Iris Running

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Just Another Race

On the Tuesday evening after Finals, Barb invited people to Still Point to watch a TV news program. It was going to focus on the death penalty protesters, and Barb had invited all of us who were students. Wes was probably watching it in the capital… if they didn’t have him doing something else. The program started with an overview of the situation and a statement from the governor’s office about letting the judicial process for Allen Jeffrey Anderson – the man who had confessed to the rape-murders of Piña’s aunt and her friends – take its course before jumping to the conclusion that Denton Jay was innocent; he was the guy convicted of killing Piña’s aunt. Next they talked with Barb. She compared the protest to hunger strikes. Next they had Jason Green, the radio hot head; he even mentioned me getting the Crime Fighter Award, though he didn’t say my name. From the way he talked, it seemed like I was the one committing the crimes. Next came Ed and Joan Wilcox, Damien’s grandparents; Damien was there watching with us. The camera showed them only from the armpits on up, but it was clear they were naked for the interview. The last major speaker was Dennis Hogue, the state senator from the district just north of Coventry. He talked about his summary ruling request to the State Supreme Court to outlaw nudity everywhere in the state; to arrest all the strikers and all the research runners for offenses against public morality; to arrest the running researchers for prostitution, pornography, public indecency, and purveying minors for immoral purposes; and to block the opening of a planned naked sorority that was going to be nothing more than open prostitution.

“What an idiot!” Matt said when the program broke for a commercial. I hadn’t seen him and Nate come in.

“A lot of people agree with him,” I said softly.

“Not everybody,” Barb said, “probably not even a majority. One of my college professors used to say that anything worth doing is going to upset somebody.”

“I just wish I could understand why they think it’s so bad. We haven’t done anything to them.”

“That doesn’t stop some people.”

The short closing segment was a brief statement from Barb followed by a briefer one from Joan Wilcox. As the announcer was wrapping up the show, the background was a montage of strikers and research runners, all overlapped to hide genitals and female breasts. I was one of the runners. No surprise. The strikers all had blue ‘No More Killing’ medallions, and the runners didn’t. The last picture after the credits was an old one of Denton Jay on the sidelines of a basketball court with Piña’s aunt and the other two he was accused of killing.

Barb clicked the TV off with the remote. “It’s pretty clear which side the show’s producers are on.”

“’Cuz they gave the bad guys the last word?” Angie asked.

“No,” McKenzie said. “They put Pastor Maxwell and Damien’s grandmother last. Anybody with any doubt should just look at that last picture.”

Wes texted me, and I lost track of the discussion. ‘One 4 us.’

‘What do you mean?’ I texted back.

‘Our side came off looking a whole lot more reasonable.’

A text came from Piña. ‘Were you watching?’

‘Yes. Can’t talk now,’ I replied to her. To Wes, I wrote, ‘People on the other side probably don’t think so.’

The next text from Wes didn’t come until I was back in my room in the ARC. By then, I had talked with Grandy and Dad, too. ‘You were right.’

‘About what?’

‘People on the other side. Why do people think shouting and name calling helps their argument?’

‘Can’t help you with that one.’ At least, I didn’t stutter when I texted with him, and it left me in a much better mood than the TV show did.

There was a small turn-out for worship at the chapel on Sunday morning. I had run earlier and showered in my room before walking over to the chapel. When I came into the lounge, Wes was entertaining the few who were there with an account of what was going on in the capitol. I got a mug of coffee and listened from behind him on the far side of the lounge; it sounded like he was having a great time. Why couldn’t other guys have nice, tight, evenly tanned butts like his? Because of the small crowd and because Evan wasn’t there, Wes played piano for worship instead of trumpet. Barb got everyone to come to the front, and there was still room for more in the first three rows. I sat with Angie where I wouldn’t be distracted by looking at Wes. Just being in the same place with him was distraction enough. Who am I kidding? His existence distracted me. The service was even more casual than usual, more like at the Sunday evening gathering.

I had actually slipped out to refill my mug when the service ended and a few people came out to the lounge. I was talking with a young woman who was going to be in summer school starting the next morning when I noticed that my other side was warm. It was Wes! Radiating heat! I stepped back so he could join the conversation. It was a whole lot easier to think about what people were saying if I wasn’t totally zoned in on how nice his skin would feel against mine.

Barb came over a little later and asked to talk to Wes and me in her office. Was that where she did pre-marriage counseling? Stop it! Actually, she wanted to talk to us about Annual Conference for our church the second week in June. Mom and the other clergy were required to be there, but I hadn’t gone since we moved to Gardner before I started high school. Chelsea and the other justice interns were going to be at the social witness dinner on Thursday evening, and Barb wanted Wes and me to be at the campus ministry breakfast on Friday. Wes said he was going to be at the social witness dinner to present the award named after his father and would stay through Friday morning. An award named for his father? I heard myself saying I was planning to be there on Thursday and Friday, too. Mom would be happy, but please don’t ask her about it before I have a chance to talk to her.

