Iris Running

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Who Was That?

On the second Monday of the new semester, the week before Labor Day, I started making the rounds of the sorority houses to raise support for the Run for Hope. I had adjusted my message about the Run and made up a simple brochure about the running research, what they were trying to learn, and who to contact about participating. At nearly every house, there was interest in the Run and how they could help out. At all of the houses, there was at least one question about the research. At about half of the houses, at least one person took a research project brochure. A question at a few houses was, “Will we have to sign up for that research if we want to do the Run in the buff without getting arrested?” I explained the situation as well as I could without simply saying ‘no, no one will be arrested.’

One of the houses I went to wasn’t a sorority. It was the Kappas. Mark Kumru had invited me, but Jake introduced me. Denny Hedges was the new president. Mark and Nate were still the only ones in the strike, but Jake, Matt, Reiner, and several others were wearing CADP buttons. Some of them other than Jake must have remembered me from the parties I used to go to, but they were all polite. They had good questions, too. My time was just about up when Denny stopped the questions. The house had voted an award for me for saving Nate’s life. They showed me a huge plaque in their dining room where my name had been added to all the others who had been given the award. Nate gave me a smaller version of the plaque for my wall. It wasn’t as public as the Crime Fighter award from the Chief of Police, but it sure meant a lot.

Later, there was too much noise in the sorority pod, so I went to the athletes’ study room. Lots of people were almost always there, often working with tutors from the athletic department. I had just found a seat at one of the tables when a huge lineman from the football team came over. I had seen him around but didn’t know his name. “You want us to lean on him,” he said in a deep gravelly voice, “just let me know.”

I was intimidated by his sheer bulk. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“That gutless jerk on the radio, but me and the boys will lean on anybody you want.”

“I still don’t…”

Two women on the basketball team at the far end of the table had been listening. “Jason Green,” one said. “He was talking trash about you again today and the Hope Run. He’s a brainless loudmouth.”

“And a no-balls jerk,” the football player added.

“Well, people are entitled to their opinions.”

The basketball player shrugged one shoulder. “You probably should find out what all he said before you push that too far. He’s trying to get the Run stopped and you thrown in jail.”

“We’ll be glad to shut ’im up for ya,” the football player offered again.

“Thanks,” I said, “but we don’t want to get you thrown in jail.”

“Some things are worth goin’ to jail for. Nobody should talk about a lady the way he’s been talkin’ ’bout you.”

“Well, I’ll let you know, okay?”

“You do that. The boys that was at the F.C.A. meeting last night shut it down quick when they started talkin’ trash ’bout you. Do it again, any of us.”

“Thanks,” I said again and stared at his back as he went back to the table where he had been studying.

“It was pretty bad,” the other basketball player at the far end of the table said.

Officially, conversation other than with a tutor or between study partners was not allowed in the study room, but it was a long time before I could get out of the room. Not all of the athletes agreed that it was okay to be nude in public, but they seemed to be unanimous in agreeing that no one should be ‘talking smack’ about me when I wasn’t there to respond. Even in my suite, I couldn’t let the issue rest. Various friends – including nearly everyone in the sorority – kept coming by to express their support and their anger at my detractors. I finally got the suite to clear out when I announced that I was going to take a long shower. For a long time, I sat on the shower floor with the water running. Would it be better if I quit the protest and the Run and the sorority?

I went to talk with Victoria again in the second week of classes. By then, I was almost wishing the whole sorority thing hadn’t happened. Whenever I went to my room, people were in the pod and the suite. The study carrel Geri had gotten for me was about the only place I could be alone. Victoria asked me to imagine something different than getting picked up for prom, running on a beach.

That was easy. I didn’t have anywhere in Coventry to run on a beach, but running was what I did, who I am. After a while, she said anybody I wanted could join me. That was easy, too. Who else but Wes? We weren’t trying to make love while we were running like in some of my dreams. We were just two friends running along at a pretty good pace, enjoying being together. She asked me to notice who else was running on the beach. Cassie and McKenzie and Nate and Matt and even Reiner with a bunch of other Kappas. Grandy, Dad, and Chip with Mom and Lily. Rose and Fran. Adriana. Piña was headed to the water to swim, but she wasn’t in any hurry to stop running. Most of the sorority was there. Damien, too. The beach was getting crowded, but Victoria said I should just make it a bigger beach.

Instead, it started getting narrower. Other people were turning around, but Wes and I kept going. There was a huge black rock in front of us, and Wes wanted me to go back the other way. I couldn’t. The rock was like a massive scrotum. I didn’t want to keep going, but my feet weren’t under my control. And then Wes hit me hard in the shoulder, throwing me off my stride and into the water.

Victoria let me take my time getting myself back together before asking if it was Damien’s scrotum.

