Alone in an isolated park at dawn, I was practically a statistic waiting to happen.
Except, I wasn’t supposed to be alone. Shoving my damp bangs under my hair band, I scanned the Cave Creek Recreation Area. No sign of my personal trainer. Had I wasted fifty dollars in hiring the guy on my friend’s recommendation? It seemed a bargain in my new ‘change my attitude, change my life’ campaign. I sucked on my bottom lip. Heaven knew something needed to change.
Hopefully, something other than my bank balance.
The sun punched through the clouds and bruised the horizon. Cicadas sang in the drooping branches of a Desert Willow and reptiles slithered in the underbrush. Around me, twisted shadows merged into the basketball hoop, swing sets, jungle gyms, and hard plastic riding animals. A trickle of unease slid down my spine.
“Snap out of it, Rae!” Running my fingers over my head, I mentally cleansed the negativity from my aura. “The park is in the middle of the neighborhood. Maybe he just got lost.”
Or maybe, beginning an exercise routine was just plain stupid.
August in Phoenix was pizza oven weather. The kind that left the unwary burned to a crisp and ready to melt against any cool solid surface, the moment we walked inside. Provided we had air conditioning. A luxury I might have to forgo, if I didn’t find a job soon.
I tightened my ponytail. Skirting the dots of light and the puddles from last night’s storm, I trudged up the serpentine concrete path to the square facilities building. I leaned against the silver disk on the drinking fountain and waited for the water to cool below scalding.
“Today things will change for the better.” I repeated my positive-thinking mantra. Bending over the metal trough, I allowed the musty, chlorine-tasting water to wash the hope from my mouth. I struggled to grasp the positive remnants. If I didn’t get a job, then Mom’s traditional tofu Thanksgiving turkey and Dad’s wheat-germ stuffing would be mighty tasty.
If I could find them, that is.
My counterculture parents never settled in one place long. Big Brother was always watching them, taking chunks of their cash to support shadow programs designed to make us dependent. Like the unemployment insurance I currently lived on. Finishing my drink, I wiped away the dribble of water on my chin and sidled out of the wedge of bug incrusted light by the caged rest room door.
They’d probably be happy to hear I was on the verge of losing my home and ruining my credit. Not that they wanted me to fail. They just wanted me off the grid and away from Big Brother’s prying eyes.
“Enough.” I shook my hands, symbolically ridding myself of the depressing thoughts. “Today things will change for the better. Today things will change for the better.”
Absolutely. Time to exercise. I glanced at the empty parking lot. Where was my trainer? He was the one to insist on this predawn hour, when the temperature was a balmy ninety degrees. Tugging my cell phone out of my baggy running shorts, I hit the side button to bring up the time.
Five minutes after five.
No texts. No messages. No missed calls. Should I get started without him? Maybe a short walk to take the sting out of waking up unused muscles.
I eyed the dark path and the broken lights. Had those always been out? Skeletal shadows reached into the gray morning and a coyote howled. Maybe I should wait until later. Surely walking in a hundred degrees was better than facing a rapist. Or worse. My muscles twitched with indecision. Leave. Stay. Leave. Headlamps appeared down the road. Stay. Definitely.
Gotta give opportunity a chance to help me change my life.
Walking to a pruned Ironwood shading the dark playground, I flattened both hands against the rough trunk. After placing my right foot at the base, I moved my other behind me. The stretch burned up my hamstrings.
I’d have to take it slow. For the last twelve years, my entire cardio experience was limited to exercising only when being chased by large carnivores or small yappy dogs. Not an everyday occurrence, even for me. I switched legs and hissed through the discomfort. Maybe I’d only stretch today and walk a mile tomorrow. No, I’d do what the trainer said. I paid good money for the coaching.
I dusted the crumbly Ironwood bark from my hands as headlights sprayed across me. Flinching, I shaded my eyes. My heart rate kicked up a notch. Finally! Gravel crunched as a truck pulled into a spot in the curved parking lot. My thighs protested as I walked across the sandy playground toward the trailhead near the overgrown wash. Casual. Assured. Yeah, I can be cool, when I need to. A red firebird stared back at me from the truck’s white door panel.