When we went back to the lounge, everyone else was gone. Wes had planned to go with the group out to lunch. We could have found out where they were, but he suggested that we go to a fancier, more expensive restaurant than the group of poor college students usually went to; he even offered to buy my lunch. Okay. I’m a sucker, and it sounded like a date. For a little while I could pretend. But then he texted Damien to let him know what was going on. He even invited Damien to join us. So much for date daydreams. Damien declined. I didn’t know whether to be glad or to back out, too.

On the way to his car, Wes asked about the sorority. He was happy being on the spirituality and rituals committee and would be the only guy that would know what actually happened in the ceremonies that were closed to anybody not in the sorority. After we were seated in a shaded outdoor area and had placed our orders, he was still asking questions, and I wasn’t stumbling and mumbling like a middle schooler.

“I’ve been talking too much,” I said. “You seem to be having a good time with your internship.”

“Well… it’s interesting, and I really like Senator Parsons. Did you know she’s a member of our church, St. James here in town?”

“No. Why did your stories at the chapel sound so different? Sorry, but I’m not gonna let you change the subject so easy.”

He tilted his head and pulled his mouth into a tight smile. “Those are the kinds of stories people want to hear. Nobody wants to hear a guy whining.”

“If there’s something I don’t want to hear, I won’t ask. Are you gonna quit before the end of the summer?”

“Nah. It’s not that bad. I’m just the new kid on the block and at the bottom of the heap. That doesn’t mean I get to do any interesting stuff. Mostly it’s just reading news articles and transcripts. It’ll look good on my résumé.”

“Is that why you applied for it?”

He studied me for several seconds. “Remind me not to ever try to hide anything from you.”

“Okay,” I said with a shrug. “Why did you apply?”

“Well, I did think it would be a good experience, not to look good. But, well, I was hoping…”

“Hope’s a good thing,” I said after several seconds.

“Yeah. You’re in a lot of the transcripts I have to read.”

“Me? I’m not on TV or radio or… anything.”

“People are talking about you. Jason Green mostly. Away from Coventry, not so much. Other places they talk about the stripper sorority.”

“Stri… That’s not…”

“Calm down. That’s what they’re calling it. It’s what they fantasize.”

“But we’re not…”

“I know. Anybody that knows you knows that.”

“Oh.” The waiter brought our salads, but I didn’t even look at him and let Wes do all the talking. When the waiter left, I was still staring at the table top. “My past isn’t exactly lily white.”

“Jake told me about the parties you used to go to.”

I pulled back. “Jake? He’s gossiping about it?”

“Not gossiping, and I’m not gonna tell anyone. He’s proud of how you cleaned up your act.”

I shook my head. “Before I started running again…”

“You were a different person,” he interrupted me again. Even friends should have better manners than that. He reached across the table, but I didn’t give him my hand. “Iris…”

“What?”

“You aren’t a slave to your past. If Christianity means anything at all, it has to mean that.”

I unwrapped my silverware and put my napkin in my lap. “Maybe. But my past makes me who I am.”

He pulled his hand back. “That’s true for all of us. My dad was a Methodist minister like your mom and his father and grandfather. With our name, I can’t hardly help but follow in his footsteps.”

I hesitated. “Milton?”

“John Wesley Milton. Grandpa is John Wesley Junior even though he’s retired and his father has been gone a long time.”

“So, you’re John Wesley Milton IV? I heard it was Westminster Winston Milton III or something like that.”

He chuckled. “That would be weirder than what I have. I’ll be the fourth generation minister named John Wesley Milton.”

“Your dad has an award named after him?”

He shrugged. “Yeah. He was killed ten years ago this summer trying to help a junkie. The guy died before going to trial, or we might have a brochure about him like the one about the guy that killed Damien’s sister.”

Why did he have to keep bringing up his boyfriend? Maybe I should just get the waiter to dump a pitcher of ice water on me every time he went past.

When I called home and told Mom about going to Annual Conference, she said Grampa Irv was going to be the lay member from his church. Shit! Mom was excited that there would be three generations of us. All I could think about was how upset he would be about what I was doing. He was in favor of the death penalty, and here I was trying to end it. If it wasn’t for Wes, I might have backed out. Why couldn’t it be Grandy, instead of Grampa Irv?

After we hung up, I thought about not going to the Sunday evening gathering since Wes wasn’t going to be there. If it wasn’t at Piña’s house, I probably would have stayed away. Instead, I set the timer on my phone to ring like a phone call when there would still be time to run back to campus before it got completely dark. Wes didn’t like me to run alone in the dark. Why did what he liked matter? Mom and Dad didn’t like that, either. I never played tricks with my phone to fool them. We were having fun when the timer went off, but I acted like it was a phone call anyway. I pushed hard back to campus like the last leg of a 10-K and was fine with the extra miles.

Despite working in the HP Lab and on the sorority, my life stayed organized around running. Every morning and evening, I put in three or four miles, sometimes more if my running partners wanted to go farther, but never less. As part of my HP lab responsibilities, the stretching group was getting together every day Monday through Friday, usually with at least a dozen people, sometimes with up to two dozen. Because I was working on my core, sometimes I helped other people with that or helped with something for CADP. Since Grandy was going to be running the Mayor’s 10K, I asked him to be my date for the dinner on the evening before the race. The sorority project was occupying the rest of my time. Almost all the women on the committees had picked up on Cassie’s lead in being naked for their meetings. If Wes wasn’t attending his committee meetings by internet video, I might spend too much time with that committee.