“Damien?” I blew my nose. “No, it was Eric’s. Why Damien?”

“You said he’s black.”

“But he isn’t a threat.” I rubbed my shoulder, which was real-life hurting from imaginary Wes giving me an imaginary hit. “Why would John hit me?” That was the name I had been calling Wes in our sessions before I found out it’s his real first name.

“He kept you from running into Eric.”

I sighed. Why couldn’t he have been around before prom? No, I mean before Eric got me into his car the day after Gramma died. Or was it junior prom, too?

I was so excited to get out of Coventry on the Friday of Labor Day weekend that I left campus before lunch. I even turned off my phone and car stereo, thinking about the sorority some and Wes – always Wes – but mostly letting my mind wander. I kept coming back to Wes more than anything else.

It was still some way to Gardner when I noticed a lot of smoke coming from a car in front of me on the highway. Why couldn’t people take care of their cars? Didn’t they know a car that wasn’t cared for wasted a lot more gas? A tall, noisy pickup roared past and pulled back into our lane just ahead of a semi headed the other direction. I should go on around the smoky car, too, but the road wasn’t busy enough that I had to do anything dumb. At least the smoke wasn’t the stinky, blue-white stuff from an oil leak. This stuff smelled bad enough and seemed to be coming from the right rear tire. Did they even know? The road ahead was clear, so I moved into the other lane and up beside the other car. With my rider’s side window down, I honked. The woman driving was startled when she looked at me. Okay, so you’ve never seen a naked woman before. Roll down your damn window! A car was coming toward us, so I stepped hard on the brakes and pulled back behind the smoky car.

After two cars and a pickup went by, I sped up beside the smoky car and motioned for the woman to roll down her window. She was slow to respond, but as soon as she did, I shouted, “Your tire!” and pointed. Another pickup was coming, so I slowed again and then pulled off behind the other car.

As soon as we both had stopped, I jumped out and ran up to the other car. This was bad! The driver was fat, the guy beside her had an oxygen tank, and the woman in back was really old. I ran to the other side of the car. Smoke was billowing from the rear tire, but I opened the back door anyway to get the old woman out. She had an oxygen tank, too. I picked her up in my arms and carried her back toward my car. Leaving the woman standing by the front fender, I ran to the other car again to help the man and the fat woman. Flames were visible now, so we went down in the ditch to get back to my car. I got the old woman into my front seat and turned on my phone to call 9-1-1 while the driver and the man were struggling into the back. As soon as they were in, I backed away from the other car. I didn’t know our exact location, but I stayed online so the dispatcher could track my phone signal.

“There’ll be time for you to get dressed before they get here,” the woman said from the back seat.

I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. “I’m part of the death penalty protest. I don’t have anything to put on.”

“The strip-off?” the man wheezed.

“The nudity strike against the death penalty,” I corrected.

“And you were driving on a public highway stark naked?” the woman demanded.

“You two hold your tongues,” the woman beside me said in a thin voice. “We ought to be thankful for whatever help the good Lord sends.”

“Did I hear you tell the operator your name’s Iris Running?” the man asked.

I drew a slow breath. “Yes.”

“The one we seen in the news so much?” the woman in back asked.

I nodded. “Yes. As soon as the emergency crew gets here, I’ll be on my way.”

“I am thankful for your help.” The woman leaned forward to put her hand on the elderly woman’s shoulder. “You okay, Mom?”

“I told you I smelled smoke,” she replied.

“You got my pills?” the man asked.

“They’re in my purse.”

“Where’s that?”

“Where would I get time to think of everything when a naked woman run me off the road?”

“She didn’t make you do nothin’,” the elderly woman said. “She’s helping us.”

“Is your purse still in your car?” I asked.

“Yes. I always put it by my feet right in front of the seat.”

I got out and jogged up to the other car. Dr. Randall would just have to deal with me not wearing my research shoes. It was dumb to go back to a burning car, but I didn’t want to spend another second with those people. I was going to just grab the purse and run, but the car was still running. I slipped into the driver’s seat, stepped on the brake, and switched the car off. Taking the keys and purse, I got out just as a pickup coming from the other direction swerved and pulled off a few feet in front of the car. A man jumped out with a fire extinguisher and ran to spray white foam on the burning wheel.

“Thanks,” I said, coming around the car. “I called 9-1-1.” Flashing lights were visible in the distance.

The man glanced at me and nodded. “You were drivin’ naked?”

“Yeah. That’s my car back there. I stopped to help and… I don’t know.”

“You got Walt and Emma and is that Mrs. Groenemeyer? all back there?”

“I didn’t get their names.”

“Mm hmm. You part o’ that strip-off?”

“The strike against the death penalty, yes.”

He sprayed more foam where the flames had reappeared. “And you’re helpin’ the Groenemeyers? Don’t that beat all.”

