The holidays were over. Maxwell High School was up and running again. Coach Peggy had done her best to bring her cross country team back into shape and focus. It was now the last Saturday of the month. The day to face Merrillville High School.
Coach Peggy climbed onto the bus. She looked over her beloved, high energy team and hollered with all her strength, “Students listen up!”
The teens halted their personal chatter for the coach’s instructions.
“This is your first meet after the winter break. Let’s not let the famous Maxwell winning streak slip! We need to keep our eyes focused high. Put everything else out of your mind. Let’s beat Merrillville! We are the winners! Maxwell dominates, am I right!”
The excited teens shook the old school bus from side to side with wild chanting, “MAXWELL DOMINATES! MAXWELL DOMINATES! MAXWELL DOMINATES!”
The bus driver tried revving the engine. At first, it choked and sputtered, but after a minute or two it caught on to the beat of the teens. “Coach Sims,” the driver hollered over the ruckus, “Just point me in the right direction and I’m out-a-here!”
“Of course.” She turned, and with lots of hand motions she gave directions to the driver over the racket of the cheering students.
Connor, Daisy, Mark, Susan, Jeremiah and Jason were clumped together in the back of the bus.
“Tough break, ya can’t run, eh?” Jeremiah punched Connor’s arm, attempting to be sympathetic.
“Your Dad says I’m healing up pretty fast. Maybe next month I can run.”
“Merrillville is not important. The State Championship in April,” Daisy shook her pointer finger at everybody, “Now that’s what we wanna be ready for. That’s the biggie!”
“Yea, but if we don’t do well in the smaller competitions, there’s no State Competition,” Connor reminded the group. “So you’d better win or I’m kick ’in every bodies butts when my ribs get better.”
“Aw, shut-up man, you can’t kick my butt!” Jeremiah rolled his eyes.
“I don’t know man, I think he probably could.” Jason rubbed his chin, thinking of the opportunities a fight like that might bring to his wallet. “You’re good at pinning people on the wrestling mat but, in a street fight, with no rules, Connor packs a pretty mean punch.”
“No way!” Jeremiah sat upright in his seat ready to defend his outstanding fighting abilities when Andy popped up the stairs of the bus, looking for a place to sit.
“Uh-oh, this cannot be good.” Connor eyed Andy’s expression then quickly looked out the window at Maria’s car. “Daisy quick, go get in Maria’s car and find out what happened.”
Daisy bumped her way down the congested bus aisle, while the others watched Andy slump down into one of the vacant seats and stare glumly out the window.
Connor threw a wad of notebook paper at Andy’s head.
Not sure who did it, Andy turned around and gave everyone an annoyed look.
Connor made one short, piercing whistle. “Over here, man!” he hollered.
Andy reluctantly got up and moved to Connor’s seat. “Where’s Baby-Day?”
“She’ll meet us at Merrillville. Why aren’t you riding with Maria?”
Andy slumped down in his seat and ignored the question. The bus sluggishly chugged out of the Maxwell parking lot in the direction of Merrillville. “This bus is in desperate need of a tune up,” he grumbled.
“Come on man, let’s hear it. Why aren’t you riding with Maria?”
“Well, she’s ticked off at something I said last night. I said it as nice as I could but, ” he shrugged his shoulders in defeat, “Somebody had to tell her. Now she’s mad, and I’m on the bus.”
“What’d ya say?” Jason leaned forward ready for some good gossip.
“Get away from me man, I’m not tell ’in you anything,” Andy growled.
“Cranky, cranky.” Unbothered, Jason returned to his debate with Jeremiah on whether or not Connor could whip him in a street fight.
Andy leaned forward to rest his forehead on the back of the seat in front of him and stared at the floor.
“You alright?” Connor tried again with a more concerned tone.
“Do I look alright?” he snapped. “I said something she didn’t like, I can’t take it back.” He scowled at the floor. “No matter whether she likes or not, she needed to hear it.”
The bus jerked to a stop at a red light. All the kids jerked with it. Andy banged his head on the seat in front of him. “Crap!” He sat up and rubbed his forehead. “Are the buses always this close to death?” He was starting to regret his transportation choice. “Maybe I should have just walked.”
“Naw man, they rotate the drivers and the buses.” Connor chuckled at the big red mark on Andy’s scowling face. “Relax, Merrillville isn’t far.”
The bus chugged forward again.
Mark leaned over the back of Andy and Connor’s seat. “My sister is an emotional basket case without you, man. My life will be total hell, if you break up with her.”
