Pain cuts through my foot each time it hits the pavement. I hobble and curse, and then I stumble onto a nearby lawn. The muggy air feels like gauze against my face.
Asher and Mark stop running too. We all catch our breath.
“What happened?” Asher says, planting his hands on his hips and doing that thing where he shows his top row of teeth as he inhales. The front two are perfect and white like crunchy gum.
With my butt perched on the curb, I lean back on my hands. The grass feels soft but prickly and it smells as much like chemicals as gas.
“I bent my foot,” I say. “On the curb.”
“What?” Mark says, cocking his head sideways.
“He stepped on the curb,” Asher says. “And his foot bent.” He demonstrates with his own foot, twisting it sideways.
Mark starts to jog in place. He’s lanky and looks kind of like a giraffe when he runs. “Dude, get up,” he says. “If Ferret sees us just standing around, he’s gonna—”
“Yeah, I know.” Ferret, otherwise known as Randy Farragut, is the thirty-year-old assistant coach of boys’ cross-country. During practice he rides his bike along the course to make sure everyone is running as fast and as far as he thinks they should.
And he despises the three of us.
Partially because we sometimes don’t run as fast and as far as he thinks we should. Partially because we obviously don’t care. Partially because everybody started calling him Ferret this summer and he decided that we were responsible. And we kind of were, but …
Anyway, it’s mostly because he’s a dick.
And even if he does believe that I injured myself, which he won’t, he’ll still bust Asher and Mark for standing around.
Which means sprints. A lot of sprints.
And a lot of public mockery when girls’ cross-country catches up to us in a couple of minutes.
“Try to get up,” Asher says. “Maybe it’s okay now.” He wipes the sweat around his sports goggles with his ratty Atlanta Cup tournament T-shirt, from when we still played soccer.
I push up from the grass, take a step, and grimace from the pain. I sit back down.
“Just go,” I say.
“You sure?” Asher says.
Mark kicks the toe of his sneaker against the asphalt and glances behind us again.
I shake my head. “Save yourselves.”
They laugh at me, and I think: This is why we’re friends. Because if either of them were in my position, I’d leave them, too.
Mark points behind me. “Hide behind that mailbox.”
In a yard off the nearby cul-de-sac, I see it. As big around as a column and made of brick, it’s more like a mail fortress. It’s perfectly sized to conceal a crouching coward, but—
“Just rest for a minute and take the shortcut,” Mark says. “We’ll meet you.” He looks back again, his eyes a little panicked. The Slow Freshmen—the only group of boys slower than us—are about to catch up. “Come on, dude.”
“Okay, okay. Go.”
Asher and Mark take off, and I push myself up again. I press my weight onto my good leg and limp to the cul-de-sac, flexing my hands and cringing as I go. I plop down onto a patch of shady grass behind the mailbox and shift myself so I can’t be seen from the main road. I gasp.
And then I hang my head and say, “Dammit.”
Because now I’m trapped. My ankle already really hurt, and I just made it worse. There’s no way I can meet up with Asher and Mark before Ferret sees them. And when he sees them and doesn’t see me, he’ll come hunting for me, the lame gazelle at the watering hole. Or whatever ferrets hunt.
I’ll be embarrassingly easy to find. But, to Ferret, the fact that I’m even trying to hide will be proof that I’m faking, that I really am as lazy as he keeps saying. Even though he’s the one who rides around on his Schwinn while the rest of us suffer.
He’ll insult me. He’ll humiliate me. He might even suspend me from the team.
And I’ll try to defend myself, but not hard enough. I’ll just take what he dishes out and call him Ferret behind his back. Because that’s what I do.
I hear a group of girls run by, their sharp breathing and the clap of their shoes against the pavement. I imagine Ferret barking at them to come see Phillip the Gutless Wonder.
I can’t stay here. After the girls pass, I’ll stagger away, no matter how much it hurts. I’ll limp through people’s yards and sneak back to the locker room and never come back.
I mean, I might come back if—
I hear footsteps.
One set of footsteps. On this street. Coming closer.
I didn’t hear Ferret’s bike, but I wasn’t really paying attention.
No no no.
My body tenses up. A cold drop of sweat dangles from my eyebrow. I want to swat it, but only my heart moves, like a dragonfly hovering in my chest.
The footsteps move softly. Closer.
I look up.
Standing, towering over me, green eyes catching the light.
There’s this girl.
© 2012 Lucas Klauss