Four Thousand Steps

Haze made the park greens insistent. The Air Quality Index had been over 150 for twelve days—way over. The higher the number, the more compulsively Marie monitored it. When it hit 300 she’d check windows and surrender to bed. Just 86 now at 7a.m.–unhealthy for the vulnerable, but so much closer to fresh air she had her shoes tied before weather graphics loaded. She stepped rapidly towards the park: if she didn’t walk after eleven isolated days sweltering inside, she’d crack. Forget 10,000 steps–4,000 would be wonderful, a jail break. A resurrection.

The park was placid, open, empty: no couples stacked on the grass attached by mouth; no tennis ball’s pop pop pop; no nosey dogs leading phone-glow zombies. No orange sun. No one else monitored the AQI, she figured. Busy Tik Toking.

Was that a raindrop? Rain could clean the air. But only a 30 percent chance.

As Marie rounded a corner near the tennis courts, a girl pulled deeply from a bottle. Faintly orange—flavored vodka? Old enough to drink, Marie guessed, young enough to flaunt it. Marie stepped past without focusing—dangerous to show interest. The girl, large and blowsy and wasted, was adjunct to two men. The tatooed one said quietly, Fuck you then, and turned abruptly towards Marie, forcing her to curve away—a sharp swerve would provoke him. The other man stood red-eyed, plug-shaped, spread-legged. Was he—? A yellow arc hit the oak tree aggressively.

Heyyyyy, the girl said to Marie. Jovially, as if she had good news, or was happy Marie had arrived, or to distract from the desecration. As if Marie could stop him. As if Marie could remedy the girl’s choice of company. Marie gave her a swift look that said Don’t bullshit me! and, Really—are thugs necessary? The girl fell silent. Marie controlled her pace; she could feel their eyes pushing her away. She took the smaller loop. Four thousand steps would suffice. She was already tired. Life among the vulnerable. She missed being reckless, sturdy, strong. Though she’d never have been drunk with morons in a park.

It started raining. Gentle rain, summer rain. A few drops and then spatters that became cleansing, cooling curtains. It would help the air. Maybe it would help the fire-fighters. AQI was 82. It was helping the air already. Water dripped from her visor.

It felt glorious, like amnesia: she could almost forget wildfires, smoke, how damn feeble she was, the complications post-surgery. Her doctor claimed she’d be dead otherwise. Unprovable. She lived rigorously clean, ate salads, took vitamins. She’d quit drinking in college when—running steps whipped her head around. The girl pounded up damply, red, breathless, heavy feet crushing her impractical little polka dot flats.

Can I come with you? she panted. She was already in step. She looked behind her. Please. I need a place to stay.

Leah Halper