Comments: A lot of what happens in this fic is real--I've run this run. With bells on. ;)
Was I hearing bells? Bells ringing?
Letting one eye drift open then over toward the clock's face glowing faintly in the dark, and blinking away to try to decipher the numbers there, I listened . . .
And then let said eyelid fall shut as I rolled over and drew the covers back over my head before falling back to sleep because really, how absurd.
There were no bells. Of course I hadn't really heard anything, had merely been dreaming.
No bells whatsoever.
Only . . . knocking.
What on Earth?
Good Lord. There was someone at the door. At this hour!
This time my lids shot open at the intrusion of my slumber, both eyes now staring blankly at the ceiling as I let my brain register yet another knock even as I was trying to convince myself I was still truly asleep . . . or wished I was, rather.
Another knock. Only this knock sounded even louder than the first.
For God's sake. Who in their right mind would be rapping on my door at this unholy hour of the night? The knock sounded yet again, this followed by a rapid series of knocks--solid, short and sharp.
That authoritative knock, I knew.
Grumbling, and not at all pleased in any way, shape or form, I rose and swiped a hand over my face as I grabbed the robe thrown over the end of the bed, slipping it over my pajamas and, with one eye still marginally closed, managed a graceful stumble to the door and opened it, more than half dreading--yet wholly knowing--what I'd find.
As if that phrase alone didn't set a host of shivers to course down my spine, never even mind the unthinkable hour.
"Is it?" I mumbled and moved into a tired lean against the doorjamb. Standing at the door: Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. And they were grinning.
Never a good sign.
I bade them enter, sure there was some disaster about to unfold, and cleared the frog lodged in my throat before uttering, "Is there a fire?" Because surely there had to be some horrible emergency for these two to grace my door at the break of dawn. Before the break of dawn.
There had damned well better be.
Chris and Vin exchanged some sort of amused looks.
"Ez," Vin began, "you overslept."
"Excuse me?" While that was entirely possible during the workweek, and Lord above knew I had a penchant for being the last to wander into the office--
Today was Saturday. A day of rest. Certainly not a work day.
"It's Saturday," I told them, as if that fact shouldn't be grossly obvious to at least one of the pair. Maybe Vin didn't keep but loose track of the calendar, but surely Mr. Larabee . . .
They were staring at me, though, and that had to mean I was apparently missing something of importance here, never mind the fact that neither of them should be even remotely in my neighborhood at this time of night. On a weekend, no less. And then, as if it explained the entire last five minutes of conversation and the fact I'd been so rudely awakened at some horrendously early hour of the morning to begin with . . .
Vin rang a little bell.
I had heard a bell.
"Jingle bell, Ezra," Vin stated.
"Time to go," Chris said, following with a nudge of his chin toward the hall.
"I'm lost," I said. And truly, I was. Why in the world these two were standing in my relatively small, yet tastefully appointed foyer at this unholy hour of hours ringing a tiny bell was quite beyond my comprehension.
Bizarre behavior, even for them.
And then it dawned. I backed away a step in no small amount of abject horror, I might add.
"Oh no. No, no--" Yes, it became clear to me the reason for their collective presence at my door--and so, the protesting began.
"Oh, yes," Chris said.
"But . . . you have to know I wasn't serious." Because no one in their right mind would have taken me seriously--
"Ez, you said--"
"Mayhap I did, but I was merely joking," I explained, suddenly feeling like a man flailing away in a rip tide with the sight of the sandy beach mere yards away.
And the worst of it? The both of them just kept on grinning.
It annoyed me they were taking some obvious great pleasure from my protestations.
"Really," I insisted, not at all liking the glint beginning to take shine in the eyes fixed on mine and I could see that white shore line drifting farther away. And then I had a quick thought to save my drowning soul. "I can't possibly participate. I've . . . got alternate plans." As though my standing in pajamas in the hallway of my condominium would convince them I had plans to be elsewhere. Idiot, Standish.
Chris turned to Vin and cocked his head. "Now where've I heard this before?"
"Couple months back. Think campin'," Vin replied.
Let's not, I thought. Like I had any desire to be reminded of that little farcical escapade.
They both turned to look at me then, smirks intact. Things were not boding well. I could feel myself sinking into the murky depths . . .
"But--but look at the hour," I started, heading to part the curtains hung over the door to my balcony and staring at my own reflection in the glass as it was staring back at me in such desperation because . . . "It's pitch black outside!" And it was. The sky still held the same deep hue of night it held at midnight when I went to sleep.
"It'll get light soon 'nough," Vin replied, unmoving. I wonder does he know how unbecoming stubborness can be some times?
"Yes but, you see. I'm not dressed." Alright, I admit--a complete act of desperation on my part and oh, that undertow was carrying me away.
"We'll wait," Chris said. Grinning.
I opened my mouth to utter yet another protest, reasons hitting ten-fold as to why I shouldn't be doing what they were wanting me to do--
It was too late.
