Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
I mope around for a few minutes after Jace leaves, but what I really want to do is go for a long run in the foothills. I need to get out of the house and clear my head.
I try to distract myself with homework, and when that doesn’t work, I Google the girls listed as the top contenders in
Running Fast Magazine
. There’s a lengthy interview with Jessica Lillis, who placed second last year, and is predicted to win this year. She’s a senior at a high school in upstate New York.
In the interview, Jessica explains a typical week of training, and I’m blown away when she says that she typically runs twice as many miles a week as I do. I read some of the comments on the article, and realize that her training is fairly typical for a national-level high school runner. When I click on links to different discussion forums about high school running, I’m shocked to see my name appear in several threads.
Most of the comments are flattering, and predict that I will break into the national scene this year. But what happens when I have a bad race? What will they say if I don’t live up to their expectations?
Before I know it, I’m lacing up my trail runners and changing into running shorts. Dave hops off the couch, tugs his leash off its hook and wags his tail by the door.
As soon as we hit the trails, I feel better. The hollow feeling Jace left me with is still there, but my spirits lift with the familiar rhythm of my feet on dirt. A soft breeze ruffles the leaves in the trees, and Dave lifts his snout in appreciation of the sweet fresh air.
Though my head has always known Jace would never be mine, I think my heart has been holding onto the possibility. But it’s time to let go, and move on.
I’m excited about how good things feel between Ryan and me. That kiss… it felt more than good. It meant something. I know it did.
My legs feel strong today, nice and loose after yoga. I know I should take the shorter loop, but my legs float along effortlessly and I simply don’t want the run to end. I take the long loop that winds up a mountain, the sound of Dave’s panting and my steady breathing the only noises along the way. At the top, I climb up a boulder and take in the view of Brockton below.
My body tingles from exertion, but my head is calm, and my heart -- well, it hurts, but maybe now it can start healing.
“Hey Coach,” I greet Tom at the beginning of practice the next day.
“Pepper, how are you?”
“I’m feeling good,” I tell him honestly. He always checks in to see if anything hurts, or if I’m getting tired. “But I couldn’t help myself, and I kind of went for a long run yesterday. I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I really wanted to.”
Coach smiles. “You don’t have to look so guilty about it.”
“But,” I start to say, but he cuts me off.
“Yes, one day off from running each week is important, but it’s great that you love running so much.” He smiles at me. “I don’t want that to change. It’s okay to be flexible with the training plan. The general idea is to make sure you get some recovery days in between long runs and workouts, and that you don’t start racing hard until the end of the season. So why don’t you take today off, instead?”
“But then I’ll miss practice. I never miss practice. I’m the captain, and it doesn’t seem right that –”
“Pepper, take today off,” he says firmly. “You can stick around and do some strength exercises if you want, but you don’t need to. How long did you run for yesterday?”
I think for a second. “I didn’t bring a watch, but that loop usually takes about an hour and a half.”
“I might modify tomorrow’s workout for you then, as well. Maybe have you do the hill workout with the girls instead of the boys.”
I hate missing practice, and I’m not sure how I feel about a “flexible” training plan. Today’s practice is just an easy running day, so it’s not a huge deal to miss, but modifying tomorrow’s hill workout? I don’t like it.
I do some homework while I wait for Ryan to finish practice. I haven’t spoken to him since Saturday night, and I’m eager to see him. How will he act? Are we more than friends now? Do I want that?
I quickly realize the answer must be
yes, I do, because why else would I be so bummed out when he acts exactly the same towards me, as though the kiss never happened? On the way home, he’s attentive and friendly, but he doesn’t touch me, or express an interest in hanging out together again.
I shake it off and talk to him more about Coach’s training philosophy. “I guess I feel like he’s holding me back,” I complain. “I’ve never been injured and I’ve never felt burnt out or over-trained before. So what’s the big deal if I run more? It should only make me stronger, right?”
Ryan smiles. “I totally get where you’re coming from, Pepper. But did you think that you’ve never been injured
Coach Tom knows what he’s doing? Moderate training is counterintuitive, in some ways, but what’s the point in training your ass off only to get injured?” He shrugs with both hands on the wheel. “Once your body gets tired, running isn’t much fun.”
tired, that’s what I’m saying.” I know I must sound like a little kid, but it’s really bugging me.
