Iris Running

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Out in the Open

Things were backed up in the HP lab on Monday morning when I went in for my checkup after running with Cassie. I said hi to Dr. Randall, and he told me that one of the lab assistants was gone for the week. Dad always says I should think before I speak. Sometimes, I should think for a week or so and then keep my mouth shut anyway. Instead, I offered to help. After a quick shower, I started getting people through what they needed. Other than texting to let Piña know I wouldn’t be having breakfast with her, I worked until time for Math.

Dr. Randall wasn’t in the lab after my class, but I helped out again until time for my next one. I got most of my lunch eaten. After my afternoon class, the lab was still busy, but things were mostly running smoothly. Dr. Randall asked if I wanted to work for the rest of the week. He didn’t have to go through channels and procedures to hire a fill-in.

“Would I… Rose said she has to work naked because of the research grant.”

“That’s true. When we wrote it, we didn’t anticipate any of our lab personnel signing up to run. It’s fortunate, I suppose, we’re in a clothing optional building. Would that be a problem?”

Before I started running again, it would have been, even with all the parties I used to go to. Dr. Randall asked me to cover just a few hours around my class schedule, way less than Cindy put in. What would it take to convince Wes to come into the lab while I was working? I agreed to work over my lunch break between classes every day and again after my second class for two hours a day or ten for the week, but with more if they really needed me. It felt good to be doing something useful.

On the way to Psych on Tuesday, I dropped off the religious part of my proposal at Still Point for Barb to look over. Even when I wasn’t running, I would be accepted there if this imaginary sorority actually happened. The biggest new part in the proposal was that all the sorority members would be in study and accountability groups. We would be studying the Bible and other religious writings – maybe I should tell Angie – and helping each other keep our lives on track.

McKenzie had been busy on Monday afternoon, so I had run indoors by myself. She found me in the HP lab on Tuesday and thanked me first thing for saving Nate’s life. I really don’t know how I keep missing things like this, but she and Nate had been dating off and on. It was officially off since he joined the strike, but she had spent a lot of time with him and his parents at the Med Center while he was there. They had talked on the phone a bunch over break, too. McKenzie didn’t know if they would get back together. Nate was still in the protest, but she thought people should keep their clothes on in public.

“Sorry to…”

“No,” she interrupted. “Don’t apologize! You do that too much. You aren’t doing anything wrong, and I like running with you.”

“Even…” I didn’t really want to finish the question.

“Yeah. Even. If we had been running together first, maybe I wouldn’t have called it off when Nate joined the strip off. Did you know he’s still getting dressed for class? He’s naked everywhere else and then puts clothes on for class. Isn’t that crazy?”

“Maybe. That’s pretty much what I’m doing this week.” I explained to her about working in the lab. She didn’t have much to say after that.

At the end of our run, I went over to Still Point again. Wes wasn’t there; he was around sometimes during the week, but I didn’t know when. Barb had read through the proposal and was more interested in talking about it than in suggesting changes. She didn’t think it would be safe for a whole sorority to be naked, but she did think we would probably develop a more healthy self-image and body-image than most women had. She agreed there was no way the Scholars Committee would accept it.

The Music building was on the far side of the library. A cold wind had come up, but running kept me warm. The recital hall was a little cool, but Piña and Evan were in front by the grand piano. Fifteen or twenty other people were in the room, all with clothes. Evan was gorgeous in his tuxedo. As I was about to sit near the back, Piña waved me to the front. Piña and Evan both hugged me and thanked me for coming.

Piña’s grandfather’s silver clarinet was amazing! We sat in the front row of chairs; the lights twinkling off the clarinet were hard to ignore… until Evan started playing. He was awesome! much better than I had heard on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t my usual kind of music, but if he made any recordings, I would definitely listen to them. He had little introductions for each of the pieces.

When he invited Piña up for their duet, I was sure he was going to say something about her being in the protest, but he didn’t. She just happened to be wearing her own skin. He told about the clarinet; it was more than just sparkly. Murmurs from the audience indicated that at least some knew about the maker and who Piña’s grandfather was. The sonata wasn’t just some piece from a book. Piña’s grandparents – her grandmother playing the piano – had been performing it all over the United States when World War II broke out, and they had stayed. Did Shelli know that when she picked the piece? Probably not.

