By Richard Anglisano
Conrad Horton tied the laces of his white running sneakers and headed out of the bedroom. He found his wife Leza in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.
“I’m going for a run, honey,” he told her, popping his head in and seeing the back of her by the sink.
“Ok. Enjoy,” she called out, washing the green head of broccoli in the large stainless steel basin.
To Conrad, this was the best part of the day, and had become a daily ritual. It was just about three in the afternoon, the sun at the perfect angle, a light breeze from the south. He knew that all the stress of the daily grind would fall to the asphalt below him just by putting one foot in front of the other.
Wearing his black running shorts and matching black short sleeved shirt, he stretched his legs, preparing for the upcoming rigor. I’m Ninja style today, he thought to
himself, admiring his matching black outfit as he stretched his joints on the street in front of his house.
He pressed the ‘start’ button on the stop watch around his wrist and started out slow and steady down the street.
His daughters would be stepping off the school bus about ten minutes from now, right at the spot in the street where he started his run. It was Leza’s job to corral the girls inside and give them their after-school snack. This was Conrad’s time to unwind, and he got to say his hellos to Elissa and Bonnie when they were much calmer than right off the bus.
He was a Medical Equipment Technician at the local hospital and his job had him at work by five every morning, which he didn’t mind since he was home by early afternoon. His daily jogs had him trim and in shape and he found he longed for that burst of endorphins only a good run can provide.
He took his normal route up July Sun Drive, then a left at Woodridge Street which laid a flat, tree lined three miles in front of him. It was rare a car passed him along this quiet stretch of Colonials and Ranches perched on their grass lots like mini kingdoms only found in the
American dream. Perfect, manicured lawns hinted each king and queen took pride in their modest castles.
At the end of Woodridge Street he turned around and headed back the same way he just came, giving his legs a solid 10K once back at his house. Conrad’s breathing was steady, his core a tight foundation and his mind at peace as he passed the last house on his return trip down Woodridge.
Not bad for a thirty-eight year old, he thought as he picked up the pace. He smiled at this point, the end portion of a solid run. His black shirt damp with sweat, his heart rate elevated as bursts of serotonin gave him a runner’s high. He checked his watch, but it had stopped. He must have accidentally pressed the stop button at some point. 6.23 miles usually took just under an hour to complete. A small, but mighty accomplishment that Conrad relished each time.
As his legs, feeling like molded stems of rubber, made the right turn back onto his street, he slowed to a walk with widened eyes. There was a sight he’d never seen in the nine years he and his family lived here. Two police cars sat empty in front of his home.
His first thought made his mind go numb with an instant taste of copper in his mouth. Something happened to the girls. He ran for the front door, busting it open.
“Leza! What happened?” he yelled out.
A glass shattered in the kitchen.
“Conrad! Oh my God, Connie?” Leza appeared from out of the kitchen with eyes wide as saucers, her long blonde hair disheveled . She ran to him with heavy feet, crying.
“What happened?” Conrad yelled again. Two policemen followed her out of the kitchen, also with round eyes wide, staring in disbelief.
Elissa and Bonnie, his angels, came running for him as well, scampering around the legs of the policemen’s’ official blue pants. Their young eyes red and wet. They were OK. Conrad’s knees weakened with relief. His three girls, his family, were all hugging him, crying in the hallway.
“What the hell is going on?” He was in shock, unable to figure this scene out.
“Where were you? Where were you?” Leza’s yell was hoarse and strained.
“I went for a run.”
“You went for a run?” She stared at him, dumbfounded. Elissa and Bonnie held onto each of his legs as tight as they could, like they were never letting go. The policemen just stared, not saying a word. Conrad looked at the cops, then to his wife.
“Leza, what is going …”
“Conrad, you have been missing for three days.”
All tests came back negative. Conrad went through a battery of CAT scans, MRI’s and ultrasounds, all showing normal, healthy results. He answered every question the Detectives asked consistently, never wavering his story. He went for a jog and came home. It just took him three days.
Only the local newspapers printed what most were thinking. They dubbed him “The Marathon Man” and tried to capture in print Conrad’s preposterous story and the heartache he put his family through. Leza stopped reading the articles entirely although the strange stares and chuckles were all around while out food shopping and errand running.
Then the dreams started.
Conrad was running, as fast as his legs would carry him, through a humongous hay field. The knee length, tan hay strands swaying in unison with an invisible breeze. He tried to push himself faster but the unsteady ground beneath his feet made it impossible. Faster, you have to go faster, he thought and pushed his legs even harder. This is what you’ve been training for. Sweat soaked his hair and dripped in clear streams down his face making him look just out of the shower. His heart thumped like the piston of a car stuck in first gear, rotating furiously.
