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The Runner

"Going to Nationals!" We were all screaming and jumping. Kate, Jen, and Wendy embraced each other, still bouncing. I wanted to join in and touched Kate to step into the circle. They stopped for a moment. "Oh, here you are. Good job, Tara," said Kate as she put an arm around me.

I was there all the time, but nobody seemed to see me. I am the youngest on the hurdle relay team, a sophomore, but I'm fast. When I run, I leave the skin of my shyness behind, and I feel like a horseman on the Mongolian steppe, free, without boundaries.

Everybody ran to their parents in the bleachers. My Mom didn't make it. Again. I grabbed my phone and called her. It took a while for her to answer. "Yes, hi dear." "Mom, we won states, and we are going to nationals," I burst out in one breath.

"Great! Let's talk later; I'll pick you up from school."

I wanted to say: "Is that it? Why aren't you proud of me? All other parents are here, why aren't you?" but all I did was "OK, see you soon." Does she see me? Do I matter?

It was late, after 9 PM. All the busses arrived from our away meet, unloaded, and all the parents picked up their children, but my Mom wasn't here yet. Coach Johnson waited with me. We just stood. A speeding car turned the corner; it was my Mom's Toyota. Coach pated me on the back, "Good job Cariboo," and left. Why he calls me Cariboo, nobody knows, but that's what it is.

"I am so sorry I am late, said Mom. Time just flew."

I wanted to cry in disappointment and tell her that I hate to be always last to be picked up and never have her come to my meets, school plays, or anything else; ask her why she won't make time for me. But I looked at her and see her tired eyes and clenched determined jaw and just say: "That's OK, Mom, I understand."

Her jaw had stayed clenched since we came to this country as Mom would say: "with two pieces of luggage, a three-year-old (me), and $700." My father did not come, and every time I asked about that, she answered, "let's not talk about it." That's how we solve all our problems: we don't talk about "it."

During the following weeks: drills, muscles bulging, aching, icing, panting, collapsing on the track. Johnson was not moved by any of our complaints. "Move!" His voice reverberated in the air. It did not come from a spot; it surrounded us. Amazingly we always picked up. Each one of us was tuned to this grouchy man, who never spoke much, just enough to give directions, never significant praise, just a pat on the back and a short: "you've done well." Sufficient to know he was proud of us.

Finally, Nationals! We got organized in a parent-driving-convoy out of state. My Mom came for the first time ever. She drove. I sat next to her keeping my headphones on to stay in the zone, also known as "I don't want to talk." In principle, we don't talk; we do.

Our hurdle relay meet takes place on the first day of the event. Taking pictures, moving from one spot to another, intense, preoccupied faces, sizing each other up in passing. We are all excited, anticipating, waiting.

It's time — we warm up. We are like racehorses at the gate: nervously prancing, shallow breathing, heads held high. Johnson calls us: "Listen up: this is the lineup: Kate, Jen, Wendy, Cariboo." We nod at him and get in our assigned order, but a knot forms in my throat. I've never run as an anchor; that is always Wendy's position.

"Runners take your mark." We all walk to the start line. Stretching, running in place. My heart flutters nervously.

I know how Kate feels. Fingers on the floor, feet on the starter, ready to detonate. From the core through the muscles, an explosion of will and energy to move forward.

I watch as she loses seconds, but she is coordinated and slams the baton into Jen's hand. Jen is ready and gains some of the handicaps, but we are only third. Wendy picks up, and she has a steady, powerful stride. One, two three, jump. She has a beautiful rhythm and comes in second.

I have to seal the win. I have to! Wendy slams the baton in my hand, and I explode forward.

There is no thought; this is routine; hundreds of hours of practice: muscles trained, breathing tamed; primitive rhythm. I know exactly where the legs will start burning, and my breathing will get wider, more syncopated. One, two, three, jump. Neck in neck with the front runner. No hesitation. Muscles start to fill with ache. Breathe! My heart has the drumbeat of a ritual that keeps my rhythm: one, two, three, jump.

I hear coach Johnson shout: "Move"! and it comes like a wave, amplified by the walls and the bleachers. In an almost Pavlovian reaction, I pick up. The drum is beating fast and loud. My thoughts rock with the pulse of the blood. The crowd is getting animated. I see them, but the sounds are getting muffled.

I don't see anybody in front of me. My legs get heavy. Pain slithers through the strands of my muscles to fill them with liquid lead, and my skin is throbbing under pressure.

The world around me is getting blurry, a coat of dense white mist closes in. I look in front of me but don't see the finish line yet.

People are leaning over the rail, hands in a tight grip; they scream. My chest is burning. I lose the rhythm completely. It is chaotic. I don't have enough air.

Where is my drum?

I hear Johnson again, but I am in a sealed glass.

There is a roar, and the sealed glass shatters as I hit the floor and drag the last hurdle down.

I pick up and run to the finish line to not be disqualified, although my world has just ended. I have let everybody down. I run outside crying and hide. My legs are all bloody, but that's not what hurts. I disappointed everybody.

After a while, I go back, but nobody seems to see me as I pass by them to look for Mom. I find her in the bleachers, away from everybody else. I see her red puffy eyes, and I know she cried.

I don't want to look her in the eyes. "Can we leave, please?"

We don't find our places in the hotel room. It's awkward. My Mom doesn't say anything, she lets me unfold, and I whisper: "I will quit the team. Nobody will want me; I let everybody down."

"No, love! That is not true. You had the best time in the race. It was an accident." She continues her logical argument to make me feel good, but I hear only her soft voice. I vaguely remember this velvety voice, coming as a warm embrace at me, and then everything comes out between sobs: "You're… never at my meets… always late… don't talk…about father… you don't have time… you're not proud of me." My Mother blinks, and her voice drops: "I wanted to build a stronger boat for the two of us, to be secure, but I can change a lot of this. And, I love you and am proud of you every second of every day."

I am thirsty for those words, and I run into her arms and cry out my sorrow. She holds me without any twitch of impatience.

The next day we go back to the track for the last day of the event. I'm nervous, but everybody acts as if nothing happened, and they talk with me; they see me. Did I lose my invisibility? I'm grateful, but I have a pit in my stomach when I see the track.

I walk towards Johnson to tell him I am ready to run again. He sees me and shouts: "warm-up Cariboo, you are running the 200."

I look back at my Mom, and we smile.

Romanian-born now in the US. Systems Engineer by day, writer by night. Member of SCBWI, student at Storyteller Academy, Institute of Children's Lit, Gotham Writers.