Making the Mark:
by Kerri L. Bennett
Bang! The pistol fired, its imaginary blast echoing in his mind. He felt the energy flowing within him as his legs powered him around the track. His tall, willowy frame was built for running. It came naturally for his agile form, and nothing gave him more joy than the rush of adrenaline as he shot off the blocks and hearing the roar of the crowd.
Passion. His very being exuded passion. At first sight of Jeremy Garland one knew that he was an athlete. He was thin, but muscular and his shape displayed obvious power. His pleasant face was dominated by royal blue eyes, there was a dignified nose whose tip was turned upwards just the slightest bit, and a mouth which liked to curve crookedly when he smiled.
He was midway through his third lap when a smile such as that played upon his lips. He was going to beat the state record for the three-mile this year. He could just feel it in his bones. That was his goal, had been for the past three years. Now he was a senior and he had been training harder than ever. His body was in prime condition, he’d monitored his diet carefully, making sure he got plenty of carbs— the source of his seemingly infinite supply of power. He also adhered to a religiously strict training program.
Jeremy glanced at his stop watch as he crossed the line for the twelfth time, completing his three-mile run. His clock showed that he finished six seconds earlier than his previous time. He could almost taste the tangy sharpness of victory. He smiled to himself as he scribbled the new time on his log sheet, his pen scraping against the clipboard.
He stuffed his watch and clipboard into the deep green gym bag and took out a much needed bottle of water and a towel. “Hey Jer,” he heard a familiar voice call. He turned slowly, slinging the towel over his shoulders. Oh great! His fears were confirmed when he saw the curvaceous body that matched the deep feminine voice. Martina Collins.
Hey Marti,” he feigned excitement. “What’s up?” He was already bracing himself for her reply.
“I was just wondering if you could maybe do me a favor?” Here it comes, he thought. The girl had been a thorn in his flesh for the past two years. She was his counterpart on the girls’ track team, and had been stuck to him since she moved here from God knows where. Normally Jeremy wouldn’t have been too peeved at the prospect of sharing close quarters with a long-legged redhead. This, however was a tricky situation. She was a “hottie,” of that there was no doubt. And that’s not to say that sometimes Jeremy was not guilty of fantasizing about her, because on that charge he was guilty as sin, but there was an abrasive quality about her that was almost enough to discourage the spark of chemistry between them.
“Well?” She was staring at him, waiting for something. An answer. He barely remembered her question.
“What kind of favor,” he almost disguised the note of apprehension.
“Can you . . . train me for the state meet?” He blinked. He could not believe the audacity of this girl. She who was a self-proclaimed feminist, who hated men and their chauvinistic ideas, was asking him to help her train.
“Will you train me for the state or won’t you?” She was getting impatient.
“Are you telling me, Miss G.I. Jane, that you want me, a member of the male species, to train you?”
“Yes, and I see that you’ve dropped your ever-present act of gallantry. To what do we owe this momentous occasion?”
“I just figured that, you know, you being one of the guys and all, would resent the feminine implication.”
“I appreciate the gesture. I know how hard it must have been to resist the primal urge to demean me. After all, it’s only been ingrained throughout childhood by old-fashioned and outdated standards.”
He was growing tired of this banter. To insult him was one thing, but to call kindness and consideration old-fashioned was treading on dangerous ground. He was very close to shouting a retort, but bit back the impulse. He would not satisfy her by getting angry.
He sighed and tried to assume a casual air. “It depends.”
“What depends?” He was pleased by the way her brown eyes widened in surprise. Chalk one up for Jeremy, he chuckled to himself.
“Whether I’ll coach you or not depends on what I get out of it.”
“What? You’re asking more than the satisfaction of helping another human being?” She sure knew how to make him look like a clod.
“Fine. I’ll help you.”
“Thanks, it was hard enough just to make myself stoop to asking you, but then, when I thought you were going to refuse it was like putting salt on the wound.”
“Can I ask you a question?” The momentary glimpse of vulnerability that he caught in her eyes disappeared.
“You already did,” she said flatly. He rolled his eyes.
“Why do you need me? What do you want to accomplish by this? Are you really serious about running, or is this just some ploy to humiliate me and show how inferior my species is?”
“Really,” she said, a coy smile sneaking over her face. “Do you find me that elementary in my plotting? Yes. I am very serious. I want to run. I want to win. I want to prove that the male species is not superior, and it will make it that much sweeter if you help me accomplish that goal.” She grinned devilishly.
“Now just hang on . . .” he began to protest.
“Surely you can’t be backing out. We had an agreement, backing out certainly wouldn’t be the gentlemanly thing to do.”
He clenched his teeth. “No, we have a deal and I’ll train you, but everything I say goes. Got it? And if you can’t handle it don’t blame me.”
“Well naturally, I wouldn’t want to bruise your precious little ego would I?” She turned and walked away with a gait that said she was entirely pleased with herself.
What have I gotten into? Jeremy recoiled physically at the thought of what he had committed himself to. What a fool! Only an absolute fool would put himself in direct conflict with such a volatile personality.
A personality that matched her hair. Flaming red mirrored her spicy temper. But her eyes had him wondering. Their soft brown was usually masked by a cold antipathy, but for that one moment when she left them unguarded, he thought he saw fear and then pleasure when he agreed.
No. He shook the thought away. His body was betraying him. This was Marti Collins. She was a hard-core man-hater and she would never find pleasure in a guy, especially him. To her, he must be the leader of the enemy camp.
Jeremy stood impatiently by the chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter of the football field. The lush green grass clung damply to his athletic shoes. Where was she? He knew this would happen. This was the first time they were to meet. This was a Saturday and he’d risen three hours earlier than usual. She was already fifteen minutes late. It was just as he’d guessed, all an elaborate plan to make him look stupid.
Exactly. He’d known that all along, but that didn’t explain why he’d tossed and turned the whole night, or why he felt a pang of disappointment that had him digging his heels into the grass. What did he really expect? For days he’d dreaded the moment, and now he should be relieved that there would be no confrontation. He was becoming fond of their literary fencing. She was quite the adversary and he was glad that her weapon of choice was words and not a foil, even if the tip would have been blunt. He liked a challenge, that’s why he was disappointed. He had prepared himself, worked himself up for this. He was buzzing with anticipation and nervous energy. That was all it was, just a missed chance that he’d for some reason planned on.
His hand clenched into a fist when he looked at his watch to find that she was half an hour late. Now he was angry, boiling actually. She was so calculating, using him, playing him against himself. She’d backed him into a hole, forced him to concede and do her bidding. She’d put him in a situation where he had no control and he began to wonder just how much dignity he’d be able to walk away with, if any at all.
“Ah-hem,” she cleared her throat. He jumped and wondered how long she’d been standing there. Jeremy swallowed, getting a handle on his anger.
“Ever heard of a watch?”
“Well, even if I had been on time, I doubt that you would have noticed since you were too intent on obliterating all the grass.” He looked down at the fresh ruts where his running spikes had cut into the ground, exposing the raw earth.
He turned to look at her. She was as alluring as ever with her ruddy, shoulder-length hair pulled back in a barrette and an impish smile on her face. Jeremy stalked to the track, the gravel crunching beneath his feet. “Are you coming or not?”
She took her place beside him in the next lane. He lead her through some stretches to prevent injury. “Pretty quiet, penny for your thoughts,” she said.
“Penny for your thoughts, what’s on your mind?” she explained. He recovered from his momentary shock.
“I know what it means. I was just surprised that a tough girl like you would care.”
“Are you calling me callous? Thanks for the compliment.”
“Let’s see if you’re as quick on the track as you are on comebacks,” he said as he began to make his way around the pavement, keeping a considerable distance between them. “Is that as fast as you can go? No wonder you begged me to help you.” She sped up, nearly matching his pace.
“I see you’ve taken to insulting females, I guess I’m corrupting you.” She looked absolutely delighted.
Just for that we’ll make two more laps, he said to himself as he noted the faint dots of perspiration glistening on her brow. We’ll see who’s up to the challenge. “I thought you were in girls’ track, surely you aren’t tired out yet!”
“I can take anything that you can dish out.”
“So,” he said, suddenly tired of the harsh tone and hoping for more pleasant conversation. “Where are you from?”
“Lots of places. Army brat.”
“You can say that again,” he whispered under his breath. Ticked as he was, he couldn’t help but admire her sleek form as he passed her again. She looked sort of winded. “Do you want to stop?” He was sorry for pushing her too far on the first day. His anger prompted him to goad her into it. Now with the rhythm of their movements matching beat for beat, the tension seemed to lessen and he felt an air of almost comradeship between them.
“I don’t want your pity. I’ll quit when I can’t move anymore, or are you getting tired?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he growled. Go ahead, exhaust yourself, you’ll be way too tired tomorrow to even breathe. So much for comradeship.
She completed four more laps before she drug herself off the track to lie in the grass. “No you don’t, I’d have figured that you would know to—”
“Cool down so I won’t get cramps.” She cut him off. He offered a hand to her as she sat up. She ignored it and got to her feet. They walked back to the track in a silence that bordered on hostile.
After making the loop several more times he gave her a nod. “You can go now if you want.”
“All right,” she said, accepting the towel he offered her. Again he was surprised at her almost chameleon-like ability to change moods. Surprised that is, until she threw the towel back into his face.
Marti began to make her way to the parking lot. He was enjoying watching the way her hips swayed as she walked. She nearly hid the hitch that he attributed to fatigue. All at once, she turned on her heel and he was faced with her eyes. This time their brown was warmer, almost friendly. “Thanks,” and she was gone.
Friendly? It was his hormones again. He wasn’t thinking clearly. Marti wouldn’t be friendly. Then what was it he saw in her eyes? He shrugged off the question when the answer eluded him. There was one good thing about this mess, he was keeping in shape for state and that was all that mattered.
Or was it? What did he mean, or was it? Of course it was. This had been his ultimate goal throughout his entire high school career. He wanted to win, to break the record and be the best, make a mark in history. He just had to keep that in the forefront of his mind. It had been until recently. Furious with himself for letting a girl, that girl, dominate his thoughts, he decided to drive her out of them. He pressed the button on the side of his watch and began his run.
By the end of the first week they’d insulted each other countless times and gotten under each other’s skin, but Marti was still as enigmatic as ever to Jeremy. He decided that if they were training together they should know whom they were working with.
Saturday, he’d chosen that day of the week to satisfy his growing need, his curiosity. Today he was going to leap into the dangerous waters, solve his questions about her past, or at least try to. This was going to take quite a lot of maneuvering. He’d have to step carefully.
He was bent over, tying his laces, when he heard her come up behind him. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. “Hey Marti.”
He could tell by the silence that followed that she wasn’t going to make what he wanted to do an easy task. “You know a lot about running, “ he said casually. “Did you run track for your last school?”
“I ran for me.” Never a straight answer.
“But now you’ve decided to run for females as a whole, to prove your just as good as the other gender.”
“I still run for me, the other part is just a perk. I always have, I always will.” They had taken their places and he pressed the timer on the stopwatch at her nod. She shot off and he followed her in the next lane, not wanting to waste his chance.
“But how did you get into it, running isn’t exactly a mainstream sport.”
“Nothing women play is,” she sidestepped the question. He let it drop.
“Are you up for a little competition?”
“Sure, but I hardly consider you competition,” she said as she finished her run. “How’s my time?”
“You managed to shave three seconds off. That could make a difference. Let’s see how you perform under pressure.”
“Ready, set, go,” she halted a second to press the timer and they left almost simultaneously.
