. When the opportunity came up she had no questions. Didn’t ask where she would live, who she would know, how she would eat or send bills to the States. Didn’t ask if she needed to know French or if there was wifi. Didn’t ask if he could come.

Still sitting, slumping now, next to the basket, he was in her way a bit. She kept on with the shirts, expected him to move when she needed the space for folding pants. She didn’t push him away.

“Not sad,” he said.

“No, it’s only a year.”

“Not sad,” he said again, “gonna be great. You’re great.”

She grinned again. He didn’t. “Thanks,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Roman replied, softly.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase, the stack rose over the edge now. “Twenty-eight,” she said.

He moved behind her, trailed his hand against her hip, across her back, stepped into the sunlight streaming through the blinds. Reached his hands over his head, bending at the elbow to avoid touching the fan. Arched his back, stretched. A yawn. A grunt.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “just stiff.”

She arched a brow, glanced at his pants, “yeah?” Stuck her thumb under the strap of her tank top like she’d pull it off. Just tell her to.

He shook his head, laughed a bit, “no.”

A shrug, hands back to folding. Pushing the desire away. “Too bad. Gonna be a while.”

“Only a year,” he said.

“Should it be?” she asked suddenly.


“You could, you know, with someone.” She had rehearsed those words, too. But they still hurt.

“No,” Roman replied, then again, looking her in the eye, “no.”

“It’s okay. I’d understand.” She looked away.

“No, okay?”

She looked up. Their eyes met. Hers brown, wide, brave. His narrow, glazed with tears. “Okay,” she said, “Good to know.”

“There isn’t anyone else,” he said, suddenly angry, he hadn’t rehearsed that conversation. Hadn’t thought about that conversation. Didn’t like it.  “It’s only you. I’ll wait.”

“And you’ll come for Christmas,” she said.

He laughed, “multiple times hopefully,” he said and now he grinned.

She laughed, too, threw a balled-up pair of socks at him. He caught it, tossed it back into the pile.

Roman flopped onto the bed, stepping over the cat, but startling her anyway, the bed shambles puffing around him, letting out the air they’d trapped with the laundry basket shifting. He climbed up to the pillow, tucked his hand under it. Snuggled into it, breathed in deeply.

“A bed to yourself,” she said.

“For a whole year,” he said.

“You’ll forget how to share.”


He pressed his face into her pillow.

She folded shirts and counted.

There are criminals here. Sex crimes here. Victims here. They needed her as much as those people in Liberia. There was work to do here. She had been making a difference. She had been changing peoples’ lives. She was needed. He didn’t say these things again. But their echoes filled his head.

It didn’t matter how many criminals she got off the street, more arrived. No matter how many victims she found justice for, another young girl came in the next day and the next and the next. She was swimming against the tide and she was tired. It didn’t feel like progress. At least she didn’t think it did. She couldn’t remember what progress felt like.

Another shirt. Fold. Press. “Thirty,” she said softly. The stack leaned a little. She broke it halfway, positioned the top half in a second pile next to the first. Pushed them both against the edge of the suitcase. She pulled the laundry basket toward her.

“Didn’t know you had thirty shirts,” he said.

“Me neither.”

“Work shirts?”


The ceiling fan tinked and wobbled above them. He turned onto his back to watch it. The blades spun, the air washed over the room. The fan’s two chains shivered, clinking together occasionally, but mostly gyrating in separate orbits.

Roman put his hands behind his head. His elbows made butterfly wings and he pressed them in and out, shifting, getting comfortable.

She glanced at him, stretched the length of their bed. She imagined climbing on top of him, one leg on either side of his hips. She imagined sitting back into his crotch. She smiled to herself.

He turned as if he’d heard her lips part.

“Naughty thoughts?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Oh, come on, I’m here. I’m laid out. Love me,” he said.

Roman turned onto his side, propped his head on his palm and ran the other hand down the length of his leg, finger tips extended. His shorts bunched on his thighs, his knees stacked, his legs tanned with days of sailing, the hair bleached from the sun.

She looked back to his face, his eyes closed, his lips kissed toward her. Then he opened one eye to see if she was looking. Closed it quickly and kissed again.

She laughed. “Very sexy.”

“How can you resist?” he agreed, “how can you leave?”

Huge opportunity. Important work. Break the rut. We’re not moving forward. This will make my resume. People need help. I’m the perfect candidate. No strings, remember? Unsaid already said things floating like pasta to the top of the boiling water. Done. Cooked through.

She reached into the basket, pulled a pair of pants toward her. Looked back at him.

He was still looking at her. The question had been real.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Pouting,” she said.

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

He fell onto his back again, stared at the ceiling fan, hands folded on his belly. She couldn’t see herself straddling him now. The question had taken the air out of the room. She reached up and tugged on one of the fan’s chains, three pulls, slow, stop, high. The fan whirred to a higher speed.

She glanced at the cat who had resumed her languorous stretch in the light. Turned to the legal pad, scratched through “30 Shirts.” Finished folding the first pair of pants, rolled them tightly, laid them in. “One.”

The tinkling of the fan’s chains. The rock of it against its base. The sound of linen, then rayon folded, rolled, stacked in the suitcase. The rattle of the suitcase’s zipper.  Making room. Making it fit.

After a while he got bored, sat up, dropped his legs over the other side of the bed. She glanced up, saw his back, shoulders hunched. Wondered if he was crying. Waited.

He stood, turned back around, reached for the basket, pulled a pair of pants out of the basket.

“You should take skirts,” he said. “Cooler.”

“So my legs can sweat easier? Slide against each other?”

“That slick slapping sound when you walk?” he asked. “Sure.”

“No thanks.”

He smiled at her.

“Is it hot all year?”

“Yes,” she said. Then, quieter, “yes.”

She stacked another pair of pants. He stretched the pair he’d rolled out to her. She took it, met his eyes. Green behind the crinkles of thirty five years, squints like he was laughing, thick lashes she had always expected to peel off whole like falsies.

The right thing to do. A chance to make a difference. A chance to build her resume. A chance for them to see how they would survive. If they would survive. He had work here. Things to do. No other women. Not for him. Just her. They were only 35. They had plenty of time for suburbs and minivans. He would wait.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

He took another pair of pants. She did, too. Fold, roll, place in the suitcase. Push to the side. Make room.