Sylvia woke a few moments before her clock radio’s alarm was scheduled to go off. Keeping her eyes closed, she started flexing her feet and legs tentatively. She was training for her first marathon, and despite following recommended training plans, noticed that her muscles were more sore than they ever had been. It was frustrating that her muscles weren’t responding as well as she hoped. These waking minutes always presented a mental struggle. It was so tempting to stay in bed, easily justified by needing the extra rest, but the guilt inevitably set in if she didn’t follow her training regimen, and she could never fully go back to sleep.
Exhaling forcefully, she rolled over to turn off the alarm just as the radio started squawking, the early morning DJs more enthusiastic about the latest Top 40 hit than she had felt about anything in a long time. She knew she’d start to feel better once she started moving, so she slowly got dressed, finishing by lacing up her running shoes.
After brushing her teeth, she ate an apple, a quick source of energy. Feeling more awake, she did a few last stretches, wincing slightly at her muscles. She knew she would feel better once she got going, so she pushed her earphones into her ears, turned on her MP3 player, and walked out her back door.
Out of habit, she looked up at the still-dark sky, and even though she knew exactly where the North Star was, located the Big Dipper and counted the five lengths of the two end stars to find Polaris. There was something about the sky that always calmed her. Smiling slightly, she took one last deep breath, exhaled forcefully, and started running. This was her favorite time of day – before the sun came up, quiet streets all to herself – all she had to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other, steadily if not slowly. Once she fell into a rhythm, breathing hard with the effort of exertion, thoughts could flow and she fell into a semi-meditative state.
Today though, her thoughts were a swirl of disorganization. Besides the injuries she felt like she was constantly nursing, work had been particularly stressful lately. It shouldn’t have been – she usually liked her job, and she was definitely good at it, but a new director had recently come in, and the stress level had risen exponentially. While the job itself hadn’t changed, her new boss made all sorts of crazy demands, and constantly changed her mind about what she wanted or when. Sylvia constantly felt unsettled, a little bit like being on a roller coaster with an unknown track.
She knew that this exercise would release some of her stress. She determined to not let her work stress interfere with this precious time. She looked around her appreciatively and turned down the path that runs alongside the river. The early morning air was cool, and where just a few moments before she had been able to clearly see the stars, an autumn mist had quickly moved in. Not cool enough to warrant a sweatshirt, it was a welcome relief from the heavier summer air of only a few days ago. Even though fall seemed to be arriving a bit early this year, the low clouds didn’t deter the colony of hummingbirds that swooped and zoomed over and around her head in the pre-dawn light. She smiled at one that seemed particularly scrawny as it fluttered and hovered above her head.
The path turned a bend parallel to the riverbed, and Sylvia noticed a figure ahead of her. She squinted into the distance, trying to determine if it was a shadow from a telephone pole or a person. There had been reports lately of women disappearing, and she didn’t want to be another statistic. Even though she listened to music while she ran, she made it a point to be aware of her surroundings. Sylvia stared harder through the mist. It seemed too short to be a shadow, but she still couldn’t detect any movement. Slowing to a walk, she approached the shadowy figure, finally determining it was an older man, stopped in the path.
She realized why it had been difficult to figure out if was human or not - he was motionless in the path, seemingly lost in his own world of thought. As she got closer, she saw that he was slowly twisting back and forth, swiveling his torso with arms outstretched. He wore a ratty red knit hat, but she saw strands of grey hair sticking out around his ears. He continued rotating slowly, with the measured movements of an old man cautiously exercising at his top speed.
He noticed her approach, turned to face her, and smiled broadly. Sylvia took one of the earbuds out of her ear and smiled in return. “Good morning,” she called to him. Her theory was that if she acknowledged other people while she was out exercising, it lessened her chances of being attacked, even though she didn’t feel threatened by the elderly gentleman.
She raised a hand to wave, and was going to keep running, but the old man smiled back, widely. “Yes, yes it is!” he replied. “Isn’t this weather wonderful? It makes me feel like anything is possible. It feels like…magic.” He paused, still smiling, and looked her directly in the eyes. “Do you know, today is my birthday! I’m 90 years old today.”
Sylvia returned his smile. “Happy birthday! You look much younger than ninety. This exercise must be the reason. “
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of missing a day of it. It keeps me young! Here,” he reached into his pocket and producing an orange, handed it to her. “I picked this off my tree just last night. It’s the last batch of the summer. It’s my birthday present to you.”
She laughed. “It hardly seems fair for me to receive a gift when it’s your birthday, but how can I say no?” Sylvia took the orange he offered. “Thank you so much! I wish you a very happy birthday, and many more to come.”
“Thank you my dear. It’s nice to see a beautiful young woman enjoying the early morning.”
Sylvia laughed again, “Well, I don’t know about the beautiful part, but it is a beautiful morning, I’ll agree with you on that point. I hope your day is magical!”
They both turned, ready to resume their respective journeys. Sylvia put her earbud back in and resumed her pace. She turned one last time to wave to the old man, but he seemed to have disappeared. Just then a twinkle of sunlight reflected through the mist, flashing brighter than she would have thought possible given the overcast conditions. As quickly as it had come, it disappeared. She shrugged, turned again and continued down the path.
Several minutes later of jogging, she checked her watch and realized it was time for her to turn for home so she could get ready and be to work on time. She turned around and headed the other direction. As she passed the spot she had encountered the old man, she noticed the same hummingbird she had seen earlier, flying from one branch of a tree to another, pausing in a seeming erratic pattern to investigate leaves and dying blooms. It paused in the path just ahead of her, hovering steadily, seemingly considering her presence in his territory, then zipped off in another direction. Sylvia noticed some discarded orange peels just off the path, obvious traces of the old man’s early morning snack. She smiled, remembering his exuberance, and continued home.