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Long-Distance Running

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It felt weird to be inhaling the evening spring air as Ken ran across the track. Weird, but refreshing compared to the freezing air that had pierced his lungs during the last few months of football practice last year. But that was all that was different about running for the track team instead of the football team, besides the obvious running-without-tackling-people thing. They were just as competitive as the football team, and their practices were just as demanding. Not that Ken minded—hearing Coach Bartleby yell that his grandmother could run faster than the rest of the team was encouraging in that “I’m gonna prove you wrong” way.

“Yeah, like your grandmother could run the 100-yard dash in ten-and-a-half seconds!” Ken shouted as he ran past the coach. He slowed down just enough to look at the faces of the other sprinters, but they were all concentrating on the finish line. Ken hurried to catch up with them but ended up in dead last.

Coach Bartleby looked down at his stopwatch. “Try twelve-and-a-half, pokey! Maybe if you stopped screwing around, you might make better time!”

That got the rest of the team chuckling. Great, now Ken was a loser and a laughingstock.

“All right, that’s enough for today,” the coach said. “Except for you, Ken. Your little crack just earned you a lap around the track.”

“Oh, great,” Ken mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Yes, sir,” Ken said loud enough for the coach to hear. No use in mouthing off and going for two laps. He started running down the track.

“Hey, Ken, wait up,” someone said behind him, followed by sneakers hitting the polyurethane at a jogging pace. Ken slowed down so that James could fall in next to him. “Mind if I run with you? I’m waiting for Julia.”

“Sure, why not?”

“Let’s move it, you two!” Coach Bartleby shouted.

Ken and James both sped up to a running pace. It only took a few seconds for James to pass him. James was a long-distance runner, so of course this would be easier for him, but Ken still clenched his fist in frustration. There was no way he was going to let the team cheerleader beat him. He sucked in a breath through his nose and stared straight ahead, forcing himself to go as fast as his legs would let him. He passed James with a smirk and continued to charge ahead at full speed. But at about the halfway point, he started to feel the lactic acid building up in his muscles. Christ, when did the track get so long…?

Ken felt himself slowing down. “Come on, come on,” he mouthed, trying to get his legs to move faster. It was no use—his muscles were sore, and the finish was still at least a hundred yards away. The Coach Powell voice in his head started screaming at him to slow down, that more pain did not mean more gain. Why hadn’t that voice gone away yet?

James raced across the starting point with Ken lagging behind. Ken didn’t even bother finishing the run. He went straight to the bench and flopped down to catch his breath. Bested by the cheerleader… Great.

“Not bad,” James said, his smile never leaving his face despite the fact that he was breathing just as hard as Ken. “Just remember to—save your energy for the end.” He picked up his bottle of water and took a slow drink. That was one thing that Ken liked about James: even when Ken did terrible, James was always willing to stroke his ego a bit.

They took another minute to catch their breaths before going into the gym to change in the locker rooms. Most of the other team members were already heading out for the night. James stopped to congratulate all of the boys for a good practice, but Ken just went straight for the locker room. The last thing he wanted to hear was the rest of the guys calling him “pokey” or something.

Ken beat James getting dressed and getting out of the locker room. He almost felt proud of himself for that, but that was a really dumb thing to be proud of, he realized.

“Hey, Ken,” Julia said from the bench between the locker rooms. She was always the last girl to finish getting dressed, probably because she was the only girl who had to change clothes and legs. Her smile was bigger than usual today, and she was clutching an envelope with both of her hands.

“Hey,” Ken said, leaning against the wall across from her. He nodded in the general direction of Julia’s envelope. “What’s that?”

Julia giggled and swung her legs back and forth. “It’s a surprise. I’m waiting for James so I can show him.”

“What, are you getting a new bionic leg or something?”

Julia rolled her eyes and blew some air out from between her closed, smiling lips. “No. Even though that would be pretty cool…”

If Ken had ever doubted it before, he definitely didn’t now: this girl was out there.

