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"Pink Sneakers and Sycamores": Second Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2012

Right when she thought she'd explode and exhale, debris from his turning boots hit her face and twigs snapped as he ran. He slipped once, let out a curse, and crashed through the woods.

The trapped air burst from her lungs. She pulled breath in over and over. Oh man, air is a good thing, a really good thing. She almost laughed. He was gone. She made it. She was alive.

But she couldn't move her legs.

She tried again. Tears ran from the corners of her eyes into her ears. "Mama," she whispered, but that didn't matter anymore.

Don't cry. You'll get all worked up. Think of anything else. Something good could happen yet. Maybe some lost birdwatcher will come through the trees.

If a body can sweat and shiver at the same time, anything's possible.

The sky cracked, closer now, almost on top of her. As if on cue, the rhythm of rain increased and found her under the sycamore. The percussion swelled, drowning every sound of the forest.

She squeezed her eyes against the onslaught of rain and lightning strikes too close for comfort, because her head didn't want to move any more than her legs.

Water pooled in the blanket of leaves beneath her. She moved the fingers of her right hand atop the water. Good, something worked. She played the piano drill she had been practicing on Teacher's upright. She played over and over, mastering that one tricky chord and hearing the melody change in her mind. Perfect. If only Teacher could hear... but that didn't matter anymore and her fingers were getting heavy.

The rain eased and her eyes opened to ominous after-storm mists tumbling over the lake.

On the tree nearest the side of her pink sneaker, rainwater coursed down the intricate maze of bark until it found the sodden ground.

Water always seeks its own level.

Teacher said that once to stop her from fretting about Ben. What water had to do with him, she wasn't sure. It was hard to be sure of anything when you were chock-full of fancy notions.

The woods returned to the soft morning whisper she loved most of all things. Tentative birdsong joined a narrow shaft of sunlight on the branch above her and a crystalline blue peeked through the canopy.

Small raindrops fell from the sycamore leaves and plopped without malice on her cheeks. A singular calmness permeated her being. The leaves beneath her turned to warm velvet, stopping the last shiver. Nothing hurt anymore, not even her throat.

Her heart swelled, taking over the smile her lips couldn't manage. The violent squall was over, and the sun would soon embrace her.

Only the trees were raining now.