Quiet neighborhood, a few people on the sidewalk who looked just like the creeps in the restaurant.
Karen turned right at the corner and ran. Rattling, the heavy denim bag knocking against her thigh.
Zoe was crying.
“It’s okay, baby, it’s okay, Mommy will keep you safe.”
She heard a shout and looked back to see Lizard coming after her, people moving away from him, giving him room. Fear in their faces. He pointed at Karen, went after her.
She picked up her pace. Let’s hear it for jogging. But this wasn’t like running in shorts and a T-shirt; between Zoe and the heavy bag she felt like a plow horse.
Okay, keep a rhythm, the creep was skinny but he probably wasn’t in good shape. Nice and easy with the breathing, pretend this is a ten-k and you’ve carbo-loaded the night before, slept a peaceful eight hours, gotten up when you wanted to….
She made it to another corner. Red light. A taxi sped by and she had to wait. Lizard was gaining on her–running loosely on long legs, his face sharp and pale–not a lizard, a snake. A venomous snake.
Ugly words came out of the snake’s mouth. He was pointing at her.
She stepped off the curb. A truck was approaching halfway down the block. She waited until it got closer, bolted, made it stop short. Blocking the snake.
Another block, this one shorter, lined with shabby storefronts. But no corner at the end of this one. Green dead end. A hedge behind high, graffitied stone walls.
A park. The entrance a hundred yards left.
Karen went for it, running even faster, hearing Zoe’s cries and the raspy sound of her own breathing.
Plow horse . . .
Steep, cracked steps took her down into the park. A bronze statue besmirched by pigeon dirt, poorly maintained grass, big trees.
She placed a hand behind Zoe’s head, making sure not to jolt the supple neck–she’d read that babies could get whiplash without anyone knowing and then years later they’d show signs of brain damage….
Clap clap behind her as Snake’s footsteps slapped the steps. Mr. Viper… stop thinking stupid thoughts, he was just a man, a creep. Just keep going, she’d find a place to be safe.
The park was empty, the stone path shaded almost black by huge spreading elms.
“Hey!” shouted the snake. “Stop, awready… what… the… f—!”
Panting between words. The creep probably never did anything aerobic.
“What… f—… problem… wanna talk! “
Karen pumped her legs. The path took on an upward slope.
Good, make the creep work harder, she could handle it, though Zoe’s cries in her ear were starting to get to her–poor thing, what kind of mother was she, getting her baby into something like this–
“Jesus!” From behind. Huff, huff. “Stupid… bitch!”
More trees, bigger, the pathway even darker. Along the side, occasional benches, graffitied, too, no one on them.
No one to help.
Karen ran even faster. Her chest began to hurt and Zoe hadn’t stopped wailing.
“Easy, honey,” she managed to gasp. “Easy, Zoe-puff.”
The slope grew steeper.
Then something appeared on the path. A metal-mesh garbage can. Low enough for her to jump in her jogging days, but not with Zoe. She had to sidestep it and the snake saw her lose footing, stumble, veer off onto the grass, and twist her ankle.
She cried out in pain. Tried to run, stopped.
Zoe’s chubby cheeks were soaked with tears.
The snake smiled and walked around the can and toward her.
“F—— city,” he said, kicking the can and whipping out a handkerchief and wiping the sweat from his face. Up close he smelled of too-sweet cologne and raw meat. “No maintenance. No one takes any f—— pride anymore.”
Karen started to edge away, looked sharply at her ankle, and winced.