Winter has officially arrived in the nation’s capital. From my classroom window I watch the freshly fallen snow dust the play structure, and coat the hills, and courts.
I mentally prepare myself for the evening’s run. The issue at hand is not the run itself—an easy 30 minutes—but motivation. I know getting my ass out the door at 8 p.m. after teaching, tutoring for two hours, and a forty-five minute piano lesson is not going to be easy.
I say goodbye to my final student and close the door. I hear the winter wind howling outside and I turn to my living room window to see the snow swirling under the glare of the street lights.
My black kitten looks up at me from the couch. He wants me to stay and cuddle. I can see it in his black eyes and I wonder if he can read mine.
Sorry, dude. Your mom is crazy.
I head to my bedroom and assemble my outfit.
Thick socks? Check.
Dri-Fit long sleeve?
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. And, check.
Time to suit up.
Michelin Man transformation complete, I pull my hair into a lazy pony-tail and leave my bedroom. I open the front hall closet and retrieve the final items required to complete the most chic-look I have ever sported. Neck warmer, thick toque, my Boston Marathon jacket, and gloves.
I sit on my front mat and lace-up.
Close the front door behind me and lock it.
Check my watch.
I sync my Garmin and start down my usual route. My feet struggle at first to adjust to the slippery surface. And then, voila. I turn right onto Scott Street, a freezing head-wind slapping at my face.
I am not moving.
Rationally, I know this can’t possibly be true, but the head-wind is so strong I feel as though I am back on the treadmill, stuck in place. I am focused on the task at hand but still manage to notice select pedestrians emerging from the train station and observing me curiously either because I am not moving or for simply running in these conditions in the first place.
Ignore them. Just keep running.
I turn left onto Holland Street and I step back in time.
I am thirteen years old.
February. Late evening.
I settle down at the desk in my bedroom to complete my homework. I’m feeling nice and cozy in my pajamas. A white, two-piece set patterned with Hello Kitty images. A Christmas gift bought this past summer during a family vacation in San Francisco. I hear the winter wind howling outside my bedroom window.
I glance at the unlit candle on my desk. The accompaniment of its warm glow may just make my French grammar this evening more tolerable. I light the candle. The small flame flickers to life and I leave my room, momentarily, for a trip to the bathroom. I then head back into my bedroom to get to work.
He is hovering over my desk; the questioning starts. As does the arbitrary rage; making what should be a benign situation a potential minefield.
What part of you thought it was okay to light a candle and leave your room? Are you trying to burn the house down?!
It was just for a second! I just needed to go to the bathroom. I’m sorry! It’s not a big deal.
Not a big deal? I’ll decide what isn’t a big deal. Now, get to the front hall!!
I should know better than to negate his order. The series of explosives is set off and there will be no refuge.
He brings me down the stairs and throws me into the front hall of our house. The double glass doors slam shut behind me and he turns out the light. I feel like a rag doll discarded by an aging toddler.
Being so close to the front door of the house, I feel the frigid cold from outside seeping into the front hall through the cracks in the ill fitting front doors. I stand up and turn on the lights. A foolish act of defiance I am about to pay for.
I hear his heavy footsteps approaching. The doors burst open and it starts.
Fine! I will get out and go to my room.
No. OUT OF MY HOUSE.
I panic as he approaches. Now towering over me, it is pointless to put up a fight. He holds my tense body under his arms and opens the front door.
The freezing head-wind whips at my face. Knowing what’s next, I begin to plead.
Please, no! I’m sorry! Okay? I’m sorry! I said I’m sorry!
The door to the house slams shut behind me. I hear the key turn in the lock. In the darkness, between sobs, I beg for him to let me back in. I desperately bang my fists against the door.
My socks soak up the snow from our front steps and I start to freeze in my pajamas.
My sympathetic nervous system kicks in, triggering the fight or flight response. On this evening in February, the response is flight. If I do not find somewhere to go, he is going to leave me outside to freeze to death.
So, I run.
My brain evades all logical thoughts as I take off down the street. No street lights. It is as though a thick curtain has been pulled up over my eyes. No, a wool blanket. I wish I could see in this dark, better than I do. The dim lighting from front porches offers little aid in navigating the somber path of my run. The unknown reaction that would occur from knocking on a neighbour’s door keeps me running towards a house I know will safely take me in: Kim’s.
