Saira jogged down the dirt path through the Giant City State Park, feet hitting the ground in time with the instrumental track playing through her headphones, eyes fixed on the trees ahead, hair safely concealed within her sport hijab. She loved running in the forest, alone, even if she could only find time for twenty minutes a day during the commute back from classes. For those twenty minutes she existed alone in the world, just her feet, the hard-packed trail, and the music.
Being able to empty her mind and become that perfect biological machine was the closest thing to freedom she knew. It was the closest to being free that there was. No thoughts, no insecurities, no student debt, no family, no worries for the future. Nothing but limbs and lungs and breath and speed.
What she treasured most, of course, was the isolation. These runs were really the only time she was ever alone. Even in the room she was renting, basically the entire second floor loft in the house in Murphysboro, she could keenly feel the presence of the Gunthers just down the stairs in the living room below, could hear them at all hours through the heating vents. They respected her privacy, sure, but she didn’t even really have a door at the top of the stairs, just a privacy curtain. Even if they weren’t in the room, they were always there.
And then there was the bus to Carbondale, ten minutes of crowded commuting broken only by her daily stop here on the way back. Admittedly it was only eight miles back, but she didn’t really like running along the highway. There’d been… incidents… in the past, people shouting or even throwing things at the girl on the shoulder.
Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University, was more cosmopolitan and she didn’t feel so out of place, but she didn’t have any more time to herself, rushing from class to class. She’d definitely overloaded her first semester there, a mistake she didn’t intend to repeat… as long as she managed to finish out the year.
Soon, too, winter would be upon them. She was looking forward to it – winters could get cold in Sindh, but it never really snowed. Not like the pictures she’d seen of the Midwest, anyway.
The tempo of the track Saira’d been listening to changed to something stronger, faster, harder, and she effortlessly shifted from a jog to a run, strides lengthening, footfalls landing harder. Her arms pumped as she pushed her body as hard as she could for the next thirty seconds, relishing the heat that rose in the muscles of her legs and chest as she did so.
Just as the music shifted back to its slower tempo and she slowed to a jog, movement in the underbrush caught her attention. She slowed to a stop, heart pounding from the run, music in her ears urging her to run on.
There, between the leaves, a bit of fur, a pair of eyes… a cat. Staring back at her. It held her gaze for a moment then moved on, disappearing back into the green.
It made sense, Saira thought, for a feral cat to survive in this kind of environment, with plenty of food to eat and trees to climb.
Then she saw the second, a short distance away, and movement heralding more. Many more. An entire colony, moving through the woods. There’d been a colony of feral cats near her home in Karachi, but she’d never seen them act with any kind of directed intent. Each hunted on its own, roamed on its own, but here, these animals were stalking almost like a pack.
They crossed the path ahead of her, almost a dozen felines moving purposefully through the forest. Saira felt paralyzed, unable to move, barely able to breathe for fear that the colony turn its attention towards her, struck with the certainty that if they did she would become their prey. It was only after the last had disappeared into the woods that she felt her strength returning.
Saira moved ahead slowly, not jogging, not even brisk, eyes on the bushes to the side of the trail, half-expecting them to leap out and ambush her. It was an odd thing, being afraid of a cat, but in those numbers they could do some real damage to her.
What odd behavior. She pulled the earbuds out from under her hijab, letting them dangle out of her running jacket’s collar against her chest, and slipped a hand up to mute the phone strapped to her bicep so that she could hear any noises the creatures might be making. Each step she took was careful, trying to minimize her own sounds.
She let out a long breath after passing the bushes the cats had disappeared into and took up jogging again, earphones jumping against her with each step, trying to puzzle out the animals’ strange behavior. She’d loop around back to the parking lot and wait for the bus home… there really wasn’t any chance of returning to the empty focus she’d come to enjoy.