Fiction

Cross Country at the School for Troubled Teens

By Rich Elliott

So you Board Members asked me to write something up. “Just tell us about the season and about Coach Thorpe. In your own words.”

Fine, I’ll play your Game, I got nothing to hide. I’m outta here anyway in two months. When I turn 18.

I know you think one of us had something to do with It. You want some dirt. Questions came up, now you gotta Look Into It. You want to believe the Lies being spread.

Tell you right off, Coach had nada to do with the thing at the State Meet. Act of God, Act of the Devil? Who the hell knows? You already got told Coach was in the bus with his pill.

If you want to know the Truth, this Third Degree shit pisses me off. After the season we had, you oughta give us a big parade. Instead of your wack questions.

Coach is a hell of a teacher. From our first workout he tried to teach us Lessons. We were across the road at our favorite training spot, Mt. Carmel Cemetery. Running half-mile repeats on the Gangster Loop. Super-hot that day, like all season. Devonte pulled up after number four and barfed all over Al Capone’s tomb. We just about split a gut.

“Hey, Devonte, you idiot!” I hollered. “Have some respect for the dead.”

Coach set us straight real quick. “Don’t be Bozos! These Gangsters don’t deserve any respect!”

Mt. Carmel is where a lot of famous Gangsters got buried. Coach is kind of a Mafia buff, he knows all their Stories. Like how Capone spent years at Alcatraz followed by a slow death from syph. And how Machine Gun McGuin was assassinated in a bowling alley. And how The Enforcer, Frank Nitti, to avoid going back to prison, shot himself in the head.

“Men, you don’t want to die like these jerks,” Coach told us. “You can be tough, but you gotta be good.”

Whenever we ran with Coach, we always learned stuff.

That was our Problem. Being good. If we were good, we’d of never landed here at the School for Troubled Teens. (What everyone calls STAT). We’d be over at Milford. Our only problems being pimples, brand names, and the ACT.

We’re a sick bunch, and I don’t know how Coach puts up with us.

I’m not telling you nothing you don’t know. We got lively imaginations that get us in trouble. We’re Damaged Goods. Our School Shrink can tell you stuff.

And our Parents! I don’t know what’s worse, Parents too busy/tired to pay Attention—or Parents that pay too much attention and beat on us. The only thing I know is after they dump us off here and peel out the front gate, they’re so happy they’re high-fiving and shouting, Yippee! Good riddance!

Our Cross Country Team is a strange group at STAT. Leftover bones you give to dogs. At the start of each year Coach drags us out of Gym Class. He looks for two Types—tall and skinny and short and skinny. Maybe he also looks for something else. Like some sign of illness, some disease he can turn into a fire-bomb.

Coach sells us on Cross Country by joking, “Hey, you’ll be able to outrun the cops.”

Here’s our lineup (ha! police lineup!)—Harley, he’s a thug. Angelo’s a klepto. Fordham, a dealer. Devonte, a perv. Sunny, flat-out psycho. You know this already, it’s in our Permanent Files.

I wouldn’t trust any of them as far as I can throw them, but when you run a million miles together, sweated all over each other, you can actually feel some feelings.

Then there’s me, Billy Crow.

They said I set fire to my school. Where’s the proof?

No, I’m just your basic screw-up. I’m too impressionable. I read a lot. (Even the Bible, like that wild-ass Revelation.) I get wack ideas. I fall in with bad Types.

So I joined Coach’s team.

But did you know our guys get in less trouble than other guys at STAT? You can look it up.

So how does Coach control us? It’s simple. We’re too tired to get in trouble.

Like, back during Midterms we had two days off to study, we had time on our hands, we were hanging in the dorm, lazing on our beds. Angelo says, “Vatos! We oughta break into the kitchen. Steal some candy. There’s big bags of Skittles.”

Sunny perks up. “I gotta knife will pick that lock.”

“Shit,” I groan. “I’m tired.”

“Same!” says Harley. “Twenty fricken miles yesterday!”

“Legs hurt like a muthafucka.” Devonte rolls over in his bunk.

Coach has a sixth sense. Whenever our guys start to hear Voices, he lays on the work. He’ll have us haul rocks up Cemetery Hill. Build that wall! And we do it ‘til we’re flattened and we gotta go hunker down in our bunks. We breathe easy again and feel a little peace.

