They talk around the horror. For as long as they can stand it, they talk about stamina, the races they’d been training for, about their weekly mileage, their best split. They talk about their favorite trails and how the foot-give, the quiet, the way the sun crested over the ridge each morning on their last pass brought them peace, accomplishment. A good sweat. They talk supplements—for joint pain or energy or added protein, which goops and bars and shakes give the best boosts. My god, do they miss lactic acid built up in their thighs, waking each morning to soreness before they stretched it through.
There is one barefoot runner, named Jeremy, and they hate him. He is always trying to convert them, saying things like, Man was born to run this way and Terrain is king, wondering aloud if they can truly know a trail without feeling its rocks and sticks and features. Technically, Jeremy doesn’t even run fully barefoot, but instead wears swamp-thing Vivos that somehow manage to make him feel superior. He props them up as he pontificates and—perhaps subconsciously—wiggles each of his separately sheathed, unencumbered toes. They find this unsavory. He wears silky athletic shirts tight enough to see his nipples, which remain unfailingly erect despite a comfortable room temperature.
What they do not bring up until they absolutely cannot stand to avoid it any longer, in the half-lit Dick’s Sporting Goods of the Rolling Hills Shopping Plaza, is the reason they stopped running. This—the thing that unites them—brings them back every other week to loiter in the parking lot, to stretch their calves (gone slacker than they’d like) on curbs and bounce on their toes and pitter around, still dressed in running gear, until Stacey, whose boyfriend manages the branch, opens the side door.
Stacey is always inside at this point, always lets them in as if she owns the place rather than, presumably, a man named Dick, who runs her boyfriend, who runs the place. Stacey greets them and lets them inside at exactly 5:30 a.m. A minute later, and she will not circle back to open the door, leaving the offender locked out and suspicious-looking, wary of triggering the alarm. Stacey says punctuality keeps the devil late.
Once inside, they gather around the running track in the back and sit on benches that employees use to sell shoes in the daytime to customers who won’t wear them long enough to push past blisters, and they talk around what haunts them until the preface runs out. Then they talk about the bodies.
When Sumarra came upon the girl in the woods, her first thought was to leave her. Later, she will not share this with the others, though she might wonder if they thought the same, finding theirs. It would’ve been easier, wouldn’t it? Simpler.
Sumarra lingered only because she thought the girl might still be alive, the best angle of this worry being that Sumarra could save her and the worst of it being that if the girl did live, she might tell someone about the woman who discovered her first—who came upon a girl leaking into the underbrush—and turned around rather than help. Sumarra did not like trouble, generally, but made an exception that morning in the woods. She checked her watch to record her pace, then checked the girl’s outstretched wrist—which was dirty and alarmingly crooked—for a pulse.
Sumarra was surprised to find that she felt one, at first. The pace matched hers and was strong, jumping slightly from adrenaline, maybe, or fear. She wanted to check the girl’s face, to see if her eyes stayed wide or if breath came from her slackened mouth, but the girl’s hair was stretched across it, tangled with leaves, and bloodied unencouragingly. Sumarra found a stick to lift the hair away, and found the source of the blood—which did not seem to be still leaving the girl but instead had already gone—was her head. Her eyes were glassy and grayed, a dulled hazel that might once have been striking. Sumarra checked the wrist again, despite the evidence. She leveled her watch to count out the pace of the girl’s impossible heartbeat and realized that she was instead counting her own.
Sumarra cannot remember the next bit, which is what draws her to the support group every other week. She must have called the police. Seven minutes passed between the time that Sumarra last checked her watch to find the only pulse in the clearing and the time she placed the call, a call during which, she’s told later, her affect was so flat that the dispatcher asked Sumarra to repeat herself, because Sumarra spoke so quietly, so evenly that the dispatcher could not match what she was reporting with how she said it. Sumarra has not heard the recording and was told, rather alarmingly, by the police weeks after she made it that she was no longer considered a suspect. The officer—the detective on the case—had called to tell her this of his own accord, which Sumarra guessed was normal procedure.