Piña and Evan started playing, and everything else seemed to freeze. I had gone to band concerts to support my friends, but I had never heard a clarinet sound so rich and mellow. Piña had the sheet music on a stand but was playing with her eyes closed. The look on her face made it clear that the duet really was making love with Evan. His eyes were closed, too, and he had the same look on his face. To Hell with his pregnant girlfriend! If these two could make music like this, they belonged together! There was a hush when the piece finally ended, and then cheers and applause broke out. Suddenly, Piña was an embarrassed girl again, not knowing what to do with herself or her clarinet. Evan got up from the piano to take her hand and accept the applause together. When it was finally dying down, he kissed her hand and escorted her back to her seat.

“If that was one measure longer,” Piña whispered, “I would have come right in front of God and everybody.”

Evan played one more piece, a four-hand composition with his piano professor. They were good, and it was good, but I definitely preferred the duet. Judging by the comments after the recital ended, lots of other people agreed. It was almost half an hour before Piña and Evan got out to the hallway for cookies and punch. Piña and I had just hugged again when the director of the marching band invited her to audition. He didn’t know how it would work if the protest wasn’t resolved by the fall, but Wes and another band member were in it.

“So, Running, I didn’t know you’re in the protest,” Wes said at my elbow.

“Oh! I didn’t know you were even here.”

“Damien and I came to hear Evan and Piña.”

“Oh.” I sighed. “I’m here for Piña. She didn’t want to be the only one.”

“The only one? There isn’t a big crowd, but…” He gestured at the knots of people talking around the room.

“The only one naked. She apparently didn’t know you’d be here.”

“That can be hard. So, you’re not part of the protest?”

“No. I’m just supporting Piña.”

“Evan’s good, but their duet was the best part.”

“Yeah.” Why did he make it so impossible for me to say anything intelligent?

Damien rescued us from awkwardness by coming over then, not that having Wes’s boyfriend there was any improvement. He asked about my medallion, too, and started teasing me about it. It was a lot easier to tease him back. Barb came over, too, and after talking about the recital for a bit asked if I had told Wes and Damien about my sorority.

“There isn’t going to be one,” I said, but Barb wouldn’t let it go. Damien had lots of questions and comments, but Wes was frowning.

“So,” he said finally, “starting in the fall, there’s gonna be another distraction from the protest?”

We all looked at him, and Barb asked, “What do you mean?”

“Look. I’m not against your sorority, okay? If the governor ended the death penalty tonight, tomorrow I’d be all for your sorority and maybe a fraternity like it. But until the death penalty is revoked – and, yes, I mean ‘until’ not ‘if’ – until that happens, naked people that aren’t part of the protest are just a distraction from what really matters.”

I tried to think of a response, but nothing came. “That’s harsh,” Damien said.

“Other people have other priorities, Wes,” Barb said gently.

Wes rubbed his hands over his hair. “Now I feel like a real jerk.”

“Caring deeply about saving lives makes you anything but a jerk,” Barb said.

“But this sorority obviously means a lot to you,” he said, looking at me, “and I just shit all over your parade.”

“No. I get carried away sometimes, too. It won’t get approved, so… I might as well make the members all be in the protest.”

“And when the penalty gets revoked?”

“We’ll figure out something else.”

Wes went to talk with some other people, and I watched him go. He was gorgeous from the back side, too, and looked like he had never had a swimsuit tan. But why didn’t he react to me? I couldn’t remember ever seeing him with clothes, but so far as I knew, this was only the second time he had seen me without clothes.

The wind was even colder, but I walked back to the ARC. I already had more than enough miles for the day. Wes thought I was a distraction from what’s important. So what? What did I care if a really fine fox thought I was on the wrong track? When I got to my room, I opened my computer and changed the section where I had talked about the sorority members joining the protest to make it highly recommended rather than optional. They didn’t have to go around stopping vandals and saving their friends’ lives, but they could do that much.

Piña brought her breakfast to the HP lab the next morning. She was really bummed. After the recital, Evan had brushed her off. Wes grumped at me, and Evan wasn’t interested in her? What was wrong with the world?

“Evan’s too nice a guy for Shelli Reagan,” I said.

She sighed. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“The only reason I have to think her baby isn’t his is that’s what he told me.” She buried her face in her hands. “I can be so gullible sometimes.”

“Okay. Help me out here.”