You have no idea what Coach did with us this season. You guys have a woodie for your Football Team, your one and nine Football Team. Us rabbit-chasers are just a stupid sideshow. Meanwhile Coach Thorpe is like some freaking mad scientist making gold from cow pies.

Those first weeks, Wow, we were pathetic. Real maggots. Coach had us in the sand dunes doing sprints, our feet barely lifting. Trying to shuffle up the hills, but we’re sliding backwards and nearly crying at the top.

Coach stacks miles on top of miles. We’re all over the county. Where’s the break between one workout and the next? Who knows? They bleed together. We fall asleep in our oatmeal. Our legs feel alien. We hobble with shin splints, our feet explode raw with blisters. We go to Brownie the Nurse, but she’s friendly with Coach and shows no pity. Sprays some Icy Hot on our legs and says, “You’re doing fine. I’m proud of you. Get lost.”

A month later we’re beyond feeling. The muscles in our legs are rebar, nothing gets to them. We skitter over the dunes like lizards. We eat the hills. More, Coach, more!

Coach never raises his voice. He’s still! Like some damn sculpture at the Cemetery. When he talks, he quotes from his Book of Thorpe, stuff he’s collected from his favorite Philosophers like Sheehan and Murakami and Berra and Nietzsche.

“If you’re going through Hell,” Coach quotes, “keep going.”

“Running is fundamentally an act of rebellion.”

“Even a toad has four ounces of strength.”

We learned the Book of Thorpe by heart, even though we didn’t know what half of it meant. Like that thing about the toad. What does it even mean? But Coach sprinkles quotes over us like Magic Charms. It’s like he’s some kind of Wizard. But he’s dealing with tricky chemicals. Ready to explode any minute.

One day we’re at our track. Which in case you don’t know is the thing goes around the football field. It’s the worst track in America with giant, prehistoric cinders and potholes dug by football cleats. It’s so parched it’s like concrete. (You don’t even let us have spring Track Season. On account of what we did with the javelins.)

Coach had us out there doing an endless set of quarters.

“Looking good,” whispers Coach. “Let’s see what you men can do.”

It was like God’s hand reaches down and zaps us with a cattle prod. Sunny ran the next quarter in 69. Then Harley raises the ante, goes 66. I blast the next one in 63. Angelo throws in a 60, and we’re all going wack, flying over the cinders tight as a fist, flashing like a switchblade. 58. 56.

After the workout, we gaze at each other stunned.

“Men,” Coach says, “you are ready to race.”

What kind of weird shit was this? We didn’t talk for fear of jinxing it. We were worms, then we were eagles.

Just when we started feeling fast, Coach threw a curveball.

The Tried and True Strategy for running a race is Even Pace. Meaning, you need to hold back in the first half of a race so you have enough energy in the second half. Anybody knows this.

Coach hated this strategy! He felt it was a baby’s way to race. He wanted us to go out hard. Let the race come down to who’s Toughest.

“Men, the race is a symbolic hunt.” Coach placed a pill in his mouth and swallowed. He peered at some invisible animal in the distance. “We are going to be first to the kill.”

So Coach gave us a reckless time-goal to hit at the halfway mark. Our first few races were wack. We’d get halfway, we’d be sucking air, our legs completely tied up. We’d have to start jogging, runners blew by us. We even had to walk at the end! Embarrassing!

Had Coach lost his mind?

We were pissed. We circled him. “Coach, this is bullshit!” Harley shouted.

Coach wasn’t phased. “Let your plans be dark,” he quoted from the Book of Thorpe. “And when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

You’re probably going to ask, “What about The Dance?”

Yes, The Dance was a Disaster. In your eyes. But in our eyes, it was a chance for one night to act normal. It’s another example of Coach knowing what our school needs. Like the boxing ring he had us build in the woods. A way of letting us blow off steam.

Anyway, Coach felt our whole school needed a Dance. He arranged things with St. Bridget Academy. Coach found suits for the guys that needed them, like me.

That night the Girls from St. Bridget came on two busses. They stepped into our gym kind of shy and sniffing, like cats or something. They came in colorful dresses.

