Kelsea breathed to the beat of her feet. In for four, out for four. The bright October sun warmed her face, the crisp breeze cooled it. Her favorite running weather. She zoned out as her long legs carried her down the maple-lined residential streets, ablaze with reds and oranges, the route ingrained.
She wound her way toward campus, heading for the Park. Always the best part of her daily run, she most loved the arboretum this time of the year, when the aspens and maples and oaks dropped their summer façade to show their true colors.
She cut across the quiet quad — afternoon classes were in session — and sprinted up the hill to the Park, which began where Carson State College’s main campus ended and stretched all the way to the river bluffs. If it had a more official name, Kelsea didn’t know it. Everyone just called it the Park, and its crisscrossing gravel trails and quiet wooden benches were a big draw for students and professors alike.
The benches were full today, the paths crowded. Kelsea flowed through, her rhythm unbroken, her eyes soaking up the reds and oranges and coppers and yellows. Her shoes crunched in the gravel, adding a new dimension to the rhythm of her strides, the count of her breaths. In, out.
Until her breath caught.
That guy was up ahead, again. Lurking, again, a haze of cigarette smoke clinging to the hood of his oversized sweatshirt.
Creepy. That was the word that had come to mind the first time she’d seen him, that day he’d cornered her at the Information Desk. His baggy clothes hung heavy, dark circles rimmed his eyes, a craggy goatee clung to his chin. He’d peppered her with questions for nearly thirty minutes. Which building was this journalism class in? That writing class? How late was the library open? The cafeteria? This was Kelsea’s third year working the desk, and her senior year at Carson State. She always tried to be friendly and helpful, but something was off with this guy. She’d let her smile fall, her impatience show, hoping he’d take the hint and go away. It was only when Will finally arrived, an hour late for his shift, the guy finally left.
The next day she’d spotted him on a bench in the Park, just sitting and staring and smoking. She’d thought little of it at first; the Park was a popular hang out. But as it went on, day after day, week after week, the Creep had begun to creep Kelsea out.
She stepped up her pace as she approached his bench. What if the Creep recognized her from the Information Desk? Asked her more questions? She did not want to talk to that guy again. She locked her eyes on the path, tried to run as if she hadn’t a care in the world. But at the last moment, her eyes betrayed her. They slid to the man’s face and connected with his eyes, beady and hard. He blew a stream of cigarette smoke her direction.
Revulsion shot through her. She sprinted down the path and kept up a brisk pace through the rest of the Park, her skin crawling. She breathed in for four, out for four. In, out, until she found her rhythm again.
“You should call the cops on that guy,” said Will. He’d been late for his shift at the Information Desk again, and Kelsea had covered for him. Again.
“It’s not a crime to sit in the Park,” said Kelsea as she pulled her unruly curls up into a ponytail.
Will frowned. “So, what? You’re just going to wait until he attacks you to call the police?”
“What makes you think he’s going to attack me?”
“He hassled you at the Information Desk, and now he’s sitting in the Park every time you go for a run. Clearly something’s up with this guy.”
Before she could reply, Sarah burst through the double glass doors of the Student Center, arms thrown wide. “Tell me I left my phone here.”
Kelsea opened the Information Desk drawer, pulled a phone in a pink glitter case out, and held it up in the air.
“Oh, thank god. I looked everywhere.” She pulled her oversized beanie off and shook out her long blond hair, which settled back into carefree perfection that made Kelsea sigh at the unfairness of the universe. She grabbed her phone and started scrolling.
“I still think you should call the cops on that guy,” said Will, picking up where they’d left off. “You never know when a guy like that might snap.”
“What are you two talking about?” asked Sarah.
“Kelsea’s stalker,” said Will.
Sarah looked up from her phone. “What stalker?”
Kelsea jabbed Will with her elbow. “I do not have a stalker.” She knew where she stood, as far as looks go. Tall for a girl, and thick. Muscular, if she was being charitable. And the only thing that could be said of her hair was that it distracted from her nose.
“Will’s right,” Sarah said, after Kelsea filled her in. “You should call the cops.”
Kelsea rolled her eyes. “He’s just weird.”
