For young women in parks

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, The Gaps

By the time we reach the park, my tracksuit pants are rubbing against my sweaty thighs. I used to take Arnold on walks in my school uniform, until I figured out that he has one speed: full tilt.  So now I wear my oldest pair of tracky daks and my PE sneakers. Technically I'm anti-exercise, but Arnold goes wild the moment I pull his lead out of the cupboard. He's good company - happy to be in my presence and totally incapable of conversation.

At the entrance to the park I almost collide with another jogger - a guy my age in high-tech leggings and earphones.

'Hey!' he says, not bothered by our near-collision. 'Evening!'

I frown in return, confused by his friendly smile.  He's not puffing at all, while I sound like a vomiting steam train.

The jogger is a park regular, I see him out most evenings. He's cute too. Not my type - too sporty - but cute. Once I'm sure he's crossed the road, I turn and check out his springy stride. The leggings cut his muscles into defined areas.

The park is emptier than usual. The light is falling and the grass is already wet with dew. It was probably a mistake to do my homework first. Sometimes I run with earbuds in too, but not tonight.

We pound the train path, down the hill and across the creek. I think about how the jogger probably plays football (deal breaker), and how Brandon from my old school is ruining his near-genius brain with pot, and that the Grammar boys on the tram are way too clean-cut and not inclined to slum it, not that I need anyone's pity lust anyway. Maybe I don't even have a type. There's a depressing thought.

'You'll marry me, won't you, Arnold? If I get to thirty and I don't have anyone?'  

Arnold gallops and heavy-breathes inappropriately and doesn't answer, as usual. Arnold doesn't mind the way the trees crowd thickly on either side of the path, creating seething cubbies and shadows where a person could hide. Hide in and then leap out, with an arm pulled tight against my throat, my feet kicking against air.

This is what I know about this park: no one has ever been raped in it, but there was a flasher here when I was in Grade Six.

The bridge clangs as we thump over it. I take the dip fast and squint into the distance. There's a figure up ahead, on the crest of the hill. I can't tell if it's a man or a woman.

Normally the park brings a small sense of peace, even though it's pretty basic as far as parks go. The train line runs the length of it at the top of a high embankment, and to the right is a lumpy paddock criss-crossed with paths and the creek. The park sits on top of a waste site: rusted barrels and broken concrete blocks still poke through the green. Some of the blocks look like grey french fries scattered among the ti-trees.

I consider turning back, but stubbornness keep me placing my feet in front of each other. The view from the top of the hill makes the pain of running worth it. If I let myself get scared, then it means another victory for the evil people of the world. Still, I fish my keys out of my waistband pocket and grip them so they poke out for maximum stabbing potential.

Stop being irrational, I tell myself. You're in no greater danger today than before Yin was taken.

As we get closer I can see that the mystery person is a man in a suit, probably on his way home from work. Not many men wear suits around here. Suit-wearers are supposed to be respectable, but more importantly, they sit at desks day after day and are probably unfit.

When the man gets within ten metres I draw myself up to my full height and lift my feet, making sure I look carefree and energetic, as if I could run at this pace for hours. I consider spitting on the ground to gross him out. I remember the piss-yourself advice.

Out of nowhere, Arnold growls. He never growls.

The man - balding, white, dad-aged - assesses me below the neck, but never meets my eyes. We pass each other. I continue up the hill, he continues down. The moment passes. Even Arnold relaxes.

At the top of the hill, I pause to catch my breath. My nerves are ruffled; so much for the stress relief of exercise.

I look across the valley. Past the vacant lots and teeming highway to mysterious lit-up construction sites topped with cranes. Arnold lifts a leg to pee and scratches in the dust.

I think of the ways you could trap someone in a park. You could use people's kindness against them and pretend to be hurt, setting up a fake bike accident. You could blend into the environment, dress up as one of the council rangers or gardeners or rail workers. Or you could carry a tricycle or a children's backpack, pretending you were a dad. Fathers appear more trustworthy than childless men, even though I know that's not true. 

At my back, there's a rumble and a rush of wind as a train screams past. A streak of light in the dusk, people flashing by, all of them strangers.