“They needed help. It’s not about being in the strike.”

He didn’t seem convinced.

A fire truck and ambulance screamed to a stop beside the car, blocking one lane of the highway, and several people piled out. The man from the pickup apparently was part of the same volunteer fire department. I went back to my car and brought it up by the other one. A woman who was also part of the volunteers pulled up behind me. I was glad to turn the Groenemeyers over to their neighbors and eventually to get going again.

Because it was Friday, her day off, Mom was home working on her sermon and stuff around the house. The sermon was in good shape, so we talked and laughed together while taking care of chores. She didn’t ask about Wes. In the middle of the afternoon, we went to a small market that specialized in locally grown food. A woman at the market who was selling produce was also nursing an infant. She was wearing only a long skirt and a bandana in her hair. She recognized me from all the news coverage and thanked me for making it possible to nurse her baby without feeling like she should hide. I hadn’t done anything for that, no matter what the woman thought. Would Wes donate sperm so I could nurse a baby like that? No, stop thinking like a crazy woman!

Dad was home from the post office, and Lily was home from school when Mom and I got back to the house. Chip was out for the cross-country team and wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours or more. Dad had some projects around the house, so he asked if I wanted to run later, maybe after supper. Of course, I did. As soon as she got home, Lily undressed to take care of and swim in the neighbor’s pool. Mom suggested I go along. Lily went out the back door and down the alley without even a towel, but she was in the middle of a story about some of her school friends, so I didn’t interrupt.

The pool was small but nice, and the maintenance and cleaning didn’t take long. We soon were swimming laps, Lily much faster than me. Since my arms weren’t accustomed to the workout, I was resting on the side of the pool when Mrs. Hedstrom came out of the house with three tall glasses of ice water. Lily paused only briefly before resuming her swimming. Mrs. Hedstrom opened an umbrella over a table on the pool deck, and we sat under it to talk. She was generally on the other side of the issues of nudity and the death penalty, but she wanted to hear my side. The pastor at her small Lutheran church had preached against the strike (not calling it a strip off) and the public nudity involved in the running research and the sorority, but he also wanted his parishioners to think through the issues for themselves. Mrs. Hedstrom had good questions and comments. We were still talking when Lily had finished her distance and practice starts, so she joined us at the table.

“One thing I don’t get,” I said. “If you’re so against public nudity, why do you let Lily use your pool like this?”

“With this fence, it’s not public. Besides, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. We built the fence along with the pool so our kids wouldn’t have to wear suits, and if you hear splashing in the pool of an evening, it’s most likely me without a suit.”

“But she comes over here naked, or at least we did today.”

“I almost always do,” Lily said.

“Won’t our neighbors see that and interpret it as you supporting what we’re doing?”

“Maybe. As I told my bridge club one day when I forgot Lily was going to be coming over before they left, if she’s going to run around naked, I’d rather she does it inside my fence.”

I sat back in my chair and looked at my glass of tea. “Unlike her sister.”

“Don’t be so quick to think you’re being criticized, my dear. Yes, I would prefer that you keep your clothes on, but as near as I can tell, if you’re not going to, you’re doing it the right way.”

“Well, I try, but what makes it the right way?”

“The goals of your sorority are certainly healthy. I’m not so sure the research is all that necessary, but you are adding to what people know. I’m not convinced one way or the other about the death penalty. If you were trying to make money off of being naked or focusing on sex all the time, it wouldn’t be right.”

“To me, either,” both Lily and I said at once. We kept talking until Mrs. Hedstrom’s phone rang inside.

On the way home, Lily asked, “I know this is gonna sound dumb, but before you got into this whole naked thing, did you ever go commando very long, like more than a day or two?”

“No. In that, I was a good little girl, what the Apostle Paul calls conformed to this world. Why? Is it causing you problems, or have you given up on that bet with your friend?”

“That’s still going. The closest thing to a problem was this week, maybe Monday or Tuesday, when I was about to drive to school naked. Chip reminded me that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“Even though you have a death penalty medallion on your backpack?”

“Even though. High school kids have a lot more hormones than college kids, and high school teachers and administrators are really cranky.”

I chuckled and paused before going onto our back deck. “So, why’d you wanna know how long I’ve gone commando?”

“Mom says I need to worry about infections.”

“Have you had one?”

“Couple o’ years ago. It wasn’t much fun.”

“Well, she is our mom, and she has been around longer than both of us put together. All I can say is I haven’t had any problems in the last few months.”

“Yeah. Mom says the open air might be keeping us more healthy, but we should be careful. Everybody in your sorority should, too.”

“Probably. That reminds me of Aunt Violet being so concerned about breast cancer for all the women on her side of the family.”