“I think Evan told me that just so I’d help with his recital.”

“Did he know about your grampa’s clarinet?”

“No, not then.”

“So, he lied to you just so he could keep a part of his recital that his pregnant girlfriend can’t do, even though he could have asked someone else or done a different song? How does that make sense?”

“I don’t know. If I’m not gullible, why did I go all ditzy over a guy with a pregnant girlfriend?”

“Because he’s a great piano player, a really nice guy, and totally gorgeous. What’s not to go ditzy over?”

“You didn’t.”

“He’s not a runner.” Of course, neither was Wes.

I had just gotten to work on Thursday when Captain Carpenter of the Coventry Police Department called me. What was it now? He reminded me too much of a used car salesman. “Let me be the first to congratulate you,” he said. “You’ve been chosen as Crime Fighter of the Week for your part in the apprehension of Nick Harter and Carson Vincent.”

I hesitated. “You must have the wrong person. I haven’t apprehended anybody.”

“Oh? Aren’t you the Iris Running who’s a student at Coventry University and… and in the running research?”

“Yes, but I haven’t called Crime Stoppers or anything.”

“This is for your part in the incident at the mosque near campus a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, that!”

“Yes. At his weekly press conference tomorrow morning, Chief Bertram would like to give you a small token of our appreciation for your service to our community. Would you be available to come down to the station from about nine thirty to eleven or so? The conference is at ten, but he likes to meet the honorees before hand.”

“Maybe. I have class, but my friends can take notes for me.” Crime Fighter of the Week? Wow! Maybe people would know me for something other than being the naked girl running around campus and starting a sorority… or rather, proposing a sorority that would never happen. Of course, I had never heard there even was such as thing as Crime Fighter of the Week, so it might not make much difference to anybody.

“You okay?” Paolo asked, breaking into my thinking about the call.

I stared at him for a few seconds. “Yeah. Why? Sorry. This is a bad day. Did I forget something?”

“No. Wanna talk about it?”

I smiled. He really was cute. “Thanks, but if I told you what’s going on, you wouldn’t think it’s anything to be upset about.”

“Try me.”

“Okay.” Why was I agreeing to this? “Last weekend, I moved over here to the ARC.”

“It is a good place for you since you’re in the strip-off.”

“It’s not a strip-off. It’s a protest against the death penalty.” Why couldn’t Wes react to me like this? Paolo wasn’t as hot as Wes, but he had nice eyes. I started to turn away.

“Hey, can we get together sometime?” Why did he have to ruin it with a come-on like that?

McKenzie and I were running in the ARC that afternoon when I mentioned the award. “It’s really not that big a deal.”

“Seriously? You saved Nate’s life, and it’s no big deal? You do know who you helped get arrested, don’t you?”

I hesitated. “Should I? I’m not a Journalism major like you, and I’m blonde. ”

“You’re also gutsy, strong, and smart.”

“I didn’t do much. Besides… if I hadn’t been there, they wouldn’a hit Nate.”

“How do you figure that?”

“A car honking at me is what scared ’em and made ’em drive so crazy. I’m sure the only reason they honked was ’cause I was naked. I don’t get that as much as when I first started, but I still get it too much.”

“You’re too humble! You do know what they were doing at the mosque?”

“Trying to start a fire.”

“Yeah, and they’re charged with starting the fire that burned down the synagogue a couple of months ago and with doing all that damage to the little Hindu temple. The D.A.’s working on a connection with the vandalism in the Catholic cemetery last fall.”

I ran on for several steps. “I didn’t do much.”

“Even if we’re not dating right now, saving Nate’s life seems like a lot to me.”

Cassie had a strange problem the next morning. “My parents don’t think I should be in this research, but since I am, they think I should join the protest.”

“They don’t think you should run naked, but they want you to give up your clothes? That doesn’t make sense. Are they against running?”

“No. They really don’t think people should be naked in public. If you gotta go naked, you should keep it inside fences like Wes and the others at Morgan Hills. Since I’m not doing that, they think I should join the strike to have a little more protection.”

“Strange. Are they against the death penalty?”

“Not really. They aren’t fanatics in favor of it.”

“Are you gonna do it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. While I was home over break, they didn’t want me running outside. A treadmill in the basement is definitely not the same. Even if I get arrested, I don’t wanna do that all summer. Dad says I need to have the courage of my convictions.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, if I think it’s okay to run naked, I should be willing to take it all the way.”