He knew just what to do. Let her get ahead, stay ahead, use up her energy as he hung back and conserved his. Then, when he knew that she was tired, he’d make his move and sprint to the finish line.
She’d get smug as usual. Start thinking that she’d won, then look up to find him waiting for her across the line. Now that he thought about it, this only helped him become more prepared for state. He glanced up at her. She was almost five yards ahead, a distance he could take in a few short strides. But timing was important to his strategy. He needed to wait just a bit longer.
Her pace was slowing with every step. Time to start making his move. He pushed forward on his final burst of energy, overcoming her and finishing about eight seconds in the lead.
“Good race,” he offered his hand to her when she came up to him. Panting, she pushed it away with a slap. Her eyes were burning with anger. She whipped around and began to walk away.
All right, that tears it! He jogged after her, caught her by the arm, and jerked her around to face him. “Look here,” he said, his voice becoming razor sharp. “I’ve had just about enough of this. You are the one who forced me into this, I certainly didn’t volunteer for the job! All I’m trying to do is train you for the state meet, which may I remind you, is the agreement we’ve made. They won’t just walk over and hand you the gold medal, you have to work for it. Racing against me is the best way for you to prepare. Now, if you can’t handle it, just say so. I’ll stop right now. I have other things I could be doing. Otherwise, get a hold of yourself.” He saw the astonished look on her face and softened his tone. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to loose my temper. But competition and defeat are things that you’ve got to get used to. What time did you have?”
“I don’t know. I was so mad that I forgot to stop the timer.” She absently rubbed her calves.
“I think we’ve done enough work for today. Let’s walk a few laps and then we’ll call it quits.”
An icy silence fell over them as they let their muscles relax slowly. “If you’re too sore to run tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be glad to cancel until Monday,” he offered.
“No. I’ll be here.”
He walked her to the entrance gate out of habit. “Goodbye Marti.”
She turned to him and looked into his eyes. She seemed to want to say something, but after her temper tantrum he wasn’t going to drag it out of her. He turned to head back to his truck. “Wait Jeremy!” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “I run because it makes me feel like I can actually do something. I really enjoy myself. I’m not doing it to please anyone else, just to make me happy.” She stood there for a second, staring at his back, then walked slowly away.
Jeremy didn’t really know what to expect for Sunday’s practice. First she’d shut him out and pushed him away. Then, with absolutely no reason, she’ d dropped her shell and exposed a bit of her carefully guarded inner-self.
He was walking out the door and headed for the field when the telephone’s shrill tones halted his departure. “Hello.”
“Jeremy,” Martina’s deep voice questioned.
“This is Marti. I was just calling to let you know that I won’t be able to make practice today.”
“That’s fine. If you’re sore, just do some stretches and then ice the muscle that’s bothering you,” his voice was understanding.
“No. I’m fine. I’m not sore. I just can’t make it, and frankly I don’t think it’s any of your business why!”
“Fine, are you going to make time in your busy schedule for Monday, or have you given up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well if you don’t, who does? This is something I’d kind of like to know. My world doesn’t revolve around you, as hard as that is to believe.”
“Right, I wouldn’t want to disrupt your daily routine, how horribly selfish of me. I just don’t know right now. See, unlike you, I don’t plan out every little detail of my life. I like adventure, the element of surprise.”
“Well, call me when you become considerate enough to make up your mind. I won’t hold my breath.” He slammed the receiver onto the base. Marti Collins had the unique talent of getting him into a rage faster than anyone else he’d ever known.
Good grief, did the girl really think that she was the focal point of the entire human race? He’d never known anyone as self-centered and arrogant. She was infuriating. Disrupt my routine? He stormed out the door, jerking it closed behind him.
His truck flew down the blacktop, the tires spinning at an unlawful rate. His foot weighed heavy on the gas pedal, his growing anger outmatched only by his desire to reach his destination as quickly as possible. He pulled into the stadium parking lot. He vaulted from his seat and gave the door a shove, not waiting for the thud before heading to the gate.
Jeremy wrenched the gate open and stamped onto the track. He hunched down and began to do the only thing he could think of at the time, run.
It was a way of coping, releasing stress, getting rid of his anger. It was when he was running that he did his best thinking. The feeling of sailing along the ground with the wind’s fingers playing in his hair always cleared his mind.
He lost count of how many laps and her face filled his vision. He saw her fire-like hair and deep brown eyes. She too was running, her hair flying out behind her like a star burst. Her nose was crinkled and her lips curled into a playful grin. When was the last time he’d seen Marti smile, really smile? It was an expression one displayed only in moments of true happiness. When was the last time that Marti had been happy? There was only one time he’d seen that expression on her face, and she’d been running then.
That concept was a new one to Jeremy. He’d never once questioned Martina’s happiness. Now he wondered if running was the only thing that made her happy. Fool, she gets kicks out of insulting men. He should know, being her main target. But he doubted that the small amount she got was enough to sustain her. What the girl needed was a friend.
In the two years he’d known her, he’d yet to see her traveling in a pack like the other girls tended to do. They reminded him of a pride of lionesses on the hunt. As he pictured her in a caravan of other females, the idea appealed to him. She would make a good lioness. He had a vision of her leading the pack after a gazelle. It was running at top speed and she was closing in.
He couldn’t do much about females, but Jeremy made a vow then and there to become Marti’s friend, no matter what.
Jeremy came home damp, tired, and hot, but feeling better than he had in quite some time. He showered and settled in with the remote and his favorite sports channel. Sunday afternoon was the perfect time to unwind. After his run, he was feeling pretty lethargic. Before he knew it, the game was fading as his eyelids slid closed.
He saw her, just as he had a few hours earlier, with her hair flying out behind her and a carefree grin on her face. He looked over his shoulder as she struggled to keep up the pace. He slowed a little and she got closer. Soon she was right next to him, close enough to touch. A bit of her hair had come loose from her ponytail and fallen into her eyes. He longed to reach up and tuck it behind her ear as she used the side of her mouth to blow it out of her face. He reached out his hand, but she stopped cold.
He stopped himself and headed toward her. “Marti, are you all right?” She stared at him, her eyes cold and predatory. “Marti?” He took two more steps in her direction. “Are you okay Marti?” She bared her teeth and a low growl came from her throat. “Easy now,” he said, holding up a hand. She snapped at it, her features suddenly becoming cat-like.
Her eyes narrowed as she started after him in one gigantic leap. He stumbled backwards and began to run. The fear that filled him was primitive. He felt it in his legs, pounding through him along with his blood. He ran on, into the tall grasses, hoping for refuge. He heard the thud of her footsteps behind him, close on his heels. Ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. The sound overcame him, pressing in on him. He felt her warm breath on the back of his neck. Ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump, her paws beat down on him. Ka-thump, ka-thump, even louder.
He opened his eyes and realized that someone was knocking on the door. “Just a minute,” he called. He got up and wiped the beaded curtain of sweat from his brow, then opened the door. He almost passed out at the sight of her on the other side.
“Hello,” she said to his speechless stare. He gripped the door facing and swallowed the lump in his throat. Slowly he recovered himself and gestured toward the swing. She took a seat and he shut the door. He slowly made his way across the porch and sat beside her.
Since he offered no return, she began to speak. “I guess you were right. You did deserve to know when we could meet again.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Just that I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You think it’s that easy? I’m not a rug that you can walk all over.”
“You’re breaking the deal just because you got your feelings hurt?”
“Look, Marti, all I’ve ever done was try to get to know you, to be your friend. That’s all I wanted, but you pushed me away and kept me locked out of your life. And now you throw all of it back in my face, try to make me look like the instigator. I don’t think so. I don’t have to put up with that kind of treatment.”
“Oh, yes! Take the easy way out. Blame it all on the girl. ‘I’m a man. I can’t ever be wrong.’”
“Well, Joan of Arc, you wouldn’t have had to suffer through this martyrdom if you hadn’t blown me off in the first place,” he said as she stomped off the porch.
“And you’re as blameless as a lamb?” She began to get in her car when he remembered the pledge he’d made to himself.
“No, wait. Don’t leave angry. Please, can’t we make a pax or call a truce?” His pride was a hard thing to swallow and was getting clogged on the way down his throat. He offered her his hand, an act of peace. He saw the determination in her eyes waiver; she came onto the porch and grasped his outstretched hand. When he felt that instant spark of chemistry between them, Jeremy wasn’t surprised. He held her hand for a moment too long.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She gave his hand a squeeze and slipped her fingers free.
“I was serious, you know. I want to be your friend, but you have to let me.” His eyes never left her gaze.
“I know, and I’m sorry . . .” She turned to walk down the steps and he followed her to her car. She got in. “Can I come and run with you tomorrow?” Something in her voice told him that her apology was sincere. The pleading look in her eyes cut through his iron resolve.
A long sigh escaped his lips. “See you tomorrow,” he said with a smile. He shut the door and watched her drive away.
She was already there when Jeremy got to the field the next afternoon. He was uneasy about today’s practice. She was so unpredictable, and after the complete turnaround yesterday afternoon he had no clue what would come next. “Hey, Marti.”
“Are you up for three miles today?”
“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. You don’t think I’d let a guy beat me twice do you?”
“Not intentionally. And I doubted that you’d even try, seeing as how the last one brought you so much humiliation.”
She glared at him as he stretched. When he was done, he walked lazily onto the track. “Are you finished yet?”
“A little impatient aren’t we? What’s the rush, we have all afternoon?” He was feeling sort of reckless and so he dared a wink at her. He saw the anger bloom in her cheeks, a pink under her suntanned skin.
“Are you going to stand there winking all day, or are you going to run?”
“All right,” he pretended to deflate and then began to run.
“Hey, no fair. I wasn’t ready,” she complained.
“Are you saying you can’t beat me?” She grinned at his challenge.
“No, just that when I smoke you, you’ll regret giving me the opportunity for total humiliation.”
“What makes you say that? Turn about is fair play, right? I humiliated you Saturday, so now it’s your turn.” He laughed at her puzzled expression. She didn’t think he’d have felt that way did she? Sooner or later she’d realize that she didn’t have him pegged and take him seriously when he said that he wanted to be her friend. Because he wanted to speed up the process, he gradually slowed his pace and gave her the lead.
She was literally radiant when she passed him. At that moment, when she peered over her shoulder with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon on her face, he decided that any amount of humiliation was worth that smile. She was so beautiful, happiness made her look like a goddess. She should smile more often, and he’d make sure she would.
“Hey, you can’t just stop in the middle of a race!” Jeez, he’d gotten so wrapped up in his thinking that he was standing stock still in the middle of his lane. “I guess I win by default. Not quite as humiliating as the other option.”
“I guess you think that I did that on purpose, huh?”
“Why else would you stop, except to throw the race?” He couldn’t find a good excuse so he let it drop.
“Let’s have a rematch. If you win, you ask a question that I have to answer. If I win, you have to answer my question.” He grinned at his own cleverness.
“Sounds fair enough,” she agreed.
“Good. Ready, set, go.”
They were off again, and this time he definitely needed to win. Relax and conserve your energy. He measured his breath, and maintained a constant pace. Save that last burst for the end. She was ahead of him at the moment, but he was taller than she was and the longer legs gave him an advantage. This is the home stretch, speed up. He pushed himself across the finish line half a second before her.
He caught the angry glint in her eyes and the red of her cheeks. “All right, ask your question and get it over with,” she snarled.
“It’s my question and I can ask it anytime I want to,” he shot back.
