Iris Running

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Coming Out of the Clothes Closet

“We have a difficulty,” Dr. Brad Randall said. The lab assistant – a cute guy with dark skin, curly black hair, and a foreign accent – had called him over when I turned in my first running miles at the Human Performance lab between classes on Monday. Despite stiff legs and wheezing lungs, I had run six nights in a row. He glanced again at the printout from the tracking dealie on my shoe. “You’ve been running at night?”

“Yeah. The first time was on a road, but the others were in a park.”

He nodded. “When we hadn’t seen you in here, we assumed you had decided not to participate in the study.”

“No. I was running, honest!”

“Without witnesses.”

I drew a quick breath and shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah. I talked to some cops the first time.”

“Miss Running, I’m not accusing you of dishonesty. We’ve had quite a time recruiting participants for this study. However, if you run only alone in the middle of the night, we have no way of verifying our protocol. Verification is why we ask you to run in the nude rather than simply without undergarments.”

I looked at the floor. “Are you gonna make me quit?”

Dr. Randall hesitated. “Not necessarily. We do need verification of the protocol.”

“Do I hafta run inside here? I really like running outside better.” As I was coming through the Athletic and Recreation Center – the ARC – to the HP office, two men on the indoor track were apparently participating in the study or maybe in the death penalty protest, maybe both. A small sign on the doors said the whole ARC was clothing-optional. Everybody on campus knew that, but not many took the option.

“I’m afraid it’s the time more than the place. Our participants won’t be arrested while running for the study, but we do need to verify protocol compliance. If you wish not to be seen, we can put a screen around one of our treadmills.”

“I hate treadmills.” I drew a slow, deep breath. “Okay. I’ll run during the day. Do I need to let you know so you can look out the window?”

“No. If the rest of your running fits our protocol, we’ll assume this first week’s does as well. May I suggest another possibility? If this wasn’t mentioned in your research introduction, I need to make sure it is in the future.”

“If it means I can keep running, sure. I didn’t really pay close attention when I signed up. I just wanted to run.”

Dr. Randall nodded. “Our work in the Human Performance lab is about helping everyone achieve their goals. We staff the lab until the entrances to the Center are locked at midnight. From then until the entrances are unlocked in the morning, our exercise equipment is unavailable, but the indoor track is available around the clock, though I’m told there are few runners much past ten. If you were to come in before midnight, our late-night staff could verify your compliance. It would mean running inside, but very few people would see you.”

“It’ll be okay as long as I don’t hafta use a treadmill.”

Dr. Randall initialed the paper and turned me back to the assistant for my weekly check in. Of all the things he checked, I was most surprised and pleased that my weight was down six pounds. I probably wouldn’t drop that much every week, but it was a great way to start. As he was checking my breasts – touching and measuring, not a scan, but very professional – I wondered if Gramma Iris might still be alive if her breasts had been checked every week. Of course, nobody in my family would be caught dead in streaking research. Dad and Grandy had gone to college on running scholarships, but they weren’t streakers. How long could I hold off telling them about it, Mom especially?

At eleven thirty that night, I went to the ARC. No one was on the track, but a couple of guys were shooting baskets in the middle. Oh, well. Maybe they were so focused they wouldn’t notice a naked runner. Fat chance! Maybe I should go get a drink or several before trying this. No, drinking and running were a bad combination, and I was going to run.

‘Maybe,’ I thought a few minutes later, ‘they should research how long it takes people to come out of the locker room.’ Undressing alone in the park had been no problem. I had simply dropped my clothes and started stretching. Doing it where I was certain I would be seen was too much like the parties I used to go to. ‘Doing it’ meant something else at the parties.

“Attention,” a voice said over the PA, “entrances will be locked in ten minutes.”

Trying to act calmer than I felt, I stepped out of the locker room wearing only running shoes and my armband phone carrier. The guys who had been shooting baskets were chatting as they gathered their things. In the recessed entry to the women’s locker room, I stretched until I heard them go into the men’s. Dad always told me to act confident to be confident. Here goes. I crossed the gym to the HP lab. A guy was by the exercise equipment, turning off machine after machine.

He gasped when he saw me. “Are you… Did you need one o’ the machines? I’m locking up.”