I guess we gawked at them. For a moment we forgot how to speak. Then Fordham did something gutsy. He walked right across the floor and said Hi to the prettiest girl. That broke the ice. We mingled with the girls from St. Bridget. Their guards, looking like Russian shot putters, hung back on the walls. Our security detail from Danville Correctional stepped out for a smoke.

We tried to talk to the girls. What grade are you in? Do you like St. Bridget? (Duh.) What do you think of STAT? The girls smiled little secret smiles. Devonte and a girl started dancing, then we all started dancing. I held this one girl around her waist, which was squishy. Rosie was her name. She wore pink. She smelled like smoke and sweat.

We sat at a table for awhile. (My legs tired from running!) I showed Rosie how long I could hold my hand over a candle flame. She was impressed. She showed me the tattoo on her arm.

Things got out of hand when someone put something in the lemonade. Stole pills from Brownie’s office. Whatever. We all got pretty loosey-goosey.

Devonte’s girl slapped him hard and laughed. Then he slapped her. Guys started punching guys. Girls punching guys. Our English teacher got decked. (Funny!) Somebody threw the sheet cake. The guards were outnumbered, it got like Whack-a-Mole. Two guys pulled knives, the girls got spooked and ran. We chased the girls down the hill to their busses.

So everything got pretty wack. I’m not proud of it. But for a few minutes that night, wearing a suit, talking to a girl, I felt almost Human.

“I will strive with things impossible.” Coach was perched on the top row of bleachers with us scattered around him. He popped a pill and waited for us to catch our breaths. “That’s from Shakespeare.”

After the Dance, we had a helter-skelter week. Two boys from STAT were shipped off to Danville Correctional, having used up their Last Chance. Our whole school was in Lockdown for twenty-four hours.

Then Coach gave us two days of killer workouts. In which, believe it or not, we completed four hundred “Up and Downs” on the bleacher-stairs around the track.

It was later in the Season now. In the bleachers Coach talked about our upcoming race. He wasn’t big on speeches, so it amounted to—Our meet’s at home, that should help us. Top two teams out of ten qualify for the State Meet. Which we’ve never done. But this year we might have a chance. Who knows? If you don’t run like jerks. Oh, and your friends from Milford will be there.

Coach was being sarcastic. He knew we hated the Milford Mules. It wasn’t just because they’d won State ten years in a row. It was the way they acted. Like they walked on water. The Milford boys in their shiny new red and black uniforms and their $200 SpeedoLight spikes. The fair-haired Princes from Milford, each of them six feet tall, amazing strides, and awesome names.

But wouldn’t it be something if we could get second?

It wasn’t that Coach didn’t like our Parents. (That might be True.) It was he didn’t want them around. He didn’t encourage them. In his experience, Parents only messed things up. I heard him telling Brownie he liked having a Pure Coaching Situation. Meaning complete control of our sleep, our food, our studies, our training. And no Parents to piss in the pot.

So that’s why it was a surprise on the day of the Big Meet when some of the Parents showed up. Someone must of got a wild hair and passed the word. There they stood at the fence, kinda separate from the big crowd, a sad clump in sad clothes, in the dry heat, no hats, looking confused. And then, standing aside from this lame group, my Mom! Never expected to see Her.

I guess she’d finally gotten out of Rehab. I admit, she looked a lot better, her face its normal shape again and her hair combed. For a second, I almost forgot the terrible stuff.

Coach let us stop by the fence to say Hi to our Parents. It was pretty awkward. We forced out a few words.

We turned to leave, but Mom grabbed my arm. She had a funny look in her eyes. She whispered to me, “I’m proud of you, Son.” Then I had to go follow my team.

The campus of the School for Troubled Teens doesn’t lend itself to a nice Cross Country course. Coach designed a Loop that included a lap on our terrible track, two hundred yards over a plowed field, a rocky stretch through a dry-wash, and a Death March down a utility road lined with barbed wire. We were to run this one-mile Loop three times.

By now our team was adjusting to our suicidal race pace. Like, calloused. When the race started, we jumped out to a sizeable lead. Behind us we heard laughter, like, Don’t those idiots from STAT know pace? Typical! They just want to blow themselves up!