“I didn’t break up with her! I was doing exactly the opposite of breaking up!” Andy exclaimed in frustration. “I’m trying to take care of her! But she’s taken up this, this interest, if I can call it that, in the Adams family.” Andy waved one hand loosely through the air. “Gary Adams in particular. Remember, I told you about it a while back?”
“Gary Adams?” Mark repeated the name not knowing what Andy meant.
Andy sighed. “Not you, Connor.”
“Oh, carry on then.” Mark waved him on in his discourse.
“I know what your talk ’in about, but I don’t see the connection.” Connor looked puzzled.
“Well, I uh, I just thought maybe… ”
“What? Ya thought what?”
“Well sometimes, girls get interested in bad guys cause, heck I don’t know why! But I don’t want her getting the wrong idea and thinking…” The bus jerked again and Andy banged his head on the back of the bus seat this time. “Dang it.”
“Hahahaha! Jeez Andy, ya gotta sit upright or you’ll just be bang ‘in your head the whole trip, man!”
Andy straightened up and continued, “I had to say it cause guys like Gary just cannot be trusted!” His anger level rose higher, “She’s so dang confusing!” He jabbed Connor in the ribs with his elbow. “And ya know what else?”
“Ow man, watch the ribs.” Connor rubbed his side. “I’m afraid to ask, but what else?”
“I can do anything that Gary Adams can do.” Andy crossed his arms and glared forward.
“I’m sure ya can, but why would you want to? He’s an idiot.”
“Yea, he’s an idiot,” Mark echoed.
“Because for some strange reason, Maria is interested in him.”
“I don’t think it’s because she’s horny, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Connor chuckled. “I mean look at all this animal magnetism you got go ’in on. You’re more than she can handle, man.”
“Shut-up,” Andy growled.
“Okay, okay, I’m just saying she’s interested in him because she thinks he’s covering for his brother. She wants to know why. Plain and simple.”
“You think that’s all it is?”
“I know so man. You just need to clear the air, explain why you said what you said, that you care about her and all of that, and move on.”
“He emailed her back ya know.” Andy wagged his head, sad again. “He wants her to ride his horse every week.”
“I take it you don’t like that idea,” Connor returned softly. He now felt Andy’s pain.
Andy just wagged his head no. Then he was quiet for a while.”I tried to be real nice. I promised that I’d go with her, but I don’t like it.” He sighed deeply. “I know at some point, he’s gonna want more from her. I had to tell her so.” He looked at Connor and Mark soberly. “I have no idea what she’s gonna do. Sometimes, I just cannot figure her out.”
“I can tell Mom.” Mark grinned. “She’ll be grounded for life if I do that.”
“Yea but then she’d never speak to me again, so that’s definitely not gonna work.” Andy chuckled.
“So what are ya gonna do?”
“I was kinda hope ’in I could go to Brazil, kick Gary’s butt, then come back and take Maria out to dinner. How about that?” A moment of wishful thinking brightened his sad outlook. “Maybe kick ’in Gary’s butt would put things in perspective for her.”
“Andy, come on man.” Connor rolled his eyes. “Maria is such a perfectionist. Anything not done correctly drives her insane. She thinks Gary lied in court, it’s eating at her. She wants to bring the correct bad guy down. She has no interest in being bad herself. Just beg like a dog and get it all fixed up.” Connor brushed his hands together, displaying how simple he thought his solution would be to accomplish.
“I remember your begging days.” True hope appeared in Andy’s eyes when he remembered Connor’s big blunder.
“I remember ’em too!” Jeremiah yelled out to the whole bus. Daaaaaiiiiisssssy pleeeeaaaasssse! I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Forgive me! Oh Daaaaiiiiisssssy!” He and Jason rolled around in the bus seat laughing.
Connor jumped up. “Don’t you know what a private conversation is?” He tried to climb over Andy. “I’m gonna kill you guys!”
Andy blocked him. “No Connor!”
“Ow! Crap! Let go of me!” He held his side and winced in pain as he tried to push through Andy’s block.
Everyone on the bus turned around to see what all the commotion was.
“Broken ribs! Remember your,” Jeremiah hollered in sudden fear, “Broken ribs!”
“I’ll break your ribs and worry about mine later!” Connor hollered. “Let go of me Andy! Let me kill ’em!”
“Allow me!” Susan popped out of her seat and walloped both Jeremiah and Jason in the head with her back pack.
“Aaaaa! Dang, what ya got in that bag? Mark! Get your girl! Get your girl!” both boys cried out pitifully while everyone else on the bus roared laughing.
“Why? She seems fine to me.” Mark stretched his arm out along the back of his seat and enjoyed the entertainment along with the rest of the bus.
After a good walloping, Susan sat down breathless. “Whew, good workout. I think I’m ready to beat Merrillville.” She grinned.
