CHAPTER 1: W…W…W…Will You Love Me?
THE TRAIL JESS JOGGED ON EVERY MORNING was either beautiful or terrifying, depending on how you looked at it.
The only time Jess found herself centered and at peace, however, was when she jogged on that winding dirt path in the woods, the one that followed along a muddy creek, buzzing with life.
It was easy to lose herself in the simplistic beauty of it all, despite the unwelcoming scowls from grumpy snapping turtles from time to time.
Jess searched every inch of the city she recently escaped to for other places to run, hoping to add some variety to her views, but there was only one decent spot to jog in the whole city, and the bike trail was it. Sidewalks downtown were out of the question. Besides having shin splints, the homeless population seemed to be out in full force in the mornings when Jess went running, and she quickly grew tired of being offered a morning pick-me-up out of a rusty spoon.
Jess let her pace ebb and flow along with the heavy guitar riffs and punctuated rage screams of her favorite chic metal band, Dollies For Sale; trying hard to drown out the endless neurotic chatter of her own thoughts.
The lean dirt path Jess ran on could easily be confused for a game trail that stretched for miles just on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, leading her into neighboring overpriced suburbs. How far Jess would run down the trail before turning back around and heading home all depended on how late she rolled out of bed. And this morning that meant she barely got to stretch her legs before needing to turn around.
Reaching the end of her route, Jess slapped her hand down hard on the post that marked the trail head and slowed her pace to a brisk walk. With a spiked heart rate and ruddy face, Jess walked in circles around the small park at the mouth of the trail, weaving through vintage horses on corroded springs and a rusty slide that would dump any children onto a pile of rocks who dared to venture down its rusty metal chute.
Calling the area a park was being generous.
The largely ignored space did have its perks, however. The lack of children playing on the equipment left room for budding foliage to bloom and spread freely, creating a wild, chaotic appeal that spoke to Jess.
Plopping down on a wooden park bench, rotten and covered in moss, Jess turned off her music and craned her neck back so the warmth of the springtime sun would wash over her face. This was the best part of her jog. The end when she could sit and enjoy her runner’s high before having to jump back into the daily grind.
As a broke twenty-four-year-old still chained to a mountain of college debt, Jess couldn’t afford a gym membership…or therapy…or drugs. Morning runs, it seemed, was a logical and free alternative. Even if she could afford those things, Jess would probably continue to jog anyway, and preferably where she could feel the wind, and not the AC, blow through her hair.
As a broke twenty-four-year-old still chained to a mountain of college debt, Jess couldn’t afford a gym membership…or therapy…or drugs.
Running let Jess keep her wits about her; and it was a better stimulant than drinking coffee in the morning. Although, of course, the first thing Jess would do when she got home was augment her adrenaline rush with an entire pot of coffee.
Her natural buzz waning, Jess pushed herself off of the bench and headed back to her apartment.
Once inside, she tiptoed around, showering and dressing as quietly as possible, lest she wanted to be scolded for the umpteenth time for running alone on the “desolate” trail by her roommate, Lexi.
A night owl, Lexi didn’t bother to set alarms in the morning. She worked late shifts as a server at a local steakhouse and usually didn’t wake up until almost mid-day. Most days, that meant Jess could head to her job at the bank before Lexi even woke up. Not waking Lexi was important, not just because she was cranky in the morning, but because it meant Jess could avoid being lectured about the dangers of running alone- a common theme whenever Lexi suspected that Jess was out on the trail again.
Not hearing any other movement throughout the house, Jess almost leapt out of her skin when she unexpectedly bumped into Lexi in the kitchen.