We plunged onward to our halfway time. We knew every ankle-busting hole, every tangle of razor-wire. We’d memorized the nonsense turns on Coach’s course. Down in the ravine the pack of wild dogs ignored us. Out on the track the STAT boys lined the straightaways cheering for us, flashing gang signs, yelling the crudest things ever heard at a meet.

We came to the final Loop. Normally, this was the time when our competition would stream past us. We kept grinding. No one was attacking us. On a turn, I snatched a look back. I could see the Milford guys twenty yards behind running in their perfect formation. But their eyes were wide. Their uniforms drenched in sweat, their arms sawing the air.

They caught us fifty yards from the finish chute, and we had a vicious fight filled with elbows and name-calling.

The final score? OK, are you ready for a little Math Problem?

Here were the places of the top five runners for our school and Milford:

STAT—2, 3, 11, 12, 13

Milford—1, 4, 9, 10, 17

Add the scores.

Got it? That’s right, Einstein, a tie score, 41 to 41.

But there’s a way to break a tie! You look at the place of the Sixth Runner from both teams.

STAT’s sixth man (Angelo)—22nd Place

Milford’s sixth man—23rd Place

So we won. The Milford coach demanded two recounts. His boys stomped and whined. Like, We weren’t trying! We trained through the race. It was a fluke.

As our team warmed down, we tried to crack some jokes, but we were kinda scared. Like, for the first time, we had expectations. In two weeks we’d be running against the best in the State.

Our fellow jerks at STAT used our victory to go ape. And had it not been for the large security detail circling it, the Milford bus would have been completely destroyed.

You wanna know a weird thing about Sports? They’re pretty useless when you think about it. I mean, what are they FOR? Whether you get a medal or a ribbon or nada, whether you get First Place or 99th Place, whether you run great or run crap, what does it matter, really, ten, twenty years from now?

Like Harley’s Dad gets on him all the time. “What’re ya doin running around in short-shorts? If you got extra time, you oughta be working in the cafeteria making Money. Or in the auto shop, doin something Real.”

Harley’s Dad has a point. Us guys are way out on some dusty road ten miles from school, huffing and puffing, busting our butts, and For What?

Sports, I just don’t know. And Cross Country! It’s a damn Minor Sport!

One night, just before Lights-Out, I got a call from Headmaster Trickle to come see him. I went down, I tapped on his office door, heard Come in, I entered and found Headmaster sitting behind his big desk. Coach Thorpe was there too sitting off to the side. Something was up.

“Billy, sit down, please,” Headmaster said, and he got right to it.

“Son, I got some Bad News, I just got a call from your Uncle saying your Mother passed away early this morning.

My mouth got real dry. My face sort of trembly. “What? How?” I asked.

“It appears it was a drug overdose, Son. We’re awfully sorry. You should call your Uncle. Talk about the funeral.”

Coach got up, came over, and put his hand on my shoulder. At that point the room got kind of watery, and I had to get out of there fast before I drowned.

I stayed away from Cross Country practice for two days. My heart wasn’t in it. I just wanted to sleep. I felt drugged but I wasn’t. I slept and slept.

I woke up with rough hands jerking me out of bed. Lemme go, assholes! I just wanna sleep!

My teammates surrounded me. “You’re comin with us,” Harley growled. He yanked me up and shoved me out the dorm. It was pitch dark, except for the flashlight Angelo carried.

“Where we going?” I was still coming to my senses. “Jeez, it’s the middle of the night!”

“Shut up, or someone will hear!” Fordham swiveled his head around. “We’re going to the woods.” We jogged along a trail in the woods until we came to our homemade boxing ring. They dragged me onto its platform.

“You ditched practice.” Devonte was up in my face. “This late in the season, that’s fucked up.”

“Oh, come on! What the—”

Devonte slapped me in the face. “Miss days of running, pay the Running God. Remember? Book of Thorpe.”

I stood rubbing my face. My teammates circled me.

“You gotta punch each of us,” Harley said. “Hard as you can.”

“But. I don’t want—”

Devonte slapped me again, harder. “Do it!”

I hit him in the gut. He bent over, went Ooff.

Hating everyone and hating myself, I went around the ring punching my teammates. My emotions twisting and flaming.