“Thanks man.” Connor stuck out his hand to Susan and she slapped it with a hearty, “They were asking for it.”
“I guess we’re all live ’in and learn ’in.” Andy chuckled, feeling much better. He would have preferred it to have been Gary Adams getting his head beat in with a back pack but he’d settle for Jeremiah and Jason, for now.
The students climbed off the bus in the Merrillville High School parking lot. Andy and Connor followed the group to the center of the freshly mowed football field where Coach Peggy quickly took role and introduced a couple of Merrillville students to them.
The Merrillville students led the Maxwell runners around the property. They pointed out the tricky spots in the various running courses. Then after a few questions and a time of stretching out, the races began.
The boy’s 10-mile race was first. Willie moved up next to Andy. He would replace Connor in today’s race. Andy was secretly glad that Willie had been sitting in the very front of the bus. He had not heard very much of the unpleasant conversation that went on in the back. Willie had only one thing on his mind, the race.
The gun went off!
Willie and Andy started out together. About a half mile into the race, Andy noticed the beautiful day around him. There was a clear blue sky over head. The sun was shining brightly but you could not feel the heat of it because of the cold January air. As he ran further, his mind began to clear. The freezing air refreshed him. His limbs loosened up. He looked out at the course ahead of him and eagerly advanced.
As his body steamed forward, the stress and anxiety of the night before seemed to seep out through his pores, leaving him vacant and empty. Empty being better than stressed, he let it happen. He forgot about Gary. He forgot about Maria. He forgot about everything but the rhythm of his run. He pressed forward and ran free. Free from it all.
Mile 2,3,4, he ran empty and free. Mile 5,6,7 were completely in the zone. During mile 8 and 9 he passed the runners ahead of him. One by one he passed them all, all but Willie.
Willie, a focused, well-oiled machine, moved silently at his side. Nothing but air between the two of them.
“Willie’s get ‘in faster these days, I better step it up a notch.” Bursting forth with the stash of energy that he always saved for the last mile, Andy approached his destination. It came closer and closer and closer to him. He raised his eyes past the people, past the empty spot where Maria usually stood. He looked up to the sky. “Let your forgiveness come,” he breathed.
Then with one last mighty gust of strength, Andy’s chest ripped the yellow tape!
Willie crossed the line right at his side, but the tape, the yellow tape, stuck to Andy’s shirt like a flag of recognition. As he slowed and made circles through the athletes, the tape followed him this way and that, fluttering in the breeze, refusing to let go of his shirt.
Andy heard a quiet voice say, “Just like the tape refuses to let go of you, so do I refuse to let go of you.” Andy took the yellow tape from his shirt and rolled it carefully into a tight cylinder in his fist. He didn’t want to forget what God had said to him.
Willie suddenly grabbed him yelling, “I P.R.’ed! I P.R.’ed!”
“Good job man!” Speed always made Andy happy, even if it was someone else’s personal record. But today, there was something that made him even happier. He felt God’s love.
Willie slapped him on the back. “Running with you, I’m faster! We were like lightning!”
“Yea, you almost beat me man!”
The girl’s 10-mile race was next. Connor and Andy stood on the side lines watching them stretch out.
Maria rubbed her eyes and yawned while she did lunges next to Daisy.
“Maria looks tired.”
“Yea, I shouldn’t have kept her up so late,” Andy mumbled with a tinge of regret.
The girls took their place at the starting line. The gun cracked the air and they were off. Maria took a slower than usual start and remained at the tail of the pack for several miles.
Daisy stayed at her side for the first few miles. But eventually she had to ask, “Aren’t we gonna move up?”
Without a word Maria picked up her pace for about a half mile then fell back. She tried again. She picked up her pace for a half mile then fell back again. This happened over and over again throughout the whole race. She could push for a short while but she could not seem to hold it. “Sorry, Day, that’s all I got.”
“Kay.” Daisy focused on doing her personal best. She left Maria’s side and moved methodically through the girls to the front of the pack. Miles 7,8 and 9 flashed by and Daisy held a strong lead.
In the rear, Maria pushed for more speed, but she just didn’t have any. She had spent it all the night before, fighting with Andy. She couldn’t sleep because of the fight and she didn’t want to eat when she got up. Her troubled soul had nothing left to give to the race. She pushed, then slowed, pushed, then slowed, pushed, then slowed.
From behind the pack, Maria watched Daisy break the tape, then countless others flood through right behind her.
Maria’s eyes became blurry with tears. She had been first for three years straight. All her practices up to this point were flawless. Her perfect record meant nothing today.