“Injury and fatigue happen fast, and then there’s not much you can do about it.” He glances at me before continuing. “My dad reviews a ton of high school programs and sees how runners from different programs do in college and after. The ones who do the best long-term are usually the ones who don’t do crazy intense training in high school.”
I sigh heavily. I know I should trust Coach, especially if the reigning national champion agrees with his approach, but holding back is not in my nature.
“Look,” Ryan continues, “a lot of runners need to be pushed just to show up to practice, let alone run hard. But for someone like you, who really loves it, Coach’s job is just to keep you healthy. There’s no doubt, with your talent, that you’ll get stronger and faster.”
“You sound so wise, it’s hard not to listen to you,” I say grumpily.
Ryan laughs. “I just hear about this stuff all the time with my dad as a coach. I’m happy that I have the opportunity to help you out. I really want to go to Nationals together, Pepper.”
He smiles at me as we pull up outside my apartment building. With a dimple on each cheek, and those bright blue eyes, Ryan has the all-American boy good looks.
“You want to stay for dinner? Gran always makes plenty.” And Jace doesn’t come by as much these days, I think.
He considers for a moment, then says, “I should get home. Mom’s expecting me. Thanks though.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow then.”
He must have decided he didn’t want to pursue anything with me after all. Maybe I’m a bad kisser.
When the entire week goes by and Ryan shows no interest in taking things further than friendship, I’m slightly shocked by my devastation. I guess I really did like him. I’ve lost my usual appetite, and I’m constantly grumpy.
I want to run harder and longer to get out my negative feelings, but I’m trying hard to be patient. I run with the girls for the hill workout on Tuesday, and Coach keeps yelling at me to slow down. I get to run with the boys again for the speed workout on Thursday, and I hammer out the half-mile repeats. It helps me work out some of my negative energy, but I’m still in a funk and I can’t figure out how to break it.
When Zoe organizes tubing on Saturday after our long run, I eagerly agree to go. It’s time to stop wallowing and have fun.
I wear my white bikini with purple polka dots. We meet the group at the park where most people start the tubing down Wolf Creek. Charlie and Zoe drive down to the end of the creek to drop off Zoe’s mom’s minivan so we have a ride back up at the end.
I’m surprised to see Ryan leaning against his car in the parking lot when we all meet. I know he eats at the table with Jace’s crowd on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when he has a different lunch period than me, and everyone’s heard that Lisa has made her intentions to get with him very clear. Ryan’s definitely been accepted into the senior inner circle, the people who the gossip revolves around, and one of the hottest girls in school wants to date him. I didn’t think he’d spend his Saturday afternoon hanging out with the team.
Zoe squeals when she rejoins us. “Check it out! Check it out!” She shows us a bottle of Captain Morgan peeking out from under her towel. “I hope you all brought water bottles! Claire, stop looking at me like that! It’s still early in the season, and I think we all deserve a little fun.” She wiggles her eyebrows.
Charlie raises his hand. “I brought the mixer.”
“Charlie!” I exclaim. “Since when do you drink?!”
He shrugs sheepishly. “I don’t, really. But I’m a senior in high school. I figure I should go to college with at least a little experience under my belt.”
Claire and Ryan volunteer to be our designated drivers. Zoe starts filling up people’s water bottles with rum and Coke. I tell her to just put a tiny bit of rum in mine. I don’t think I’m going to like the stuff, but I feel comfortable drinking a little with this group.
While we unload the tubes from Charlie’s truck, I see Jace’s Jeep on the other side of the parking lot. He’s leaning against the passenger side door, and a petite brunette is plastered against him. She’s wearing nothing but a bright red string bikini, and Jace’s hands are squeezing her butt. Her hands are between them while they make out and I quickly look away, but not before seeing exactly where her hands are.
“Hey Zoe,” I call over to her. “Can you add more rum to mine?” She grins and dumps in more.
