The divorce was a messy one. Carrie's lawyer had said the only thing not messy about it was that there were no children involved — that's if you considered Leon, her soon-to-be ex, an adult. Before she was through with him, she'd have her share of his recent windfall. It was only fair. She had put up with him for five years. And now that he could afford one of those high-power lawyers, he thought he could just cut her loose and run. She'd show him!
Along with her newfound social freedom, Carrie was freeing herself of those few extra pounds she had acquired during her years of wedded woe. Well, okay... more than a few pounds. Anyway, that's why she started running. And it was working like a charm.
Six o'clock every morning found Carrie running down the road and through the fields for thirty minutes until she wound up back home ready for a shower. At first, she ran at such an early hour so no one would see her and to avoid what little traffic there was on the rural roads. Now, she ran early in the day to beat the summer heat. Besides, it was a great way to start the day. This particular morning was no different, until...
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he just appeared running along beside her. Carrie nearly jumped out of her skin and thought she was having a heart attack. Thank God for sports bras, she thought. It was bad enough her ponytail was bouncing all over the place.
"Do you run every day?" he asked, flashing straight white teeth in a disarming smile. His six-foot, six-inch tan muscular frame towered over her as he easily kept pace.
"Y... yes." She not only stammered, but she stumbled and nearly fell, then recovered, as she looked around to see where he had come from.
"I just moved into the neighborhood," he explained. He wasn't even breathing hard.
That's why she'd never seen him before today, she realized. Still, his sudden unexpected appearance made Carrie feel uneasy. Or maybe it was self-consciousness. He looked like he'd just stepped out of a men's magazine. Maybe she was dreaming.
"I didn't expect to run into such a beautiful running mate on my first day out," he continued.
Anyone else, Carrie would've rolled her eyes at such a pitiful line. But she was impressed as she checked out his physique from the corner of her eye. "What did you expect?" she asked pretending disinterest.
He flashed a self-satisfied smile. "I'm Todd."
"I'm Carrie." She tossed her head feeling the timing for a new jock in the neighborhood was perfect.
"Nice to meet you, Carrie."
They ran a few minutes in silence.
"You don't mind if I join you, do you?" he asked.
"It's a free country," Carrie returned. She hoped her voice sounded calm, although she felt her breath escaping in gasps as her heartbeat quickened. He wasn't even breaking a sweat keeping up with her.
They reached the seasonal road that stretched through the middle of the cornfield. It was mid-July and the cornstalks were almost as tall as Carrie, concealing her from the farmhouses as she ran down the one-lane dirt road. Todd stayed even with her, running in the rut on the other side of the road. A monarch butterfly floated up into the hot sticky air as they ran past the wildflowers that grew thick at the edges. It was like fast-forwarding past a romantic scene in a movie.
"Do you know any of these neighbors?" Todd asked. Beads of perspiration now glistened on his smooth upper lip.
Carrie wished she did, so she could offer to introduce him. But the truth was that after five years, she hardly knew anyone in the rural neighborhood. She doubted they even knew she was going through a rough divorce. They probably weren't aware that she ran every morning, or any other aspect of her daily routine, for that matter.
"I know a few of the families," she lied.
Carrie kept her eyes on the paved road ahead, eager to reach the more open space where she'd feel safer in full view of her neighbors.
"Watch out," Todd called. Too late, of course.
Carrie felt the softness and heard the squishy sound — as opposed to the gritty sound of dirt underfoot — as she ran through the road apples. She stopped, although she didn't want to, and wiped her shoe in the tall green weeds.
Todd bent over with his hands on his knees, and laughed. "Thank you for acclimating me to country living. Now I know what to watch for."
Carrie laughed also, in spite of not thinking her predicament was funny. "I'm glad you like my teaching technique. Next time it'll be a hands-on experience."
"I'd rather observe you," he replied.
They stood for what could only be described as a "pregnant moment." Then Todd added gallantly, "After you."
