WHY I QUIT JOGGING

By Jan Christensen


I heard the car approaching but didn't pay much attention. I'd been jogging almost every day for six years and heard lots of cars behind me, so I'd learned to gauge their distance.

But then this one sounded awfully close. I turned to look and saw the woman behind the wheel, her eyes widening in surprise. I started running flat out, my heart feeling like it was going to explode in my chest.

I don't remember getting hit.

* * * * *

It was totally dark when I opened my eyes. My body seemed to be folded somehow. My head hurt. Strange odors surrounded me--metal, carpet. And aftershave, not my brand. But worst of all, the smell of blood, I thought. I reached out and felt around. My hand touched a face, and I snatched my fingers away. When the car went over a bump, I realized where I was.

But it couldn't be.

I was in the trunk. With another guy.

"Hello?" I said. No answer. My mind must be playing tricks. Why would I be in a car trunk? We went over another bump, and something brushed my bare leg. I wanted to scream, but managed to hold back, grunting instead.

Gingerly, I felt around some more. I touched the face again, and hands and shoes. "Hello? Hello?" I babbled.

Silence.

My fingers groped in the darkness until I felt the cold metal of the lug wrench. I grabbed it and held on until the car came to a halt. Then I realized I wouldn't be able to use it coming out of the trunk. The position would be awkward-- impossible. Reluctantly, I loosened my grip. The engine quit. I heard a door slam. Only one. That was a good sign. Footsteps on gravel. It was maddening to have my eyes wide open and not be able to see a thing.

The latch popped, and the lid was raised. I tried not to blink in the late afternoon sunlight. The woman I had seen driving the car peered inside. I recognized her now as our neighbor, somebody Burlson. I stayed perfectly still, waiting. My hands twitched involuntarily, but she didn't seem to notice.

She sighed and muttered, "Now, how am I going to get rid of two bodies?"

My stomach did a nose-dive when I realized that she thought I was dead. As dead as the other guy in the trunk with me. She started yanking on me, and I stayed as limp as possible. She was really strong. I remembered she taught aerobics at the local recreation center. She must have done a lot of weight-lifting, too, because with just a bit of tugging, she managed to reach under my arms and drag me out. I grimaced and tried not to moan when my calf scraped the latch. But I couldn't prevent a whoosh of air escaping my lips when she dropped me on the ground.

My eyes blinked. She bent over, staring at me. She must have been over six feet tall, all muscle. And beautiful. Long red hair cascaded down her back, and her green eyes were hypnotic.

"You're not dead!" she exclaimed.

"No kidding," I said as I sat up, rubbing my calf.

She looked around frantically, saw the lug wrench in the trunk right where I'd so conveniently left it, and ran for it.

I jumped up and tackled her. She twisted sideways and landed on her back, with me on top. The problem was that I'm only five feet six (in shoes) and weigh in at one-thirty. Sinewy muscle, of course, from all that jogging, but still, she had me outweighed and was much longer than I am.

She struggled. I got her hands pinned up over her head. She scissored her legs to little effect, but soon she'd be able to throw me off.

"Why'd you kill him?" I asked. It was not a difficult assumption. Why else would he be in the trunk? Usually people called 911 when someone died.

"He was messing around." Her breath came in quick gasps and her head turned back and forth rapidly as she grappled with me.

Suddenly, she threw me off. We wrestled some more, and finally both of us stood up. Then I tackled her knees, and she fell backwards, hitting her head on a stone with a horrible thunk. She stopped moving. I felt for a pulse but couldn't find it.

I panicked.

With difficulty, I dragged her to the trunk and pushed her in with the man I now recognized as her husband.

After closing the lid, I looked around. We were on a dirt road in a densely wooded area I wasn't familiar with. No traffic noise filtered through the trees, and only an occasional bird could be heard in the stillness. I had no idea how far from civilization we were, and I didn't feel like jogging down the path to find out.

I got into the old Lincoln Continental and started it up. Still a beauty, I judged it to be at least fifteen years old. Because the car was so big, it took two tries to turn around. I figured I'd head back the way we came and would eventually come to a road I recognized.

My head hurt a bit, and my back was starting to stiffen up. The reality of what had happened to me began to sink in, and my hands shook so badly for a moment I thought I'd have to pull over. Grasping the steering wheel firmly, I gave myself a little pep talk about how everything would turn out okay. Right.

It started to rain. Darkness had arrived, and I looked at the dashboard clock. It was almost eight. My wife, Jill, would be wondering where I was. Soon the rain made visibility poor. Slowing down to a crawl, I kept doggedly on. I wished I knew where I was, and I wished there weren't two bodies in the trunk!

The wipers worked hard at clearing the windshield. Then I saw a stop sign ahead and recognized the street--an access road to the freeway. Turning right, I was soon able to get on the highway and head toward town. The rain even let up a little.

I was going about sixty when the back left tire blew.