“My parents are against the death penalty, but they aren’t pushing me to join the strike. Mom’s a little worried about how it will look to the members of her church.”

“But she basically told you to stay naked after your run-in with the cop.”

“Yeah. She was royally pissed.”

“I don’t blame her. Are you going to Damien’s play tonight?” It was a graduate student’s adaptation of Shakespeare: Romeo and Julio.

“Piña wants me to.”

“Does that mean ‘no’?”

“No. It means I haven’t decided. Is your Scholars proposal ready? I wanna keep working on mine.”

“I’ll read it over again before Monday, but I finished it over the break. You should give yours a rest, too.”

“Maybe. That’s not how I work. I’ve got a lot of things going right now, but usually I give just one everything I can.”

“Does Piña want you to go naked like she did for Evan’s recital?”

“She hasn’t said anything about that.”

“So, if you go, it’ll be to support Damien like you did for Piña, right?”

“Sorta, I guess.”

“So, here’s another way to support your friends. If you go naked, I will, too.”

“How will that be supporting Damien? Did you forget he’s gay?”

“No. He’s beautiful, but I’ve known him too long to forget that. It’s not for supporting him; it’s for supporting me. If I was still trying to run when not many people would see me, I would have quit already.”

“Piña will be there. She can support you.”

“Not the same. She’ll be there for Damien and their student chapter of CADP.”

“Okay. Here’s a deal for you. Run with me again after supper. We’ll finish up at the Theater.”

“I don’t know if I can run again, especially as fast as you go. How far have we done this morning?”

I pulled out my phone to look at the tracking app. “Almost three miles.”

“If I’m gonna run tonight, I better stop.”

I convinced her to go with me to have breakfast in the Snack Area with Piña. Piña was glad Cassie would be at the play, too. While we were talking, Cassie found out about the Crime Fighter Award. I forgot to tell her anything about it.

It was about 8:45 when I arrived at City Hall. At about a quarter after, Captain Carpenter came to the room where I was waiting, but he could only stay for a few minutes. Chief Bertram came in about twenty minutes to ten. He was about my height with short steel-gray hair. His tailored suit emphasized his massive arms. “Sorry we don’t have much time,” he said. “It can be chaos around here sometimes.”

“That’s okay,” I said with a smile. “I didn’t have anywhere else to be.”

He nodded and studied my face for several seconds. “Frankly, when we agreed not to arrest you runners and protesters, I thought I would only meet one of you as a crime victim, not as a Crime Fighter of the Week.”

What did he expect me to say?

“I shouldn’t put you on the spot like that. You know how dangerous it is for a pretty young woman these days.”

I shrugged. “Yeah.” Why did a compliment feel so strange coming from a police chief? At least he wasn’t shining a flashlight on me in the cold or throwing me around on the pavement in the rain.

“According to anything I’ve heard, you’re one of only two or three in this project who have ventured beyond the Athletic Center. I didn’t expect ever to say this, but I’m glad you did. You helped us find criminals we weren’t getting any other way. None of the protesters have done that.”

Shortly before ten, the chief ushered me into the press room. The room was packed, and people were even standing around the edges. They started taking pictures before I sat down. I smoothed my skirt over my knees and wished my hands wouldn’t sweat so much. When the chief started talking about me, I sat a little straighter. He didn’t mention that Nate and I were both naked when the incident happened. He brought me to the microphone while he presented a certificate. All the cameras in the room went crazy. It seemed like the chief would have to throw some people in jail to get things back on track.

The reporters all wanted to interview me after the press conference, but I declined. I was going to drive back to campus, but Chief Bertram told me there was a mob of reporters around my car and offered a ride back to campus in a squad car. It was much more comfortable than when I had handcuffs on in Gardner even if I did have to duck down to hide while we were leaving City Hall.

There was some time before my shift, but instead of my room, I went to the little locker room in the HP lab. That’s where Dr. Randall found me. “You okay?” he asked.

I considered for a moment before shaking my head.

“Wanna talk about it? I could send one of the women in if you don’t…”

“That’s okay,” I interrupted. “Why is it such a big deal to everybody if I’m naked or not? I helped a friend and saved a mosque, but all anybody cares about is that I didn’t have clothes on. That isn’t right.”

