Jean squeezed her eyelids tight as the medic pressed the gun against her shoulder; first coldness, a sharp pinch, and then warmth. She hated the injections, but her lieutenant insisted they have one before each meal.
“Are you dizzy?” the medic asked.
“Okay, don’t get up. Relax for a minute.”
She nodded again. The dizziness wouldn’t last. It never did.
Jean glanced around the small mess hall. The light green walls were bare except for a fire extinguisher near the door and a bulletin board plastered with routine, safety, and fire orders. Dark green curtains covered the narrow windows. Her squad sat quietly at two small tables as their server spooned meat stew into their bowls. She liked stew although the vegetables were always overcooked.
The medic checked his watch. “Are you okay now?”
She nodded. Her stomach churned, a normal reaction, but the dizziness had passed.
“You should grab some supper.” He patted her shoulder.
She rose on trembling legs. It had been a long day. They’d spent the morning in class, perfecting their language and math skills. That wasn’t too bad, but the afternoon had provided endless frustration. She could never get the hang of firing a rifle and she’d almost shot her sergeant during machine gun training.
As Jean approached the table, Jamison pulled out her chair. She sat and waited while the server filled her bowl. The stew smelled good. It smelled of beef.
Jean reviewed her day as she ate. After small arms drill they’d had their afternoon injection and stopped for dinner. Afterwards the squad marched out to the training field for combat instruction. She enjoyed the physical contact, the kicking and the punching. They spent the last hour on the track, running with a sixty pound pack. Despite her exhaustion, she loved the daily run.
Jean finished her stew, chugged a glass of milk and headed for her room. She should have showered before she stripped and crawled into her bunk, but no energy remained.
The dream drove her from sleep, as it did every night. Always the same; she never dreamed of the crash, only of the pain and terror. Trapped in a car, she watched the blood spurt from the jagged remains of her upper arm. Listening as rain pelted the roof, she screamed…
Every night she woke, hoarse from crying, filled with the hopelessness of being utterly alone. The dream held the only memories of her life before, but the dream couldn’t be real. She’d lost too much blood. She would have been dead.
Jean slid from her bed, pulled on her running gear, and headed outside the dorm. Sometimes a good run brought peace.
At the exit she came upon Jerkins, curled into a tight ball, weeping. She often found him there. His dreams must have been as bad as hers. She carefully sidled past and jogged toward the track, her way lit by a bright moon, her face cooled by a soft sprinkle of falling snow.
The track at the Center circled the training field. A few trees and a tall stone wall enclosed the entire compound. She jogged at an even pace; enjoying the quietness of her surroundings and the fresh, crisp air. A car parked alongside the main wall caught her eye. Without thinking, she sprinted across the field, jumped onto its hood and pulled herself up the rough stone barrier. She needed to see the outside world. Although she’d asked, no one had ever told her what lay beyond the walls. Glass shards cemented to the top cut through her thin gloves, but she ignored the pain.
Bright city lights sparkled off to the left. Straight ahead lay a river, swollen from the previous day’s rainstorm. The trees alongside glittered with frozen ice.
Jean jogged the path that traced the river. Within minutes, she reached a parking lot. Three ice coated picnic tables sat along the riverbank. The light snowfall stopped as she followed the road out of the parking lot and picked up her pace.
The road led to a highway, wide and almost empty of passing vehicles; a reminder of the loneliness she’d suffered in her dream. Why could she not remember the accident or her life before? Why would she be forced to watch herself spurting blood, desperate and alone? Why the sinking feeling that she had died?
Jean shook away her tears and concentrated on her cadence as she ran down the deserted highway. Perhaps she could run away from the pain.
Hours later she reached the outskirts of a small town. Attracted by the lights, she abandoned the highway and ran down the main street. Several people jogged a path surrounding a nearby lake. Lonely and anxious for company, she turned off at the coffee shop and followed the runners along the path.
The joggers appeared to be fairly young, in their twenties and thirties. As the sun rose they disappeared and were replaced by an older group of walkers. Jean liked it there. The sun sparkled and everyone smiled and waved as she ran by. She watched a duck glide in just above the lake’s surface, and then settle to the water with a light splash.
Jean’s feet slowly turned to lead. Her throat ached. Something dribbled down her chin and she licked it away. Blood. Her nose was bleeding. The taste of salt filled her mouth as it ran back into her throat. She coughed and hacked a red spitball to the side of the path. A big man running in the opposite direction shouted something, his voice muffled by the roar in her ears.
She passed a woman walking with a toddler. She lapped an elderly couple with their tiny dog. The woman held up a hand and yelled, but Jean couldn’t hear. Not against the rush of blood pounding in her head.
Near the bridge, she spotted the big man again. He wasn’t as fast as she but he appeared strong and competent. Her training clicked in. Evaluate the man. How would I handle him? Perhaps a kick to his midsection, and then grab his head and twist. But he presented no danger. He was just a man who stopped to stare as she ran by.
