Dom and I come down the hill twenty minutes before the race starts. We’re breathing hard. The air is thick with snowflakes, as cold as it’s ever been, and the boys warming up in the valley look like a battalion of snowmen doing military drills in skimpy uniforms. Dom stands out against all that snow: lean but muscled, short and dark, his face as smooth and inscrutable as the river flowing beside us. All the boys follow him with their eyes. It’s the county championships. All of us want to beat Dom. Only Kenneth thinks he really can.
Dom is a serious kid. Always tight-lipped. He’s been doing cross country since he was nine. Coach says he’s the hardest worker she’s ever seen. She says he’s the only one of us with a real shot at an athletic scholarship. I say he’s an arrogant bastard who wouldn’t be worth the skin around his bones if he didn’t have talent. But he has talent — more than he deserves. You can see it just by looking at him. When he runs he’s more beautiful than a seal diving into clear water. He’s the most beautiful thing you ever saw.
He’s also a dreamer. About two weeks ago, at the end of a speed workout, he told me that when he goes to sleep he dreams of running forever. We were standing near the parking lot, and the other guys were still finishing their half-mile repeats, and so I asked him – not because I was interested, but just because I had nothing better to do – where he’d run to.
“Nowhere in particular,” he said.
“What’s the point of running forever, if you don’t get anywhere?”
He looked at me for a couple seconds. “Let’s just say I’m running away,” he said. “As far as I can get. Away from Rustlake.”
When we get to the bottom of the hill the others still aren’t lined up at the start, so I kill time by asking Dom about that dream of his and whether he’s thought up someplace to run to. Heaven? Hell? New York? Or maybe just some town with a half-decent school and a shade less coal dust piled up on the streets?
Dom doesn’t answer. He’s looking over my shoulder. I turn and see Kenneth walking towards us.
Kenneth is a mean-spirited bastard — the sort of runner who’ll try to play mind-games with you, get under your skin before the race starts. He never misses a chance to tell Dom he should run back to Africa. Kenneth sees Dom and his eyes light up. “So, it’s Jackson and Dominic,” he says, putting a lilt on every syllable of Dom’s name. “How’s the knee doing, Dom? Think you’ll need to sit this one out?”
Dom scowls at him. A torn IT band sidelined him for the first half of the last track season.
“Come on,” I say, moving toward the start line. But Kenneth steps in front of Dom.
“Must be hard for the Rustlake coach, having a top runner who can’t race ‘cause he’s always injured,” Kenneth says. He looks down at Dom’s feet, cocks his head, sniggers. “Maybe it’s ‘cause you can’t even afford a decent pair of shoes.”
Dom races in a ratty old pair of Adidas. They’ve got thumb-sized holes, the laces are unthreaded, and there’s so much mud beaten into them that no one can tell what color they used to be before they were brown. He told me a year ago that they’re the shoes his father wore, when he raced the mile in high school. “One day I’ll run away from Rustlake,” Dom said to me, holding up the shoes. “I’m gonna be running in these.”
Dom’s father is locked up now. Has been for the past twelve years.
Dom starts walking around Kenneth, toward the starting line. I go behind him. All the Clarkson kids are laughing at us, and Kenneth has a smile as wide as a clown’s. He takes a last swipe at Dom.
“Maybe it’s all the crack your daddy fed you,” he says. “You’ll probably end up just like him: taking it from behind in the pokey.”
The Clarkson kids double over at that, and Kenneth turns to laugh with them. That’s a mistake. Even if he’d been facing Dom, I don’t think he could’ve put his hands up in time.
Dom’s left hook lands on his ear. There’s a thwack and Kenneth is on the ground. Dom has his fists up; he’s light on his toes. The Clarkson kids are all gaping. Kenneth staggers to his feet.
“You think you’ve got a fucking chance today?” Dom says, not lowering his fists. “Hillbilly trash like you couldn’t win the girl’s race.”
It takes Kenneth a moment to process this. He’s still reeling from the fall. But then his face turns scarlet and his eyes go hot as coals. He clenches both his fists. The other Clarkson runners move up behind him, all six of them. Dom glances back at me.
But just then there’s the whistle. It’s the ten-minute call for everyone to line up at the starting line. The Midland team starts jogging toward us from across the valley — seven boys and their two coaches. And the Clarkson coach starts shouting at Kenneth, beckoning furiously from where she stands by the river. Suddenly many eyes are on us.
