The February Formal article was met with a reaction I hadn't anticipated. Only few read the monthly newspaper to begin with, so it was a surprise when many of the stacks around campus became depleted. I chocked this up to people wanting to rifle through the pages in hopes of finding a picture of themselves at the dance. However, as the days after its release wore on, I noticed more and more people were shooting me fleeting glances.
My journalism professor, Mr. Haines, had even went as far as to congratulate me on my article submission. He had called me up to his desk, stating the piece was "a compelling ride of sheer fun and hope." This compliment proceeded to fly over my head as I grinned, muttered a 'thank you,' and took a seat at my desk.
In my opinion, I hadn't written anything revolutionary. It was a simple piece describing the backdrop of the dance, which allowed for the forefront to demonstrate the subtle but interesting activities having took place at the dessert counter. I hadn't mentioned Ben by name, nor anyone else for that matter, but had gone into detail about the effects both dances and baked goods could account for, citing the blossoming romance between two people – the professors –, the plotting of a chemistry lab expedition, and what good sticking up for someone can achieve, which, I found, to be both the easiest and hardest section of the article to write.
In addition, I had included a few pictures, one of which was of Cambrie and Jake, though not directly, dancing between a fair number of people. I was simply unable to leave this one out. Maybe the picture, which detailed just how happy she looked, would be the proof she required to evaluate her feelings for Jake.
All in all, it was a different spin on an article featuring a dance, and, much to my disbelief, students on campus really seemed to be taking notice.
Lifespan Psychology had just let out, which was the class I shared with Cambrie. While we hadn't sat together since our fight, I could usually spot her shiny, raven-haired head as the total number was fairly small. I had left the classroom first, detaching myself from the other students filing out, and shuffled through my bag to organize the material I had just stowed.
Suddenly, Cambrie emerged from the door. Both sets of our eyes locked; neither of us looked away, and Cambrie even slowed her pace as if she might join me near the side. Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth parted for a second. I waited in suspense.
In Cambrie's hand, I noticed, was a copy of the campus paper. All at once it hit me that she had read it and might possibly feel obligated to speak with me. But as I waited for her to make the first move, she backtracked, picking up her pace and stepping into the flow of foot traffic.
Silently chastising myself, I threw my head back. I should have said something; I should have been the one to make the first move. It was I who was truly at fault anyway, wasn't it? Cambrie's point had been valid: it wasn't fair for me to try coaxing out her feelings about Jake when I hadn't so much as spoken on my own feelings once. Friendship, at its core, with a delicate balance of truth and equality.
The remainder of the day finished in a dizzying fog leaving only enough clarity to count down the weeks, days, and hours left to endure.
The following day, I had choir practice. We were getting ever closer to our spring concert, and while Jerome was taking it in stride, the stress was getting to Amy, as more than once, she had teared up at the conclusion of a song, calling it "the best sound she had ever heard," while also had nearly lost her head when someone snuck into the choir hall five minutes late.
"I had to drop my kids off at my parent's house," the unsuspecting choir member had said. "Sorry, Amy."
"Don't apologize, be on time! The clock is ticking, and we are nowhere near close to ready!"
Apparently, Amy soon after realized she had slightly overreacted and let us know she was just frazzled, and that we were doing a fine job.
Tonight, both Jerome and Amy had disclosed one of the choir members, Sylvia, had to drop out of the group to care for her ailing father. She had clinched a solo in the choir setlist which would now have to be reassigned. The song was one I was particularly fond of.
Multiple hands shot up in the air. Lydia and Carver were immediately removed from consideration, as they were singing four different songs between the two of them. The two women huffed indignantly, causing me to snort through a spasm of humor. A few others were also removed from consideration, as both Jerome and Amy stated they wanted to hold auditions for those who hadn't a solo to sing.
For some unknown reason, my hand shot up in the air. It was like it was tied to an imaginary string being yielded from above, and I had no control over it whatsoever.
Through calculating eyes, Jerome called my name and invited me to audition.
I wanted to back down, to say it was a mistake; my hand had been thrown in the air involuntarily. It was the imaginary puppeteer above me who was responsible. But as I made my way to center stage, entirely aware of all the pairs of eyes fixed on me, I cast this notion aside. I wanted to sing. There was no puppeteer above me.
In the moments before Amy gave me the all clear to begin, I heard a gentle humming beneath my skin and thought of my mother. I thought of her confidence, of her poise, her resolute decisions. She was in me, I could feel her, singing to me softly and pushing me forward. It's scary, facing the unknown, scarier than anything else. But I knew my mother was there. She had to be. There was no other explanation for what I was feeling. Erikson had been right: my mother did live inside of me, she was just buried so deep, I didn't know where to look.