It was too early.
It was too cold.
It was too dark.
It was too insane--though it struck me that little gem of an excuse probably wouldn't be the wisest of choices considering to whom I'd be directing said excuse.
I was half-asleep.
I didn't want to do this, but--
God, oh God. I had actually promised.
Damn that JD.
And yet, wait. Perhaps. Maybe--
A little tactful finagling on my part as I grasped for the last of proverbial straws afforded a drowning man.
Straw number one:
"It wasn't in my planner so I'd forgotten all about it, you see," I began to explain, pacing in front of the still black windows and thinking maybe there was perhaps one way out of this mess. Thinking, hoping, there was maybe a way to get back under the nice, warm, down duvet that awaited down the hall.
All could not be completely lost, right? "Forgotten it was this weekend, you see, and I really must be--"
"You're comin'." Well. Flat out statement, that.
Straw two: "I'm not dressed."
"We see that," Chris stated, folding his arms in that brook no argument way he had--and may I just add, I abhor that stance.
"We'll wait," Vin added and punctuated those words by leaning comfortably--too comfortably--against the antique sideboard sitting against the wall and nearly upending the small mantle clock that sat there.
I gave him a slight shove away and righted the clock, sure the man hadn't even half its value in his bank account. "If you wouldn't mind--"
"Chris, we really gotta get goin' now."
I smiled inwardly at Vin's words. Life preserver. Utter salvation to a drowning man. Maybe land was not too far out of reach after all.
Turning back to them and trying to pull together the most disappointed look I could muster, thinking perhaps straw three, the 'I'm-so-terribly-sad-but-I'll-get-over-it-as-you-continue-on-without-me' ploy might be the one, I managed a modicum of disappointment sigh.
"Oh well, I understand, really. And were I dressed and ready, I'd be more than delighted to join you on this little jaunt but, unfortunately, time is ticking away--and as you said, you really must go. So," I paused then, uttering what I hoped this time sounded like a genuine sigh of dismay and subtly tried to herd them toward the door, "I bid you both good luck, then. And adieu."
And that was that.
Only . . . it wasn't.
Chris was leaning my direction--even knowing my distaste over invasions of my personal space--and worse, he was really grinning now! The very expression that could almost melt the black ice of even my own dear mother's frozen heart. Words began sliding quietly out of the man's mouth like the smoothest of silk.
I felt ill.
I knew I was sunk.
"We'll wait, Ezra," he said.
Why, why, why?
Why were they waiting? Why had they taken me seriously?
Why had I said yes in the first place--
Why couldn't I just climb back into my nice, warm bed?
Lord above, how was it I consistently managed to get myself into these situations?
"Fine," I told them, moving toward the kitchen because if I was going to have to be up and at all functional at this hour, there was needed a little cup of wake-me-up. "Let me just get myself a--"
"Here," Vin announced, pulling me back from my destination and holding out something in a shiny wrapper. It looked suspiciously like candy. At this hour! "You can eat this while you're gettin' dressed."
Oh, I don't think so. "Thank you, no. Chocolate candy is not the caffeine of choice and--"
"We gotta get goin', Ez. Time's a' wastin'. You go on, get ready."
A hand prompted me to move the other direction. Toward the bedroom.
Away from coffee.
I ask again: how did I continually get roped into these things?
My God, I was drowning--and it wasn't in the latte of choice, either!
The shock of leaving my warm condo building to step outside into the frigid morning air was enough to send my body into a total state of shock. Rather like walking into the depths of a deep freeze--I felt like a frozen beef loin and then decided, if it was to be bitter outside, which it was, then I had no desire to be anything but bitter as well. A Standish and sub-zero temperatures do not make for the best of living partners; this was going to be a miserable journey at best, I could tell.
And one might think the car to be ready and heated since these two had just driven over here. Anyone in their right mind would have kept the car running to keep warm, wouldn't they? Key words being anyone in their right mind, I suppose--considering what activity we were about to commence, and in what temperatures, that pretty much explained the lack of reasonable sanity on any of our parts.
Is it possible one can lose brain cells by cavorting around in the bitter cold?
I kept repeating to myself that at least the ride down wouldn't be too bad, if one didn't consider the early hour.
The lack of morning coffee.
The completely frigid temperature.
"Lord, but it's freezing," I complained and alright, yes, I admit I was complaining all the while rubbing at my arms, though the action didn't seem to generate anything but more raised goosebumps on already frozen skin.
"Actually, temp's down even more than that, Ez. It's--"
I held up a staying hand. Did he think I really cared to know? "Do not even attempt to tell me just how cold. I'm miserable enough as it is, thank you." That was absolutely the truth, I might add.
Vin just laughed in the front seat. Made me want to thump him.