“Harder!” my teammates shouted.

“Hit me in the face!” yelled Sunny.

I hit him square in the nose, blood flying. Sunny laughed.

“Go around again! Hit us harder! In the face!”

OK, you fuckers, I thought. I’ll show you.

I flailed away at them. I became this animal-thing. Their heads snapped back, their faces ripped, blood sprayed on the platform.

Finally, my teammates all came close and held my arms down while I gagged and my hate unstrangled.

I’ll never really understand Coach Thorpe. He’s some kind of Character.

If you think about it, Coach is Damaged Goods like the rest of us. You know he went to STAT? Yeah, you know that. Got caught up in Grand Theft or something like that.

The day he left STAT he joined the Marines, got stationed in Okinawa. Started running for the Armed Forces Track Team. That led him to Murakami, his coach, his Guru.

“The Marines got my body right,” Coach told me one time. “Then Murakami got my head right.”

Anyway, the day after the boxing ring thing, Coach worked us awfully hard. He ran with us on a Long Run. Somehow he’s always in shape to kill us. How he does this I don’t know. We were eight miles from campus. It was Daylight Savings Time, the sun already setting. Coach put his hand up and stopped on a bridge going over a stream. I figured we were gonna turn back for home. For a minute Coach looked in the water like he spotted a fish. Then he looked at us.

Sunny’s nose still bled a little. Angelo had a fat lip. Harley wore a big cut under one eye. Everyone had bruises. My right hand was badly swollen.

“You know what I think, men?” Coach leaned against the bridge railing and stretched. “I think we were born out of our time. I think we were meant to live two hundred years ago. Out on some Open Plain. Sleeping on the ground with our horses and dogs. Heading up our tribe, protecting our People. Leading them into battle.”

We squinted at Coach and stretched like him.

“Out of our time. We weren’t meant to be crammed into a school chair. Not meant to be cooped up in a beige bedroom, stoned by a computer screen, turning into some species of marshmallow. Our Age doesn’t know what to do with us, doesn’t know what to make of us. That’s what I think.”

We began to run again, still in the opposite direction from school. It got dark. Over his shoulder Coach threw us a quote from the Book. “It is the illusion we can go no further that holds us back.”

Coach picked up the pace. He attacked every hill. Our breathing all jagged. Now we were thirteen miles from school. Meaning this would be a 26-mile day, at least. We began to spout off and went into Full Rebellion.

“Coach!” Harley yelled. “What the fuck? We got State Meet this week!”

“Yeah, Coach! Vato loco! This is frickin stupid.” Angelo threw his arms up in the air.

Coach came to a screeching halt, and we all crashed into one another.

I wasn’t sure where we were. Were we still in the same state? The only sound now was some old hoot owl saying how crazy we were.

“Angelo, what do you WANT?” Coach’s look bores into him. Angelo looks down, kicks a stone.

“Harley, how about you? What do You Want?”

Harley shrugs.

Coach goes to each of us: “What do You Want?”

We got nothing.

Coach shakes his head. “What can I say? If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

Coach takes off his shirt and throws it on the road. “Men, I will give you everything I have. You want the shirt off my back? Take it.”

In the darkness Coach has a scary look, like his face is a thousand years old.

“You want my shoes?” He kicks off his pricey GhostWinds.

Angelo grabs them quick, ties the laces around his neck.

“I’ll give you everything I have.” He steps out of his running shorts, tosses them to the asphalt. He stands naked like some kind of Ancient Hero, then starts jogging down the road towards school, his form fading in and out in the moonlight.

We disciples stand in the road, dumb, shamed, and angry. Alone with our Thoughts. But also there’s a Feeling. A beating in the chest. Like the ticking of a bomb.

OK, I’m getting to the Incident.

Two days before the State Meet, the Biggest Race of our lives, our school was informed our team would not be allowed to compete.

Another team (guess who?) raised questions about our program, and the State Sports Association launched an Inquiry. The SSA was a group of old, white, fatmen, former football coaches, who ruled on all Violations (and Accusations) of the Sacred Regulations in each sport.

