Columbus High was a small school surrounded by a chain link fence, right in the middle of town. The tiny, enclosed parking lot was full of buses unloading athletes of all sizes and shapes.
The Maxwell bus squeezed into a narrow parking space right next to Maria’s car and released its students. They stretched their legs by the side of the bus while Coach Peggy spoke to them.
“Everyone please walk through those double doors there, then walk straight to the back of the school. You will see another set of double doors, go through them and you will walk right out onto Columbus’ football field. You can’t miss it. Stay together. We’ll get organized out there.” She pointed to the doors in the center of the main building and ushered everyone in that direction.
As they walked, everyone looked around commenting on the wild, colorful graffiti that covered the walls of the inner city school.
“I wish whoever did the painting out here would visit the boardwalk,” Daisy whispered to Connor.
“Yea, pretty cool, huh?”
The football field was packed with students and family members. Near the bleachers there was a news team huddling together discussing the best position for the cameras. They had caught wind of the need for police at the meet and decided there might be something interesting to cover.
Matt Langley and Davis both walked out into the field together with Coach Peggy. Their eyes combed the scene before them. Mr. Langley took to the right and Davis took to the left so they could examine the crowds more closely.
Coach Peggy continued in the direction of her team when two Columbus students jogged up to her side. “Are you the Maxwell Coach?” they asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“We’re guides, we’re suppose to show your distance runners around.”
“Oh I see, well let’s find them then.” Coach Peggy and the two guides walked straight into the center of the football field where she’d sent her team to congregate.
“Okay everybody, listen up! This school is a tiny little place in the middle of the city as you are already aware. So your running courses are not through beautiful meadows like at Surfside. You’ll be running mostly through town. If you are a 5-mile or a 10-mile runner you’ll have to follow the cones and the spotter’s along the way through town. If you are a 2 miler you’ll stay on the track to complete your 2 miles.” Coach Peggy stuck her hand out to a boy standing next to her. “This here is Harold. He set up the cones for the 5-mile runners. If you are a 5-mile runner please follow him to see your course lay out.” Coach Peggy stopped a minute to give the 5 milers a chance to exit with Harold. Then she continued, “This here is Janet. She set up the 10-mile course. If you’re a 10-mile runner please accompany her and take a look at your course, and pay attention to any advice she might give about running downtown, okay?”
Everyone nodded in agreement and the 10-mile group left with Janet.
“The rest of you, your events are located right here in the center of the field. You can basically see from here where you should go. Please stretch out and remember to watch out for each other. If you see the Adams twins or anything else out of the ordinary please report it to me immediately.”
Connor, Andy, Daisy and Maria walked together with the other runners as Janet explained the 10-mile course to them.
Andy looked up at the sky. “Good day for a run,” he commented casually.
The sun was now shining brightly. You could catch glimpses of it as you made turns in between the tightly situated buildings. All the streets had been blocked to give way for the runners. There were traffic barricades and spotters at various locations along the course.
“Everything seems to be marked pretty well. It must have taken the entire school body to have this many spotters out here,” Connor commented.
“Coach Peggy must have warned them about what’s been going on with Mr. Adams,” returned Daisy.
“There are so many turns,” Andy pointed out, “That will affect our speed. I prefer a straight run on the beach or down the highway. But here, man… left, right, left, right, nothing straight. That’ll make it harder for me to beat my previous time.”
“Harder maybe, but the end of the race is on the track. One full lap around the football field. You can catch up there,” Connor encouraged.
“That’ll help.” Andy nodded in agreement.
Daisy tripped over a crack in the road. Connor caught her arm. “Gotcha girl. We’ll have to watch out for potholes too.”
“Good to know ahead of time.” Maria took a mental note.
“Look. There are cracks everywhere.” Daisy pointed to several places ahead of them that were broken.
“Okay, we’ve got cracks, potholes, lots of turns and a few inclines, but these conditions are not outside our ability. We can do this thing!” Andy hollered enthusiastically as he raised his hand high in the air.
Connor gave Andy’s hand a loud slap. “Let’s do it man!”
The 10-mile boys stretched, shook out their limbs, and positioned themselves at the line. The gun cracked through the chilly air and they were off. Andy and Connor found themselves near the front of the group, but they did not try to take the leading spot. Other, more eager runners wanted to spend their energy out front. Andy and Connor, for the time being, would let them.
