By Chloe Mangiafico

Change my clothes, put my hair up, tie my shoes. I don’t even have to think about it anymore. It’s just something I do, like breathing or blinking—or running. The routine, the repetition, it gives me control over my life. I always find myself at the same trail, behind the houses, down the main road, and through the woods. I always pass the same solitary old tree and jump over the same thin, meandering creek. The forest is lonely and lost, just like me.

Running is my escape.

I listen to music when I run, through the colorful earbuds my brother gave me, but that was years ago. The rest of me is gray.

I run alone, but that’s the way I like it. The solitude allows me to think clearly. Think, and also live. Ever since my brother left, my life has been unbearably dull. There are no more witty jokes, no more twinkling eyes. No more colorful earbuds, only thin, gray fabric.

Running is my escape.

When my feet start pounding the pavement and my breathing syncs up with the beat of the music, I’m transported. My feet keep hitting the ground, and I’m aware of my body enough to run in a straight line, but my mind is no longer confined to my head.

It’s free to wander.

But I tend to let my mind wander a little too far.

***

Recently, while on my long runs, I’ve started to imagine that the lyrics to the songs I listen to are relevant to my life. It’s fun to envision people I know living out the stories in the music. I can picture kids from school acting out the lyrics to a love song or a breakup song. I can picture myself living the life of the singers, partying and socializing. The songs are more interesting than my real life though, so it’s nice to pretend I have friends with worthwhile things to say.

It’s nice to pretend.

Compared to the imaginary life I live when running, my real one seems even more bland. I have no friends to gossip with, no crushes to overanalyze. I find myself spending more and more time in the woods, my earbuds a portal into the wonderful life I can escape to. I let myself get drawn farther and farther into this fantasy world I’ve created.

I let myself go.

At first this imaginary world was goofy and exaggerated, as imagination is wont to be, but now it’s less so. It’s almost like it isn’t in my imagination at all anymore. The lines between what’s real and what’s in my head have started to blur. Once or twice I’ve even forgotten that the real me doesn’t actually hang out at parties with her hot boyfriend and entourage of backup girls. I don’t actually text my friends late into the night. I don’t actually have friends at all.

I’m not even sure I really wish my life was like that anyway, but it’s still fun to imagine what it would be like.

It’s nice to pretend.

***

Today I’m on my way to the airport. My brother’s finally coming home. My boyfriend sits next to me in the passenger seat, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see him looking at me. He leans over and kisses me gently on the cheek. I flash a smile back at him, keeping my eyes on the road. The music playing on the radio sounds familiar but somehow distant, like I’ve been listening to it recently but now it’s somehow muffled. I tap my left foot along to the beat, lightly brushing the gray carpeted floor of the car.

After a long time stuck in traffic and then trying to find a parking spot, we finally make our way into the building and locate the baggage claim marked six. I like to watch the bags tumble out of the chute and fall onto the spinning conveyor belt. We wait at the baggage claim together for about half an hour, and other people come and pull their suitcases and duffle bags and brightly colored boxes off the belt, but there’s no sign of my brother.

Where is he?

I walk over to each of the other baggage claims to make sure he’s not waiting there either, and he isn’t. I start to wonder if maybe his flight doesn’t come in until tomorrow, or if maybe we’re at the wrong airport. Deep in thought, I make my way back to where my boyfriend is waiting for me, but there’s no one there.

I don’t have a boyfriend.

My brother isn’t coming back.

***

Ouch.

I’m laying sprawled on the grassy ground, a sliver of deep orange light shining through the canopy above me, striking my face at an angle that indicates it’s later in the day than I thought. I prop myself up on my elbows and look around. This isn’t the airport, but the same music that was playing at the baggage claim is still in my ears. It takes me a second to realize that the sound is coming through my earbuds, which are now tangled in my hair. I yank them out of my ears, pulling myself away from the airport and back into the woods. It’s eerily quiet.

How long has been been since I’ve heard silence?

The air is growing crisper my the second as the sun begins to sink behind the trees. My elbows are a little scratched and the left one is bleeding slightly. My shoes are wet. I must have run through the creek. I never run through that creek. I always jump over it, always.

That’s how it’s supposed to go.

That’s the routine.

I always find myself at the same trail, behind the houses, down the main road, and through the woods. I always pass the same solitary old tree and I jump over the same thin, meandering creek.

Always, but not today.

Today I stepped in the creek without even noticing. Today I forgot I was even running, for what could have been hours.

What’s happening to me?

***

I stand up slowly, and it hits me how sore my legs are. It’s not a surprise that I fell down.  I usually get home at around 4:30, but judging by the light it must be going on 6:00. I wonder if I would have ever been torn from the airport if I hadn’t gotten tired and tripped? Could I have gotten stuck there? Can I still get stuck there?

As I walk back up the familiar path, I consider the possibility that it’ll be my last time in these woods. I’m scared that if I come back tomorrow the same thing will happen, or worse, but I can’t imagine what I would do if I couldn’t run.

I need that escape, but now I can’t have it.

I have to face the reality that is my life. I have to face the reality that my brother’s never coming back. I have to face the reality that life must go on.

Just because everything is gray now, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Maybe routine isn’t the only answer. I need to find new color, but I don’t know how.

***

I sit alone at lunch, as always. In the corner of my vision I see bright yellow rain boots walk up until they’re planted right next to my chair. I feel a hesitant tap on my shoulder and I look up. The girl smiles and says something.

I pull out my right earbud.

She repeats herself: “Is this seat taken?”

I shake my head and scoot my chair over, making more space for her to sit down.

“I’m Sophie,” the girl says.

I pull out the other earbud.

“Hi.”

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