Laurie Hamer

When I Am Afraid

As I run, I stare at the sun until I feel a stabbing pain on my retinas. Night will descend soon, but it doesn’t matter, for I feel as comfortable running in the soft glow of the moon as I do in the harsh light of the sun.

The track lies on a plateau in the town of Verité, in the fertile heart of the Driftless Region. Running here has sustained me through thousands of yesterdays and through this day, and has been the one thing in my life that is certain.

This is one of the few places where I feel safe, the outside world held at bay on the other side of the chain link fence. When I pass through the gate, I shed the facade I wear when I’m with others, laying it on the grass like a faded sweatshirt. Once the track is beneath my feet, I feel confident and strong, free to look at the world around me, unafraid of getting swallowed up by it all.

The track is the only place where I’ve been able to start something and finish it. In life, I’ve accomplished nothing, saved no one, created nothing of beauty, and brought little harmony to the world. And, in all these years, I still haven’t attained perfection, the one thing I’ve strived for all my life.

As autumn leaves scuttle over the track, I feel an ache in my chest. I feel this way at the close of every season, but most sharply in autumn, for it holds the scents and sounds and images of the inevitable passage from life to death, from chlorophyll to carbon, from living cells to dust. As the leaves’ colors flare then fade, the cornstalks in the fields below dry and turn brown, the tilt of the earth leeching their rich colors and textures until only broken stubbles and husks remain.

Each year, I run until I no longer can, until the track is covered with a blanket of blue-white snow with a thin layer of ice beneath it. Until that day comes, I remain, a solitary runner in a race that I have unknowingly entered and do not understand.

My breath catches as I see a dark form, crouching in the weeds outside the fence. I’ve seen it before, its haunches poised, its fur damp and matted. A low growl rumbles in its throat and I keep running, knowing that it can smell my fear.

Sometimes, when I am afraid, I imagine that the track is the center of the universe. As my body moves in the outside lane like a small planet orbiting the sun, the world seems orderly and certain, the way it used to long ago when I had unwavering faith in God and Heaven, my country and its flag, and the goodness of man.

I wish I could slow the passage of time so that I could retrace my steps to childhood, when I didn’t feel this fear that clings to me so often now.

As a child, I delighted in learning, in seeking out truth. From dawn until dusk, I asked questions, compelled by the need to know and understand. When adults no longer had the answers, I turned to books, confident that the answers lay somewhere within them. And, for a long time, they did.

When I was young, I often read in a velvet chair near our front window. As I read, I could hear the shrieks of children playing outside, but the sounds soon faded as I was drawn into the lives of the characters in my book. They were far more real to me than the children playing on the other side of my window.

The air is cooler now. Wildflowers, stirring, remind me of William Blake’s

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

I’ve lost something between childhood and here, but for the life of me, I don’t know what it is. Sometimes, I fear I’ve gone mad, for there’s been a subtle shifting in the landscape of my mind, in the way that I think, the way that I see the world.

I no longer have an insatiable desire to seek out truth, for I glimpsed it one day, lying glaring and exposed in front of me. I can’t explain its nature, other than it was malevolent, dark and rancid, lying just beneath the surface. The world is not what it appears.

I inhale and hold the air in my lungs until it feels like they’ll burst. I’m grateful for this pain, for it’s evidence that I’m alive. That I’m real. When I run, I carry a smooth, black rock in my pocket. When I’ve finished, I leave it on the track so that when I return, there’s proof that I’ve been here.

A van approaches and turns into the parking lot. After a few minutes, as I complete another lap, a man in a wheelchair crosses the road and moves onto the gravel path leading to the track. Moments later, he’s through the opening in the fence.

I slow, watching him. He maneuvers his chair forward and stops, the wheels just touching the track’s edge. He smiles slightly and raises his hand, opening his mouth to speak. I can’t hear what he’s saying because of the wind and I don’t have time to stop.

Then, as I watch the motion of my legs, an ache of guilt threads its way through me and I know that I should speak with him. As I round the next curve, I glance over my shoulder and a burst of adrenaline courses through me.

The wheelchair is empty.

Something slams into me from behind, knocking the wind out of me, pushing me forward.

As I fall, time slows and slows and stops.

A locust whirs.

I am afraid.

 

Laurie Hamer, originally from Waukesha, Wis., lives in Platteville with her husband Mark and two daughters, Sam and Cassie. Laurie is a communications specialist in the College of Liberal Arts and Education at UW-Platteville. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a Writing Emphasis and a minor in Public Relations. A poem that she wrote, “Silhouette,” was in the fourth edition of the Capitola Review, published by River Current Press. She has loved writing all of her life.  Hamer