"You do have the heat on back here, yes?" Because it felt that there wasn't even a wisp coming my direction. And the way the other two were seated up there, the way Vin's hair was blowing around as though caught in some warm island breeze proved the vents were in some working order--yet also somehow trained on those gracing the front row.
Not here in the back of the bus.
"Heat's on. Why?" Vin turned around to stare at me. "Ain't you getting' nice 'n toasty back there?"
"No, I ain't getting nice and toasty," I mimicked, clearly more to my delight than his, but who cared about social graces at this hour? Besides, I was freezing, so there was no accounting for crumbling dispositions. They wake me at this hour, they get what they get. "More like a freezer pop on a slow thaw," I griped, and rightfully so.
"Don't matter. You'll be warm soon 'nough once we get started. We're almost there."
Words I dreaded to hear. The thought of leaving the relative warmth of the car to the frigid outside was enough to send premature chills down my body. I was fairly warm--key word being fairly, yes--but soon I would be standing out in that frozen arctic nightmare. In the still relative dark.
And then in minutes, we were there. The annual run for charity held every holiday season.
I'd managed to avoid the thing like the plague for as long as I'd lived in the area, and so the hows and whys all of the sudden I was finding myself dragged into the middle of it at some horrendously early hour of a Saturday morning was more than beyond my comprehension.
I sure wasn't there for the giving spirit of the season.
"Lord, will you look at all these lunatics."
They were everywhere. Had to be hundreds, no, thousands of people--runners, spectators--milling about in all sorts of dress. As cold as it was--and it was breath-freezing-in-the-air cold, make no mistake--there were people clad from shorts and t-shirts to light polartec fleece running suits to heavy sweats adorned with bright holiday scenes.
Personally, I cannot abide those Christmas sweaters.
And there--a person in a Santa suit, for heaven's sake.
"You've got to be kidding," I commented as we stood in the middle of this lunacy.
"It's a holiday fun run, Ezra," Vin said, nodding to a pair of would-be elves wearing New Balance as if that explained the insanity of it all. "And oh--that reminds me--"
Vin bent down, fumbling around with something. I watched as the fumbling moved my direction.
"And what, may I ask, do you think you're doing?"
I glanced over to Chris as though Vin had just lost his mind, and actually, I wasn't at all sure that wasn't the case. "Is that supposed to be an explanation?" I asked.
"It's the jingle bell run, Ezra--everybody gets bells on."
Please. I tapped my shoe. A tiny silver bell was now attached to my laces. It jingled. "Remove it at once. I am not everybody. A Standish does not ring."
Vin shook his head. "You run. You jingle."
"I suffer." And I was. One would have to be deaf to not notice the grating tinkling of several hundred other shoes adorned with the tiny, jingling bells. "Lord, how I suffer."
"Aw hell, Ezra. It's just for fun," Vin said.
Fun? When? Where? Unless there was a ticket somewhere with my name on it, destination Cabo, I wasn't having it.
And just when I was about to repeat that out loud, more for the benefit of the trio of women standing near us, all wearing matching crimson 'Kiss Me it's Christmas' sweatshirts, Mr. Tanner decided to grace us all with a strip tease. That trio seemed more than pleased.
I, for one, was less than amused to be standing next to a man removing his clothing in temperatures low enough to freeze eyelids shut.
Well, I exaggerate just a tad, I suppose, but still, it was with no small degree of fascination mixed with horror I watched Vin shuck the apparent warmth of his outer jacket, and then unsnap and remove his pants. He stood there in just shorts and a lightweight white t-shirt. And shoes with bells on them.
Good Lord, the insanity worsens!
"Have you taken leave of your senses?" Because it was all I could do to move my fingers as frozen as they felt inside my not near enough warm fleece gloves--and now here was Mr. Tanner freeing himself from his clothing.
As if it was nigh on July.
"He likes to run in shorts," Chris explained, as though it was perfectly normal for a man to be standing around outside in what had to be below freezing temperatures--and no, there was still no desire within me to find out what that exact number really was. As it was, I was sure I was already feeling the first vestiges of frostbite.
That had me thinking, and I lightly coughed into my hands. "Think I may be coming down with something." Okay, straw 4 perhaps a bit too late in the game, but still--
It could happen. "Pneumonia even, maybe."
Neither of my so-called friends paid the least bit of attention. Bastards.
And then I was handed a piece of paper, watching as Chris and Vin pinned papers onto their own shirts.
I looked at the slip in my gloved hand. "And pray tell, what is this?"
Vin helped maneuver then pin the thing to the front of my nylon jacket. Had better not be marring the fabric with any holes, either.
I read it upside down. I was now apparently reduced to becoming number 1502.
Was I really stuck in the middle of a crowd of over 1500? In the dead of winter?
"Good God, I feel like a convict."
"Yeah, one named JD Dunne," Chris reminded me.
I grimaced, remembering I was taking the boy's place in this--running under his name. "Even worse."