The car bucked and swayed as I hung onto the wheel with all my strength. Somehow I maneuvered the big car to the shoulder. I still, to this day, don't know why I didn't just abandon it right there and hitchhike home. Maybe being run over had addled my brain. I had some vague notion of driving to the police station and dropping off the bodies like a good citizen. Anyway, I knew where the lug wrench was and hoped the spare was in its cover on the outside of the trunk. Hopefully there was a jack, too.

The rain had changed to a mist. Looking around first to see if anyone was slowing down, maybe thinking of stopping, I got out. After I had removed the spare from its kit and determined that it wasn't flat, I opened the trunk, grimacing, trying not to look at the two bodies tangled together.

As I got out the wrench and jack and put them on the ground and closed the trunk, a pick-up truck came to a stop behind me. A guy in cowboy boots, black cowboy hat, jeans and a t-shirt that said, "This Space for Rent," approached me, a big grin on his face.

"Looks like you've got a problem," he said. Just what I needed--a friendly good Samaritan. He probably wouldn't be happy until he helped with the spare, then put the blown tire back in its cover and the tools in the trunk. How was I going to get rid of him? Sweat joined the mist on my face and rivulets of water ran down into my eyes. I swiped at it with the back of my hand, and when I looked at the guy again, he had a gun in his big fist. He was still grinning.

"Okay, give me your wallet."

I could feel my shoulders slump.

"I don't have a wallet with me," I told him.

"Driving without a license?" he smirked. "You can get arrested for that. Ha, ha! Stop kidding around and give me your wallet."

"Really. I was out jogging, and I never take my wallet with me--"

"So you stole the car while out jogging? How'd you do that?"

"No, no," I said. "Look, it's a long story. The woman who owns the car accidently hit me. I guess she thought I was dead, so she put me in the trunk with her husband. But when she opened it, I jumped her, and she hit her head on a rock and it killed her. Now she's in the trunk, too. I don't have any money. Sorry."

The guy was backing away from me. "You crazy, or what?" he asked, the grin now a frown.

"No, no. Come look," I said as I went to the trunk and opened it with a flourish.

He gave a strangled cry and started running back to his truck, hands over his head, gun pointing skyward. Cars whizzed by, the drivers oblivious. Grit and pebbles sprayed me as he took off and maneuvered back onto the highway.

No one else stopped to "help," and it didn't take me long to change the tire. By then I was having second thoughts about driving to the police station. What if I got blamed for both killings? What were the chances of them believing the whole fantastic story?

I was still trying to decide what to do when I got off the highway and headed toward the police station. I guessed I could pull over and leave the car, then call the cops when I got home. Better yet, I could drive the car to the Burlson's house. Just as I realized my fingerprints were all over everything, I came to a stop sign.

Carefully, I looked right and left. As I glanced in the rearview mirror, there was a loud crunching sound, and my neck snapped back. There was no head rest in the old car, and the pain was excruciating. I sat, stunned, a minute.

A woman banged on the window. "Are you all right?" she asked. I could barely hear her through the glass. Fumbling with the electric switch, I lowered the window. "Are you all right?" she asked again.

I started to shake my head and quickly decided against it. "My car wouldn't stop," she said. "The road's slick from the rain, I guess. I'm so sorry."

Screams came from the rear of the car. I managed to open the door and get out. Two women stood beside the back of the Lincoln. The trunk lid was up, popped open from the impact, and they were staring inside, hands over their mouths, eyes wide. As I ran toward them, they backed away. Indeed, the road was slick. I slipped and fell, my left leg under me. I heard a sickening snap. Then I blacked out for the second time that day.

* * * * *

When I awoke a nurse was bent over me, taking my pulse. There was a collar around my neck, and my head throbbed, and my leg hurt so bad, tears formed in my eyes. When she saw I was awake, she wiped my eyes with a tissue and offered me some ice which I accepted eagerly.

"Can you tell me your name?" the nurse asked softly.

"Of course," I croaked. "I'm James T. Weatherby. What happened?"

"You don't remember?"

Suddenly, I did. And wished I hadn't. I closed my eyes.

"Does my wife know I'm here?" I asked, eyes still shut.

"No. You didn't have any identification on you."

"I was jogging."

"Do you remember your phone number?" I opened my eyes and recited it as she wrote it down. She put her hand on my shoulder. "There's a police officer outside the door who wants to see you. But first the doctor will check you out before he'll okay any questioning." She offered more ice, then left, promising to come back as soon as she'd notified the doctor and my wife.

The doctor got there first. He explained that I had a concussion and a broken leg and probably whiplash. I told him I hadn't realized jogging was so dangerous. He didn't crack a smile. He further explained that no treatment had begun because they had no one to give permission. Since my life hadn't been in danger, they'd decided to wait for me to come around after taking a few skull x-rays and determining the concussion was mild. He thought I'd probably passed out more from pain and shock than from the injury to my head.

Papers were produced and explained, and I signed them all, then was wheeled to x-ray, right past a uniformed policeman. I'd been given a shot for pain, so I wasn't feeling much. I waved at the cop and smiled. He seemed taken aback, then made a note on his pad, while asking the doctor when I could be questioned.

"When I'm finished," the doc snapped. "I'll let you know. He's not going anywhere." The doctor stopped at the nurse's station as the orderly continued to push the bed, the policeman walking alongside.