I’ve never seen Jace with another girl like this. I’ve seen girls flirt with him and seek his attention, but I rarely see him give more than a polite or indulgent response. Logically, I know he’s been intimate with lots of girls. But I really don’t like witnessing it. I take a sip from the water bottle and grimace.
Ryan, who I didn’t even notice was standing next to me, laughs softly. “Take it easy on that, Pepper.”
I’m not happy with him either. I take my inner tube from Charlie and stomp off towards the creek, taking small sips along the way. A group of guys and girls, whom I don’t recognize and look to be UC students, are lounging by the creek entrance, smoking cigarettes. I sit on my inner tube in the shallow water, waiting for my friends to catch up before I start down the river.
I watch the college kids. Most of them have tattoos, and some of the guys have silver or gold chain necklaces. The guys look tough, and the girls hard. I take another sip from my water bottle.
“Oh, there you are!” I hear a girl’s voice call out from the path. I turn to see if it’s one of my friends. It’s not. It’s the girl who was with Jace; they’re holding hands. I’ve never seen her before today. She has a tattoo peeking out from the bottom of her bathing suit, and I just bet Jace has seen the rest of it. “We were up in the parking lot waiting for you. We didn’t know we were meeting down here.”
“No problem,” one of the guys says. He puts out his cigarette and does a little handshake thing with Jace.
I shrink into my inner tube, wishing I hadn’t come down by myself. I turn away and look out across the river, while continuing to sip my rum and Coke. It’s starting to taste sweet now, and I think I’m already feeling tipsy. I’m relieved when I see Jace’s group hop on their tubes and push off down the river. No one seems to notice me.
“Pepper?” I look over at Jace when I hear my name but I avert my eyes when I see the girl climb between his legs into the same tube as him. That can’t be comfortable. But still, I’m jealous.
“Hey Jace.” I try to sound cool and unaffected by the PDA.
“I saw Ryan and Zoe and those guys heading down here. Are you with them?” He steadies his tube but he’s already starting to float away.
“Yup. I’m cool!” I call out. I wave and he waves back. I watch him lean down to say something in the girl’s ear.
“Pepper! Have you tried your drink? What do you think? I stole it from my parents’ liquor cabinet.” Zoe bounces towards me, the crew behind her.
“Yeah. It’s awesome. Thanks.” I stifle a small burp. “I think I might be drunk already though.”
“I’ll keep an eye on you.” Ryan squats down next to my tube. “You know, in case you fall out or something.”
“I know how to swim, Ryan. But thank you.” I tell everyone to wait a few minutes to let the other group get further ahead of us. I don’t want to keep seeing Jace and his college girl.
It doesn’t take much before we are all feeling a little crazy from the drinks. Ryan keeps his tube by mine the whole way. I find myself stuck in an eddy at one point and Ryan hops out of his tube to pull me back into the flowing river.
“Ryan?” I ask, feeling bold. “I’m kind of confused. I thought we had a really good time last week. I know it wasn’t really a date, but. . . I thought you might ask me on one. Was I wrong to think that? Do you not like me that way?”
Ryan pauses, holding on to both our tubes. The sun glints off his wet chest, and he really does look good leaning over me. Before he can answer, I tell him, “I’d like to kiss you again. Do you want that too?”
“Remy, Ben and Connor talked to me,” he says. “They were cool about it. But they told me I should think about backing off from you.”
“They weren’t very clear about it, just that Jace is real protective of you, and he has a temper. I guess he’s been really angry or something and they’re worried he’ll lose it if you and I are together.”
I nod. Jace does have a temper. “Jace likes to act like a big brother. But don’t worry, he said he likes you, and that it’s okay if I keep going out with you. I talked to him about it.”
“Really?” Ryan looks surprised. “It’s not only what the guys said that stopped me from asking you out again, though, Pepper. I really like you, and I wouldn’t have let Jace’s problems get in the way. It’s just, I’ve seen the way you look at him, Pepper.” Ryan looks right at me, and says quietly, “I don’t think I can compete with that.”
“Oh.” I can’t deny it. I didn’t know that others could see it too. “Is it that obvious?”