There had been no moon that night, and at 5:30 a.m. on a cold November morning, the sun hadn’t yet graced the horizon with its first rays. Some people might find such darkness unsettling, but running in the early morning before leaving for work was preparation time for me – a good way to get my gray cells ready to meet the challenges of the day.
After a quick cup of coffee and slice of toast, I stepped out of the front door into the black void, looking forward to three-miles through residential neighborhoods that I had run hundreds of times before. So often, in fact, that I was comfortable running in almost complete darkness, aided only by the small circles of light the streetlamps dropped onto the asphalt, punctuating my path, each one providing just enough light to get to the next.
The silence was profound. There were no cars and no whirring air conditioners. Even the birds were asleep. The only sounds were the regular thump-thump of my Sauconys on the pavement and my frosty breaths accompanying the beats.
I heard the dog before I saw him. An explosion of furious barking off to my left split the air and startled me to a dead halt. I could hear his paws slapping the dry leaves as he charged over the lawn, and I knew he was running right at me.
Since I had never encountered any dogs on my morning runs, my first thought was that a mongrel must have wandered into the neighborhood overnight and taken refuge under one of the bushes next to the large house set back from the street. Maybe I had disturbed his rest and he was going to punish me.
It’s funny, the way your brain reacts under extremely stressful conditions. It’s not like the usual problem-solving process. You know, gosh, there’s a savage dog getting ready to attack me. Maybe I should just sit down here on the curb and write out all my options on how I can defend myself. Then I can prioritize them and choose the best one for me.
No. My brain basically transformed into a mode previously unknown. I didn’t think “fight or flight.” I don’t remember feeling the things you read about when someone is in a dangerous situation, like the hair on the back of my neck going up or my heartbeat racing. I was frozen to the spot, and my singular thought was how to defeat the monster.
The only weapon I was carrying was a handkerchief.
I don’t know much about dogs, so I don’t know what kind he was. But when he came into view, his appearance fully reflected his fury. The street lights glinted off a solid black coat, and he was big. Real big.
When he got to within five or ten feet of me, he abruptly stopped, and we stood there staring at each other. Well, actually I was staring at him. He was barking, snarling, and looking like a human-destroying machine. But he wasn’t moving toward me anymore, so maybe I had a chance after all, and my brain switched back to problem-solving.
None of the options looked particularly good. a) I couldn’t move forward because he was in my way, b) I was afraid to start backing up. He might think I was some kind of prey trying to flee and that would prompt him to attack, or c) The only viable option was to stand still and hope someone would happen by before the beast decided to take matters into his own paws. Not a great alternative, but I wasn’t concerned about a happy experience – just one I would survive.
Then I heard a sound I had never previously associated with comfort. It was the grind of a garage door opener from the house to my left. Since the garage door was perpendicular to the street, I couldn’t see in, but the light shone through the opening as the door lifted. I saw a man step out and look in my direction.
I was trying to find my voice to ask for his help when he called out, “Stop that racket, Killer. Come here.” (He didn’t actually call the dog “Killer.” I just made that up. I don’t remember what the real name was.)
Killer stopped his furious clamor, turned, and obediently trotted back to his master. The man gave me one of those little waves people do when they’re apologetically brushing you off. “Sorry about that,” he called out.
I swallowed the only response I could think of, knowing I would regret the use of those words for the rest of my life, and continued my journey, grateful that I hadn’t been torn to pieces and strewn all over Kirby Road. And there was good news: my heart and lungs got more than a three-mile workout that morning.
EPILOGUE: I found a sturdy little stick that I ran with after that. I also bought a whistle and attached it to the lanyard I wore, ready to fight the monsters with high-pitched sound waves if one of them ever came near me again. I ran those streets many more times and never encountered another dog. (There were a few strange humans, but nothing dangerous.)
After I retired, I didn’t have the need to get up at 5:00 a.m. anymore, so I gave up early morning jogs. And I no longer run on city streets. I prefer the treadmill, the track, or a large, open park near our home.
I think about Killer now and then. I hope he’s well and living inside a fenced yard.
So TKZers: How do you describe fear in your stories? Do your characters faint, run, or stand and fight? What advice would you give authors about how to depict a character’s reaction to danger?