“No. I need you to verify my compliance with the running research protocol.”

“Oh. There’s a note about that.” He crossed toward the desk, keeping away from me. “I gotta see a photo ID”

Why was he embarrassed? I got my student ID out of the card slot on my phone carrier. The picture was better and newer than the one on my driver’s license. The same one was on my fake license.

He looked at the ID but not at me and marked a paper on the desk. “You gonna be comin’ in every night?”

“Maybe.”

“Should have the place all to yourself.”

I did more stretching at the side of the track. The guy’s reaction seemed to have sucked out all my nervousness. I set off at an easy pace and soon was breathing way too hard. I hoped it wouldn’t be too long before my lungs came back. By the second lap, I had settled into the rhythm and was no longer totally focused on how lousy my running was. I was doing better than the week before, but it would be a while before I could say more than a word or two at a time. I kept going longer than I had been running in the park but considerably less than I used to do and stopped just outside the women’s locker room again to cool down and do more stretching. Running in the empty gym was a little weird, but it was a lot warmer than outside. This week was a lot more like February weather than the week before had been. It was snowing when I came out of the ARC, but there wasn’t any wind yet. What would Wes Milton do in weather like this? Piña Ball and the other protesters, too? Wes was too gorgeous to be freezing any parts.

Snow and wind totally dominated the next three days. I was at the ARC to run about eleven or eleven thirty every night. On Thursday afternoon, I tried to listen to the local radio talk show where I had first heard about the running research. That left me anything but calm. Jason Green, the host, was a complete nut case. He wouldn’t talk calmly with anybody and seemed to like making people mad. Why did so many people listen to him? Didn’t they notice how dumb his statements were?

Thursday night was cold, so I headed to the Campus Center after supper rather than going all the way to the Java Station. One time, I had gotten grounded because of an argument with Dad about whether I would go running in the middle of a blizzard. Even the post office had been closed. Not many people were around the Campus Center. I found a table with nobody close. I needed to talk with someone, but who could I talk to? Definitely not Angie. Obviously not Grandy. He had enough to deal with since Gramma Iris died. Even more obviously not my parents. They wanted me to move back to Gardner and go to the community college. If I didn’t pull my grades up, that might become my best remaining choice. I couldn’t talk to any of my party friends. They’d just take me out for a drink, and I’d be headed back to the same shitty mess. I couldn’t talk to Wes Milton. I wouldn’t need any booze to be all over a hot, naked guy like him. I didn’t want to go back to being the easy party girl. As long as I could keep running, I wouldn’t go back. But how could I get rid of the memories?

Just inside the Campus Center, I ran into Matt Garrett and Reiner Geisler. They were both members of the Kappa fraternity. I had been to some of their house parties, but I never made it with either of them… that I could remember. Reiner had been my Chem lab partner my first semester in college and helped me a lot. He always said I helped him, too. That was sweet… but untrue. Matt had been in classes with me both semesters of our first year. Reiner made a lame joke about my name, and I tried to pretend I had never heard it before.

There were lots of empty tables in the big room, so I picked one away from the other people. Angry voices came from the side of the room where a pack of guys was around a lone protester. Didn’t he know it was cold outside? Of course, he did. Wait! It was Wes Milton! I was a half dozen steps from my table, but a campus cop was breaking up the squabble without my help. No one was looking at me. No one saw me jump to help a guy I didn’t really know. It was only a slight change of direction to the restroom. When I came out, Wes – almost like nothing had happened – was standing by a table near mine, talking to the couple. I sat down, pulled a book out of my backpack, and pretended to read.

“Hey, Running,” Wes said right beside my left elbow. “Can I give you one of these?”

I glanced at the brochure and at him right behind it. They didn’t look frozen. I cleared my throat and looked up at his eyes. Drooling over his crotch wasn’t any better than guys drooling over a girl’s chest. “Piña gave me one.” How long would these protesters have to keep it up before I could look at a guy right in the genitals without getting all tongue-tied? I had been up close and personal with too many genitals, but Wes knew my mother.

“Oh. Okay. Well, each one’s different. I mean, not all… I mean… Okay. Let me start over. They tell different stories. Do you know Damien Wilcox? He’s my roommate. This one tells about his sister and the guy that killed her.”

