I’m out here per my brother’s recommendation: a jog before the sun rises. Jogging will free your mind, he says. A morning sweat, and the day is set. That’s his long running motto. He’s always been a fitness enthusiast. Somehow those traits didn’t get passed on to me.
The rain picked up, right on cue. My throat always feels tight when I’m edging towards tears. It’s been happening a lot recently. Not that I’m a cry baby, or I feel sorry for myself. No, it’s just that the stress is more than I can handle. I don’t have any other outlet, I don’t allow myself an outlet. The stress starts somewhere in my center, spreading like a slow poison, cutting through my chest, grinding down my shoulders, pulling like a drawstring at my neck, until finally, the pressure builds under my eyes. But not today. I don’t have time for tears. What was supposed to be a quick jog to force myself awake has become more aggravating than I could have imagined. I know I’m not in shape for jogging, but even the short route I had planned out had every muscle in my lower body whining like kindergartens being forced to do word problems. The most difficult part of the jog wasn’t the physical aspect, but the mental aspect of having to continually convince my body to keep jogging and not collapse on every bench and curbside along the way. That’s the real reason I’m stuck in the mud - I couldn’t stick to the preplanned route, and took a shortcut through a construction site. My mother used to brag to the ladies at the church. My Alaine matured without losing that child-like zeal. She wrote her first book before she graduated middle school, you know. She inspires even me to work harder. Though she was addressing her friends, she’d have her smiling eyes locked on me.
I’m not sure she still says that about me. If she does, I’m undeserving. I haven’t been able to finish anything by my deadlines, and somehow, I was chosen to be stand-in when my section manager injured his knee. He’ll be out for 4 weeks, and I’ve inherited all his unfinished sales reports and angry client phone calls. My mother says my company should be paying me more now that they’ve piled on new duties, but how could I ask for a pay raise with any dignity? I’ve been swallowed by stacks of paperwork since the moment they hired me 6 months ago, and I can’t give one good example of a positive contribution I’ve made. Usually, I’m in the background, letting my section manager take all the heat for my screw ups, but today, my presentation on the new sales model will expose my shortcomings to all the higher ups. And here I am, sitting in the muck, squishing my foot back into my muddy sneaker.
Careful. Get out of this mud field quickly, but don’t slip again. Wait a minute. No, no, this day can not get any worse. I had detached my apartment key from the bulky key chain so I would only have one little item to hold while running. Where - is - it.
Groan. Let it all out. No one can hear you out here. Scream. The key has sunk into this muddy sea. Growl like a madman. On my hands and knees, digging my freshly manicured fingers into the mud to find that key. Curse everything. The key. The key. Where is it?
“What you diggin’ for?”
I jump at the voice. The construction site was empty, so I thought. It’s way too early for them to start working. I swing my head around trying to find the source of the voice. Behind me stood a young girl, maybe five years old. Her hair is cut short, like a boy’s, and she is wearing a short, green dress with jeans underneath. What is a child doing out here at this time? I swing my head around again, looking for a parent. But there is nobody out here.
“What you diggin’ for?” I look back at the child. My brother would ask me the same question. What am I digging for? I need this key, but more than that, I need to get my act together. I need to learn how to be a real adult, with a real job. I know what the goal is, but I can’t sense whether I am getting closer or not. I brush it off when he asks me this, but I can’t help feeling angry about it. He points out when I’m doing something wrong, but offers no good solution. It’s like digging for this key. You don’t know if your getting closer. You just know, with every scoop of cold mud leaking from between stiff fingers, that you are failing. Nevertheless the child’s eyes waited for my answer. Her question was born from innocent curiosity, and I know a child would not understand the answer I wanted to give.
“My key. I dropped my key somewhere in the mud.”
“The key for home?”
“Yes. I dropped my apartment key. I need it to open the door.”
“My mommy alway tell me to put in my pocket. So I not drop it.”
“That’s good advice from your mommy.” Great. Even this kid is doing better than me. Get your life together, will you? “Where is your mommy?”
“She home. She not like to come outside with me.” The girl shrugs and squats next to me. She sticks her hands into the mud without hesitation before I can stop her.
“No, no! You’ll get dirty!” I pull her hands from the mud, realizing too late that my muddy hand prints made her arms even more dirty. She giggles with a mischievous smile as she pulls out of my slippery grip.
Her eyes stay on my wrist. “Your bracelet pretty. I like green.”
“Thank you. Your dress is a pretty green. Don’t you want to keep it clean?”
“No. I help you. I like to help. I can find anything.” She was so sure of herself. Too sure. That’s the difference between adults and children. Kids don’t yet know that they have limitations. That the world has limitations. Kids have more optimism than the earth has dirt. The optimism of adults goes about as deep as the wrinkles that are setting into my muddy fingertips. I just want to be home under the covers. I want my manager to come back so I can shrink back into the shadows of my cubicle. I want to push away all the lingering hope that I could ever become successful writing those ridiculous children stories. My mother had been so proud at first. Then she realized my plans to continue writing as a career. She quickly tried to right me, but it took the hard criticism of publishers and their humiliating rejections to really show me that it was never going to happen. It’s as laughable as believing in soul mates. The world isn’t full of opportunity, and no matter how hard you try, not every slimy bug can transform into a butterfly. Most remain vermin for their whole lives, scrambling between cracks and under chairs just trying to not get stepped on. The smart ones avoid the hustle of the big city and content themselves in some abandoned field to lull around in.