Vary your pace, control the breathing. But she couldn’t. She’d followed the highway for many miles and had been circling the lake for hours. Her strength was gone, her lungs heaved desperately for air. But what else can I do?
She ran. Vary the pace, control the breathing.
Snow began to fall. Jean stuck out her tongue to collect moisture for her parched throat. She came around a sharp corner and jumped aside as a bicycle whizzed by. Trees shielded the lake from view and a metal fence separated her from the highway. She noticed the big man approaching, once again.
Jean staggered. Her head spun, almost as though she were floating.
Vary the pace, control the breathing.
The man stepped into her path and jerked her to a stop. Instinctively she flattened her hand, ready to deliver a chop to his neck, but her strength failed and she found herself clinging limply to the man’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?” His voice was hoarse, barely audible. “Do you know you’re bleeding?”
She lacked the energy to cling and slid toward the ground. Two arms circled around her waist and kept her from falling.
“Are you okay?”
Her legs quivered. The man's warmth permeated her cold skin. She could smell his sweat mingled with the faint odor of coconut.
Jean coughed: loud, hacking and uncontrollable.
“You’ve got to breathe, honey!” The man began to demonstrate, drawing deep breaths in through his nose, exhaling through his mouth.
Jean copied him. She knew how to breathe, but it was nice to be reminded.
“You can’t just stop running. You need to cool down, to walk. I’m going to help you back to the coffee shop.”
He pulled a wad of tissue paper from his pocket and pressed it against her nostrils. “Hold this here.”
Jean fought off a rush of dizziness as she raised a hand and pressed it against the pad.
“Okay, we’re going to start walking. Are you up for it?”
She nodded and tried to get her feet to move. She could place them, one foot in front of the other, but he did most of the work. It was difficult to focus and she found herself slipping towards sleep.
“Is she alright?” The voice pulled Jean from her daze. It was the elderly man she’d passed earlier.
“She’s okay. A little too much running, I think.” Her rescuer stopped and leaned against the fence.
The old man’s companion picked up her tiny dog. “What’s your name? Do you live around here?” she asked Jean.
Jean smiled at the funny woman. As if I could talk!
The big man patted her shoulder. “She’s tuckered out and could use some water. I’m going to take her back to the coffee shop.”
He shifted his grip from around her waist and led her gently down the path. Jean’s legs had regained some strength and she managed to keep up his slow pace.
Soon they arrived at a brick building filled with windows. The words ‘Tim Horton’s’ were highlighted in yellow and brown. He led her inside and sat her down at a table. Jean’s stomach rumbled as she stared at a glass cabinet crammed with pastries.
“How’s your nose?”
Jean removed the pad and shrugged as a drip slid down her upper lip.
“Okay. I’ll get you some fresh napkins. Just wait here.”
The man walked across the room and leaned against the counter. He looked to be about forty and wore a moustache that drooped over the edges of his mouth. Jean quite liked it.
The coffee shop was crowded. Four elderly people sat around a table talking as they drank from ceramic cups. Six men in gray coveralls ate pastries, laughing while one of them told a story. Jean strained to listen but was distracted by a woman who chased two small children across the restaurant. The warm, friendly room comforted her.
The man returned with a glass of water. Behind him, a smiling woman in a brown uniform carried a steaming cloth.
“Hi, love. Brian said you had a nosebleed. I want you to tilt your head forward and pinch your nostrils.”
Jean pushed her head downward and held her nose. The woman gently wiped her face and handed her the damp cloth.
“Do you feel better, love?”
The woman turned to the big man. “The usual?”
He smiled. It was a nice smile. “Thanks, Sally.” He handed her a colorful plastic card.
“I suppose we should introduce ourselves,” he said as the woman left. “I’m Brian.”
She looked back, unsure of how to respond.
“What’s the matter, honey? Cat got your tongue?”
She pictured a cat, clinging to her face, and grinned. These people are so funny.
He frowned in return. “Do you know your name?”
“Can you talk?”
Jean shook her head.
“Oh.” His frown deepened. “Try to follow my hand with your eyes.”
Brian raised two fingers and swept them across her face. It was a silly game but Jean went along.
The man grinned sheepishly. “I’ve seen doctors do this on television.” He hesitated. “Are you sure you’re fine? Do you want me to call 9-1-1?”
9-1-1? Jean was lost. She was also thirsty, and reached for the glass of water.
“Be careful,” the big man warned. “Don’t gulp; just small steady sips.” He held up an imaginary glass to demonstrate.
Jean raised her glass and took a sip. Her throat ached with dryness and the water tasted so good, but she always followed orders.
The woman returned, carrying a cup and a small plate. “You’re getting table service today, Brian. Not sure you deserve it.”
“I always deserve the best.” He flashed another smile.
Jean agreed. He was a nice man.
She watched as he grabbed a knife and cut whatever was on the plate in half. It smelled delicious.
