The man laced his sneakers in the splash of silver cast by the streetlight through the bedroom window. He dressed in silence, holding his breath, almost as though there were somebody in the bed that he was taking care not to disturb. He ate a banana and drank a glass of juice, stretched his muscles, stepped outside into the August humidity. Philadelphia was suffering through a heat wave, and this day would be no different from the day before, but he had found running tolerable at this hour. There was something about the sun promising to rise that seemed to stir up a breeze. Setting off at an easy pace, the man fell comfortably into his usual route around the perimeter of South Philly.
For most of his life he hadn't liked running at all. It had reminded him too much of his father, a serious runner, who died when he was ten. Through his teens, when he was asked to jog, for gym class or at soccer practice, he would relive the first annual memorial run established by his mother to commemorate his father's name and his favorite sport. He had run the first mile of ten-that was all the race organizers had asked of him-but it had been a struggle. He still vividly remembered squinting in the early morning sun at the people who lined the course applauding him, calling out his name, encouraging him as though plodding along in his father's oversize sneakers was an act of heroism. Some reached out to pat him on the back or simply, it seemed, to touch him on the arm or the shoulder, as though mere contact with him might ward off such bad luck for their families, for their fathers. All along the route the whispers trailed after him: "A heart attack at 40." "And in such great shape, too."
But as the boy became a man and closed in on the age his father had reached-and at the urging and finally the pleading of his doctor to find time to exercise-he turned to running. He bought some shoes, logged some miles, ran some races. Found satisfaction in keeping the same type of log as his father had, satisfaction in noting the increase in miles and the decrease in times. Enjoyed being more energetic and less depressed than he had in years. Now he was an addict, feeling both foolish and fresh as he sought out his fix in the one reasonably cool hour of the day.
After two miles he was reaching that zone where his brain would detach from his body and lift to float somewhere just above his head, along for the ride, occasionally whispering, "you can go faster, you know." A stretch of sidewalk closed for construction almost brought him to a halt; he could have crossed the deserted expanse of Broad Street and continued along his usual route, but instead he veered left and found himself running down streets where he wouldn't normally venture. The darkness made him feel both safe-for who would be up at this hour?-and uneasy-if he were to hurt himself, or if he were to be hurt by somebody, who would know where to begin to look? These were streets with names instead of numbers, names like Tasker, Darien, Montrose, Passyunk. He struggled to keep his bearings and negotiate the uneven sidewalks all while maintaining his usual pace. He felt like an explorer as he breezed down the silent streets littered with bleach bottles and tuna cans and candy wrappers; he felt like the last man alive in a bombed-out city as he passed the occasional empty, crumbling shell of an abandoned house. Ahead he spotted a woman in a security guard uniform, shirt untucked, hustling home from her shift, and he felt more like the tourist he was. He crossed to the other sidewalk, not for his own safety, but so he wouldn't startle her. From the way she stopped and stared at him, frowning, he could tell that he was the first person she had ever seen jogging down her street at five in the morning.
He came to a stretch of modest row houses fronted by three-step stoops, and saw what seemed to be a large brown oddly misshapen package sitting on a top step halfway down the block. As he neared he realized that it was a boy with dark hair. The boy lifted his head at the sound of footfalls.
The boy had shorts on, but no shirt, no shoes or socks. The white skin of the soles of his feet lapped up almost to his ankles where the skin turned brown. Something about the boy's eyes, round brown pools, kept the runner from crossing to the other side. He felt himself slowing a bit. The boy uncurled his arms from his knees, unfolded his legs, rose to stand as though in salute. He looked like he might be ten, maybe eleven, slightly rounded belly beneath stark ribs. He smiled at the runner.
"Hey, kid," the man said. He waved over his shoulder as he gained speed.
A second set of footfalls-lighter, faster-joined his own steady pace, padding along in a stealthy counterpoint.
He glanced over his shoulder. The boy was smiling. He matched the man's pace but remained a few steps behind. This had happened before, running in the city; kids drop what they're doing and chase. Little kids for the fun of it, bigger kids to taunt and torment. But it had never happened to the man on one of his early morning runs-at this hour most kids this boy's age were sound asleep. The chasing never lasted for more than a block or two. He kept on running, confident that soon the boy would tire and stop, hands on his knees, chest heaving.
What had moved him to just stand up and start running? As they ran the man invented a fantasy in which the boy, with his brown skin and black hair and large brown eyes, was from a desert country where he had to run for miles in the predawn hours to reach his school before the heat of day blazed strongly and paralyzed all creatures but the scorpions, and the sight of this strange man running and the hour of day had stirred an overwhelming nostalgia in him that had lifted him from his crouch and swept him along in the runner's wake. As the boy followed the man the ruins of South Philly fell away from him and he was running across the plains under the stars and was happy again. A silly fantasy, the man thought. There was something about the rhythm of the boy's bare feet on the concrete, though, that made the man smile.