My trainer didn’t drive a City of Phoenix pick-up; he’d mentioned a Prius in our conversations.
I jerked as if slapped and lost traction on the grit coating the cement path. My legs slid in opposite directions, while my arms flapped like a penguin trying to take flight. Graceful I’m not. Halfway into muscle-pulling splits, I managed to stop.
Across the stillness, keys rattled.
“Hey!” A man called out. “You okay over there?”
Embarrassment heated my face. “Yeah! Just peachy.”
Except my pride, which at this very moment, might be registering a complaint with Amnesty International. Then again, what’s the point of humiliating myself without an audience? Gingerly, I worked my toes in then my heels like a country line dancer, until my feet touched. My thighs started to shake and my knees changed to rubber. Okay universe. I got the message.
Exercise isn’t going to change my life for the better.
Double chocolate mocha ice cream will!
Taking a deep breath, I took a step and sucked humid air through my clenched teeth. Crap on a cracker! I’d have to hold an ice pack between my legs during my internet job search.
Keys jingled again. “Are you sure, you’re okay?”
“Yeah.” I cleared the whimper from my throat and took the next step. My inner thighs still screamed in protest. “I’m good.”
I glanced up from the death-trap sidewalk. A silhouette of the Parks and Rec Superhero stood by the caged men’s room door. I felt his eyes on me. That’s right. The walk of shame needed an audience, too. Raising my hand, I resisted the urge to show him my tall middle finger. “Have a nice day.”
He waved a glove back at me. “You, too.”
Locking my jaw, I dragged myself across the trail. The pulled muscles dulled from painful talons gouging my inner legs to fondue forks. My trainer was going to give me a refund with interest. With such an auspicious beginning, my day was going to suck more than a brand new Dyson. I exhaled a long breath and shambled toward the neighborhood entry into the park.
Parks and Rec Superhero still hadn’t budged.
Its okay, Keyman. Thanks to your brilliant observation skills and impeccable timing, you’ve managed to catch yet another citizen at their most embarrassing moment, and once again the world is safe enough for you to unlock the restrooms.
As if hearing my sarcasm, he finally turned away. A moment later, the metal gate clattered open.
I limped a little faster toward the entrance then swerved to the right. What was I thinking? Why should I walk through the serpentine sidewalks of my neighborhood, when there was another entrance to the park not too far from my condo?
Skirting the hedge of high grass and weeds growing against the brick fence surrounding my neighborhood, I trundled on. The pain dulled with every yard. Maybe I wouldn’t have to become intimate with an icepack after all.
A sultry wind whispered through the weeds and something rattled in the brush.
“It’s just seed pods.” I scooted closer to the cement trail and eyed the holes burrowed in the gravel. Sweat trailed between my shoulder blades, before being caught on my sports bra. It couldn’t be rattlesnakes. It had better not be rattlesnakes!
A door slammed behind me. I refused to look. If my trainer deigned to show up, well that’s just too bad. No tight buns, flat abs and firm arms where worth this.
Beyond the band of swaying green and brown vegetation, I spied three bright-yellow concrete poles. Almost home. Just as I plowed into the weeds, the breeze carried the twin scents of fresh-brewed coffee and frying bacon. My stomach growled and nostrils twitched appreciably. Closing my eyes, I inhaled.
My toe caught against something and I pitched forward. Son of a monkey’s butt! My victory over profanity died quickly. I opened my eyes and raised my arms. Half a second later, my hands disappeared into the weeds. Thorns bit into my palms and scratched at my exposed skin.
Oh God, this was going to hurt worse than the pseudo-gymnastics.
My knees hit something soft and squishy. While my brain struggled with the inconsistencies, my palms rammed into the ground. The impact rattled up my arms, jammed the bones in their sockets and jangled out the top of my head. A metallic taste exploded in my mouth where my tooth had nicked my tongue.
