THE FINISH LINE

by David Klein

Chapter 1

This Will Hurt

This will hurt. Your heart will explode, your legs will collapse.

You will falter. You will fail.

The same anxiety struck Dana before every race. The sick self-loathing. The dense, hard weight in her stomach. The overwhelming doubt. What was she doing here? Why put herself through such agony?

Her starting line dread. Every time. And yet—she couldn’t imagine any place she’d rather be, anything she’d rather do.

Twenty minutes ago a steady rain had dialed back to an annoying drizzle. A mist hung over the tree line in the distance, four hundred yards away, beyond the baseball diamond and across the soccer fields to where the course turned and entered the woods.

Dana shrugged and rolled her shoulders to stay loose. She gathered with her teammates. They held and slapped hands.

This will hurt. Your heart will explode . . .

The starter picked up his megaphone. He mounted a stepstool and called the milling runners to the line. Against the gray, low sky he stood out like a bright crayon in his yellow rain slicker and cap.

As the official spoke, the girls stepped forward in a jostle of wet elbows. Each team lined up as a pack, the Saints in their scarlet shorts and brown singlets, the other teams in their blue, red, white, or green, and as soon as the gun sounded the horde of runners would burst from the line in a scattershot of color, each girl on her own and running for herself. You run your race and no one else’s. You strive for your personal best time. What’s good for you as an individual runner is good for the team. That’s what Coach keeps drilling into them.

Dana hung on the fringe of her group, nerves jagged, stomach knotted, swaying side to side on her feet. The ground squished like a sponge and water seeped through her shoes. She’d tied her laces tight and hadn’t worn socks because wet socks bunched and she’d feel the creases and folds with every stride. A minor distraction such as that could ruin her concentration, sabotage her race.

On one side of her stood Marissa and Caitlin, Marissa performing her ritual mumbling and chanting to herself, Caitlin more vocal as team co-captain with Dana. “Come on ladies, do what we came here for,” she urged them.

“What we’re here for,” Caitlin repeated, leaning into each of her teammates. “This is our home, this is our race.”

“Our home, our race!” the girls chanted.

“We’re here for one reason,” Dana called out. “Let’s do our job.” She fought the urge to puke. She knew from experience that vomiting would not release the grinding tension in her belly. Only the start of the race could set her free. Just a few more minutes until that relief—only to have the pain of running take its place: the desperate lungs, burning legs, pummeling heart.

On her other side she stood shoulder to shoulder with the RPI team and the one runner, Vanessa Court, who beat her last week at the Cardinal Classic and three times in meets last year.

Revenge day, Dana told herself. Our home, our race. My course, my conditions.

This is going to hurt.

St. Lawrence University hosted the Hoffman Invitational annually in September. This would be Dana’s third year competing in it—she’d missed her entire freshman cross-country season with the knee injury and then her father’s sudden death and the disbelief and grief that followed, but she’d been a steady contributor on the team ever since. As a sophomore, she came in eleventh out of sixty-four runners in the Hoffman, and last year placed second on her team and fifth overall. Today there were six teams and probably ninety or one hundred runners, all of them about to get splattered with mud. All of them about to suffer. Some would fall and others would fade and one would win. Her. Dana Gates. She would win.

Coach had pulled her aside earlier and told her this was her time. You’re a senior, you’re a captain, this race today was made for you. Remember: When it’s too tough for everyone else, it’s just right for you.

My course. My conditions.

She had a reputation for running well in mud. Just taller than average at five-feet-seven, she carried her height in her legs, and weighed one-hundred-sixteen pounds. She had narrow shoulders and slender arms and almost B cup breasts, and a taut, flat stomach and a strong, hard core. She was blessed with naturally muscular quads, firm glutes, and toned calves that helped her power out of mud and puddles, each stride a burst forward as if someone had lifted and shoved her from behind. Her longer legs took fewer strides than some of the other runners, and gave her an advantage in sloppy conditions over girls whose best assets were shorter legs and faster turnover. The natural gait of those runners required more strides, which meant more splash and drag, more pulling out of the water and sucking from the mud.

Today was her best chance to beat Vanessa Court, a short, wispy runner infuriatingly built like Tinkerbell and able to dart like a fairy over the grass and cinders and pine needle trails that made up most cross-country courses. But today’s obstacle course of long, slippery puddles and sticky mud and rain played to Dana’s strengths. Today was Dana’s day.

