Sprints (2)

Continued from Part 1

Dr. Wissler looked it over. “Well, we could x-ray it, but I’m not sure there’s any point.” He felt her toe with a touch that wasn’t gentle. “Looks like a clean break — if it’s completely broken. Not a big deal.”

It was a big deal for El. Look, everybody, look, she thought. No more virgin bones. She’d spent her youth watching boys sport casts and tell fracture war stories. Cracked femurs and tibias. Reconstructive surgery. Now it was her turn to experience the notoriety of a broken bone. Having a fracture made you different. It made you special. It made you tough.

The doctor seemed unimpressed with the importance of this new status. As he taped up her foot, he warned her, she wouldn’t be sprinting much for the next six weeks. He knew what they did at cross country practice — what distances and training they went through.

“My daughter, T, runs cross country, as well,” he reminded her pointlessly and pointedly. “She’s a sprinter, thought. How long have you been running together? By now it has to be almost four years… You’re not a sprinter, though.” He shot her dad a look. Her father said nothing.

No, El wasn’t a sprinter. But still, she and his daughter were training partners. Meeting and matching each others’ strides in their freshman year, it hadn’t taken long for them to become best friends. But no one — not even they — had expected them to bond so strongly. Keeping stride with one another down meandering back roads in the distance runs, taking shortcuts down cowpaths and back alleys they swore to tell no one about, pulling each other by competitive force up merciless potholed hills, pushing each other’s endurance and speed in practice and races alike, gasping for breath in the last stretch of the contest with a final burst of aching-burning-screaming adrenaline, and collapsing on the grass together at the end of the race… No one could have known, at age 14, that they’d still be a good match for one another at 15… 16… 17. Who would have guessed that a distance runner and a sprinter could compliment each other as well as they did? But they did — she pulled T through the long stretches, and T sparked her sprints as no starting gun could.

“You’ve been running a long time,” he said, giving her toe an absentminded pull. “But now you’re out of training. You won’t be doing road work anytime soon.”

Balance, movement, speed. Her toes, it turned out, were ten of the most important pieces of equipment she had on the track. She’d never given it much thought, just pulled on her shoes, laced them up, and hit the macadam running. Her doctor had reminded her, she was an athlete. And athletes needed their toes.

That’s what she told her coach when she announced she had to lay off the road work for a while. That was the easy part. When it came time to tell T, it was another story.

She wasn’t impressed with her injury.

“What? No more five-mile treks into the back roads of the county, doing wind sprints and fartlek training? Not for another six weeks?” T wasn’t impressed, no matter what her father said. “It’s just another sports injury. Tape it up and get back on the road. Districts are coming. In six weeks.” Would she be ready? T wanted to know.

El didn’t know.

T pressed. “You have to be ready.”

Maybe her broken toe wasn’t such a dramatic thing. El was disappointed. Her injury drew no attention. Even she forgot most of the time, except when her socks snagged on the grubby white tape holding the big digit to the smaller one next to it. The rite of passage had passed her over. She wasn’t tough or unique or daring at all. Just a little crippled. Very little.

She didn’t run for a week, then went back to her training. And T.

“I missed you,” T said, the first day they stretched together after her short absence. There was a bracing chill in the autumn air, but El didn’t feel it.

She blushed and leaned a little harder into her hamstring stretch. The tightness in her legs almost matched the tightness in her gut. The team was splitting up into training groups, and the first bunch hit the road with a scattering of gravel under long-distance training soles.

The runners in the second group got their workout instructions and followed close behind, hooting at the leading group, daring them to stay in the lead.

Then the runners in T’s and her group got their different instructions — a seven-mile course out towards the game lands. They groaned at the news, finished up their stretches and in single file trotted for the open road. Her toe was stiff when she pushed off, but it was good to be back. Teasing, T pulled up beside her for a smiling moment, then took off like a shot.

“Hey –” she called after the back of her quickly moving friend. “Pace yourself!”

“Pace this!” T shot back over her shoulder.

El sucked in lungsfull of cool fall air and took off after her friend, the stiffness in her toe making her feel foolish and stunted — overcautious and unathletic. Maybe T’s father was right. Maybe she should take time off. But ahead of her T turned, teasing and coaxing her down the road, and after she adjusted her stride, the discomfort in her toe wasn’t enough to hold her up. After a few miles, she barely noticed.

She trained that way for weeks, growing less cautious with the passing days, glad that she wasn’t losing ground on her training. T held back in spots, egging her on, but never so much that she cut her a break. El had always been the slower of the two, and she rarely beat out her friend in sprints. Now was no exception — in fartlek and wind sprints, her toe made her feel clumsy, oafish, self-conscious, while T sped ahead like the wind. Like the wind. El watched her go with an awe that turned something over in her gut, that made the road swim in front of her eyes, that pulled the sweat from her glands a little harder, a little hotter. Like the wind…

Six months after her toe was healed, she’d filled out and mailed in her college application, but hadn’t yet heard back whether she’d been accepted. T had long since worked out the details of her art school education. She’d been given a handy scholarship — money she didn’t need — for academic excellence. Now she was sweating over her portfolio, cleaning it up and expanding it in anticipation of the coming fall term.