The chilly November wind was in their face when they ran east but whenever the course took them west the cold wind was at their backs pushing them along. The zigzag path didn’t bother Connor or Andy as much as they were expecting it to, but the wind was another story.
“The wind is gonna drive Daisy crazy,” Connor thought to himself. She had long hair and rarely ever tied it back. It gave her headaches, was the reason she always gave, but Connor knew the truth, she couldn’t fool him. He knew the real reason was that Andy would make fun of her ears. Connor smiled as he thought about her ears. Unlike Andy, Connor thought Daisy’s ears were adorable. He would have to warn her as soon as he saw her about the wind factor.
Despite all the turns and potholes the boys were still able to find their running groove. They pressed forward in sync.
“Let’s move up, Connor.”
They picked up their pace. Some of the front runners fell back. Time passed and after a while the course began sending them back to the school where they would have to run one lap around the football field. Then the race would be over.
The Columbus boy’s team did have two good runners ahead of Andy and Connor. They seemed to be holding a solid pace. Andy and Connor were sizing them up from behind.
“When should we take them?” Connor asked under his breath.
“When we hit the field.” They kept their present pace until they hit the track.
“Yep.” Connor grinned then focused more intensely.
They picked up speed steadily until they caught up with the two boys ahead of them. When the two runners saw them coming they also began to speed up. All four runners were now running around the football field neck and neck. The crowds cheered wildly! Other team members gathered around the finish line roaring with excitement! They all were calling the names of whomever they wanted to win at top volume! The TV crewmen were positioning themselves at the yellow tape.
Daisy and Maria were screaming and jumping up and down hysterically right behind the yellow tape where they always stood to get a clear view. Davis and Matt Langley stopped strolling about the crowds to watch the close run between the four boys. It was not yet clear who would win. They ran in a completely straight line around the track. All thoroughly focused and determined to win.
“Man! They can fly!” Davis exclaimed excitedly to Matt. “I mean, I always knew they were fast but look at ’em go! They’re like tornados!” Davis continued his praise in an amazed tone.
“I know it!” Matt shook his head in near disbelief. “They’re outrageously fast! Look at their faces! They are so completely focused on the finish line.”
Davis glanced at the finish line. He could see Daisy and Maria screaming for Andy and Connor there behind the tape. Davis started laughing and pointing at the girls. “Look! Matt! Are our boys focused on the finish line or on the girls?!”
Matt began laughing along with Davis. “Perhaps it is the girls they are focused on. It is hard to tell isn’t it?” He slapped Davis on the back laughing. Matt wanted to add, “We weren’t any different at that age,” but decided against it. Any reference to Deborah Bailey was still painful for Davis. Davis was just now letting Matt be his friend again and he didn’t want to say anything to upset his old friend now. They both stood there side by side, proudly watching Connor and Andy to see who would win.
Andy suddenly pulled out front as though he had some secret booster button. He advanced 4,5,6,7 strides ahead of the rest, Connor right behind him. He could not quite match Andy’s pace but he did manage to pull out ahead of the other two runners. Andy flashed through the tape with Connor not far behind him. The Maxwell students went berserk! Someone, somewhere in the crowd booed, but everybody else continued in their wild display of excitement!
Running in circles through the crowd of teammates behind the tape, the runners attempted to slow down. Everyone was grabbing their favorite runner giving them high fives and splashing water and drinks everywhere!
“Hey man, you Columbus boys are fast! Good run!” Andy praised his challenging opponents courteously.
“Not as fast as you guys. Are you going to the Regional’s?” asked one of the Columbus boys.
“Of course, aren’t you?”
“Don’t know, man,” the Columbus boy returned in a bummed out tone.
“You never know who’ll win until you get there,” Andy encouraged.
“That’s right, you never know.” Connor grinned slyly in Andy’s direction.
“Anybody but my slow-poke buddy can win!” Andy back handed Connor in the belly.
“Ow! I have as much chance as anybody else!” Connor laughed and then took off after Daisy.
Connor and Andy both chased their girls around trying to give them sweaty hugs. Daisy and Maria screamed out various threats if they were touched!
Connor grabbed a water bottle yelling, “What about our tradition babe! Come on! Don’t break tradition!”
Daisy ran crazily through the crowds trying to stay away from Connor and his water bottle. She was laughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. When she stopped to take a breath, Connor pounced on her quick as lightning! She screamed and laughed but no one would help her. It was now very clear to the entire school body that Connor had a thing for Daisy. No one would dare interfere no matter how much she screamed.
