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Michael Don

Michael Don

Michael Don teaches in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an editor and co-founder of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature. His work has recently appeared in Washington Square Review, Moon City Review, Fiction International, Per Contra, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere.  

Out and Back

In a nature preserve outside Boston, a flash of lightning has set a patch of forest ablaze. Aaron has a view from across the lake of the fiery orange swallowing greens and browns. If there ever was a time for him to start avoiding risk, now is it, but he has covered more than half the loop, so going back the way he came, away from the fire, would only keep him longer in the woods.

Because the trail is peppered with roots and rocks and uneven patches of grass and mud, he lifts his knees higher than he would on the roads. Because he used to run races every weekend and win or nearly win many of them, he pumps loose fists beside his hips much faster than a jogger, the tips of his pointer fingers resting gently against the tips of his thumbs, as if you're holding a potato chip and don't want it to break, his high school coach had instructed. Because Nina will be induced in three days and her parents live two time zones away and his parent, his dad, has lost his mind, Aaron is just walking in the park, then picking up Ibuprofen at Walgreens. Home in forty-five minutes.

He hears the rain patter against the tree tops before he feels it on his neck and shoulders. He watches it poke hundreds, thousands of dime-sized holes in the lake's flat surface. It has been a few years now since he hit his physical peak. He didn't use to breathe so hard at such a pace. Now his knees need days off. So do his shins, his IT bands. In the mornings when he steps out of bed, he feels the weight of his entire body shoot through his feet. He uses the slick ground as an excuse to slow down and catch his breath. He has promised Nina to take it easy.

He hears a faint ringing in his left ear like a hearing test. He kicks his legs out quicker and further in front of him and thrusts his arms to match the turnover of his legs. From his track days, he has been conditioned. He runs as hard and relaxed as he can, dropping his shoulders, unclenching his jaw, the way he'd always been instructed. This is the two-minute drill, the bell lap. He breathes in slowly through his nose and then pushes out quickly and forcefully through his mouth. He rounds the final curve before he is on the same side of the lake as the fire.

The ringing stays with him, a constant and annoying sound. If only I can ditch this head of mine. But what would I replace it with? His dad replaced his head with a thing that hears and sees and smells and makes noises, but only unknowingly, involuntarily, uncontrollably, reflexively.

Aaron cannot see the fire, but when he looks up and out he sees streaks of smoke rising from the top of the woods. The rain picks up, and the ringing intensifies. He looks at his watch and is relieved to see only the amount of minutes and seconds he has been running. He tries to calculate his pace by rounding and dividing and then rounding, but he can't remember if the loop is three point one or three point five miles, and he's not sure how far he's gone, how much he has left.

Over the years, Aaron has lost a few things while running: keys, ten dollars, his driver's license. He assumes one day he will lose his ability to make decisions, the connection between brain and body. Please put one foot in front of the other. Thank you very much. He wonders if it will happen instantly or over many years. He doesn't know which he'd prefer.

He is not as far along in life as he sometimes thinks he is, though how could anyone know such a thing? He will color his hair for the first handful of years of his child's life, long enough for her to form solid memories. Running, he thinks, will either keep him going or set him back. He's seen it go both ways.

That morning he paced around the house cursing himself because he scorched the surface of a brand new frying pan, a late wedding gift. He had turned the wrong burner on, where the new pan shone without oil.

"Before you know it," Nina assured him, "the pan will be a few years old and will look how it's supposed to. No biggie."

He nodded because his wife made good sense, but he went back to the kitchen and held up the pan, grimacing at its black scars, orange and brown around the edges. Then he wrapped it in a plastic grocery bag and hid it in the depths of the pantry.

A red pickup with a flashing light on top is stretched across the trail. A middle-aged woman in green Capris and a tan buttondown shirt, a badge over the breast pocket, leans against the vehicle, her arms folded across her ribs, her hands tucked in her armpits.

Aaron stops running then stops his watch.

"Sorry, sir. This part is closed," the woman says.