As soon as James pulled the door to the locker room open and stepped into the hall, Julia leapt up and wrapped her arms around his waist so that her head was resting against his chest. “Guess what I got?” she asked as she pulled away.

James looked at the envelope in Julia’s hand. “You got your acceptance letter?”

Ken pushed himself off the wall and turned to the doors leading outside. No use in interrupting their little moment.

“Better!” Ken heard Julia say as he started walking. “I got my track scholarship!”

Ken froze mid-step and turned his head to see James picking Julia up and hugging her. “Oh, my God, that’s awesome!” James said. The letter plopped onto the floor as Julia hugged James’s shoulders again and giggled.

Ken’s head throbbed. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be happening. That should have been his letter, dammit—his football scholarship to the school of his choice! Why was Julia getting a scholarship and not him? His eyes fell on Julia’s wiry, metallic prosthetic leg. The familiar ca-chick sound shot through his head, making it throb again. He walked over to the couple and picked up the fallen envelope.

“Isn’t this great, Ken?” Julia asked.

Ken stared at the envelope for a few seconds. He heard Julia’s feet hit the floor as James set her down. Julia reached to take the envelope from Ken’s hand, but Ken snatched his hand away like a child playing keep-away.

“You know why you’re getting this, right?” he asked.

Julia tilted her head. “Because I do really good in track?”

“It’s so you can be a damn charity case!” Ken clenched his fist around the envelope and threw it onto the floor. “The one-legged girl who runs track—that’ll sell the tickets, all right.”

Julia’s jaw fell open as she looked at the partially crumpled envelope on the floor. Ken turned and walked towards the doors outside again, his feet hitting the floor louder than he meant for them to.

“What the hell, man?!” James shouted. Ken didn’t stop. He pushed the doors open and let them slam behind him as he walked across the stadium to the parking lot. He listened for the doors to open again, for James or Julia to come after him, but he made it to his car unimpeded. Well, good. The last thing Ken needed was another over-peppy lecture from Mr. Cheerleader.

The only thing Ken could hear as he drove out of the parking lot was the pounding in his head. His hands clenched around the steering wheel so that his knuckles paled. What the hell was this, a joke? Julia loses her leg and gets a scholarship, but all he gets is a spot on the track team where he can squander his talents and get nowhere? She didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve to be treated like something special just because she was a one-legged wonder.

Ken slammed his foot on the brakes as another car pulled out in front of him. His head flew forward and missed the steering wheel by a few inches. He looked into the window of the other car, holding up his left fist and preparing a string of explicatives, only to see the other driver already flipping him off and mouthing something at him. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the familiar red octagon beside the road. His face relaxed as he unclenched his fist and lowered it back onto the steering wheel. He made sure there weren’t any other cars coming before he drove on through the intersection.

The throbbing in his head was drowned out by the sounds of the road. He realized that his hand stung and looked at the palm after he pulled up to a stoplight. A little cut, barely bleeding, ran diagonally around the center of his palm. Where had that…? The envelope. He must have gotten a paper cut when he crumpled it up.

“Crap,” he mumbled, slapping his cut hand on the steering wheel. It felt like a handful of tiny needles dug into his skin for a split second. He didn’t care. He probably deserved it, anyway, for being such a jealous asshole. Julia wasn’t getting a scholarship because she was some circus freak who’d sell tickets—she was getting it because she was the best long-distance runner on the team. She would have gotten it even if she could run down the track without that rhythmic ca-chick echoing through the air… or at least in Ken’s ears.

The light turned green, freeing Ken from his thoughts as he focused on the road. A few minutes later, he was parked in his driveway, thinking again. He needed to do something, but what? Apologize, probably, but there was no way he’d be able to face Julia after what he’d said. But why not? He’d said worse to people before. That thought hit him harder than the truck that had cost him his football career. He had said some really nasty things in the past, hadn’t he? And why? Because he needed to feel like he was on top of everyone else and couldn’t do that without stepping all over them, especially now that he didn’t have football or forged perfect grades?

