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"NIGHT RUNNING"

By Anna Clay

The bitter autumn night sliced through me as I opened the door. Too cold to stretch, I hit the ground running, passing the little neighborhood garden where bare shrubs stood shrouded by shadow, my bare legs stung into numbness. I hit a good stride on the little dip downhill, then taking a deep breath, steadied myself for the hardest part of the run.

The long, slow hill of Kinjack Drive, a barely perceptible slope when driving in a car, is a quarter mile of misery on stiff and cold muscles. The cold night air stabbed my lungs as I put my head down and leaned into the run, leaving the day behind. "One, two, three, four - one, two, three, four," I silently counted the rhythm of my steps. "One, two, three, four - breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out. Come on, you can do this," I chided myself, pushing with all my might.

Finally, I crested the hill where Kinjack hits Sandy Plains. And there, hanging just over the horizon, was a giant harvest moon. By now, my muscles had begun to warm up and the cool night air felt good. There was almost no traffic on Sandy Plains this late at night, and the site of that huge, orange moon in the darkening sky reminded me of why I enjoy night running. I picked up my pace. I felt a good run coming on.

I passed the strip mall on my left. The yellow neon of the Jiffy Lube drifted by and the fluorescent street lights drove away the darkness as I ran down the sidewalk. I passed the Burger King on my right, my stomach grumbled in answer to the call of grilled whoppers. I jogged past Sandy Plains Baptist Church and suddenly I was in the dark. I had crossed that line from business to residential zoning. No street lights here, just the occasional porch light from one of the homes set far back from the road. The light from the rising moon speckled the sidewalk through the overhanging trees and it was hard to tell the difference between a crack in the sidewalk and shadow.

The temperature dropped noticeably as I ran by the empty lot on my left. The hairs prickled up on the back of my neck. I couldn't help but think about the stories my big brother used to tell me. He used to say that anytime you walked through a cold spot on the road like that, you were walking through a spirit.

I started to get an eerie feeling, like I used to get when I was a little kid. Late at night, when the house was quiet, a creepy feeling would come over me. I would burrow into the covers, terrified as I felt a presence enter my room. My mom told me I was crazy, it was just my imagination, but I knew something was there. I remembered the feel of hot breath on the back of my neck and how I heard the rhythmic breathing right beside me. I used to hold my breath as long as I could, but I could still hear it, right beside me - in, out, in, out - long slow breaths, until, terrified, I would jump from my bed, running into mom's room.

I passed an old shed, taken by the Kudzu that snaked its way on to the sidewalk. I had a sinister feeling that somebody was behind me. I heard the faint sounds of footsteps, and took a quick glance over my shoulder, but my eyes could not pierce the shadows. I tried to shake off the feeling, but it just kept getting stronger and stronger. There were definitely footsteps behind me, they were getting louder and louder - one, two, three, four - one, two, three, four - echoing my own pace.

The wind picked up, and the trees begin to whisper stories. A moan rose through the tall pine trees. They looked like ghosts waving their arms, warning me to go home. Shadow and light danced about, tossed by the rising wind.

Just then, something small, dark and furry ran over the top of my shoe, darting into the darkness. That was it for me.

I turned around and ran so fast my eyes watered. The church, dark and lonely now, offered no help as I sped past. The fluorescent street lights and yellow neon Jiffy Lube sign were my salvation. Pumping my legs with all I had, I made for civilization.

I don't think I have ever been so happy to see a strip mall. I stopped in the parking lot to catch my breath. Tears were streaming down my face and my blood was pounding in my ears - one, two, three, four - one, two, three, four. Silly me, I had been running from my own heartbeat.

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