It was the children that scared him. They were scattered about the field, standing alone just on the outskirts, watching him run. Little boys and girls with such despondent faces, looking at him with such despair. Why are they so sad, he asked himself as he ran past them. This was the time in their lives when they should be truly happy. This was their time of magic, surprise and adventure.
Why the hell am I running through this field? Why the hell are they watching me run through this field? What the hell is going on?
He awoke standing over the bed with Leza startled and sitting up asking, “Are you all right?” in a frantic tone only owned by someone put through a traumatic experience.
“No,” he would answer. “I’m really not all right. There is something wrong. Something is not right.”
There were small variations to these dreams on a nightly basis, but they all had the same theme. And the powerful, overwhelming relief that he had been training for this, whatever ‘this’ was. And the sad children.
Officer Henry Lathom sat in his black and white police cruiser, top lights flashing blue and red, illuminating the back of the white pick-up truck he just pulled over. It had failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Officer Henry observed the blatant disregard and lit him up. They were both stopped on a desolate stretch of country road. The late afternoon sun was just setting with a hint of brilliant yellow shining from the west.
As Henry reached for the door handle, checked his side-view and pushed opened his door, the driver of the pickup also stepped out onto the road. It was like watching a mirror with a deranged reflection. Henry sprang into law enforcement mode, using his opened door as a safety shield.
“Sir, stay in your vehicle,” he shouted at the driver in an authoritative, commanding voice. My cop voice, Henry thought, as he unhooked the long black flashlight from his belt and shined it at the driver.
Thin and lanky with thick gray curly hair, the driver shoved his hands in his jean pockets and began walking toward the cruiser. The blue and red lights from the cruiser coupled with Henry’s flashlight illuminated the driver’s face and hair, coloring his features like a demented clown.
“Sir! Stop where you are! Get your hands out of your pockets! Now!” Officer Henry Lathom knew this was going to be trouble. It’s in the eyes. It’s always in the eyes.
Henry’s free hand keyed his mic and with a slight left crook of his head said, “Central this is Charley Twelve. I need backup at my car stop forth width.” The radio responded but he couldn’t hear the garbled response. The lankey driver with crazy eyes kept coming, hands in his pockets, fixated on Henry even with the beam of light pointed directly at him.
“Sir! Stop where you are! Get your hands out of your pockets and get them over your head! Do it now!”
“Fuck you,” the man hissed. He stopped by the cruiser, way too close, and slid his hands out like two deadly spiders emerging from their caves. “Fuck you! I ain’t doing shit,” he hissed again, glaring at Henry with hate so pure it oozed from his pores. It must have been the dark circles under the driver’s round eyes because Henry’s mind instantly pictured a rabid raccoon.
Central Command was frantically calling for Charley Twelve over the tin sounding, trebled police radio. “Charley Twelve, what is your exact location. Charley Twelve, come in, K.”
He was losing control of this situation and Henry knew it. They exchanged curses, screams and yells. Then the man turned and calmly walked back to his car. Henry keyed his mic.
“Central I need help here now … , Sir! Stop! Stop! Show me your hands now!”
The driver leaned into the pickup’s open door, reached across the cab, and emerged with a dull black handgun. He pointed it at Henry, and began shooting. The cracks of the gun were quick and tight, breaking the air in loud smoky claps.
Henry jumped into his cruiser and closed the door, his eyes squinting as the invisible lead cracked the windshield, instantly transforming it into the web of some devious, maniacal spider. He slouched in the seat waiting for this episode to pass, as it didn’t seem real anymore.
Pure reality melted back the instant the crazed driver appeared at the passenger side window. His dark eyes leering inside the patrol car.
“No!” Henry shrieked, his tone higher and much more frantic. He was no longer a police officer with a commanding voice, but a human being pleading for his life through primal screams. He didn’t once think of using his own gun for fear of killing the driver and having to deal with that fact for the rest of his life.
The driver squeezed the trigger. The passenger side window shattered instantly, the bullet piercing Henry’s upper arm. He felt the penetration in his bicep, like someone flung a dollop of boiling oil on his arm. More screams. Pleads of “No!” and “Stop!” as another shot rang out and shattered his shoulder. Henry braced for a violent death. A thought flashed in his mind like a jagged streak of summer lightening as he waited for the gun to fire the fatal shot. I’m never going to see my son again.
Suddenly the driver was tackled from his left, like a quarterback sacked by a linebacker. It happened so fast it was blurred. In one instant the manic driver was pointing the gun and shooting, the next he was gone, leveled out of sight by what looked like a large smear of black.
