On a normal afternoon, she would listen to a podcast or audio book. The path of the jog looped miles out of town, across a section of woods ending at a beach with rocks shaped by pounding waves. She would stand on these rocks, often taking her shoes off to cool down, and think about the future.
The past was too painful.
She’d close her eyes and hear gunfire. They had tried to fight, the university as a whole, standing on the grounds of academic and intellectual freedom. She was one of the new breed at the time, fresh doctorate in hand, leading students through the finer points of Romantic poetry, not much older than they were. For a month they met as faculty in a lecture hall at midnight.
A flurry of activity followed, publications, protests, the rallying cries of youth. Her department chair, a veteran professor, warned what was coming. He said it would only go so far until they came to quiet the noise.
One Thursday morning in March, a caravan of vehicles entered campus. Troops arrived and locked everything down. Faculty and students were removed and any resistance met with deadly force.
She opened her eyes as a seagull cried overhead. The breeze from the forest carried a smell she would always associate with the Pacific coast, though it was not called that any longer. They were part of the West, the union between two outside forces that somehow had become real.
Her phone vibrated in the pocket of her green sweatshirt, the old University of Oregon O blazing on the chest in fluorescent yellow. She tapped the answer button on her ear piece.
“Where are you?”
His voice carried the smoke of sleep.
“The same place I go every morning.”
“I told you it’s not safe.” He yawned.
She imagined him stretching, the body of the athlete she had met as an undergraduate remained tight under his t shirt. His temples had grayed slightly but he still existed as the coiled ball of energy from his youth.
“You don’t need to worry about me.” She cringed as a stone cut her foot, bent down and picked up the offender, throwing it into the surf that shown the purple of morning.
“I live to worry about you.”
“I’ll be home soon.” She walked to where her shoes waited on the sand, sitting next to them. She checked the display on her cell phone. They were nearing two minutes, the unofficial limit where tracking would kick in from the network. “Keep breakfast warm for me.”
“Will do. Love you.”
“Love you too.” She laced her shoes, wished the ocean goodbye, and started back down the trail.
The white Suburban SUV appeared within a mile.
She was mentally preparing that afternoon’s lecture, hypnotized in the road rhythm, when the streak of color passed in her peripheral vision. She turned her head as it made a U turn and accelerated back. There were two options and with nothing around but trees, one was clear. She pulled up and stepped to the curb. It parked behind her.
“You know, running out here alone is dangerous.”
He wore his usual suit, pulling the jacket closed and buttoning it.
“I’m used to it.” Her voice cracked, even though she tried to stop it.
“How do you get more beautiful every morning?” He stood in front of her and brushed a strand of brown hair off her forehead. She saw him as he was that morning in March, the soldier breaking into her classroom. An hour later, under individual interrogations, they had made a connection. In a week they were having coffee after his shift ended.
They had started sleeping together after a night of drunken confessions. She had felt like a ship, unmoored and tossed in the storm of this new reality. He was a vortex of trust and danger, the enemy and the only one open as all others pulled away.
It felt good to play both sides. It became an addiction.
She supplied information and was allowed back at her old job. Things improved. She was promoted to a supervisory position within the English department. Curriculum came from the new government to be delivered without deviation. Education was still important as long as the line was kept. She taught the importance of following the wisdom of the past.
The flame of rebellion remained, though deep inside.
It took a night at the Joe’s Coffee to change things. The café, located in the old Student Union, was no more than a handful of tables and tea light candles. Faculty gathered at the end of every week and that night she had sat in the corner of the room flipping through an illegal copy of Heart of Darkness. The sound of a guitar came from a darkened stage.
“Where are you?”
She shook her head and blinked, not able to tell if the question came from her ear piece or the man standing in front of her, two points in the universe on this empty forest road at dawn.
“We’ve received word of something coming in a week or so. Listening devices picked up conversations around a gathering, all centered on a freshman. This young man, named John, will be transferred into your class tomorrow morning. You will find what we need to know.”
“Okay,” she looked at her shoes. He loved when she played to his power.
“Don’t worry my dear. Your freedom will come soon. Your service to the cause is valuable.” He kissed her on the lips, a fleeting touch, and walked back to the vehicle. It sped past as she stretched her calves, cued up a song on her phone, and started at a faster pace towards home.