The seven minutes worry her. The call and her supposed affect does not, because how energetic was one supposed to sound about finding a dead girl, skull ruined but otherwise seemingly intact, in the woods, not really hidden at all but just barely off the trail, in a clearing so that someone running by just had to see it, even if they didn’t want to? She can picture the girl as she found her, quite clearly. But Sumarra, who has a firm hold of herself almost always, cannot position herself beside the girl in her memory after she realized she was dead.
Did she run off, then circle back?
Had she cried? Panicked?
Did she check the girl for further damage?
Had she lain down beside her?
For weeks after the discovery, she’d call the station to ask for more details, any evidence they’d found at the scene of her, of Sumarra, which is perhaps why the detective had called her personally afterward, to say she was no longer suspected. He said it was ongoing—the investigation—that he couldn’t tell her much, though Sumarra felt that he had anyway: the girl’s name, her job, the names of her children, and that her boyfriend had been described by those interviewed as gentle and basically harmless.
Sumarra let the detective babble on because he needed to, but these were not the details she craved. She did not need to know that the woman—not a girl after all—had run an unlicensed backyard daycare that was clean and bright and much loved by the community. She did not care that the murder weapon was one of opportunity—that the rock had partially chipped off inside the woman’s parietal lobe, which was the area of the brain most mutilated by the blow. That the parietal lobe was located at the top-middle region of the skull, which meant either that the woman was attacked from behind or that her killer reached over the front of her to deliver the blow. A blow that, besides killing her, would have severely impaired her ability to identify objects, would have damaged her spatial reasoning as it related to those objects and herself—as in, the rock and herself, the forest floor and herself, the open canopy she found herself gazing into, that open sky and herself. The parietal lobe is involved in interpreting pain and touch in the body is the last bit of research that Sumarra read in that direction before closing her laptop and directing her energies elsewhere.
It does not matter to Sumarra that the blow was dealt by someone strong enough to chip rock inside of someone else, or that the rock was weak enough to break. No, what Sumarra wanted to know was what there was of herself at the crime scene, in the clearing—what pieces of herself she had left behind, if any, so that she might find them again, or at least understand what was gone.
At this particular meeting, Stacey tells the group that she’s been approached by a local station. A reporter wants to do a story for the news about their group, about finder’s guilt and its impact over time.
The group bristles at the word guilt. Collectively, they bristle. It’s an imprecise word for what they feel, for what they feel they’re working through. Guilt seems to imply some sort of fault, which is not theirs. It implies a level of participation in the event that they are uncomfortable with, since they were really only participants in its aftermath. Finder’s guilt seems to imply that the reporter wants sob stories from them, that she wants them to cry on camera, which would be pathetic, considering that they are not the victims. Not in any real sense. Nothing even happened to them, but rather, around them—in their vicinity.
They bristle at Stacey, who admits, after hearing their complaints, that she has already arranged it, that a camera crew will attend their next meeting—not here but at Stacey’s house—alongside the reporter. They’ll sit in and record whatever content the group agrees to. They say they’ll agree to none of it, and Stacey says, Do what suits you, but I’m tired of my pain going ignored. Which makes them think Stacey will do it with or without them. They do not want her to speak for everyone, not to a camera crew or whoever may be watching.
Stacey has thickened up since she stopped running. She’s told the group that running gave her routine and a way to control her body, and now that it’s gone, she’s tried all sorts of things that haven’t worked. She doesn’t like the low lighting and house music at spin. Yoga is an activity you can do lying down and therefore, she says, isn’t sufficiently strenuous. She doesn’t have the rhythm for Zumba or the flexibility for Pilates. She has admitted, in a hushed, secretive tone to each of the group members individually, that she worries her boyfriend will leave her. She thinks that her body and her grief are pushing him away. They picture her grief as a hand extending from her stomach—from the meat above her waistband, or her ass—to shove her boyfriend out of their shared bed and onto the carpet.
They do not know where her boyfriend is at this precise moment, other than “in the back.” He disappears behind a set of swinging doors each meeting, emerges holding packaged sports equipment—loose clubs and netted soccer balls, a pack of women’s crew socks in yellow—and goes back for more after depositing it somewhere on the floor. He doesn’t speak to them, as if this will save him if it’s ever found out that they meet after hours in his store—in the store he manages. Whenever he passes by the sneaker track, Stacey grows louder and bossier, often talking out of turn, and the group watches her boyfriend for however long it takes her to settle down. He refuses eye contact and retreats. He’s in better shape than Stacey, and the group imagines that fitness might’ve been what brought them together in the first place. She might not be wrong about the growing distance between them, though the group is mostly concerned about where they’ll hold meetings if the two of them break up.
