By the time Talia got out for her run, it was almost midday. The sun was already high and unforgiving. Offshore winds were keeping the tail end of October warmer than usual, but the gold and crimson leaves clinging to the maple and sycamore trees in the forest declared autumn’s full force could not be held off much longer. She had missed the earlier start with her friends Kim and Pamela and the other women they usually ran with on Monday mornings. On any other day, she might have been disappointed, but today she was happy for the solitude.
Sometimes a solitary escape was ideal to clear her mind. And there was something quite unsettling on her mind.
Last night, at around 2:00 a.m., she’d woken up—startled and confused—to find herself standing at the back door in her pajamas, with her running shoes on, no less.
That marked the second time in a month that she’d awoken during a sleepwalking episode. How many more had there been that she did not recall? The reality was that sleepwalking had become a part of her life ever since Russel’s death. The first time it had happened, she had found herself standing in front of a framed picture of Russ in the living room when she’d woken up. That had also been around 2:00 a.m.
This coincidence was baffling. Why two o’clock in the morning? Was there significance to that? Or was she hitting a particularly influential time frame in her sleep cycle? Was it something she’d had for dinner that triggered these sleepwalking instances?
When she’d found her new running shoes inexplicably covered in ash and charcoal, she’d had the additional locks installed on the front door, and when that hadn’t been enough, she’d hung a string of Christmas ornament sleigh bells on the door handles for extra precaution. The noise the bells would generate if disturbed would be loud enough to wake her, she reasoned. She’d also placed a wooden rod in the rails of the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. And that’s where she found herself when she woke up last night—struggling to budge the unyielding sliding back door, with Toby right next to her, wagging his tail wildly at the prospect of a 2:00 a.m. rabbit-scouting adventure.
Why she had begun the disturbing habit of sleepwalking—and now, to her horror, exiting the house at 2:00 a.m., leaving Riley unattended—was beyond Talia’s comprehension. She could only imagine it was a bizarre manifestation of stress. It had to be. The only other explanation was that she was losing her mind, and that possibility was not something she could stomach entertaining. The implications were just too disturbing.
Okay, there were also times she’d heard unexplained noises in the house at night, as well as times she’d thought she’d seen Russ in the yard from her bedroom window, only to rush downstairs and outside to prove to herself that no one was there. But that was to be anticipated, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that normal after a tragic and unexpected death? Really, was sleepwalking any less expected? Perhaps her aunt’s death, the migraine she’d recently suffered, and the argument she’d had with Naomi last week had affected her more than she’d realized. Her threshold for stress was almost nonexistent these days.
Stress was surely the explanation. Just too much stress over too much time.
And what better way to de-stress than to get out for a solo run that morning? As Talia began her descent into the partially shaded valley, on a trail that looped between the towering oaks, she did her best to put her mind at ease by letting go of these questions. She lengthened her stride, made a conscious effort to relax her shoulders, and settled into a comfortable tempo. Her feet moved effortlessly over the earth. She concentrated on the sounds of nature around her, on the rhythm of her breathing, and on counting her steps in fours, as she always had. One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four; one . . .
When running rocky trails, keeping her eyes trained on the ground directly ahead was critical for avoiding an unexpected tumble. All trail runners learned this rule, and some had the scars to prove they’d learned it the hard way.
Talia followed the trail down alongside a streambed into a little valley—her favorite part of the whole route—and realized she hadn’t seen a single soul since leaving home. That was a surprisingly refreshing development. It was peaceful to run alone but even nicer to run the entire five-mile trail loop without bumping into anybody else along the way. The natural beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains, the singing birds, and the tranquility of the forest—all gifts, just for her alone.
As she approached another fork in the trail, she slowed her pace and checked her watch reluctantly, knowing it was probably time to turn around and head home. She still had to grab lunch, shower, and pick up Riley from school before her appointment at the dentist.
She pushed the pace on the last big hill out of the canyon, enjoying the effort that kept her totally focused on the present, on the burning in her legs and the rhythmic sound of her breath. As she approached the last rise in the trail, she slowed to a jog and then to a relaxed walk, catching her breath.
At the far end of the road, looking down toward the trailhead, she saw the figure of a tall man. He was standing at the foot of one of the giant sycamore trees, in the shadows, and he seemed to be watching her. She pulled the bottom of her T-shirt up to her face and mopped the still-streaming sweat from her eyes. When she looked again, the man was gone. He had simply vanished. She stopped in her tracks, scanning the tree line warily, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
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