Her weakness was her knee, the right one. Throughout her four years at SLU, she’d battled iliotibial band syndrome—ITBS—which translated to an inflamed tendon on the outside of her knee caused by friction against the bone. This year her knee had behaved, so far. A tedious routine of stretching, strengthening exercises, icing, and whirlpool had kept her healthy. She’d been able to endure the occasional twinges of pain. She hadn’t needed a cortisone shot yet.

And today her knee felt 100 percent.

She established her position on the starting line with her eyes focused across the fields to the first turn, which she knew to be a swamp. She’d jogged the route earlier and had slopped and splashed through the muck and puddles, and then returned to the locker room with her team to towel her legs and rub her muscles and change into clean shoes, the blue and yellow Brooks with the six screw-in spikes. She tightened each spike with the finger wrench and rocked on the balls of her feet, then clattered up the stairs with her teammates when Coach said let’s go, and emerged into the rain. They sheltered under the team tent until it was time. Now at the starting line she rotated her ankles and massaged her rubbery, wet arms. She didn’t look at or listen to the starter talking through his megaphone. She knew he was welcoming the runners to St. Lawrence University and the Ronald C. Hoffmann Invitational. Next came the boilerplate about Hoffmann himself, class of 1954, three-year Associated Press All-American guard on the football team, later coaching the Saints for seven years in football and also coaching undefeated women’s teams in lacrosse and cross-country.

While the runners and spectators stood in the drizzle and waited through the story of Ronald Hoffman, Dana scanned the crowd along the edges, although crowd was an exaggeration. Mostly trainers and coaches. Some friends, although Dana’s friends were lined up with her. A few upstate parents who’d made the trip to Canton. Members of the men’s teams who would race after the women finished. She saw Nick standing with his teammates and she caught his eye. He nodded yes and gave her two fists shoulder high—his sign for Dana to kick ass. She raised a single fist in response.

A few minutes left. She examined her feet. She lifted a shoe to claw out a clump of grass in her spikes and noticed one was loose. She put a hand on Marissa’s shoulder for balance and with the other tried to tighten down the steel cleat.

“What’s the matter?” Marissa said.

“My spike. I can’t get it to tighten.”

“It won’t matter. You can run fine even if it comes out.”

No, it mattered. If the spike came out she’d have only five on this shoe and six on the other and the knowledge of that imbalance would haunt her during the race, destroy her rhythm, and lead to failure. She wondered if she should take a spike out of her other shoe to have five on each, but when she tried to remove the loose spike it wouldn’t unscrew. It just twirled in the stripped threads.

She looked to the sideline where Coach was watching her. She wanted to call out to him that she couldn’t race, her spike was loose, and she saw him shaking his head and he shouted to her, “Forget it, Gates, just run! Come on Dana, get your head on! Get clear! Lead your team!”

Coach was right. Forget the spike. Ignore the saboteurs getting into your head, the ones that snuck in any opening they could find: through a loose spike, or the urge to pee, or a shoelace loop that looked too long, or the string on her tampon snaked in her pubic hair, or a speck of dirt under her contact, or Vanessa Court exuding the insane energy of a greyhound ready to chase the rabbit—anything that could break her concentration and wreck her race.

Breathe, she reminded herself. Take deep breaths. Inhale, exhale. Settle. Visualize the course, getting a strong start, racing as far as the first turn, and starting a new race from there. A cross-country race could be broken down into a series of mini-races, each one finishing at the next turn or change in terrain. If she raced her best on each segment, at the end the parts would add up to a victorious whole.

She could win this race. She should win. She would win. CouldShouldWould.

The official finished his Hoffmann anecdote and now issued the rules of racing and scoring. Runners will complete two laps of a 2.4 kilometer course. Cones or flags marked the route, race officials were stationed at each turn, no interfering with other runners. The place numbers of the top five finishers for each team will be added together to determine the final score, with the lowest team total winning.

Then the official paused for a few beats, and when he spoke again he told the runners to take their mark.

The girls tightened toward the line, leaning into their positions. In the few seconds remaining Dana exchanged a glance with Vanessa Court. She saw the anxiety and sickness in the other girl’s face, and she said, “Good luck,” and Vanessa said, “Good race,” and from the other side she heard Caitlin shouting at them to BRING IT HOME SAINTS, and Nick yelled from the sideline “Come on, Dana!” and then the horn sounded and they were off.