They remain quiet after Stacey’s latest acknowledgment of her pain and the space it takes up in the room. Always, as an unspoken rule, they wait longer to chime in after she speaks than they do with one another. They are clearing their throats, gearing toward the moment when someone will offer Stacey relief, when a buzzing starts up. Zz zz zzz—light but constant, on repeat. They look around where they’re seated on the benches. They rise, begin pacing the track as the buzzing stretches on—fainter, then closer. They spread out, crouching and creeping to find the source. Gotcha! says Jeremy, reaching between the stacks of clearance cleats and hoisting up a lit cellphone.
The rest of the group is miffed not to have found it first, though of course it doesn’t matter at all. This is a collective of joggers, sure, but also—perhaps more importantly—of finders. Their competitive energy misfires with nowhere else to aim it.
Mom calling, says the screen.
They shuffle back toward their seats at the track to wait it out, but incredibly, Jeremy slides his thumb to answer. The group says, No! No! They rip the phone from his grasp to hang it up. The screen flashes a four-second call. They glare at Jeremy, incredulous, and his eyes dart between those looks, trying to read his misstep, his jacket zipped up to the chin.
Right-o—I’ll get this into good hands, he says. He takes off at a power walk toward fishing gear, where they spotted Stacey’s boyfriend last. The group dismisses early in case the phone’s location is being tracked.
Pete was running against the advice of his doctor. He’d chosen the vacant lot, partially because it seemed like a cinematic place to train—with barrels to leap over and partly erected scaffolding that he could climb and lift himself through—and also because his father had been talking about it, had been out of work because of it. His father had theories as to why they’d stopped construction there—why they’d halted and left it fallow for a month now, the fenced entry strung through with a padlock. His father—a man who believed in conspiracies—heard that workers had tapped into something else entirely. A toxic vein or a burial ground, maybe oil or evidence of government testing. Pete wasn’t sure if it applied here, but his father believed in aliens. Pete, meanwhile, suspected there was a simpler explanation: that someone in the chain of turning the lot from what it had been into what it would be next had run out of the money required to do so. The site and its busted fencing, its pits and piles of rubble—which Pete scaled and dodged when he trained there—made the lot an ideal location, both for Pete to run in and, as it turned out, in which to hide a body.
Pete had likely jumped over the body several times before discovering it. He’d grown tired from running in the heat, which bounced off the dust and rock and shivered up from the ground to meet him. He’d run in heat like this before, but his doctor had said to take it easy for a while, which Pete hadn’t. On this particular pass, he did not clear the lip of a rolled and rain-wet tarp, but instead caught it with his sneaker, causing its corner to unfurl and sending Pete sprawling into the dirt, scraping his shin against gravel as he fell. Pete cursed as he landed, and his earbuds ripped out, and it was in this position, curled on the ground in the complete silence of the lot without his noise to fill it, that Pete spotted what peeked from the lip of the unrolled tarp, which was a pair of feet, small and bruised bluish and crossed gently at the ankles.
For what felt like a long while, Pete did not move at all. Blood wept from his shin, down through grit and into his sock, and he tried to imagine what lay before him as a hallucination, which the doctor had warned him could happen if he didn’t rest or even, in some cases, if he did. He’d caught another boy’s helmet to his in practice and had fallen out on the field, apparently concussed. Pete was told that he had not lost consciousness, that he’d blinked up at his teammates from the grass, slurring when he answered the medic’s questions, though he could not remember doing this or hitting the ground, or the initial sense of pain that must’ve come from having his brain stung and rattled. He best recalled the too-loud crack of the hit inside his helmet, the plastic between Pete and the other boy buckling with impact.
Pete found himself at Urgent Care with his father, with a doctor who said—gravely and, in Pete’s opinion, unhelpfully—that there was evidence that permanent damage could occur from a single concussion. Pete’s father had watched him since hearing this, trying to suss out if Pete was in any way changed.
