• Prospect Theater Company

THE RUNNER, a story by Jenny Lyn Bader

The strange creature scared the memory out of you. A being wrapped in a blanket. Spikes coming out of it.... What happened right before is hazy, but you do know you slipped into a space between two buildings, began running through a long dark corridor, and navigated a maze of tunnels in darkness with this mystery figure chasing you, then ended up among shadows in one deep tunnel that seemed as if it would never end. But it does end.

—And you are here. In a place of pure daylight, full sky. It seems you arrived through a hole in the ground, but there are no holes in the ground now, no sign of the tunnel system. That hole has disappeared. The ground now looks solid.

You like comforting things. Warm soup, warm hugs, friendly puppies. But there's one comforting thing you don't always notice because it's invisible. That's the warm wind. You notice it today. Because you made it out of the tunnel. Into a garden of crabapple trees. You feel it and you appreciate it. You've seen crabapple trees before but not like this. Not the way it feels after being in a dark tunnel for so long. Like the way spring smells after the melting of ice.

The ground seems solid. Like it was always this way. You look for the hole. Is it really gone? Are you safe? You want to remember what happened. You struggle to remember, even as the warm wind embraces you. You're tired from running. It might even be safe enough here to lie down for a rest..., On the other hand there is no one chasing you! You can walk through a grove! Or it might be wiser to hide….

Do you:

CHOICE A: Take a much-needed nap?

CHOICE B: Take a much-needed beautiful walk?

CHOICE C: Find a place to hide.

CHOICE A: Take a much-needed nap

You decide to lie down in the shade of a tree....Just as you are closing your eyes, you see a bird flying overhead. She flies down and talks to you. "You've been running today, haven't you? Through the tunnels?" You are surprised a bird knows of things, and let out a bit of a gasp, but the bird just rolls her eyes at you. "Birds can see better than you think. Especially when we get old."

Old? But the bird seems so energetic, flitting around — sometimes so fast, you can hardly see her. As if answering your thought, she says: "I'm as old as I'll ever get right now. So I can sweep through underground tunnels, see towers seven cities away, expand to the fullest wingspan of my lifetime. And I can notice things. The one who gives chase... is not who you think."

This bird clearly has no idea what she's talking about. "Not who you think?" It's not as if you could name a suspect. The one who chased you was just a really tall guy with spikes coming out of him running super fast. That's all.

The bird says: "I mean, it's not a really tall guy with spikes coming out of him running super fast."

OK. The bird maybe does know what she's talking about: exactly what's in your brain.

"Am I in your brain?" she asks. "I've always been a little bit psychic. You look impressed but it's not that impressive. It's not like other bird abilities, like being able to rise from the ashes after bursting into flames, if you believe that one."

Is this a bird that does that? You try to remember what a phoenix looks like as the bird keeps talking. "You met the runner. You saw the runner. You also picked up what he dropped. Do you realize you did that?"

It's true! You see you are carrying a paper in your hand. He must have been chasing you to get it back! You look at the paper, glancing over the handwritten message without fully reading. But you see it is a message from one stranger to another. From a person trying to help someone they have never met. And the paper is broken at its edge.

The bird says: "The runner was trying to deliver the message. But someone else might have better luck. Do you understand?" You don't, really, but you don't want to admit that to a bird. "I am of an age where I can see past and future. Where do you want to go? Past? Future?"

You want to know how it all started but you also want to see how it turns out... "You need to give me your answer now! I may not be able to help you for much longer."

—And with that, the bird bursts into flames.

Do you choose:

CHOICE 1: Future

CHOICE 2: Past

CHOICE B: Take a much-needed beautiful walk

It feels like a great time to take a walk: a vivid day with a bright sky. Glancing up, you even see a bird with a dazzling wingspan flying above.

But then you notice something on the ground. Thorns. Thorns that somehow remind you of being terrified. Is the creature here and about to chase you?

Then you hear a voice: "I'm here."