"Hey, they're moving up to the start." Chris said, interrupting my next thought, which was one of escape, and then I watched as Chris and Vin signaled us to move, and we began to glide into the throngs of the now forward shuffling crowd.
"Oh, joy," I mumbled, reluctantly following, trying hard to remind myself just what had compelled my mouth to open and agree to assume JD's place in this absurdity after the young man had fallen and badly sprained his ankle--sprained somehow on purpose, I was convinced--and now here was I. Freezing. About to have to run. With a bell on my shoe.
Surely a classic case of temporary insanity on my part.
Sprained ankle. Lucky kid.
Chris grabbed my arm then, and pulled me along, and within seconds, I found myself swallowed by the crowd of people ready to start hoofing themselves down the road, all in the name of charity and holiday spirit.
I never was fond of that word. You know, the definition of fun is something such as an activity that provides enjoyment or amusement.
So far, I was having none of the above.
And I was beginning to feel somewhat like a herded cow, more than half tempted to begin mooing as the entire crowd began to surge forward toward the start line, which was somewhere ahead, out of sight.
I wondered what the others would think of that--me starting to make like a cow in the middle of 1500 people. They'd probably think I was nuts--as though standing around waiting to pound the pavement in below freezing temperatures didn't put us all in that distinctive class already.
It really all felt so surreal.
And I thought I knew why.
"I haven't even had a cup of coffee, you know." A point that was high on my list of prerequisites for kicking off the morning of any day of the week.
No coffee, no function. Plain and simple.
"We know," Vin said. "You've reminded us three times."
And was that a crime? "Well there had better be some sort of caffeine reward at the end of this torture is all I'm going to say about that."
"If only," Chris mumbled.
I heard him. And then ignored him. The woman behind me was insisting on pushing her rather large bosom into my back. As though there wasn't street enough for everyone.
She kept pushing. I pushed back.
She pushed forward.
"I don't believe the race starter horn has sounded yet," I finally snapped at the woman, though with the near deafening sounds of hundreds of jingling bells, who would know?
And then it did. Start, that is. In that second it took for her to really wind up to ram me, and I could see the idea forming in her beady little eyes, somewhere, a horn sounded. Indicating, I assume, the start of the run.
"What in the world?"
"It's a lot of people," Vin began as we slowly crept forward, inch by inch. Baby steps. "Far as I can tell, we're somewhere in the middle of the crowd. It'll take a minute or two t' get up t' the front and up t' speed."
This was complete hell, and I said as much. "This is complete hell."
Chris shook his head. "It's a charity run, Ez. Just think tax write off."
I rolled my eyes, hoping my tone dripped with the sarcasm I intended. "Oh yes, the twenty dollar entry fee will do wonders in deductions on my return this year."
"You mean, JD's return."
"My thoughts, exactly, " I muttered, suddenly finding myself shuffling into a makeshift slow run. There were still too many bodies pressed too close together for comfort, that woman at my rear still intending to pass me breasts first if she didn't just mow me down altogether, and there was no room yet for any kind of decent speed. But at least we were moving--and nearing, then passing the start line meant there would soon be an end to this madness.
And so I settled into a pace of sorts. I run on occasion, not to the extent I suppose Vin and Chris do, but I'm confident I can hold my own for a few miles.
And that provoked another thought. Oh Lord. It would be only a few miles--
"Refresh my memory," I asked, sidling up to Chris as we began to gain a modicum of speed. "Just how long is this nightmare again?"
My stomach turned. "Ten miles?"
"10-K," Chris clarified.
Thank Heavens. A 10-K race would only be a bit over six miles. That was a relief, and really, the thought of it not too awful, except--
"This ringing is driving me to distraction."
The bells--the constant jingling of hundreds of ever-moving, tiny, silver bells attached to all these people's shoes--it was more than annoying. It was headache-inducing.
And still there were miles to go.
"Just run, Ezra."
"I am. At least, I think I am, hard to tell now I've lost all feeling in my toes."
I picked up the pace as I noted several people passing by, the large-bosomed woman first, thank the heavens, though given the still thick crowd, there really wasn't anywhere to pick the pace up to. As it was, I found myself slowing. The couple in front of me, each wearing a set of foam reindeer antlers no less, were a wall I couldn't manage to get around.
I was in the middle of a horde. A sweaty, moving, jingling, decorated for the holidays horde.
Oh, the humanity.
"This is great, ain't it, Ez?"
What? "I would have thought you, above all, rather unnerved by the close proximity of all these people."
Vin smiled. He looked effortless as he ran. I hate him. "Nah--long as I can see the sky, it's okay. And can keep moving."
Barely at that, I thought, eyeing the man to my left who was trying his best to gain ground. He was adorned with a very white, very fake Santa beard and red cap with white pom-pom attached. He smiled as he passed, a loud, ho-ho-ho left in his wake.
I hated him, too.