“I don’t want you to get dirty. I can find the key on my own.” I pull my face into a smile. I’ve been told that my fake smile is creepy, but I was sure it had been getting better through practice. The girl patted me on the shoulder. Kids are always oblivious to how dirty their hands are. Normally I’d recoil, but I was already far dirtier than this child.
“We can find it together!” Her smile put mine to shame. It’s weird how kids will find things like this fun.
She began digging without waiting for my consent. Well, if it will get me out of this mess faster, why not let her? I won’t make it to work on time, but maybe I won’t miss my presentation. Although, now that I consider it, missing the presentation sounds like a great idea. So is that it? Just give up on my presentation? No way, if I didn’t show up for the presentation, they might go as far as to fire me. I couldn’t risk that. No, getting fired would mean… well, it wouldn’t be good. I would be back at square one. Sitting around my apartment drawing pictures and writing childish stories, the landlord howling at me for last month’s rent. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. Remember your last attempt? Sitting around all weekend writing up that stupid story about a young girl adventuring through town alone, acting like her she had lost her pet dragon. Just imagine. A story like that is irresponsible. Children should be with a guardian at all times…
The girl paid no mind to the delicate green dress she wore. I wouldn’t even know it was green if I was just seeing her now. She muttered to herself each time she came across a rock or a shell. “Nope. Not yet,” and just keep sloshing through. Her hair was getting wet in the rain, but she wasn’t listening to my suggestions to run along home. The only thing I could do to help her was to keep on -
My hand felt something flat and solid. I pull it from the ground and smooth off the muck. My key!
“I found the key!” Except it wasn’t me who said it. The girl jumps up the same moment I do. She’s holding out a key and so am I.
“Thanks honey, but this is my key.”
“No, this is your key.” She steps towards me and presents the key without a shred of doubt.
“Well, no, I’m positive that this is my key. This is it.”
She shakes her head and says, “Trust me. I know this key will open your home.”
The key passes from her small, dirty hands to mine. It didn’t look like my key at all. It was one of those fancy skeleton keys you would imagine a queen or princess would use for her royal chamber. A key from a fantasy story. Well, I guess I should just take it. It will make her happy to think she helped. She smiles and turns.
“Wait.” I unbuckle my bracelet and hold it out to her. “Here. For helping me.”
I make my way home, tired, cold and filthy. I’m a little worried about the girl, but she seemed to know where she was going. I get to my apartment door. Breathe in. Breathe out. Time to get back to the real world. I can’t let the stress build up like this. Once I get showered up, its just going to be another day at work. I get so worked up about everything because I don’t want people to think I’m worthless. Just let it go. This company isn’t me. It’s just a place I work. If I fail, so what? I’ll just get back in the unemployment line and find another menial job to pay the bills.
I shove my key into the hole above the door knob. Turn the key. Turn the key. I want to turn the key, but I know that turning the key means facing the real world again. The adult world. I look at the key the girl gave me. It’s impossible that it would fit. It’s not even the right type of key. But…wouldn’t it be nice if…
My hand pulls my key out of the hole and drops it on the floor of the hallway. My hand takes the girl’s key and puts it into the hole. The key turns. My ears hear the click.
I just need to push the door open, but, my knees are shaking. Why am I so afraid. What do I expect? Trust me. I know this key will open your home. Why was she so sure? Why did I believe her?
I push the door open. My eyes are clenched shut.
I open one eye. Then another the other eye. And I see my apartment. Just as I left it.
I let out the breath I had been holding in. Of course. This is real life. Strange things don’t happen. I groan as I try to mentally push the hands on the clock back, but they stay pointing at 9:35. I am so late. The answering machine is flashing 3 messages. Ugh.
I shower and wash off the mud as quickly as possible; a difficult task because it had started to cake. I run towards the door, still buttoning my dress shirt - ah, I almost forgot my presentation notes. On the kitchen table. I grab them, flipping through to make sure that it’s all there, but it’s the wrong stack of notes. It’s notes that appear to be from middle school. How did they get here? I motion to toss them aside, but something catches my eye. This the first children’s story that I ever wrote. I threw it away when it was criticized by publishers. I flip another page. A cray pas drawing of a girl in a green dress with and a matching bracelet. She looks sloppy and has mud all over her shoes, but she is grinning wildly.
I jump at the sound of the phone’s sharp ring. My eyes flicker to the clock. I don’t have time for this. The answering machine kicks in. My ears prick at the sound of a man yelling my name. Alaine! Alaine, where are you!? My hands put down the handwritten manuscript and my legs walk me to the door. My feet push into my leather shoes, pinching my toes into a point. My hand is on the door knob, but I don’t turn it. Instead, I turn my head to face the mirror on the wall. I see myself smiling mischievously, with a smudge of mud still on my cheek.