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"I need to get in shape," I said one mid-July day as I sat at my desk at The News: The Voice of Amhearst and Chester County where I was a general reporter.
"For the wedding."
My wedding was less than two weeks away and I knew that realistically not much could change in that short a time. It was more a case of hope springing eternal. After all, if the women's magazines could guarantee the loss of a bagillion pounds in one week, why shouldn't I lose a few by exercising a time or two before I said "I do"?
Still, I didn't mean for anyone to take me up on the comment, certainly not for anyone to challenge me to actually do something about it. It was more one of those rhetorical statements I tend to make, and I neither expect nor want a response.
"You need to take up jogging." Jolene Marie Luray Meister Samson looked me up and down from her desk across the aisle. "You could use it."
Just because she was beautiful and had a figure to die for was no reason to give me that condescending look. I might not be up to her standard of pulchritude, but I was hardly ugly. Curt, my one true love, seemed satisfied, and what more did I need?
"Thanks, Jo," I said dryly. "Just the encouragement I need."
She nodded, taking my words at face value. "I'll meet you in the parking lot at Bushay's tomorrow morning at six-thirty. It's still cool enough to run at that hour. We'll take the jogging trail they have through the woods. It's pretty, too. Goes beside a creek part of the way and through the woods the rest of the way."
I'm pretty sure my mouth dropped open, making me look addlepated. I couldn't decide which threw me more, the hour for the suggested run or the fact that Jolene seemed to be saying she jogged. I wouldn't have expected one scintilla of physical exertion from her, not even running for her life. And I was supposed to believe she jogged regularly?
"What?" she asked, somewhat huffily. "You think I got this figure by praying for it? I jog three or four times a week."
"Even in winter?" I was overwhelmed at the picture of Jolene in sweats and watch cap, breath pluming behind her.
"Then I use the track at the Y."
"At 6:30 a.m.?" Edie Whatley stared. She was the editor of our family page and a general reporter, a slightly plump, happily married woman with a sixteen year-old son. She looked as shocked as I did at the twin thoughts of Jolene jogging and the hour. "What is the matter with you two?" Jolene demanded, allowing a frown to mar her lovely face. "Just because you always see me when I'm beautiful
She let her voice die, but not because she was embarrassed to have called herself beautiful. She was a strong proponent of truth in advertising, even when it was self-promotion. Rather, she'd just had an idea. I could tell because she narrowed her eyes as she looked from me to Edie and back. The newsroom at The News was small and looking from desk to desk was not in the least difficult.
"I dare you both," she said. "I dare you to run with me. Prove you've got the guts and the stamina."
Edie and I looked at each other with more than a touch of disbelief.
"You've got to stay looking good for Tom, Edie. And you" Jolene pointed at me with one of her lethal fingernails "you need to keep Curt interested. You're not married yet."
But soon, I thought joyfully. Soon. "Is that how you keep Reilly interested?" I asked, not willing to tell her that I didn't think a few pounds one way or the other would make Curt lose or gain interest. He was too much a man of principle to be repelled by something as petty as a few pounds. Not that I planned on gaining any weight, but I was wise enough to know that life happened. After all, Mom had once been a size ten.
"Jolene," Edie said kindly, "Tom is fine with me the way I am, just as I'm sure Reilly loves you just the way you are."
Jolene grinned at the mention of her husband to whom she had now been married for several months.
"And I must tell you," Edie continued, "that I gave up dares in junior high school."
"Just because you're well past junior high doesn't mean you can't accept a challenge," Jolene said, either unaware or uncaring that she had just semi-insulted Edie.
"Look, kiddo." Edie emphasized the kid in kiddo. Jolene was about my age, which was just-turned twenty seven. "No jogging. I exercise enough to feel healthy and that's all I plan to do."
I nodded, though I didn't get any more exercise than running from story to story.
"You're afraid," Jolene taunted, her eyes on me. Apparently she recognized Edie as a lost cause.
"You know I'll whip you frontward and backward."