He grabbed her with one arm, held her tightly against his sweaty body and emptied his water bottle over her shaking head as she screamed!
“Connor Bailey! When are you gonna grow up!”
“After you babe, oh and thanks for not messing with tradition!” He hollered as he let her go and turned around to run from her. She jumped on his back and pounded his shoulder hysterically. He turned on her once more. Grabbing her tightly he tried to kiss her but her continued pounding hindered him. Finally, she was so worn out she had no choice but to relax in his hold.
He held her for a second, letting her catch her breath and smiled down at her. “I love rough housing with you, Daisy girl. You’re the best!”
“I’m glad you won.”
He noticed, that to her, he had won the race. Really, it had been Andy but Daisy couldn’t see that. She only saw him winning. He secretly thought that was great.
“Yea, and I’m glad you were at the finish line. Thanks, babe.” He kissed her a little more successfully this time. She wanted to rest in his arms for a minute more. She was still out of breath from all the running around she’d just done but she couldn’t. He was just too sweaty.
She pushed him away grinning. “Connor you’re so grimy!”
“Okay, okay, okay,” he responded cheerfully. “Let’s go find Maria and Andy.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her up next to him where he liked her to be and they strolled through the crowd until they spotted their friends.
Andy and Maria were holding hands near the starting line of the next race.
“The 10-miler girls are up next,” Connor announced as he positioned himself beside Andy. Then he remembered the wind factor and explained it to Daisy. He took a band off his wrist and handed it to her.
She quickly pulled her hair up. “Thanks.” She smiled.
“Hey Dumbo, ya better pin those ears back before ya run!” Andy teased.
“Shut up!” Daisy growled.
Connor kissed the ear that was closest to him. “Go win, babe,” he whispered and she smiled again.
Then Maria called, “Come on Dum… I mean Daisy! We’re up!” The two girls ran off to take their places in the race.
After a few minutes of shaking out, the gun blasted and the 10-miler girls were off and running.
“You shouldn’t chase Daisy around like that before a race. You’ll wear her out,” Andy chided.
“I suppose you think call ’in her names is better?” Connor rolled his eyes. “I can’t help it anyway. She’s too much fun! Besides you chased Maria around,” he returned the challenge.
“Yea, a little bit, but not like you do with Daisy! What I do is not the same.” Andy shook his head at the obvious.
“I’ve been rough housing with Daisy all my life. I know what she can take and what she can’t,” Connor defended himself proudly.
Andy gave him an annoyed look.
Connor smiled at his annoyed buddy and continued confidently, “She’ll still win.”
Andy’s annoyance turned to surprise. “Maria will win this race, you know that.”
“Daisy will beat everybody else though. And then, next year Maria will be gone and Daisy will be the number one winner of every race. This is her practice year. Next year it’s all hers.” He held his hands out to the track and bleachers showcasing all that belonged to his girl.
Andy rolled his eyes at Connor’s pride. “Well, let’s go sit in the bleachers. Oh, excuse me, Daisy’s bleachers.”
“That’s right, Daisy’s bleachers.”
They jogged across the track and sat down with water bottles to wait for the girls to come back in.
Daisy and Maria were now running through the tight streets of downtown just like Andy and Connor had done. Sure enough, when they turned east the November wind and sun were in their faces but when they turned west the wind pushed at their backs and the sun hit their necks. Daisy truly disliked the wind in her back. It blew her hair around and distracted her. But she had to push the aggravation from her mind so she could pay attention to the unfamiliar zigzag path she was on.
“Let’s take it up a notch,” Maria suggested.
There were six girls running at a comfortable pace ahead of them, nothing stressful… yet. Daisy could run at this pace all day if she wanted, but she didn’t want to.
“Can we pick it up more?”
“You don’t like this snail pace either, hmm?”
“Only on Saturday nights with Connor.”
Maria smiled. They took it up a few more notches, and a few of the girls fell back behind them.
Daisy’s eyes scanned the empty streets ahead of her. “If you’re going to run on a street it should at least be highway 74. The cars passing by encourage speed. All these buildings towering over my head make me feel boxed in.” Daisy tried to analyze the funny feeling the deserted downtown streets gave her. Subconsciously she decided she preferred beach running to all other types of running she’d so far encountered in her 15 years of life.