Kenneth glances at his coach, turns back to face Dom. “You just fucking wait,” he hisses. “Just wait.”
Dom glances at me again. The wind seems colder than it was before. I’m aware of the needles on a pine by the river, the snowflakes in the air, the sound of running water.
Quietly, under my breath, I thank the Almighty for blowing that whistle.
Kenneth jogs off. For a few seconds Dom and I just stand there, watching him. He’s almost as poor as Dom. Second-hand shoes, a wornout shirt, and a kind of hunted look in his eyes, like a possum looking at a trapper. All the Clarkson guys are like that. Clarkson’s even more of a shithole than Rustlake. Kenneth doesn’t talk about scholarships. His father and his grandfather and two of his uncles all worked in the mines until they choked on coal-dust. Kenneth says he’ll probably do the same. Beating Dom isn’t a way out for him. It’s just a way of convincing himself that there’s someone lower down the totem pole than he is.
Dom is still looking at me. He’s got this cocky little smirk. We’re the only guys on the team that really think about scholarships. We always run together, and sometimes we talk about getting a scholarship and going to college. But that’s nothing special. Everyone knows Rustlake is a pit. If wanting to get out made us friends, I’d be friends with the whole city. Only, for some reason, Dom seems to think I run with him because I like him. That maybe running together makes us friends.
We aren’t friends. We’ve never been friends.
Let me put it like this. At the track state finals last year it was just the two of us all alone in the one-mile race, just the two of us going out ahead of everyone else. Then with two hundred meters to go Dom makes a surge and I just couldn’t stay with him. I just couldn’t. He finished first and I was half-a-second behind, then third place was seven seconds behind me. And afterwards he walks up to me with a big smile on his face and tells me I ran a great race, and I can’t bear to look at him. I couldn’t look Dom in the face for a week after that. If it weren’t for him, I’d be the best miler in West Virginia.
We start jogging over. The rest of the Rustlake team is already at the starting line. There are more than a hundred boys lined up. We start doing A-skips, B-skips, C-skips, high-knees, butt-kickers, frankensteins, fire-hydrants, step-overs. Dom has that worried, pulled-in look he always has before big races. It’s like he’s trying to plan how the whole thing will go in his head, as if it were a game of chess. His face twitches. His eyes jump from Kenneth to Elias to the river. But even in these moments of outward uncertainty his arms are relaxed and his back is straight and his long legs cut through the air like oars cutting into water.
The whistle sounds again and everyone goes quiet. We’re all lined up and the fat man with the gun is telling us that it’ll be “ready…set…” then the shot. Coach is shouting something from the sidelines, but I can’t hear her. It’s not that she isn’t speaking clearly; it’s that I can’t hear anything right now except my own heartbeat. It’s always like this before races. I reckon it’s like this for any sport. This must be what it feels like to have second thoughts as you squeeze between the ropes of a boxing ring.
Dom glances at me. His eyes are clear; the worried look is gone. I turn away. The fat man raises the gun.
Then the gun pops and Dom is already pulling away and now I can finally let go and hate him. Everything happens at once: a dozen coaches screaming from the sidelines, a boy in a green shirt tripping on a root, the smoke from the gun mixing with snowflakes, the freshmen sprinting wildly, throwing all their energy into the first four hundred meters. And in front of us all a dark figure running with inimitable grace.
No runner I’ve ever met can stick with Dom. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to. And it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t hate him for being better than we are. Especially when we’re right behind him, staring at those wornout shoes and thin legs that never get tired, listening to those short breaths of his, steady as the tick-tock-tick-tock of a metronome. When you’re running a race you have to hate the person in front of you. You can be friends after everything’s finished. But not during the race. And so I stare at Dom’s goddamn shoes and let myself think all the thoughts I can’t say out loud and hate him.
After four hundred meters we reach the bridge. The idiot freshmen are gasping and finally realizing that the race lasts three miles. They can’t stay with Dom. They couldn’t stay with him for one mile at this pace. They start to peel away. By eight hundred meters there’s only me and Dom and Kenneth and Elias. Kenneth runs with huge lanky strides and bobs up and down and side to side. Elias has a quick cadence and keeps his eyes fixed on a spot in front of him, but he lets his arms swing wide across his body. Coach yells at me from the sidelines — straight back, eyes ahead! Dom is as beautiful as a stallion on a racetrack.