[Transcript Jason Green Show, May 16, 20__, 95.5FM, Coventry, Nitoma]

Have you ever been around a kid that keeps pushin’ until all Hell breaks loose? Course, you have. That’s what’s goin’ on at the University. First, they pretend there’s anything about streakin’ to spend our hard-earned money on. Don’t take a liberal idiot to figure out the answer to that one. There ain’t enough porn out there, so they want more. That’s what’s behind this new sorority, too. Some o’ the bleedin’ heart idiots want to claim it’s women’s rights. Now there’s a load o’ bull crap. It’s women’s wrongs! My momma don’t want nobody tellin’ her she should throw away her clothes. We ain’t that stupid! A whole sorority goin’ naked? That ain’t much of a disguise for prostitution.

And did you see that TV special about the craziness goin’ on here in Nude-toma. That’s what they’re callin’ us: Nude-toma. We’re the laughin’ stock of the whole United States. The TV show at least got it right. They didn’t let the strip-off clowns keep claimin’ there’s any connection at all between the death penalty and strippin’ without lettin’ more sane people have their say. Senator Dennis Hogue was one of ‘em. We’ve got a promise that he’ll be on our show when he ain’t too busy straightenin’ out the mess in our capital. There’s only so much the governor of our good state can do. Senator Hogue has asked our Supreme Court to join the good fight. The crazy liberals can’t be happy about that.

One o’ those lunatics is the mayor right here in Coventry. You already know the police here ain’t willin’ to enforce our laws. Turns out they’re takin’ orders from higher up. Remember that nudie Crime Fixer? Guess who our crazy mayor asked to head up the big race they have every Memorial Day. You got it. The nudie Crime Fixer that’s runnin’ a naked sorority prostitution ring. Our elected officials are supposed to enforce the law, not flaunt it.

Okay. Our lines are open. Give me a call at nine-fifty-five-fifty-five-fifty-five-fifty-five; that’s a nine and nine fives. I’m Jason Green, and this is the voice for common sense. Call and give us your nickel’s worth. You’re worth more than two cents, and you know we’re better than all this that’s goin’ on.

I was really excited when Grandy showed up on the afternoon before the Mayor’s 10-K. I had put in plenty of hours in the HP lab, so I signed out and showed him all around the ARC. He was staying in one of the empty rooms in my suite, and when he came out after dressing for the banquet, I almost gave up on the spot everything I was doing. Lots of men a whole lot younger than Grandy don’t look near as good as he did in his fancy suit. And me? The sandals Angie decorated for me – no heels the night before a race – my strike medallion on a chain that used to be Gramma Iris’s, and a touch of lipstick. Grandy was ready for a night on the town, and I felt like I hadn’t started to get ready yet. I almost started crying, but Grandy was excited to be going on a date, his first since Gramma Iris got sick. A date with my own grandfather? I had been with too many people since coming to college but very few dates. I went back in my room and got a teal scarf that almost exactly matched the color of Grandy’s tie and I could have over my arms kind of like a shawl. For all the things I had thought about with this sorority, it never came up how it would be to go where everyone else was all foxed out. He started telling me about how he tricked Gramma Iris into going for him instead of all the other guys who were after her, and I was laughing before we got to the Burning Bush country club. Really, not much trickery was necessary… unless she tricked him into chasing her. Maybe I could use some of her tricks on Wes.

The country club was fancier than just about anywhere I had ever been. Grandy fit right in with how everybody was dressed. I figured I would be introducing him to the few people I knew, but he beat me to it. We had just gotten inside when he started talking with a guy named Bud Black who had been on the track team with him in college. They were still talking like long-lost buds when Margot Black took me to meet Senator Parsons. Wes had sent greetings. Before I could think of anything to say, Mayor Mansfield came over to talk to us. We had only talked on the phone, but I had looked her up on the ’Net. Lots of people wanted to talk to the mayor and the senator, so Margot took me to meet some others. The only one I knew even a little bit was Coach Miner with the cross country and track teams. She was the first race marshal after Mayor Mansfield was elected and looked uncomfortable in her fancy red dress. The marshals from the two years since then were there, too, but most of the people were elderly and wealthy and really looked like they weren’t runners.

Coach Miner had recruited me before I broke my ankle and knew I was in the running research. We were still talking about running and the stretching group I was leading when it was time to be seated. Grandy and I were at the head table up on the platform with Senator Parsons on my other side. Lots of people wanted to talk to the politicians, but Senator Parsons seemed most interested in hearing all about the progress on the sorority. I could feel myself blushing when the mayor introduced me after the meal. Thank God I didn’t have to say anything. Why couldn’t everybody be like Grandy and just accept each other? Life would be so much easier. It was a pretty quiet change when women started wearing sports bras with no shirt out in public. Why couldn’t this be just as quiet?

