My sneakers pounded the red turf as I circled the track. Sweat ran down my neck and I wiped my stinging eyes. Beside me ran Rhonda Monroe, her braids flying out behind her.
“You’re slow, Bailey. You shouldn’t be on the track team. Bye bye,” she jeered as she shot away from me. I gritted my teeth and ran harder, ignoring my burning lungs. I drove my feet hard into the ground, imagining that with each step I was pounding Rhonda’s face. I smiled viciously. Finally I skidded to a stop in front of Coach Leslie, just seconds behind Rhonda. I gasped and clutched my aching sides, determined to not look at her triumphant smirk.
Coach Leslie smiled encouragingly as the other girls began to cluster around her. Finally, as Jenna leisurely jogged up to the group, she pulled out her clipboard. “Great job, everyone,” she said. “I have some great news. The Oregon State Championships are coming up. Three of you landed a spot in the champs. And the honor goes to Rhonda, Lucy, and Bailey!”
“I knew it,” Rhonda said loudly. “I’ve won the Oregon State Championships twice. I mean, for such a great runner like me, it’s totally easy.”
Lucy screamed and tackled me. I crashed into the ground and winced. Lucy didn’t seem to notice. She danced around me, her face shining with happiness. I pushed myself up and gave her a grin. I glanced at Rhonda, who stood off to the side, staring at us. I could see a longing in her eyes that startled me.
“The winner of the race receives one thousand dollars. However, other girls from many other states will also be competing. I expect you girls to come to practice at least four times a week, including our normal meets. The rest of you, we will just have our usual practices two times a week,” Coach Leslie instructed. “All right, see you on Thursday.”
I ran to Mom’s car and threw open the door. She looked up from her iPhone and smiled as I jumped into the back seat. “Well, you look happy,” she observed as she started the engine. I bounced up and down on the seat.
“I’m going to the Oregon champs with Lucy!” I cheered. “And… well, with Rhonda.” My mother frowned at my subdued excitement about Rhonda. She raised an eyebrow quizzically. I avoided her gaze and picked at the stitches in the back seat. My mother cleared her throat and I sighed, defeated.
“It’s just that Rhonda’s so rude,” I finally mumbled. “She always makes fun of me.”
“And you do the same to her.”
“You would, too, if you had to listen to her sneer at you all day!” I snapped. My mother shook her head and stopped the car at the red light. I crossed my arms, scowling. Figures my mom would insist I had to be Ms. Goody-Goody angel. My mom turned around to face me. I braced myself for a blow about treating others well. But instead she only said, “Rhonda’s brother has a rare disease. Only an expensive operation her parents can’t afford can save him. It’s been hard on Rhonda.” I didn’t say anything as the guilt plague pummeled me. My mom turned around and kept driving.
Guilt. It was the one feeling I couldn’t stand. I wished I could just go back to hating Rhonda in peace.
* * *
“Fast mile, girls, let’s go,” Coach Leslie called the second Lucy, Rhonda, and I stepped onto the turf. I nodded and sprinted down the track, Lucy at my heels. I could hardly look at Rhonda, much less give a snarky remark as Lucy and I passed her. Her head was down and she was dragging her feet.
Around the track I whirled, Rhonda trailing behind me. My breaths came in short gasps as I fought for air. My legs pushed onward though my muscles screamed for a break. Finally I crossed the finish line, seconds before Lucy. We waited for Rhonda. It seemed like an eternity before she finally ran up to us. We hurried over to Coach Leslie.
She was frowning as she whipped her red hair into a ponytail. I winced as she started giving Rhonda the stink eye.
“OK, not bad. Take a water break. Rhonda, come over here,” Coach Leslie ordered. I gulped down the refreshing water as it cooled my body. I could feel beads of sweat running down my sticky back.
I inched over to where Coach Leslie was standing behind the storage shed. I leaned back, pretending to savor the shade. Instead, I strained to hear their conversation. “Look, I know you have a lot going on, but that run was unacceptable. You got to step up your game or else Alexia is going to replace you. Once you’re on the track you have to leave your emotions behind,” Coach Leslie said.