"I doubt that."
"Tomorrow morning," Jo said. "Six-thirty. I'll be waiting."
And that's how I ended up winded, trying my best to keep up with the lovely Jolene, who was proving herself a more than capable jogger as we traced the trail through the woods behind Bushay Waste Management. She wasn't even huffing in her Lycra top and jogging shorts, her perfect, long legs eating up the distance, her iPod clipped to her waistband, the wire to her earbuds swaying with each stride.
I, on the other hand, expected to fall over any moment. My feet had never felt so heavy, my legs so much like jelly. I pressed my hand against the pain spearing my side.
"Wait for me!" I managed to get the words out between puffs. Why I ever thought this romp in the woods would be a snap was beyond me. You'd think I'd have learned by now that just because Jo looked like a piece of beautiful fluff didn't mean she was one. Edie had warned me often enough.
Even yesterday after I'd fallen into Jo's trap, she'd said, "Merry, Jo never speaks from a position of weakness. If she thought she'd lose this dare, she'd never have made it."
I'd waved her wise words away, but I should have listened, especially since Jo sat at her desk with that cat who-ate-the-canary look of smug satisfaction.
Even Curt cautioned me when he called to say goodnight. "Don't be too cocky, sweetheart. Jolene likes to win. Always."
"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, not the least bit concerned. Now I was just hoping to make it back to the parking lot without totally embarrassing myself because it was a given that Jo would never let me forget if I failed.
The early morning humidity made everything blur around the edges as I ran. At least I thought it was the humidity and not failing eye sight due to physical overexertion. I tried to ignore the pains shooting through my shins at every step.
"Slacker," Jolene yelled back at me over her shoulder.
And that moment of inattention to the path threw us both into the middle of another murder.
I watched in horror as Jolene tripped and went down flat.
"Jo!" I forced myself to go a bit faster. "Are you all right?"
Now she was gasping, too, the wind knocked out of her. "Fine," she managed in a raspy voice as I knelt beside her.
She pushed herself onto her hands and knees, still struggling for oxygen, head hanging. Bracing herself on one arm, she held out the other scraped and bleeding palm. We inspected it carefully. She turned it over and breathed a sigh of relief. "No broken nails."
I'd been more concerned about broken limbs.
She sank back on her heels and held out her other palm. Scraped and slowly oozing blood, too. She flipped the hand over. A broken nail, the middle finger. She said a few of the words that Edie and I were trying to convince her weren't ladylike. Obviously we had more work to do.
She climbed slowly to her feet, looking down at her knees. More oozing scrapes.
"Now how am I supposed to wear skirts with scabs all over my legs?" she demanded.
"Wear pants," I said with an appalling lack of sympathy. Now that I knew she was alright, I was back to being disgruntled.
She gave her typical snort, always so surprising from someone who looks like her. Clearly she felt a mandate to share her beautiful limbs with the world. How she had become one of my best friends was still a mystery to me. She was even going to be one of my bridesmaids along with Maddie and Dawn.
"I tripped over something." Jo sounded as if whatever she had stumbled over had deliberately attacked her. She pushed to her feet with me helping by taking her elbow.
We turned together to see what had brought her low and stared wide eyed at the foot clad in a gray-and white running shoe protruding from the chicory and wild phlox lining the path.
My pulse accelerated to a rate that far outstripped the hammering I'd experienced when jogging. Oh, God, I prayed, unable to articulate all the thoughts that raced through my mind. I don't want to look. I must look. What should I do if she needs help? If she needs help? Of course she needs help. She's lying on the ground and I doubt she's just taking a nap.
Carefully I leaned over the weeds, following the line of the woman's body, for it was obvious by the shape of her foot and the shape of her ankle that it was a woman. She was lying on her stomach, face turned toward the left, away from us, sleeveless pink scoop-necked knit shirt twisted about her torso.
It was the gaping wound at the back of her head and the bloody weeds surrounding her that made my stomach heave.