“You want half my muffin?” Brian asked.
It was in her hand and halfway to her mouth before he’d finished his sentence. In it went. A soft, warm pastry filled with flavor. Her tongue probed a soft section which tasted of berries.
“No!” His frown returned. “Don’t put it all in your mouth. You’ll choke.”
What does he want? Does he want me to spit it out? Jean would not. She was hungry and it tasted so good. Staring defiantly, she chewed one small section at a time and swallowed.
He calmed. “One would think you haven’t eaten in a week. Could you handle a turkey sandwich and soup?”
She nodded. He must think I’m a pig.
“Okay, I’ll order them. Don’t choke while I’m gone.”
Before his back had turned she’d swallowed the last of the muffin. A lump lodged halfway down her throat. Jean reached for the water glass. Something was wrong. The tips of her fingers had grown numb; her toes tingled.
She’d missed her injection. Everyone on the squad had been warned. They needed four injections a day and must never eat before one was due. Each morning, before breakfast, they lined up for their needle. She wouldn’t be lining up that day. Jean sighed. It might not be serious. Maybe the cold glass has numbed my fingertips. She gulped down the water, set the glass on the table and pressed her hands against her stomach.
The woman who’d been chasing her kids had corralled them at a corner table. They were busy eating tiny round pastries. The little boy noticed Jean’s stare and stuck out a dirty tongue.
Brian returned and pulled out his chair, “I got you a sandwich, but it’s too early for soup.”
Jean bent forward, eagerly reaching for the sandwich. The wonderful smell of mayonnaise tantalized her, a rare treat at the Center. Chunks of meat and lettuce lay squeezed between thick slices of bread.
Mindful of the big man’s insistence on small bites, she took a delicate nibble. It tasted good and she took another. Brian appeared satisfied and sipped from his cup.
The sandwich became awkward to hold. Using both hands, she squeezed it tightly and wolfed down the remainder.
“Are you okay?” His eyes narrowed. “Is there something wrong with your hands?”
She looked down. Her hands were numb and she could barely control them. Her feet seemed to be composed of wood, and both her arms and legs were cold.
The lady in the brown uniform returned, looking first at Jean, and then at Brian. She grasped one of Jean’s hands. “She’s freezing.” She looked at the big man.
He reached over and grabbed Jean’s free hand. “Sally, can you call an ambulance for me?”
The woman nodded and offered a wan smile. “You’ll be okay, love. We’re gonna get you to the hospital.”
The room filled with confusion. People turned to stare. Brian slid his hands up her arms and a worried expression formed on his face.
“I think you’re losing heat. I don’t know why; the restaurant’s pretty warm.” He reached behind his chair, clutching for his jacket. “Do you want to borrow my coat?”
The cold began to creep into her chest. She nodded and rose, but her legs provided no support.
Brian caught her as she fell, pulling her against his chest.
It was nice to be held. It helped to displace the fear. His warmth drove away the chill from her chest.
The woman returned. “That was fast. Almost as soon as I called 9-1-1, the ambulance appeared.”
“Good,” Brian replied. “Can you help me get her back to her chair?”
Jean glanced over Brain’s shoulders at the flashing lights of a bulky white truck. The cold crept back into her chest. It was difficult to breathe, to stay awake.
The big man pushed her head back and held her face. “Hold on honey. It’s going to be okay.”
She admired the deep lines around his mouth, the sad expression in his eyes. Slowly they faded, turning to gray.
Hard pellets of ice slashed across her face. The deep snow reached the top of her boots as Jean jogged along the track. It didn’t matter. She loved to run.
She looked across the field to the mess hall. Soon it would be time for her morning injection and breakfast. She always had muffins. They were so good.
The day she’d arrived at the Center everyone had seemed to know her – she’d caught them staring. That was strange; all she could remember was the hospital.
The training was tough. She could never seem to fire the rifle accurately enough for her instructors. Although she liked the physical combat training, it left her drained by the end of the day.
But that was okay. Each night she had the dream. A crowded room filled with colorful people. A handsome man holding her, his eyes brimmed with warmth. She felt compassion. She felt needed.
The dream kept her going.
Running Fast was entered into a writing contest. The rules were simple. The story must focus on someone or something that has died, been reborn and died again. The maximum word count allowed was three thousand words.
When a story cannot exceed a certain length, difficult choices must be made. In this case I withheld most of the background. This technique forces the reader to evaluate any hints the author provides and use his imagination to fill in the blanks. If handled correctly, this method works wonderfully; readers love to use their imagination. If written poorly, confusion will result. Authors using this method should expect to go through more than the usual number of drafts.
At first glance, Running Fast ignores a cardinal rule of writing. Except for her name and sex, there was no physical description of the main character. Don’t fret, the rule was not broken. The entire tale focuses on what Jean thinks, how she reacts and how she feels. While it is important to describe characters, it does not necessarily need to be physical. Always leave something to the reader’s imagination.