“No, it isn’t, but that’s what the protesters are relying on. We get the same reaction with our research, and you’ll probably get it with your sorority.”

“The sorority isn’t going to happen!”

We talked a little longer before I went for a short run on the indoor track and then went to work in the lab. One of the football players interrupted my lunch at the lab counter. I knew who he was, but we had never talked, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t been at any parties with me. “The reporters all over you too much?” was his opening line.

“Well, yeah.” Despite what I had said to Dr. Randall, at that moment I wished I had dressed before lunch. It was racist, but standing naked so close to a big black guy made me think of rape, even in such a public place.

“Want me to get some o’ the boys t’ walk with ya? Some o’ our O-line around you, and no reporter’s gonna get close.”

“Well…”

“Say the word. Get me points with my lady. She thinks you got more guts ‘n any o’ us wi’ all our pads.”

I made a quick decision. “If you could get me an escort…”

“Five minutes,” he said and turned away.

I was glad not to have to walk alone, but I felt like a midget in the midst of those huge football players. One was in the same class, and the others promised to have another escort waiting after class.

Angie was waiting at the HP lab when I got there later. I almost left, but she just wanted to praise me for the award.

I sighed. “You heard about it?”

“Some of my friends listened to the noon news.”

“Your Bible-study friends?”

She shrugged. “Yeah. And then Jason Green was talking about ‘the Naked Crime Fighter.’ It didn’t take long to realize he’s sex-obsessed with an overactive imagination. A preacher was with him vowing to get the research stopped, the university closed for teaching godless immorality and evolutionary lies, and the governor to apply the death penalty to more crimes.”

“Isn’t that what you want, too?”

“Jason Green is a nut case.”

I tried, but I couldn’t keep from chuckling. “Sorry about walking in on you the other day.”

She chewed her lip for a moment. “We all have our secrets.”

We talked a little longer, and I told her about going to the theater later.

“For that weird Shakespeare play?”

“Ask me after I’ve seen it if it’s weird. I liked Romeo and Juliet when we read it in school.”

“I did, too, once I got used to all the old language. Some of my friends were talking about this one in Bible study. They said – I don’t think it’s true – but they said there’s gonna be gay sex right on stage.”

“Don’t know. Doesn’t seem likely to me.”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “I don’t know what to think anymore about you running naked. Sex for people to watch…”

“Doesn’t seem right to me,” I said when she didn’t go on. “Gay or straight.”

“When you caught us the other day…”

“I shoulda knocked. Sorry.”

“That’s okay. It’s your room, too. I mean, it was.”

I studied her for several seconds, but she wasn’t looking at me. “Sorry I pissed you off.”

“It wasn’t you. It was just… I don’t know.”

“Maybe we should have some kind of signal like guys in the frat houses.”

“I don’t know much about frat houses.”

“And I know too much. Besides a necktie on our door knob would be kind of strange.”

She looked at me, started smiling, and finally chuckled. “Panties wouldn’t be much better, would they?”

Not many people were coming into the lab, but I had to get to work. Angie was going over to the Student Center because too many reporters were around Wilson, looking for me. It was a good thing they couldn’t get into the ARC.

Just before supper, I called home. My family had heard the news about me on TV. “How are you doing?” Mom asked.

“I’m okay. All the attention is strange, but I’m okay. Most people around here never noticed me until I started running naked.”

“People notice the unusual,” Dad said.

“Being naked is getting almost normal for me. Maybe I should join the strike.” I held my breath.

“That would be one approach,” Mom said. “Have you turned in that sorority proposal yet?”

That was all? “No. It’s due Monday.”

“Let us know what they say.”

Why do I worry so much? Mom and Dad, Chip and Lily, Grandy and my other grandparents, they would all still love me no matter what. After all, no one disowned me while I was fucking up my life. Apparently, I was going to keep obsessing about Wes no matter what, too.

Cassie and McKenzie met me at the indoor track in the evening. Cassie started pretend-complaining about her slave driver friends, but she kept the pace we set. We did two and a half miles in the ARC before heading out. McKenzie and Cassie’s dorm was just a block from the theater, so we went there to rinse off. McKenzie changed into a green sweater and plaid skirt and went with us to the play. The evening air was too cold for just walking, but I kept my mouth shut.

