Curled in the foetal position, Bridget Ross fought the agonised pleasure wracking her body. Every muscle clenched as she denied her body the release it sought. She would not allow this. She would not succumb.
Intentionally, she bit the inside of her cheek, drawing blood. Anything to distract her from the sensations her dreams had fed her. Slowly, the pleasure faded only to be replaced with the throbbing sting in her cheek. That pain she could deal with. The other –
Stop! Don’t think about it.
Horror flooded her body at the realisation of how close she’d come to falling off that ledge. One she’d vowed she’d never stand near again. It had been too close. Tears ran down her cheeks and her limbs became leaden with shame.
At her back, her Pitbull, Daisy, whimpered and whined and nuzzled her, but Bridget couldn’t find the will to comfort her. Not when she herself was beyond comfort.
Could a person will themself into non-existence? Simply lie there and willfully deconstruct their cells so they merged with the universe and ceased to exist?
On the side table, Bridget’s alarm clock began to chime, informing her it was now 5.30 a.m. and time for her run. She ignored it. Eventually it cut off.
She stared into the darkness, blanking her mind deliberately. If she didn’t think, she didn’t feel and then she could tolerate this. If she allowed herself to feel in this moment, she’d be lost.
Bridget willed herself to be empty. She lay there; a lump of flesh. The only indication of life was the rise and fall of her chest and even that she would have traded if she could.
It was futile. She knew it, but still she wished for it. Memories were funny. They had a way of sticking with you no matter how deep you thought you’d buried them. She could no more escape her memories that she could will herself to stop breathing.
As if to test the notion, Bridget blew out all her breath and held herself still. She refused to inhale until her lungs screamed for air, and then she waited longer. Finally, conceding defeat, she sucked in a breath forcefully.
Despite herself, her body lightened. The clenching of her muscles relaxed. Her tears dried. Today was not the day that she gave up. Today she was not able to die.
Too bad that wasn’t the same as living.
Dragging herself from the bed, she made her way to the bathroom. She began her usual routine, going through the motions just as she did every morning. Turning the knobs on the shower, she undressed and waited for the water to reach the correct temperature.
Whorls of steam billowed out from behind the glass walls of her shower before she finally stepped in. The water scalded her creamy skin, turning it tomato red, but went unnoticed.
Drenching her loofah in Dial, Bridget wielded it the way a carpenter wields sandpaper. She scrubbed relentlessly, taking off layers of skin. Tears ran down her cheeks – whether from pain or lingering shame she didn’t know. Didn’t truly care. She ignored them. Ignored the burn and scratch as the scalding water failed to rinse away the slime she felt along her skin.
It wasn’t enough.
She became frenzied in her need to cleanse herself. She knew the stain would never be washed away. It marred her spirit as permanently as if it were tattooed on her skin. But it didn’t stop her from trying.
She reached for the soap again, only to have it slip through her cramped fingers and clatter against the tiles spilling the bright, orange liquid.
Staring in dismay at the soap running down the drain, defeat settled into her body and the loofah slipped from her fingers. Collapsing in on herself, Bridget huddled in the corner of the shower sobbing and wishing she could rinse her crimes down the drain as easily as she could the soap.
Dressed in running gear, an iPod strapped to her arm, she waited for the sky to lighten sufficiently so she could commence her run. Standing pressed against her front door, she watched the sky through the small window cut-out in the heavy, wooden door.
Clouds dyed the colour of cotton candy swirled in the sky and patches of robin’s egg blue poked through the early morning dawn cloud cover. Its beauty wasn’t lost on Bridget, but the ants crawling under her skin were winning the competition for her attention. She needed to get out of this house. She needed to get away from the memories. She needed to run.
As if on cue, a ray of sunlight broke through the clouds illuminating her street. She knew a sign when she saw it. Unlocking all four deadbolts on her door, she walked briskly down the block. When she felt sufficiently warmed up, she began to jog. Daisy trotted happily at her side, her tongue lolling out.
The music in her ears set the pace as it always did, starting out slow, building in tempo as she ran so that she would have to focus all her attention on the beat and her pace in order to match it.
Each choice in the playlist was deliberate. Each drenched and pulled her in. The music absorbed her consciousness, taking her away from her memories, burying them down deep once again. It never failed her. It allowed her to fool herself into thinking she could outrun the past.
Connor Reynolds was riveted by the sight in front of him. Perfection personified. Damn, he wanted his camera in his hands. There was no better subject. The composition took care of itself. No need to do any fancy lens work, or fiddle with too many settings. Framed by the trees lining the running trail, it was all taken care of, just point and shoot.
Without warning, he was yanked hard to the right. All thoughts of adding the sunrise to his growing portfolio flew from his brain as his ankle wrenched sharply and he went down on the path. Skin shredded against the asphalt and white daggers of pain lanced along his wrists and into his elbows as he barely saved himself from getting a massive case of road rash along his face.