It took a long time for them to get all the pictures they wanted. They did more of my head and lots of the neck and leg.

When I returned to my room, Jill was sitting in the visitor's chair reading a book. My wife is one of those petite women who never look fully grown-up. Sometimes they still carded her when we went to bars. She had long swingy blonde hair, china blue eyes and a bow-like mouth to which she regularly applied pink lipstick. She stood up when they wheeled me in.

"There you are," she said brightly. "How do you feel?"

"Could be worse, I suppose."

"What happened, anyway? Were you hit by a car?"

"Twice." Her perfectly arched eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Once while jogging, once while driving. You know that Burlson woman? The redhead?" Jill nodded. "She drives that big old Lincoln, and she ran into me. Thought she'd killed me. So, she put me in the trunk with her husband, whom she had killed." I shuddered, remembering.

Jill's face went white, and her eyes widened. "Perry's dead? Dead?" Her eyes shifted away from mine, and she groped behind herself for the chair.

"Yes," I said, trying to understand her reaction. We hardly knew the Burlsons. I hadn't even known his first name.

But my wife did. And she seemed to be more upset by Burlson's death than by my injuries. As I stared at her, a tear formed in each of her pretty blue eyes, then fell to her cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of her hand.

The air drained from my lungs, and I felt as if I were drowning. The dizziness returned. I fought it off as I watched my wife's face. Several emotions at once seemed to be flitting across it. She looked surprised, and hurt, and scared. And I realized I was feeling those exact same emotions. Plus anger.

Actually, I was mad as hell.

* * * * *

Two plainclothes policemen stepped into my room, asked Jill to leave, and took my statement. It was kind of fun telling them the whole story because their faces never changed expression. They sat there like two Sphinxes, one writing, the other asking questions. It got so I became more and more outrageous with the delivery of the facts, just to get a rise out of them.

But they had the last laugh. They told me Victoria Burlson was alive. She claimed she killed her husband in self defense, panicked, put him in the trunk, hit me, panicked again, put me in the trunk, saw I was alive, panicked, and thought I would try to kill her, so she fought me and lost. Somehow, I just couldn't picture tall, cool-looking Victoria Burlson ever panicking. But what do I know? She had to be one tough broad to survive the conk on her head and a rear-end collision. But hey--I'd survived all that, too. For a moment I basked, admiring us both.

I was elated. I hadn't killed anyone, and I wouldn't even have to spend one night in jail on suspicion of anything.

The next two months were strange. After three days in the hospital, they let me go home. Jill knew that I knew about her and Burlson, but we never talked about it. Really, I was kind of dependent on her until I got used to the cast, especially since my neck was still quite painful if moved the wrong way. Sometimes I wondered if she'd gone to his funeral, if Victoria knew it was Jill her husband had been seeing.

Victoria was charged with murder, but was out on bail. It was all a sensation in the news, of course, and for several weeks Jill and I didn't have time to catch our breath what with interviews, doctor appointments, and therapy for my neck.

We didn't talk much. Only about necessary things such as what time a doctor's appointment was, or what to have for supper. She helped me bathe and dress. Mostly we sat around watching television.

One night we were just finishing dinner when the doorbell rang. Jill went to answer it with me slowly clopping behind her on my crutches.

Victoria stood on our doorstep. Her red hair was flowing down her back, and her green eyes blazed.

"I just want to know what he ever saw in you," she said.

Jill stepped backward, stumbling. It was then that I saw the knife in Victoria's hand, flashing in the fading daylight. I swallowed hard and backed up with Jill as Victoria advanced toward us.

I grabbed Jill's arm and shoved her behind me. We did an awkward dance together, backing, backing, Victoria advancing inexorably.

Suddenly, she lunged, the knife gleaming and arching towards my chest. Jill had hold of my arm and yanked backwards, throwing us off balance. We fell together and my casted leg flew up, knocking the knife out of Victoria's hand. She cursed and jumped on top of us. Jill managed to scramble away and reached for the knife.

Victoria was giving me a severe pounding when Jill raised the blade in her hand and plunged it into Victoria's back. Then my petite wife pulled the knife out and stabbed her again.

Victoria slumped, falling across me, forcing the air from my lungs. I could hear Jill sobbing as she sank to her knees on the floor. I managed to throw Victoria off of me and drag myself along the floor to take Jill in my arms. My good leg throbbed, and as I held Jill, I realized it was broken, too.

I murmured to Jill, "You saved our lives." Then I passed out. Again.

* * * * *

Well, the legs healed, but one is now shorter than the other, and I can no longer jog. Jill said that was good. It seems she'd been seeing Burlson while I jogged and Victoria gave her aerobics class.

Sometimes I wonder what Victoria was like when she wasn't crazed with jealousy. But I quickly push the thought away and find Jill and sit quietly with her. She is no longer carded at bars. She looks grownup now. Mature. I like her that way.

I don't even miss jogging anymore. Obviously, it's too dangerous a pastime for me.



Copyright 1999 Jan Christensen