“Let’s take a minute or two to cool off.” They walked the circuit several times. He took the chance to look at her as they moved together. She was still as beautiful as when he’d seen her earlier but her walk lacked its usual air of confidence. He considered his options and decided that it was worth the risk. “I’d like to think that we’re friends. And in my book, friends can trust each other. Martina, you can trust me, I promise. What’s wrong? You’ve been acting so different lately.”
Her face went hard and expressionless. “I’d like to tell you. I really would, but I can’t.”
“Marti, I promise, I won’t hurt you by betraying your confidence. Something’s wrong, I know that. Maybe you don’t think that you know me well enough, but I want to know you. I want to help you if I can, and I swear, I’ll do anything I can for you.” She sighed and sat down in the grass. He sat Indian-style beside her. She looked up into his blue eyes.
“I want to Jeremy, so much. But I can’t get close to you, to anyone.”
“Why not?” Her eyes started to water, so he took her hand. “What is it? Look at me Marti, what is it about me that you’re so afraid of?”
“It’s not you Jeremy, but I can’t let myself get attached to you.”
“I’ve never met anyone as selfish as you,” he stood up and began to walk away. “I put up with the attitude and the insults. I told myself that there was more to you than meets the eye. I guess I was wrong.” He glanced over at her and saw a struggle raging within her. He saw it through her eyes. They had been her weakness all along. Even when her whole body said one thing, her eyes never lied. They always betrayed her true feelings. He crossed his fingers behind his back in an old childish gesture, hoping that his side would win.
She looked up at him, those brown eyes as big and sad as a puppy’s, and he knew that she would bare her soul. He sat back down and took her hand again, and wiped away a tear with his thumb. “It’s all right.”
She took a deep breath and began. “All my life I’ve been an army brat. I know just what you think, and you’re right, it’s a very accurate term. We’ve moved too many times for me to even count. After the first few times that I was devastated, I built this kind of shell around my heart. No matter what, I couldn’t let anyone in because sooner or later I’d be ripped up and moved to a foreign place, and the cycle would repeat itself. That cold, catty feminist wasn’t what was on the inside, it was just a defense mechanism. It was sort of like a porcupine’s quills. It kept people away and it was easier to remain separate from everyone. That way it didn’t hurt anymore when we left.
“You were never fooled by it though, were you?” He shook his head at her question. “I tried to resist, to keep you out. But you found all the cracks in the wall and made them bigger until the wall just collapsed. I let you in and it felt so good to have human contact again. Then it happened, just like I knew it would. Daddy told me Sunday. We have two weeks.
“I tried to push you away and keep you out, but by then it was too late. Jeremy, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You wouldn’t let me shut you out. I’m sorry for all the things I said to you. Every time I saw the hurt on your face it hurt me too. I’m so sorry Jeremy, so sorry.” She was weeping now and he drew her to him and wrapped his arms about her, blanketing her in warm forgiveness.
“Shh. Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. It’s all right. I forgive you. I’m not angry. Hush now.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I could stand to leave you,” she sobbed on his shoulder.
He pushed her back enough to take her face in his hands. “We’ll worry about that later. We have two weeks.”
“Oh, Jeremy!” She wiped away the last of her tears and hugged him.
“Are you all right now,” he was still worried. She gave him a smile. He got up and offered his hand to her. She accepted and he pulled her to her feet. He put his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the parking lot.
He went with her to her car and opened her door. She turned to him and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for everything Jeremy.”
“You’re welcome Marti, anytime.”
Tuesday’s practice went smoothly. Jeremy noticed that she was getting faster every day. This time, when they raced, she won easily. “I get a question now, right?”
“Yeah,” he laughed, “you get a question.”
“Why Jeremy? Why did you agree to train me?”
“I’m going to be honest. First, because you forced me into it, a gentleman shouldn’t refuse a lady. And second, because even though you were a nuisance for the first two years,” he dodged a playful punch. “You’re the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever seen. I figured just getting to look at you made all the insults worthwhile.” She blushed and flashed him a huge smile. She was hot, sweaty, and in an old jogging suit, but she’d never looked prettier to Jeremy.
“I’m not used to getting compliments.”
“I guess not, with that man-killing façade you’ve been wearing.”
“It was a pretty good cover though, because you’re the only one who saw through it.”
“Oh, didn’t anyone tell you, I’m the resident shrink.”
“All right Doc, what’s your diagnosis?”
“Hmm . . . I think you’re afraid of getting fond of people and then having to leave them. To cope, you guard your heart and live in exile.”
“Sounds serious. Is there a cure?”
“Yes. I say you should get out more, be with people. Why don’t you go somewhere with a friend?”
“Is that an invitation?”
“No. It’s doctor’s orders,” he grinned.
“Well what’s your fee?”
“No charge.” They laughed. “Enough talking, let’s cool off and get out of here,” he told her companionably.
When they had circled the track a few times he let her stop. “Marti, you’re getting faster every time you race. I’m sure you can win your event at state.” Her smile faded.
“I’m not going to get to go to state, remember? I’m moving in two weeks.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Jeremy, there’s nothing you can do. You don’t know my dad.”
“Have you told him that you don’t want to leave?”
“No, but it wouldn’t do any good. He never listened when I told him any of the other times.”
“Well, we’ll make him listen. This time you won’t have to leave if you don’t want to, I
promise.” He put his arm around her. They walked to the parking lot together and then she headed for her car. “Just where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed her elbow.
“Does that mean you’re turning me down?”
“Will you let me take you out for dinner?” She stared at him.
“You mean you’re serious?”
“Yes.” He took her hand. “Martina Collins, will you go to dinner with me?”
“Yes . . . Yes, Jeremy.”
“But can I go home and freshen up?” He glanced at her sweat drenched clothes and her sticky hair. She looked fine to him. Though he hated to let her out of his sight, he figured it was safer to grant her request.
“If that’s what you want. What time should I be at your house?”
“All right,” he said as he opened her door.
As Jeremy was getting ready to go pick up Marti, he noticed a nervous anticipation in the pit of his stomach. Get a hold of yourself, this isn’t your first date. He told himself that the whole way to her house, but as he pulled up into her driveway his heart was pounding like a ticking stopwatch. He caught his breath and got out of the truck.
He walked up to her door and pressed the bell. He heard it’s tones echo into the recesses of the house. He took one last look at himself. His tan and cranberry plaid button-up shirt and khaki pants were starched and ironed wrinkle-free. He hoped his hair was cooperating. He was staring down at his dress shoes when he heard her open the door.
Jeremy looked up at her and forgot how to breathe. She’d pulled her hair up in a clip, leaving a red corkscrew hanging down on each side to frame her face. She wore a cream three-quarter-length shirt that buttoned up, a khaki wraparound skirt, and some strappy high-heeled sandals that exposed brightly colored nails. He realized that his mouth was hanging open and somehow got it to close.
He wanted to say something but his brain had gotten lost in her smile. After a second he
recovered and managed, “Marti, you look wonderful.”
She blushed. “Don’t look so bad yourself. I must say I like this much better than the sweaty gym wear I usually see.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yep.” She held up her purse. “Where are we going,” she asked as he walked her to his truck.
“It’s a surprise.” She got in and he noticed a sparkling charm bracelet as he shut the door. It was silver and had a tiny key with a heart-shaped head on it. “I didn’t think that you were a jewelry kind of girl. What’s the key to?”
“It unlocks my heart.”
Jeremy couldn’t speak for hers, but his heart had stopped beating. Where was his head? He must have lost it along with his heart when she’d opened the door. He glanced over at the girl that was sitting beside him. It was hard to believe that he’d despised her just a few weeks ago. Now her face had a magical glow about it that he had never seen before.
“Not mush of a conversationalist are you?” she asked.
“What? I’m sorry, I just can’t think when I look at you. Do you like Italian food?”
They pulled up into the parking lot of a little restaurant just outside of town. “Gee, this is fancy!” The sarcastic edge had crept back into her voice. He shot her a disappointed glance. “Sorry, it just slipped out. Habit.”
“That’s all right; old habits are hard to break.” He said that it was all right, but his tone said it wasn’t. She had a lot of nerve. He was paying for the meal and she didn’t seem to think it was good enough. Then he reconsidered. She was a rough kind of person and she wasn’t used to letting her softer side out.
He got out of the truck, went to the other side, opened her door, and helped her out. He put his hand on the small of her back and led her inside. They were seated at a cozy table with the almost mandatory red checkered tablecloth and candles. He pulled out her chair for her and sat across the table.
“This is sort of Lady-and-the-Trampish, huh?” she said.
“Yeah, but I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not sharing the same noodle with you. And don’t expect to get my meatball either.”
“Of course not! I wasn’t even planning on spaghetti,” she giggled.
“Not planning on ordering spaghetti! Then why even bother to go to an Italian restaurant?” He pretended to be exasperated and threw his hands up. “You females make
>absolutely no sense!”
“Good, we’re not supposed to. The inner workings of the female mind are the closest guarded of all our secrets.”
“What you’re saying is that you love to keep us confused?”
“Basically. What are you having?” He marveled at the ease that had come over her, over them both.
“I’m having spaghetti, like I said, why else would you come to an Italian restaurant?”
“Aw, if we both get the same thing, it won’t be any fun for me to eat off your plate.”
Did I just hear what I thought I heard? Was Marti actually flirting with him? He tried to conceal his shock. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to get two different things. Order whatever you want.” She practically beamed.
Marti ended up with shrimp Alfredo. She was so excited when she saw it on the menu that Jeremy had begun to wonder if she was hyperventilating. “This is just the best thing in the world!” That’s what she’d said when he asked her if she was okay.
“What, the company or the menu?”
“Both, but more particularly one item on the menu.”
“And what is that?”
“Shrimp Alfredo. That’s one of my favorite things,” she paused, “but then so is the company.”
He gave her a grin. She was getting more feminine by the minute. This was a good sign. It meant that she felt safe enough to be herself. This was the vulnerability that he sometimes glimpsed in her eyes. Someone once said that eyes were the windows to your soul, and Jeremy knew that they were telling the truth.
He looked across the table at the redheaded fairy whose brown eyes were taking him in. He kept thinking, Any second now she’ll disappear. He’d just blink and she’d be gone. Like the fairy always did in those kinds of stories, he’d fall under her spell and then she’d be gone. But they were both still sitting there and he said out loud, “I’m under your spell.”
“I’m under your spell, beautiful fairy.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t turn you into a frog.”
“Whew,” he wiped his forehead. “That was what I’ve been afraid of this whole time!” She giggled and gave him that smile he liked so well. “You’re very good at smiling. Did you know that? You don’t do it very often, but when you do you have the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen.” He touched the little dimple in her left cheek. Her face had a warm, rosy glow about it. Whether that was due to the candlelight or something else, he could never be sure.
The waiter came and brought them their plates. They ate in silence for a while, enjoying their food and each other. The sound of two people breathing and the clink of forks against plates became their own language. There was an easiness that Jeremy hadn’t even felt drop down on them like a gauzy curtain, keeping them separate from the rest of the world. Sitting there, Jeremy knew that he could tell Marti anything in the world, but kept the golden silence of their lips intact while their hearts were speaking volumes.
He looked at Marti. She was looking right back, her eyes searching desperately for some emotion within the depths of his. She seemed to have found it after a moment and looked over at him with laughter brimming from her face. “You know something Jeremy?”
“What,” he asked, not even lamenting that the silence was broken.
“I needed this.”
“No. I needed friendship. Someone who I could talk to. I needed to be human again. I needed to feel warm inside, to melt the frost within.”
“I know.” He took her hand. “Can’t let a beautiful girl walk around like an abominable snowman can we?”