‘Stop!’ a feminine voice cut through the silence. ‘Dang it! I said stop!’
Connor dragged himself up off the park trail and scanned for Lotus, his Rhodesian Ridgeback. She was responsible for this current debacle. Well, at least that was his story and he was sticking to it. Not his inattention. No, not at all. She’d clearly decided she’d had enough of running by his side and was now more interested in the dog that was currently wrestling with her. The problem, however, was that unlike his leash, which he’d quickly released once she’d yanked him, that dog’s owner was being dragged and bounced around like a leaf on the wind at the moment. What in the hell had possessed her to wrap a leash around her waist?
Forgetting his injuries, Connor dashed across the trail to where she was vainly trying to get the dogs to stop. Wading in between them, he reached for Lotus’ collar and yanked her to the side with a sharp, ‘Relax!’ To the strange dog, he put up a hand and said, ‘Stop!’ He didn’t know the proper command for her, him, whatever, but his tone should get the job done. Thankfully, the dog stopped.
Turning his attention back to Lotus, he ordered, ‘Sit.’ She turned her root beer-coloured eyes up to his. The plea of “let me play” screamed at him, but he ignored it. Patiently, he repeated the command. She was so stubborn when she wanted something. This time, she sat.
Confident he had about 30 seconds before she ignored him, he spun to help the dishevelled owner. Much to his amusement, she was on hands and knees grumbling curse words that would make a sailor blush. Facing away from him, she presented a very lovely, lush ass for his perusal.
Her jogging clothes hugged her body and he was mightily impressed with her equipment. Her running equipment, of course, not the wiggle in that gorgeous ass as she struggled to her knees. Not the shapely curve of her waist or the lightly muscled arms set off by her black runner’s tank. Her headphones were dangling around her wrist and her coppery red hair was falling out of the simple band where she had it tied up in a sloppy knot.
‘Daisy!’ Her voice was smoky and tinged with an accent he couldn’t place other than Southern. ‘You little bitch! What have I told you about running off like that? Ya’ll damn near broke my ankle.’
Her vowels were long and her consonants soft and silky. “Running” lost the “g” and “you all” didn’t even exist for her. He grinned at her use of “bitch” in its one and only appropriate usage as the Pitbull – he was guessing, anyway – was clearly a female with a name like Daisy.
‘That’s my fault, I’m afraid.’
She whirled to face him stepping backward and catching her knee on her dog’s leash. He reached for her arm to steady her and a look of terror flashed across her face. She jerked up her hands and pushed one hard into his chest. With the other, she slammed her forearm against his, batting him away.
‘Shit!’ he hollered, tucking the aching limb under his armpit in a vain attempt to curb the throbbing. ‘What the hell is wrong with you, lady?’
‘Don’t touch me!’ she gasped, her breath ragged and her chest heaving.
‘Don’t worry,’ he snapped, ‘I don’t plan on getting anywhere near you.’ His arm still throbbed. ‘I was just trying to help. You were about to fall and it was clear I’d startled you.’ He shook his wrist, trying to flick away the pins and needles.
‘I didn’t know you were there.’ She placed her hands on her knees and visibly brought her breathing under control.
Connor remained wary. Gorgeous or not, she’d already proved volatile and he wasn’t at all sure she wouldn’t flick off again. ‘Look, it was my dog that caused the problem. Well, it was me, really. I was distracted and she got away from me.’ Taking in the dogs casually sniffing each other, he gestured toward them, saying, ‘They seem no worse for wear.’
Glancing at her dog, she said, ‘Daisy will take any opportunity to play. I guess it was bound to happen.’
‘That leash isn’t your best choice if you want to be able to keep yourself on your feet when your dog decides to get rambunctious.’
‘But it keeps my hands free.’ Her voice dropped and her gaze turned distant as she spoke and Connor wasn’t certain he’d heard her.
‘Huh?’ he prompted, wanting her to clarify.
As weird as this encounter had been, he found he wasn’t looking to leave yet either and he really should since he had things to do.
‘Nothing.’ Her voice turned sharp and cool. ‘Your knee is bleeding. Are you injured?’
She reached out as if to touch him, only to pull back like she’d been burned. Something was off kilter with this one. Now that she’d mentioned it, he noticed the burn of the shredded skin on his knees and the ache in his palms. Examining both, he determined that all the damage was superficial and told her so.
With a brisk nod she said, ‘I’d keep a better eye on my dog if I were you.’ She jerked lightly on the leash and set off down the path away from him.
‘Hey!’ he hollered after her. ‘What’s your name?’
She ignored him.
He stood, rooted to the spot, watching her until she disappeared from sight. Crazy. She was certifiable. Definitely.
Looking down at Lotus, he stroked her silky head and shrugged. ‘You can’t win them all, huh, baby?’
Taking up her leash, he continued on his way, leaving all thoughts of that strange encounter on the trail behind him.