Once they started looking at STAT, it wasn’t hard to find Infractions. As per the “Out of-Season” Rule, a coach wasn’t allowed to meet with his runners over the summer. How did that apply to a coach and a team that lived full-time at the school? As per the “Local-Residence” Rule, team members had to all come from the same town or surrounding towns. How did this apply to a school that accepted losers from the whole Midwest? And what about the “Sportsmanlike Conduct” Rule? How did this apply to boys whose idea of fair play was whether to bring knives or guns to a street fight?

These silly questions had never come up before because STAT had never come close, in any sport, to qualifying for a State Championship Contest. So our school was easy to ignore. People wanted it that way, wanted the delinquents at STAT to stay invisible.

When Coach Thorpe told us the news at practice on Thursday, we didn’t react any which way. It was almost like we expected it. None of us never had success in nothing, so we’re suspicious of good stuff coming our way.

“But, men, don’t lose Hope.” Coach popped one of his pills. “We got our School Lawyer on it.”

Clarence Figgins, our Lawyer, is pretty good. Because he’s taken a million felons and worse through the courts, he knows all the judges, all the lawyers, every crack. He knows how to navigate. And so by Friday at noon old Clarence had won us a Court Injunction. We could race. The Final Decision on our case to be hashed out later.

Score one for the Bad Guys! We scurried around, packed our things, and hit the road for Farmington two hours south hoping to practice on the State Meet Course before the sun set. Which we did, barely. Coach had to talk an official into keeping the Course open for us. Most of the other teams had practiced and left. The remaining groups did a doubletake when they saw us. Like, Weren’t you guys banned? And we’re like, Who You lookin at?

We decided to make them all pay.

As the sun went down, we jogged the course. Damn, what a beautiful park! Everything perfectly lined, flags all set up, big wide turns, great footing, ground hard as a speedway. God!

Coach narrated as we ran, he pointing out every detail. Stay outside on the turn right here. Don’t get trapped on the inside. Here the spectators lean over the ropes and scream right in your face. Stay focused. During the first mile there’s an awful mess of runners around you, ten wide, everyone scrambling for position. Remember our Plan! Like you’ve done all year!

Here’s the thing about the State Meet Course what makes it unique. Right after the two-mile mark, the course, after being so wide-open, giving so much running room, it enters a dense woods. For a half-mile a narrow trail winds through an evergreen forest, dark and tight.

Here Coach stopped our jog, and we walked. “Men, do you see it now?”

“Bottleneck!” cried Fordham. “The whole pack of runners gets here and—Boom—the pace slows!”

“Orale! Unless you’re first into the woods!” yelled Angelo.

“Like we practiced all year!” said Devonte.

We burst out of the woods and raced happily all the way through the Finish Chute, marveling at Coach’s genius.

Next morning, State Meet morning, was funny. We’re sitting at breakfast together, and normally we’re all talking at once, can’t get a word in edgewise, but now we’re staring at the table. None of us can eat. Every two minutes a guy jumps up to go to the bathroom. I had to go three times. Even Coach looks pale. He pops a pill.

The only sane one is Pinky Gromet, our manager. The only one who doesn’t have to perform, he orders a stack of pancakes with whip cream and then a big omelet and sits there grinning and stuffing his face. We glare at him. “Gonna be a great day, boys.” Pinky tries to lift our spirits, but it’s useless.

We get to the Course. Another hot, dry day. There’s like a million people, more than I’ve ever seen. Milford busses are backed up along the road. Their fans pour onto the course. They’ve brought Millie, their mascot, a live mule! Millie, all skittish, is fixed up in Milford red and black and decorated with ribbons.

The girls from St. Bridget see us. They stamp out their cigarettes and fix their plaid skirts and race over. We didn’t expect a Fan Club. They’re screaming their heads off. Hi, boys! How’s it hanging! Kick some ass!

We find our Starting Box. Coach sends us out for our jog-warmup. Again, guys from other teams stare. Some curses. Some laughter. We hardly notice.

We all go to the bathroom again.

We return to the Starting Box. A horn blows, the signal for fifteen minutes to Race Time. But something’s off.

“Where’s Coach?” I ask Pinky.

Now Pinky’s the one who’s pale. He’s got Coach’s clipboard and the Book of Thorpe. “Coach had to go back to the bus. To take his nitro.”