“You don’t know what he’s capable of. What if he’s got a gun or a knife or something?” said Will. “You shouldn’t run alone.”
The look of genuine concern on Will’s face surprised Kelsea. She’d known Will for the past two years. They often worked the Information Desk together. He’d always been friendly, but Kelsea rarely saw him outside their shifts together.
He’s just being nice, she told herself. “I think you two are blowing this out of proportion.”
“No way,” said Sarah. “Will’s right. You shouldn’t run through the Park alone. Not with some creep watching you.”
“He’s not watching me,” said Kelsea. But the moment in the Park, when her eyes met his, shuddered through her again. It felt like he was watching her. Maybe.
“If you have to run through the Park, then at least let me come with you,” said Will.
Kelsea’s stomach flipped. Will was tall, lanky, with disheveled sandy hair and soft blue eyes. She was fairly sure, if it came to it, she was more likely to take the Creep out than he was. But she was flattered by his offer, a foreign, fluttery feeling she wasn’t sure what to do with. She reached up and tightened her ponytail. “I’m not some damsel in distress. Seriously, guys. I’ll be fine.”
Sarah shrugged at her. “If you say so. Man, it’s dead in here tonight,” said Sarah, looking around the empty Student Center.
“Let’s get out of here, get something to eat,” said Will.
“Our shift isn’t over,” said Kelsea.
“No one will know,” said Will, gesturing to the empty room. “Come on, let’s go.”
Kelsea shrugged. “Okay, sure.”
It was a rainy afternoon. She zipped her running jacket up to her chin, cinched the hood, and tucked her hands inside the sleeves. Not great running weather, but after the first mile, she began to warm up. She couldn’t zone out, though. Will and Sarah’s speculations about the Creep, discussed at length through dinner and two pitchers of beer — and then during Kelsea’s next three shifts at the desk — were distracting her.
Will thought the Creep was a stalker. Was he right? He was weird, but did that mean he was dangerous? Was she pressing her luck, running by him everyday? Should she change up her route?
Why did Will offer to run with her? He wasn’t even a runner.
She rounded a curve in the path, and the Creep, sitting on his bench, came into view. Even though she was expecting it, seeing his lone, smoke-rimmed figure in the empty Park sent a prick of panic through her this time. She pushed herself to keep moving, keep breathing. With each stride she told herself not to care that he was there. I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but I’m not afraid of you.
Then the Creep stood up.
Panic exploded in her chest, shot through her limbs. She sprinted forward, a scream coiling in her throat. She stole a frantic glance over her shoulder, expecting his hooded face to be right behind her. Or a knife, or the barrel of a gun.
But there was no one behind her. The path was empty.
She didn’t want to talk about it, but Will pressed her as they sat at the Information Desk. His sandy brows furrowed. “I’m going with you next time,” he said.
Kelsea shook her head, struggling to believe this was happening to her. “If he was going to hurt me, he would’ve already, right?”
“I’m going with you next time. I’m serious. Text me before you go. Do you have my number?”
Kelsea felt lightheaded. Some weird guy was watching her. Will was acting all protective of her. She’d never felt so… visible. But Will was just a friend. Right? She’d had fun the night they’d all gone out to dinner. But Will hadn’t asked her to do anything outside of work again.
She had no idea what to make of it all.
Will pulled out his phone. “What’s your number?”
He tapped Kelsea’s number into his phone. Her phone rang a minute later. Mustering a smirk, she answered it. “Hello?”
“Hi Kelsea, it’s Will.” He smiled at her, then hung up. “Now you have my number.”
Kelsea tried to find her rhythm, count her breaths. Her strides were jagged, her feet bounced off the pavement, her arms flailed about like they had no memory of ever running before. Even her usual route looked unfamiliar. Was something different about the sunlight today?
Kelsea had thought about texting Will before she left, but decided not to. She wanted to be alone with her drumming thoughts. Was Will just worried about her safety? Or was he working up to asking her out? Did she want him to ask her out?
Yes. Maybe? She’d like to go running with him. But only if he actually wanted to go running with her. Not because he was trying to rescue her. Did he like her? Or was he just being nice?
She worked with Will. It’d be best if everything went back to normal, she told herself. But the thought of normal made her fists clench.