—But you don't know where the voice is coming from. It seems like the wind is speaking.

You look around. There are people enjoying themselves, walking their dogs. Cars on the road. Boats on the river. Someone is eating ice cream. The colors of the season play with each other. Does no one hear this terrifying voice?

"Listen," says the voice. "You have something of mine."

It can't be true. You don't have anything. You're not a thief. You don't take things belonging to others. There's another thorn on the ground, right by you. Could he mean that? You pick it up.

"Not that. Those are everywhere."

And you realize in your hand you're holding a piece of paper. It's starting to come back to you... Before the chase, there was a piece of paper. But you didn't steal it. You found it on the sidewalk. And then you forgot about it when the monster started running after you. You glance down. You want to give it back, but you also want to know what it says.

"You can read it," says the voice.

You skim it. It's a message from one person trying desperately to help another. There's a jagged edge where the paper has been ripped, missing its other half. There is a part of the paper that is a little damp, maybe from the rain. Or maybe someone cried on it. Who?

"I didn't write the note," says the voice, answering the question before you can even ask it. "I was trying to deliver it. I wrapped myself in a picnic blanket so no one would see it was me. But you saw." You look around. No one else hears the voice. "Will you help me?" asks the voice. "If so, I can bring you to a new time frame. You get to choose it. Past or future."

Do you choose:

CHOICE 1: Future

CHOICE 2: Past

CHOICE C: Find a place to hide

You hide behind a low-slung tree. It blocks your view. You can see a bit of the sky, with a brightly colored bird flying overhead, but you can't see what's on the other side beyond the tree. You hope that means no one there can see you. Then you hear a low voice. The voice says:

"You really think that's a good place to hide? I can see you."

This was maybe not a good place to hide. You're not sure which is more frightening, the chase from one without a voice, or hearing the rumbling voice of one you can't see.

"Are you good with secrets?"

It's probably a good idea to nod right now.

"If you are, I can stop chasing you. I had to chase you. You saw me running. No one can see that. I'm the only one of us who's learned to run. But I had to run. I need you to keep the secret. Can you keep a secret?"

You nod. you can. Yes, you remember it now... a large figure running. And you remember something else too. A piece of paper falling. You picked it up. You tried to give it back. That's how this all started! You wanted to help someone! To give back what they lost! You hate losing things yourself. You didn't think there would be a problem. Just return someone's property. What could go wrong? Did the runner drop it? Where did it go? —You realize you still have it!

Someone else realizes too. "You still have the piece of paper. You can read it now."

You look at the paper. In careful handwriting, it says:

When you sit here on the ground in the shade you have sad eyes. You have the saddest eyes I've ever seen. The saddest eyes in the city. I don't know if the person who is next to you is making your eyes so sad, or if you are okay underneath. Are you okay? I want you to know there is love in the world. Tomorrow I will come here and play music and you can talk to me. You can trust me. I'll be the one with the other half of this piece of paper.

The voice runs deep. "I hope you can keep a secret because now you have two. Promise me you won't tell and maybe I'll tell you more. But you can't stay here in this moment. You can go to the past or the future."

Do you choose:

CHOICE 1: Future

CHOICE 2: Past

CHOICE 1: The Future

You see a tree covered with brambles and burrs. They are thorns! And you realize when you saw thorns on the ground on the way over here, why they filled you with terror... they looked just like those spikes, coming out of the creature. You thought it was metallic armor in those shadows, but in the daylight you realize they're part of a living thing. Not worn armor but growing, part of a tree.

And the creature had been shrouded in fabric which you see now is a nearby picnic blanket, so....

But that's impossible! It had to be a person, or animal, or creature, or monster. It couldn't have been....It had to have been...

The tree starts murmuring.

"Are you still scared of me? That's only because you don't know all the things that have happened. Don't look so worried. I had to chase you. I couldn't have you point out to other people that there was a tree running, now could I? I can't have people find this out! I don't want to be the subject of strange scientific experimentation! But I do want to be able to run. To help those who need help."