Change my attitude? My hairy behind!
I blinked at the nest of green branches in front of my face. When I raised my hand, mud and leaves clung to my skin. The day wasn’t getting any better. I batted away the skeletal weed and watched it bounce into the vegetation.
That’s weird. Why wasn’t it rooted to the ground? Without supplying an answer, my brain shoved two more questions at me. Just what had I tripped over? And why were my feet still elevated?
The skin at my nape prickled. But did I want answers? Nearby, an engine rumbled. The sound grew louder as I dithered. Dang it! Why couldn’t Mr. Parks and Rec Superhero mind his own business?
I needed to move, like five minutes ago. Inhaling a breath for courage, I lifted one leg off the soft squishy thing and moved it forward. My knee parted the short grass, before sinking into the clammy muck with a slurping noise. Eww! Good thing I didn’t have a phobia about bugs and other creepy crawlies. Just as I lifted my other knee, brakes squealed. I had brought my leg under me as a truck’s door creaked open.
Today wasn’t my day.
Maybe I should go home and sleep it away like a bad memory.
Tomorrow was bound to be better, especially if it involved a pint of double chocolate mocha ice cream.
I pushed slowly to my feet and turned to face the witness to my humiliation. My thighs hurt, my palms stung, and my shoulders throbbed. Positive thoughts. Think positive thoughts. At least, I’m alive and in one piece. I rubbed my hands on my shorts. Mud and leaves streaked the gray-knit fabric. And doing laundry will give me a break from job hunting.
The truck door slammed shut. Mr. Parks and Rec Superhero propped his elbows against the ledge surrounding the truck bed. The rising sun cast his face in shadows but highlighted his broad shoulders and gilded his hair. “That’s twice you’ve gone down on me today, and we only met five minutes ago.”
Heat unfurled deep inside me. He couldn’t possibly have meant it that way. But what if he did? Hope welled up. I squashed it. Embarrassment is not foreplay and I’m not desperate!
I stared back at him, not really seeing much thanks to the angle of the light.
Time ticked on and the silence stretched.
What did one say to a man who just accused me of going down on him twice in five minutes? Thanks? Let’s do it again? Where are my hundred bucks?
In one smooth motion, he peeled off his sunglasses. “Maybe I should give you a ride home.”
I blinked. What was with the sunglasses? It was practically night still. I backed up. Maybe Mr. Parks and Rec wasn’t a superhero but a supervillian.
“Are you all right?” He pushed away from the truck and sauntered toward the tailgate.
Shaking my head, I raised my hands to ward him off. “I’m fine. Just fine. I—I can get home just fine.”
Pink rays bathed his aquiline nose and accented his strong jaw line. His long lashes painted spiky shadows across the bridge of his nose. “You keep repeating fine. Perhaps medical attention is in order.”
I shook my head harder. My pony tail slapped my shoulder blades and my bangs escaped the sweatband. “I don’t live far.”
There. I forced a smile on my stiff cheeks. Not a fine in the bunch.
“Its no—” He jerked to a stop before rearing back.
Wow! I never had any rebuff be that effective. I— Wait a minute. His attention wasn’t on me. My gaze followed his line of sight. He stared at the same spot where I tripped. My stomach knotted and cold brushed my skin. I inched closer to him. Adrenalin reduced my aches to white noise.
What had I tripped over?
Swearing, Mr. Parks and Rec’s boots pounded on the gravel.
I slid one foot forward and rose on tip-toe. Something pale lay in the high grass and weeds. Despite the shadowy dawn, the sight seemed familiar. Yet my brain refused to identify it. A little closer and I would see…
The truck door creaked open, there was a click and a cone of light cut across the object.
I almost laughed. A face. It was a face. I blinked. Holy Toledo! It was a stiff face! The eyes didn’t blink, the flat nostrils didn’t flare and the lips were bluish. My sluggish brain finally connected the dots. “He’s dead!”