I felt like a little kid again while I was showing Grandy various places around the city and campus after the dinner. Evan wasn’t working at the Java Station, but I knew lots of people there, and I was able to introduce him to several other protesters. We stopped at the chapel on the way to the ARC, but Angie wasn’t there. Grandy was impressed with how big the suite was and how nicely it was furnished. We talked for a little while, but Grandy said he needed his beauty sleep before the race. I kissed him on the cheek and told him he was plenty beautiful enough for me.

Grandy hesitated, working his mouth nervously and clearing his throat. After a couple of false starts, he said, “You’re beautiful, too, and your grandmother is the only other naked woman I ever said that to.” With a quick kiss on my cheek, he went into his room.

I had a terrible time getting to sleep. When Mayor Mansfield first asked me to be the race marshal, I kicked up the miles I was going but backed off again. I really didn’t want to go back to obsessing about races. Instead, I had been sticking at three or four miles twice a day. For my job, I had to know how to use all the equipment in the lab and had been working on strengthening my core. That wasn’t running, but it would help. The night before races in high school, I went to sleep by getting myself off until… well… Before track my senior year, some of my friends were talking about whether we could run better if we went cold turkey. I really didn’t do it that much, but I decided to see. I made it a month, and then … Gramma Iris died, and I broke my ankle. I really wanted to get myself off, but I wasn’t going to chance losing Grandy, too.

God wouldn’t kill somebody just for a pretty normal thing her granddaughter did. I knew that. I knew it. My head knew it. My gut wasn’t so sure. I got up and went out to the kitchen for some juice. Alcohol would have helped me go to sleep better. Of course, it would also do too many other things. When I went back to bed, I got a book… and turned off the light after the book fell on my face.

Saturday morning of the race was warm with a light cloud cover and just a little breeze. I would have preferred it to be a little cooler, but it should be good running. Several reporters tried to get interviews from me before the race, but I refused to talk with them, and Carmelita from University PR began heading them off. As soon as the mayor’s staff found out Grandy and I had arrived, they brought us into the officials’ tent where the press wasn’t allowed. I found a corner in the back where I could stretch and get ready as much as possible. Grandy talked me through my pre-race jitters. I hadn’t actually run a 10-K race since middle school, and then my only plan was to finish. My plan for this one was to keep the lead female runner in sight and then see near the finish if I had enough left to move up.

Just a few minutes before the race was to start, the mayor herself took me to a speaker’s stand beside the starting line. The mayor told the runners to run well, and then I read a brief description of the route and wished them all good running. While the head judge was going over a few of the race rules, I moved to a place in the front row. It was a good starting position, but I would have preferred a less conspicuous spot back in the pack wherever Grandy was. The starter called us to get set, and I became aware that some of the noise was from protesters chanting about me. That wasn’t a good sign; in my old racing days, I always blocked out every sound except the starter.

The starter’s gun barked, and the runners surged forward. There was quite a bit of jostling as we moved out. I concentrated on keeping my feet. In a short while, the leaders had spread out, and I was able to settle into a steady pace. Some of these guys were clearly out to win. I glanced around; none of the runners ahead of me looked like women, though with dedicated runners it wasn’t always easy to tell from behind. I was running faster than I would be able to hold, so I eased off and watched more guys pass until Coach Miner came up beside me.

“Don’t empty your tank too early,” she said.

“Yeah, I… Yeah.”

“Are any women ahead of us?”

“Don’t think so.”

For about a mile, we ran side by side, passing a few men who had spent their energy too early and being passed by others until a woman passed us near the side of the road. Coach Miner picked up her pace, but I held steady. Ten kilometers was about twice as long as my cross-country races in high school. Gradually, the other two women pulled farther ahead of me, but I kept them in sight. Another pair of women running together passed me near the halfway point, offering encouragement as they went by. I was getting extremely hot. My sweat was flowing fast, but at every water stand, I grabbed a cup, drank a little, and dumped the rest over myself.

At the marker for two kilometers to go, I couldn’t see Coach Miner or the other women who had passed me, though the men in front of me weren’t tightly packed. I switched to a song with a faster beat and did my best to stretch my stride a little longer. “Stride an inch longer,” I sang to the beat in my head, “rest at the end. Stride an inch longer; rest at the end.” I passed a man and seemed to be moving closer to two women just in front of me. One of the women was faltering. After not running a single race in over two years, third place wouldn’t be so bad. “Stride an inch longer; rest at the end. Keep the fire burning; keep the legs flowing.” The two women were suddenly much closer; the one was barely shuffling along, and she was trying to convince her partner to keep going. The partner – Coach Miner – saw me bearing down on them and resumed her pace.

The crowds on both sides of the road were cheering, and every camera seemed to be on us. Let ’em take their damned pictures and do whatever they wanted with them. I was going to pass Coach Miner and take third place if it killed me, if it made my lungs burn up, if it made my legs fall off. I switched to a song with a faster beat. “Two inches longer, two steps faster. Two inches longer, two steps faster. Two inches longer, two steps faster.” Coach Miner hung with me for a few steps, then I blew past her and fairly flew by a couple of men. Where were the lead women? Where was the finish line? I was as close to a flat out sprint as ever at the end of a race. The finish line flew past me. Third place wasn’t so bad, but where were the other two women? I staggered to a stop and stood gasping for air with my hands on my knees. Police surrounded me, keeping the crowd back. Thank God! Had they treated the winner like this?