Henry sat up and looked through the cracked web of the windshield. A man in black running shorts, a black shirt and white sneakers had the assailant pinned to the ground. He stared for a moment in total disbelief at the two on the side of the desolate road, then worked his way out of the bullet ridden patrol car. With his right shoulder and arm feeling numb he cautiously stepped around the car as tears began streaming from his eyes and down his cheeks. What he saw put him on the brink of madness. Only the driver lay on the ground, unconscious near the bumper of the patrol car, sprawled on his side like an injured rat. Henry’s dazed eyes shot from right to left, looking for the jogger who saved his life. There was no sign of anyone.
Police cars with screaming sirens appeared from every direction as Henry’s vision slowly faded. He collapsed like a burlap sack of wet sand.
Conrad kissed Ellisa and Bonnie goodnight, keeping each of their bedroom doors slightly ajar for a glimmer of hallway light. Their sweet “Good night, Daddy. I love you,” always put a hint of a tear right behind his eyes.
In his bedroom, he slipped into bed next to Leza and kissed her on the lips. She looked at him and smiled, her soft hands on his cheeks.
“Everything all right?” she asked.
He smiled. “Yes. Everything’s fine.”
“Are you still having those bad dreams?”
“Yes. Every night.”
“Am I ever in any of them with you?”
He looked at his wife’s beautiful eyes. He loved the way she looked lying against the white pillow. It framed her blonde hair and pretty face.
His smile slowly faded. “You don’t want to be there.”
Swaying hay. Feet pounding the earth beneath. Quick, short breaths coming from deep in his lungs as he passed the children. Conrad was in the hay field of dreams again, running top speed as the boys and girls watched him with solace faces. Why are they so sad, he asked himself as he trotted past each of them. He could feel their despair.
A boy, just on the verge of eight years old was dressed in a light blue shirt. His short brown hair was blowing in the breeze like the hundred million thin stalks of hay. He caught Conrad’s eye as he got closer. Something was different about this boy but he didn’t know exactly what it was. Conrad pressed his legs for more speed, then slowed a bit as he passed. He instantly realized what was different and his heart melted a thin layer of cold sadness as he saw him up close. This boy was smiling.
“Thank you,” he whispered to Conrad as he passed.
Before Conrad could answer, the boy disappeared, slowly fading away with the smile still on his innocent face.
Conrad awoke with the soft whispers of the boy’s “thank you” echoeing throughout the dark bedroom.
Vernon Shoenig sat on a wood bench in the empty park watching the leafless trees sway in the sightless wind. The backdrop of gray clouds above made the bare branches look like gnarled fingers riddled with arthritis.
At forty-two years old he knew his prime had passed him, along with all his dreams and aspirations. The divorce left him broke and living on a meager salary from a meaningless job.
What squeezed at his tender heart the most was his daughter now living with her mother, only able to visit Vernon on court picked weekends and holidays. That fact alone made him feel the endless depths of complete loneliness. There was nothing he could do to change the fact that he could not see his young daughter on a daily basis. He would miss seeing her grow from a sweet little girl to a woman.
There were a lot of things he couldn’t change. He couldn’t tell his father he was sorry for what was said, their argument so menial. Days melted into months wasted on meaningless anger. Those months of not speaking passed by and now gone forever. When his father died he realized how precious those months were, and he wasted them on stubbornness. He could never tell his father he was sorry.
With emotion flooding his entire body and tears welling up in his eyes, he reached for the small bottle of pills in his jacket pocket. They clicked together within the plastic bottle in protest, awakened from a deep slumber. Vernon now knew what it was like to have reached a place where there was no other way out. He was ready to swallow every pill and wait for his death here on this park bench. He hoped it would come quickly.
There was a noise coming toward him. The quick footsteps of rubber soles pounding asphalt in the distance, which forced Vernon to slide the pill bottle back into his pocket. He look down the narrow paved path. A jogger appeared wearing all black from around the curved bend and was running toward him. Vernon looked up at the gray sky and waited for this nuisance to pass.
“Hey. Come with me, hurry,” the jogger said as he got closer, startling Vernon.
“Hurry. Get up. Come with me.”
Vernon looked confused. “I don’t …”
“Run with me! Now!” The jogger’s yell forced Vernon to his feet. He had no idea why, but he started running along side this stranger in black with white sneakers. The bouncing pills rattled in unison making it sound like an entire army was following them.
“Listen,” he told Vernon in a voice full of breath. He must have been running for a while. “You don’t want to do what you were going to do.”
Vernon stared blankly and slowed up a bit.
“Keep up. It’s important,” the jogger snapped, causing Vernon to continue beside him. “Your daughter, Emily. She’s going to need you. In time she will be living with you again, and you’ll need to take care of her. You’ll be all she has.”
His entire body tingled.
“Oh, and your dad, he knows you’re sorry. He’s sorry too. You should make him proud. He deserves that.”
The words, so calmly delivered, made Vernon sob uncontrollably. He stopped and watched through a blurry lens of tears the jogger run away down the path and disappear around the bend.