“Is he a friend of Piña Ball?”

“Yeah. He’s not mentioned in the brochure, but I thought you might like to know who I’m distributing ’em for.”

“Thanks. How do you… I mean… It’s cold outside.”

“That’s my robe right behind you.” He nodded toward a table a few feet away. A heavy, brown something was over one chair.

“Oh, you don’t…”

He shook his head with a smile to melt anything that wasn’t already hot inside me. “We don’t. Inside’s enough.”

Wes took his brochures, and when his tush was out of sight, I read the one he left me. A lot was the same as the one from Piña. LaTonya Wilcox had been only eight when she was killed, kidnaped on her way home from school. Wow! Her grandparents had actually been among the first to start the nudity strike, not a strip off. It was like a hunger strike but with clothes instead of food. They were going to keep it up as long as Isaiah if they had to. Isaiah? What was that about? I couldn’t remember any nudity strikes in the Bible, but the brochure referred to Isaiah, chapter 20. Isaiah was naked and barefoot in Jerusalem for three years? Three whole years?!?! Maybe I should call Mom and ask. ‘Hi, Mom. I wanna know more about the nudity strikers.’ That would go over big. She’d probably assume I was chasing Wes or something crazy like that. I was studying when Wes left and didn’t notice.

In the locker room before my run, I sat on a bench, resting my elbows on my knees and staring at the floor. God, how I wanted a drink… or six! Running made me feel good, but before I ran could be pretty bad. Running was a whole lot better than drinking, but it didn’t keep me from thinking about things I didn’t want to think about. Of course, drinking also made me add to my list of those things. Drinking definitely wasn’t worth how shitty I felt now. The guy in the HP lab the first night I ran inside hadn’t been there since, but he probably would be again. I had figured out where I had seen him before. Parties. He probably was one of the guys I had done it with. If I ever found a guy that would forgive my past, he might be surprised by all I wanted to do. Was Wes the forgiving sort? A guy going into the ministry didn’t have much need for an easy party girl.

The ten minute warning hadn’t sounded yet, so I pulled out my phone to look at the time. Eleven fifteen. I hadn’t been thinking about the time when I left the Campus Center. Two couples were running on the track when I arrived, and I heard two women come into the locker room. That might mean the other two were guys and were in the other locker room. The women were in the shower when I walked out of the locker room. No one was on the track.

The girl working in the HP lab was naked, just like she had been the two previous nights. I had assumed she must be one of the protesters and hadn’t asked her about it. “You probably want to get going,” she said, “but can I ask you a question first?”

I shrugged. “Sure.” Running at night was supposed to mean nobody would talk to me.

“Are you getting this stuff in our Math class?”

I blinked a couple of times. “What?” A question about Math?

“Oh, sorry. You are in Math 120 with Dr. Wulff, aren’t you? I think I’ve seen you in class. Weren’t you sitting by that protester yesterday? I don’t know her name. I think she’s a music major.”

“Yeah. Piña Ball. Sorry I don’t… pay much attention to who else is in class.”

“Most kids don’t. The protesters are kind of hard to miss. I’m Rose Lyons.”

“Iris Running. Is that why you’re…”

“No. I’m in the streaking research like you, so I hafta be while I’m working. It’s not so bad at night like this when nobody’s around.”

“I thought it was just while we’re running.”

“It is mostly, but I’m working here, too, so I hafta be naked for anything they’re paying me for. I make a lot more here than running.”

“Yeah. So, what are you having trouble with? No promises.”

Rose picked up her book from the counter and showed me the problem she was having. It was one I understood. Dad had taught me how to do those calculations when I used to have the paper route my little brother was doing now. It felt good to help somebody else rather than feeling stupid. A guy needed help to set the program on an exercise bike, and I looked at the book to be able to explain when Rose came back. We were still working and chatting when the ten-minutes-to-lock-up warning sounded. Rose went to turn off the machines, and I went to the track.

