Fiction Romance Thriller

The late September weather was absolutely perfect. The sky was crystal blue, and the clean air carried the first hints of autumn. Nicole’s long, raven hair flitted playfully in the breeze behind her as she drove her convertible through the gates of Hillside Park and wound her way up the scenic drive toward the clubhouse near the top of the hill. This had been one of the best weeks of Nicole’s life, yet her excitement for what might be ahead made it impossible to dwell on her present happiness.

Nicole’s tanned skin tingled with anticipation as she eased her powder blue BMW roadster into a vacant spot near the clubhouse. After checking her makeup in the rearview mirror, she grabbed her bag and hurried inside to change into her running gear.

The lovely weather had enticed a great many people to stop at the park on their way home from work, and the clubhouse was abuzz with activity. Yet, despite the crowded locker room, Nicole was alone with her thoughts. As she slipped out of her office attire, she thought about the promotion she’d just received. She was delighted to get to lead the team she’d been part of for so many years. And this new project they were working on was her professional dream come true.  But even more than all of that, Nicole was ecstatic with the turn her relationship with Will had taken this week.

She’d been friends with Will for a long time - best friends, in fact. But over time, Nicole’s feelings for Will had deepened. She wanted more than friendship. She wanted his heart.

Fearful of ruining their friendship, Nicole dared not discuss her feelings with Will outright. Instead, she dropped hints. She flirted. She started playful arguments with him. Yet, despite her best efforts, Will hadn’t gotten the message. At least not yet. She hadn’t given up yet.

Her mother had suggested that she should look for opportunities to do things with Will outside the office to help him see her as more than his workplace friend. So, when Will had mentioned he had gone on a morning run a couple of days ago, Nicole had seized the moment and challenged him to a race – a three-mile race on the running trail at Hillside Park.

Nicole looked at herself in the mirror while she tied her hair back into a ponytail. Nicole had picked a running outfit to draw Will’s attention to some of her better features. She hoped it wasn’t too much. Or too little, as it were. “Ok, let’s do this…” she said to her anxious reflection. She adjusted her sports bra one more time and headed for the door.

Nicole’s heart skipped several beats when she saw Will’s silver Ford Expedition parked right beside her BMW. Butterflies swarmed in her stomach when she spotted her friend stooping on the pavement, lacing up his Hoka’s.

“I can’t believe you actually showed up,” she said in a teasing tone as she approached.

A ruggedly handsome man with wavy brown hair and piercing green eyes finished tying his left shoe and stood up to greet her. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said with confusion.

Nicole shrugged smugly. “I thought maybe you might decide to go home and watch TV instead of being publicly humiliated when I kick your butt.”

“Ha!” Will croaked incredulously. He kneeled and began lacing up his other shoe. Then, shifting into a reasonable approximation of Shakespearian English, he said, “Alas, fair maiden, I think ‘tis I that shall be handing out said ass-kicking.”

Nicole nearly smiled at Will’s goofiness but managed to suppress it at the last moment. Instead, she folded falsely defiant arms across her chest. “I guess we’ll see about that,” she said.

“I guess we will,” Will smiled to his feisty female friend.

Nicole looked at her watch and then at Will, her face strained with concern. “Hey, tell me… what time do we need to get you back to the assisted living place?” she trash-talked. Will was ten years her senior, and she loved to tease him about it. “I know you don’t move very fast, so I want to make sure we have enough time to finish the whole circuit.”

Will tried to act hurt, but the smile on his face betrayed him. He loved it when they bantered like this. It was one of his favorite things. And for some reason, they had bantered a lot this week. “Oh, don’t worry, little one. You’ll be home in plenty of time to watch an episode of Barney before you have to put your jammies on.” Will answered without looking up.

“What’s Barney?” Nicole chuckled with a shake of her head that said she honestly hadn’t heard of the jolly purple dinosaur with a propensity for song.

Will sighed heavily. “Never mind,” he groaned. Maybe he really was old. He finished tying his shoe and then stood up. “Ok. Ready?”

“Don’t you think we should stretch out first? Those old, frail muscles aren’t as pliable as they used to be.”

Will opened his mouth to fire back a counter-jab at Nicole’s youth but stopped before any words came out. “That’s probably a good idea,” he admitted reluctantly after realizing her suggestion had merit.

Nicole sat down in the grassy area at the trailhead and began stretching her hamstrings and quads. Will started with some calf stretches by flexing his toes against the concrete curb. “So, I guess we never really set the stakes for our bet,” Nicole said.