She covered the first fifty yards and the icy dread in her stomach melted only to be replaced by a fiery cry from her lungs for more oxygen. She pumped her legs and stared down the edge of the woods in the distance to keep her line straight. All around her she saw other runners, the movement of bodies. She heard the hard, short breathing. The spongy footfalls. Felt the splattering on her legs.

Another hundred yards and she remained swallowed in the pack, half the runners ahead of her, half behind. She accelerated across the mushy field and splashed through puddles and moved up in position until she ran with a lead pack of six girls, Vanessa Court among them. They approached the turn to enter the woods, the first segment of the race complete.

She had quickly forgotten the loose spike in her shoe. Now there existed only the race and her own body and mind merging into a finely tuned machine to conquer the course and her competitors. Her breathing stabilized and she settled into an efficient operation that produced and distributed energy: lungs, heart, legs; lungs heart legs; lungsheartlegs. She focused on discrete objectives: shrink the pain, maintain pace, stay confident, be tough, watch your footing.

The course angled into the woods and the trail narrowed heading up the first hill. Dana heard one girl in her group slip and go down, the startled grunt, the slap on the mud. She didn’t turn to look; she confronted the climb: chin up, shoulders back, shorten stride, leg turnover. Another girl’s hand struck her elbow, but Dana gave no room.

At the top of the hill, the course turned and flattened. A soft layer of pine needles covered the path and the puddles were fewer and shallower here under the tree canopy. But there seemed to be less air and her lungs were starving.

Vanessa Court and two girls from Clarkson pulled ahead of Dana. She felt a quick jab of panic and reached for a higher gear to keep them from gaining too much separation. Vanessa set the pace through the winding, forested trail. Dana lost more ground on the stable surface, but then came the quick downhill and they emerged again into swampy grasslands where her powerful legs narrowed the gap between her and the three runners ahead.

One more turn at the baseball diamond backstop, a pit of mud she powered through, and then the open straightaway along the edge of the fields.

She rarely paid attention to the spectators on the sidelines during a race—the few of them that showed up, that is—didn’t hear the shouts and cheers except as distant noises barely penetrating her consciousness. The lone exception was Nick. He always positioned himself in the same place on the long stretch before the lap marker, and she counted on his presence when she reached that point.

At the right moment, she turned her head and saw him. His waving arms became her tailwind. His exhortations—Come on, Dana! Go Dana! Looking good! Looking strong!—she sucked in and burned for fuel. This entire energy boost she got from a single glance his way, an instant of eyes locking together, and then she was past him. She completed the first lap. She was in fourth place, at the tail of the lead pack, within range to make a move in the second half of the race. She took a quick look over her shoulder. Another pack of five or six ran twenty yards behind. Didn’t matter. The ones that counted were ahead. Those were the runners she had to pass. But she was hurting. It was bad.

Aaron parked behind the Admissions building in the area signed for visitors. He locked Helen’s car, as she’d reminded him to do. Always lock the car—one of her many rules.

He crossed the lot, stepped onto the wet grass and headed in the direction of the playing fields. His gaze wandered upward and outward, like an awestruck tourist gaping at skyscrapers. He hadn’t re-acclimated yet to the existence of landscape. To trees and sky and distance. To the horizon. To the wonderful enormity of open spaces that he could not only behold but also traverse without being shot. Although he’d gotten out regularly on work detail in the last year—picking up highway litter, power washing the steel girders of bridges, tamping asphalt into potholes—with the guards hovering and watching, he felt no less confined. Any view the outside world afforded became a taunt he could not respond to, another wall he could not scale; so he chose to barely notice his surroundings whenever he was escorted outside the prison gates.

Water oozed through his leaky soles and chilled his feet. His thin and cracked leather jacket provided scant protection against the drizzle and wind. What a shitty day for running, but to be outside and free in any weather was a blessing. And to be here today was a dream finally come true. He spotted the SLU pole tent with its hanging banner displaying the red and brown coat of arms, like the shield of a medieval kingdom. A few guys wearing team warm-ups sat on folding chairs or stood under the tent cover. He’d missed the start of the women’s race. He watched them in the distance, their figures shrinking as they neared the woods.

He continued past the starting line and followed the orange cones marking the course. Halfway to the woods he stopped, far from anyone else. He waited in the wet mist, the runners out of view now, his feet sinking in the soft, wet ground, his pulse clicking in his throat.