Pete’s coach said that doctors were paid to worry folks unnecessarily, that he himself had taken plenty of hits and stood up to ask for more. Just take it easy, Coach said, which Pete hadn’t, because staying at home meant spending time with his out-of-work father, who didn’t drink or yell like other fathers might in the same situation, but who actually cared for Pete too much, changing his bedroom lighting to accommodate bulbs that could dim with the new switch he’d installed and checking in to see if Pete’s head was hurting him. Are you feeling dizzy, son? You’d tell me if you was? Pete’s mother had died young, and perhaps the suspicion that his father nursed closest was that life was slippery and always trying to leave them.
Once Pete had limped home from the lot, and his father had asked what happened, meaning his leg, and Pete told him about the tarp, which he hadn’t unrolled further because he knew that no one could stay still that long, rolled up in plastic in that heat, and alive; after they’d driven there and slipped through the gap in the fence to be sure that what Pete had found was real before calling anyone official (being that Pete couldn’t believe it was, while his father believed that everything unreal could be); after the cops came and took their information and sent them away; and after his father had driven Pete home—for once quiet about the authorities’ role in duping the masses—Pete hadn’t thought about the body at all, really. He let it hover somewhere between hallucination and fact, let the details blur and merge so that he couldn’t be sure of much.
His father read about the group on one of the online message boards he frequented for discussions on chemtrails or crop circles or raising teenage boys. He insisted that Pete go a few times, see if it helped. Now he drives Pete and waits through each meeting in the parking lot, listening to talk radio and dozing off in the driver’s seat. Pete does not ask him to do this, is plenty capable of driving himself. But his father is trying. He is always trying.
Pete participates only enough in the meetings so as not to seem hostile. He listens to the group’s stories queasily—all that blood and flesh and decay, the once-removed violence—though he tries not to let on that it bothers him. Squeamishness would not suit his image. If he thought about it, he might be thankful that his body—the body he found—had the decency not to bleed. He is the youngest of them, and he suspects it makes them pity him, when in fact they all seem so lonely to him, so vulnerable to a roomful of people they do not know. He finds their lives depressing, their chosen brand of athleticism depressing. He pictures them driving home after each meeting to heat up frozen dinners, feeling emptied-out and hollow. He does not find a single one of them attractive, which perhaps explains his lack of imagination toward the lives they lead outside of the circle they form at each meeting.
Pete crosses his arms and disengages for most of the talk. He keeps an eye on Stacey’s boyfriend whenever he crosses into view. Pete knows that the store has a guns and ammo section. Pete wonders if Stacey’s boyfriend has the key, or if they even lock it up at all. Surely they do, though there’s a certain carelessness to the idea of selling guns and golf tees and kids’ shin guards all in the same place. He wonders if the rest of the group thinks about the guns and ammo section. He tries not to pick at the remains of the scab on his shin, though it itches. There’s a hard spot just beside the bone that he thinks is a pebble lodged inside him, stuck underneath his skin gone shiny, trying to heal itself shut.
They’ve been burned by the media before, this group. Their distrust is natural, is how anyone would feel after what they’ve been through.
Imagine this: that the terror of what you’ve found isn’t really yours, that there are others closer to the victim here, the person killed, the person maimed or else left untouched other than whatever ended them, and that in the moment of finding them, of rescuing them in a way, because even though you did not save them from death, at the very least they are now no longer missing, no longer kept alive but suffering in the minds of their mothers and lovers and the coworkers they shared a cubicle with, who glance over now and again at the still unoccupied desk and think, If she’s still alive, she’s changed forever, and there are more who know now besides the person gone—who, if the books are telling it rightly, thinks of themselves not as dead but as free, or cannot think of themselves as anything, or else has joined the moss and dirt and fungal web of the ground that holds them now, which branches and feeds itself with them, keeping them, perhaps, alive forever—and the person who did the killing and kept it to themselves, because it was you who took that knowing away from only them, on a jog over your favorite pass while thinking of the stitch in your side or the heat in your ears or what you’d cook for dinner before you—in this single moment that replays again and again or else doesn’t—found yourself alone with a stranger who was no longer alive.