They had been running silently for a while when Maria broke into Daisy’s world by saying, “When we hit the school track we need to pass the rest of these girls. We’re almost there now.”
“Yea, let’s pass ’em,” Daisy said a bit excited that at least there would be a challenge of speed at the end of the race. It turned out however, that Maria was the only real challenge in this race. Once they hit the track they sped up and passed the girls ahead of them with little effort at all.
Maria and Daisy ran together a little while longer then they decided to race each other to the end.
“Let’s go!” Maria encouraged and they both began sprinting at top speed. Maria could see herself winning and she wanted it. She could see Andy behind the yellow tape calling her forward, “Come on, Maria! You can do it!”
Daisy was right on her heels stretching her stride out as far as it would go. She also was flying at top speed, just a few steps behind Maria. Connor was a beautiful sight behind the yellow tape. He had a huge grin on his face obviously very proud of his girl coming in so close to the winner. His arms were stretched out towards her and she wanted them.
The Maxwell team was going crazy all along the sides of the track, cheering and hollering excitedly. The TV news team was stationed in a good spot to see the entire scene. They could see both the crowds and the runners from where they were situated. The police were standing on the sidelines looking over the crowds for anything out of the ordinary.
Coach Peggy thought she’d caught a glimpse of Alison McNeal somewhere but she lost her in the crowd. “Maybe it wasn’t her,” Peggy mumbled to herself, but she scanned the crowds for her anyway.
Alison was in the crowds alright. She was near the running track but no longer in Coach Peggy’s view. She was holding a large, long handled, push broom in one hand and someone who appeared to be Gary Adams was standing next to her. They were difficult to notice because of the baseball caps and the over-sized hooded jackets they wore. They stood alert by the track with serious expressions on their faces as the runners approached.
Alison, quick as a flash, dropped the broom right into the path of Maria! The long handle and brush part of the broom bounced wildly in front of her. Maria was able to leap instantly and missed getting hit by the broom and kept running.
Daisy however, didn’t see it coming. The broom slapped her in the legs. She dove forward onto the pavement, her shoulder hitting the ground first. She cried out in pain as she hit the hard track.
Daisy’s cry broke Maria’s concentration. She spun around to see Daisy sprawled out, face down on the pavement. The other runners behind Daisy all halted in shock at the sudden catastrophe before them. The crowds went into hysteria at the sight of the obviously rigged accident. The news team raced in to get a close up of the girl who had dropped the broom and of her companion, while Daisy withered in pain on the ground where she fell.
Alison and Gary or Glenn, whichever one of the twins it was, tried to make a run for it but the angry crowds hindered them. This made it easy for the police to come forth and arrest them on the spot. Alison and her partner had not taken into consideration what the crowds might think of what they’d done. They now faced an angry mob of sportsmen, the police, the TV cameras and lastly, the angriest of the bunch, Coach Peggy, Matt Langley and Davis.
Connor and Andy sprinted to where Daisy lay. Connor straddled her, one leg on either side of her. He leaned carefully over where she lay. He brushed her hair away from the side of her face cautiously and spoke gently to her, “Day-Day, I’m going to turn you over, okay?”
“My shoulder… my shoulder hurts,” Daisy choked out tearfully.
“Okay babe, I’ll be careful with your shoulder.” Connor surveyed her position and carefully chose where to put his hands to flip her as gently as he possible could.
“Andy, help me! I’ll turn her from up here and you hold her hips and turn her from there. Real slow, okay? Real slow.”
Andy took hold of Daisy gently, “Okay, on the count of three.”
Connor glanced back at Andy briefly, then back to Daisy’s shoulder. “One, two, three, go.” Connor held her upper body from under her arms and turned her carefully avoiding her shoulder and catching her head from behind her neck. Daisy cried out in pain as her dislocated shoulder flopped loosely. Connor flinched at her cry. Anger rose in his heart at who had done this horribly mean thing to his girl but he pushed the anger from his mind for now so that he could tend to Daisy properly. He was confident that Coach Peggy and his Dad would handle the “anger part” from where they were.
“Daisy girl.” Connor knelt down on his knees and looked into her eyes. “I’m going to touch your shoulder, okay? Now don’t bite me.”
When Daisy was in fifth grade Connor had set her shoulder himself. They had been skateboarding together and she had fallen down some steps. He’d grabbed her too quickly and put her shoulder back together in one quick motion. She was angry with him and bit him in the process. She was completely fine afterwards, but he still had a scar on his arm reminding him that Daisy didn’t like being messed with.