He had started his search for her the day he arrived at the Parker House. In a nook off the kitchen, Helen kept a computer she allowed him to use. She had installed parental control software that blocked adult content, and hung a notice to that effect in a clear plastic frame on the wall behind the computer. But Aaron wasn’t trolling for porn or searching for snuff movies. He was looking for Dana. Finding her turned out to be easy. On their one and only night together, three years ago, she’d told him she ran cross-country for St. Lawrence University. A fact he was fortunate to remember. That’s where he started his search. Within minutes he found her name on the team page and saw her tiny face in a group photo. He read her brief bio. Dana Gates: hometown of Morrissey, NY; team co-captain; senior; environmental studies major. Her favorite running mantra: Run tall, run fast.

According to the posted schedule, the team was hosting a race called the Hoffman Invitational that weekend. He asked Helen if he could borrow the car, telling her he wanted to drive up to Whiteface to put in an application for the upcoming ski season. True enough. He desperately needed a job and steady paycheck to jumpstart his new life. But first a greater imperative drove him, a singular goal that helped him survive three years at the Franklin County Correctional Facility: Find Dana.

He’d found her. Standing along the course, waiting for the runners to appear, a shiver passed through him. The initial pinpricks spawned deep in his brain. Please not now. Please. He willed his nerves to settle. He shut his eyes and visualized a calm expanse of water. He pictured the word tranquility. He counted three even breaths. When he opened his eyes again he caught sight of her.

At first he felt a flicker of doubt, not about his mission, but whether that was actually Dana. What the hell. You’re haunted and inspired for three years by an image of someone in your mind, and then it doesn’t match the person when you finally see her. Yeah, he’d been pretty wasted that night they were together, but he was reasonably certain of what she looked like: tallish and thin with those blue eyes and dark hair like Jude’s, and that bruisey shadow marking her eye. Every night lying on his moldy bed and listening to the other animals snore or jerk off or cry, he pictured her facial flaw—their common bond. He imagined her white teeth, and her smile that she had carefully meted out like a reward you had to earn, and how that night in the bar he kept trying to make her smile and she did, and he remembered the tiny tap of their teeth clicking together when they were kissing—he sometimes flicked his fingernail against his front teeth to recreate the percussive tone. He heard her voice, deeper than you’d expect, but soft, a voice you leaned close to hear. He found himself bending forward in his bunk as if she were right there talking to him and he craved every word, and those couple inches closer meant he heard what she had to say that much sooner. But most of all he thought about how badly he’d fucked up.

Now, finally seeing her racing across the field behind the lead runner, he experienced this strange, dizzying sensation that this girl couldn’t be Dana. The unease extended to his own presence here. He had waited so long for this moment, forged through so many hours, counted the interminable days, that it couldn’t possibly have arrived. He couldn’t be standing in this wet field watching Dana run toward him. 

As she drew closer, it was obviously her, although her mouth appeared contorted in pain, her face a twisted grimace, cheeks blotched with red patches. If, at that moment, she weren’t the most dazzling vision he’d ever seen, he might have called her ugly. He might have believed he wasted three years thinking of her, he might have told himself he couldn’t have wanted her so desperately that night in the bar. This was all an enormous mistake. The joke was on him. He shouldn’t have come here. But he had, and this was real, and she was Dana. And here she is.

The second lap tested your endurance and grit. All the top runners were talented. All of them had trained. Any one of a dozen of them could win. The difference came down to who could manage and overcome the pain. Who was willing to push stride after stride once your legs doubled in weight? Who would continue to breathe when your lungs verged on collapse? When your heart jack-hammered in your chest?

You are willing.

She moved up to the leaders. The four runners crossed the field together. She ran shoulder to shoulder with Vanessa Court and Dana heard her pumping out labored breaths. At least they were both suffering. The two Clarkson girls fell a few yards behind, beyond Dana’s peripheral vision. The race had come down to her and Vanessa.

They entered the woods and turned to climb. They bumped arms. Dana, bigger and stronger, nudged in front of Vanessa and powered up the hill. When she reached the top she held the lead. A surge of confidence abated her pain. But not for long. Vanessa caught up on the pine needle path, her faster leg turnover propelling her in front again, and at that moment Dana’s hurt returned with hot intensity. Her lungs cried out, her heart begged, her legs hardened to iron. She was weak. She was done. She would surrender the race. The pain was too much to bear—second place would be okay. It wouldn’t be so bad if Vanessa beat her again. Dana was used to it.