Running was wonderful! No surprise there. My legs and lungs were coming back, and even the naked part felt really good, like it was what God made me for. That made me smile. ‘Hi, Mom. God wants me to be naked for three years like Isaiah, only I’ll be wearing running shoes.’ Better call 9-1-1 for the heart attack first. When I stopped for a drink, I had done eighteen laps of the tiny track, over two miles. Too bad Rose wasn’t running at night or somebody else to tell how good that felt. ‘Hi, Wes. I’m really turned on from running, and now I’m gonna go shower and fantasize about you.’ That was even less likely than calling Mom.

Friday brought melting snow and the temptation to skip class – any class, all of them – and go for a run. In high school, I ran before school, after school, and sometimes in the evening or at night. In college, I set an alarm for just barely time enough to get to my first class and sometimes slept longer. I relaxed and hung out with friends after class – if I went to class – and I heeded the warnings about not going out alone at night. Well, okay, if I was sober, I heeded the warning… sometimes. Running outside in the middle of the night had been a major break of that. Late at night in the ARC was good, but I wanted to run more than once a day and not always alone.

When I got back to the dorm on Friday night, I was as quiet as I could manage opening the door. Two heads were in Angie’s bed! Well, well. So much for Miss Prim-and-Proper. Even though I had showered and everything at the ARC, I went to the bathroom, and only one person was there when I came back.

Angie seemed to have a hard time waking up on Sunday morning. Her alarm was going off when I got back from the bathroom. I was about to turn the damned thing off when she finally tumbled out of bed and got it herself. She mumbled something and pulled on her bathrobe to go to the bathroom. I began fixing my hair.

“Rough night?” I asked when she came back. My towel had fallen off, so I put on underpants.

“Yeah,” Angie said and hung her bathrobe in her closet. She already had on her bra and underpants. “Up too late. You’re up early.”

“Thought I might go to Still Point again.” I switched on my hair dryer before she could reply. I didn’t need her holier-than-Jesus crap.

Angie’s hair was still wet, and she was dressed when she touched my arm. “I’m going to the cafeteria if you wanna… if…”

“Can I finish here first?”

Angie shrugged, nodded, and left. I stared at the door. It had always been way too obvious that Angie and her Bible study attack squad didn’t like me much. When I came out into the dining hall with my breakfast tray, there were only a few clumps of people at the tables. Angie was standing by one of the groups, but she went to an empty table as soon as she saw me.

“It’d be okay if you want to sit with your friends,” I said. “I brought a book.”

“No.” She set her glass of orange juice on the table and sat down. “They… No.”

“You okay?”

She nodded. “Sort of.”

“In other words, not really.”

“No, it’s just… Okay. They’re boycotting Still Point.”

“They are? Why?”

“The chaplain’s connected with those nudie protesters, and one of ’em is pretty active over there. You’ll probably like it.”

“Just ’cause there’s a naked guy?”

“Well, with your partying and… I don’t know.”

“I won’t be partying over there.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I’m just… Mitch and I had a fight last night, and I just need to go to church.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No!” Angie said too quickly. “I mean…”

“That’s okay. Just offering.”

“Yeah. I was glad to hear you thank us for praying for you when the Bible study was in our room last week.”

I bit my lip. Apparently, she hadn’t heard what I really said.

“You don’t have to say anything. Do you know Wes Milton? He’s the protester over at Still Point. He came to a couple of our Bible studies last fall.”

“I met him last Sunday.”

“I’ve been praying for him, too, just not in the Bible study group. They… yeah. You went last week?”

“Yeah. Don’t tell your friends. Don’t wanna ruin my reputation.”

Angie smiled, then sighed. “Yeah.”

“Your fight with Mitch have something to do with Wes?”

“No. Can we talk about something else?” Angie didn’t have another topic to suggest, so we were quiet while I finished my breakfast and we walked to the chapel.

Barb Maxwell, the chaplain, knew Angie, and Angie introduced me to her; of course, Barb knew Mom. We chatted in the lounge before Angie and I went into the sanctuary where the praise band – including Wes with his trumpet – was playing. Evan from the Java Station was at the keyboard; my cousin Jake was playing bass. When worship started, some other people filled in the pews in front of Angie and me making it much harder to see Wes and much easier to concentrate on the rest of the service.

