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It’s the second half of the Ray Bradbury Challenge of writing a short story each week for a year. After several attempts, this is the farthest I have ever gotten. But this has been another weird week, so instead of posting something semi-polished, I am posting the dirty first draft. I plan to go ahead and edit and maybe post the revision in the comments sometime next week. Because 95% of writing is revising, right?

warning – some head-hopping all over. #firstdraftsaresucky

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Excuses

       

“Where were you last night?” Kaycee asked. “It’s just not the same running mile repeats without you there.” 

Coach Robinson had both the boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams practice in the cool of the evening, to escape the searing Texas heat. Last night was mile repeats at the high school stadium. Tonight, they were heading out to the cross-country practice trails. It was 6:45 and although the sun was starting to think about setting, the temperature was still in the mid-eighties.

Cameron chewed his lip. “I’m thinking about quitting the team”. he willed her to not ask why. The ESP failed.

“What are you talking about? Your one of the fastest guys on the team.” Kaycee blurted.

“Aw, it’s just too much work. Gets in the way of my Nintendo practice after school, you know?” Cameron thought about adding his standard complaint against the oppressive heat and the more oppressive coach, but he knew that Kaycee would see right through those shallow arguments. What should he tell her? Kaycee had been his friend and running partner since they were five years old at the PeeWee Track Club. She used to be faster than he, flying past him on winged feet in the 800 and 1600. Puberty ended her domination, now they reigned as the number one runner on their respective teams. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was to give up cross-country. He lived for the sensation of wind pushing him back, the silent padding of his feet on the dirt trails they ran their practices on. He could live without the track, with its repetition of sights and sounds, but the trails, the open land, and the golf courses they raced on, these were his retreat from the world. 

            The team reached the beginning of the trail. Coach Robinson called out the workout, thirty minutes in, then turn around and back out, trying to finish in less than thirty minutes. He was constantly harping on the teams about negative split, finishing the second half of a race in less time than the first half and he hoped running that way in practice would condition the habit of saving themselves for the push at the end. He was proud of this team; it was the best talent he’d seen in several years. This could be the year for the elusive state championship. He looked at the back of the pack, where his two team captains, Cameron and Kaycee, appeared to be in deep conversation. They had the talent and the drive to lead these teams to success, and Robinson was grateful for them. Tonight, they seemed to have uneasy countenances, and he worried something could be wrong. To his relief, they began running and sped into the course. He knew they would be the first out, despite the slow start. He had thoughts of scholarship offers and visits to NCAA meets, smiled to himself, and began working on the lineup for Saturday’s meet against Halletsville.

            Cameron eased himself over the course beginning to catch and pass first the members of the girls’ squad and then the boys of his own group. As he passed the other boys, they made the typical high school comments and insults, yet Cameron knew that they respected him and his talent. He was unanimously elected captain of the team, the first junior in years to hold the post. He pumped his legs harder and thought about what life would be like after leaving this team, life without running. Well, he thought, I could still run, it’d just not be with the team. It’ll be for me, not for Champease High School. He heard footsteps behind him and familiar hard breathing behind him. He did not turn his head but increased his pace and charged up the small hill ahead of him. His pursuer also picked up speed and stayed with him step for step as the hill became a memory. A shrill whistle screeched the end of thirty minutes and both runners turned and began the return. Again, Cameron would start at the back and begin passing the teammates in front of him.

He lifted his feet to clear the roots, rocks, and other ground objects. His legs pushed off powerfully and he felt his speed increasing as he traversed the wooded trail. Jordon, who only seconds ago was trailing Cameron, had a good lead and was speeding back to the field house. Cameron accepted the silent challenge and surged past him. With a glance back, he noticed Jordon had slowed down and was going to take it easy the rest of the workout. Cameron always thought “you race like you train” and continually pushed himself at each practice. He had a quote from Emil Zapotek on his locker in the field house “Why practice running slow? I already know how to run slow. I want to run fast!” Cameron looked to see who was on the trail in front. It was Corey Matthews. Cameron focused on the boy and imagined a fishing line between them. Then he imagined reeling in the boy like a giant bass, like the one he and his father caught last summer at Inks Lake. He soon caught up to the boy, gave a quick greeting, and looked ahead to his next target. Jacob was ahead next. Cameron stared at Jacob’s back, noticing the sweat darkening patches of the school-issued gray practice shirt. He pushed himself harder and easily passed Jacob.  With each step, he felt strong and alive.