And as I sang, my eyes shut, my hands fisted, I realized my mother came to me in moments when I didn't know where to step next, guiding me forward, as slow as I needed, in order to keep me moving. She was a constant, something ingrained in the fibers of my being, something that could never leave, no matter what I did. She was gone, but her spirit wasn't, because it lived inside of me.
I blinked and opened my eyes to a series of shocked faces. Jerome was smiling gleefully, and Amy looked on the verge of tears again. When I stepped back into my spot in the lineup, Morgan seized my hand and gave it squeeze, which I didn't return.
Before choir was let out, I had been given the solo part.
Our next track meet was away. The end of March was fast approaching, and the weather had turned to rain, just as predicted. While it was still warm outside, thick drops of water pelted the bus windows on our way to the meet. As the rain hammered heavier, I knew we would be racing indoors today.
Even though I had contemplated leaving my father a note inviting him to this track meet, like Ben had suggested, I decided against it. I didn't think he would care to travel forty-five minutes from home. I arrived at the conclusion that, when I did leave the note, it would be for an at home track meet as to minimize the instance that he would say no.
Lightning struck in the distance, an odd occurrence for this time of year. The sky had lit up and faded in the blink of an eye, leaving me even more thankful we would be running indoors. Although, I did like storms. They excited me. And there was nothing quite as wonderful as watching the rain pound against windows and lighting strike in the distance from the comfort of a warm, dry place. It was like being front and center to something awe-inspiring without the risk of getting hurt.
Julia, again, was getting a ride from her parent's after the track meet. They had decided, since she would be so close to the city on a Friday night, they would spend the night and explore tomorrow. She had invited me to join her, but I turned her down. In all that had transpired in the past week, my brain had been wracked, my body drained. Too much newness had presented itself and it was though I had latched on to every ounce of it. I needed a break. The thought of my quiet room and stack of books had never sounded so enticing.
The only problem presenting itself was my father. It has been almost a week since my outburst over dinner with Sarah, and he still hadn't spoken to me about it. Part of me wanted to laugh at the irony of the situation, but, all in all, in only increased my sorrow. We had since taken part in a finetuned song and dance which had us acting both cordial yet distance from one another. It was like walking on eggshells every time I entered the house. I wondered if it felt the same way for him.
I also wondered if Sarah had mentioned the chat she and I shared on the porch. My instinct was she had, but left out the intimate details. I had developed a newfound respect for Sarah that evening and felt as though the specifics of our conversation were safe with her.
If only I had Cambrie to talk to, maybe I would be better able to sort through my feelings. For me, the notion of exploring my emotions was a treacherous one, and to want to get a handle on them was almost a foreign concept.
But something had changed in recent weeks, and while I wasn't sure where it started or even where it would end, I found myself on a different path. There were more obstacles, both frightening and beautiful, but I was too far in now, too deep. It was better to keep going than to turn back.
After the bus had pulled into the parking lot, as close to the athletic complex as possible to reduce our trek in the downpour, everyone climbed off, running frantically together towards the giant building which, in the rain, looked blurred.
Once inside, Rodriguez and Nelson had called us over, and were in the midst of giving us, more so Rodriguez than Nelson, the standard pep talk. Standing around in a huddle, I started to feel a lightness flow through me, as if blocks of weight had been shed from my shoulders. In addition, my mind was clearing too, no longer heaving with the bulk and distress it normally carried. It felt as though I had stepped into a new world, one that was teeming with choices and life, and while it exhausted me, it also intrigued me.
As I stood by the sidelines while the first racing event took place, I knew I was going to run as hard as I could.
Time wore on, and I still felt inspired, ready. I had been limbering up and keeping my mind afloat, it was still focused and sharp. Just as I had begun to stretch, I noticed Ben's event was about to start. Snapping upright, I focused entirely on his form at the mark.
Seconds later, with a near perfect starting position takeoff, Ben was running down the track at a speed unparalleled to him before. He was keeping up with the other members of track quite magnificently, even his form, although still choppy, was improved.
A couple members in the audience were cheering as Ben finished one lap, and I redirected my attention to the source. Erin and Heidi were situated in the bleachers, both clapping their hands and whooping fanatically. They continued their cheers as Ben continued running. He was keeping good speed and he looked even more confident in his strides than last time. It was hard to imagine such change had developed mere months, but then again, Ben had proven an unrivaled work ethic.
As loud as they had been during Ben's first lap, Erin and Heidi's chants still cut through the general excitement of the rest of the audience. Or maybe I was simply more attuned to it, actively listening for their voices. I has been so focused on Ben during his run, I hadn't paid any attention to the other members in the competition. The same may have been true for his mother and sister.