As my breath came back, I tried to tell the people who were sticking microphones in my face that I wanted to congratulate the winner, but there was too much noise and excitement. The police finally got me into the officials’ tent. Somebody offered me a cup of water, and I dumped it over my head and let it run down my body. After dumping a second cup over myself, I drank a third. Somebody brought me a chair before my legs gave out. I was no longer gasping for every breath.

“Congratulations,” Mayor Mansfield said, as she offered me another cup of water.

I took the cup and dipped out an ice cube to rub over my forehead. “Is third place really worth all this attention?”

“Third? You won the women’s division. I’m not a runner, but even to my eyes it was quite a spectacular finish.”

I stared up at her, frowning slightly and shaking my head. “Two women were ahead of me.”

“Not women in the race. You didn’t break the record time, but you and Coach Miner both beat the record holder.”

“I did? But four women passed me, and I only passed two.”

The mayor chuckled. “Perhaps, but when we give the medals, be sure to take the gold one. Until then, would you like to talk to any reporters? They’re clamoring for you.”

“Reporters? For me? They just… No.”

Mayor Mansfield nodded. “I’ll have my people take care of it.”

At the awards ceremony, the mayor did all the talking, and I only congratulated the winners in the various age categories as I gave them their medals. Grandy had won the over-seventy-five category, and I kissed him on the cheek after I hung his medal around his neck. When it was time for my medal, the mayor gave it to me, and Grandy returned the kiss.

Someone from the Mayor’s staff escorted me back to the officials’ tent while Mayor Mansfield was making some brief, closing remarks, and I asked that Grandy be brought there, too. He had been talking with some of the other age division winners, but he never had a problem finding people to talk to. We stayed together until Grandy left town in the afternoon.

When I first looked at my phone after the race, a message from Wes was already waiting. “Congrats!” was all it said. Had he been at the race? I hadn’t seen him. Messages from my other friends trickled in all day. McKenzie, Nate, Matt, and Reiner had all been in the race, too.

Dad called in the evening. “That was quite a race,” he said. “Your brother found a video of the finish.”

“Oh. Did they… Wow. I didn’t know… Wow.”

“It’s not quite as bad as you think,” Mom said. “It’s just you sprinting at the end of a 10-K.”

I sighed. “Yeah. I wish…”

After several seconds, Mom said, “Wish what?”

“I don’t know. Did they show Grandy winning his age division?”

“No. He said you gave him his medal and a kiss.”

“Can I ask something?” Lily asked. She had been listening but hadn’t said much. “Does everybody in your sorority hafta be a runner?”

“No. My friend Piña swims, and others do other things. We all have to do something.”

“I hope there’ll be room for another swimmer next year.”

“Lily?” everybody in the family except Chip said together.

“Hey, I don’t want her to have all the fun.”

Cassie and Piña both came to Coventry on Sunday, and we hung out together most of the day. Other than a slight swelling on the side of her face – which most people wouldn’t notice – Piña had completely recovered from her wounds. Her immediate family was proud of what she was doing, though many of her other relatives believed the death penalty should be used more, not less. Since her mouth and jaw had healed, she had been playing her clarinet several hours a day. She had also spent a lot of time talking on the phone, video chatting, and texting with Evan. His grandparents were celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary over the weekend, and Piña had to work to convince him to go to that rather than staying in town to see her. There was nothing official to report, but she was fairly confident that they would be a couple when classes started in the fall; that would be long enough since he had broken up with Shelli.

For Cassie, the month had held more problems. She had strained a hamstring during her first week home after finals and had to quit running for almost three weeks. A coach at her high school had helped with her rehab, even though the assistant principal insisted Cassie couldn’t be in the building when any students were there. No one else in her hometown was in the running research, of course, or the nudity strike, though everyone seemed to know all about it. She was filling in as the receptionist at her mother’s insurance agency and passing out strike brochures to anyone who would take them. Her mother was wearing a death penalty button every day. She had been a supporter of the death penalty, but after Cassie joined the strike, she had changed her mind.

About midnight, Cassie and I finally left Ross and Donna’s home where Piña was spending the night. Because it was a long weekend and most of the regulars were elsewhere, the Sunday evening gathering hadn’t happened. Cassie was staying overnight in my suite, and we stayed up way too late talking.

Memorial Day was warm and clear with a morning low around sixty and a predicted high in the low eighties. Despite the short night, Cassie and I got up to run together in the morning. In the afternoon at the park next to campus, the local chapter of CADP was sponsoring a gathering in honor of the protesters. I might not have gone, but they were going to honor Nate and Piña as martyrs for the cause and me for having saved Nate. Barb Maxwell had reminded me that I was now not only the most famous nudist on campus, but the most famous striker, too.

The first big – no, HUGE! – surprise for me was at the entrance to the shelter in the park. A table for CADP was set up there, and Angie was one of two people checking on computers to be sure that all the CADP strikers were properly registered, not as a way to keep people out, but as a way of making sure everyone was fully backed by the organization. Too many people wanted to talk to me, so it was quite a while after Cassie, Piña, and I arrived before I got to talk with Angie.