(How true could this be, though—that they’d given anyone relief? A missing girl is missed forever; a dead one, for a while. )
Who could the group place at the center of this—of their anger, their loss, their sudden aversion to meat drippings or a quick, clamped palm on their shoulder? Not the victims—the real victims, they call them, to make space for themselves. Their killers, sure, but they remain at-large for the most part, and if the group thinks of them for too long, they are swallowed up by fear.
No, here is where the blame lands for most of them, where they’ve decided to settle it: On the morning news after each incident, each routine run gone wrong, there’d been the footage of caution tape strung around tree trunks, poorly wrapped and already loose, lit up by a flicker of police lights, and investigators in unflattering khaki, hands at their bulky belt packs, or else gloved and snapping photographs, bagging leaves and stones and might-be evidence, before the screen flashed to a news anchor in a too-bright suit who said that new reports had surfaced of a suspected homicide in the valley—and each of them, each member of this ill-begotten group, leaned close despite themselves to hear their part—
A local jogger found the body of—
And just as quickly as all that, their only part to play was over.
Joanna is almost her body exactly.
Like her body, Joanna is in her early thirties and white. She has two children and a husband, like her body. No job, besides homemaker—which is to say, many jobs. Joanna wonders if her body had hobbies like hers, if her body tried pottery, took up portrait photography when the kids were babies and her mother wanted holiday cards printed with them dressed as pumpkins or rabbits, or tumbling out of a neatly wrapped box. Joanna wonders if her body felt proud of these, or if she let them pile up well past the coordinating holiday, so that mailing them out would’ve caused more pity than joy.
Joanna’s body went running, in that crisp hour between daytime and unsafe, before husband home and everyone returned, ready for dinner and the looking-after they’d grown accustomed to. Her body was pushed from behind and damaged, like a moth rubbed clean of one wing’s dust, fluttering but already doomed. If Joanna’s body was raped, it wasn’t immediately apparent, because leggings were pulled up before anybody could say for sure—face cleaned, hair retied. Pristine besides the obvious.
Joanna is able to recite these facts easily at group. They are not easy details, but she can say them. She thinks the quick brutality, then repair, is important. She thinks it shows remorse. She told the police as much, and though her husband wants to know if she’s okay, really, and though he has trained the children to be softer with her, to ask for less, and to never ever ask about it specifically, Joanna is actually fine with recalling her body. She appreciates a lifetime of dread made concrete, the sense prickled at the nape of her neck rendered true.
Joanna’s body is not her body because it’s dead. Otherwise, it’s her.
The group meets at Stacey’s to shoot the TV spot. They file into her living room, which is surprisingly modest. They’d imagined her wealthier than the house suggests, but the furniture is unfussy and secondhand. The coffee table is scratched. The space is tidy, despite this.
Stacey has moved the table out of the dining room and set the chairs in neat rows, which the cameraman will rearrange to better suit the lighting when he arrives. Stacey has arranged the group members by height—tallest in back—and has put scraps of paper with each of their names written out on the seat cushions. Sumarra’s name graces a front right chair, which is surprising because she’s tall, but unsurprising because she’s striking and also the group’s only Black member, its only member of color at all. Pete’s name is also up front because he’s young, which suggests another kind of diversity. The group pulls faces at the notion of assigned seating, but they take their places. Stacey has made an elaborate cheese plate, and they all avoid the brie.
Mr. Harkin pivots in the front row to tell them that he and his wife are traveling to New York at the end of the month so that he can audition. There’s a Law & Order episode set to film, based loosely around the bodies he found, the peculiar facets of the case: a car parked at a lover’s lane, an elderly couple seated inside, holding hands and serene, though suffocated. Mr. Harkin was the vice principal of a private Catholic school, and some of his students parked at the lane on occasion, though he hoped more guiltily. He’d only noticed the car because he’d run by it parked there three mornings straight. It was an older model, and when he jogged up to rap on its window, he imagined it would require a lever to roll down. When he first relayed the story at group, he’d mimicked the motion by rolling his fist in a circle, as if none of them had ever seen a car this ancient.