It was a little girl smiling this time in Conrad’s dream as he trotted passed her in the hay field. Her soft young face molded to an appreciative grin among all the other sad faces, like a peek of sunshine on a mostly cloudy day.
“I am buying you a treadmill,” Leza’s voice was raised as she watched her husband lacing his white running shoes. Again he was dressed in all black running gear. “You are not going for another run, Conrad. No way. Do you have any idea what we went through?”
“Leza, I need to. I need to know what these dreams are about.”
“I need to know why you disappeared for three days.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Conrad.”
“I’m getting a gut.”
“Stop joking. The doctors said…”
“The doctors said I was fine.
“Leza, listen to me. I did something when I was gone and I don’t know if it was good or bad. All I know is that I need some clues to put this puzzle together, and I only get those clues when I’m either asleep dreaming or running.”
She looked at him, secretly contemplating following him in the car, but the girls would be home from school soon.
“Leza, trust me. I’ll be back.”
“You have daughters. Think of your kids.”
“I am, baby. I am.”
He didn’t stretch, but pressed the “start” button on his stop watch and started running the moment his white sneakers hit the black asphalt. He felt bad for walking out on Leza, but good about running again. This had to have a higher purpose than just staying in shape.
He headed down July Sun Drive and made his usual left on Woodbridge, feeling his legs carry him down the flat three mile stretch.
The background was a crystal clear afternoon with blue sky and a warm sun. Conrad pushed his pace down the long, straight road with homes on either side. The sweat on his brow mixed with the soft breeze cooled him and his heart thumped steadily. If this was the vehicle in which escape was made possible than so be it. This high was better than any pill or drug on the market. Even though he had no idea where he disappeared to last time out, the running still felt good.
As he settled comfortably into his thoughts like an ass on a fluffy couch, the low hum of a car engine came from behind him. A jet black BMW passed Conrad on his left and stopped about a hundred yards in front of him. As he got closer, the driver side door opened and a man dressed in a black suit with an open collar white shirt stepped out. His short salt and pepper hair and tanned complexion made him look like a hip CEO to a Fortune 500 company. He leaned against the hood of the BMW and smiled, the black paint of the car so shiny it looked wet.
“Conrad,” the man said with a smile.
“Hi.” Conrad stopped, surprised to hear this stranger call him by first name. It felt like a million tiny pin points gently touched the skin of his legs from hip to foot. “Who are you?”
“I’m the one with the answers to your questions.”
Conrad stared at this smiling man, confused. His breathing slowed as his heart rate slipped back to idle.
“I used to run,” the man continued. “Great exercise, just murder on the knees.”
Conrad still looked very confused.
“Anyway, we know you have no recollection at all, but you’ve done some really great things and helped many people in those three days you were … gone.”
A slow nod with another smile was returned. “Oh yes. It’s hard to fathom, three days is a long time. But that’s how long it took you to finish what had to be done. You’re in like a training period, so to speak.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know the smiling children?”
Conrad took a deep breath. This guy knew his dreams.
“You helped the one person they needed the most. Life is filled with so many things that make no sense, but when you finally see the big picture, it all makes perfect sense. You won’t understand now, but you have a great job waiting for you, Conrad. You’re already accumulating great rewards for your work.”
“I am? I still don’t …”
“Your daughter Ellisa will go on to do amazing things for this world. And your other daughter Bonnie,” he paused and flashed another warm smile. “She’s one of us.”
“What are we?” Conrad asked very slowly.
“Guardian angels. The most elite. Not many become one of us. Well, you’re still in training, but your Bonnie will be one of the greats.”
“Bonnie’s so young”
“She’s an old soul.”
They looked at each other for a moment. Conrad was trying to let the words register.
“I still don’t understand where I was for three days.”
“You will,” said the man, and got back into his BMW. He showed Conrad his palm and drove off.
The two police cars were in front of his house as he turned the corner back onto July Sun Drive. How long was I gone this time, he asked as he sprinted to the front door and pushed it open.
“Leza,” he called out and looked toward the kitchen.
He heard sobbing.
In the kitchen he saw his wife slumped at the table, crying. Ellisa was next to her, her head down and her young eyes red with tears. Two police officers flanked them.
“Leza, I’m here. I’m home,” he said in a soft voice. He felt invisible until one of the policemen slowly walked over.
“Yes, I’m Conrad.”
“I’m sorry to inform you, sir, that your daughter Bonnie was killed in a hit and run accident.”
Conrad felt a dull ache form in his abdomen.
The cop let his words linger, then, “we are searching for a black BMW that witnesses say fled the scene.”
The dull ache grew even more painful as it dug and settled deep in his stomach. In shock, he slowly went to his wife and daughter and hugged them both.No tags for this post.