So, I managed to pick up the pace a bit more as we reached a small downhill grade, then found myself slowing again as that down slope quickly turned uphill.
"You're slowing, Ezra," Chris pointed out.
How nice of him to mention.
"Yes well," I panted, "running on frozen stumps does do that to a person."
"Not warmed up yet?"
Was he joking? "You mean the icicles hanging from my nose didn't give me away?" I grumbled in response. My toes still felt like small blocks of ice trapped in shoes that were cold enough to rival the temperature of any deep freeze. And my fingers were tingling inside gloves that were proving to be wholly inadequate. And there was Mr. Tanner breezing ahead, looking like he was running on any balmy, sunny day.
Have I mentioned I hate him?
"How does he do that?" Knowing full well Vin felt the cold more than anyone I know, it was a perplexing sight to see him decked out in less than adequate wear and looking like he felt no pain.
I was feeling pain.
Chris chuckled. "Loves to run."
"He's younger than us."
As if that was the thought to put my mind at ease--and besides, Vin isn't that much younger than I, anyway. I looked over to Chris. "You really do have a mean streak, don't you?"
"C'mon, Standish. You'll warm up soon."
Soon being the key word here. There wasn't a part of my body that didn't feel close to icebox level. Fingers, toes, Lord, my toes were cold. My ears. Even under the ear band I wore--and hadn't Vin just found my wearing that to be hysterically funny, as though Tanner's longer than necessary hair didn't shelter him from the biting wind the same way.
My chin felt frozen solid, and for a moment I prayed I wasn't drooling--I mean, how would I know? As it was, the biting wind had my eyes streaming water in steady frozen streams.
"Can one become hypothermic while running?"
No one graced me with an answer.
We turned a corner and it was up another hill.
And then, finally, there, up ahead. I could see its bright orange signage. The first mile post. Hallelujah!
Only 5.2 more to go until coffee.
A mile under my frozen, jingling feet and yet still we were surrounded by runners.
And those damned bells.
"Takes a few miles for the crowd to string out," Chris was explaining as we meandered our way through the running crowd. "Then we can pick up our pace."
"Pick up?" I'd thought us traveling fast enough--just how much pick up was expected?
"It's a fun course," Chris said.
I glanced at the man. Dressed in black as usual. I could swear there was frost lining his knit cap. "Don't say that word again."
"That would be the one."
"Hell, Ez," Vin said, suddenly appearing from the crowd to run at my elbow. "How much you run, anyway?"
"I run." I did.
"At the gym, I bet."
There was something wrong with that? "Yes. At the gym. I do the elliptical trainer, weights, rowing machine. And I run."
"On the treadmill."
This was getting irritating. It was much too early for this--especially with no coffee buffer. "There is something you find particularly inadequate about running on a treadmill?"
Vin smiled, which just seemed to add to the pain of frostbite I was feeling.
"Just ain't like runnin' outside," Vin said. "Y' don't get the same feelin' is all."
"Oh. Like the feeling I'm having now, you mean." I was cold. It was affecting my disposition--and I won't even mention the lack of morning caffeine. Still, though, I couldn't seem to stop my mouth--and wasn't that how I got into this in the first place?
"Yes, this is invigorating, I must say. I cannot believe all this time I've missed succumbing to possible exposure from the near frigid elements in favor of running inside on my soft surfaced treadmill, coffee by my hand, book in my sight, music in my ears."
"Friends at your side."
That was a surprise. Leave it to Vin to interject some degree of warmth into my frozen diatribe--just when I was wallowing in my own testiness. "Yes well, there is that," I conceded softly, a sudden thread of warmth making its way into the core of my frozen center. "Mr. Tanner, you do have a way with words."
"When he feels like using them," Chris said, "which is sporadic at best."
I would have to agree with that. Vin is one of the more close-mouthed species on the planet.
He was chuckling at Chris. "Ain't that callin' the kettle black."
"Black," I whispered, my mind working on another level as thoughts of steaming mugs danced through my head. "Black. Coffee black."
"Get your mind out of the percolator, Ezra," Chris chuckled.
Impossible. Images of rich, dark and hot coffee, perhaps laced with a little shot of cream--no, better even, an espresso, a double. "Ah, I appear to have coffee on the brain."
"What's a perc'lator?" Vin asked.
Unbelievable. I smiled and glanced at Chris. "You just dated yourself."
"As if I needed to give him any more ammunition to throw at me about age," Chris said with a mock frown, nodding toward Vin.
"Hey, I think you ain't doin' too bad for a guy in your range," Vin said as if on cue, ducking at the last minute when Chris's hand moved toward him in menacing fashion. I rather wished that fist had met its target.
"And what range would that be?" Chris asked.
Now Vin was laughing. "Old."
"Range?" I wondered.
"Age range. The race registration is broken down by ages--it's on your tag."
I pulled up the front of the number pinned to my chest. Would there be no end to this nightmare? "I'm running in the 18 to 24 age bracket?"