 Alive was an important feeling these days. Lately, the scent of death was following him to school, to cross-country meets, and to the Pizza Palace like an unwanted stray puppy. Although his father had been diagnosed with liver cancer only two weeks ago, the entire household has changed in essence.  Daylight hours were filled with tense silence between his parents, but the nights were filled with tearful arguments. Cameron couldn’t hear the exact content of each nightly screaming match, but he thought it had something to do with his dad’s refusal to have chemotherapy to treat his cancer. Every day, Cameron would come home to find piles of printouts from the Internet stuffed into the trash. Mom would research all kind of new experimental treatments and Dad would throw the reports into the kitchen trashcan and sulk off into his study. Cameron would then take the printouts out of the trash and take them to his room, where he kept them neatly organized in a red binder labeled “Code Red”. One night his father caught him in the middle of a printout rescue mission and insisted Cameron return the pages to the trash can. Cameron appealed to him “But Dad, these should be recycled, not cast off into overflowing landfills.”  His father growled something about green leftist educators. Cameron breathed a sigh of relief and carried the rescued cargo to his room.

Cameron looked ahead of him and saw that he was now in the midst of the girls’ team, having finished passing his own team. At the front of the pack, he saw Kaycee, who had already passed the slowest boys and all of the girls to lead the way back. Cameron decided that she needed more of a challenge and took off at his top speed to catch her. There was only a kilometer or so left to go, so he gave it all he could. Kaycee, hearing his footfalls, picked up her pace even faster and the two of them sprinted until they reached Coach Robinson in a dead heat.

“You know, you two really should save something for the meet this weekend. We don’t get team point for you beating each other at practice.” Coach Robinson remarked as he turned to head back to the field house. “Cool down, then gather everyone for a team meeting.”

Kaycee glared at Cameron. “You will be at the meet this weekend, won’t you? We need you this week for the points to get everyone to regionals.”

Cameron bent down to retie his shoes. “I haven’t told Coach I’m quitting yet.”

“Good, then you don’t yet. You don’t have to quit at all,” Kaycee was almost pleading with him.

Cameron wanted to talk to Kaycee; he wanted to tell her what was going on. He stared at her for a long minute. Then the rest of the team started approaching. “Let’s get a Coke after practice.”

“Can’t. I’ve got to babysit my brothers. Mom’s still out of town and Dad has a school board meeting tonight.’ Kaycee turned and started jogging towards the coach’s office. “Let’s run before school tomorrow. We can put in three or so and talk for fewer calories.”

In the hall outside of the coach’s office, the team gathered, sweaty and tired. Most sat on the floor, some stretched out their legs, and others just sat with faces of peaceful exhaustion. Coach Robinson stood in the midst of his teams.

“Good job out there tonight. I’m real pleased with the effort you all are making.* Saturday, we run a dual meet with Hallettesville and I’m expecting great things from you all. I’ll have the schedule posted tomorrow morning before school. Take the next two days easy, just loosen up your legs and that’s it. Nothing over two miles. I repeat, nothing over two miles. I want you all fresh Saturday morning. I want to see some negative splits. I know I’ll see progress over the last meet.”

Cameron looked over at Kaycee. He knew that two miles would not be long enough to say everything he needed to tell her. Two miles for them would be over in ten minutes. She didn’t look up, she was fiddling with her shoelace. The coach dismissed them and the teams headed toward the two locker rooms.  Cameron watched Kaycee walk into the girls’ locker room with her teammates. Two miles would just have to do.

“So, did you tell coach yet?” Kaycee asked, the next morning as they rounded the corner of Texas Avenue. They had already done three miles, so the coach would already chew them out, so they figured, might as well have a good reason to get chewed up.

“No, haven’t had the chance yet.” Cameron concentrated on his breathing. Two steps, breath in, two steps breath out. Breathing gave him an enormous sense of purpose today. “I need the right timing, not in the middle of the crowd.”

 “You still haven’t told me why, so why?”

“My dad has cancer. He’s dying.” Cameron took a deep breath and then tried to go back to his rhythm. In in, out out, breath, he told himself. It was as if the world would stop revolving if he messed up the pattern. Two steps in, two steps out. He watched his feet hit the asphalt, not daring to look up at Kaycee.

“So, he wants you to give up living too?” Kaycee asked. “That doesn’t sound fair.”

Cameron stopped and stared at Kaycee. “I can’t believe you can be so shallow! It’s not about me, it’s about my family. Dad only has six months or so. We need to be together.”

“So instead of making him proud by running the race of your life at state and winning the State Cross Country Championship for him, you all are going to sit around the living room, watching ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and waiting for him to die?”

“No, No it’s not like that! You don’t get it, he’s really sick and he won’t go to the doctor and get the chemotherapy. It’s like he wants to die, he wants to abandon us. No matter how fast I run, it won’t make him better, it won’t make him want to stay.”

 “I’m sorry, I wish I knew what to say, I wish I could help.”

“ I wish you could, too. But he won’t listen to mom, the doctors, anyone. He just keeps saying if he only has six months left, he doesn’t want to spend them ralphing.”

“Your dad said ‘ralphing’?” Cameron’s dad always had a twisted way of saying things.