The sunrise bathes the stadium in a pretty pink glow, but I just might puke.
Coach takes my jacket and looks me in the eye. “Jovi, there’s no need to be nervous. You can run three-point-two miles in your sleep. Forget that it’s Regionals. Use your mantra: Just another run. You got this.” He pats my back—three quick exclamation points on the end of his pep talk.
“Yes sir.” I walk toward the starting line. Just another run. Just another run.
This is not just another run—if I don’t win today, and place at State in two weeks, I’ll never get a running scholarship and college will be out of the question. There’s zero money to help make my dream come true. If I’m going to be the first one in my family to go to college, I’ll have to find a way to pay for it myself, and a scholarship is at the top of the list.
The bleachers are packed. It’s a sea of colorful blankets and jackets pulled tight against the crisp dawn. Yet, none of my family is here. Just like every other day, Dad, Luke and Sassy are working in the pecan orchard, and GrandMary doesn’t drive. If Dad had his way, I’d never run another mile in my life, and I’d spend every spare moment working in the family’s pecan business: clearing branches, bagging pecans, shelling pecans, cleaning equipment, whatever needs doing. It’s Dad’s life. It was his father’s life. And he wants to make it my life.
My best friend, Morgan is here, but only because I bribed her with ice cream after the meet. Morgan has perfect skin the color I like my coffee—with three creamers—can sing like an angel, mixes plaids with prints, and doesn’t know right from left or north from south. She changes the color of her wild curls with her mood, and right now I’m glad I can spot her pink hair in the stands. Otherwise, I’d be here alone. Again.
Fifty-seven other long-legged, pony-tailed girls line up on the grass at the one-yard line. I wedge myself between green and gold, and purple and white. Somewhere in the pack, wearing black and gold, with matching size ten Nike’s, is last year’s state champ, Shianne Boggs. She may have big feet, but off the course, she’s the girl with the $100 blowout, designer jeans, and way too many trophies.
“Runners, take your marks.”
I crouch into position with one foot in front of the other, one hand on the ground. Eyes straight ahead. At least I know this course. It’s my third time at Wimberley Regionals. The next twenty minutes of my life will be fields, creeks, hills, and a wooded path wide enough for four fast feet.
Okay adrenaline, work your magic.
The shot cracks through the air, turning my tension into thunder. I bolt forward.
It doesn’t take long for me to pull out front, along with six or seven others. Shianne’s weird exhale whistling in my right ear helps me focus. My jitters are gone. I have one job to do—win this race—and it’s starting to feel do-able.
The first mile is fast. Maybe five-minute-mile fast. My heart is a machine in my chest. Elbows bump. Colorful running shoes slap the ground in comfortable rhythm. My body is slick with sweat.
Several minutes tick by in an instant. All I know is my breath and my heart and my desire to win. I can do this. I’ve won my share of races but this is the one that counts. Winning today would be an upset but Coach says it’s my time. He’s had me in the gym lifting weights and doing flexibility training for months and I feel stronger than ever. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life. A win today would change everything.
With less than a mile to go, I’m one of four leaders packed in tight, and the pace is grueling. Quads on fire, lungs exploding. We splash across a creek—the cold water on my legs a refreshing surprise. I lean in and climb the last hill, giving it all I’ve got. One more turn and we’ll be back at the football field for the final 400 meters around the track.
It’s way too crowded in the turn. I’m on the inside. Not enough room.
Can’t find my footing.
My right elbow slams into another runner. Black and gold tumbles into my fall. Shianne Boggs. We’re a slow-motion collision of arms and legs and sweat.
Until our heads slam together.
And a dark explosion swallows me.