I’ve jogged before. Once. In my early twenties when my best friend, Rockette, convinced me it’d get me in bikini shape in thirty days. Hey, Rockette had a killer bod with D cups, so I figured she was a reliable source.
She wasn’t. Much later, I found out her boobs were from Dr. Rosen and her diet consisted of nuts and berries.
But anyway, about that jog. Halfway in, I pulled a hamstring and couldn’t walk for a week. Jogging and I broke up.
Despite my brief, tumultuous past with the activity, here I stand, on a half-mile track, ready to go. Why? Because with every lap I complete, ten dollars is donated toward a cure for breast cancer, the disease that took my mother last year. I have to make at least sixty dollars because six was Mom’s favorite number. I promised myself I’d hit that mark.
Tugging at my pink t-shirt, I take in the scene. The stands are packed with cheering fans, and the excitement is contagious. I’m encouraged that half the runners standing with me look more out of shape than I feel. Plus, I’m only thirty-one, for hell’s sake. A young pup compared to most who are here. If they can do it, so can I. But when the announcer tells us to get ready, nausea wrestles in my gut.
Great. I’m about to hurl, and I’m not even moving yet. I pull myself together, and when the starting shot fires, I’m off. Sort of. I mean, I need to pace myself, so I try to look like I’m jogging by swinging my arms. But I’m pretty sure I’m walking.
Whatever. I’m doing this. People are blasting past me like I’m one of those semis on the freeway carrying an entire mobile home. The “wide load” truck. But I’m not going to think about that right now. I’m going to think about how much money I’m going to raise for those who need it to survive.
I look up in the stands to see Dad cheering for me. I smile and wave, using it as an excuse to give myself a break. I mean, I’ve been running for a whole two minutes and eighteen seconds by the digital clock on the stadium’s screen.
When I manage to turtle my way past the finish line, my best friend, Camille, bless her heart, yells, “That’s ten dollars, Casey. You can do this.”
I give her a wave and a nod, then carry on. Halfway around the track the second time, my shins are burning like fire ant bites and my dogs are barking like Yorkies. I want to quit, I should quit, but I can’t until I make sixty bucks. I turn my focus on how good I’ll feel when I hear Camille cheer for me again.
I keep on.
Re-pacing myself, I’m actually happy that I’m going numb. This has to be a good thing because now nothing hurts. Yes, this is definitely a good thing. I’m heading toward the finish line once more. Sure enough, when I cross the threshold again, my trusty friend calls out, “Twenty, baby!” I smile.
Then I hear Dad yell, “Go Casey, you can do it!”
It gives me another burst of energy, and I carry on. As I’m keeping my pace, a guy starts jogging beside me. I side-eye him. It isn’t until he pulls ahead that I realize he’s really cute. He’s lean but muscular.
Nice. Watching those buns of steel move like they're punching their way out of his shorts should keep me going. Which it does...until he darts ahead and disappears.
Ugh. Now I’m left with just my own damn intrinsic motivation again. Which seems to be enough until a crazy coughing fit kicks in. I ‘pull over’ to the side of the track to hack in peace. That’s when I see that Runner Boy has stopped too.
Another seal bark escapes my mouth, which must sound pretty bad because Runner Boy approaches. “You okay?” he asks with concerned eyes. Eyes that happen to be that emerald shade of green. Gorgeous, but they’re red and watery, like he’s been crying.
“I’m fine,” I reply, but then I cough again, and this time it sounds like my lungs might fly out of my chest.
He places his hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t we walk together for a minute.” I nod because talking is a bad idea right now. As we crawl along, he continues. “We’ve almost made this lap. You’ve got this one.”
Sure enough, we cross that line. Camille holds up three fingers and yells, “Thirty-dollars, Casey!”
Right after, some guy looks at my walking partner and calls out, “Sixty dollars. Nice work, Jack!”
I go wide-eyed and shoot Jack a glance. This guy lapped me three times. Three. And now he’s walking. Guilt settles in like a heavy fog. “I think I’ve got my breath now.” I say, gulping back a choke. “You can do what you need to do.”
“Are you sure you can keep going?” Jack furrows his brows.
“Of course.” I have no idea why I just said that. I feel like I’m going to die. And I mean die for real. I pick up my pace despite the fact that the fiery ant burn has returned and spread to my calves.
“All right.” He nods. “If you’re not quitting, then I’m not leaving your side.”
Butterflies explode in my queasy stomach, and I flash him a smile. “Really?”
“Yeah, really.” He returns the smile, and it’s a really nice one.
“Thank you, Jack.” I smile again, but this time my cheeks are quivering. I’m not even sure why that’s happening, but I continue. “So, why are you here?” I need to know what I’m costing him by holding him back.