“No. No, you couldn’t. Here. Have a bite of this,” she said putting a fork full of Alfredo noodles and a shrimp into his mouth.
“You’re right. It is pretty good.” He smiled as she wiped a bit of sauce off the corner of his mouth with a napkin. He offered his own fork to her in turn.
“Mmm. You weren’t kidding about the spaghetti.”
He found himself wanting to taste Marti’s kiss instead of the food on her plate. Down boy, he commanded himself. He needed to move very slowly. They had established a very fragile rapport and he had no desire to ruin it because of hormones.
Sadly, the evening disappeared. Like the food on their plates, they savored each moment slowly in hopes of remembering the taste. When Jeremy pulled up to her house he was sad, but this sad had a little hint of happiness hidden way down deep in the core. Gone was the best night of his life, and though he could never get it back, he knew that he wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.
He got out of the truck and walked around to her side. He opened the door and took her hand as she got out. They walked to the porch. Jeremy lingered with her, wishing that he could put this moment in a bottle and keep it just the way it was forever.
“I had a wonderful time tonight Jeremy,” she whispered softly. “Thank you.”
“It was my pleasure.” He smiled and lowered his eyes. The more he looked at her face, the more he wanted to kiss it. He felt her fingers move slightly in his. He stared at her hand and found himself wanting to kiss it too. Jeremy let go of her hand and turned to leave.
Suddenly, she grabbed his hand and pulled him to her. He found himself wrapped in a warm hug. “This was the best night of my life,” she said into his ear. Mine too, he thought. He smelled her flowery shampoo and pulled away before he could kiss her hair. Her brown eyes were glistening with tears.
“Marti, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” His hands ached to take her in them. He wanted to hold her and kiss away her tears. Instead he put them in his pockets.
“Night Jeremy.” She went inside and closed the door.
Wednesday morning Jeremy arose and wondered briefly if things would be awkward between them. But after the initial jitters had passed, the night before had gone smoothly. Why would things be any different today? His hands still ached for the sensation of her in them and his lips still craved her kiss, yes, there would be something different about practice. How was he going to make it through the session without doing something he’d regret?
School that day was easy enough. They had no classes together except for track. All he had to do was avoid her in the hall and keep his distance during track. They usually didn’t talk during practice anyway. It was after school that was the problem.
Thoughts of her preyed on him the entire day. In English, when he was supposed to be reading “Hamlet,” he was seeing her sitting across from him at the restaurant. Trig was just as bad. Instead of copying the notes for the next day’s quiz, he was seeing her standing on her porch with tears in her eyes. At lunch, when he didn’t even taste the chilli dog in front of him, he was remembering the way she looked at him when she wiped the Alfredo sauce from the corner of his mouth.
By last period, he had replayed every second of the night before over and over in his head until he knew the whole evening by heart. Jeremy knew the exact shade of her eyes and hair. He knew the scent of her skin and every molecule of him had the way her hand felt in his burned into it. He could hardly wait for the bell.
As soon as school was over, Jeremy raced home and dressed for practice. In just a few minutes, he’d see her again. The nerves had a knot growing in his stomach by the time he reached the field. He began to pace back and forth when he’d been waiting for over a minute. What was keeping her? Why wasn’t she here yet? Questions filled his mind and every rational thought left his head.
When she came to the gate, he wanted to run to her and make sure she was okay. But he kept his feet planted where they were and let her come to him. He watched her figure jogging toward him and was amazed at the warmth emanating from her. “Hi Jeremy.” She smiled as she said it.
“Hey Marti.” He wondered if she caught the tremor in his voice. Side by side they stretched and he kept catching himself staring at her.
Once they began laps Jeremy decided to admire the craftsmanship of his track shoes, though that was not exactly the subject his eyes most desired to scrutinize. Rather his mind chose to dwell on the fact that Marti was just in the next lane. He kept his eyes lowered so that he didn’t catch a fragment of her form as she ran past him. He was lagging behind, but he could care less. All he wanted to do was take her in his arms and kiss her.
“What’s wrong Jeremy, did you pull something?” She was jogging over to him with a worried expression on her face.
“No, I’m fine.” The words rushed out of him. The look she’d had on her face was enough to make his stomach pitch. Why did her eyes have to hold so much affection?
“Are you sure?” Her hand gripped his arm possessively, as if to protect him. Her eyes looked up into his, imploring whether his statement was true.
“Yeah, I was just a bit distracted.” The smile of relief was almost enough to do him in.
“What distracted you,” Marti questioned innocently.
“Just a little fairy.” She gave him a surprised look, and then caught his meaning.
“Better be careful, if you get to close, she might fly away!” She gave him a wink and began to sprint in the opposite direction. He recovered his wits and went after her.
“You can’t get away that easy,” he called and thought he heard her giggle. When she glanced back and saw him, she sped up. So we’re still playing hard to get, he thought. But he wasn’t giving up. He ran faster and was beginning to gain ground. Jeremy came up behind her and grabbed her, rolling them both softly to the ground. “Caught ya’,” he said as they laid on the grass.
He rolled over and held himself up on his palms over her. “You okay?”
“Mm-hm.” She looked up at him. Their faces were inches apart. There was a sparkle in her eyes that made them as bright as stars. “Know what Jeremy?”
“What?” It came out almost like a breath.
She closed her eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”
“Neither have I,” he said simply. He looked down at her and put his hand on her cheek. Her lips were soft and inviting. Slowly he brought his lips to hers. “I was wrong,” he said when he pulled away. “Now I’ve never been happier.”
He got up and offered her his hand. She put hers into it and he pulled her up. They began to walk towards the track, hand in hand. Jeremy didn’t feel much like running. “Is there somewhere you want to go,” he asked when they were back at the fence.
“Is there some place you’d like me to take you?”
“What about practice?”
“I don’t feel like running anymore, do you?”
“How about we go to the park? Have you ever seen the lake at night?”
“No. That sounds nice. What time?”
“Six thirty. I can bring some sandwiches and we’ll have a picnic.”
“That’s great. I can bring some cocoa.” It was October and the weather had become cooler at night, being near water would give the air an extra chill.
They stood there for a moment, smiling at the thought of sipping cocoa on the shore under a blanket of stars, then Marti reached for his hand. Together they headed for the parking lot and reluctantly approached her car. Jeremy opened the door for her and she got in.
Marti started the car and stuck her head out the window. “Bye Jeremy.”
“Bye Marti.” Jeremy stood in the parking lot until Marti had driven out of sight. Then he got into his truck and drove home.
He hurried to make the sandwiches before church, leaving them to chill in the refrigerator while he got dressed. He packed a wicker basket with blankets and candles. All that was left were the sandwiches and he’d pack them when he got home.
At youth that night, all Jeremy’s friends asked where he’d been the past few days. Though he’d tried to disguise it, everyone noticed how distracted he’d gotten. Jeremy just shrugged them off and murmured something about practicing for track after school. Everyone knew that meets would begin soon. He wasn’t sure he wanted Marti open to the criticism that would surface if people found out that she was going on dates. It was hard enough to get her to open up in the first place, and he was too attached to her to let her go back to hiding behind that shell. She could tell people anytime she wanted, but until then, no one would know.
After church, Jeremy went home and finished packing the basket. He drove to her house feeling like a little kid at Christmas. When he rang the bell, Marti emerged carrying a large thermos and two ceramic mugs. She wore a long sleeved golden sweater with marabou trim on the collar and sleeves, and charcoal pants. Her hair was pulled up in a sparkling gold barrette, all except one piece that hung down close to her nose. She quickly tucked it behind her ear.
“You look . . . beautiful tonight, Marti.” Always he was stunned at how pretty she was.
“Thanks.” He put his hand on her back and they walked to his truck. He drove to the park, and out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw her look at him. Jeremy smiled over at her and wondered why no other guy was trying to take her away from him.
Then her hand found his and they linked them together. “I hope you like the cocoa, Jeremy. I brought marshmallows too.”
“Of course! What’s hot chocolate without marshmallows?” He grinned and squeezed her hand.
When they parked, dusk was falling and everything had a grayish-purple tint. As they walked, dry leaves crunched under their feet. A cool breeze whispered past them and beside him, Jeremy felt her shiver. He drew her nearer and was glad for the blanket he’d put in the basket.
They stood at the lake shore and stared out at the shimmering waves. Pinpoints of light that shone down like diamonds from the navy-black sky reflected off the water and were multiplied. “It’s so beautiful,” Marti sighed and put her head on his shoulder. “Like an oil painting, or one of the Impressionists’ works,” he felt her breath’s cloud of warmth against his neck.
“Kind of like ‘Starry Night’.” Jeremy looked up at the silvery stars and prayed that one would fall. “Hang on,” he spread out the blanket on the sandy beach and took her hand as she settled herself onto it. He sat slightly behind her so that she could lean against him and use his shoulder as a headrest. As if she’d read his mind, she did just that. A peaceful sigh escaped her. Carefully Jeremy lit the candles with his free hand. It wasn’t as if they were needed, but he’d wanted everything to be perfect. “Hungry?” he asked quietly.
“A little.” He got the sandwiches from the basket and handed her one. Marti got the mugs and a bag of marshmallows, and poured the steamy liquid into them. She put the warm cup into his hand. “Be careful, it’s hot.”
He blew into the cup, sending the tiny white islands that floated in it spinning in the opposite direction. He took a sip of the rich brown liquid. “Mmm. This is delicious. I don’t even remember the last time I had cocoa.”
He saw her lift her cup to her mouth. How he wanted to kiss those lips. “Marti,” Jeremy began. She turned and her brown eyes peered into her face. He never finished his thought. She was tilting her head and he was leaning toward her face. Their lips were together in a soft, tender kiss. “I love you Marti.”
“I love you too, Jeremy.” He opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly she thrust a finger skyward and exclaimed, “Oh, look Jeremy, a shooting star!” He watched as it soared towards the earth.
“Make a wish.”
“I wish I could stay here with you forever,” she whispered. He kissed her again.
“So do I . . .”
At the end of the night, Jeremy carried a very sleepy Marti back to his truck. She lay with her head on his shoulder the whole way home. They walked up to the porch in silences. Nervously Jeremy cleared his throat, “Can I bring you to school in the morning?”
“You mean you want to come by and pick me up? Wouldn’t that be out of your way?”
“That doesn’t matter. I mean, I’ll be over after school anyway. Why not ride with me and I’ll bring you home after practice?”
“I’ll be here around seven thirty.” He took her hand and slipped his class ring onto her finger. “Goodnight Marti.”
“Night Jeremy. Love you.”
“Love you too,” he said as he kissed her cheek. He searched her eyes for the love that swelled from his heart and again found them moist with tears. “Why are you crying? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said as he wiped her cheek. He took her in his arms and held her.
“Marti, I love you,” he whispered into her hair. Then he pressed his lips to the auburn curls.
Jeremy made his hands release her and open the front door. She went inside and turned to look at him for several seconds before giving him a weak smile and closing the door.
For the rest of the night Jeremy contemplated her tears. Two nights in a row they had gone out. Two nights in a row he had left her at her door in tears. What did it all mean? He was being very careful, trying not to move too fast. He hadn’t even meant to bring up love on the second date, but all at once, the look on her face said “love me” and he knew he had to tell her. What if he had scared her? Maybe the class ring thing was too much for one night. Maybe it was all in his imagination. She didn’t really have feelings for him and he was just a good friend to her. Maybe she didn’t know how to tell him. But why did she say she wanted to stay with him forever? Why did she kiss that way? And why did she say she loved him too? He had never been so perplexed. Marti was right; they were good at confusing guys. He just hoped that he hadn’t made a huge mistake. Jeremy fell asleep with the image of Marti crying as his last conscious thought.