Ben may have just as well crossed the finish line in first place. Erin and Heidi were now jumping up and down ecstatically, Rodriguez had rushed over to congratulate him, and I found myself bearing an ingenuous smile. His time had improved, yet again, by over a minute.
Ben was panting after he broke away from Rodriguez, who was sporting an even ecstatic grin that I was, and headed for the sidelines. Erin and Heidi rushed down the bleacher stairs, wrapping him in a hug and, I was certain, thrusting him with commending praise. I couldn't think of anyone who deserved more celebration.
Soon after, my event was about to begin. My body was limber, my mind still crisp, and I felt an air of persistent anticipation. As we were called to our marks, I ducked into the starting position with assurance, loving the energy flowing through my body. I was ready, never had I been more ready.
The gun was fired and off I went. The other members disappeared on either side of me, and I was alone, running the track in a state of pure concentration. Nothing else mattered in that moment. My feet, legs, and arms all functioned accordingly, propelling me around the track. I thought of nothing. Time had ceased to exist, and I was just myself.
Once I had crossed the finish line, I knew something dramatic had occurred, as it was Nelson who reached me first.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded, still scowling, but sounding a degree less severe.
"What?" I breathed.
"You just ran a sub fifteen minute."
Rodriguez had just approached wearing the same smile on reserve for Ben, which had ultimately been mine first. "Mitchell – what – how did you do that? It was like watching you back in high school. I haven't seen you that focused in years!"
Their words did nothing for me. I didn't care about my time, not really. What had been missing from running in recent years had been restored: the confidence to accomplish anything. Heart pumping wildly, I tore away from Rodriguez and Nelson and caught my breath while walking towards the sideline. A few members handed me compliments, but none of them entered my ears. It was only when the one voice capable of breaking through that I paid attention.
"So much for not being a great runner."
Snapping my head around, I found Ben who standing still and smiling through tinted cheeks. Still a few yards away, he wavered in place as if contemplating whether it best to stay put or move forward. But I was still high on resolve and made the decision for him. Diminishing the distance between us, I glided closer, Ben's form becoming larger and more defined as I did so.
"It was like watching a different person out there," he said after I came to a stop before him.
"I felt like me again."
Once again, Ben proved to understand my cryptic statement, making me wonder if I was exposing myself more than I realized, or maybe he had managed to find the place I kept sheltered. Regardless of the reason, he granted me a comprehensive look and said, "I get what Rodriguez has been talking about all this time now."
"He still overexaggerated. According to him, I was able to defy the laws of physics."
Ben's hands were twisting habitually, but there seemed to be a nervousness working through them.
"You sure left him speechless. Didn't think that was possible."
"Thanks, Ben," I said, suddenly hit with a wave of appreciation. A balloon was expanding in my chest. I wanted to explain it was because of him I felt inspired to run, his sheer determination had carved a path for me to follow.
"What for?" he asked.
Before I could answer, two figures emerged from either side of Ben, flanking him with beaming smiles.
"I thought you said you weren't any good," said Erin immediately, coming to a stop right next to me. "You schooled everyone."
I didn't know what to say.
"That was impressive, Elliot," Heidi said. "Can I ask you a question?"
Holding her gaze, I nodded for her to continue.
"What do you think about when you run?"
With a quick glance to Ben, getting caught in his honey eyes for a moment, I returned to Heidi and said, "Absolutely nothing."
To my surprise, she smiled widely.
Later that evening, after the meet had concluded, the track team had loaded into the bus. I had said my goodbyes to Julia and her family, telling them to have a nice time in the city. Julia had been rather quiet since the race, as though she wasn't entirely sure what to say about my sudden outburst of speed. I was fine with this though, as I didn't really know what to say, myself.
I had chosen a seat near the front, ready for the ride home that promised to lull me to sleep, especially as the night increased. Ben had stepped onto the bus soon after and chose the seat behind me. His presence was intense, like a smoldering fire, and I knew sleep would no longer be an option.
The bus bolted down the highway in total Al-the-bus-driver fashion. We flew into the darkness as if being sucked through a tunnel at warp speed. Somewhere from behind me, I heard Nelson say, "This is a bus, Al, not a racecar!" We continued flying down the road.
Unable to stand the burning sensation behind me for much longer, I turned around so that my legs were placed on the seat and one arm grasped at the back rest. Ben was looking out the window when I spotted him, but immediately turned to face me.
"Didn't want to ride home with your mom and sister?" I asked.