Her stomach churned along with her thoughts. She dropped her eyes to the ground, watched her feet, counted her breaths. In, out. But it didn’t dampen the fluttery feeling, or the smile on her face.
If the Creep was in the Park today, she didn’t see him.
Kelsea hurried across the quad to the Student Center, the hood of her anorak up. She’d spent close to an hour trying to tame her independent-minded curls into something resembling a coherent hairstyle, and she wasn’t going to let gust of wind ruin it.
Sarah was leaning on the Information Desk, talking to Will, when Kelsea arrived.
“There you are!” she said as Kelsea dropped her backpack behind the desk. “Did you hear? They arrested that guy who’s always sitting in the Park.”
Kelsea, shrugging off her anorak, froze in mid-shrug. “What?”
“Yeah, turns out he was a real-deal stalker.”
Kelsea’s blood ran cold. A real-deal stalker. His hooded face loomed before her. He really was dangerous. She’d been stupid to run alone. She should’ve texted Will.
“Yeah, turns out he’s been stalking Kara Larson for the past year. Remember her?” said Sarah. “She used to work the activities desk.”
Kelsea’s breath left her.
Sarah continued. “He knew her whole schedule, where all her classes were. He waited in the Park everyday until her afternoon class let out, then he would follow her to the library, sit a few rows away, and watch her through the stacks. They think he even broke into her apartment, took some of her clothes. Can you imagine? Ugh.”
Kelsea flushed. She put her hands to her flaming cheeks, hoping she looked surprised.
“So that’s why he was asking you all those questions that day,” said Will.
Kelsea dropped into a nearby chair.
“There’s no way you could’ve known he was a stalker,” said Will, reading Kelsea’s shock as guilt.
“Of course not,” seconded Sarah. “This is totally not your fault. If I’d been at the desk that day, I would’ve answered his questions too. That’s the job.”
Kelsea struggled to find air.
Sarah put a hand on Kelsea’s shoulder. “Nothing happened. They got the guy, Kara’s fine.”
But Kelsea wasn’t thinking about Kara Larson. She was busy berating herself. Of course the Creep wasn’t stalking her, or watching her, or even caring that she was running by. Of course it wasn’t about her. She was just part of the Park’s scenery.
Sarah’s phone pinged. She walked off to answer the call, leaving Kelsea, still bright red and breathless, alone with Will. Kelsea searched for something, anything, lighthearted to say that would make everything go back to normal, but her voice stuck in her throat.
Will did it for her. “Thank god that’s over, huh? Hey, mind if I take off early? John and Brandon are doing a round of Freeze-You-Ass-Off Frisbee golf. You don’t mind covering the desk on your own, right?”
Kelsea busied herself with her backpack. “Yeah, go ahead,” she managed to get past the lump in her throat.
“You’re the best.” He gave her a playful punch in the shoulder and loped off.
Kelsea shrank down behind the Information Desk.
A light snow was falling, the first of the season. Kelsea had the Park to herself. She focused on her strides, her breath, the wet slap of her shoes, trying to find a groove. But rhythm eluded her.
The Park was white and blurry. Only the now-bare aspens and maples and oaks had structure. Those, and the benches. She slowed down as she approached the Creep’s bench, empty now. He was gone. Arrested. Removed.
She stopped and stared down at the bench. The question that she’d been asking herself for the past week, that she’d been trying to run from, clamored in her ears.
What if she’d said hello?
She dropped down on the bench, her eyes stinging. The Creep was a stalker, she told herself. He could’ve hurt someone. But she just couldn’t be scared of him, couldn’t judge him. He’d been passed by, dismissed, unacknowledged. Kelsea could see how that might drive someone to desperation. She grit her teeth. One look, and people thought they knew who you were.
She should’ve said hello to him. Or at least smiled at him. Or waved, or nodded. Something.
It’s over, she heard Will say. Everything’s back to normal. Except Kelsea couldn’t find her rhythm.
She shivered. The heat she’d generated on the first half of her run had dissipated. The cold was creeping in. She needed to build up her heat again.
Taking a deep breath, she zipped the weather-resistant shell of her running jacket up to her chin and set out down the path.