The next morning, Jeremy felt like he had swallowed a million butterflies. He was jittery and anxious all the way to Marti’s. What could he possibly say? He rang the bell and wished to heaven that he was anywhere else in the entire world.
When she answered the door, he almost bolted. Get a hold of yourself, she won’t eat you alive. She might tear you limb from limb, but she isn’t a cannibal. He swallowed the lump in his throat and began, “Marti . . . ”
“Oh, Jeremy!” It was then that he noticed his gold ring on her pointer and the look of exultation on her face. “How are you this morning?”
“I’m . . . just fine. How are you?”
“You look nice.” He surveyed the hip-hugger jeans and peasant blouse whose sleeves gave her the appearance of butterfly wings. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yeah,” she said, pausing to sling her backpack over one shoulder. Jeremy took her hand and they walked to his truck. When he’d started the engine and pulled out of the drive, she leaned over and kissed his lips. “I missed you.”
“Um, about last night. I didn’t mean to rush into anything.”
“What are you talking about,” her face held a worried expression.
“I got to thinking, and I was worried that I might have moved too fast. We can take it slower if that’s what you want.”
“Why? What’s happened Jeremy?”
“It’s just that you were crying both times I left your house. I thought maybe you were scared or overwhelmed and needed me to back off.”
“No Jeremy. I wouldn’t have kissed you, or worn your ring, or be riding with you now if I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to if I was overwhelmed or scared.”
Jeremy expelled a tiny sigh of breath that he hadn’t known he was holding. “Good.”
She glanced over at him, “How long have you been worried about that?”
“Since I left your house last night.” She giggled at his words.
“Did you get any sleep?”
“A little.” He yawned for her benefit.
“Poor thing,” she said in mock pity. “How sweet, you lost sleep over me. I could get used to this.”
“Yeah, well, it isn’t going to be an every night occurrence,” he said a bit sourly and rolled his lip into what he hoped was a cute pout.
“Don’t get all sullen on me,” she teased as she kissed him again. “That’s better,” she said when the corners of his mouth had curved into a grin.
They were almost to the student parking lot when he finally spoke. “You were right Marti, you females are very confusing. If you weren’t scared, why were you crying?”
“This has been the best two days of my life. I’ve never had so much fun or felt this way about anyone in my entire life. And for a while I can forget that I’m going to move away in eleven days. For a while I can lose myself in being with you. I can love you and have fun with you and pretend that it will last forever. But then the night is over and you take me to my house. We stand on my porch and try to say goodnight. You just hate for the night to be over because we had such a good time. That isn’t why I hate for it to end. One of these nights I know that you’ll bring me home from a date for the last time. One of these times we’ll say goodbye and we might never see each other again.”
Jeremy looked over at her. She was wiping the dampness out from under her eyes. His truck had been in park for several seconds and he knew that they should head for the building if they didn’t want to be late, but for some reason Jeremy couldn’t get out of the truck. He wrapped his arms around Marti and held her. Oh how he wished that he could shield her from all the pain she was going through. If he could he would carry her away from everything that could hurt her. But he could not.
After a moment he whispered, “You don’t have to worry. Even if you move to Alaska, you won’t be rid of me!” He smiled and added with seriousness, “I promise.” He kissed her forehead. “Come on,” he said as he slid out the door and pulled her out behind him. “We’ll be tardy.”
As they approached the door he put space between their previously snuggled position and released her hand. “What’s wrong Jeremy?” Her puzzled and anxious expression made him feel like a creep.
“I just . . . ” he paused for a minute and tried to figure out how to explain himself without getting into trouble. “I wasn’t sure how you felt about us. I didn’t know if you wanted anybody to know, especially if you keep up the ‘quills’ so to speak.”
She didn’t and Jeremy was beginning to wonder if she would ever say anything again. “I don’t know. I hadn’t even thought about it. Well,” she said and then paused a moment. “I guess I really don’t care if they know. All I want to do is be with you.” She smiled and took his hand as they passed through the door.
Jeremy walked Marti to first period after the bell rang. As they walked past the crowd of people streaming into the building, there were looks of shock and hissing whispers that followed them. Instantly Jeremy drew her closer to his side. He felt a change in her as she stiffened her body. “Ignore them,” he whispered to her neck. She nodded her head.
He kept his calm until she had left his arm and was in her seat. However, as Jeremy headed for his class, a dark emotion bubbled from inside him. Now he knew why he had no competition. She was different, and because she was, no one would touch her. If anyone was seen with her it might ruin their reputation. Because of something that wouldn’t matter in five years, people didn’t take the time to know her. They passed judgment without knowing who she was.
It was almost like they saw her as less of a person. She was removed from the normal, everyday needs of a human. “Look at that freak, what is she doing with a boyfriend?” Just because she didn’t dress or hang out with the right kind of people made her not deserving of companionship.
He’d noted the shallowness of the high school social systems before, but he was comfortable with his position, which was somewhere in the middle. This brought all of its cruelties to light. He didn’t want those vultures feeding on Marti’s self-esteem. She was a wonderful person, but that’s not what others bothered to look at. The sound of the tardy bell brought him out of his brooding.
As the teacher took roll, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. “Hey man, is it true, is it true you’re going out with that Collins girl? What did she do, threaten to kill you if you said no?” Jeremy did his best to ignore the pimply-faced sophomore he recognized as a track runner.
At the end of first period, Jeremy found her waiting for him in the hall. He noticed that she wasn’t as energetic as usual and felt the need to punch something. He drew a steadying breath and took her hand. He looked into her face and found a melancholy expression. “Marti, I love you.” She was looking at her feet. He crooked a finger around her chin and lifted it so that he could see her eyes. “Hey, what’s the matter? A guy just told you he loved you, why the frown?”
“Sorry Jer. I love you too.”
“Come on, just one little smile. You can do it.” He grabbed a curl and gave it a playful tug. Her mouth was a straight line across her face. “Who ever heard of an unhappy fairy? Come on Tink, show me that cute dimple.” Half of her mouth curved upward, as if she couldn’t decide, but after a moment she was smiling and her whole face was aglow. “See, you can do it. Have I ever told you how good you look wearing a smile?”
“Once or twice.” Jeremy grinned at her response and checked his watch, he had less than a minute. It was a good thing they were at her second period class. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“Later Tink,” he said, winking. As he dashed down the hall, he glanced back to find her smiling and giggling at her new nickname.
At lunch, Jeremy and Marti sat together. Jeremy found her in better spirits and felt some of the angry cloud that had been gathering in him dissipate. He wanted to apologize for everything that had happened that day, but something told him that this wasn’t the best time. She was smiling and happy without any provocation from him. It would be better to keep the mood light. Besides, he had a sneaking suspicion that the smile she wore was pasted on for him. He unknowingly took a bite of whatever the lunchroom dared to call food. After resisting the gag reflex, he forced himself to swallow. “I wish you had some pixie dust, then you could make this slop edible.”
“No such luck.”
“Right, that stuff’s only good for flying.”
“Jer, that’s not what I meant.”
“I know Tink. I know.” At last she gave him the smile he loved, the one that displayed her dimple. And he wanted to kiss her right then and there. He took her hand instead and, in response, got a slight pressure.
“I guess I’m not supposed to have feelings, huh Jeremy?”
For a while he didn’t know how to answer her. It was what he’d been fuming over all day. “Marti, those were the people who didn’t care enough to look past your mask in the first place. If anyone had ever taken time to look, they would have seen what I saw. Because you don’t try to conform to their standards, they find you unacceptable and that is a compliment to you. It shows that you are an individual, that you have a brain and don’t just follow the crowd. That’s one of the things that I love about you. I can match wits with you, unlike a good deal of those other girls who are just carbon copies of some air-headed fashion model. You’re beautiful Marti, you have a beautiful body and you have a beautiful spirit. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different. You may not matter to them, Martina Collins, but you matter to me.”
After he finished, he felt like he had emptied his soul, and that was a good feeling. He hoped his words had told her what she needed to hear. He never knew for sure if she understood his meaning. She was quiet for a moment and seemed to mull it over in her mind. Then she looked him full in the face and smiled. It was one of those slow, all-knowing smiles that crawled across her face, as if she’d come to fully realize an answer to a puzzle she’d always wondered about, but in the end found that the answer had been within her the entire time. And it was his hope that the question she answered was about herself. There was a long, contemplative silence that was broken when she said, “Me too.”
“Me too, what,” he asked, wondering at first whether he’d been too busy with his thoughts to hear her talking to him.
“Nothing, everything, and anything in between,” she laughed. Now Jeremy was lost and must have had a confused look on his face. She gazed at him softly. “I could tell there was more to what you were saying than what was on the surface. When you were done, it was as if you’d stated some all-encompassing philosophical theory. It was like the whole world and everything in it was put in a nutshell. But for all you said, there was one thing that came through to me if anything else, you love me. And if you’d never said it, or I’d never believed it, I know now without a doubt that it’s the truth.”
By the end of lunch it was, for Jeremy and Marti, like the whole morning had happened a hundred years before. They had somehow skipped from the cold and cruel aspects of humanity to the warm and wonderfully mysterious delirium of a first love in the span of half an hour.
Their relationship had grown slowly until the past two days. Once it bloomed, things became so fast that it felt almost like the last few days weren’t real. Like a kaleidoscope their relationship had evolved. With each step the bits of colored glass fell into a more beautiful pattern than before.
Now the scene was so dazzlingly brilliant, it seemed that nothing wold ever match it. As if their lives had been put in a bubble, it felt like they were living in their own world. Their feelings were so strong that the small Southern town that Jeremy grew up in was suddenly transformed into a paradise. Yes, there were still problems, but they seemed very distant and minuscule.
The autumnal changes were occurring around them: the coloring of the leaves, the crispness in the breezes, and the atmosphere seemed a perfect one for taking walks and building bonfires at the lakeshore. Jeremy’s mind was filled with hopes and dreams; being a track star, graduating from college, having a family. He couldn’t put his finger on a reason, but he felt a change. There was an air of excitement. It felt like his world was on the brink of a major event. Always there, in the back of his mind was the question, What is coming?
Every day at practice he and Marti trained. He wondered why she kept coming to practice after she’d told him about the move. But it had been track that brought them together, and though neither of them had ever said anything, he felt that both knew how important it was to each other. Marti was as diligent as ever now, and somehow the roles had switched, with her becoming more an encourager than a trainee. She kept his records and ran beside him every step. It was a wonderful feeling as their bodies moved around the track in synchronization, different than before since there was no longer an element of antagonism between them.
On Sunday Jeremy came to a decision. There was something that had been in the back of his mind for several days. It had tugged at his subconscious and now he was going to take action. During the trip, he went over all the important things in his mind. He had to make sure not to leave anything out. He had to be strong and reasonable.
Jeremy pulled up into the drive, swallowed his fear, and went to the door. When
Marti answered his knock, the look in her eyes said she was surprised at his sudden appearance. She smiled and began to speak, but Jeremy interrupted her. “I’m here to see your father,” he said, and noticed how strange his own voice sounded to his ears. An anxious look sprang into her eyes.
“Jeremy, are you okay? Is everything all right?” She looked close to tears and he couldn’t handle that right now.
“Everything is just fine, Tink.” He kissed her cheek. “I need to talk with your daddy,” he said softly. “Please ask him if we can sit on the porch for a little bit.”