You find yourself agreeing with the tree. The tree runner! It's as if the nightmare is suddenly a dream. You've never heard of a tree runner before. You're glad to hear there is one. There ought to be one.

"You've learned a couple of secrets today," says the tree runner, "There's just one more I'd like to share but I'm not sure I should."

Is the tree runner looking at you? You can't tell. You're hoping to hear that extra secret. You want to seem like someone who can be trusted. So you take a deep breath and nod toward the tree, trying to smile but with your eyes.

In the silence you feel there might be a shift, but you're not sure. You've never had a conversation with a tree before. Not like this. And then he says it:

"Okay. I'll tell you the third secret. I dropped the piece of paper on purpose. So you would pick it up. So you might help me deliver it. Because I can move better than any tree alive but I'm a little bit clunky at delivering messages myself."

Now you can step back into the present....

CHOICE 2: The Past

The past is smoky, hazy with weather and clouded by time. There is a wall of stones where people can meet.

Sitting against the wall of stones is a musician looking at the flow of humanity, at all the people and families. The musician stops playing music and sees something he doesn't like.

No one else really sees it. It is a moment of roughness between people. The one with the sad eyes. And the older one. And it is over.

But the musician can't get it out of his mind. He tries to play music, but the music comes out wrong. It sounds more mournful than he means it to, and then he plays notes that don't fit together. He sets aside his instrument. He writes the message. He cries as he is writing it. He waits for an opening, and when nobody is looking he goes over to the tree with the thorns on it. Where the sad-eyed one had been sitting. And he leaves the note in there so she will find it.

Then he changes his mind, takes out the note and rips off a part of it. That way there will be no doubt. No unnecessary danger. He puts the second half of the note in his pocket.

He walks away but then thinks better of that. He returns to the tree.

"Tree," he whispers, "Will you make sure she gets this note? It's important. If there's anything you can do." Then he shakes his head, as if there's nothing a tree could possibly do. And maybe right now there isn't. But of course he doesn't realize just what tree he is speaking to.

Now you can step back into the present....


Remarkably, a bird rises from the ashes and talks to you as if you've never met before. She is dead but alive again. She is a newborn, but she knows all. She is the mythical phoenix. She speaks:

"I fly far above the earth so I can see the trees migrate. They move a few inches or feet every year. Over decades they go from one part of the world to another. In my time, I've seen a few trees master the art of walking. But in all my years, through my births and rebirths, I've only seen one tree who learned to run. Here in this crabapple grove. He became the tree runner. But he only runs when something is amiss among human beings. If a person gets killed or attacked, he will run. But this time was a little bit different. The tree suspected something was wrong, and so did a man who played music. And together they tried to save the life of the person with the saddest eyes."

You are still holding the paper dropped by the tree, with the handwritten message:

When you sit here on the ground in the shade you have sad eyes. You have the saddest eyes I've ever seen. The saddest eyes in the city. I don't know if the person who is next to you is making your eyes so sad, or if you are okay underneath. Are you okay? I want you to know there is love in the world. Tomorrow I will come here and play music and you can talk to me. You can trust me. I'll be the one with the other half of this piece of paper.

Looking at it now, you see that it isn't done. The paper is still torn in half. The one side is not yet delivered. The message of help from the musician worrying about the reason for the sadness of someone else's eyes, never read by her eyes.

"They didn't do it yet, because it's hard for a tree or a musician to deliver a message without being noticed, since you can hear both of them coming from far away. But I bet you can help! Just find the person who has the saddest eyes in the city. And give them this piece of paper. And if you don't have the piece of paper with you, just remind them there is love in the world."

What could go wrong?

For a moment you wonder why such a wise bird wouldn't deliver such a message herself, but you decide she knows better than you. You have to help — that's all there is to it. The saddest eyes in the city. Love in the world.

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