Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
This right here is what I live for. The steady rhythm of my feet landing softly on dirt. Colorado sunshine heating the fresh morning air. Birds singing as they swoop in and out of trees. And Dave frolicking beside me with his tongue lolling out to the side.
I want to capture the exhilaration and peace flowing through my veins, pulsing through my soul. Who needs a vice when you can attain an utter sense of being alive with such simple ingredients? Blue sky, fresh air, and, of course, man’s best friend. Dave’s feeling it, too - runner’s high. Endorphin rush. Call it what you will.
We turn off the single track and cross the footbridge separating the foothills from Brockton’s residential neighborhoods. I could easily run for another hour or two, but my training schedule calls for a forty-five-minute easy jog, and I’m already pushing an hour.
I used to think that being a disciplined athlete was all about pushing hard. But I was wrong. It’s really about knowing when to hold back, being patient enough to do it, and then pushing hard when the time comes.
I got into running on my first day of high school, almost by accident. Having never played sports when I was younger, I was pretty clueless about how they worked, but it turned out I was fast –
fast – and immediately made varsity and even qualified for the State meet. But since I had no idea of strategy, starting every run with a full-on sprint was all I knew to do, so “crash and burn” became my motto for the first few races.
I now have two cross country seasons and two track seasons under my belt, and I’ve learned how to pace myself at races and in workouts. But this season presents a new challenge. I need to pace myself over the course of the whole season. Not just for twenty minutes or so, but for three and a half months, or fourteen weeks.
I’m usually beat, mentally and physically, after the State meet, but if all goes well, I’ll be racing for a month longer than past seasons. First I have to qualify for Regionals at the State meet, and then I have to qualify for Nationals at Regionals. Until then, I’ve got to hold back. Easier said than done.
I wind through the familiar streets, my empty stomach coming to attention when the smell of bacon from someone’s kitchen floats by. When I turn onto Shadow Lane, slowing to a walk for my cool-down, I see a silver Mercedes Benz pulling up in front of the Wilders’ house. I narrow my eyes at it, watching Jace Wilder get out from the passenger side. His biceps flex as he holds the top of the door to lean in the open window and say something to the driver. Reaching in the car window, he retrieves a box of donuts before walking towards his house.
The car drives away from the Wilders’ house in my direction and slows as it passes me on the sidewalk. I recognize Madeline Brescoll when she rolls down her window. “Hi, Pepper.” Her voice is filled with self-satisfaction. Through the window, I can see she looks gorgeous as usual.
I raise my hand in an unenthusiastic wave. “Morning.”
She flashes me an insincere smile, turns up the radio and drives away. I glance down at Dave, who’s licking sweat off my shin. He’s unimpressed. He might be the first male of any species to snub her like that.
Dave’s a multi-colored, short-haired mutt I adopted pretty much by accident last year – I simply wasn’t capable of ignoring the “free puppies” sign. Clearly, despite his lack of pedigree, he’s far too good for the Madeline Brescolls of this world.
Madeline’s family owns one of the largest breweries in the nation. She goes to Lincoln Academy, the private school in town. And along with the rest of the female population in Brockton, she wants Jace Wilder.
Admittedly, Madeline has actually succeeded to some degree in her efforts to get him. Jace sleeps with her more regularly than any other girl and, according to the
gossip, she’s the only girl he’s been with in his grade. Apparently Jace only hooks up with older girls these days; I imagine that will change now that he’s a senior, unless he moves on to college girls.
I shake off my thoughts as I stretch my hamstrings. I’m determined not to let boys, or one boy in particular,
ruin the buzz from my morning run. High school drama isn’t something I’ve let invade my life in the past two years, and junior year won’t be any different.
It doesn’t matter to me who our class officers are, or who won Homecoming Queen - my life revolves around running, and all my friends are runners except for Jace. It’s the one thing I have where I can stand out. I’m not an amazing student. I’m not popular. I’m not in band, on debate team, or dating anyone, let alone the starting quarterback (that would be Jace, by the way). Running is my thing. And this season is going to be epic.
I jog up the stairs to the second-floor apartment I share with my Gran. She’s singing along to Aretha in her bedroom, meaning she’ll be out soon and looking for her coffee, so I hit the kitchen before the bathroom. I don’t drink the stuff myself, but Gran’s an addict and I know she’ll want some any minute.
Ten minutes later I’m out of the shower and tugging a brush through my wet hair when I hear the unmistakable sound of Jace’s voice in the kitchen with Gran. I quickly clasp my favorite purple bra behind my back and pull on a pair of red cutoff jean shorts from my closet floor. I’m pushing my arms through the holes of a snug grey tee shirt when I hear Gran in the doorway to my bedroom.
Pep. You got matching undies?” She grins and wiggles her eyebrows.
“I’m going commando today, Gran,” I tease.
“Not in those short little shorts you ain’t. I can practically see your butt cheeks hangin’ out.” She waves her index finger in mock disapproval. “Not that you got much in the way of butt cheeks, but if you did, they’d be hangin’ out of those little scraps of fabric.”