“I’m kind of surprised you’re here,” I said when I sat down next to Angie. She was by herself at the table.

“I hope you won’t accuse me of being a hypocrite again for helping with this naked strike but keeping my own clothes on.” Angie was one of several people who were not nude.

“Have I ever called you a hypocrite?”

“Only once. I do it enough myself, more than enough.”

“Oh. So, why are you doing this?”

“Pastor Barb got me interested. I’m not ready to streak the whole world, so I’m just doing what I can to help.”

“Oh. Well, thanks.”

“Yeah. That was quite a race on Saturday. I was… really proud of you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m still not all that sure about the naked part, but when you came in sight o’ the finish line… it was one o’ the most beautiful things I ever saw. I’m sure the people around me thought I was completely crazy. I was yelling and cheering and jumping around and… I don’t know.”

“Wow! I didn’t even know you were there.”

“I was. I was supposed to be helping with the CADP stuff. I downloaded one o’ the videos of you before they were all taken down.”

I frowned slightly. “Taken down? My little brother said they’re still out there.”

“Not the free ones where you aren’t covered up. Not that I’ve found.”

“Oh. You’ve… you’ve looked?”

Angie shrugged. “I’m proving my dad right about me.” Before I could find out what that meant, some other protesters arrived, and Angie had to check the computer for them.

I was filling a glass with tea when I noticed Wes entertaining a small crowd of admirers. I was about to go over there when Dr. Maxwell – Barb’s husband – came up and told me that Barb wanted the honorees to gather at one end of the shelter for the presentation.

Piña and Barb came to the front at about the same time. Piña and I stood on either side of Nate. Barb told a little about Piña first and her connection to the death penalty. Everyone applauded, and I cheered. I was glad for someone else to be in the spotlight. Then Barb told about Nate and his involvement in the strike and the running research and the accident near the mosque. I was bracing myself for being proclaimed a hero again, but Barb went on instead to talking about Nate’s injuries and recovery. There was more applause for him. Piña and I both cheered and kissed him on the cheek at the same time.

Then it was my turn. I didn’t think Barb needed to go into everything, but Barb started with the running research and everything else. All the details were way more than she needed to say. By the time she stopped, the whole crowd was clapping and cheering and whistling and shouting. I was sure I must be blushing clear down to my knees. Even Wes flashed his beautiful smile at me. Several people were calling for a speech, and Barb offered the microphone to me.

“Thanks. Wow. This is really… I don’t know what to say. I guess, besides Nate and Piña, we oughta be remembering two real heroes. I just did what anybody would do. The real heroes in all this are Ed and Joan Wilcox and all the other strikers that started in February and Dr. Randall and the other running researchers. I guess that’s more than two, isn’t it? You probably all know the first strikers expected to get arrested, but they went ahead anyway. Ed and Joan are trying to get the guy who killed their granddaughter off death row. That’s pretty amazing.

“Dr. Brad Randall and the other researchers saw something nobody else has ever studied. Even though it goes against the way most of us were brought up, they worked and worked to find a way to do their research. I know all of us today aren’t really here because of the running research. A lot of you that are part of CADP and the nudity strike think that we runners are taking away from what the strike is trying to do. You may be right, but more people are out on the streets. Sure, the people who see us running may never write a letter to the governor or the legislature, but with everything that’s been in the news and on talk radio, they can’t help but think about the strike when they see someone running. Some of us only run on the indoor track at the university. A few more run on the outdoor track, too, but a lot of us run wherever we can think of. A lot more people see us than if we just wore our medallions and stayed at our desks or wherever.” Several people clapped.

“I guess there’s really another hero, too, or actually a whole bunch. I’m thinking about Barb and all of you that are part of CADP or working for it. Without you standing behind us, none of us would be doing this for very long, and there wouldn’t be near as much pressure for the governor and legislature to do what they shoulda done a long time ago.” There was more applause this time, and I gave the mike back to Barb.

The rest of the party was just fun. It was especially nice that the nude people and the clothed people mingled like it didn’t make any difference at all. Wes came over to talk to Cassie. They had known each other since grade school. Wes had spent the earlier part of the day riding bikes around the city with Damien, Nate, and McKenzie, passing out brochures to anyone who would take them. Should I carry brochures when I was out running?

I was sitting at one of the picnic tables in the shelter talking with an older couple who were part of the protest when Wes sat down beside me. Many people had left already, including Damien. I introduced the couple to Wes, and they chatted a bit longer before the man said it was time for them to get going.

“Hey, Running, I have a question,” Wes said to me as I started to stand, too, “if you can spare a couple of minutes.”

I wanted to say, ‘I always have time for you,’ but I only said, “Sure. What’s up?”

“First, congrats on winning Saturday. I wanted to be there, but I got sent to a different gathering.”

“Sent?”

“By Monica, Senator Parsons’ administrative assistant.”

“Oh. Of course. Are you working now?”

“Sort of. She was going to send me somewhere else, but Senator Parsons overruled her and sent me here. That’s not why I want to talk to you now. Do you know about the Morgan Hills Races on the Fourth of July?”

I shrugged. “I’ve heard of ’em. That’s about all. I was never sure whether to believe they’re real.”

