“It’s not a big deal,” he said to Bert after a minute, pulling a hand through his hair. Now I knew for sure that they were brothers. They looked even more alike to me, although the similarities—skin tone, dark hair, dark eyes—were distributed on starkly different builds.
“I never get to drive,” Bert told him. “Never. Even lazy Monotone got to last week, but never me. Never.”
“You will,” Wes said. “Next week you’ll have your own car, and you can drive whenever you want. But don’t push this issue now, man. It’s late.”
Bert stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Whatever,” he said, and started around the van, shuffling his feet. Wes followed him, clapping a hand on his back. “You know that girl who was in the kitchen tonight, helping Delia?” Bert asked.
“Yeah,” Wes answered. “The one you leaped out at?”
“Anyway,” Bert said loudly, “don’t you know who she is?”
Bert pulled open the back door. “Yeah, you do. Her dad—”
I waited. I knew what was coming, but still, I had to hear the words that would follow. The ones that defined me, set me apart.
“—was the coach when we used to run in that kids’ league, back in elementary school,” Bert finished. “The Lakeview Zips. Remember?”
Wes opened the back door for Bert. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Coach Joe, right?”
Right, I thought, and felt a pang in my chest.
“Coach Joe,” Bert repeated, as he shut his door. “He was a nice guy.”
I watched Wes walk to the driver’s door and pull it open. He stood there for a second, taking a final look around, before climbing in and shutting the door behind him. I had to admit, I was surprised. I’d gotten so used to being known as the girl whose dad died, I sometimes forgot that I’d had a life before that.
I moved back into the shadows by my window as the engine started up and the van bumped down the driveway, brake lights flashing as it turned out onto the street. There was a big wishbone painted on the side, thick black paint strokes, and from a distance it looked like a Chinese character, striking even if you didn’t know, really, what it meant. I kept my eye on it, following it down through the neighborhood, over the hill, down to the stop sign, until it was gone.
I couldn’t sleep.
I was starting my job at the library the next day, and I had that night-before-the-first-day-of-school feeling, all jumpy and nervous. But then again, I’d never been much of a sleeper. That was the weird thing about that morning when my dad came in to get me. I’d been out. Sound asleep.
Since then, I had almost a fear of sleeping, sure that something bad would happen if I ever allowed myself to be fully unconscious, even for a second. As a result, I only allowed myself to barely doze off. When I did sleep enough to dream, it was always about running.
My dad loved to run. He’d had me and my sister doing it from a young age with the Lakeview Zips, and later he was always dragging us to the 5Ks he ran, signing us up for the kids’ division. I remember my first race, when I was six, standing there at the starting line a few rows back, with nothing at my eye level but shoulders and necks. I was short for my age, and Caroline had of course pushed her way to the front, stating clearly that at ten-almost-eleven, she didn’t belong in back with the babies. The starting gun popped and everyone pushed forward, the thumping of sneakers against asphalt suddenly deafening, and at first it was like I was carried along with it, my feet seeming hardly to touch the ground. The people on the sides of the street were a blur, faces blowing by: all I could focus on was the ponytail of the girl in front of me, tied with a blue grosgrain ribbon. Some big boy bumped me hard from the back, passing, and I had a cramp in my side by the second length, but then I heard my dad.
“Macy! Good girl! Keep it up, you’re doing great!”
I knew by the time I was eight years old that I was fast, faster than the kids I was running with. I knew even before I started to pass the bigger kids in the first length, even before I won my first race, then every race. When I was really going, the wind whistling in my ears, I was sure that if I wanted to, it was only another burst of breath, one more push, and I could fly.
By then it was just me running. My sister had lost interest around seventh grade, when she discovered her best event was not, as we’d all thought, the hundred meters, but in fact flirting with the boy’s track team afterwards. She still liked to run, but didn’t much see the point anymore if she didn’t have someone chasing after her.
So it was me and my dad who went to meets, who woke up early to do our standard five-mile loop, who compared T-band strains and bad-knee horror stories over icepacks and PowerBars on Saturday mornings. It was the best thing we had in common, the one part of him that was all mine. Which was why, that morning, I should have been with him.
From that morning on, running changed for me. It didn’t matter how good my times were, what records I’d planned to break just days before. There was one time I would never beat, so I quit.
By altering the familiar route that took me past the intersection of Willow and McKinley whenever I went out, and looping one extra block instead, I’d been able to avoid the place where everything had happened: it was that easy, really, to never drive past it again. My friends from the track team were a bit harder. They’d stuck close to me, loyal, at the funeral and the days afterwards, and while they were disappointed when the coach told them I’d quit, they were even more hurt when I started to avoid them in the halls. Nobody seemed to understand that the only person I could count on not to bring up my dad, not to feel sorry for me, or make The Face—other than my mother—was me. So I narrowed my world, cutting out everyone who’d known me or who tried to befriend me. It was the only thing I knew to do.
I packed up all my trophies and ribbons, piling them neatly into boxes. It was like that part of my life, my running life, was just gone. It was almost too easy, for something I once thought had meant everything.
So now I only ran in my dreams. In them, there was always something awful about to happen, or there was something I’d forgotten, and my legs felt like jelly, not strong enough to hold me. Whatever else varied, the ending was the same, a finish line I could never reach, no matter how many miles I put behind me.
“Oh, right.” Bethany looked up at me through her slim, wire-framed glasses. “You’re starting today.”