I make a face in response. “Whatever, Gran, I have to race for twenty minutes in front of hundreds of people in a uniform that covers less skin than these, and it’s required by the school. And I
wearing underwear.” I pull down the shorts a bit and pull up my polka-dotted panties. “But they don’t match the bra. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Can I see?” Jace peeks over Gran’s shoulder into my bedroom.
“Young man!” Gran elbows him away and we follow her down the hallway. Her piglet slippers oink with each step as she patters towards the kitchen. Gran’s looking her usual snazzy self in a butterfly-patterned pajama set, her wiry grey hair sticking out in all directions.
“Happy birthday, old lady.” I wrap my arms around her soft little body and rock her back and forth. “Love you, Gran.”
She pats me on the back. “I know you do, hun. Now, eat a few donuts. You need some butt cheeks.” She pushes a box of a dozen donuts in my direction. “Jace brought over a good selection.”
I glance in his direction and raise my eyebrows. He must have stopped at the donut shop with Madeline. After a sleepover at her place, I presume. Jace shrugs and takes a giant bite from a jelly-filled one.
I let my eyes linger a moment. I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks and his olive skin has turned to a dark tan. His jet black hair is ruffled in a messy fauxhawk. He’s had the same haircut for long enough that it falls into place without the need for styling.
Jace takes a seat at our dinner table. At six feet three inches, his presence dominates our little apartment even when he’s seated.
“Hey, I wasn’t gonna miss seeing Buns on her birthday. Got up early just for you.” Jace says, winking at Gran.
Gran practically raised Jace, whose mom left when he was four years old. My parents died in a car crash when I was a myself, and Gramps (Gran’s hubby) passed shortly after that. Jace’s dad, Jim, is a cool guy, but he works full time, so Gran babysat Jace when we were little, and watched us after school as we got older. Gramps was able to leave us a little to live on from his hard work as an electrician over the years, but it was Gran’s pension from her days as a U.S. postal mail-woman that allowed her to retire and raise me.
“You’re a sweetie,” Gran tells Jace. “You could come to the party at Lulu’s later. We’re having a luncheon,” she offers.
I laugh. “You sure that’s a good idea, Gran?” Lulu is Gran’s BFF. She’s throwing a birthday party with all the ladies from Gran’s knitting and book clubs. I can just imagine the reaction they’d have to Jace. Teenage girls aren’t the only ones affected by his charms.
“Sorry Buns, I can’t miss football,” he answers, and to his credit he actually sounds regretful.
“So how was the camp?” I ask. He’s been in Texas for two weeks playing football. It was for college recruitment and he had to be specially selected to attend.
“It was intense, but a good time. I met some cool guys. We pretty much just played a shitload of football.” He mimes throwing a pass. “Slept a ton. Ate a ton. They actually had some decent food at the cafeteria.” He glances at Gran and quickly adds, “Nothing like your cooking, Buns, obviously.”
Jace feeds the rest of his donut to Dave, who has been waiting patiently with his head resting on Jace’s lap.
I shake my head at the resulting crumb-and-drool fest. “So was it worth missing Brockton’s preseason? Did they have a lot of recruiters?”
Jace shifts in his seat. “Yeah, they had coaches from all over the nation. But shit, hosting the camp in Dallas in the middle of August pretty much killed any idea that I’d end up anyplace south of Colorado. It’s hot as fuck there.”
“Yeah, probably not the best recruiting tactic for the southern schools, huh?” I want to ask him if he’s considering staying in Colorado, but I’m afraid what his answer will be. I’d like to hold on to the hope that he’s not leaving for just a little bit longer. After all, most Brockton Public students go to UC. It’s a great school, and in-state tuition is a sweet deal.
“How’s your dad doing? I haven’t run into him lately,” Gran asks.
“Same old. New girlfriend. He’s good though. We had dinner at the Tavern last night after I got in. I was hoping to see you there, Pep.”
“I had the night off.” You could have swung by the apartment to say hello, I want to add. But no, he had to go out and have a sleepover with Madeline. God forbid he goes longer than two weeks without any action. Although, knowing him, he probably figured out a way to meet girls even while he was at football camp.
“Oh hey, I ordered a sick 2000 piece Hendrix puzzle. You want to come over later to start working on it?” Jace asks.
Damn. I wish I could. I really missed him these past two weeks. “I’ve got my last shift at the Tavern after Gran’s party. But don’t start it without me. Maybe tomorrow night? We probably won’t have much homework after the first day anyway.” Not that homework ever got in the way of Jace’s social life before.
“Yeah, this one’s definitely gonna make the wall, Pep. It’s wild.” When we were kids, Gran put the best puzzles we finished in frames to hang on the walls. We continue to do it with the really awesome ones.
Jace hangs out for another hour before heading out. “Pick you up at 7:45 tomorrow morning?” he asks me.
“I’ll be ready.”
I’ve had my license for a few months but I don’t have my own car. When Jace is the one giving me rides, there’s not a whole lot of motivation to save up for my own vehicle. It’s my time with him. Once we get to school, he does his own thing with his crowd, and I do mine. He usually comes over for dinner, but aside from that, and the occasional puzzle session, driving to school is my special Jace time.
On the one hand, it kind of looks like I’m pining after the guy I can’t have, but on the other, he’s my oldest friend and I know he cares about me. I know where I stand, and I accept it. Most of the time.