Piña was in the lobby talking to Wes, Jake, Chelsea, and Barb. Why didn’t I think about Wes being there? A couple of other kids from Still Point joined us, and I was sure we wouldn’t be able to find seats all together, but Barb’s husband had seats saved for us. Jake invited me to sit with him and Wes, but I went over between Cassie and McKenzie. Cassie was acting like she had been a nudist all her life. When I was talking with her, Wes was in my direct line of sight on down the row, slumped in his seat and not even talking to Jake. Was he thinking about his boyfriend having sex on stage?

There wasn’t any sex for anybody to watch, and Damien didn’t have a big part. The play was kind of rough, and some things just didn’t make much sense, but there were some funny parts. It was basically the story we all know but with Julio’s parents trying to get him to marry a blonde bimbo. I wished she didn’t look so much like me and that Romeo didn’t remind me so much of Wes. I forced myself not to look at Wes during the play. Afterwards, the group was going to the Java Station to talk, but Cassie and I passed.

I took off running from Cassie’s dorm, even though I knew that really wasn’t safe, and ended up in a dark corner of the bleachers beside the track outside the ARC, mostly protected from the wind. Why couldn’t I just get over Wes? The girl in the play just happened to be blonde. So what? That didn’t mean anybody else in the whole wide world thought of me when they looked at her. Everybody’s hair had to be some color. Nobody was trying to force Wes to marry me against his preferences. Nobody except me. Shit! I had to find somebody else to fantasize about. Maybe Nate or Evan. They both had girlfriends, but… well, maybe Evan still did. The point was that I could imagine all kinds of things with them and not feel so… so… so inadequate. Or even Jake. Some people married their cousins. I didn’t want to marry him. I just wanted to feel like wanting Wes so much wasn’t absolutely wrong. Maybe Paolo?

It was a little past eleven when I finally went into the ARC. I was shivering, but I didn’t want to hit the track while Jimmy McManigal was still in the HP lab. That gave me something different to get all bent out of shape about. Why was his gossip about me worse than all the photographers and reporters after me? That was easy. Whoever got hold of the pictures might fantasize about all kinds of kinky things, but they weren’t likely to think I was going to Hell. Why did it matter what Jason Green or Jimmy McManigal or any of the other self-righteous character assassins on campus thought of me? Even if they were right about how I was before I started running again, what difference did it make? That was plenty Hell enough for one eternity. Their hateful opinions couldn’t add to it.

A few minutes after midnight, I came back down from my room. The HP lab was dark, so Jimmy was gone. Nobody was on the track or the courts in the middle. They all had better places to be on a Friday night. I knew where I could find plenty of parties, but I didn’t want a party. I wanted to run. Even after more than seven miles already for the day, I wanted to run. Maybe I should call Grandy. He would grumble about me waking him in the middle of the night and still love me afterward. He wouldn’t call me stupid for being crazy in love with a taken guy. There I said it. It was only inside my own head, but I said it. After less than a mile, I went to the big shower in the locker room. I wasn’t on stage, and nobody was there to watch. When I used to go to parties, I really didn’t have an excuse like trying to get over Wes. Just alcohol that I drank on my own. Sometimes I didn’t even drink that much. God, if Grandy knew… well… he would still love me. I wouldn’t, but he would. Love your neighbor as yourself. Wes was my neighbor, too. If I was ever really going to love him, not just be crazy in love, but really love him, I was going to have to get over hating my past.

The campus was quiet on Sunday morning. Barb had asked Evan and Piña to play their duet in worship, and Piña had asked me to be there, too, wearing only a medallion. I had pointed out that Wes would be playing in the praise band. Besides, I was going to the Sunday evening gathering again, and I didn’t want to get too carried away with going to church again along with everything else.

I was coming back from a long run and about to pass Still Point when Wes came toward me on the sidewalk, carrying his trumpet case. I was going to simply wave and go on, but he wanted to talk. “Hey, Running. We missed you.”

I frowned. “Why? For what?”

“The other night after the play…”

“That’s a when, not a what,” I interrupted.

“Let me say this, okay? This death penalty protest is pretty important, but other people think other things are important. I shouldn’t throw shit at what other important people, I mean, what other people think is important.”