“Well, shit.” I look around at the other guys.

Pinky shrugs. “Coach said I’m in charge.”

“Great,” I tell him.

The breeze picks up. A black swirl of dead leaves tears across the course.

We finish our stretching, then rip off some strides. Organize ourselves inside our Start-Box. Pinky squeezes his way to the middle of our group and opens the Book of Thorpe.

“What you got for us, Pinky?”

“Men,” Pinky reads, “today we die a little.”

Harley spits. “Dammit, Pinky, give us another.”

Pinky frantically pages through the Book.

“In the midst of Chaos, there is Opportunity.”

“Good enough,” I say.

The wind begins to howl.

In that moment I don’t think anyone really noticed the smoke pouring from the woods. Our attention was on the starter.

We get in our crouch, the gun fires, our cages open, the animals all freed. Days of nervous energy explode. We blast around the first turn in full-on panic mode, the thick current of bodies rushing us forward.

On the second turn I glance around. Our team’s together up front. Behind us, the Whole World. Holy shit, surely we’re out Too Fast.

We hurry on, fully committed to our hateful Pace.

When we get to the woods, already it’s a wall of fire. Flames leap twenty feet high. It’s a thing of wonder.

We spy the trail opening and burst inside the fire.

Did we have second thoughts? We did not. We knew what we Wanted.

Inside the forest, it’s like Revelation. Trapped in red, orange, and black. Angry plumes bolt upward. A Devil’s growl. A blizzard of embers. Evergreens snap and burst, turn into instant skeletons. The forest floor streaks with Fire.

We leap burning fallen timbers. Our skin pricks with glowing debris. We suck in smoke, double over, retch. We search desperately for the exit.

“Dudes!” Fordham screams at us, “if you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

Then we’re outside the woods, our eyes killing, our lungs shutting down. We stagger to the final straightaway in full view of the horrified crowd.

I grab one last look over my shoulder. All is wack. Runners lurching from the flames. Faces blackened, jerseys smoking. Reeling like Lost Souls. In the background, the forest is a mountain of fire. The most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.

One more snapshot. A clump of red and black. It is clawing the air. And running alongside of it, a mule, broken loose, crazed, squealing, eyes rolled back.

I don’t remember the Final Straightaway. The Results prove we made it to the Finish Chute.

Next thing I know I’m on all fours, and an Official is picking me up and dragging me through the chute.

Then there seemed to be excitement around our team, with shouts and pounding on the back. In the distance sirens were wailing. A light snowfall of ash fell.

Later we stumbled over to the bus to find Coach. In his seat he sat perfectly still, like he was sleeping.

I shook his shoulder. No response. My teammates leaned in. Shake harder.

Coach’s eyes fluttered open.

“Oh. Hi, guys.” He looked around at us.

“How was the race?”

You know the rest.

It took two days to sort out the Results what with some runners never finishing, others running off the course, and coaches filing Protests. When the dust settled, we were declared the winner. By ten points. By then we were back at STAT, and the officials said they’d ship us the State Meet Trophy, which never happened because the Court decided against us, and we were stripped of our win, erased from the Record Book. Like we never even ran.

And that’s it. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So Here’s What I Think. Coach oughta get a big fat raise instead of going on your Shit List.

 But after four years here, I’ve seen how this works. You want everyone in straight jackets. You want to tie us up in your fake idea of what’s Proper.

Next year, it’ll play out just the same. I’ve studied this. A bunch of Damaged Kids will show up. Coach will wave his Book of Thorpe and cast a Spell. He will pop his pills. The kids will haul rocks. For some guys, a Light may go on. There’ll be highlights and train wrecks, Comedy and Tragedy. Because Rehab is an iffy thing, a messy thing.

Coach has been at this for many years, and the Script never changes.

Me, I’m outta here. In two months I’m off to Parris Island. Maybe the Marines can use a psycho like me. Oo-rah! Maybe I’ll find my Murakami. Maybe I’ll get my head straight. But I’m not holding my breath.

Because being Good is awfully hard.

I admit, I’ll keep a little souvenir from STAT. Such a silly thing, all that running around in short-shorts! But on one day, I wasn’t just Good, I was the Best.

Categories: Fiction

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