“It looks great,” El told her when T had he over to her place and they hung out in her bedroom, looking over T’s collection of pen-and-ink’s and pencil illustrations. Her collection of unlikely still life objects — dirty laundry and leftovers from fast food dinners — had made the rounds at school district and county art shows, winning T ribbons and accolades statewide. Now she’d parlayed it into more of a future than El could imagine. She was careful not to touch the artwork, spread across T’s drafting table — this was her best friend’s future.

T took in her praise, then collected the pieces and replaced them in her broad portfolio case. She propped it against the wall, then pulled out a pile of old newspapers and fashion mags and grabbed a couple pairs of scissors from the art box on her desk.

“Let’s have a little fun,” she winked, reaching under her bed and pulling out a gym bag filled with smelly workout duds and a half-full vodka bottle.

They spent the rest of the evening in anarchy, piecing together a montage of radical antisocial slogans and decapitated supermodels, pasting their rebellion to a spare piece of posterboard, sipping from the vodka bottle, trying to keep their voices down, in case T’s parents were listening.

When they emerged from T’s bedroom, her dad peeked around the corner from the living room, where he and T’s mom were silently watching television.

“Everything alright, girls?” he asked.

T said, sure, they were fine. And they beat a hasty retreat out to El’s parents’ car.

“Hop in –” El said, and T did. As they pulled away, they saw the lights go on in T’s bedroom window.

Fuck –” she muttered, and slouched in the passenger seat. “I’ll be out of their hair in a few months. I dunno why they can’t keep off my ass…”

El pressed a little harder on the gas. “Are you gonna run when you get to college?”

T shrugged. “I might. I don’t know who I’m going to train with, though…”

El pressed the gas a little harder, took the corner onto Mile-Long Road too sharply, and they skidded into a cornfield.

Fuck!” T laughed. “I’m safer at home!”

“Are you?” El backed the car onto the pavement, then pulled over on the shoulder. She rolled down her window and leaned out. She was feeling woozy and sick. Vodka always did this to her. It was T’s favorite drink…

T looked over at her sharply — with a look like the one her dad shot at El’s father.

They sat in silence for a moment alongside the road. The sky over head was clear, and the spring air soothed El’s nausea.

“Sorry…” T muttered, rolling down her window.

El looked over at her friend, staring down the asphalt alley between two newly plowed fields. T looked over at her, opened her mouth as though to say something… then in one smooth motion, she opened the door and jumped out and took off down the road.

The headlights held her back in their eerie glow, and the reflective fabric of her shoes flashed in a quick cadence.

El leaped from the car and took off after her friend. Her toe felt fine, her stride was sure from training all through the winter, and by the end of the mile-long road, she’d nearly caught her. Almost, but not quite.

T stood at the intersection, bent double and panting. “Wuss,” she hissed and took off back for the car. El groaned and kicked in an extra spurt. By the time she reached the car, T was back inside, looking winded and glum.

“I gotta get home,” she said as El collapsed into the driver seat.

Without catching her breath, El turned in the direction they’d driven from…

Two days later she crunched a bone in her other foot, midway through a soccer game. One toe-on contact with the ball in a goal attempt, and she felt a sharp stab, then the dull throb she’d felt before. She looked up as she lost her balance, seeing her friends cheering her on — especially one. As the soccer field rose to meet her body, the faces of her friends darkened against the brilliant blue sky and she heard T’s voice pronouncing her a “Wuss“. When she felt the length of her body make full contact with grass, she lay still for a few moments, waiting for the onlookers to grow silent, wonder if she were hurt, and run to her side.

They did. T was among the first to crouch over her, and when El leaped to her feet, feeling devilish and a little mean, their heads almost cracked. T was the only one who laughed.

She limped a little for the rest of the game, but she finished it. With two goals.

Afterwards, a bunch of them went out drinking and had no luck getting more beer, when they ran out. After circling the township for an hour in somebody’s beat-up VW van, their friends dropped the two of them off at T’s place — her folks were out for the evening — and they swiped the extra keys to T’s parents’ second car and went driving. El had her fake i.d. with her and got lucky at “The Penguin”, one of the less hostile bars off Rte. 625 in the next township over. After having to answer only a handful of age-defining questions from an unconvinced but sympathetic bartender she managed to finesse a couple of sixes of tall-boys out of him, with a pack of cigarettes for good measure. They hightailed it back to their old stomping grounds, then parked alongside some familiar cornfields and got drunk.

The ache in her foot went away after a while. But not the ache in her gut.

To be continued…

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