“OK, OK. My brother had another seizure and you’re, like, telling me to just deal with it. Give me a break!” Rhonda said. Her voice started to crack. She sniffled.
“Uh, I’m sorry this is so hard for you. Just, um, try to calm down,” Coach Leslie said awkwardly. She was never the comforting person. She was kind, but her way of kindness was driving us hard. They stepped out from behind the shed and I jumped and made a strangled cat sound.
Coach Leslie eyed me, but I avoided her gaze. “All right, we’ll run more tomorrow. Get a good rest tonight and try not to think about… other things,” she said, giving Rhonda a good stare. I nodded and wearily headed towards the gate. As I let myself out and walked over to the car, I still couldn’t believe Rhonda Monroe would cry about anything.
* * *
My mind forgot about Rhonda’s brother and soon all three of us felt the bitter competition. Rhonda had always been rude and outspoken, but even sensitive Lucy had become brusque. I tried to be friendly, but it was hard, especially imagining the shiny new computer in my bedroom.
During a break from our fast mile, we all sat on the bench in a heavy silence. I wasn’t about to break it. I reached for my water bottle and the cool water trickled down my throat. Lucy fiddled with her rope necklace. Suddenly she said, “What if none of us wins?”
Rhonda looked angry. “Well, if you have no motivation to, I’m going to win,” she said harshly. She stood up and stomped away, her braids flying around like an angry cloud around her face. Lucy looked shocked. My throat was tight.
“What’s her problem?” Lucy asked. She glowered at the concrete. I shrugged offhandedly.
“We’ve all got our reasons, right?”
Lucy looked surprised and slightly hurt. Without looking at her, I screwed the cap back on my bottle and quickly walked over to Coach Leslie, who was beckoning for us. Rhonda stepped on my foot and giggled. “Sorry,” she said, emphasizing the last syllable. A jolt of pain shot through my foot and I grimaced, trying my best not to scream at her.
Lucy raised her eyebrow. I hopped over to her, clutching my foot. “OK, you were right,” I said under my breath. She laughed and put an arm over my shoulders.
* * *
My fingers danced over the stitches in the back seat, fiddling with the string and skidding over the vinyl. My stomach felt like a ballerina, spinning and jumping at every turn in the road. I stared out the window.
“You all right, Bailey? We’re going to stop for lunch soon,” my dad called, spinning the wheel to exit the interstate. I nodded tensely and fiddled with my phone, trying to relax.
We pulled into the parking lot at Subway’s and I hopped out, jogging for the door. A blast of air-conditioning greeted me. The lady behind the counter waved us over. I stared without really looking at the menu.
The door opened again and I heard the chattering of another family. I looked towards them and did a double take. It was Rhonda’s family. My throat closed. I scooted over so my mom blocked me from Rhonda’s view and peeked out.
Rhonda’s mom was holding the hand of a small, skinny, and somewhat sickly-looking boy. He was wearing thick glasses and was completely bald. Rhonda stared at the ground, hovering next to her father, who carried a large bag of medicine.
“What do you guys want?” the lady at the counter said irritably.
“I’ll take a regular footlong,” I said quickly. My parents and I took our sandwiches and sat down at a table. Rhonda’s eyes widened as she saw me. I stared at the table, averting eye contact. “
“It’s your teammate!” Mom said loudly. She waved Rhonda over with a large smile. “Hello, Rhonda! Would you like to join us for lunch?”
Rhonda’s face turned pink. She blinked and swallowed hard. “Uh, no thank you,” Rhonda said. “We have to get going.” She turned on her heel and walked out of the restaurant, her family following close behind. I watched her brother hobble out, and not for the first time I realized there was more to Rhonda than what met the eye.
* * *
Let’s go, girls!” Coach Leslie said encouragingly, clapping her hands together and pulling up her windbreaker hood higher. The wind whipped my legs and I pulled my stringy hair into a ponytail. Huddling in a warm-up jacket, I jogged up and down the sidelines, trying to keep warm. My stomach was in knots and my legs were about as stable as jello.