It now appeared that she had dislocated the same shoulder again. Connor was older now and more considerate of her feelings than he had been then, but he still felt the need to verbalize his concern. “Daisy, I will try to be careful but please don’t bite me, okay?” He checked her eyes again for her agreement.
“Okay,” she whimpered as the tears streaked her cheeks.
He cupped the round part of her shoulder in one hand, feeling as lightly as he could, the position of the bones. With his other hand he carefully gripped the upper bone of her arm. He pulled it and snapped it back in place in one swift motion. Daisy cried out through her tears one sudden cry then bit her lip and shut her eyes tightly. Connor continued feeling the top part of her shoulder checking if it felt right to him.
He laid her arm in a V shape up across her chest whispering, “Shh, shh, shh, it’s okay. Shh, shh.” He took the towel from around his neck and wiped her tears. Then taking her other free hand, he moved it up to the wrist of the injured arm. “There ya go babe, hold your arm up against your chest like this. Keep it in this position. Do you think you can stand up?” His eyes caught hers again to see if she would agree.
“Okay, I think I can stand,” she whispered.
Connor put his arm under her and slowly helped her up. When she stood up all the by standers that had encircled her parted so as to give her space to exit. Connor held her close, guarding her injured arm from any knocking about that could accidentally happen by clumsy on lookers.
“Dad,” Connor hollered over the crowd, “I’m taking her to the hospital. Maria will drive us. We’ll see you at home later!”
Davis held his hand up signifying that he’d heard what Connor hollered and was in agreement. Davis then returned his attention to Alison and the guy everyone assumed to be, Gary. It was obvious, even from a distance that Alison was denying any intentional act against Daisy, but Davis wasn’t buying it. Too many things had already happened this year for that lie to fly.
“No one will believe a word they say,” Connor silently fumed.
The news crew scrambled all over the place taping the entire event from every possible angle.
“They are so busted,” Connor mumbled under his breath in Andy’s direction.
“Deep shit, are the words that come to my mind. Everyone saw it. It’ll be on the six o’clock news for sure. There’s no way they can get out of this. No way at all,” Andy mumbled back through clinched teeth.
Andy and Maria stayed close behind Connor as they made their way to the parking lot.
“Maria,” Daisy spoke up, “Can you find my stuff? It’s with Connor’s stuff in the bleachers.”
“Sure,” Maria threw Connor the car keys. “Here Connor, you get her in the car. Andy and I will find all our stuff. We’ll meet you at the car in five minutes.” Maria and Andy raced back to the bleachers and Connor and Daisy continued in the direction of the parking lot.
“I don’t want to go to the hospital, Connor. I want to go home,” Daisy whined into his shoulder as they walked.
“No Daisy, you need to get some x-rays,” he explained as gently as possible.
“You fixed my shoulder before and I never saw a doctor. I was fine then. Please Connor take me home,” she continued miserably.
He looked down at her face sadly. “Don’t do this to me, Daisy. Don’t beg. It’s hard to say no to you when you do that. Please listen to me. This time is not like before. They are arresting Alison and Gary. We need that hospital x-ray and report to bust them. We can’t afford to give Alison or Gary any way to weasel out of this.” Connor stopped and held her for a moment looking down into her face. “Please listen to me, okay?” he whispered then kissed the tears on each of her cheeks.
Daisy looked up into Connor’s concerned face. She could see he had tears of his own sparkling in the corners of his eyes.
“Trust me,” he said quietly and he kissed her gently again.
They continued to Maria’s car. Connor unlocked it and helped her into the back seat. He slid in next to her.
Maria and Andy ran up with all of their bags and Connor passed the keys to Andy. He unlocked the trunk and threw all their stuff in the back and slammed the trunk hard. He came around to the driver’s side of the car and got in quickly.
“Since when do you drive Maria’s car?” Connor asked with alarm.
“Since we had an emergency and speed suddenly became important. I’m faster, Connor. You know that!” Andy cranked the car up quickly.
Maria shot back, “Everybody put on your seat belts!”
“You better know what you’re doing, Andy! We don’t need a second accident!” Connor growled.
“Don’t worry Connor! I got this!” Andy sped out of the tiny parking lot in the direction of the hospital permanently leaving black tire tread marks behind.