Mr. Harkin says his wife caught wind of the TV production, and though no one’s asked him to audition specifically, he thinks he’s a shoo-in for at least one part. He winks. They understand that this joke would’ve landed better on the sneaker track. They smile when he catches their eye but do not laugh. He’s retired now, though he might’ve been soon anyway, at his age.
When it comes down to it, they let Stacey do the talking. It’s a smaller crew than expected—only one cameraman and the reporter, who climbs out of the driver’s side when the van pulls up and spits her gum into the grass by the curb. If Stacey sees this, she doesn’t say anything, though she’s at the window, watching. Once inside, the reporter looks around at the assembled group and deflates a bit, they think. They’ve dressed up without coordinating it, and they’re uncomfortable out of their Lycra and elastic, without their reflective piping. Jeremy is wearing a turtleneck and brogues—his toes, for once, a mystery.
Tell us what’s brought you all together, says the reporter, somber now that things are set up and rolling. Her pantsuit is a muted sage.
I’d say, the worst run of our lives, says Stacey. She chuckles a bit, but stops and stays serious for the rest of the interview. Flippant could be the wrong look.
Did any of you know the victims?
No. I guess you couldn’t say that. Only there at the end.
Could you describe to the viewers what it was like—finding them?
Different for each of us. Stacey looks around. Her boyfriend is not in the house, though there are men’s shoes lined up in the cubbies by the door. The group suspects he’s after plausible deniability in case things come to a head, if their regular meeting place is somehow revealed. Haunting, for sure.
Stacey gives broad, unspecific answers. She’s speaking for the group, and they let her. She is asked how they’re holding up, if they’ve found solace in finding one another. Stacey answers carefully. She is asked what they would say to each of the victims if they could.
We can’t, she answers quickly, almost angrily. And then, I suppose we’d say, Stay home. Stay safe and alive. We’d say, We’re sorry.
The reporter thanks them for sharing and wraps up the interview, speaking directly into the camera just beside Stacey. The group looks at the camera, too. The reporter says, May this group of brave souls find their footing again soon. She doesn’t blink until the recording light cuts off.
Okay, then, the reporter says to the group. Ready for part two?
It appears there has been some miscommunication. The reporter says she left a message on Stacey’s voicemail, but Stacey says, no, she never got it. The reporter says it’s the final shot, the end to their segment: the group all lined up together, ready to start again, taking one great stride, in slow motion, hands joined on their journey toward whatever comes next: a running habit resumed, and the rest along with it. Normalcy, she means. Routine. No more jumping at slammed doors, no distaste for remainder dirt caught beneath their fingernails. Instead, moving on. Moving up. Graduations, promotions. Forward motion, however assumed. The scene of the crime just a running route again—a park, a quarry, their own neighborhoods. There is trauma in the periphery, sure, but they’ve found some healing here. Together. The reporter says this last shot will lend a sense of closure. She raises her manicured hands to place air-quotes around the last word.
But they haven’t brought a change of clothes, not one of them, and the group’s not ready, anyway. Not willing to do a thing like that—perhaps over and over, to get the shot just right—for an audience simply waiting to hear the weather forecast. They’ve been through enough already. Haven’t they been through enough already?
The reporter is angry, despite her attempt to seem professional. She says, once it’s clear they won’t cooperate, and not kindly, Best of luck with everything. She huffs out, and leaves the cameraman to break down the lighting and sound equipment in a rush. He’s fumbling, sweating though the room isn’t hot. They want to help him but don’t know how anything works or comes apart. Stacey disconnects her own mic and wraps the cord around it, stands to hand it over. The rest follow suit, though they never used them—though they found the effect of wearing mics strangely silencing. The cameraman says they’ll make it work as is, no worries. He seems like a nice man. He does not say when to watch for the segment.
Stacey sees him out, then comes back to the group and shrugs. As if to say, Sorry that things have gone this way, or that it might not air at all; sorry that she signed them up for this, or else for the rest of it: for their lives upturned, however briefly. For the time it might take to lace up trainers without thinking of ligature marks, or to consider solitude a gift, or to imagine their own bodies as swift and capable, rather than thin-skinned and full of fluid, prone to irrevocable harm.
They don’t speak for a long while, or for a breath, and then they stand and drag their chairs to the perimeter, careful to keep them from squealing across the tile. They help Stacey to reset the room.