She measures her pace by the whisper of her footfalls in the dust. Four steps for every inbreath, four steps for every outbreath.
She swallows the next-to-last energy gel at mile 33. Seven easy ones to go with a few gentle hills, nothing like the monster between miles 18 and 22.
What remains of her mind hovers five feet off the ground. It expands with the inbreath, empties with the outbreath. Which is why she began running in the first place: to arrive at the forgetting.
A body can only take so much, her mama said. Take that, body, Lilah whispers. The dry seed pods of the grasses prickle her calves. She has been running since sunrise.
Here, the trail leads out of the woods to a field where deer sleep at night, leaving ovals of flattened grass. No deer now, only the midday screech of cicadas.
She has traveled this trail before with fellow runners. Much as she hates going over ground already covered, the repetition makes running alone now feel safer. She knows the open space will close again in another mile. She will finish in deep woods long before the sun goes down, and Paul will pick her up at the appointed roadside spot. He’ll already have turned the car to face homeward. On the drive back, he won’t shut up about how impressed he is that she can do this.
She sucks down the last gel at mile 36, already deep in the woods. Shade blankets her shoulders.
Maybe it’s the shadows flickering across her eyes with each step or her empty hovering mind not paying attention. In any event the small gray rock can hardly be blamed for taking the impact of her foot.
Lilah stumbles and shrieks when her leg gives. The spectacular separation of ligaments seems to occur at quarter-speed. She has known such moments before, when events unfold with the luxurious slowness of a car wreck. The things a body can take when all is forgotten.
She piles injury on injury, landing on her thigh with enough impact to bruise. The cicadas have fallen silent. She listens to her breath. She is no stranger to pain but finds she must continue making noise, a kind of moaning, to cope with the sensation in her ankle. Her mind is a genie back in its bottle, an imprisoned dynamo churning out thoughts. Next week’s race, which now cannot be run; her fellow runners, who will smother her with sympathy. And the disappointment of Paul.
Paul, right now, is driving to the meeting place. He has never once forgotten, or betrayed irritation at what surely must be an inconvenience, just as he has never grown impatient during the months he has been waiting to touch her. All her wounds, inside and now outside, he has patiently observed without probing.
A body can only take so much, she whispered to him.
Lilah folds her good leg under her and uses the power of her well-trained quadriceps to push herself to standing. Her gimp leg throbs and dangles. When she sets its toe on the path and tries to take a step, her body screams for her.
Only minutes have passed since she was lolloping through the forest with the abandon of a deer. Yet the shadows seem to have lengthened. Will Paul come for her, through the shadows, if she calls? The final yes or no seems random, to be arrived at by plucking petals from the daisy’s center.
She sinks onto the leafy dust of the path.
The gray rock of her undoing sits silent, so like a stone. She understands now that a body can take anything at all, but the mind—the mind is another story altogether.