The paper cut pricked again as Ken peeled his hands of the steering wheel. He reached into his pocket and found Julia’s number in his phone’s contact list. The line rang three times before Julia’s perky voice asked him to leave a message. Okay, he probably shouldn’t have expected her to answer so soon after he’d blown up at her. He got out of his car and crossed the sidewalk to his front door in a few big steps. It was Friday, so he’d have to try calling her over the weekend. If that didn’t work, he could find her at school and apologize there. She couldn’t stay mad at him forever, right?


Or maybe she could.

Julia refused to return his calls all weekend. When he got to Mr. Morrison’s class on Monday, she flipped her binder open so that it slammed against the table and shuffled loudly through her papers until class started, and then she was the first one out of class when the bell rang. James eventually warmed up enough to let Ken ask him to apologize to Julia on his behalf, but Julia refused to even look at Ken for more than a second at a time all week. He didn’t even bother going to the back of the library for free period. He knew he’d just get the same not-so-subtle silent treatment.

On Friday, Ken was sitting in the library working on his chemistry homework. Julia was standing over the printer with her hands on her hips. She’d been hopping back and forth between her usual study area, the computer, and the printer all week, but Ken hadn’t given her actions much thought. At least, not until a stack of papers suddenly hit the table he was sitting at. He and a few other students nearby looked up from what they were doing to stare at the pile that had nearly toppled over when it hit the table. His eyes met Julia’s after she had straightened it out.

“What—?” he whispered.

“Just read them,” Julia said in a stage whisper. She walked back to her usual place at the back of the library.

The sheet at the top of the stack had a picture of a football player wearing a blue Baltimore Ravens uniform. The name “Willis McGahee” was printed below it in big bold letters, and beneath that were a few details about his knee injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and his subsequent surgeries and recovery. The page ended with “Currently playing for the Cleveland Browns.” The rest of the stack had the same format, some about high-profile cases that Ken had heard of, others about small-shot high school players. Near the bottom of the stack was a page with details on Joe Montana’s back injury that nearly forced him to retire. “Hall of fame quarterback, won four Super Bowls, and the only player to have been named MVP three times,” the sheet said. The next piece of paper had a picture of Julia making a peace sign on the track.

JULIA DAVIS

Lost her left leg after it was run over by a truck in 2010. Spent a year in recovery, learned to run again, and is currently the best female long-distance runner on her high school track team.”

Ken stared at the paper for a few seconds with his cheek resting on his fist. He finally understood why he hated that ca-chick sound so much: it was the sound of Julia being better than him despite missing half of her leg. In other words, the sound of Ken being jealous. He flipped the paper over to look at the last one in the stack. The photo at the top was a black-and-white scan of his picture from last year’s yearbook.

KEN JOHNSON

Sustained a leg injury in the summer of 2012 (details unknown). Recovered with the help of physical therapy and later joined the track team. Has a chance to go pro one day if he’ll stop feeling sorry for himself and start working hard. (And also if he’ll stop being such a jerk just because he’s had some bad luck.)”

Ken set the paper down. Even after what he had said to her, Julia had still gone out of her way to make this. Why? For the chance to passive-aggressively call him a jerk? He picked the page back up. No, it wasn’t just that—she was still mad at him, definitely, but she had written in Ken’s profile that he had a chance to go pro. And if he knew Julia as well as he thought he did, she wouldn’t have bothered to put this together if she hadn’t meant it.

Ken set the stack of papers aside with his sheet on top and turned back to his chemistry homework. So maybe he wouldn’t get the football scholarship he’d always dreamed of getting. He probably barely qualified for any academic scholarships with how mediocre his grades were this year. At least he wasn’t doing too bad in chemistry, and Ken had to admit that he even liked it. If nothing else, it was something to fall back on if football failed him. Ken smirked. Not like it would. Ken was one of the best sprinters on the track team, and if he practiced over the summer, he would be right back where he was before the accident. Even if he landed in some small-time college, there was no doubt that he’d be the best on the team, and then bigger schools would be begging him to play for him.

Ken leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms behind his head. Yeah, it wouldn’t be long before he was right back where he used to be.