It was dark on the bus, but I could still make out Ben's features rather well, his golden eyes looked deeper in color and the contours of his face appeared softer.
"It's all part of the deal. They can come to the meets, but I get to do everything an ordinary track member would. Like riding the bus."
"Because you're so ordinary," I said abruptly, and Ben's face fell. He took my words at face value, when I had meant them in an entirely different manner. I hadn't been referring to Ben's CP; my intention belonged to another realm.
Backtracking, I said, "No – that's not – I didn't mean it like that. I just meant –" But what did I mean? The feeling was there, swirling within me, but I couldn't seem to place it, as though the emotion was either too complex or too new to distinguish. It wasn't simple, and I couldn't understand it, let alone express it.
"It's alright, Elliot," continued Ben softly, deflecting the comment with finesse, once again informing me he had had much practice in doing so. The thought turned my mouth bitter.
"No, I really didn't mean it like that – I just meant," I sucked in a shaky breath, "you've done more than anyone – well, besides Rodriguez – thought you could do. It's… that's not something everyone can do." The emotion was so strong, but I still couldn't make heads or tails of it. "You just – I don't know – you seem to set your mind to something and, no matter what, are able to do it. I wish I had that."
Ben still said nothing. He sat still, his body jilting back and forth as the bus rolled down the highway. Anxiety grew in me. I wanted to keep talking, to explain myself further, but I didn't know how.
Finally, his voice like a dagger, he said, "You really think that?"
The two of us fell into a bought of silence, each dissecting and categorizing the conversation, deciding where to continue next. Ben then said something that upturned all the little boxes I had organized in my mind:
"I read your article about the dance."
"Oh," I said. It took some time to adjust my mind to the article.
"I really liked it."
"Um – thanks."
"It wasn't what I was expecting," Ben said.
"No?" I said. "Me either." I wrapped my arms around my knees. "I had actually written a completely different article before, but just before I had to turn it in, I rewrote the whole thing."
"What made you do that?" he asked, and I shrugged.
"Don't know. It just didn't seem right."
"It was the best piece in the paper, maybe even all year. And I'm not the only one who thinks so."
Again, I was left speechless. I hadn't exactly worked that hard on the article, in hopes it would become something great. It was as simple as writing something that brought contentment.
"What are you majoring in?" he asked.
"Why not Journalism?"
I nearly laughed at this. "It was one article, Ben. Trust me, I'm nothing special."
"Yes, you are." He sounded stanch. "You've got a talent."
"Stop it," I said, exasperated. "You're going to make me blush."
"Just think about it – switching your major. Where are you transferring to university?"
"Western," I said, ignoring the former sentence.
The answer caught Ben off guard; he hesitated for a moment, eyes unfocused and pondering, before he said, "Just think about it."
I would. Ben had planted a seed and I knew it would grow, rain or shine. I would observe it, tend to it, and decide what to make of it in due course.
"You ran really well today," I said suddenly, feeling the need to say it aloud.
Ben moved his gaze to the window again, as if avoiding the comment and directing it outside. He then swiveled his head back around.
"I came in last."
"Yeah, but your time improved by over a minute again."
Ben was thoughtful and then chucked a smile onto his face. "Pretty good for a kid with CP, huh?"
I didn't smile in return.
When the bus pulled into the velvety black parking lot, only a few scattered cars remained glistening underneath the towering lights. The rain had let up substantially, but everything was coated in water. The air felt thick and wet as I stepped off the bus, Ben in my wake, my shoes sloshing on the soaked pavement. I could see Ben's truck parked a ways in the distance to my right, however, he did not break for it; instead, he came to my side and walked with me in direction of my car.
We were quiet on our journey, but a serene humming overtook my ears, my chest tight and wanting. Soon, however, another body fell in line with us, and broke the electric silence at once.
"Nice job today, you two," Rodriguez said.
He stood on the other side of Ben. I tilted my head to Rodriguez and noticed, by the soft hue of the parking lights, that he was watching me.
"Thanks, Coach," I said. "I heard I made you speechless."
"Never thought I'd see the day," I said as we approached my car.
"Mitchell," Rodriguez said with a tentative glace at Ben before rounding on me, "I hope that whatever it was – whatever made you run like you did – I hope you hold onto it and remember. You were… it was like going back in time today."
I didn't respond. I didn't know how I could possibly explain the reasoning when I didn't quite understand it on my own.
"And Ben," Rodriguez continued, "if you keep it up, you'll be running miles in negative time after twelve more races."
All of us laughed heartily, and then departed the parking lot to head home. On the drive, the tightness in my body only wound together more so.
Thank you so much for reading! I would appreciate any feedback you might have.