We reach the hill. By now everyone except Dom is breathing hard. The white ground flashes beneath us; to our right chunks of ice float along silently in the river. A flurry of snow comes out of nowhere and I reach up to brush the flakes out of my eyes. Dom decides to make a move. Halfway up the hill his strides start to lengthen. Somehow he starts running faster. Somehow he charges up that back-breaking hill as if it were level ground. Don’t be an idiot, a soft voice in the back of my head tells me. Don’t try to stick with him.
I listen to the voice. I let Dom pull away. Snow gathers into a white wall between us. Elias lets him go too. But Kenneth hangs on, gasping, glaring at his back.
At the top of the hill Elias is beside me. But his steps are slowing. I can hear the raggedness in his breathing. He’s losing his grip. The important thing at this stage is staying focused. You can’t let yourself daydream. You certainly can’t pity yourself. That’s why it’s so important to focus on the person in front of you. We run on the trail through the woods, and after a few hundred meters Elias starts falling back, and now it’s only the three of us. Kenneth and Dom are neck-and-neck twenty meters ahead of me. Kenneth is struggling. I can see his legs flailing desperately beneath him.
We’re far in now. I strain my ears and try to hear a human voice behind the pit-pat of my own footsteps and the soft sound of falling snow. But there’s nothing. Only the woods and the cold air. Stay focused that little voice whispers. But I’m getting sucked into the snowflakes. Kenneth turns a corner and I’m all alone. And then my eyes are glazing over and my head is getting light and I’m not thinking about the race anymore. I’m thinking about that time a year ago, just after the state finals, when the coach from George Mason walked up to Dom and told him he was a hell of a runner. I feel like I’m staring up from the bottom of a well. The coach is a big fat man with piggy eyes. He’s crouching by the wellmouth, and he’s pulling Dom out. He’s telling Dom about the program at George Mason. He’s telling him how nice a town Fairfax is. Dom nods along, pretending he’s interested. He’s not interested. He’s already set his sights on Oregon and Colorado. And there I am, panting fifteen feet away from him, with little flecks of coal dust settling into the well, and without any coach walking up to me.
Then I trip on a root. When I get up I see Kenneth’s back a full seventy meters ahead of me. And I curse myself under my breath because I’m also a dreamer.
Two miles in. We come back to the edge of the woods and start running down the hill. Dom lets his strides open all the way. You’re supposed to rein in when you go downhill so that you don’t lose control and fall. But he doesn’t. Dom never reins in. He lets his strides open all the way and it’s terrifying to watch him. The ground is slick with slush. Even coach is scared. “Dom! Stay in control!” she screams from the sidelines, but he doesn’t listen to her. He keeps on opening up and it’s a goddamn miracle he doesn’t fall and break his neck. Kenneth can’t stay with him. He can’t make himself run like that.
We get to the bottom of the hill. A thousand meters to go and Kenneth is trying to catch up with Dom after losing ground on the hill. He moves forward and catches up ten meters but then Dom makes another move. It shouldn’t be possible. He shouldn’t have enough energy to surge after what he just did. But he does. He surges ahead and pulls farther away from Kenneth. Six hundred meters. Kenneth is thirty meters ahead of me and I can hear his breath echoing back in stilted staccato. We cross the river. In in out out in in out out. Five hundred meters.
Then four hundred meters and Kenneth is broken. Only a runner could see the moment when he breaks. The moment when the fire inside him gutters and his arms go slack and he hunches because he’s finally accepted that he won’t catch up to Dom. That he’s beaten. He’s only twenty meters in front of me and there are three hundred meters to go. Dom is still pulling away. Two hundred meters.
I’m breathing on Kenneth’s back. His shoulders are hunched and there’s no drive in his legs. One hundred.
Kenneth is shaking. He’s staring at the snow. Someone’s handed him a bronze medal. He’s thrown it on the ground. I walk up to him but he turns away from me, gasping and shaking. I turn and walk towards Dom.
He’s leaning against a tree. We stare at each other silently for a few seconds, catching our breath. The air fogs around us.
