Sprints (3)

Continued from Part 2

The springtime air was chilly, but they’d drunk enough to not notice. The sky was clear overhead, and that they did notice. Killing the engine and turning off the lights, they left the radio on and climbed onto the hardtop roof of the wide sedan and compared notes on Neil Young, who had the best pot for sale at school, and where they expected to be in 15 years.

“Shit, I dunno –” El said. “It’ll practically be the year 2000. Who can think that far ahead?”

“All I know is,” T replied after a few moments, “I’m not gonna be anywhere near here.”

El laughed with her at that, but even to her it sounded hollow. They toasted and drank to the future as Dan Fogelberg sang in the background about meeting a long lost love of his.

“What time is it –?” T said, sliding off the roof and landing badly in soft cornfield soil. She looked inside the car at the dashboard clock and cursed loudly. “My folks will be home soon –”

El’s best friend and running buddy jumped in the car and revved the engine, as she clamored down off the roof, making an equally poor landing, feeling a dull pain stab at her toe, remembering the moment of impact earlier that day.

T heaved the last of the beers into the corn and gunned the engine. “C’mon!”

It was quiet on the way home; both were worried their folks would be home, that they’d smell beer on their breath, that they’d know they’d been out together, that they’d find another reason to keep them apart. When they pulled up in front of El’s place, T leaned over and put her hand on her arm.

“If they ask,” she said, “I was out alone. Just driving around.”

“Me too,” El said, forgetting she might have to explain how she’d been out roaming the county on foot. Both her parents’ cars were in front of the house.

“You’re the best,” T slurred and El hopped out of the car and snuck inside.

Her left toe woke her early the next morning. Swollen and numb, she couldn’t move it, and the pain was familiar. This time she knew what that ache was in her foot, and she self-diagnosed the break after spending an hour examining the swollen, tilted, bluish thing that had been inconspicuous the day before. Why should she go to the doctor? She already knew there was nothing that could be done, aside from taping up. She already knew that dull, throbbing, invisible pain did little more than make her walk on the outsides of her feet, and remind her that she had toes. She taped up her broken digit with clean white tape and hobbled downstairs for a Saturday brunch.

But when they saw her foot, her parents insisted she have it checked. The doctor was close enough for her to hobble to. She should get x-rayed. Treated. Maybe she should talk to the doctor about her “condition”. Her parents exchanged looks over their Saturday lunch, then turned their focus on her. Her mother picked up the phone and made her an appointment for that same afternoon.

“How did you do this?” T’s father wanted to know as he regarded the x-ray. “It looks like you injured it twice — within a couple of hours. How did this happen? What have you been up to?”

“Nothing,” she said. Nothing was the truth.

Again, she was out of training. This time the doctor insisted. “The track season is still young. You can catch up in a few weeks when you’re healed,” he said.

But it wasn’t the training she missed, and she didn’t feel like she could catch up. T’s parents had discovered her coasting into the driveway the night before and had forbidden any activities outside of track practice. El’s parents enforced her rest period, too, but after a few days of sitting around the house all afternoon, with nothing decent on any of the four t.v. stations they got, El started taking off after school, dropping her books at home and changing into grubby jeans and t-shirt, and disappearing from home for hours each afternoon even though she wasn’t running. She wandered down to the little woods behind T’s father’s sprawling office. Amid the thin maples and oaks and brambles, someone had once planted bamboo, and the exotic had flourished. The bamboo loved it there, beside the little creek that bounded his back yard and a neighbor’s seldom-used property. A thick jungle of woody stems and thin green leaves elbowed into the ravine along the creek, at the foot of a steep hillside that trailer dwellers up above used for a dumping ground. It was perfect cover — especially for the children of the folks who lived up the hill. At school, there were rumors of all sorts of illicit dealings taking place in that infamous grove. Drug deals. Weapons exchanges. Trysts between middle-school kids who were no longer satisfied with I-show-you-mine-you-show-me-yours dabblings.

Each afternoon, El headed down to the grove and waded into the thick greenery, feeling the brush of leaves against her face, shoulders, legs, fumbling for her pack of cigarettes and lighter tucked inside the waistband of her pants underneath her baggy shirt. When she saw Dr. Wissler’s face in the window one afternoon, she waved and thought about showing this place to T.

“Can you ditch practice some afternoon?” she asked her best friend and training buddy as they ran into each other a few days later, on their way to change books at their lockers. “Beg off — say you’re sick — something — anything?”

T wasn’t sure. Her parents kept close tabs on her. Ever since that night. She had to be home right after practice, or they came looking for her.