Lucy sipped at her water bottle, her face white. I walked over to her and she set it down, staring into my face solemnly. I cracked a grin and patted her on the back.
“Good luck,” I croaked.
“You too,” she managed to say. Both of us glanced at Rhonda, who was pacing in circles with a dark look on her face. I chuckled.
“The race will begin in twenty minutes,” the announcer said. A cheer went up in the crowd. I scanned the stands, packed with parents and supporters, for my parents. Rhonda’s mom had her arm around Rhonda’s brother, who was in a thick coat and shivering. I looked away.
Coach Leslie beckoned us over. She clapped us on the black and smiled thinly.
“Remember that no matter what happens, I’m proud of you all and you girls are some of the best runners in the Northwest,” she said bracingly. “Now go win it all.”
A while later, the announcer came back on. “All runners please line up on the track.” I couldn’t breathe, suddenly dizzy. I strode over to number three, which was also plastered on my back. I was right next to Rhonda, who was smiling confidently.
“Good luck,” I said awkwardly. She brushed one of her braids from her face.
“I don’t need any luck, but good luck anyways,” she said haughtily. I couldn’t keep the glare from my face. Who did Rhonda think she was?
“Ready… set… go!” the announcer yelled. The pistol fired loudly. I shoved off the ground and ran with all my might, pushing myself to the head of the group. Rhonda was fourth and Lucy was lost in the middle. We sprinted around the track, and I was in the lead. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face as the crowd cheered as I passed.
I pounded my feet into the turf, pumping my arms. I reached out for every piece of energy I had. The crowd became a blur in the background. It was just me and the turf.
The bells clanged for the final lap. I stretched and dug deeper. I could do this. The cheers and screams got louder. Rhonda surged ahead to third. I ignored her and kept running, willing my exhausted muscles to go farther. They screamed to stop but I ignored the pains shooting in my thighs.
My lungs burned for air and I gasped, running harder. Rhonda was in second. I could see her approaching me from behind. I pumped my legs faster, running, running, running…
I stumbled across the finish line and found Rhonda standing right next to me. Who had crossed first? My eyes widened as I realized what was happening. I paced, trying to breathe, to get fresh oxygen in my lungs. I gasped, wiping sweat from my stinging eyes.
“Please, please, please,” I whispered, my stomach cramping in fear. The judges dashed into a small booth. I watched them, willing me to have crossed first. Not Rhonda.
The judges came back out, with a smile plastered across their faces. One reached for a microphone. I watched him with hungry eyes, scared beyond my wits. My entire body was trembling.
“This race has been extremely close and we first want to congratulate all the participants…” I tuned out the rest of his speech, mentally urging him to hurry up. “However, there is one winner and that person is… Bailey Fley!”
I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear. All of a sudden my entire body was screaming, jumping for joy. I was blissful, ecstatic, I was beyond comparison to any kind of happiness. I ran around, yelling in triumph, my voice carrying across the stadium. I ran over to Coach Leslie and hugged her hard. My parents climbed out of the stands.
And then I saw Rhonda, standing to the side, crying and shaking with grief. I walked over to her.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“It’s all my fault. My brother needed the operation. It’s all my fault if he dies,” she sobbed, collapsing onto the turf. The judges pressed a check into my hand. I stared at it and back at Rhonda.
Tears ran down her neck as she looked at me.
“Congratulations,” she whispered. She turned away, her face full of bitterness. “It’s all my fault,” she whispered.
Something inside of me shuddered. I reached for the check with moist fingertips. My brain was frozen, unthinking. I closed my eyes and placed the check in her hand.
“What?” she said.
“You have a reason,” I said softly. “Hope your brother gets better.” Rhonda clutched the check, shaking her head.
“N-no-o, I can’t,” she stammered. “Yes you can,” I said. I walked away and ran towards my parents with open arms. As I glanced behind me, I saw Rhonda embrace her brother.
I had no regrets.