“Okay.” It seemed to him that her voice trembled when she uttered that one word. She left him there, shutting the screen between them. He saw her walk down the hall and then turn abruptly into a doorway. He could tell by her gait that she was scared to death. He took a deep breath and waited.
Jeremy heard voices speaking in low tones, and after a few moments a man appeared out of the doorway Marti had used. He was around six-one, had slightly greying brown hair, and eyes that Jeremy recognized as Marti’s. He wore cowboy boots that made a heavy thud on the wooden floor as he walked. As he stepped out onto the porch, Jeremy thrust his hand towards him. He was met with a rather firm grasp. “I’m Jeremy Garland, sir,” Jeremy said as he tried to recall if Marti had ever mentioned her father’s rank.
“Ben Collins. Nice to meet you Jeremy. I’ve heard a great deal about you.” Jeremy began to wonder if that was good or bad. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
Jeremy cleared his throat. “Well sir, Marti and I have become good friends. We run track together nearly every afternoon. I think that we know each other pretty well. A few days ago I noticed that something was bothering her. She said that you were moving this Saturday.”
“That’s right. I’m being stationed in Pennsylvania.”
There was a pause. “Sir,” Jeremy began, “have you ever asked Marti how she feels about leaving?”
“No,” said her father, “but she would tell me if she didn’t want to go.”
“I don’t think so, sir. She doesn’t want to disappoint you. This is her last year in school, and she’s been here two years. I think that she would like to graduate here. If she transfers now, she may not have the right credits to graduate from another school. She won’t be able to compete in the state track meet that she’s been training for all year.
“Moving is a big change. It would be especially hard her senior year. She has roots here now. This is her home more than anywhere else has been in a while, I think.” Jeremy paused. In all this time her father hadn’t said a word. It was time to present his closing argument. “All I’m asking is for you to give her the choice. She would be going to college next year, and she could finish high school where she was most comfortable. She tells me she has family she can stay with. Please sir, give her the choice, let her decide.” Jeremy looked at him. His face seemed made of granite. It was unmoved and unreadable.
There was an awkward silence that ate at Jeremy’s insides. He felt like a condemned criminal waiting for his sentence. “She knew that we would move sooner or later. I know that this kind of life hasn’t been easy for her. It hasn’t been easy for any of us. I don’t like the thought of uprooting her in her senior year, but I’m not fond of leaving my only child here when I go to Pennsylvania either. I’m not promising you anything, but I will think about what you’ve said.”
Sensing that this was the end of the conversation, Jeremy stood up and offered his hand. “Thanks for listening, sir.”
“Thank you for being Marti’s friend.” As her father turned and went back into the house, Jeremy wondered why this was the first occasion he’d had to meet Mr. Collins. As many times in the last week as he had come to pick Marti up, he expected that the man would want to investigate who was taking up all of his daughter’s time. It must have been Marti’s doing. He smiled a bit at the thought. It was almost like a quirk of the lip when someone is trying to keep a straight face, but finds themselves in the middle of a hilarious situation. Yes, the thought that Marti would want to protect him after two years of taking shots at him was amusing.
Jeremy didn’t want to leave without seeing Marti, but he was sure that she would want to know why he was talking to her father. He’d already made up his mind not to tell her; one, because he didn’t want her to get angry with him for interfering, and two, because he didn’t want to cause a rift between her and her father. And he couldn’t lie to her and risk losing her trust. It was too hard to gain to be thrown away so easily. It wold be easier just to leave without seeing her. He turned to step off the porch, having weighted the options in his mind.
Suddenly he found himself unable to move. A second before he put his foot on the step, her wounded expression popped into his mind. Then he knew he wasn’t leaving without seeing her smile.
Somewhat uncomfortably, Jeremy loitered on the porch. He waited for what felt like centuries before he heard footsteps and looked up from his in-depth study of the grain of the wood to find Marti coming in his direction. She was hurrying toward him with considerable speed, and so Jeremy had but a few precious seconds to analyze the situation. She seemed anxious or, he hoped not, annoyed. Her eyes had a concentrated glow that was neither that of love or mischief, rather of an indefinable origin that looked suspiciously like anger; and he knew from experience that the flaming tendrils atop her head were an accurate warning of the nature that was contained in the deceptively demure body of a porcelain doll. There was nothing for him to do except hold his ground in the face of oncoming, and rather explosive, danger.
She burst out of the screen door and stopped short a few inches from him. He could feel the anger radiate from her. There was little he could do and so he steadied himself for the storm. “Jeremy,” she began in a calm, but forced tone. He meant to let her say her peace before he tried to justify any action. “Jeremy,” she repeated as if the name was a new word she had managed to wrap her tongue around.
Again there was a break in the conversation, probably used to calm herself a bit before her wrath was released. It was then that Jeremy decided to interject. “Look Marti, I was just doing what I promised you. I asked your father to consider letting you stay here. On the off chance that you would want to stay here of course. But why would you want to stay here when you can pack up and move to Pennsylvania? It’s only where you spent two years of your life. It isn’t like you have any ties here.” Jeremy stopped, hearing the pain and bitterness of his words. He didn’t bother to look at her face. He knew just the expression it would hold. He knew that just as he also knew that these past few days, as wonderful as they were, were gone now and all that was left of them was the feeling inside him that his heart had been ripped out.
Jeremy knew that it was the end, and yet the thought was so sickening that he couldn’t face it. Maybe it was all a dream and he’d wake up and be rid of the dull ache that consumed him. As he stepped silently off the porch, Jeremy didn’t have the heart to ask for his ring.
Jeremy lay restless and cold in the darkness. He gave up sleeping after the first hour. Usually he thought best when running, but tonight his mind seemed oblivious that it was night and thereby time for sleep. How was it that after only four days, the absence of Marti was maddening? But then a voice from deep within corrected his figure. If he was truthful with himself, Jeremy knew that she had been a fixture, albeit an unwanted one sometimes, in his life for almost two years. And then he still questioned, Why do I miss her so keenly right now? They weren’t in the habit of keeping midnight trysts. It would stand to reason however, if he was plagued by the past during the period when they normally practiced.
After a time, Jeremy began to see the rashness of his actions. He had jumped very quickly to conclusions that could very well be wrong. What if she hadn’t been angry with him at all? Come to think of it, the only words she’d even had time to pronounce were his name, and that was repeated almost uncertainly. It was almost as if she was unsure of her feelings on the matter. Maybe the haste he mistook for anger was only to prevent his departure before they had a chance to discuss the situation. Maybe the fury in her eyes was not aimed in his direction, or even fury at all. Maybe it was excitement. There were too many unknowns, too many variables. It was like one of those dreaded trigonometric equations with three letters, x, y, and z for which you had to solve.
Jeremy regretted every last word he’d said to her on that porch, but he had not come up with a way to amend his mistakes. He knew what a fool he was and he wanted a way to redeem himself. He had known the day was coming when Marti would leave, at least his head knew. Somehow or other the knowledge had gotten lost en route to his heart. So he’d told himself that she wasn’t really going to move, the thought was just inconceivable. Surely something would happen to keep it from coming to pass.
Now she was gone from his life, though her estrangement was not caused by physical miles. His actions had put a barrier between them and the distance, only placed there a few short hours ago, was devastating. How, how could he correct the grievous error on his part? How could he ever restore the light her eyes had held for him? But the most pressing of all questions was, How am I going to live without her?
It was almost like asking a flower how it would survive without the sun. She was the sun of his solar system. How could she have become that important? All of these things he could not answer, but fell asleep knowing the gravitational pull that love could have.
Jeremy went to school the next day, fully intent on apologizing to the point of embarrassment if that’s what it took. He soon discovered that she wasn’t there. He’d have to wait for the next day to absolve himself in her sight. But as the days wore on, it became clear that she didn’t intend to give him the chance.
She never passed him in the hall and seemed to disappear at the end of track. He was tempted to call her house but knew that there would be no answer. The days seemed to drag as slowly as the earth’s revolution about the sun. He felt lost in loneliness compared to the preceding days. Jeremy wanted so much to stop the world and make it take him back to the day he lost Marti. . . But that was impossible.
Time passed so slowly that when Jeremy awoke on Saturday, he felt like a month had gone by since he made his plea. He knew that he must do something before she left. He frantically gathered his thoughts and composed them into an apology. After five days of separation, Jeremy knew he couldn’t live with himself if she left angry.
He was so busy. This was his last chance and everything must be perfect. Jeremy thought back over all of their conversations and hoped to find some kind of clue. He needed everything to be just right.
Jeremy went over every word he was going to say until it sounded just the way he wanted it to, without any mistakes. Now he was ready. He drove his truck toward her house, hoping and praying that she would let him in. He pulled up in the drive and approached the porch cautiously. His insides trembled, but the hand that knocked on the screen facing was steady. Please, please let me in, he thought, seeing his angry fairy leaving him to stand there, forever separated from her by the fine wire of the door.
And it was she who came at his knock. It was she whose face ripped his heart in two with its swollen eyes and gray streaks of mascara. Jeremy’s mouth felt parched as he nervously passed his tongue over his lips and cleared his throat. “Hey, Marti,” he almost whispered as he struggled with the impulse to stare at his feet.
Her lips parted slowly and deliberately, “Jeremy.” It was clear that was all he was going to get.
“Marti, I can’t do this. I can’t let you go away today without making things right. I know that I’m about the last person you want to see right now. I don’t blame you, I flew off the handle at you and there’s no excuse for it. You deserve better. I just came to say I’m sorry. So sorry. I just had to tell you before you left.”
Jeremy said it all looking her squarely in the eye and when he was done, he began to step off the porch. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to face her. Tears tried to stream down her cheeks as her brown eyes peered into his blue ones. “I only wanted to say one thing that night: thank you. Did you know that Daddy said I could stay if I wanted? He said that you must have cared a lot about me to have asked him that. I thought you did too, Jeremy. It really hurt when you thought I didn’t have feelings for you. I loved you Jeremy. I don’t know how many times I said so.” Loved, thought Jeremy, already it has become past tense.
Her tremulous voice had stopped vocalizing. It was his turn. “I know now how stupid I was. I love you Marti. And in the past few days I realized just how much. I’ve been so lonely and I know that it will only get worse with your move. Please forgive me.” He saw her face soften.
“Yes,” was all she had time to utter before the tears that had been threatening spilled out, and though she tried to regain her composure, Jeremy was there wrapping his arms around her.
“It’s all right. I promise I’ll never do that again. Shh, it’s okay,” he whispered to the head on his shoulder. Then she was hugging him to her as if she was afraid to let go. It felt like years that he stood there holding her, years he was glad to spend. He ventured to kiss her hair, auburn shining golden in the sunlight from the edge of the porch. She stopped crying and looked up at him. When she did, he asked, “Can we start over?” The pause before her answer had him holding his breath.
“Mm-hm,” she nodded her head.
“Martina Collins, I love you.”
“I love you too, Jeremy Garland, but what happened to Tink?” He smiled and put his hand along her jaw, his thumb resting in her dimple.
“I love you Tink,” he whispered. First he kissed the tip of her nose and, seeing the blush rise in her cheeks, dipped to kiss her lips. “Come on,” he said and took her hand. “Let’s go to the lake.”
“Why Jer?” she inquired.
“Because, it’s a surprise.”
“All right, but I can’t stay too long. We’ll be . . . ”
“Shh! Don’t say it.” He couldn’t bear to hear the word “move” come out of her mouth. It would make the whole concept so concrete, so definite.