“Try,” El urged. “Just try. Sometime. I’ll get you home in time…”

T gave her a look that said maybe and disappeared down the hall to class, as El wandered off to her third study hall of the day.

El looked up from the smooth-cut stump where she’d taken to sitting, these days. To think. Just think. Young maples and oaks surrounded her, sprouting new growth, the ground spongy underfoot. Her toe was almost healed, and aside from rainy days, it didn’t give her much trouble anymore. But she hadn’t been back to track practice in a month and a half. She stubbed out her cigarette and smiled.

T was wading towards her through the underbrush, fighting off brambles that clutched at her. “Mom and Dad think I’m at practice, but I begged off — cramps, dehydration, shin splints — something.”

Without a word, they headed into the bamboo. El had heard the neighbor boys kept a stash of marijuana somewhere back in here. Down near the creek, in the hollow trunk of an old tree that looked promising, they found a dusty, half-empty baggy filled with weak pot and some papers. They rolled themselves a small joint, not big enough to make a dent in the stash, but not so small that it wasn’t smokeable, and replaced the bag. Then, single file, they went further into the brush, closer to the stream, where it was damp and concealed and they could stub out the burning end in the moist ground without catching the whole jungle on fire. T had brought some beer. She could always count on T. On a fallen tree, half covered with moss, they sat down beside each other.

They lit up, sat and drank for a few moments. It was May, it was unseasonably warm, and the scent of their sweat, mixed with marijuana, filled her nostrils. As T talked about school and packing and her prospects at school and what it must be like to live in another part of the country, El’s gut began to clench, and her breathing tightened. T’s breath was even and soft beside her left ear. Her voice was calm, so calm…

A few beers, and several tokes later, she started to get lightheaded. Out of the corner of her eye, T swam, jumped, faded. She could feel the warmth of T’s body on her bare arms. Instinctively, she leaned towards her friend — T looked at her long, leaning to her — then pulled back, self-conscious. Lightheaded, El stood up, then turned and teetered on her iffy foot towards a break in the bamboo.

T called to her — wait — but she kept going, pot and beer and sweat and the smell of T in her nostrils, in her brain, under her skin. She itched and scratched, but T was still there. Her toe began to ache, and she stumbled.

T called again, and she almost turned — but no. She kept going. Her foot felt like the size of a football, and she tripped over a fallen branch. “Damn this toe,” she cursed, stumbling up the path towards the back of T’s dad’s office. Damn this toe.

Behind her, she could hear T cursing her in a friendly, then irritated tone, but she didn’t turn, didn’t call back, didn’t dare. She stumbled woozily up the path, wanting just to run on a back road far, far from this place. When she broke free of the cover, she felt her legs start to pump. T was behind her, footsteps coming closer, the familiar sound of her sprinting pace gaining on her. El’s legs cranked harder, surprising her with their sudden speed.

“Jesus Christ, woman –” she heard T pant behind her. “Jesus –”

Then there was silence, as her best friend and training buddy fell back. Beneath her, El’s legs churned in a full-tilt sprint.

* * *

Balance, movement, speed. Her toes, it turned out, were ten of the most important pieces of equipment she had on the track, and she tightened her shoelaces, willing herself to hit the road running. Her college application had finally been accepted, and along with most of her track teammates gathered in the gymnasium, stretching before practice, she was bound for college in three months. The gym was full of nervous energy — talk of the upcoming District Relays and senior pictures and who was getting what scholarship. Her toes hadn’t slowed her down too much — she still had a chance at a couple thousand dollars, herself, if she did well on the track at college next year.

She stretched both legs out in front of her and leaned into loosening her hamstrings. Muscles tight, but still strong, she felt the pull all the way from hip to toes. Both her big toes. Grimacing, she held for a count of ten, then relaxed.

The jumpers were gathering, getting their workout instructions, and heading for a warm-up lap around the track.

The throwers heard their names called, collected themselves and trotted for the weight room.

The sprinters and distance runners lagged behind and took their time limbering up.

Beside her, she heard familiar breath, and her nose caught a familiar smell. She smiled.

Missed you,” T said, flopping down beside her.

She blushed.

“How’s the toe?”

“Better,” she said, looking over.

“Good.” T jumped up, hopping from foot to foot, her calves solid, her legs sinewy. “Race you to the track…” she called over her shoulder, as she trotted to a side door and pushed into the bright spring sunlight outside.

El leaped to her feet and took off after her like a shot.

Finis

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