When the service was over, Angie accepted an invitation from Wes to join a group that was going out for lunch, but I passed. Mom wasn’t home when I called in the afternoon. I talked for a few minutes with my sister Lily, briefly with my brother Chip, and a long time with Dad. He promised to tell Mom I had been to chapel for the second week in a row and had met Barb Maxwell, but he was more interested in talking about running. I told him a little about the research so he wouldn’t worry about me damaging my ankle again but didn’t mention the naked part. It honestly never occurred to me that he might have heard about it already.

On Monday morning, when I went for my check-in, my weight was down some more, and everything else checked out fine. My ankle wasn’t hurting at all, and running every day again was great. I was going to make sure everything was okay with Dr. Randall, but right ahead of me a naked woman walked into his office without knocking. She was about his age and looked like she spent a lot of time working out. Her wedding ring matched his. If this was his wife, he wasn’t doing this research just to watch naked girls. He was on the phone, so she put some papers on his desk and turned to leave. It was my Swimming teacher!

She smiled and nodded at me and then frowned. “You were in one of my classes, weren’t you?”

“Yeah. Fall last year. I’m Iris Running.” I offered my hand.

Her grip was strong. “Of course. Geri Foote. Didn’t I see you at the chapel last week?”

I hesitated. “I was there.”

“Wes Milton is my nephew.” We chatted a little bit, but she needed to go. I stared after her. The whole building was clothing-optional, but would I ever have the guts to walk around like it was no big deal? She didn’t have a death penalty medallion, and Wes was the only naked person either time I was at the chapel. Skinny dipping in an all-girls class sure seemed different than walking around everywhere. I was walking to my next class before I remembered why I had been standing outside Dr. Randall’s office. If anything was wrong, he would just have to say so.

That evening, I took my books to the Java Station. Matt Garrett was studying at a table by himself, so I sat down with him. He warned me that he had to focus and was going to leave in just a little while. It was nice just to hang out. A couple hours after Matt left, Piña and a naked guy came in. Piña, Rose, and I had sat together in Math class on Friday and Monday. The guy was Nate Solana, another Kappa. It was weird talking casually with a naked guy like it was not about sex and no big deal. They had been at Still Point for a gathering of foreign students and a presentation on the protest.

“Evan,” Piña said, tipping her head toward the counter, “is trying to get me to play my clarinet in their praise band.” With Wes Milton?! Maybe I should see if my old flute was still in the closet at home. They kept talking about Still Point and didn’t seem to notice how distracted I was.

“So,” I said to Nate after a bit, “is it okay to ask why you’re in this protest? Piña told me she’s doing it for her cousin.”

“My aunt,” Piña corrected.

“Yeah,” Nate said. “She’s kinda famous ‘cause she has the same name as one o’ the victims. I’m not related to any of ‘em or anything. My parents are members of CADP, so it just… this is the wrong time o’ year to be goin’ naked much, but I just grew up knowin’ it was wrong to kill people, no matter if it’s one person doin’ it or a whole country.”

“Well, I agree with the killing part, but I haven’t thrown my clothes away like you two.”

“I haven’t thrown away any clothes,” Piña said. “The protest organizers have been telling us to wear coats outside until the weather warms up, but I hope the death penalty will get thrown out long before that.”

“I haven’t thrown anything away, either,” Nate said, “but I’ve been tryin’ to go naked outside a lot more than most o’ the protesters ‘cause I been wimpin’ out for classes.”

“You aren’t wimping out,” Piña insisted. “The pledge we signed only says we’ll do it as much as we’re comfortable with. Being naked in class isn’t very comfortable, and if my non-Music classes weren’t all big lecture sections, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“You’re a music major?” I asked.

“Yeah. Clarinet performance. My parents are both music teachers, but I don’t think I could handle that many kids.”

Nate didn’t want to let the argument go. “But you’re naked in class and all the rest of the time, and I’m not. Thursday I’m even giving a speech about the protest, but I won’t be naked for it. That’s what I call wimpin’ out.”

“Seems silly to argue about,” I said.

“We’ve been having this same argument since he joined the protest and I was already in it. I’m living with some family friends that are nudists, so it’s easier for me.”

I stared at her. “Really? Nudists? Around here? How do they survive winters?”

“Just like anybody else. They aren’t part of the protest, and I probably shouldn’t have told you they’re nudists. Most o’ their friends and neighbors don’t know. My parents and I didn’t until we were talking with them about me living at their house while I’m in college.”