“They are. They used to be open to anybody, but since they got popular, you have to qualify. Winning the Mayor’s 10K here is one way to do that. Unless things change drastically with my internship, I doubt I can be there on the Fourth. If you go, I’ll make sure Mom looks you up. She’ll like you.”

Cassie and Piña joined us just then, so I didn’t have a chance to ask for more information. Piña went home after the gathering at the park, and Cassie stayed overnight again in my suite. We didn’t stay up so late talking. Cassie headed home after we went on an early morning run.

The next day, Dr. Randall asked me to come into his office during my shift in the HP lab. “I have an invitation for you,” he said. “Have you heard of the Morgan Hills Country Club Races?”

I nodded, staring at him. “At the nudist club over by Bayfield. I’ve heard of ’em.”

He slid across his desk a brochure with stylized silhouettes of a man and woman running. “You’re the only one of our subjects who is into competitive running.” He told a little about them, basically the same as Wes had told me. “There won’t be media coverage like the Mayor’s 10-K.”

“Will you be there?”

He tilted his head as if to deny it but after a moment nodded. “I won’t be running this year. They needed me as an official. Since you’re only twenty, you would need your parents’ permission.”

“Why?”

“State law. It doesn’t apply to our research and probably won’t for your sorority, but the law requires anyone under twenty one to have parental permission to visit a nudist club.”

Sigh! I nodded and opened the brochure. Inside were actual photographs of nude runners, though none showing genitalia or women’s breasts. “My parents weren’t at the Mayor’s 10-K.”

“If they’d like to watch, spectators aren’t required to be nude.”

“This whole sorority thing started as their idea, and they suggested I join the strike, but I don’t think they’re ready to join in.”

“Ah.” Dr. Randall sat back in his chair. “Geri and I know several nudists, and you’re nude as much or more than most of them.”

“Yeah. When I first signed up for your research, I thought I could get away with running where nobody would see me. Now just look at me. I’ve never been to a nudist colony, but I’m about to start a naturist sorority. I’d almost swear off clothes permanently if I could.” I was surprised to hear myself say that, but it was true.

“They’re clubs not colonies.”

“I know. You know what I mean.” I picked up the brochure again. “I’m not sure nudist is the right term for me. Do you know about naturists? I feel like I’m living the way God and Nature meant for us to be.”

Just before noon, I was on an errand across campus for Dr. Randall when I almost ran over Angie coming out of a summer school class. We went to lunch together in the Campus Center. As we sat down at a table by ourselves, I asked, “Was that one of your friends that muttered something when we walked past?”

“Former friend,” Angie corrected. “My old Bible study group thinks I’m a traitor.”

“Oh! Well, I don’t wanna ruin your reputation.”

“It’s not you. This is about living at the chapel and volunteering with CADP Up till you started running, they thought I was really great for putting up with you and praying for you every day.”

“You were praying for me? I didn’t know that.”

“I know. I didn’t wanna… Jesus said we should pray in secret. I didn’t wanna pressure you, even if lots o’ the Bible study kids thought I should do anything I could to get you to change.”

“I kinda needed it, but I don’t know what you could have done.”

“Yeah.” She toyed with her salad for a couple of seconds. “We all need it.”

“Angie, why do you always put yourself down so much? You’re pretty and smart and…”

“And a hypocrite,” she said, interrupting.

“Angie, that’s…”

“You don’t know.”

“Well, sure, there’s always things other people don’t know, but… but… I don’t know. You’ve always been straight with me. I mean, well, okay. When you were sleeping with what’s his bucket and pretending to be so holy…”

“That was just the tip of the iceberg. I wish I could be as open and honest as you.”

“As me?” I sat back. “You aren’t talking about going naked, are you?”

“I don’t know. I already know a lot about that strike, and I wanna know more about your sorority.”

“Angie, you don’t hafta join my sorority.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t want me.”

“Of course, we would! I can’t promise who’ll get in, but I’d definitely vote for you!”

“You might not want me.” She studied her salad and whispered. “What I was doing with Mitch wasn’t the only thing.”

“You sure kept it private, and that’s all we’re asking of anybody. Sex is part of who we are. Didn’t God make us male and female? That means sex. You haven’t been a slut about it, and you certainly haven’t been like I used to be.”

“You… think…”

“Angie, you’re a great girl! If you apply for the sorority, I’ll pull strings to get you in, but I seriously doubt I’d have to pull any.”

“Wow. Pastor Barb was right. She’s not so into rules as most of the Christian counselors I’ve gone to over the years. The others mainly tried to make me realize I shouldn’t be like my mother; I already knew that. Barb’s been helping me figure out how not to be like her.”

“I thought you didn’t really know your mother.”

“I didn’t. I don’t even remember her, but apparently she had a sex drive like mine.”

“According to your dad?”

“Yeah. If it weren’t for me being born, I wouldn’t think he ever was interested in sex.”

“Most kids don’t wanna think about their parents doing it.”

“Yeah.” Angie sighed. “For me, it’s more than plenty just keeping my own self under control.”

