The breeze through the open door stirred the lingering scent of ash and smoke. The aroma clung on Bruce’s nose like the last threads of sleep. Rays from the swiftly rising sun glistened on the plastic edges of the wrapped gray lump at his sneakers and drew his eyes downward.
“The paper,” he said in drearily explanation to his slow churning mind.
The fresh air swept in and carried off his morning breath.
Stooping, he winced at the creak in his back and the strain in his rounded arm muscles extending towards the blurred lines of black text. His strong fingers curled around the plastic and he straightened with an arching stretch.
A run, he thought for the countless time since gingerly extracting himself from his cooling sheets, would help work out the day old kinks.
His eyes were drawn to his hand about to throw the paper across the shadowed threshold. Streaks of soot nestled in the creases at his knuckles and charcoal grit sunk deep under his nails.
Another good scrub should get rid of those last traces, he thought. The warmth of the shower beckoned but he shook his head and tossed away the paper. The plastic wrapped bundle crinkled and bounced on the dingy carpet coating his front hall.
Bruce pulled back his foot bracing the door and the heavy plank thudded closed with a click at the latch. He slid in his key to fasten the bolt. The grimy fingerprints clinging to the knob earned a frown but he put his back to the stained metal and headed out along the concrete walkway.
His singed laces thrummed against the hard ground as his pace rose from a slow stride to a steady jog. The baggy blue shorts and gray stained shirt from the day before, matched the rhythm as he trotted out to Main Street. Sidewalk passed beneath his feet. Blood began coursing through his weary limbs, awakening each muscle with a warming touch.
The first passing car let out a honk, nearly tossing Bruce from the practiced pace.
“Way to go Teach’!” The yeller was a block down the road by the time Bruce muddled out their Doppler blurred words. Mystified, he shook his head and turned back to the concrete.
On the sidewalk grew dotted colors of other morning walkers or runners. In the distance the backdrop of the center of town, the epicenter of his jaunt, lingered in the morning haze.
“Hey Mr. Findley,” said a red faced teenager heading in the reverse direction. Bruce vaguely remembered him as a student from a few years back. The young man gave two thumbs up around his handful of music player and keys before puffing down the road.
Bruce slowed his trot and watched him go for a moment before turning back to the tree lined path.
Bruce looked across the two lane road and caught a pair of snowy haired women in matching pastel track suits and white terriers. One crooked finger had been pointed at him.
“Looks like a nice young man.”
The polite argument slid out of earshot with a few more jogging strides and the honks from a few more passing cars.
Bruce nodded sharply to a few other shouts and calls from cars or puffed through runner’s lips. He tried to keep the wrinkles on his brow from deepening or the sweat starting down his face from feeling like ice.
The sore muscles and residual grime he could handle. The attention wafting off the pedestrians and commuters was another and far more disconcerting matter.
Orange flames rimmed his sidewalk focused eyes, trying again to draw his attention as they had the night before. A brisk wind brushed against his cheeks, stained with the same pine scent as the dark and winding road slicing through the back woods of town. Another shout from across the street echoed in his ears like the panicked cries and bestial braying that had sliced through the trees and into his lumbering hatchback.
“Watch yourself, Mr. Hero.”
Bruce looked up in time to twist and avoid the smiles and shoulders of a running troupe on an opposite course.
“Well done,” and “Terrific of you,” looped like their soles hitting the concrete.
He nodded and managed a half smile until they passed. He took the first available right and cut down a quiet side street. The honks and the admonitions dwindled with the growth of pungent flowers boxes and trimmed lawns. His chest heaved with more ease. Bruce focused back on each stride, using each pound of his sooty sneakers on the sidewalk to crush a rising question.
How did they know?
Who had told them?
Were those kids ok?
The quiet rhythm returned as he listened to the blood in his ears and the huffs of his breath. Leaning to the left at the intersection he coiled along the perimeter of the center of town.
Brick faced residences shifted into small shops. The sunlight warmed parked cars, grass parks and swaying stop lights hanging over the right angled roads on drooping electrical lines.
Bruce skidded to a stop at the corner of Oak and Fremont after another distracting round of honks and waves. Square receptacles of blue and red and green plastic stood before him in a ragged row along the corner. His own soot smeared face stared back at him from within the glass face and beneath a roaring headline filling half the page.
The paper, he thought with growing embarrassment.
He smiled and waved again at another passerby commending him for his Samaritan acts. Then he had his feet moving once more at a decidedly swifter pace on a decidedly shorter course back to where his own plastic wrapped explanation and promised shower waited.