He didn't hear the boy behind and figured he had dropped off and turned back. He glanced over his shoulder-the boy was still running but had fallen behind by maybe half a block. The pace was too fast for him, yet he seemed determined to follow. What was he doing? He was being carried far from his stoop, far from his home. The two were nearing the end of his stricken neighborhood and seemed about to enter an even rougher, less-inhabited stretch of South Philly. The man ran backwards a few steps and stretched both arms above his head to wave the boy back. He found himself mouthing the words "Go home," not wanting to shout at that early hour, even though it was unlikely that there could be many people living on that block to wake. The few windows that were not boarded or broken stared blackly back at him.
His father had kept a running log during the last year of his life, which consisted of cryptic notes like "LBF loop with JB, 38 mins, tired last mile, knee felt good though" or "to pool via Pequea, 98° + humid, had to walk 5 mins near finish. Dip after felt great." He remembered thumbing through this book over and over again, searching his father's cramped handwriting until the pages threatened to fall from the spiral binding. Only occasionally would he find a mention of himself, always frustratingly tangential: "To County Park to watch J's baseball game, 45 mins, cool evening. DQ after-probably didn't need that shake." He had come to dislike that book, as he had come to dislike running, and kept it buried in a trunk in the basement. He kept his own log now, of course, with his own little codes, and he wondered how he would note the appearance of this strange boy shadowing him, so that he would remember it.
The kid was still with him. He turned a corner and stopped, jogging in place, not wanting to get out of synch. As he bounced, he wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt, pulled deep lungfuls of oxygen in through his nose to control his breathing.
The boy rounded the corner and stopped short. He was breathing hard, but he still managed a smile.
The man was not smiling. He was doing his best to be stern. Serious. Severe, even.
"Hey, kid," he said. "You should go home."
Still smiling, the boy nodded. The man wondered if he understood. There was a vaguely exotic air about him: his black hair thick and straight and slightly plastered at the temples with trickles of sweat, eyes big and brown, almost pleading, narrow shoulders and skinny legs. Maybe he really was from some desert country on the other side of the world.
"I've got a long way to go yet," the man said. "You keep following me, you're going to get lost."
Still nodding, the boy blinked.
"Go." The man jogged a couple of steps back around the corner so he could point back the way they both had come. "Get out of here. Go on."
His goofy uncomprehending smile was starting to get on the runner's nerves.
"Look, I'm not coming back," he said. "You can follow if you want, but…"
The man turned to go. He watched the boy over his shoulder as he crossed the street. He stayed there, still smiling. The man waved at him for what he hoped would be the last time, and was a little surprised when the boy didn't wave back. He faced forward and ran hard-he had a long way to go and these morning runs did not leave him with much time to shower and dress for work. After a block he turned to the left, after another block to the right, figuring his jig would keep the boy from following.
Five minutes later he was settling back into his rhythm, even as color began to creep back into the leached pre-dawn gray. As he angled across the street to make another left he caught a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. He stopped, reversed, and was dismayed to see the boy at the other end of the block, plodding after. From the slouch of his shoulders and the bounce of his head the runner knew that he was not enjoying the run anymore, that he was tired. That he might not be able to run much further, even. Damn that kid, he thought. He was lost. Probably felt unmoored as soon as he left his immediate neighborhood, maybe even as soon as he left his block.
The man made sure the boy had seen him, then continued. There was only one thing to do: lead the boy back to his stoop. The man thought he remembered the sequence of turns he had taken well enough to be able to draw a loop out of all this mess that would bring them back to his home. Once there he could force him to stop, maybe even knock on the door to his home and wake his parents.
Now he checked back over his shoulder frequently, jogging slowly to make sure that he could keep up. He felt bad for the kid.
Then again, how did he know that the stoop where he had been sitting was even his? What if he just happened to be sitting on that step with his head on his knees for no other reason than that it was there when he was tired and couldn't go on? What if he was even further from his home than the man could imagine? What if the far side of the world didn't even begin to approach the distance between this boy and anything he could call a home?
He reached the block that, by his calculations, should have been the boy's. Except it wasn't. He went a block further, and that wasn't it, either. Maybe he was too far south. He turned right and jogged a block, but those streets were not familiar. Now that he needed them he seemed unable to find any street signs. He had slowed to a brisk walk, the sweat on his neck beginning to cool. There was a glow over his shoulder where the sun was coming up, and he tried to orient himself by that light, tried to retrace his steps in his mind. How many blocks had he gone after that last right? Was that the second right or the first?
He turned completely around and began walking back the way he had come. He wanted to ask the boy if maybe he knew where they were. Maybe the boy wasn't lost at all.
"Hey kid," he shouted.
There was nobody in the street to hear him, though; nobody answered. The streetlight above him flickered and went dark.
"Where'd you go?"