A run; a run no different from any other morning that had come before.  The sun groped with lazy fingers the mounds littering the reed-choked hills.  Above the slickened grass, the evening gasped its last breath in wispy tendrils of fog.  Boots pounded broken road; dew kicked up against sodden pants.  A run; a run with the dirt-laden shovel cradled in his arms.  The mounds forgotten at his back.

But on this morning the old-timer sat.  Waiting.

He froze, keen to the presence of another set of eyes, sweat in long strands down his cheeks.  Tongue darted corner to corner along his mouth, tasting, swallowing.  He enjoyed the tang of his toil.  Eventually he cocked his head.  Saw the old-timer slumped within a rocker, set up on a sunken porch just off the lane.  He stared the old-timer down.  The old-timer stared back.

“Ayup,” old-timer grimaced, lips pinched by unseen fingers.

Gravel crunched beneath boots; slowly the shovel lowered from his arms.  “What are you doing out here?” he uttered, stoic in the middle of the backwoods road.

Old-timer: “Naw much.  Jus joyin anotha morn.”

Chest heaved despite his calm; he took a step closer to the old-timer’s ruined cabin.  He had run past it a dozen times.  Always seemed deserted.  He regretted that he never checked.  Never bothered to force his way inside.  “Too chilly for your bones, don’t you think?  A fellow your age should keep inside.  Stay warm.”

“Wutha-man says gonna warm soon nuff.  I believe in wut tha wutha-man says.  Don’t ya?”

He looked around.  Chewed at the bottom of his lip until it oozed coppery satisfaction.  From the road: “I don’t believe in much at all.”

Old-timer: “Nope, I s’pose ya don’t.  I s’pose ya don’t look tha type ta believe in anythin tha wutha-man might have ta say.  Ya look a different type ta me.”

“And what type might that be?”  The blade of the shovel tapped his boot; fingers squeezed upon its hilt.

Old-timer laughed; a warbled thing like a frog caught in death throes.  “Type tha takes mattas into his own hans.”

He propped the shovel against his side, studied his hands.  Nails chewed and rimmed with dirt, calloused palms caked black.  Intrigued, he looked back up.  “Never seen you before.”

“Were ya s’posed ta?  Ya do nuthin but run.  Run is all ya do.”

His eyes narrowed into slits.  “So you’ve watched me.”

Old-timer: “Ayup.  Lotsa times.”

He clutched the shovel again, scraped it along gravel in the road.  “I enjoy my runs,” hissed through clenched teeth.

“Course ya do.  Yer fit as a fiddle.  I wus like tha once. Long time ago… long time.”  Old-timer shook his head, jostling sparse white hair.  “But things change afta long times go by, ayup.”

He stepped closer to the cabin’s decayed porch.  “Time changes everything.”  No bother taken to disguise the rattlesnake in his tone.

Old-timer, squinting: “Yer him, I’m sure ya are,” then swatted at ghosts circling his skull.  “People been talkin bout ya ‘fore tha wutha-man comes on at night.  Yer him, yessir ya are.  Tha runner.”

Eyes drifted to his boots, laces awash in mud.  “I told you, I enjoy my runs.”

Old-timer nodded, pleased.  “Ayup, tha runner.  Knew it was ya.  Just knew all tha time.  So tell me, runner, where ya runnin to?”

He stalked deliberately, leaning against the old-timer’s fence post, rotted and crooked as a hag’s nose.  Shovel tap-tapped atop his boot.  “I’m not running from a thing.”

“Nah, ya wasn’t hearin me.  Ya wasn’t listenin careful nuff.  Didn’t say ya was runnin from somethin.  Asked what ya runnin to.

Doubt lit his eyes.  He always had answers.

“Man runnin from somethin is a man in fear.  Man runnin toward somethin is a man ta fear.  Ayup.”

Tongue slithered inside his mouth, toyed with a pulpy strip caught between molars.  He had eaten not too long before; suddenly the urge to eat again seized him.  He licked at his lips.  “You have something to fear, old man?  Maybe something like me?”

Old-timer quipped: “Fear ya?  Not t’all.”

He always had answers.  Now he searched for one.

Old-timer jerked his head.  “Lemme see em.”

“See what?”

“Yer hands, course.”

Hesitation.  Eventually he raised one above the fence.  Old-timer, eyes sparkling a shade below madness, rose from his creaky chair.  Head crooked atop stooped shoulders, old-timer hobbled down the porch steps, across the front path, alongside the fence.  “Ayup, tha runner alright.”

“I’m getting tired of this,” he hissed, the shovel slowly ascending above his head.

With deceptive speed, the old-timer sprang over the fence, seized his free hand.  “Tha runnerrrrr…” he cooed.

They remained that way, runner and old-timer, hands interlocked like lost brothers now found, eyes fixed and steely.  The runner blinked first, noticing the old-timer’s chewed nails, crusty black around the beds, grime etched into wrinkled skin.  The shovel lowered.

Old-timer’s hands.  So much like his own.

He always had answers.  Always, his victims spoke to him.  Now he had none.

“I wus fit like ya once.  Long time ago… long time ago.”

He jerked his hand back, but old-timer would not let go.

He glanced over old-timer’s shoulder.

“Somethin ya should know.  Somethin ya should learn right quick.”

He looked beyond old-timer’s cabin.  Glimpsed what had been hidden from his sight for so many runs.  Glimpsed for the first time the uneven rows, the shovels pitched crookedly into the dirt, marking each grave.

Mounds littered the hills, both new and old.

“Ya see, I wus tha runner long before ya came ta town, son,” old-timer sang quietly.  “And I gots no fear of ya t’all.”

He broke the old-timer’s grasp; shovel clanged to the road.  For the first time, the runner ran from something.  Ran, boots stumbling across divots in the backwoods road, rising sun looming large in his frantic eyes.  Ran from old-timer and his dirty, chewed nails.  Ran from old-timer and all the ghosts that kept pace at his side.

“Wus a runner long ‘fore ya came ta town,” old-timer continued to sing.  He turned and hobbled back atop his porch.  Hobbled into his chair.  Sat.  Waited.  He had plenty of time.  Even more shovels.  “Be tha runner long after yer gone.  Ayup.”

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.