“Well, that’s…”

“No, let me say it. Your running research and your sorority are both important, too, and I shouldn’t be talking trash about ‘em. I’m sorry I’ve been doin’ that, especially when there’s nobody around to take your side. That’s not the kinda guy I wanna be.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah. I wanna thank you for what you did for Nate Solana and the Muslims in town, too. You deserve more than some award.”

“Well… I just did what anybody else would.”

“No, you did what nobody else did. That’s what matters.”

Piña came up just then, and I needed a drink of water, so we went inside together. Piña and Evan needed to warm up, so I had a convenient reason to break away and continue on my run, but Chelsea, Barb, and several others wanted to talk to me, and I went into the lounge to get some orange juice. After the praise band warmed up, Wes joined the group around me, and we all talked until it was almost time for worship to start.

I was still trying – not very hard – to get back to my run when the excitement started. Piña was bent over a box of song books in the entryway to the sanctuary when a girl grabbed her by the hair, jerked her around, and slapped her hard across the face, hissing, “Bitch!”

Piña crashed into some metal folding chairs, knocking them into a guy in a wheelchair. Her attacker jumped on top of her in the midst of the chairs, scratching and kicking. Piña was trying to protect herself when Wes jumped on her attacker. A bunch of us tried to help, and soon Piña was lying on a couch in the lounge with a damp washcloth over her eyes and an ice pack against her cheek.

I was kneeling on the floor next to the couch when Evan sat beside Piña, touching his hand to her uninjured cheek. “How ya doin’?”

“I’ve been better,” Piña said softly. “What happened?”

He sighed heavily. “You met Shelli.”

“Remind me not to meet her again.”

“Don’t worry. I don’t care what she says now. I can’t stay with somebody that would do something like this to a friend of mine for no reason.”

Piña pulled the washcloth off her eyes. “You can’t stay?”

“No, no. Don’t worry. I can’t stay with her.”

“Oh. I… Oh.” She lay back and replaced the washcloth.

Wes and Chelsea took Shelli back to her apartment, and things began to calm down. Barb started worship a few minutes late, but Evan and I stayed in the lounge with Piña. Her vision cleared before the service was over, and the bleeding in her mouth stopped. The side of her face was bruised and swollen, and she had several nasty scratches.

We were still sitting with Piña when Wes and Chelsea returned without Shelli. Just then, music began playing, and Wes slipped in a side door of the sanctuary without coming into the lounge. “Barb wants me to ask,” he said when he came back about a minute later, “if you want to take communion.”

Both Evan and I deferred to Piña, but she said, “I don’t think I’m ready to stand up and walk anywhere.”

In a minute, the entire congregation came out into the lounge with Barb leading and formed a circle around Piña, Evan, and me. Barb had two halves of a loaf of bread. One she started around the circle, and the other she brought to us in the center before taking it back to go the other way around. The guy with the juice followed Barb’s lead, starting one cup around the outside and bringing the other first to the middle. This all was for Piña, but I almost cried.

Evan had to go to work at the Java Station right after the service, but Piña got lots of attention from the others. She was feeling much better, but she declined to go with the group – including Wes and Chelsea – for lunch and then admitted she didn’t feel up to driving. I immediately offered to drive her wherever she needed to go and then to run back to campus. Wes changed his plans and followed in his own car – a tiny, shiny black British convertible. Awkward or not, I wouldn’t turn down alone time with him even if I couldn’t compete with Damien.

As I got into Wes’s car after we got Piña settled, I moved a bundle of death penalty brochures off the rider’s seat. “You’re willing to give a ride to someone not in the protest?”

We were out of the development and headed toward town when he finally answered. “Let me put it this way. I’m willing to do anything I can for somebody that helps out my friends the way you’ve been doing. Piña and Nate and Cassie and I happen to be in the protest, and you’re not, but right now what matters is that we’re doing what we can for our friend.” He sighed. “God, I feel awful.”

“For helping a friend?”

“No. I’ve known Shelli Reagan since our first year on campus. I saw her come into the chapel and head for Piña but didn’t do a damn thing about it.”

“That’s not what I saw.”

“Which part? Her coming into the chapel or jumping Piña?”

“Neither. What I saw was you pulling Shelli off Piña. In my book, that’s doing something.”

“Not enough. You saved Nate’s life. That’s a lot more’n I do. That’s why they gave you the award, not me.”

“My mom always says we’re each only responsible for doing what we can. I’m hoping I won’t have any more chances like with Nate.”