They laughed. "No, JD Dunne is."
"Somehow I find this just completely horrific."
"Just don't tell JD your time. He won't want to know how badly he did."
I shot him a look. "You're assuming I'm going to come in dead last?" Not that it wasn't a distinct possibility, but I'd never admit that out loud, for heaven's sake.
I do have some amount of pride, after all.
+ + + + + + +
Mile two finished fairly easily. I was feeling pretty good, considering. I could do this, only four more to trudge through. Still, the number of people that were around. "It's amazing to me how much activity there is even at this early hour."
"Well if y'd ever get up 'fore the sun, Ezra, you'd know there's plenty goin' on."
"I'll have you know few are the mornings I don't rise early--"
Chris was just staring at me. Running, and staring. It was a wonder he didn't collide with a lamp post or something, and that he didn't gave credence to the fact I'm still not convinced the man hasn't eyes in the front, back, and sides of his head.
"Well, alright," I conceded, "maybe less than a few mornings--but still, I get up and am at work precisely on time." Another look from Chris. Well. "Fine. Relatively on time, then. But this--I don't get this. What on earth possesses anyone to rise this early and go--run?" That last said with dripping incredulity. Up and racing around the streets had to be the very last thing I could think of to do with time best reserved for slumber.
"Hey--drinks," Vin was saying.
I looked up to see Vin and Chris veering off toward a row of several fresh-faced college-aged kids handing out paper cups--paper cups I was wholeheartedly hoping held something by way of European caffeinated beverage.
I slowed down my pace and let a too young, too cherubic smiling face hand me one of the things. Honestly, these people were way too chipper for this hour.
Vin downed his cup. "Drink up. We gotta get goin'."
What? No rest stop?
I looked at the liquid in my cup. Suspicious looking stuff. "And what, may I ask, is this vile concoction?"
"Most of us call it water," Chris replied, downing his own cup in one large swallow.
Water--and not even bottled, I was sure. Probably from some hose. "How revolting," I commented, not quite able to help myself. It was hard drinking this tasteless swill all the while wishing the Dixie cup held something more along the lines of rich, dark and caffeine-laced.
But, I finished the beverage, anyway. I glanced down at the trash littering the area, more than several cups were scattered haphazardly atop the pavement, and so I tossed mine down to join the masses.
"You're litterin'," Vin said, nodding to the cup.
And? "Everyone's littering." Mine was by far not the first cup to touch ground.
"So? If ever'one jumped off a bridge, you would follow?"
"Who are you, my mother?" Alright, not the most mature of comments, but my mind was on a slow thaw still.
"Let's just go," Chris cut in, moving to toss his cup into the overflowing trash receptacle and then pointing to the one cup that somehow he knew to be mine. Like I said, eyes on all sides of his head. I happen to think the man's an alien. "Pick it up, Ezra."
"Pick it up, Ezra," I mimicked quietly, but then did pick up a cup--probably not my cup but with all on the ground, who could tell? Quite frankly, I didn't much care.
"I heard that."
"I don't doubt it," I mumbled, sighing as we began to pace off again. Definitely extra-terrestrial.
C'mon mile six.
+ + + + + + +
Mile three wound its way around bends, up a hill, around a few more bends--up a few more hills--
Was there never a down hill?
"What idiot planned this race course, anyway?" I asked, glancing over to Vin who'd been keeping pace at my side. I got the impression Vin was exerting about zero effort. How could he make this look so easy?
"It's the same course every year, Ezra," Chris said. "Not that you'd know--"
"It's all up hill! How can we be constantly going up a hill without there ever being a downhill?"
"It ain't all up hill," Vin said.
"It is." I swear it was, the entire course.
"Ain't. It's just a few."
"It isn't just a few--every time we turn a corner we're hiking up a hill. For such a flat city, there are certainly a large number of hills."
"Ain't hills--they're grades."
"Mountains." And they might as well all be. It was tiring. I looked around. Once again, we seemed to be running up a 'grade'. People still ran in packs, but mostly they'd paced themselves into pockets of sorts. We now ran with few runners around us.
The best thing about that was there was a noticeable lessening of bell noise. That was a relief.
But I was still cold. My toes were nearly numb.
I'm not a fan of the icier months of the year, would rather be parked somewhere tropical for the duration--but alas, until my retirement, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
So on I ran. Up hill.
The streets were still pretty much empty. Cars had been routed off the race's course, though I couldn't imagine why anyone in their right mind would be up and about this early unless absolutely necessary anyway.
We passed stores and shops that were still dark, still closed during these early hours.
I couldn't help myself. The green logo beckoned to me like a beacon in the middle of all this misery, and so I paced off, drawn to the place like a moth to a flame.
It never occurred to me to mention the fact I was veering away to either of my running partners.
It never occurred to me I shouldn't have veered at all.