She kept her eye on the tape, hoping another burst would come, but it didn’t. She finally crossed the tape at what number? She didn’t know and she didn’t care. If you weren’t in the first three, it didn’t count for the Regional anyway.
She pinched her aching sides and walked around grieved to the bone over her loss. She didn’t really need to walk circles to slow down because she came through at almost a walking pace as it was. She only walked out of habit. It kept her busy. “Oh God, my stomach.” She leaned over wrenching in pain.
“Dry heaves,” came the calm words of Coach Peggy. She lay a cool towel on Maria’s neck. “When did you eat last darl ‘in?”
In between heaves she managed to answer, “Dinner was at six last night.” Then she heaved again.
“Andy!” Coach Peggy hollered over Maria’s bent back, “I need a chair!”
Maria held her head in her hands. “Oh God, I’m so dizzy.” She fell to her knees with more dry heaves. “Not Andy, not Andy, ” she begged weakly. “We’re in a fight.”
Coach Peggy got on her knees alongside Maria and wiped her face. “I noticed that sweetheart. But ya know, he’s my best man, and somebody has got to get you and that car of yours home,” she gently reasoned with her prize runner.
Andy, Connor and Daisy all ran up with towels, water and a chair.
Andy propped the chair up and came around behind Maria. “Here Care-Bears.” He put his hands under her arms and pulled her limp body onto the chair. Coach Peggy and Daisy had her on each side. Connor held the chair steady. It took all four of them but they managed to get her into the chair.
Once in the chair, Maria leaned over her knees and continued to heave without mercy.
Connor poured water on her head.
“Not too much,” Coach Peggy warned. Then she took a new towel and wiped her face and neck again.
Andy rubbed her back. “You’re gonna be okay Care-bears. You’re gonna be okay,” he gently repeated this phrase over and over again.
The heaving slowed down.
Daisy sat on the ground and dug in her bag. She pulled out some mints and put a couple in her hand. “Wanna a mint?”
Of course Maria didn’t really want one. Her stomach was completely up-side-down but she cracked a small smile through her tears. “No Day, you eat ’em.”
“It looks like the heaves have stopped,” Connor observed. “Ya wanna try some water?”
Andy continued to rub her back. “Are you still dizzy, girl?”
“Umm,” Maria tried sitting up, “Umm, I’m done, I think.” She took a new towel from the pile that her friends had brought and wiped her face.
Coach Peggy looked up at Andy who was still standing behind Maria. “Find the keys and pull her car around to the gate. The rest of us will walk her over, real slow. Just wait at the gate for us.”
“Coach Peggy, ” Maria whined. “Can’t Mark take me home?”
“No he can’t. Mark’s 5-miler is the last event of the day. Andy is done. He can get you home quicker.” Coach Peggy handed Maria’s bag to Andy. “I’m sure her keys are in there somewhere. Now go!”
“Got it!” Andy took Maria’s bag and ran off.
Coach Peggy looked Maria squarely in the eye. “Now darl ‘in I don’t know what happened between you two, but you just get over it and let him take you home.”
“Kay.” She was too weak to argue about it, so she let it go.
On Andy’s behalf, Connor raised his fist in the air and then pulled it back down super quick. “YES!”
Daisy and the Coach laughed at Connor’s sparkle of zeal. Even worn out Maria cracked another tiny smile as they helped her across the football field to the gate where Andy was waiting for her.
“Here Care-Bears.” Andy took her around the waist. “Let me help you.”
“Wasn’t that the most pathetic run you’ve ever seen in your life?” Maria grumbled as she got into the car.
When he got her all buckled up, Andy took her hand and looked her in the eyes. “No, no it wasn’t. You put up a great fight and you made it all the way to the end. You made it. That’s what I love about you.” He squeezed her hand. “You’re a fighter.”
“We’re gonna be okay, aren’t we Andy?”she whispered.
“Always Care-Bears.” He grinned confidently. “Always and forever.”
She pulled the seat lever, and it slowly slid back into a laying down position. Then she put a towel over her face and commenced crying miserably. She cried over the failed race that she could not fix, she cried because her heart was full of conflicting emotions that she did not understand and she cried because she hated to be wrong. She worked so hard at always being right, but today she was just wrong. Everything was all wrong. Her miserable pride left her body one, unwilling tear at a time until she was too exhausted to cry any longer.
Andy patted her head gently. “Hey Care-Bears we’re home,” he whispered.
With a red, puffy face she peeked at him from under the towel. You’re right Andy. I should leave Gary’s horse alone.”
Everything is gonna be okay, he whispered again. “Truth has a way of unraveling all by itself. Let’s just give it some time.”