Together they stepped off the porch, once again their hands linked, connecting the two souls after the cord that bound them had been severed. Jeremy let go of her hand only after he had opened her door and helped her into the truck, and felt a tinge of pain as he did so. Soon he would have to let her go for quite a long period, but he pushed the thought out of his mind. Knowing that he had such little time left made him want to relish every moment, to know each one by heart. He had no desire to waste it dwelling on things he could not change.
The drive to the lake was silent, the kind of silence you can share with a person that you know, inside and out. This is reserved for those who are truly comfortable with one another, who don’t need words— sometimes called kindred spirits. Jeremy was content to hold Marti’s hand, knowing the kind of magic she worked on him. He hoped he could look back on this memory and feel just the way he felt now: warm and happy. Unspeakable joy was pouring from his heart that seemed to make it too large for his chest.
He pulled up to the beach and they both slid out of the driver’s side door. Though it was fall and the wind had her auburn tendrils whipping about her face, Jeremy slipped off her socks and shoes. He could tell by her face that she couldn’t guess what he was going to do next. It gave him a spark of delight to see her surprise. He shucked his shoes and socks and rolled up his jeans. In one sweeping motion he picked her up and carried her, bare feet dangling over his arm, to the edge of the shore. Jeremy stood where the rippling azure waves kiss the soft sandy dunes and sat her there, watching the water lap playfully at her ankles. And when he saw the way her eyes peered into his, he knew the time was right.
“Martina, I love you. If you’d asked me only a month ago, my answer may have been different. It’s not a weak emotion, love. It’s as powerful as the water that shaped this land. Turbulent and deadly in a storm or beautiful and amazing on a placid day. It’s as old as the sea and as strong as the waves . . . and unstoppable. I won’t promise you the moon because it wouldn’t be enough. I promise I’ll never forget you, I’ll keep our time together in my heart.”
There were tears in her eyes as he drew out a small box and handed it to her.
Shaking hands fumbled nervously at the paper. He heard her breath catch as she lifted the lid and found a silver heart-shaped locket with a filagree keyhole in the center. “You have my heart,” he said. “You’ve had it since the day you interrupted my practice with the words, ‘Hey Jer.’” He gathered her ruddy curls in one hand and fastened the necklace for her trembling fingers. He kissed the dark mole on the nape of her neck, just above where the clasp now rested.
“I love you too.”
It was hard for Jeremy to believe, looking back now, that their relationship began almost six months ago. And still harder to fathom was the fact that it had been five months since they said goodbye. Letters and phone calls kept them in touch, but he lived for the day when he could hold her in his arms again.
Since she left, his life centered on training for state. He ran constantly and, each time he did so, found his mind occupied by memories of Marti. That’s all he had to sustain him, only memories flavored lightly with bright letters of love and devotion and one or two conversations in which her deep silky voice came to his ears from several states away.
His friends knew that her leaving had left a deep scar in his heart. They knew by the way he almost winced at the mention of her name. They knew by the way he kept to himself at school and focused even harder on his training. At least that’s what Jeremy hoped. This was too deep a subject to air, it hit too close to home for him to talk about to anyone. But they had sense enough to know not to bring it up to him and he was grateful to them for that. If his parents noticed a change they didn’t mention anything either, so Jeremy was left with his own thoughts.
But now he didn’t know what he had to look forward to. In a little over half an hour the three-mile would begin. After it was over there would be nothing left. Nothing for Jeremy to use to fill the gaping hole in both his time and his heart.
He was surveying the track and checking out the competition. He tried to clear his mind and focus on his strategy. Strategy could make the difference in a race. Speed was important, but so was knowing when to use it. Anybody could start a race using their full force, but the odds were they’d run out of steam pretty fast. The same goes with what you eat before the big race. Never eat M & Ms just before a race. The sugar in chocolate gives you a burst of energy but uses up your strength very quickly.
All these bits of wisdom which Jeremy now recalled were gained by experience. And he had cause to wonder exactly why his mind chose this particular time to recall them. They were good advice that a trainer could give to someone just beginning to dabble in track, but seasoned athletes like himself had memorized and followed these tips for so long that they had become like second nature, as natural as breathing. He kept them without even realizing now that he did so until a curious girl with big brown eyes asked why he wasn’t eating his usual snack at lunch. So he explained . . . and like so many things they had talked about, the thought brought her back to him.
When they talked there had been a comfortable flow to the conversation. She was always up to hear whatever he had to say, that was after she got over pretending that she hated him. They tried to debate things from different angles, but always wound up being on the same side of the soap box. He was still amazed at how much they had come to have in common. How on Earth do all my thoughts circle back to her? Why does everything come back to her?
Throughout the course of one typical day in the post-Marti phase of Jeremy’s life, he tried his best not to search for reasons to think of her, but several times a day the thought would surface unbidden. Or he would drive by the restaurant on his way to do an errand and suddenly he was back at their first date, nervous as a cat and struck by her beauty. Either way, he could not go one day without Marti coming into his mind in one form or another. Sometimes that was very sad, and Jeremy wished that he could curl up in the darkness of his bedroom and sleep until she came back. But on those days that a letter came with a Pennsylvania postmark Jeremy was almost hanging from the ceiling. He read them over twice before he even put them down. As he sat (or stood, depending on his position when he found the envelope) and stared at the series of thick looping swirls that he had come to recognize without looking at the return-address, he could almost see her sitting down to write it.
She would be sitting Indian-style on her bed, with her red toe nails shining. As she put pen to paper, she would absently blow the coiling strand that had an annoying habit of falling over her eyes, out of her face periodically. She would scribble furiously, as fast as the ink could flow, then pause after finishing her thought and bite the side of her lip as she waited for the next one to come. And then her brown eyes would sparkle as inspiration hit.
He saw her writing the close which was “from your fairy with love, Marti.” He imagined her making the curving staff-like base of her “M” and the two bends that followed it. The pen shaped the ovate “a,” and then formed the sharp peak of the “r.” Next came the tall straight line of the “t” and the shorter, more bent stem of the last letter. In one quick motion, her hand crossed the “t” and dotted her “i” with a heart. As if it was an afterthought, there is a thin black scratch underscoring her name which appeared on the first and continued to the latest of her letters. Though it seemed that she was trying to reaffirm that she was his Marti, the Tink he loved, Jeremy did not need it. Just the tone and the careful way she formed her characters showed him her love.
Jeremy wrote her too, most often his epistles were two or three pages long. He would include news in the school and of his latest race. He’d mention the weather and the scenery, which all seemed a dull gray without her there. He made sure to answer all of her questions, and in return asked enough of his own for an inquiry. He couldn’t help it. He wanted to know everything about the life she lived up North, he wanted enough details so that when he rose in the morning he could imagine her entire daily routine as he went through his own. He included the fact that he was lonesome without her magical smile to keep him company, but was careful not to sound as miserable as he sometimes got.
When his senior pictures came in, she got a three by five of him holding his cap and one of him in a suit and tie. He asked her to send him some of hers when they came in. Three weeks later Jeremy opened the small manilla envelope wondering what it contained and why its contents couldn’t have been sent with the accompanying letter. Lined with plastic bubble wrap to keep them safe, the envelope, when tilted, produced three photographs.
The first one on the stack, which had slid out onto the counter in a fan-shape, was a glossy black and white that made her look like an actress from old Hollywood. Her hair was combed over to the side with part of it hanging down in her face and covering one eye. Her face, tilted downwards, showed an alluring expression from the eye that stared directly into the camera and the mouth that curved in a softly mysterious smile. And against the sable of her dress was an alabaster heart that hung from her neck. The second picture was in color, one of those “mug shots” that are taken for the yearbook. She had on a sleeveless dress that was powder blue and had royal blue flowers on it. It was something light and cool, and he could see her wearing it to the lake. Her hair was done just the way it had been on their first date, pulled up and a curl left spiraling down on each side of her face. He could see her pale complexion, the rusty hues of her hair, and the gentle brown of her eyes. She smiled his favorite way, revealing a dimple at the corner of her crimson lips. This was the Tink he fell in love with. He glanced at it once more before moving to the last one and there, just below the neckline, was the silver locket. The last picture showed Marti in a black gown with the mortarboard cap on her head. The tassel that hung off the front edge of her hat sported foreign colors that Jeremy didn’t like. They seemed to say, “Hey Jeremy, she’s one of us now, she belongs here.” She had a pleasant look that was neither ecstatic nor depressed, but her eyes lacked the sparkle that made them so pretty, they were almost sad-looking. It was that look of homesickness that made it hauntingly beautiful. And again, as in its predecessors, the necklace he had given her was hanging down past the white collar on a background of shining ebony.
Numbly Jeremy found a stool and sat down to stare at the pictures. He lost all track of time as he peered down at the images of Marti, each seeming to reveal a different side of her. The look of her eyes in the last picture broke his heart all over again. It resembled so closely the look that he’d seen as he shut her door and pressed his hand to the window before watching them drive away. When the car began to move, he had taken a small step backwards, staring at the ground for a second and then looking up to see her staring out the back glass with tears gliding down her cheeks. He raised his hand and she pressed hers to the glass as the distance between them increased. He stood there until the car was out of sight and then went to his truck where he sat and tried to figure out how he was ever going to live without her.
He sat there at the bar for an unaccountable period of time, as if mesmerized by the likenesses, gazing into her hypnotic eyes. He was called out of his trance by his mother coming in the door. In haste, he swept up the envelope, its contents and the letter and ascended to his room. Jeremy laid the pictures on his bed and tore open the letter.
I can’t begin to tell you how lonely the whole world seems at times. I feel just like I did before we became friends. I have shut myself off from those around me. I knew that I couldn’t stand it if I had to get attached to someone else only to be forced to leave them behind. So here I sit writing this letter to you, missing the way you made me feel~ warm and happy, content with it all. I miss you every day, every second that I have to myself. I miss your smile, and your voice, the feel of your hand in mine, the warmth of your kiss. I miss our walks on the shore, the daily practices, our arguments. I miss you. I am counting the days until we can see each other. Having those pictures makes getting by a little bit easier. Every night I sit at my window and stare up at the stars, shining from millions of miles away. They remind me of the first time you took me to the lake, when I wished on a falling star that I could stay with you forever. But I, like those stars, am so far away. I look at these pictures as I get ready for bed and wonder what you are doing. Are you staring up at these same silvery specks of light and wishing with all your heart that we were at the lake holding each other? Do you crave the touch of my hand as much as I crave the touch of yours? I hope my pictures will help you wait for me. This way you can see my face whenever you want. You can take them out whenever you get lonely and know that I am missing you as much as you are missing me. I have never taken off your heart since the day you fastened it to my neck. I hold it in my hand now and say a prayer that we will be together soon. I worry that you will let yourself get disheartened since we are apart. Please don’t let it get you discouraged. I love you Jeremy. And I can tell by the sadness in the tone of your latest letters that you are miserable. Have faith that we will be together soon, as I do. Until then we can last. Absence will make us stronger, I know it will. I love you now more than I ever have before.
From your fairy with love,
Jeremy put down the letter with hands that shook, and kicked himself for letting Marti know how upset he was. There had been no need to get her worried over him. She had enough problems of her own without having to deal with his too. At the last, she seemed to be afraid that he couldn’t wait for her and he felt like a cad for it. Jeremy knew there would never be another woman like Martina Collins, and he didn’t plan on letting her get away from him. There was a jolt in his belly when he though how worried she must be. He noticed the way she kept trying to reaffirm her love, like she was fighting with a mortal enemy. Don’t worry Tink, I won’t let anyone come between us.