"I'm just running one loop. I promise to stay on the trail."

"Sir, I'm just doing my job. Not trying to be unreasonable or nothing."

Until recently, perhaps until Nina became pregnant, Aaron hated being called sir. He remembered the first time it happened. He was in college, purchasing cereal and milk at the grocery store. "Paper or plastic, sir?" said the bagger. Aaron must have only looked at the boy because he, a boy only a few years younger than Aaron, repeated, "Sir, would you like paper or plastic?" The bagger sounded exasperated, the way a child gets waiting for his parent to wrap up a conversation with another adult.

The rain lets up so that now it's just a drizzle or maybe not raining at all. Aaron thinks the ringing is gone, but sometimes he feels a sensation that lingers even though it's not really there anymore, like when the stress fracture in his shin healed perfectly, but for months he swore the spot was pulsating like a heart. He figured the opposite could happen; a sound could stick in his head, and his mind would somehow dismiss it, even if it's very much real and external and can be heard by others.

"I need to take the most direct route home. My wife is pregnant," Aaron says.

"I'm at Walgreens, you see? I'm not here. I can't be here much longer."

"Sir, you're in the woods and headed towards a pretty serious fire. You'll thank me when you turn on the news tonight. Trust me, these things can get out of control in no time."

"My wife is alone and in pain and ready to pop."

The woman turns and looks in the direction of the fire. "Then what in God's name are you doing out here?"

"Wanted to see how fast I could run around the lake. That's all."

"Sir, you can always come back another time."

Aaron knows he won't come back the next day or the day after, and probably not even in three or four weeks. He's tried to slow down and run casually, for exercise, for fun, socially, but it never works out. He gets bored and antsy and his legs feel like they're being held in place, punished, so eventually he rolls onto the front of his feet and lets his legs do whatever they want to do, settling into his fantasy: the home stretch, pulling up to the leader's shoulder, the course lined with screaming fans. No Nina, though. This is before Nina, before anyone ever needed him. Finally, a blast of adrenaline fills his body as he kicks by an old nemesis and lunges for the tape.

"Sir, I don't want to call for backup, but you're looking at me kind of funny. Will you please comply? Tell me you're gonna head back that way to your vehicle."

The woman extends her arm and points over Aaron's shoulder, down the stretch of muddy trail from where he had just emerged.

Aaron thinks five years back when he went to visit his dad and the den was filled with their collection of old matchbox cars, some turned over, some alone in the corners of the room, some piled up like monster trucks. At dusk his dad changed into sweatpants and tall white socks. In the kitchen, with a running start he dropped down to the tile floor and kicked out his leg like he was sliding into second base. At dinner, a green bean fell from Aaron's fork onto the floor, and his dad laughed and laughed and laughed.

"Sir, will you please comply?" The woman steps backwards and glances at her truck.

Aaron feels a sharp pain deep inside his ear, and then the ringing returns. He gets on his toes, starts his watch and sprints past the truck; his legs spin like the blades of a fan. The woman yells after him to stop, to turn around, to be careful. Before she can decide to go after him or radio ahead, his toe catches a root and he goes down hard. With his wrists, he breaks the fall. He rolls, lies still on his back. His heart, he thinks, is taking up more space than usual; he can feel it throbbing in his back against the soggy ground. He doesn't remember making the decision to dart past the woman. From now on he will need to be more calculating. He pulls himself up, his torso bent forward, his palms brown with streaks of red. He takes a couple of wonky strides in the direction of the blaze and then stops. He sees the fire's orange glow, smells the burning branches, hears the crackling and popping leaves, tastes the wet and smoky air, feels its dragon's breath.

For a moment he stands grinning, enjoying his senses, admiring this glorious mess.

The ranger, now inside her truck, shouts out the window, "Just so you know, sir, I've called for backup. I didn't want to, but I think I gave you fair warning."

Aaron nods at the ranger, rotates the face of his watch towards the ground, and takes off running, back the way he came.


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