I switch from running on the road and opt for the snowy ditches which run parallel. The slushy streets of Rothwell Heights have been absorbed into my wet socks. My feet and calves ache from pounding the pavement. The ditch’s soft snow provides cushioning for my feet – temporary relief.
The dark neighbourhoods I have covered allow me to remain unnoticed for most of the three kilometer run. I reach an unavoidable busy street. The street lights illuminate the sidewalks. My eyes adjust to their glow. I pick up my pace. Hiding amongst the shadows is no longer an option.
An intersection forces my run to a temporary halt. All I can think about is staying warm. I wrap the bottom of my pajama top around my shaking hands. My jaw throbs from the incessant chatter of my teeth. My breathing is strained. The cold air has taken its toll on my lungs.
The light turns. I respond instinctively as if having heard a starting pistol.
I make my final turn off Ogilvie Road into Kim’s neighbourhood. My breath is visible with each exhale. I weave through rows of townhouses until her familiar door comes into sight.
I bang on the door.
As I wait, I long for the future. Warmth. Shelter. Safety. The bitter conditions have penetrated my body. I am unable to control my shaking.
I bang on the door again.
Still, no response.
I am crushed. Terrified.
What option do I have left now?
Defeated, I run and retrace the three kilometer route back to my house.
800s meters from the home, the headlights of a passing car illuminate my otherwise dark run. The vehicle slows and an unfamiliar woman’s voice calls out.
What are you doing out here at this time of night dressed like this?
My…my…(think fast) dog ran away when I let him out of the house to go to the washroom. So, I started chasing after him and I can’t find him. I’m not far from my house. I’m just heading back now.
Are you crazy? Why wouldn’t you put on boots and a coat? Get in the car and I’ll drive you home.
We make our way back up Swan’s Way and pull into the driveway. One of the three garage doors is open and the lights are on. The minivan is AWOL.. He’s not home.
I muster a final thank you to the kind woman. She answers with a lecture about responsibility, and safety. And common sense. It was only a dog after all…
I enter through the garage and open the door to the house. My mom is waiting. She pulls me into her arms and cries.
I tried to stop him. But he blocked us all from the door. I was just about to call the police!
She helps me into the kitchen while my brothers fill the double sink with steaming water. Exhausted, I am lifted onto the counter. My socks are peeled off my throbbing feet.
The sight of ice lodged between my toes causes my mom to sob. Her sobs quickly drowned out as I howl in pain. My frozen feet have hit the hot water in the sink and the agony is unbearable.
Blankets are wrapped around me as my feet soak. I can’t stop shivering. My brothers fill the jacuzzi in my parent’s bathroom.
Alone in the tub, under the white light, I take a look at myself. It’s a good look, slow and level. I stare at my feet. Each toe, entirely blistered. The soles of my feet, swollen, equally blistered and full of God knows what.
Weeping, not crying.
Clothed in fresh pajamas by my mom, I feel like a helpless child. My feet are wrapped in gauze, thick socks, and knitted slippers. Even with all this cushion the pain of each step towards my bedroom is unbearable. My brothers step in and carry me the rest of the way.
I am alone in my bed. He still isn’t home.
As I drift into sleep, the weight of the blanket is surpassed by the emotional weight of the last few hours. Seeing the flickering of the candle on my desk, I wonder which will go out first.
The 30 minute run flew by. I stop my Garmin leaving the cold and flashback behind.
This evening I take my time in the shower. I relax as each drop of hot water connects with my recovering body.
I slip into my pajamas. A red, two-piece set with a checkered pattern. A Christmas gift received last year. I revel in the comfort of soft fabric as I settle down at the wooden table in my kitchen.
French homework, recently completed by my grade five students, is piled in the middle of the table. It awaits my revisions and feedback.
I glance at the unlit candle on my table and decide I’d like the company of its warm glow. Perhaps together, we can get through this marking.
The small flame flickers. I hear the wind howling outside my kitchen window.
I do not shiver.
I am safe.
Vanessa de Hoog is a human. Being. She runs, teaches, writes, coaches, and consumes too much espresso. This fan of the Oxford comma lives in Ottawa with her cat Gatsby. Her memoir of short stories is looking to be released in 2021.