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Muscle memory is a funny thing. It keeps going even when you're tired, when you're starting to get sloppy on your form. It keeps you right on target with every movement, when your conscious mind doesn't have the leverage to motivate your limbs any longer. You don't have to think twice about it. It's dependable. Consistent. Earned through thousands of hours of effort, until it stops being effort, and everything connects and flows seamlessly.

It's spring of 2001, and Jennifer plays softball for an athletic scholarship at a community college scarcely worth naming. She attends school so she can play ball, not the other way around, but she's not doing too badly; she's made it to junior year in one piece so far. Her major is something arbitrary, as forgettable as the school; she knows she's going to take over her aged mother's thriving daycare business after she graduates, and the degree is just window dressing to win clients. She's tolerant of the determinism of a hereditary career; it's a familiar cage. It doesn't rattle her to follow in her mother's footsteps. She's good with kids, for the most part, and she's been helping her mom on the job since Jennifer was tall enough to lift an infant into a feeding high chair. She knows these motions as surely as she knows the swing of a bat: deep in the marrow of her shoulderblades, a tight knot of expectation and tension in the middle of her back. She considers herself overqualified, and this "college" shindig is less an educational experience, and more the four-year prolonging of her adolescence, her desperate love of sports, her high school social life which carried over uninterrupted into this local learning institution. She's just as popular as she always was. Just as average but unobjectionable in her academic efforts. Just as brilliant on the ball field.

She's in the batting cage at the back of campus, the satisfying aluminium ping! ringing out steadily as she smacks machine-propelled fastballs clink! into the chain links. Her lats build a tight, slow burn that tells her she's got her form as clean as it's going to get today. Any repetition (ping!) beyond this point is chasing the rabbit, what her coach calls effort wasted (clink!) when fatigue makes a player sloppy. She (ping!) finishes this tub of balls (clink!), shuts down the machine, and - in keeping with strict safety procedures that she's been drilled on since her pint-sized T-ball days - she waits until fully exiting the cage, to remove her batting helmet. The first and only time she broke this rule, she got her first and only concussion. Forty-eight hours of nausea and an unconquerable headache were all the education Jennifer has ever needed, on this matter. Human brains are fragile things, and they don't like being rattled around inside their cages.

She decides to skip the trip to the lockers. She'll shower at home. Her gear could use a wash, and she wants to get some Icy Hot on her upper back before stiffness sets in. She mentally berates herself for not bringing along her usual bottle of Vitamin I, but she lent it to a teammate who was having vicious cramps. Jennifer can be frosty with strangers, but she doesn't like watching people suffer. She sticks her neck out. She takes on inconveniences and impositions, if it'll lighten the burden on somebody else.

It's no surprise, then, how she responds to the sound of a freshman woman shrieking, being dragged by her hair across the gravel parking lot. The freshman is strong; Jen recognizes her from the gym. The freshman can deadlift twice Jen's body weight, easily; Jen's seen her do it, and thought it was unspeakably hot. Jen lamented in her diary, once, that the freshman is apparently straight, or at least has no gaydar to speak of, since she ignored every inquisitive, encouraging glance Jennifer ever sent her way while lifting. Or maybe the freshman is just very focused at her workouts, and doesn't notice much of anything while she's lifting. Jen doesn't know her name, and she decided some time ago that this is a good thing, as it keeps Jen from writing the freshman's name in purple gel pen hearts in her notebooks.

Right now, however, the unnamed freshman female weightlifter is calling for help, and her much larger, equally-a-lifter boyfriend is dragging her along like a ragdoll. Muscle memory is a funny thing, the way it doesn't consult conscious thought. The way it doesn't take a moment for ethical and legal considerations. The way it (ping!) absolutely fucking pulps the face of an 18-year-old woman's 27-year-old boyfriend and (clink!) keeps going until the gravel is painted with 27-year-old grey matter, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid.

It takes Jennifer all of thirty seconds to process the way her world has just rocked on its axis. She pulls out the archaic Nokia cell from her duffel bag and hands it to the freshman. She walks in a straight line to her pickup truck. She starts driving. She keeps driving, taking mental inventory of everything in her duffel bag. She does some creative reallocation of personal property regarding a vehicle at a truck stop; the owner left it running idle while he went indoors to hit up the vending machines. She figures that a couple more felony offenses aren't going to put a dent in an unambiguous murder case. She lands in Detroit, acquires some friends in low places, and figures out how to be somebody else.

Six years later she sees a picture message in her inbox, Ping! "Is this you, Gwen?" Her own face on the back of a milk carton. Missing. Not Wanted. She drops her keys, Clink! right there in the parking lot of the grocery store, as she's unloading the sacks into the back of her girlfriend's SUV. Oh, sure, somebody wants her, alright, but not in a manner suggestive of trials and incarcerations. She laughs, shows it to her steady girlfriend. The girlfriend cries, because she knows Jennifer won't, even if she feels like it. It's a kindness. They look up the murder case at the no-name community college.

The reports all tell a puzzling tale: how tragically a teaching assistant at the college decided to use the batting cage, without wearing a helmet, and took multiple fastballs directly to the face, at close range. Ping!

Tension unlocks between her shoulder blades, and Jennifer remembers watching a young woman pick up heavy objects and put them back down, over and over, and hour at a time every alternating weekday morning. She remembers bags of sand, the uneven way they shifted in the freshman's arms when she lifted them and put them back down, and how heavy they sounded when they hit the padded floor of the gym. Muscle memory is a funny thing. Weight is weight, even if it's dead weight. Good form is good form, even if it means carrying that dead weight fifty yards without someone else to help. Chain links clench around Jennifer's heart and fall away. Clink.

She hopes her mother still uses the same old phone number.


Iron Noder 2017, 23/30

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