“I thought you just might beat him,” Dom finally says.
Dom grins back. Our breath steams hot around us, like we’re breathing out mist. We watch Elias cross the line. Then it’s Sam, then a guy from Lincoln, then two guys neck-and-neck from different teams. They’re pouring in now. I’m starting to feel better, so I walk on over to cheer the other Rustlake runners as they come to the straightaway. Dom stays put. I cheer for a few minutes. Then as I’m turning back I see Kenneth.
He hasn’t moved. He’s standing right where he was before, under the old sycamore. He hasn’t picked up the bronze medal. He’s glaring at Dom. If you could kill someone by looking at them with enough hate then Dom would be dead and buried six feet under. Kenneth looks at him the way a rabid raccoon will look at a dog — baring its teeth, full of rage and spittle. Dom is looking the other way and doesn’t seem to notice. I walk on over to him.
“Let’s cool down,” I say, glancing back at Kenneth.
Dom has the gold medal hung around his neck. He’s feeling chatty. On our cool-down we talk about the race. From time to time Dom holds up the gold medal and smiles at it.
“That’s eight to nought for the season,” he says.
“Eight to nought so far. There’s still Georgetown. Then the state championships.”
Dom grins and shakes his head. “You just wait and see.”
“You can’t win all of them.”
“Maybe I can,” he says, still grinning. “Maybe I will.”
Then he starts telling me how he’s going places. He starts telling me how he’s going to run straight out of this shitty little town of smokestacks and liquor stores and pawn shops — get out of here on a scholarship to Iowa, Washington, Colorado, maybe even Oregon — run straight out of Rustlake wearing his father’s old shoes and never look back, not for the rest of his life. “I can do it if anyone can,” he says. “You just watch.” It’s the same-old familiar future I’ve heard about a dozen times. And it just might come true. He’s already getting mail from coaches. He tells me how the Iowa coach is paying to fly him down in January, and how the Colorado coach sent him a hand-written letter, and how he took the SAT and did okay. I nod along. Then he starts to tell me how pretty the Washington campus is, and how much he likes the look of the running program there, but how his mother has been telling him he should really be thinking about Stanford.
I’m genuinely surprised. “You don’t have the grades for Stanford,” I remind him.
He shakes his head. “You don’t need grades, if you run fast enough,” he says. “You just need enough medals.”
He goes on like this for ten minutes. Running his mouth. Laying out his future for me, step by step. I nod along. And it’s just when he starts telling me about the ins-and-outs of the Oregon running program that we turn a corner in the trail and suddenly we’re staring at Kenneth.
We stop. Kenneth has three other Clarkson guys with him. His expression is exactly what it was down at the finish line. I pivot around, but the three other Clarkson runners have stepped out of the woods behind us. They close in, making a wall, blocking the trail. Then I start shaking because I understand what’s happening.
Kenneth steps forward, both fists clenched. He’s glaring at Dom. For a few seconds he doesn’t say anything, then he turns to me and speaks slowly.
“We aren’t here for you, Jackson,” he says.
I turn to Dom. He’s staring at me. He doesn’t say a word, just looks. Looks at me like I’m his friend. Like I’m going to stand by him.
I turn back to Kenneth. There’s death in his eyes.
“You’ve got ten seconds to run off,” he hisses. “Else you’re the same as him.”
It’s so cold. I can’t stop shivering and shaking. I turn back to Dom. He’s still looking at me like I’m a friend.
“Five…four…” Kenneth counts.
I turn away and start walking. The Clarkson guys move aside. When I get past them I start to run. After I’ve run a few seconds I hear shouting behind me, so then I start sprinting. And I keep on sprinting, faster and faster, because I don’t want to hear what happens.
I keep on sprinting until the shouts fade to an echo and then to nothing. At the edge of the woods I’m gasping for breath and have to stop. In the valley the other runners are stretching together in tight little circles. Beyond them are the dime stores and liquor shops Dom wanted to run away from, and in the distance I can see a few squat warehouses piled up against gray factories. On the horizon there’s a plume of black smoke set against the distant mountains, and a few hawks are circling overhead. For some reason all of this seems inexpressibly beautiful and precious. I stare at it, leaning against a tree, catching my breath. Listening for a sound.
The snowflakes are falling thickly. Everything in the valley is quiet and still.