Carrie started running and Todd joined her. She looked both ways before venturing onto the paved road that led back to her house. Todd turned also and stayed with her. In the distance she could see a car approaching from the opposite direction.
"Will you be running tomorrow?" Todd asked.
"Same time, same place," Carrie answered.
"Good. I'll need your help picking my way through the obstacles in the road," he teased. His smile appeared genuine, and Carrie began to fantasize about what else they might have in common.
As the oncoming car picked up speed, Carrie's steps faltered and she slowed as Todd ran on ahead. Then in a split-second, the engine roared, the car veered to the side of the road and smashed into Todd. The collision propelled his body into the air, and he landed with a sickening thud on the pavement next to Carrie. The tires squealed as the car swerved back onto the road, barely missing her, and sped away.
Hours later, Carrie returned home from the police station. She was still badly shaken as a result of witnessing the fatal hit-and-run accident. And the questioning by police, as well as the local media, had been brutally heartless and relentless.
Carrie let the water run until it was good and hot before stepping into the long awaited shower. At least she had had the presence of mind to remove the paper sticking out of Todd's pants pocket before anyone else arrived on the scene. It was a picture of herself taken during the photo shoot for the city orchestra's new summer season. Carrie played tenor saxophone. Todd was obviously an admiring fan, who had wanted to get to know her. At any rate, she had decided the police didn't need to know about the photo. It would only complicate the fact that she had never met him before this morning. The gun he was carrying in a holster inside his waistband did, however, give her cause for pause. Why would someone carry a concealed weapon while running?
And there were other inconsistencies in his story, now that she had time to think about it. As she rinsed the shampoo out of her hair, she remembered something one of the police officers had said — something about Todd's name. It wasn't really Todd. His name was actually Harold, a.k.a. "Harry the Hit Man."
Suddenly the truth washed over Carrie like the water from the shower nozzle. "That no-good little scum-of-the-earth!" Leon had hired someone to kill her. Anger displaced her dazed exhaustion. She grabbed a towel, picked up the receiver and punched in her best friend's telephone number.
"Cindy, I've changed my mind. That 'arrangement' we discussed the other day—forget it! I want Leon alive, so he can rot in jail. I have all the proof I need to put him away for good!"
The other end of the line remained silent for a moment. Then Cindy responded, "It's too late. You told me you wanted your old man deep-sixed. The hit is a done deal. I only deal with professionals who guarantee their work. They don't quit in the middle of a job."
"You don't understand. I've changed my—"
"Listen, honey. It's too late. Once the deal is arranged, there's no turning back. A professional organization doesn't stop until the job is finished. The work is guaranteed. Leon's a dead man!"
Carrie hung up slowly and stared at the telephone for several minutes thinking. Last week she had been desperate to make Leon pay for her suffering. She never thought he'd have the guts to get even with her. Now that she knew he was trying to have her killed, she liked the idea of sending him to jail much better. If only she had waited and put more thought and timing into her plan for retribution. Oh well, one way or another, she'd get his money.
The phone rang and she reached out to pick up the receiver. Then it clicked in her brain. The job wasn't finished. She wasn't dead. They'd keep trying until they succeeded... in killing her. The phone rang a second time.
She'd seen something like this on a movie once. Carrie grabbed her clothes and shoes and ran as fast as she could out the back door. She had to get as far away as possible before the answering machine picked up. Moments later, she looked over her shoulder and saw her house explode into a giant ball of fire.
So far, Leon was winning. She'd just lost all of her worldly possessions. And, with a contract out on her life, her identity wasn't worth keeping. She wondered if the lousy good-for-nothing was even still alive.
She continued running through the cornfields and didn't dare stop until long after nightfall. Something else the police officer had said about Harry the Hit Man kept popping into her head: "You reap what you sow."
Credits - WorldwideRunning.com would like to thank Koenisha Publications (www.koenisha.com) for the authorization to reprint the short story "Running Mate" by Sharolett Koenig. Text copyright © by Koenisha Publications.
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