The distance between them lengthened. Five yards. Ten yards. Vanessa pulling away, Dana feeling the inevitability of defeat. And now she heard runners behind her gaining. She knew what Coach would say: Talent and training take you eighty percent of the way; the last twenty percent is in your mind.

Control your mind and your body will follow.

Pain lasts but a moment, but history lasts forever.

You forget the pain, you never forget victory.

She demanded more effort. She forced herself to pick up her pace, to close in on Vanessa. She employed one of her mantras: Run tall, run fast. Run tall run fast. Run tall run fast. RunTallRunFast. RunTallRunFast.

Around the curves in the trails, under the dripping trees. She pushed beyond her known limits. She bounded through a mud bath, recklessly threw herself down the side of the hill and came dangerously close to wiping out, which would have ended any chance of winning.

Yet for all her effort she’d made up only a few yards on Vanessa.

They entered the long, wet fields that played to Dana’s advantage: her leg strength. Explosive power with each stride. Explode. Explode. Explode. RunTallRunFast.

Still, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t catch Vanessa.

Around the backstop of the baseball diamond. Past the team dugouts. A quarter mile to go. But her legs wouldn’t move any faster. The universe didn’t contain enough oxygen to sate her.

Please. Please. Run faster. Faster legs. You can do it. You can do it.

She couldn’t do it. 

And then she glanced to the side and back again. She caught a flash of his face, and the shock of recognition struck her like a physical blow. She stumbled forward and almost fell, then regained her stride with a hard leg kick.

She focused ahead and shot past him and immediately her pace increased, her legs charging and ferociously aggressive, her mind shutting down her gasping pleas for more air.

His vision blurred and his mouth clamped shut. The lightning struck: below his eye, along his lower jaw, into his teeth, the pain erupting in a series of timed thrusts. Stab! Stab! Stab! Stab! He clutched the side of his face, helpless, incapacitated. Five seconds later it ended. The scent of pot roast filled his nostrils. He returned to the world.

One of the weird things about his seizures was he smelled his grandma’s pot roast for a few seconds right after the pain ended. Some wires had gotten twisted in his brain—and would never get untangled again—but the rich, meaty scent helped him find the way back from chaos to control, and he was thankful for it.

She had passed him. Now other runners splashed by, charging and panting like a pack of wolves on the hunt.

The moisture in his mouth had evaporated, leaving a demanding thirst. He’d left his water bottle in the car. He crouched and cupped his hands and drew water from a puddle formed in a low spot in the grass, scooping enough to wet the inside of his mouth.

In prison, after the first few months, the seizures had struck infrequently, once or twice a week at most, but since his release an increase in stress triggered more attacks. Two already this morning. One yesterday. Like old times again.

The doc he saw in prison before his release had cautioned this might happen. He gave Aaron the name of a neurologist who could put him back on lorazepam if needed. His veterans’ benefits would pay for it. Aaron said no thanks. He’d rather suffer the crushing pain. The nagging erosion of his memory. The bouts of panic. Plus if he took the drugs the side effects would be as bad as the seizures: fatigue, poor coordination, behavioral changes, nausea. And drugs lead to more drugs, in his case, which was how he’d fallen into the black hole in the first place.

He scooped and sipped another handful of water, a few blades of grass mixed in. He watched her figure sprinting toward the finish.

It could be fatigue fooling with her, another distraction and excuse for not finding the winning kick. She couldn’t be sure it was him, but how to explain the adrenaline blasting through her? The different and deeper hurt penetrating her? Not a weight crushing her chest due to lack of oxygen or her legs screaming from abuse—this was an arrow of ice shooting from her head down her spine. This was pure fear.

Now with every stride she closed the distance. Ten yards from Vanessa. Seven yards. Three yards. Now every one of Vanessa’s footfalls splashed Dana’s legs. Now she ran right on Vanessa’s heels.

RunTallRunFast. RunTallRunFast. Two hundred yards to go. Too far a distance. She had nothing left, she couldn’t do it. She’d forgotten to look for Nick and had missed his energy boost. She hadn’t seen his waving arms or heard him shouting her on. Her tailwind didn’t blow. She’d only seen him.

The imperative that she must run faster overcame the agony and doubt. She had nothing left but an instinct for flight.