The warmth of the place hit me immediately upon entering, and as I was enveloped in its luxurious embrace, I stood stock still, eyes closed from sheer pleasure. Sweat was rolling down my back and neck, but I could hardly care. I was warm.
Even my toes began to defrost.
"May I help you?"
A voice broke into this reverie, its sweet sound like the sampling of the finest wine.
Or not wine, but--
"Oh, yes," I said, "you may indeed. I'd like--"
And then, just when the words were tripping off my tongue and I was mere seconds away from a cup of hot heaven, arms grabbed mine and began to pull.
"I beg your pardon--" I started, turning to find twin sets of rather irate eyes boring into mine.
Damn. And so close, too--
"Let's go, Ezra," Chris was saying, ushering us all toward the door that led back out into that dismal, frozen tundra.
"Wait--" I began, already feeling the threads of my unordered latte sluicing through my icy fingers into a puddle of nothingness. And not even the chance to say make it a double--
"I can't believe you, Ez," Vin said, frowning and pulling me away from the wide-eyed girl behind the counter who still held the stiff paper cup, black pen at the ready to write my order on its side.
"I was just--" I protested, catching one last glace to see her placing the cup back on the stack. Unused. "I was--I was merely asking about using the facilities--"
It was all grossly unfair! "But, you see--I was-- Unhand me!" I yanked my arms away just as we exited, an icy blast hitting me full in the face. My toes immediately began to throb. "Evil," I growled. It was all I could think of.
"We're almost done, Ez--I swear this is gonna be the slowest time ever."
"It'll be a lot slower without my having my morning--"
"Don't say it!" Chris all but bellowed. Well, really. Some people could do with their own shot of caffeine, I'd say.
So off we went, again. Resuming our place in the midst of this hell called fun--and still my toes were completely numb as I ran.
Another pit stop between miles four and five, another shot of that disgusting liquid they were passing off as water.
No San Pelegrino for me, much less my desired--
No, I won't bring it up again. I was still smarting over being so close, yet so far from my desired morning repast. I could almost taste the bitter brew on my tongue.
I hoped JD appreciated my efforts in this--and I can't emphasize enough how I was still regretting uttering those fateful words of, 'Okay, I'll run in your stead'.
What kind of fool am I, anyway?
The crowd was still jingling, but at least spread out enough I wasn't completely surrounded by their constant noise, though the bells on my own shoe and those of my companions rang in some sort of timed unity.
Mile four started the hopes that soon this would be finished. We were running around a small park, being careful to dodge those icy patches sporadically placed on the path.
Unsuccessfully, I might add.
It took only a step. Just one tiny slip of the tread on my shoe and I was forced into a dance of sorts before I found myself rapidly descending--I rather hoped in a stylish sort of falling way--and the next thing I knew, I was down. Arms and legs akimbo.
How utterly horrifying.
While I'd like to say the only thing hurt was my pride, I would be swimming in falsehood. My ankle and, shall I say, posterior region, were faring none too gently, either.
It was the ultimate in humiliating experiences--and I was relieved the only witnesses I cared about were sporting rather alarmed expressions.
At least they weren't laughing.
"Ezra," Vin said stretching out an arm of assistance and having the decency, at least, to look somewhat concerned about my broken body. "You okay?"
"C'mon get up. Work out the kinks," Chris added with a little less of a compassionate note.
I fear I wasn't too far off in that alien thinking.
For a long moment I sat there, a little more than mildly glaring up at the pair before realizing that I really should get up. My derriere was beginning to meld with the frozen ground. I could feel it.
Lord, but it was cold.
"Fine," I said, easing myself to upright again and trying to erase images of the fire department having to be called to come dislodge my buttocks from the near dry ice they'd adhered to. "I'm fine and just--dandy."
And off we went. Again.
And me now with a limp of sorts, though as frozen solid as my feet were, that was par for the course.
Would this misery never end?
The path suddenly took a turn into the park itself, and then we found ourselves cutting through the rough of the ground. Not on the path--
"I repeat," I began, watching where my frozen appendages were placed as I ran, "what sadistic imbecile charted this particular course?"
"It's just a little side track," Vin told me. "We did this last year. Just goes through them trees an' we come out on the path on the other side."
Of course, apparently last year there hadn't been a big freeze the night before. Denver has strange weather, sometimes. It can be cold, gray and snowy in the morning, and then by afternoon have temperatures near 60, sun shining.
There was none of that now, however.
The trek along the trees proved difficult, the rougher terrain causing all of us to go a bit slower.
And I was faring fine until we hit an area that, had it been set-up the way intended, would have been a breeze to pass through, but was now a frozen mud slide with a broken down fence squat in the center.
We did a hop and slide across the small pond that lined the fence, then found ourselves climbing over the fence itself to resume the race.
At least I wasn't the only one grumbling.
It was a bottleneck of runners, all of us trying our best to skirt as easily, and gracefully in my case, around the hazard.