Who knew that year my parents had managed a hospice would come in handy? No, death didn’t shock me. Except that his eyes were open, he seemed to be sleeping. But something seemed off with this death.
Without saying a word, Mr. Parks and Rec strode toward the corpse.
“Hey! Don’t touch him. He’s evidence.” I patted my shorts. Phone. Where was my phone? It must have fallen out during my swan dive.
Mr. Parks and Rec grabbed one of the plants piled atop the body and tossed it aside.
“Stop it. That’s evidence.” I took a step forward then stopped. Okay, I’m not a death weenie, but guys didn’t collapse along a jogging trail then bury themselves under a mound of weeds. “We need to call the cops.”
Good plan. I refrained from patting myself on the back. Too bad he didn’t listen.
Mr. Parks and Rec knelt next to the body. “He might still be alive.”
And I thought I had the optimism market cornered. My mouth dropped open, before I snapped it shut. People dealt with death in different ways. Maybe he couldn’t stand the idea of a jogger eating the big enchilada in his park. I took a deep breath. I’d helped family members accept loss before. “Look, I know—”
When Mr. Parks and Rec lifted the next weed off the body, three fireflies rose into the air. Their pale blue light washed over his rugged features. “Good. They’re still here.”
I snapped my jaw shut and my skin tightened. When did Phoenix get fireflies? And why were they blue?
I stepped back and crushed something under my heel. Oh snap, not my cell! I winced at the crinkling noise and looked down. An aluminum can folded against my sneaker. Surely, this is more bad Karma than I’ve earned in this lifetime. Maybe Mr. Parks and Rec and his blue light show hadn’t noticed. Shaking off the can, I peeked at them from under my lashes.
Mr. Parks and Rec’s eyes lasered on me like his next target and the lights…they buzzed back and forth.
My stomach cramped. This was so not good. Maybe I should just leave.
One of the blue lightning bugs broke away from the trio and zipped toward me.
“No!” Mr. Parks and Rec’s shout jangled along my nerves and raised the hair on my arms.
The bug showed no sign of having heard, let alone stopping. I waved my hands hoping to fend it off. It darted around and dived into my shoulder.
Into my shoulder.
“What in the world?” My shoulder glowed blue for a moment then the pain blossomed like a mushroom cloud. Waves of heat rippled through me, each one hotter than the next. Holy cow! I think I heard my brain sizzle.
The two remaining lightning bugs darted toward me.
Sounded like a plan to me. I could call the cops from the safety of my own home. I spun on my heel. The motion jarred my arm, and the burning sensation engulfed my chest. Home. I needed to get home. Through the weeds and over the sidewalk. Thorns scratched at my legs as I plunged into the overgrowth.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen. I was an optimist not an idiot. I focused on the bright yellow concrete columns like goal posts. Leaping over a knot of weeds, I landed in a mud puddle. Water sprayed in every direction and invaded my shoes. I stepped out of the mud with a slurping noise and reached cracked asphalt.
I’m close. Just a little further and maybe I’ll avoid those lightning bugs high on pixie dust.
Something hit the back of my left thigh. Stinging spread from the point of impact and an inferno of heat chased after it.
Darn it! That’s twice the suckers have stung me. When I get home, I’m gonna douse myself with bug spray! I cleared the columns. My sneakers sunk into the mud. Twigs bent under foot as I ran.
Fiery pain wrapped around my head. I felt like a human torch. Black tainted my vision, edging out the familiar surroundings.
Keep going. You can make it. My internal cheerleader grew fainter and fainter.
I sprinted on. Funny how the bug bites didn’t affect my coordination.
The last bug slammed into the back of my head.
Blackness consumed my vision and I stumbled. Aw snap! If I’d known I was going to take this many trips, I would have packed! My right knee hit the ground first. Where was the pain? Had the last bug been a good bug? My thoughts disappeared under a tidal wave of nothingness.
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