Somehow she increased her stride length, accelerated her turnover. She pulled side by side with Vanessa, who let out a panicky gasp when she saw Dana next to her. One hundred yards to go. Eighty.

Vanessa increased to breakaway speed, inching ahead again, but Dana found that last kick, the one that made you almost fly, your feet barely touching down before springing up again, because you were fleeing danger, you were being chased, there was intent to harm you. With each stride she ran for her life.

Forty yards to go. Dead even again.

Dana sprinted past Vanessa. She opened a lead of five yards in three seconds. Raised her arms and thrust her chest and broke the tape at the finish.

Her legs quit and she staggered. Coach was right there to hold her up. The spectators erupted over the exciting finish, but for Dana the sounds were far away and muted, as if she were underwater or the cheering were coming from a distant stadium. She gagged and bent from the waist to vomit and as she was about to heave the feeling passed. She sucked air and the enriched blood raced to her head and steadied her legs. Coach guided her along the chute. Behind her, Vanessa Court said, “Nice race.”

Dana regained control, straightened, and turned to Vanessa. They briefly hugged and separated. “You too,” Dana said, and then she was at the end of the chute and now she waved her hand in victory. Nick appeared and threw his arms around her, squeezing her to him. “You did it,” he said, close to her ear. “You did it. I knew you could. I’m so proud of you.”

Already she felt better. She could smile. She could laugh. Pump her fists. Nothing like victory to restore your energy. By now several of her teammates had crossed the finish line. Caitlin was fourth and Marissa came in seventh. Another two minutes and her entire team had finished and now they gathered in a circle congratulating each other, hugging and slapping, because even with runners still on the course and the official results not yet posted, the team knew they’d won. They had placed four runners in the top ten and no other team had more than two. And for Dana, she celebrated her biggest win ever, on her home course at the historic Hoffmann Invitational.

My course. My conditions.

Caitlin spoke up. “Saratoga is next, ladies. Let’s do it again there.” They started chanting about Saratoga, exhilarated and confident, the St. Lawrence University women’s cross-country team, led by Dana Gates and Caitlin Sullivan, not just winning, but dominating the day.

Amidst the celebration, Dana stepped away and scanned the spectators and the fields looking for the person she’d seen out there. Or thought she’d seen. The one who in an instant pulled her back to that night of mistakes and confusion and terror. The one she’d escaped from. The one she’d outrun.

She didn’t see him.

Now the chill and wet she’d been oblivious to during the race seeped under her skin. Her exposed arms and legs were red and cold. Goosebumps rose and she began to shiver. She found Nick and took his hand and they stepped under the cover of the team tent. He held open her training jacket. Dana pushed her arms into the sleeves and zipped the front. She stepped into her pants.

“I’ve got to get ready,” Nick said.

“It’s your turn to do what I just did.”

“I’m gonna try.”

They both knew he had no chance. Nick was a strong runner, but only middle-of-the-pack on the Saints men’s team. In four seasons of cross-country, Nick had only occasionally finished in the top ten. Still, he ran as fast as Dana—damn the natural physical advantages men have—and he dedicated himself to the sport. He never complained about training, never broke his diet regimen, whereas Dana was occasionally guilty of both those infractions. Nick also never partied. No drinking, no drugs. He and Dana were both clean in that regard. She stayed away from everything: alcohol, pills, weed. She was an athlete and took seriously her responsibility to herself and her team. And she was not about to fuck up her life the way her mother had, her father had—the way someone had tried to do to her.

She surveyed the area again, looking for any sign of him.

Nick reached with his thumb and wiped her cheek. “You’ve got mud splatters all over your face.”

“The course is a mess,” she said. “It’s like splashing through a water park.”

“Great. I love water parks,” he said.

“Good luck. I’ll be waiting.” She stepped out from under the tent with him. Other runners congratulated her. She hugged each one, exchanged a few words. Then she saw him. He approached from the direction of the finish line and headed toward her and Nick.

No. No, please don’t come near me.

It was definitely him. The glittering green eyes . . . the slightly skewed face—his features embedded in her memory. She felt afraid again, accompanied by overwhelming exhaustion, and the need to escape. She squeezed Nick’s hand.

Aaron was afraid, too, as he approached Dana. He feared for his soul if he had one, his future if he were granted one, his semblance of self if he could salvage one. He dreaded another seizure. He’d rather kick down the door to Haji’s hideout. He’d rather fight the prison brute who tried to make Aaron his boy.