“Nudists aren’t naked all the time,” Nate explained. “I didn’t know that, either. Because o’ the weather, most nudists are naked a lot less than the protesters.”

“Unless they’re in the protest, most nudists are like those naked runners. Unless you see ‘em running, you’d never know the person sitting next to you in class is part o’ that research.”

I stared at my friend. Running was so important to me, but I had told no one at college that I was doing it again. So far as I knew, Rose hadn’t said anything to anybody. “You haven’t seen me running, have you?”

“No. I was just…” Piña’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Wow! So all three of us…”

“You’re in the research?” Nate asked.

I nodded. “I haven’t really told anybody else, and I don’t go naked to class.”

Just then, an older couple came to the table. A few minutes before, Nate had waved at them when they came in the door. The woman had immediately opened her long coat, revealing a royal blue medallion and a whole lot of skin. The man paused just inside the door to take off his sweat suit. They hugged both Piña and Nate. Piña introduced them as Ed and Joan Wilcox, who had been in the protest since it started. The brochure they gave me was the same as Wes had given me. In the brochure picture, their granddaughter was very pretty and very black. Unless she and Damien were adopted, Ed and Joan’s son must have married a black woman.

Because they were all talking about the gathering at Still Point, Piña pulled out another paper to show me. It was an agenda for the foreign student association meeting. Wes Milton had been one of the main speakers about the protest. Could I pass as a foreign student? The other presenter was Damien. How weird it must have been to make a naked presentation with his grandparents in the audience! I might do a naked presentation with Grandy in the audience but none of the others. Of course, if it was about breast cancer, I would be proud to do it with Grandy and Gramma Iris watching, not so much with Gramma Elaine and Grampa Irv. The others were still talking about the meeting, and I wondered if Damien was naked or not. I hoped, if Lily or I had been killed, Chip would join the protest. If I was in it, would that be easier for Mom and Dad to accept? They were members of CADP. If Grandy was in it, he would look better than Ed Wilcox, a whole lot better. Ed obviously wasn’t a runner.

Eventually, I excused myself to study at another table. Since I had to run where and when people could see me, maybe it was a good thing the protest was going on at the same time. Nobody who came in seemed to give the protesters any more attention than anybody else. I was absorbed in studying when Piña came to my table again to ask if I understood one of our Math concepts. It was the one I had just been working on. Together we figured it out. Before she went back to the other table, Piña invited me to meet in the snack area at the ARC where she hung out after her morning swims.

As soon as I got ready to run at the ARC, I went to the HP lab. Rose was there for her regular shift. The guy I had seen on my first night in the ARC had been there again on Saturday and Sunday nights. He had covered for Rose when she was sick. Rose was working on the same Math problems Piña and I had figured out, so I showed her how to do them.

“How’s the running going?” Rose asked shortly before the ten-minute warning.

“Great! I’m getting my wind back.”

“Two years is a long time. Are you… I wish my roommate and I could run with you.”

“Having someone to run with would be great. I’ve thought about trying to find a running partner.”

“It won’t be us. I’ve watched you run.”

“Oh. Well… you’ll get there.”

A guy was on the track while I did my stretching. I thought about stretching for a longer time, but he didn’t seem to be much threat. He went into the men’s locker room just after I started running.

Angie was at her desk when I got back a little after midnight. “Is it true?” she demanded.

I set my backpack on my desk chair. “Is what true?”

“You know.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “I’m a dumb blonde, remember?”

“You won’t let me get away with that. I don’t know why I should let you.”

“Let me put it this way then. I don’t have a blessed clue what you’re talking about.”

“Have you joined the streakers? Don’t deny it. Jimmy McManigal told us at Bible study tonight.”

I hesitated. “I signed up for the running research. Who’s Jimmy McManigal?”

“He works the late shift weekends at the lab in the ARC. You’re in the naked running research?”

“Is there some other kind going on around here?”

“Don’t you have any shame?”

“Not about that.” I pulled off my clothes and climbed into the top bunk without my sleep shirt. That close to the ceiling was warm enough without blankets. This time I lay on my side facing the wall without even a sheet. Running didn’t numb my brain the way drinking used to.

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