“Yeah. Most o’ my friends don’t even do self-exams, let alone ever talking to a doctor about it.”

Mom had been called to the hospital, so Dad and I went for a run. He was wearing nylon running shorts without an athletic supporter. He had enjoyed running in the buff at Morgan Hills, but around the town where his wife was pastor of a large church, he needed to keep his clothes on. “And before you ask,” he said, “the rules for her daughter are different than the rules for her husband.”

“Isn’t that the way it always goes,” I said with a chuckle. “What about Chip?”

“So far as I know, he leaves the naked paper deliveries to you.”

After supper, I found Mom and Dad in the family room. They had a baseball game on TV, but neither of them was paying much attention to it. “So,” I said, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them, “did I go to prom or not? There aren’t any pictures in here.” I had the picture albums from my junior and senior years.

Both of them looked at me, and then Dad looked at Mom. Finally, she said, “You asked me to take them out.”

“I did? When?”

“When you first looked at the junior album after I finished it. For your senior prom, you only went out to supper with some of your friends, but I left those pictures out, too.”

“And I really wore the dress Lily borrowed for hers?”

“Yes.”

“You looked mighty nice in it,” Dad added.

I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead. “And I went with… with…”

“Eric Vickery,” Mom said softly.

“Yeah. Him. Victoria’s been helping me remember.” They knew I had been going to counseling.

“Do you want to see the pictures?”

I wasn’t too sure, but she got out an album page from the cupboard where she kept all her supplies. The page was all finished like the others in the album. It was the same dress, the one I had imagined in the sessions with Victoria. My hair was close to what I had imagined, but I didn’t have much makeup on. Eric was wearing a tux, but he didn’t look comfortable. We didn’t look all that interested in each other in any of the pictures. “Thanks,” I said, giving the page back to Mom.

“Do you want me to put it in the album?”

“No. Maybe some day. Not now.”

It took a long time to get to sleep. I thought about calling Wes, but what could I say?

I first saw one of the changes to Chip’s paper deliveries on Saturday morning. Dad had a couple of old carts from when mail delivery was mostly on foot. Chip was using one to hold his papers when he ran his route, rather than carrying them on his bike. While we were folding papers, he told me that the older kids on the cross-country team were calling him El Streak-o since Lily was being called La Streak. Even the coach had called him that once.

“Are you okay with that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I’ve got the most famous big sister in school.”

“Yeah, but is it okay?”

“I guess. I liked streaking at that nudist club. Skinny dipping, too. Lil wants me to go with her to learn how to take care of Mrs. Hedstrom’s pool, but I haven’t yet.”

“She’s the only really dedicated swimmer in the family.”

“Yeah. Mom’s letting all of us go naked a lot. You hafta, but the rest of us don’t.”

“I don’t really have to.” I put the last of the papers into one of the bags and tapped the blue medallion pinned to the outside. “You still have one of these on your backpack?”

“Nah. One o’ the sophomores stole it and scratched out the ‘no’ so it said, ‘more killing.’ He got in trouble for it.”

“Want another one?”

“Sure.”

The morning was chilly with a stiff breeze, but I stayed with Chip rather than running faster to warm up. He had come from his bedroom naked to get sweat pants and sweat shirt out of the dryer. When we got back to the house, the eastern sky was just beginning to turn brighter. The app on my phone showed that we had gone just over my usual morning distance.

Mom came home from work early in the afternoon, and I sat down with her while she had a late lunch. I had eaten with Chip and Lily before they went out with friends. “Mom, I was thinking this morning. When I asked about coming home for the weekend…”

“You’re always welcome,” she interrupted, “no matter what else is going on.”

“I know, but the last time I was home on a weekend was before I joined the strike.”

“I’m glad that isn’t the last time we’ve gotten to see you. I don’t know what I’ll do if any of you kids move far enough away that we can’t get together very often.”

“We’ll figure something out. Mom, will you be upset if I don’t go to church with you tomorrow? Wes is preaching in Grafton, and a bunch of kids from the chapel are going to go.”

“Sounds like fun. Do you still have that permission form for going to Morgan Hills? If it has a date on it, we’ll give you another one without a date. Sue invited any or all of us to stay at her house any time. I’m thinking of taking her up on it on September fifteenth and sixteenth.”

“Really? Why? Just you?”

“Just me. I’m behind on where I like to be for planning worship and preaching, and there’ll be less distractions there.”

“You’ll have a good time with Sue, too.”

“I expect so.”

“Wes said I should go there this weekend. He tries never to go home on long weekends because of the crowds. So, you’ll be okay if I don’t go to your church tomorrow?”