“When I first started doing this research running in the daytime when other people were around, I was just about ready to grab every willing guy I could find. They didn’t even have to be all that willing. Now… I don’t know. I still feel sexy, but it’s not anywhere near as overwhelming. Maybe you should give it a try.”

“If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell Pastor Barb or anyone else?”

“Of course.”

She glanced at the other tables and leaned closer to me. “My apartment at the chapel,” she whispered, “gets stuffy. I’ve been sleeping naked. Most mornings, I’m groggy when my alarm goes off. Lots o’ times… after I get the doors unlocked…” She bit her lip. “That’s when I get dressed.”

That was Angie’s big secret she didn’t want me to tell? She walked around the chapel naked? My first thought was that she couldn’t possibly be serious. But she hadn’t grown up in my family or with my friends. Secret? That was like picking up a paper clip off the sidewalk versus robbing Fort Knox. Okay. Granted, I didn’t grow up with her straight-laced dad, but come on! She was dead serious, so I didn’t laugh or even smile.

I couldn’t imagine my parents visiting a nudist club, so I decided not to sign up for the Morgan Hills Races, even if it would mean getting to see where Wes had grown up. I mentioned the Races to McKenzie that evening while we were running, though, and McKenzie expressed interest. Her parents were threatening to cut off their support if she didn’t quit the research project or if she joined the sorority, but she was hooked on running in the buff. She thought I shouldn’t give up without at least talking to my parents about it. She hadn’t given up on Nate, and they were back together.

It was abundantly clear to me that the sorority was no longer my private project, although everyone on the various committees and groups seemed to want my opinion about everything. My original plan had been to start with a small group who together would work out the details and activate themselves early in the second semester about the same time that many of the sororities activated their pledges. Most of the women working on the project didn’t want to wait that long. After being naked at their meetings, many of them had begun leaving their clothes home when they went to the meetings. McKenzie wasn’t part of the sorority project yet, but she had signed up for the research and was stretching how long before she got dressed considerably beyond simply when she was running. Like several others working on the sorority, she had a death penalty medallion but hadn’t signed up for the strike and didn’t intend to. Nate wasn’t pressuring her about it.

On Thursday evening after Memorial Day, Grandy called. “You willing to talk to an old guy?”

“No, but I’m always willing to talk to you. You recovered from the race?”

“The race, sure. The surprise from winning the old guy’s division, not so much.”

“Don’t give me that. Your time was better than two of the next three younger divisions.”

“Yeah, well… Did you get a letter today about another race?”

“I haven’t checked my mail.”

“It’s at a nudist club.”

“Oh! Morgan Hills! I’m invited because o’ winning last Saturday. Did you get invited, too?”

“Yup. ‘Cause o’ winning the old guys division. You gonna go?”

“Maybe. Since I’m only twenty, Mom and Dad would have to give permission. I don’t think…”

“Hold it right there!” Grandy interrupted. “You do too think. You’re one o’ the smartest women I ever met.”

“Grandy…” I waved good-bye to McKenzie as we went into the ARC. I continued walking around the edge of the indoor track. “I think too much for my own good sometimes. But what I was trying to say was that Mom and Dad aren’t gonna be there to watch. They’re supporting me and all, but that just isn’t the kinda place they want me to be.”

“Guess we’ll just have to watch each other.”

I hesitated. “You really want to do this?”

“I will if you do. I’m not as fast as you anymore, but I was really happy bein’ in a race with you. For that matter, maybe we should get your dad signed up, too. Last time three generations of Runnings were in the same race was when your dad was a kid.”

“Yeah, fat chance!”

A couple of days later, Dad called and accused me of conspiring with Grandy. He was kidding, but I played along. The imaginary conspiracy was to get him to accept an invitation to run in the Morgan Hills Races. Because of various races he had won over the years, he had been invited several times but had never gone. Since Dad and Grandy were going to be there, any reasons I could think of not to run seemed inconsequential.

Mom called on Sunday afternoon while I was reading background research for some of the studies for my Scholars project. “How much do you know about this nudist club?”

“Not a lot,” I said. “They invited me and Dad and Grandy to the race, but you don’t have to go if…”

“That isn’t it,” Mom interrupted. “We’ve been invited to spend the whole weekend at the club.”

“It’s not the whole weekend. It’s just the race on Monday.”

“The invitation I got is for the whole weekend, not the race. It’s from Sue Milton, Wes’s mom.”

“From… Oh.”

“Sue said only one of Wes’s friends ever visited him at the club. Do you know Damien Wilcox? He and Wes are roommates. Wes won’t be able to be there, but he’s excited that another one of his friends is going to visit where he grew up.”

When I got to the Ferguson house for the evening gathering, I found Wes to thank him for the invitation. We didn’t talk long because he had to go join the musicians. Since Piña was home with her parents, there was nothing to distract me from watching Wes during the music. When he dropped me off at the ARC, I locked the door to my suite and went straight to the shower.

All of us who worked in the HP lab specialized in one or two different kinds of strengthening or rehab. I was focusing on core strengthening and on stretching, both warm-up and cool-down. The stretching was building on what I had been doing in the mornings with Rose and Fran. I had started the core work before the Mayor’s 10-K, and it was kind of my way of getting ready for the Morgan Hills race without adding to my training miles.

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