“My sister, Sarah.” Jack’s eyes go shiny again. “She was my hero.”
My heart breaks. His sister? Way too young. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
He nods and flashes me a weak smile.
I’m not sure how I do it, but another lap passes, and we cross the finish line yet again. Forty dollars. And I’ve hit some sort of euphoric stage where my body feels detached from my head, but it’s all good. At least I can keep moving this way.
“So why are you here?” He asks, not even breathing heavily.
I fight off my panting enough to speak. “I lost my mom last year.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Me too.” When I look down, I have sweat marks under my boobs. I tug at my shirt, but it’s useless. I’m sweating from every pore, and the shirt is suctioned to me.
When we lap again, it’s pure joy to hear Camille scream out some obscenities along with the words, “Fifty-dollars.”
Waving at her, I see that my dad is now by her side. “Way to Casey, I’m so proud!” The tears in his eyes bring tears to my own, and I blow him a kiss. “One more lap and you’ve done it,” he continues. “Mom’s smiling at you from above.”
My stomach jolts, and I know I have to finish. I’m so close now.
Jack touches my shoulder and says, “Sixty was your goal?”
“Yes. Six was my mom’s lucky number.”
“Got it.” He winks. “Then let’s polish this off.”
“Yup.” I’m ready. Or I’m ready for another minute or so. But then the bile starts to rise in my throat. With each breath, it inches up until I’m no longer able to hold it back. I slow my pace, but it’s too late. My mouth is watering.
Puking is imminent.
I dart off the track and into some trees. I lean over a branch before hurling my guts out, which feels oddly freeing. As soon as I’m done, I’m ready to go again, puke-stained shirt and all. But that final heave hits, and when I lean over the branch again, it breaks and I tumble to the ground. My foot falls into something, and I look down to see it in a drain gate. My ankle is now the middle of an iron sandwich, and I can’t pull it out. I think my foot might be hurting, but I’m not even sure because it’s numb. Everything surrounding me now appears to be in an echoey bubble.
Jack is standing over me, a look of horror in his face. “Oh my God, Casey, are you okay?”
“I’m stuck.” I tug at my leg again. “Can you pull at the gate while I try and get it my ankle out?”
“Sure.” He tugs at it relentlessly, but it won’t budge. He walks around to study it, then says, “Shit.”
“What?” My heart sinks.
“I think the only way to get you out is to cut the iron bars.”
“Are you serious?” I feel the tears well again. I was so close. I had to know something like this would happen to me. It always does.
“Hold on.” He darts away and to the parking lot returns with a crowbar. He starts prying with a fervor I’ve never seen. Mr. Never Broke A Freaking Sweat While Running is now a puddley mess.
I don’t know who this Jack is, but somehow it feels like I’ve known him my whole life. “Can you get it?”
“I won’t stop until I do.”
A crowd is forming around us and murmuring.
“She was hurling then somehow her foot got stuck,” someone says.
“Ewe, gross,” another someone replies.
Jack isn’t hearing anything as he’s pumping the crowbar like a experienced thief. “I’ve almost got it,” he says between grunts. “I just have to use my body weight to lever it over.” When he throws himself into it, the iron bends and I free my foot. But when the crowbar falls, Jack flies on top of me.
Our bodies smash together and we go for a tumble. I’m horrified that my knight in shining armor is now covered in my puke.
“Shit, are you okay?” He leans up and looks at me.
“I’m great.” I smile. “Sorry about your shirt, though.”
“Aw, it’s old anyway.” He rips it off to reveal a chest fit for the cover of Runner’s World. Taking his cue, I take my shirt off too. I have one of those oversized sports bras on, and at this point, who cares? Jack smiles, and the crowd surrounding us break into applause as I take his hand and stand.
My legs feel like Jell-O, but I make it to my feet. My ankle is throbbing, but it’s not bad enough to stop me. “Let’s finish this bitch.”
“That’s what I want to hear.” His smile reaches his eyes.
Arm and arm, he helps me limp toward the finish line. As we approach, Camille and my dad are jumping around like crazy. I’m holding on by a thread, but it feels great to have my new friend by my side.
When we cross the line together, Camille is sobbing when she calls out, “Sixty-dollars. You did it, Casey!” She pulls me and Jack into a huge hug, and Dad joins in.
When Camille and Dad walk away to pick up my lap card from the official counter, I pull Jack into another hug, not minding the skin to skin contact. Not minding one bit. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” He gives me a squeeze. “Really. I wasn’t going to finish because I was too sad about Sarah.” He shoots me a lopsided smile. “But you inspired me, Casey.”
A huge thanks to my short story partner in crime, Katina Ferguson.