"Are we running a steeplechase?" I grumbled as I finally reached the other side of the fence.
That brought a few cheers of approval from several of the other disgruntled runners. Nice to know I wasn't alone in my feeling of annoyance.
Even Mr. Larabee offered up a chuckle. Vin seemed to be enjoying the entire episode.
All I knew was one of these two was buying me coffee. And maybe a muffin.
I was getting hungry.
"How long have we been running, anyway?"
"Not that long," Chris said, glancing at his watch. "Not quite an hour."
"Really." Only an hour. "I was sure we'd already passed Christmas week and were headed into mid-January by now."
"It only seems long 'cause you ain't eaten yet," Vin offered and I realized that was somewhat true, though given the hour, I was still usually asleep at this time.
When, when, when would this all end?
Finally, the trek through the wilds opened up, and there was the marker for mile five.
Only one more mile to go! Let's just say I was filled with a feeling of frozen euphoria.
We began that last stretch, images of steaming hot mugs dancing through my head in rows of plenty.
And then he said it. Vin.
"By the way," he said, eyes twinkling in time to the bell jingling on his foot and I had a moment of sheer panic from the image, "it's six."
"I know it's mile six. One more to go."
Chris chuckled. They're both evil, I say. "No, outside. Six degrees."
That stopped me dead in my tracks. With the wind-chill that would make it--
Oh Lord, I didn't even want to consider what that would make it.
My body suddenly felt like a completely solid block of ice. "Was that at all necessary?" I asked, trying to get my brain to de-freeze and rid itself of the number six now stuck in my head for more reasons than the total track of this race.
This was inhumane!
"I figured you really wanted to know," Vin said.
No, I really didn't. "Well, you figured wrong," I grumbled.
"Oh, c'mon--this is all doin' your body good."
Was he in jest? "How would I know, my body's frozen stiff--and that little tidbit of information isn't helping."
I wondered if I could get some disability leave based on needing at least a week's thaw somewhere tropical.
Well I can dream, can't I?
And then, up ahead--the row of balloons blowing high in the sky that indicated the end to this nightmare.
I'd say we breezed to the finish, but in my case it was more like hobbled. Can one break their coccyx and not be aware?
There were cheers and waves from those who'd finished before us, and from onlookers who had to be out of their minds in the first place to come and stand and watch and play cheerleader as the frozen runners straggled in.
As I crossed the finish line, I had one thing on my mind and it wasn't my race time. Or JD's, I should say.
"When do we get coffee?" I asked, now finding myself standing in the back of a very long, single file line filled with those who crossed before me.
Chris nudged me forward. "They have to tear off your tag first."
"I beg your pardon?" My breath was freezing in a cloud around me as sharp needles of ice raced through my feet--and I was expected to stand in this line?
Vin flipped a finger on the corner of my prison number. "So they can verify who came in when."
As if someone really cared. I sure did not. This was just biting deeply into time best spent driving in a warm car to the nearest available Starbucks.
"I'd rather be sipping a double shot latte."
"I think y' got coffee for blood, Ezra."
He could very well be correct. Maybe it is I that's the alien.
As we finally passed through the end, and suffering through the woman there ripping off the bottom of my tag, a hand clasped itself around my very frozen shoulders and a big voice boomed in my ear.
"Well lookee here--it's JD Standish!"
Buck Wilmington, as vociferous as always.
"Hey Buck," Vin greeted. "You come down here to see us finish?"
"Just call me your cheering section! JD would'a come, but I figured he probably ought not get going on this icy ground with his crutches. Might slip and fall, you know."
And I did know. I surreptitiously rubbed at my backside with the reminder and sent devil eyes to anyone making mention of the fact it was somehow dented.
"So how'd you all do?" Buck was asking. I was fairly sure he really wanted to know how I fared running as JD Dunne.
"We all stayed together. Ezra's--he's a bit slower 'n--"
How insulting. "I am not in the least bit--slow," I protested.
Buck wrapped his arm around my shoulders again, and normally, had I been in my usual mode I would have protested that move, but the added heat from the man's larger body was doing a nice job of warming my still frozen one.
"Hey," Vin suggested, "let's go get coffee!"
As though that was the first any of us had the thought.
I smiled happily at the words, though, the first time all morning--and it was still morning. Early.
"Let's," I added, then looked over to find both Vin and Chris sending me a wink and a grin. Aliens, maybe--but at least they were of the rather cordial kind.
Buck fell in step with me, his weight still wrapped around my shoulders. "So, how was it, Ezra?"
I thought about that for just a moment--just--
"Fun," I said, then looked down at the little bell still ringing its silver voice as I walked.
Think I might tie it onto a ribbon and place it on my tree. Make for a nice ornament.
In a few years, who knows--I could maybe have an entire ribbon of them collected.
Jingle bell, Ezra, I thought, and hurried off to order myself a double shot Italian espresso.