He hadn’t rehearsed what to say to her. He didn’t have a plan, other than to find her and apologize. There was no point in planning anyway. During his rotation, company leaders drew up elaborate plans for every mission, but as soon as the first shot was fired bedlam took over. His buddy, Dawson, a tough demolitions expert who’d saved Aaron’s life at the cost of his own, used to quote Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And since you were bound to get punched in the mouth sooner rather than later, why bother with a plan? Just be ready. Just deal.

She stood next to some guy outside the team tent. Aaron wanted to meet her alone but it was too late, she’d spotted him. This was his chance. No backing out. What you’ve waited for.

He walked up. Be calm my heaving heart. Behave my broken face.

“Congratulations,” he said. “That was a great race.”

She turned statue still, except her eyes, which emitted a terror mirroring his own. He felt as out of place as he had in the desert, but as then, with a mission to carry out, an objective to achieve.

Words. He needed more words. “You were amazing the way you passed that girl at the end.”

He turned to her companion. Speak, he commanded himself. “Hi, I’m Aaron.” Offer your hand.

“Nick Hunter.” He reluctantly shook Aaron’s hand, his eyes darting a question to Dana, who had yet to say anything. She faced Aaron but her eyes looked left and beyond, unwilling to connect.

A teammate called to Nick.

“I’ve got to go,” Nick said. He shot a puzzled I’m not sure who you are but don’t think I like you look at Aaron, more uncertainty than threat in his expression.

“You can do it,” Dana said. “I’ll be watching.” Finally her voice, but not for Aaron. She held Nick’s arms. Her lips bloomed. She kissed him.

Aaron burned.

Nick jogged to catch up with his teammates. A steady rain took over from the drizzle. It had poured the night Aaron had waited for Dana outside the concert hall at Clarkson, hoping to find her because she’d called and left a message inviting him to meet her. A girl had called him. A girl wanted to see him. Even with his face the way it was. This girl right here.

The race official squawked into his megaphone, telling the men’s teams to line up.

“Dana, I—” Aaron began.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

His eyes jittered in their sockets. Stab stab stab stab stab stab stab. He blanked for a few beats, rebooted, pressed on. “I had to see you,” he said. Mouth dry as a dune. “I had to say I’m sorry.” There. He got it out.

“Sorry?” As if he had voiced a word in a language she didn’t understand. As if that word were a pathetic, meaningless word.

“I came here to apologize for that night,” he added.

“Three years later.”

“I haven’t been able to until now. I’ve . . . I’ve been away. In prison.”

“I know where you’ve been,” she hissed.

“I just got out this week. I’m in Saranac Lake—this place called the Parker House I’m staying at. It used to be a cure cottage back when—”

She cut him off. “You shouldn’t have come here.” The race official began reciting the rules again. The spectators had opened their umbrellas; their domes dotted the sidelines like colorful mushroom tops.

 “Please,” Aaron said. “I’m really sorry about what I did to you. That’s not the kind of person I am. I was so messed up then, but that’s no excuse. I had to find you—I had to apologize.”

“Fine. Leave me alone.”

“I looked for you that night . . . after. I drove all over. I wanted to make sure you were okay. Please. I’m so sorry.” His words rattled like dried husks in the wind.

“You think that makes anything better? You expect me to what—be your friend now?”

He didn’t know what to expect. How, for three years, could he have imagined this moment, yet not considered how it might play out? What he would say, and what she might say in return? And then his response, and hers, until they’d established a conversation. Countless hours in his cell, none of them spent preparing for different scenarios. I’ll say this and if she says that then I’ll . . .  No flow charts. If A then B otherwise C. No practice dialog. Only a trance-like condition in which he had already achieved the outcome: forgiveness sought and absolution granted. Because he was truly sorry. He would atone. She would understand.

He said, “And I’m really sorry about what happened to your father. That was terrible.”

“Don’t talk about him.”

“I respected Jude,” Aaron said. “He was honest and fair with me. I was so shocked when—”

“Don’t!” She cupped her hands to her ears, shutting him out, and started toward the tent.

“Dana, wait.” He reached for her, but pulled back before he touched her. Still she recoiled.

“Get away from me!” she screamed. Several of her teammates, huddled under the tent, turned their heads. A man and woman standing nearby—probably the parents of one of the runners—looked over.

The horn sounded to start the men’s race.

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating watcher of movies and series.

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