“Yeah. I wish…”

After a bit, I asked, “You wish what?”

“What? Oh. I haven’t told anybody this, so please don’t pass it along, but I’ve been beat on three times ‘cause o’ this protest. Not messed up like Piña or hit with a car like Nate. Three times I’ve had people beating on me. Three times.” He shook his head.

“Have you reported them to the police?”

“No. They weren’t that bad.”

“Still, three times.”

“It wasn’t the same guys. You have it easier. I didn’t used to think that, but I do now.”

“I have it easier? How? You mean just because I can put clothes on when I’m not running?”

“No. I wear that monk’s robe when the weather’s bad. No, I mean nobody’s gonna see you and think you’re about to rape ’em or anything like that. I used to think we were getting past sexist attitudes about men and women. Not anymore. Think about it. When you first came over to Still Point when I was preaching, what was your first thought when we met by the front door, the very first thing that crossed your mind?”

“I don’t remember. Honest. I’m not just saying that.”

“Yeah. I thought, with this medallion, people would know I’m not doing it for cheap thrills or to pick up guys or to rape everything I can lay hands on. Apparently not.”

Pick up guys? If you tried on me, you’d find out how enthusiastic a girl can be. “We can’t really be responsible for what other people think, can we? With my reputation… people who see me running… Actually, I don’t wanna know what they’re thinking. How I was isn’t how I am now.” I tapped a plastic bag of blue medallions and arm bands. “Are these extras? Can I have a couple?”

“Sure. Take as many as you want. You really don’t have to.”

“I know. They’re for my other shoes when I’m not running. They won’t protect me much, but at least I won’t have to worry about getting arrested.” I told him about getting picked up at home over Spring Break.

When Wes stopped in front of the ARC, he said, “You really don’t have to wear a medallion if you don’t want to. A lot of people will do whatever they can to stop the protest, your running, and your sorority. Seems like we should help each other out as much as we can.”

“That’s why I’m wearin’ it.”

About three o’clock, I ran back out to Piña’s house. Piña looked awful. One side of her face was black and blue from above her eye down to her chin, and her scratches were all scabbed over. She tried to smile only on one side and talk out of only that side of her mouth, but that didn’t work very well.

“I am so sorry,” I said.

Piña shook her head. “How am I going to convince you it wasn’t your fault? If anyone should apologize, it’s Shelli, not you or Evan or Wes or anyone else that was there.”

“I know, but… if I had gotten between you two…”

“We’d both look like this. She was pretty mad.”

“Maybe, but… I don’t know.”

“You can’t be the only one protecting everyone in the city. We hafta figure out how to take care of ourselves. You should put self-defense classes in your sorority dealie.”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “So many of us being naked is a threat to some people. I don’t know why it should be.”

“Probably because most people aren’t used to us yet. I knew Ross and Donna are nudists before I moved in with them, but the first time I walked in a room when he was naked, I almost ran back out again. That was after the semester began and I was taking Swimming with naked people at the ARC. It wasn’t until after I joined the protest that I told Ross he didn’t hafta keep his clothes on when I was around since I was naked. It just takes a while to realize it’s no big deal.”

“Actually, aren’t you hoping it’ll stay a big deal for a while?”

“Not really. Why would I?”

“If it was no big deal, your protest wouldn’t matter to people, and the governor and legislature wouldn’t have any reason to get rid of the death penalty. That’s the way Wes explained it to me.”

“Oh, well, yeah, you’re right. But after that, I’ll keep going without a suit when I swim at the ARC or here in Ross and Donna’s pool – I really like that – and I’ll still hang out naked around here. It’s probably really dumb, but chapel doesn’t feel like a place where I should be naked, even if Pastor Barb’s head of CADP and Wes is part of their praise band. It’s different out here.”

Clouds had moved in, so I helped move chairs inside from where they had been set around the pool for the evening gathering. The people arriving seemed genuinely excited to see each other and quickly pulled me into the excitement. Wes was one of the people who came in. I didn’t even try to remember the names of the people I met the week before. Everybody seemed to know about the Crime Fighter award. Later, when people were sharing what was going on in their lives, I got embarrassed again because people were bringing up all the things I had done recently. At least Wes got some of the credit for rescuing Piña. But then when Wes caught my eye from across the room and smiled, my heart started doing flips. I really, really needed to get a boyfriend.

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