He came back to himself when he heard a noise, the sound of a screen door slapping the facing. It was a sound that was part of the natural routine in the South. These screens, thin sheets of fine wire cris-crossed to form tiny squares too small for the ever pestilent curse known only too well by the natives of this region. The tiny bloodsucking vampires, mosquitoes, are a plague born of the warm waters of the bayous and swamps and the humidity that hangs in the air during the summer months. He had heard such a sound often enough in his nearly nineteen years to be able to perceive it but not actually be conscious of the noise. But this time it was not only picked up by his ears, but it was also loud enough to rouse him from his dreams. Suddenly Jeremy was not at his home with Marti’s letter in his hand, but sitting on a bench in a stadium awaiting his event. The sound he unconsciously attributed to one so familiar to his ears was not, in fact, a screen door. It was the sound of a pistol, and the signal for the start of another race.
Another race began, and another to wait on before he got his turn. He watched as the runners moved in a pack, their numbers attached to their backs, the corners flapping like shrunken capes. There had not emerged any leaders as of yet, but a few in the front looked promising. Could he attain the goal he had chased after for the past four years? Could he accomplish the dream he trained for daily, the dream that, in a clever twist of fate, had led him to Marti? He had fallen in love with her only to be ripped from her so violently that after five months he still had not been able to recover from it, was that—the bitter-sweetness of it, which was reminiscent of dark chocolate, wonderfully satisfying as it meets the tongue and then leaving a harsh aftertaste—done in vain? It had all come down to this. Here was his defining moment. Could he see himself ahead of the pack, crossing the line victorious? Yes, he thought, I can.
Jeremy took his place on the starting blocks. He had just finished warming up and was ready to begin. He watched as the other runners readied themselves and stepped into their own lanes. He waited tensely for the crack of the pistol, his body ready to rush forward in an instant. Twelve laps, just twelve laps and a handful of guys stood in the way. He couldn’t count how many times he’d seen this race play in his mind. This was it, what it all came down to, and Jeremy knew he was ready.
He couldn’t have trained any harder for this race if he’d had twenty years to prepare for it. And in this, the zenith of his high school career, he felt nothing but confidence. Sure, while he was waiting he’d gotten a bit jittery, but now that he was actually on the track and ready for the blast all his insecurities vanished.
There was a moment of hesitation and then the shot had sounded. Jeremy was off and felt his feet pounding against the asphalt in a familiar pattern. He was moving smoothly and felt the wind breeze past his skin as he cut into it with his body. Nothing was more comfortable than this feeling, like he could soar in the clouds if he so wished. He kept his pace even and his stride at a comfortable length. He had no worries as his cleats gripped the pavement and gave him traction.
Lap after lap Jeremy ran, from out in the front he emerged, leaving the rest behind him. But he was not the only one to break away from the mass. There was another who was vying for the lead. They were neck and neck and had been for some time. And Jeremy knew that he would not shake this opponent as easily as he had others.
Jeremy kept moving, not speeding or slowing, just moving at a steady pace. He inhaled and exhaled and his feet touched the ground hundreds of times per second it seemed. He kept going and going, pushing himself farther and farther. If he could just keep a steady pace until the last lap. It seemed to take an eternity, but was there and gone in just moments. He had planned and strategized and trained for this race. He was confident that he couldn’t have been more ready. He pushed and pushed and got to the last lap, the home stretch. He called up all the strength he had kept in reserve and forced himself the final few feet. He crossed the finish line and held his breath while he waited to hear his time.
He felt his insides grow ten times the capacity of his body and forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat. The moment that he waited for the announcer’s voice to come over the loudspeaker seemed to take an eon. In that brief span, he saw his dreams rise before him, full of luster and shining brightly. He was a hero; he had accomplished something never before touched by his predecessors. The name “Jeremy Garland” might be forgotten by the people at this meet. It could slip from their memories as they journeyed home on the long stretch of road, and if he later became famous he doubted that the mention of his name would evoke memories of this warm spring day and the cool breeze that seemed wrapped in it. Yet he knew that some boy just like him would make track his forte and share the same dreams and goal he had. He knew that one day there would be someone who would stare down at his name and time and think, “I can beat that. I can make my mark in history just like he did.” Jeremy knew that for sure and certain because he had stared at one name and a time that went with it and known that it was within his power to beat it. He knew that breaking a state track record didn’t mean wealth or acclaim. To him it meant much more. It meant that he could succeed at whatever he put his mind to. It meant that dreaming wasn’t a foolish pastime, it was worthy and worthwhile to have dreams and be able to make them come true by your own power. It meant that the future was in your own hands.
All these things went through his mind in the instant before the voice announced his time. And then Jeremy heard the words echo across the stadium, “First place, Jeremy Garland; sixteen, sixteen.” His heart plunged in his chest. He stood there blinking, as if in a dream. The words “sixteen, sixteen” resounded over and over in his ears. The sound of his dream shattering like glass; yes sixteen, sixteen was a time that was good enough to win, but it was not nearly enough to break the record.
For a moment or two he was frozen in place as the realization hit him in full force. Four years of hard work and training had been for nothing. He found his breaths coming rapid and uneven and his head began to pound as blood beat furiously in his brain. His eyes saw nothing, nor did his ears pick up any of the sounds around him. His hands hung limply by his side as if he was too weak to raise them. His feet were walking slowly in a direction he didn’t know. He felt someone grab his hand and shake it. Then thought vaguely that someone was putting the medal around his neck. There must have been pictures, there always were photographers around at state. But try as he might he could never remember the click of shutters or bulbs flashing. All he would recall was numbness, the bleak and weary lack of feeling. Failure.
Failure, that was his first coherent thought. I am a failure. And with that self-revelation he hung his head and scraped the toes of his shoes against the pavement. Fate was cold and heartless. It handed him the world and a chance to conquer it; and when he could not, it savagely took away everything that was important. He had no goal any longer, he had not the girl his heart ached for, and for the first time in his life Jeremy felt lost.
He looked up and saw his parents coming toward him. They were beaming with pride. Jeremy managed a small smile. He knew he should be happy with his win, but somehow it paled in comparison to the ultimate goal he had chased after and watched slip through his fingers. His father was patting him on the back and offering congratulations. His mother was watching him with shining eyes that were filled with tears. But nothing penetrated the icy shield that covered his mind. He was frozen and empty.
“Jeremy,” his father was saying as he forced himself to listen. What caused him to rise from the fog that surrounded his head he did not know. Maybe it was the tone of voice, or the way his father’s eyes had stared into his and latched onto his gaze, or neither. Something caught his attention though, and he was suddenly acutely aware of his surroundings. “Jeremy, I think there’s someone who wants a word with you.” Immediately he scanned the faces of the people around him, there was no familiar image there.
“I’ll talk to them later, okay Dad?”
“I don’t know how long they’ll be able to wait, son.” For a second Jeremy thought he heard his father say “she’ll,” but to think of it would be too self-destructive. He shook his head to clear it.
“Who is it Dad?” At that his father’s eyes softened and he offered a conspiratorial smile. His big hands covered Jeremy’s shoulders and turned him around.
In the stadium seats above him, Jeremy could see a slender girl making her way to the ground. As she stepped down each row she swung her hips in a slow, rhythmic way, emphasizing the curvaceous shape of her body. He felt the ice melt from his soul and a warmth spread all over his body. She got to the railing and leaned over, raising the tortoiseshell sunglasses from her eyes. She took them off and chewed on the end of an earpiece. They made eye contact now, but he had seen her looking at him as he watched her make her way towards him. She winked a deep brown eye, and gave him his favorite dimpled smile. “I love you,” her ruby lips mouthed and she blew him a kiss. This was getting to be too much for him. He raised his hand and “caught” it as he formed the same words silently to her.
He shot her a look that said, “Get down here!” As if she was touched with a cattle prod, she jerked her body into motion and flew down the steps and over the last few feet that separated them. In less than a second he was holding her in his arms and planting kisses all over her face.
“Well, hello to you too, Jer,” she giggled.
“Hello Tink,” he said between kisses. “I missed you.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” Her sarcastic tone was soft and playful, and he grinned at it as he finally found her lips with his.
A thousand questions swirled in his head. Is this real? Is she really standing here in my arms? Is it possible that she’s gotten even more beautiful? But he pushed all of them away except one, which he vocalized. He stepped back and held her at arm’s length so he could get a good look at her. After coming to the conclusion that she had gotten prettier in the last four months he questioned, “How did you do it, Marti?”
“Do what?” She blinked demurely.
“Get here and be even more gorgeous than before?”
“Pixie dust.” He shook his head and took hold of her chin, covering her dimple with his thumb. He pulled her mouth to his and their lips touched again.
“No, really, how did you get here?”
“Daddy’s wrapped around my baby finger now. He’s so glad that I decided to go with him. But what was that gloomy look on your face just before your dad showed me to you?” She peered into his face as if trying to read the answer from his eyes. “Was it because you didn’t break the record, Jer?”
He sighed and shook his head, she really knew him. “How’d you guess,” he began dryly. “I can’t believe that I wasted four years of my life on something that I couldn’t even accomplish.”
“At least you won the race.”
“I’ve won lots of races, Marti. It’s not that I think I’m this unstoppable undefeated champion, because I know that I could have lost that race just as easily as I won it. But winning races is something I’ve done so many times that I feel like I need a bigger goal to shoot for.”
“You’ve never placed first at State before have you?”
“Well then you’ve accomplished something even if it isn’t exactly what you were hoping for. It’s like that old saying, ‘Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars.’ Jeremy you won the race, you’re the fastest runner in the whole state. You did something that hundreds of other guys wanted to do but couldn’t.”
“I know that, but it isn’t a big enough accomplishment. Next year someone else will be the best runner in the state, and the next, and the next. I just wanted to be able to say that I had done something no one else had ever done. Like Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, I wanted to be the one who was the fastest person to have ever run the three-mile. Others before me have won first place and been the fastest in the state, but I wanted to make a mark, change history.” He broke off, afraid that she didn’t understand what he meant. He was positive that he’d come off like some cocky, ungrateful jerk. Jeremy stared at the ground, so he wouldn’t have to see the revulsion in her eyes.
Her slender finger reached his chin and curled around it. She pulled his face up to hers and looked into his eyes. There was no loathing in her expression, just a bright twinkle. She smiled softly and kissed him. He wondered if this was really happening or if he was in a severe state of shock. Yes, that must be it. I’m in shock and Marti isn’t really standing here kissing me, it’s all just a hallucination. In reality, I’m probably unconscious in a hospital. He felt her warm hands take his.
“Don’t you see,” she said with a wry grin. “You’ve already done what no one else has ever done before.” His eyes widened with disbelief. “And it was so long ago. Jeremy, you did what nobody had ever done when you took time to see the real me. You didn’t let me shut you out, or let yourself be fooled by the false face I wore. You never accepted that Martina Collins as the genuine article. And even when I tried to stop you, you kept on trying until you got past all the layers. You were my first real friend. You let me lean on you when I needed a shoulder; you listened when I needed an ear. You had faith in me. And I fell in love with you for all those things and hundreds more.
“You may not be rich or famous and you know that. That’s not what matters to you. But you know life is a gift and you want to make it count. You want your life to make a difference. But you made a better, more permanent difference than you ever could have if you’d broken the state record. Even if you had, someone would come along after you and break your record. And then someone would come after them and break theirs. You would have made history for only a small amount of time, and then your name would be lost among your predecessors and those who came after you, forgotten and faceless. Part of a line of them, but not like this. Your mark will last forever. Do you know why? It will last as long as I have breath and as long as there are people who know my story, Jeremy. The mark you made was in my heart.”