“What do you mean?” Will asked, shifting to the other leg.

“You know. What the winner gets out of this.”

“Besides sore knees and bragging rights, you mean?” Will laughed.

“Yeah. Besides those.”

Will thought for a moment, then, seeing the mobile concession stand parked at the far end of the lot, he offered an idea. “How about the loser buys smoothies?”

Nicole wrinkled her nose. “Nah,” she hedged. “Too easy.”

Will sat on the ground and began to stretch out his legs. “Well, what do you propose?”

Nicole thought for a moment. “How about the loser makes a home-cooked meal for the winner?”

Will pursed his lips and nodded as he considered the idea. “Alright,” he said. “I accept those terms. The loser cooks for the winner.”

Nicole nodded. “Cooks,” she emphasized. “Not take out. Not microwaved. An actual home-cooked meal.”

“Sounds good,” Will said. “So, what time should I come over?” he laughed as he jumped up and sprinted toward the trail.

“Hey! That’s not fair!” Nicole squealed in delight, running hard in pursuit.


Paul was still seeing red when he came out of the fenced tennis court next to the clubhouse after running in a sport drink for his older son. This was the third time in a row Danny had gone off and left his drink in the car. Paul had half a mind just to let him do without. It would teach him a lesson about responsibility. But knowing how much Danny perspired when he practiced, Paul didn’t have the heart for it. Instead, he had turned around and driven all the way back to Hillside Park just so his little angel could have the brightly-colored, mineral-fortified sugar water. Paul may have backed down from letting his son experience the consequences of his irresponsibility, but you could be sure that Danny was going to get an earful when he got home.

Paul was rehearsing the scolding in his mind as he fished in his pocket for his car keys. He had a sudden, sinking feeling in his stomach when they weren’t there. After a long, panic-stricken moment, Paul sighed in relief, remembering where they were. He had left them in the car. Connor – Paul’s youngest son – had been asleep in his car seat when they got back to the park, so, adhering to the adage of letting sleeping dogs (or toddlers, in this case) lie, Paul had left the car running, the air on, and the radio playing while he ran the drink inside for Danny.

Paul looked at his car as he resumed his course toward it. The sinking feeling returned to his stomach at seeing that not only was his toddler no longer asleep, but he had extricated himself from his car seat and climbed into the driver’s seat. Realizing the potential catastrophe that was in front of him, Paul broke into a jog.

When Connor saw his daddy hurrying toward the car, he panicked; he knew he wasn’t supposed to be in daddy’s seat. The small boy reasoned that if he could get out of the seat fast enough, Daddy might not notice he had been bad. Hastily, Connor scampered toward the passenger seat. As he did, his foot struck the shifter and knocked the car into neutral.

Had the parking brake been set, even in neutral, the car would have probably stayed in its place. Unfortunately, his frustration with his older son clouded Paul’s mind, and he had not thought to set it. Now, with nothing to resist gravity’s pull, the car began to roll backward down the hill.

Paul froze in his tracks, first in denial, then in terror. By the time he forced himself to act, the car had picked up enough speed that Paul had no chance of catching it. Still, Paul pursued in vain, watching in helpless horror as his son rolled toward the ten-foot drop at the lot’s lower edge.


As its name implies, Hillside Park was built on a gently rolling hill with a series of man-made terraces, creating flat spaces for the various sports fields and play spaces. Starting at the clubhouse, a trail for walking, running, and biking made its way down to the bottom, weaving through the sports fields as well as venturing through undeveloped wooded sections of the park before closing the loop and coming back to the clubhouse. As they rounded the last bend before coming up the backside of the circuit, Will and Nicole were still side-by-side. Although they had each boasted their ability to soundly prevail over the other, once the race got underway, both seemed to be more interested in enjoying the park and their time together than victory. Not that they weren’t running hard, because they were. The hilly and winding course required it. But each time one of them found themselves more than a couple of strides in front of the other, they would slow their pace so they could stay together.

As they emerged from a wooded section of the trail and came into view of the parking lot, movement at the top of the lot caught Nicole’s eye. Her pace slowed as she strained to make sense of what she was seeing.

 “What’s up?” Will panted, slowing to match his friend’s pace.

“A man is chasing that car,” she gasped, pointing to the blue sedan at the top of the parking lot.

“Huh, that’s weird,” he said, each syllable seeming to squirt out of his mouth as a foot hit the pavement. “I wonder why.”

“It looks like there’s no one driving the car!” she said with as much excitement as she could manage in her winded state.

