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Where You Are (George Constable)


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  Randall had tumbled off the seat, but he climbed back and seemed unflustered. Lake gave him a pat and said, "Always buckle up."

He put the car in reverse. The front wheels spun, but the car hardly budged. He tried going forward; it didn't help. He rocked back and forth, and the car worked its way a few inches through the ridge of snow behind the front wheels, then bogged down again.

He got out to inspect. The problem was not big: The front part of the car was hung up on the ridge. If he cleared away some of the snow from beneath the engine, he would be able to back out. But that would take time.

He checked his watch: 4:48. "Come on, Randall," he said, and Randall scrambled out. Lake reached into the car for the little box and pocketed it.

He calculated. Jennifer's house was about a half mile away. She was due back around five o'clock. He wanted to give the present just as she had given hers--left for him, a loving hello. He figured he could make it to her house and away before five. He could and he would. This would be a race, and Lake was a runner. A thought came to him as he buttoned his overcoat. Maybe speed was his natural condition. Maybe that explained why he wasn't much good at patience.

He heard a starter's gun in his head and took off. His loafers were almost worthless on the fresh snow, but after a few strides he learned how to keep his balance and make the most of the minimal traction. The snow was blowing in his face, melting on his skin. He focused on good arm motion and breathing. Now he was at the crest of the hill. The road curved gently to the left and down. He moved into the center of the white track and lengthened his stride. The only sounds were his breath and footfalls. It was like the track meets years ago: Even in these clothes, even in these shoes, he was a person who conquered time and distance.

He glanced over his shoulder. Randall was galloping effortlessly behind him, and he had a runner's look of concentration. Lake recognized it and was proud.

It was all coming back now. This was his pace, the miler's pace, smooth and sensuous and tied to some deep inner current. It swept you past a blurred world, sped you around the curves and along the straights, legs and arms metronomic, the track unrolling, the laps completed one by one. As the white road led him on, he remembered races he had run. Midway through the last lap, he would be close to the lead, striding easily, waiting. He would move up. The runners would begin to separate, and some would drop far behind. But usually at the final curve there would be at least one still ahead. Then Lake would reach inward for the strength he had saved. It would be there, ready for him, and he would surge, his legs driving. The leader would sense him coming and press harder. They would swoop around the curve. As the track straightened, they would be alongside one another. Lake would reach into himself for just a little more. He would see the signs of struggle beside him. He would kick hard--all the way, everything. And he would be gone, moving away, stretched out, flying across the line in a dream of wind and noise.

The road passed over a stone bridge and entered a section of woods, dark, with flakes sifting down from the maelstrom high above. He looked over his shoulder. Randall had dropped back about twenty yards and seemed to be laboring a bit. "Come on," he called. He saw Randall reach for his reserve of strength and close the gap. At that, Lake filled with gladness. The dog had a runner's spirit.

They pounded along, with snow spraying underfoot and the woods scrolling by. Lake descended deep into his mind; his body would do the running. He thought about the runner's spirit. He remembered discovering his gift when he was seven or eight. Something would come over him when he was playing tag or capture the flag. At times like those, he felt that no one could ever catch him if he chose to stay free: He was faster than anyone; he could float; he could fly. Later, in competition, he still had the feeling--a wild optimism, the cheetah's heart, an animal joy.

But track had taught him that speed wasn't enough. You had to know where you were at every moment, what was behind, what lay ahead. It was a lesson he must not forget.

Breathing hurt, though his legs were still strong. The woods gave way to close-packed houses. Barking began off to the right. A black dog ran toward them, stopped with legs planted for battle, and raged at the intruders. Randall veered but didn't slow.

They ran on. He checked his watch: 4:55. They were going to make it. He pushed himself. He couldn't get enough air. But he knew he still had that extra bit of strength, the good kick. He checked over his shoulder. Randall had disappeared.

Then he saw him--fifty yards back, casually sniffing at something beside the road. Lake skidded to a stop. "Randall!" he shouted. "Come on."

Randall looked up, then resumed his sniffing. Evidently he had decided the race was over.

Lake looked at his watch: 4:56. The house was just around the bend. This was incredible; this was not the runner's spirit at all. "Let's go, let's go," he yelled. Randall looked up, considered his options, and resumed the sniffing.

Lake ran back. "You're messing up, Randall," he said as he neared him. But Randall paid no attention.

"Okay, you asked for it." He grabbed the dog under the chest and lifted him. When Randall tried to fight free, Lake wrapped him in an iron grip. He began to run, but it was impossible with such a weight. He settled for a fast walk.

He was gasping now, and he couldn't feel his feet because his shoes were full of snow, and his arms were giving out. He rounded the last curve. He mentally designated the front path of the house as the finish. Ten yards before he reached it, he accelerated to a lumbering run. He crossed the imaginary line, leaning slightly forward in good form, and dumped Randall beyond. His watch said 4:58:33. Technically a victory--but Jennifer's car was in the driveway.

He bent over, eyes closed, his head full of brightness, his chest heaving. After a while, the gasping slowed. He brushed himself off. Standing on one leg at a time, he emptied the snow from his shoes. Finally he was ready. He would stay a minute, no more.

A thought formed. "Come here, Randall," he said. Randall approached, suspicious. Lake knelt and unfastened the collar buckle. He took the little box from his coat pocket, slipped the leather strap of the collar through the ribbon, and, working with numbed fingers, refastened the buckle. He stepped back to examine the effect. It was good. Randall definitely looked like a miniature St. Bernard on a rescue mission in the Alps.
 
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Excerpted from Where You Are by George Constable. Copyright © 1996 by George Constable. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.