Mom studied me for several seconds. “It’s fine if you want to go to church somewhere else, no matter what the reason. Over the last several days, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say if you wanted to come to worship here. Some people in the church, some of the leaders even, will insist that the pastor’s most famous daughter must abide by the rules of common decency. That’s the term they used in a council meeting. That’s not the way I would put it, but you are quite visible, and I don’t mean just because you’re nude. People know who you are.”

“I wish they didn’t.” I leaned back and looked at the ceiling with my hands on top of my head. “I’m not doing anything indecent.”

“I know, and if George Vickery hadn’t squelched that line of discussion, I might have told the whole council that we were at Morgan Hills on our vacation.” Mr. Vickery was chair of the church council.

“That wouldn’t have been a good idea.”

“Probably not, but George and Lynn know. They knew before we left town. They’ve invited us – all of us – out to their cabin on the lake tomorrow afternoon. If you don’t want to go, they’ll understand.”

“Have you told ’em what Eric did?” He was George and Lynn’s son.

“You asked me not to. I was glad to have Gramma Iris’s death and funeral as a convenient reason not to do Eric’s funeral, but George and Lynn are good people, and they remain some of my strongest supporters in the church.”

“Yeah. We’re going to support Wes. I wasn’t going to go, but Piña, Chelsea, Jake, and Angie ganged up on me. It’s Jake’s home church, and Amaryllis will be there, too, maybe Aunt Violet.”

“Have you told your father? He might want to go along.”

“No. Do you think I should stay away from your church as long as I don’t have clothes?”

Mom took her plate to the sink to rinse it. “Do you remember in middle school before we moved here when you came home from that youth group meeting so mad…”

“That guy,” I interrupted, “that said we should just ask ourselves if we would do it in church? I remember.”

Mom turned to lean against the counter while she dried her hands with a towel. “Do you ever ask yourself that about what you’re doing?”

“You know the answer to that. I’ve been asked to speak at more churches than I could shake a stick at, or a titty as Angie says.”

“Iris,” she paused to return the towel to its rack, “since you started running again, nothing you’ve done has caused me any serious trouble or heart ache. You were in the church in the nude on Easter – not in worship or in the sanctuary, but in the building. Some people were upset, but we do say everyone is welcome. Unfortunately, if you were not part of my family, it would be a lot easier for me to go to bat for you.”

“If I weren’t part of your family… I don’t know. That would be awful.”

We talked a while longer, but there really wasn’t much else to say.

Chip was sick on Sunday morning, so Dad and I did the paper route. I was distracted, thinking about Wes and the worship service in Grafton, and had to go back over a couple parts of the route. When we got home, I took a long shower. Being turned on while I tried to listen to Wes preach wouldn’t help my concentration any. I had a quick breakfast with Mom and Dad – Dad’s original recipe blueberry bran muffins – before heading out.

Not much traffic was on the roads, so I didn’t need to concentrate on driving. I had been to Grafton and to the church there enough times that I didn’t have to think about the route, either. My thoughts kept wandering to Wes. I was almost to Grafton when I decided to just play it cool. Wes and I were just friends. I was just there as part of the group from the chapel. We were just friends. No one needed to know what I fantasized about in the shower. We were just friends.

Only a few cars were in the parking lot when I arrived at the church. Wes’s little convertible wasn’t one of them. Just friends. He might have ridden with the other kids from the chapel, and they might have parked on the other side of the church. Just friends. It was a fairly modern building, not as big as Mom’s church. Just friends. No other friend had ever made me feel all jumbled up inside, but Damien was going to be there, too. Just friends. Why couldn’t my hormones get the message? I ran a brush through my hair a couple of times and got out of my car. Wes was just pulling into the lot. And Damien wasn’t with him! No! Calm down! Just friends, damn it! Just friends! Breathe. Just friends.

Wes parked right next to my car, where I was still standing like a dork. “Hey, Running. What are you doing here?” he asked even before switching off the engine.

“Piña and Chelsea roped me into coming,” I said with a smile.

“Really? I didn’t know anybody was going to be here.”

“Not even Damien?” Dummy! Don’t ask things like that! You’re jabbing yourself with a rusty knife.

“Nah. He’s with his grandparents at some CADP event.”

We chatted about forgettable things as we went into the church. An elderly woman in a blue flowered dress met us just inside the open door. “You must be Wes. It’s a long time since I talked to a naked man. I’ll be helping lead the service with you. I’m Doris, and is this your girlfriend?”

“No,” I said quickly, “no, we’re just friends. I’m Iris.”

“You should see my house in the spring. I have more iris than just about anybody in the county.”

“You’re not even boyfriend and girlfriend,” a man behind Doris said. He was wearing a worn suit and white shirt.

“It’s okay,” Doris said. “I’ll show ’em around.”

“It sure as Hell ain’t okay. I ain’t gonna stand for it, neither. Young people think they can live together without marriage, but I don’t hafta watch ’em go to it like animals. No, sir, it ain’t okay, and I won’t stay and be told it is.” He stomped out, but his attempt to slam the door was thwarted by the doorstop.