Will looked again at the car to verify Nicole’s observation. What he saw made his blood run cold. “Holy Shit!” he shouted just before he broke into a dead sprint.

Unsure why Will had taken off, Nicole looked harder at the car. She had been correct in that it had no driver. What she had not seen – and Will apparently had – was the child standing in the passenger seat.

His heart unable to bear the tragedy that was unfolding before him, Will’s adrenal glands flooded his system with a freakish amount of the hormone. The adrenaline surge accelerated not only his legs but also his thoughts, and with the speed of a supercomputer, his mind subconsciously did the math to compute the car’s path and work out a plan for catching up to it.

His hyperactive mind calculated a course that would have him intercept the free-rolling car about 80% of the way down the hill. Will hurtled the decorative fence that bordered the parking lot and sprinted toward the point of intersection.

As he rocketed to intercept the car, though, Will realized that catching up to it was only part of the solution. He also had to get inside it to bring it to a stop before it went over the edge of the retaining wall. Opening the door against the car’s motion would be difficult. He’d need an extra couple of seconds to do that. He adjusted his course ever-so-slightly and increased his speed to meet the car a little further up the hill.

Additionally, Will’s mind alerted him that he’d need to be in the driver’s seat to take control of the vehicle. He was approaching from the passenger side, though, so he would either have to overshoot the car and come back to the driver’s side, or go in through the passenger’s door and climb over the child and the center console to get into the driver’s seat. The math for neither of those options worked in his head. Will’s mind raced to find an alternate solution. And then it did.

Will picked up his pace again, slamming his feet into the ground with increasing ferocity as he focused on the new point of intersection. When he was within a few yards of the point, with the car still more than 20 feet away, Will launched himself into the air.

As Will reached the perigee of his arc, the accelerating car rolled directly beneath him just as his mind had calculated. Will reached out, and his hands found purchase where the side windows met the car’s roofline. Will allowed himself a full half second on top of the vehicle to steady and reorient himself, then in one fluid motion, he reached down, opened the driver’s door, and swung down into the seat. Will stomped hard on the break with his foot while at the same time yanking the steering wheel hard to the right. The runaway car slid around with a cloud of smoke rolling from the screaming tires. The vehicle lurched to a stop with the car parallel to the retaining wall, merely two feet from the drop-off.

“Again!” Connor squealed, bouncing up and down with delight as if this had all been a thrill ride at an amusement park.

“Maybe later,” Will panted.

It took Nicole several seconds to reach the car. She stared at her friend with wide eyes and an open mouth. “How did you….” she started to ask, but before she could finish her question, the boy’s father also caught up to the group, screaming and crying for his son. The man flung open the passenger-side door and pulled the child into his arms, enveloping him in a fierce hug.

Will’s eyes teared up at seeing the father’s deep love for his son and realizing the horror the man must have felt as he watched his child roll toward his doom. Will suddenly longed to hug his own kids very, very much. But that couldn’t happen since they lived with his ex in Virginia. And with his parents deceased and having no siblings, Will suddenly felt very, very alone.

“That was kind of amazing,” Nicole said, calling Will back from his lonely introspection.

Will blinked back his tears and looked up at his best friend. When he saw her adoring eyes looking back at him, he finally understood. He was not alone. He’d never been alone. He had Nicole. She had always been by his side. How had he never realized that? “I’m not sure how I did that,” Will mused. “I didn’t know these old legs could go that fast.”

“I think you ran with your heart and not with your legs,” she said admiringly.

“Yeah?” Will chuckled, “Well, it’s not my heart that feels like Jello.”

“Hey, man,” Paul said with a shaky voice, “I… I don’t know how to thank you.”

Will shifted the car back into Park, pulled the keys from the ignition, and stood up on wobbly legs. “You just did,” he said humbly.

“I don’t know how you did that. It’s a miracle,” Paul marveled.

“I’m just glad I could help.” Will handed the keys to Paul and turned to walk toward where he and Nicole were parked near the clubhouse. His legs trembled beneath him from the exertion.

“Come on, superhero,” Nicole giggled. She slid her arm around Will’s waist to help steady him. “Let me buy you that smoothie we talked about, and you can tell me what you want for dinner on Saturday.”

“But I didn’t win the race,” Will admitted as he draped his arm across her shoulder and changed course.

“Oh yes you did,” she said with an affectionate smile. And as they ambled together toward the concession stand with their arms around each other, Nicole knew she had just won, too.

January 28, 2024 00:55

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