After a few moments of stunned silence, Doris said, “Don’t you mind Carl. He’s always like that. He wouldn’t be happy if Jesus himself handed him a check from Publication Clearance House.”

“Yeah,” Wes said. “We…”

“We aren’t here to do anything with anybody watching,” I said.

“We’re both in the strike,” Wes explained.

“But that’s all,” I added.

“Well, I don’t pretend to understand how this strike and that running sorority at your college work, but my Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Seems to me that’s pretty clear.” Doris took us into the sanctuary and introduced us to the organist, Wes as the guest speaker and me as his girlfriend.

I lost track of how many times I told people I was not Wes’s girlfriend. Where were the others from the chapel? If there were other naked women around, it wouldn’t be all that easy for everybody to just assume… way too much! The first service was just about to start when Amaryllis, Jake, Jasmine, and Aunt Violet came in. I extricated myself from Doris introducing me to everybody and their dog – as Wes’s girlfriend! – and went to talk with my relatives. That was a little better. It at least gave me someone to sit with. During the first hymn, Amaryllis whispered that this was the first time all summer that Aunt Violet had felt strong enough to come to worship.

During the announcements that followed, I did something Mom had made us kids promise never to do in worship: I got out my phone and texted. “Where r u?” I sent the message to Piña, Angie, and Chelsea.

Right away, Piña responded. “Home. Where u?”

“Church in Grafton. U got me here!”

“Sorry. Didn’t think anybody was going.”

“U owe me big time!”

“Hugs and kisses to u & Wes.”

“Traitor!” I turned my phone off and put it away.

Greeting time was at the end of the announcements, and I was glad to be with my relatives. Jake and Jasmine introduced me as their cousin from Gardner – not as Wes’s girlfriend! No matter how much I wished… No! Don’t go there! They also gave both my first and last name. Everybody knew who I was. Most knew I had helped the Groenemeyers on Friday. Doris tried to cut off the greeting time, but everyone wanted to meet me. Talk about awkward.

Eventually the service moved on. Jasmine wrote a note on her bulletin and handed it across Jake to me. “Everybody knows us, but now we’re famous!” The last word was underlined four times.

“I’d gladly go crawl in a hole about now,” I wrote back. “I’m here just to support Wes.” I underlined ‘just’ five times.

Wes had four scriptures: Mark 14:51-53, 1 Samuel 19:24, Isaiah 20:1-4, and Genesis 2:25. I didn’t remember Mom ever preaching on any of those passages, but I had heard all of them since joining the Sunday evening gathering. The first point in the sermon was that many people are afraid either of being naked themselves or of seeing other people naked. The second point was that many people use being naked as a way to get closer to God, including those who pray while they’re in a shower. The third point was that sometimes God calls people to be naked. No one knew how long the death penalty protest would last, but Wes for one was willing to stay with it even three years like Isaiah or longer if need be. ‘Me, too,’ I thought, ‘me, too.’

In order to introduce the fourth scripture and the conclusion to the sermon, Wes said, “A good friend of mine joined the protest this spring.” He glanced at me but not long enough for anyone else to identify who he was talking about. “In the middle of the summer, she told me she doesn’t feel naked anymore. She is just herself, standing in the presence of God. When we come into God’s judgement, will we run away because we’re naked? Will we simply bask in God’s presence? Or will we be able to say that we followed God’s will, unashamed of being who we truly are?”

As Wes and Doris were exiting the sanctuary at the end of the service, Doris paused at the end of the row beside Aunt Violet and beckoned me to come with them. I wanted to scream, ’Can’t you see I’m NOT his girlfriend?’ But I also didn’t want to make a scene. Of course, greeting people at the door made more than plenty of a scene. Wes got plenty of praise for his sermon, but everyone who came out that door seemed to want to talk to me, too, even though I had stationed myself on the opposite side from him. I was definitely going to leave as quickly as I could… until Wes thanked me for being there. That was just after his mother came in – wearing a pale yellow dress – and before Aunt Violet and the others were getting ready to leave.

“If I make it to the Run for Hope,” Aunt Violet said and paused to catch her breath, “I hope there will be a place to sign up for this strike.”

“Mother?” Amaryllis said, pulling back in surprise.

“Nobody wants to see my sick, ugly, old carcass…. Maybe that will get them to do something about the death penalty.” Jake and Jasmine started laughing. “You… being here… brings me closer to God. My judgement… my judgement will be okay.”

Along with the others, I helped Aunt Violet out to her car. Then I hurried back inside to tell Wes I had changed my mind about leaving. Wes and his mother were in a crowd of people, both from the early service and the late one. I was soon in a crowd, too. Word had spread about who I was. Strangely, most people seemed most interested in the fact that I had helped the Groenemeyers. What was that about? Wes’s mom was glad to sit with me when the service started. Doris was helping to lead again, and she wasn’t introducing me as Wes’s girlfriend. What would she have done if Damien were there? That old guy that left probably would have had even kinkier fantasies. The music was led by a praise band and was much livelier. The congregation was much younger, and as I looked around, I realized that a lot of the people hadn’t come around to talk to me. Were they okay with me being there? Somebody must have been okay enough with it to invite Wes to speak. The sermon was good again, and Wes was more relaxed. His mom and I weren’t sitting by the middle aisle, so Doris couldn’t hijack me to the door to greet people.

“Was that you?” Sue asked as we were picking up our things to leave.

“Which?”

“That talked about not feeling naked.”

“Oh. Yeah. I mean, I did. Somebody else might have, too.”

“Maybe. I never knew how to put it before, but every fall when school starts and I have to wear clothes again every day, I feel that way in reverse. Wes is lucky to have a friend like you.”

I hadn’t thought of a way to respond when Doris came up to invite me, Sue, and Wes to dinner. I declined because I was going to meet my family at the lake. It was still some time before I could get away from the church, and I was about to drive out of the parking lot when I saw Wes – with his mother and Doris – and was able to say good-bye. It seemed strange how much he wanted to thank me for being there. Maybe that was only because his other friends bailed out. Yeah, that was probably it. On the way to the lake, I put on some music and turned it up loud. It didn’t really keep me from thinking, but the lyrics kept me from obsessing about Wes the whole time. Was my life this complicated before I started running again? I didn’t remember. But there was a whole lot about that part of my life I was glad to forget, even if Jake said what I did at the parties wasn’t as bad as I remembered.

The directions to the Vickerys’ cabin were easy to follow. My family and two other couples from the church had arrived long enough before to have changed into swimsuits already. Chip wasn’t feeling well yet, so he had stayed home. One of the other couples had brought their twin daughters who were in Chip’s class in school, and they were hanging out with Lily already. I sat down with the adults. Mostly the conversation flowed past me, except when they talked briefly about the strike, the running research, and the sorority. I was happy to just chill out, listen to the adults talk, swim a little with Lily and the girls, and take a couple of turns around the lake on water skis. This was actually where I had learned to ski when the Vickerys had the youth group out from the church.

Mr. Vickery was taking my parents and the other couples out in the boat when I went into the cabin to rinse off the lake water. They didn’t have an outdoor shower like Ross and Donna or Morgan Hills. Wes had left a voice mail while I was skiing, so I called him. At least we could talk. Even if he was with Damien. He answered just as I got to the wall where Mrs. Vickery had pictures of Eric. She always thought I was so special because I was the last one to see Eric alive. One of the pictures on the wall was Eric and me just before we left for junior prom. I was so skinny then… and so innocent. Wes wanted to apologize for not asking first about using me as a sermon illustration.

“That’s okay. You didn’t accuse me of raping people where everybody could watch.”

“Nobody should be raped, ever.”

“Complete agreement!” He didn’t even know about Eric. How could he know I was standing in front of a picture… from then?

“Doris said that guy doesn’t ever come to church much. He musta come this morning just so he could leave again. Thanks again for being there. It really is easier when there’s at least a few friendly faces.” Was a friendly face all he thought of me?

When the call ended, I stood staring out at the lake. No wonder I was having nightmares. No wonder I had blocked out my junior prom. I heard Wes’s words again almost as if he were standing right beside me. “Nobody should be raped, ever.”

Chip was feeling better when we got home, but I told him to sleep in on Labor Day morning and that I would do the paper route. Dad offered to do it with me, but I declined. As nice as it was being home with my family, I also liked being out in the cool morning air by myself. Things had certainly changed since Spring Break when I had to worry about a cop trying to hunt me down. The carts Dad had fixed up were nice, too. If I would have had something like that back when the route was mine, I might have kept it up longer. Of course, back then I didn’t know how nice it was to run wearing just shoes. When had I first streaked? I couldn’t remember. This really wasn’t much like streaking. Wes said he had liked running in the mornings with the other interns in the capital. Too bad the marching band practiced in the mornings.

Dad was trying to get the shed in the backyard re-shingled and re-painted, so I helped him. Since we worked on the same side, we kept up a conversation, and I didn’t have time to think about anyone else. The shed was finished by noon, and I drove back to Coventry in the afternoon.

It hadn’t happened while I was home in Gardner, but I had been having variations on the same nightmare nearly every night in Coventry. There wasn’t much question that it was related to Wes. In the nightmares, Wes just watched. He didn’t text me at all on Labor Day until in the evening. He had told me he was going to be helping with some stuff for Senator Parsons.

On Tuesday afternoon, I was working on some of the sorority studies when Wes called. “Are you gonna call him?” he asked without even saying ‘hi.’

“Call who?”

“Jason Green.”

“Why on earth would I call him? And why are you listening to him? Your internship is over.”

“You haven’t heard. He wants to thank you for helping his parents and grandmother. He’s left messages on your voice mail.”

“Haven’t gotten ’em. Must be like the other things he makes up about me.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. He isn’t going to take any calls or talk about you before next Monday to give you a chance to call back. He cut off people that wanted to talk about the running research, our strike, or your sorority.”

I sat back in my chair. “Probably just a trick.”

“Could be, but isn’t it worth finding out? Might be a chance to get him on our side.”

I sighed. “I don’t know. Have you talked to Senator Parsons about this?”

“No.”

“Well, I’m not gonna call that snake before I talk to somebody a whole lot wiser than me.”

“Where you gonna find somebody like that? Iris, you’re amazing! You don’t think so, but people like you aren’t walking around just everywhere.”

“Come on! Everybody’s unique! I’m no different in that!”

“Yeah. Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein were just guys like me. Does that make them any less amazing? Iris, it’s not about being unique. It’s about what you do with it. And you… are… amazing! Deal with it.”

I stared across the room. Why did what I wanted him to say sound so much like getting chewed out?

“Are you still there?” Wes asked after a bit.

“Where else would I go?”

“With the way you run so much, you might be anywhere.”

“Lots of people put in more miles than I do.”

“Iris, why do you have such a hard time seeing what everyone else knows about you?”

“I don’t know. I think I know why I haven’t gotten any of Jason Green’s calls… if he isn’t just making that up. My phone’s set up so nobody from the media can get through.”

“That’s probably it. So, how’d you help his family?”

“On the way home last weekend, I was following a car with smoke coming from one of the back tires. All I did was get ’em stopped and call 9-1-1.”

“Was their name Groenemeyer?”

“Yeah. Everybody was talking about it at church.”

“Jason Green’s parents are Emma and Walter Groenemeyer from Grafton.”

“Yeah. I really didn’t do much.”

“Their car was on fire, and you stopped ’em before it blew up. That isn’t much.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side.”

“Part of being on your side is helping you see how other people see the things you do.”

“Yeah, well, one thing you should know about women is that sometimes we just want somebody to see things the way we see ’em.”

“Well…” Wes cleared his throat and hesitated for several seconds. “Does this mean you’re not gonna call him?”

“Not without a whole lot better reason than that he wants me to. That wasn’t good enough in middle school, and it isn’t good enough now.”

“If I ask Shirley what she thinks you should do, will you ask around, too?”

After a bit, I said, “Yeah.”

After we hung up, I called Carmelita and left a message on her voice mail. Unlike most times after I talked with Wes, I wasn’t turned on. Maybe the way to get over him was to keep bringing up things we disagreed about.

Just after I found the place where I had been working, Carmelita called. “Have you called Jason Green?”

“I’m not sure I want to, but I knew I should talk to you first.”

Did you help his parents?”

“Yeah, but even if it was Jason Green himself, I’d help him.”

“I’m sure you would. He doesn’t pay much attention to our athletes, but as soon as you became part of our program, we made sure he’s in our database under all the phone numbers we know he might use.”

“You’re saying I shouldn’t call him?”

“No, not at all. You can call anybody you want, but if you call any number in our database, the call will be recorded, and we will check for violations of our media contact agreement.”

“Even if he just wants to thank me for helping his parents?”

“No matter why he wants to talk with you. He has caused enough problems that we prefer not to trust him.”

“Okay. You said once you’d talk to any media people for me. Can you call him?”

Carmelita called again in just a few minutes. The conversation with Jason Green or Jonas Groenemeyer had gone very well. He was very grateful for what I had done and wanted to talk face to face with a promise not to record the conversation in any way or to mention it on the air.

“Do you think I should trust him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He sounds very different when he’s not on the air.”

“Are you saying it’s up to me?”

“You can decide what you want to do. He agreed that I could be there as legal counsel, if that’s the only way you want to talk with him. We can both be nude, both clothed, or either combination.”

“Oh, I forgot you’re in the strike, too.”

“Yes, though I sometimes have to wear something for my work with the University. If you want to meet with him, we can be in my office or anywhere else you’d like.”

“It sounds like you think I should go ahead.”

Carmelita hesitated. “I will communicate whatever you wish to him.”

“So you aren’t going to tell me what you think I should do.”

“No. If you decide to go ahead, it would be good to have the meeting before his show on Monday. He’s willing to meet with us any time before then.”

“Okay. Set it up, and I’ll be there.” I wished I was more confident it was the right decision.

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