“Two more laps! Two more laps, got it?” the angry Russian woman in the purple velvet tracksuit yelled.
“Yes coach!” we respond in unison.
My breath puffed in front of me in the cool February air. Why does the track training start so early this year? Last year it didn’t start until March!
I spotted a dark brown ponytail whipping back and forth a few paces ahead of me, and brushing a stray red lock behind my ear, I sped my gait to catch up to her.
“Hey Gi,” I called out, my voice breathy from the last few hours of running and practicing my long jump. “Got the time?”
Gi- Gretchen- had been my friend since grade school. She gasped at my sudden appearance, autumn leaf-brown eyes widening in surprise. She put a tanned hand to her chest in a gesture of shock.
“Oh, um, I’m sorry Kyla, you surprised me. Umm,” she glanced at the athletic watch on her left wrist. “5:14.”
Shoot. “Mother-” I began, eyebrows furrowing in frustration.
“Oh no, are you late for cheer?” she interrupted before I could get too profane. Her face was glazed with concern.
“Yeah, we were supposed to be on the basketball court at five. I gotta run, Coach Adams is gonna be pissed.” I dragged out the last word in irritation. “Can you tell-”
“Yes. Hurry, before she sees.”
“Thank, darling.” I smiled in relief as I veered to the right, towards the locker room.
I waved my farewell to Gi and ran into the lockers. I didn’t waste time changing; I grabbed my bag and sprinted out of the field house to the main school building.
Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot-
I stopped and cringed. I slowed my sprint to a halt beside my cheer coach.
“Why aren’t you on the court stretching?” Her eyes twitched as she glowered at me.
I resisted rolling my eyes at her. Glad to see she’s her typical, lovely self. “Sorry Coach Adams. I was at track. I was running, and then I was running late.” I pasted a fake smile on my lips.
“Clearly. Change, then get on the court. Five minutes.”
Without another word, she turned swiftly, snapping her blonde hair in my direction. Grumbling my protest, I trudged my bag to the gym locker room, threw on my skirt and bow- I had preemptively worn my sneakers and cheer top under my running jacket- and walked onto the court for stretches.
As I made my way to my spot in formation, I locked eyes with Missy.
I met Missy in the fourth grade when she was adopted from South Korea, a year after I had moved from Ireland. Both being fairly new to the United States, we bonded immediately. We met Gi a few years later. She was born in the United States, but given her mixed German/Iraqi background, she sported a slight accent as well, which drew us to one another. The three of us were inseparable ever since.
“Kyla, you’re late.” she stated flatly, but her eyes betrayed her amusement. Her accent had waned since childhood, but was still prevalent. Not that mine was any better; I still sounded like I had hopped off a boat from the motherland not two days prior. “Was coach pissed as hell?”
I snorted as I sat down beside her. We kept our voices low. “Pissed to hell and back, Missy. To hell and back.”
Missy smirked. She never ran track, but she was familiar with the season and came to support Gi, Harold and I- Harold was another friend of ours that ran track. She warned Adams I’d be late, no doubt. Track never started this early in my two prior years of high school, and this year the basketball team went to state, for the first time in several years.
So basically, I was screwed on all sides.
“I did tell Adams you’d be late, since track season is starting.” she informed me. Thought so. What a champ.
“Not all heroes wear capes. Thanks dear. Didn’t save me from a wicked tongue-lashing from the she-devil, though,” I whispered, and we giggled as said she-devil approached.
“McKinley, this is time for stretches, not socializing,” coach snapped at me.
“Apologies, Becky dear. I’m a bit stretched out from the last three hours of running and leaping I did, so pardon me if I’m not working my hamstring as hard as usual.” I pasted the same fake smile that drove Adams insane.
Becky was Coach Adams’ first name, and since she’s only a few years removed from high school herself, it drove her insane when we addressed her as such. She demanded respect, but did jack-squat in the direction of earning it. For some reason, the rest of the squad treated her like she was a descendant of a cheer goddess. I didn’t see it.
Her eyes narrowed to slits and clenched her jaw. “Watch yourself, McKinley.”
My smile didn’t move an inch as I turned away from her to Missy, who stifled laughter. Oho, was this going to be an exhausting evening.
*** *** *** *** *** ***
The team won, which meant a big sloppy party afterwards. And big sloppy parties meant playing mom to a cheer squad that got big sloppy drunk. I refused the drinks as they were offered to me. Sure, I needed to be there for the rest of the girls, as the future choice for varsity captain; but honestly, drinking at home with Pa was much more fun than chugging cheap beer with some gangly basketball players who were more than willing to make out with anyone available once they got past one drink.
Besides, Pa specifically told me he let me drink with him so that I wouldn’t want to do it in a place like this and get hurt. I thought it a sweet gesture, like I find most of the things he does, and tried to pay heed to his request.
Once I had made sure everyone was safe and on their way home with nobody tipsy behind the wheel, I flashed a text to Pa, who had promised to stay up for me.
SQUAD’S ON THEIR WAY HOME. I’LL BE THERE SOON.
I put the phone back in my pocket. I had changed back into the jeans and sweater I had worn to school that day after the game, so my arms and legs weren’t entirely frozen in the chilly late-winter air.
I looked behind me at the jaunty atmosphere the party gave off. Through the windows I saw banter and drinking, a television flickering with the lights of some movie or video game the boys were crowded around, and lots and lots of food everywhere.
I chuckled. I doubted I’d ever had more than a greeting with any of these guys outside of a school assignment, or something similarly contrived. Not that I wanted to, they were a bunch of assholes, just like my cheer squad- besides Missy, of course.
Maybe that’s why they get along, I mused, turning to walk to my car. I looked at the time on my phone. My smile swiftly turned to a frustrated frown.
It’s 1:48 am, and I have work at 8 am tomorrow. Just perfect.
I had plenty of late nights like this, but I scheduled a long day this weekend to make up working less earlier in the winter cheer season. I hadn’t actually expected the team to be decent this year, let alone state champs.
I resigned to my fate of a restless night and a struggle in the morning, unlocking my car and stepping in.
The first few minutes out of the neighborhood wasn’t bad. In fact, with the radio turned low and a steady speed, I felt less exhausted and more relaxed. I had gotten my license a little over a year prior, so by now I could tune out and find my way back home without much fuss.
I reached the stretch of woods that connected my part of town to the rest. The surroundings were eerie quiet as I drove. As I passed the expanse of pine trees, my head began to ache. I reached into the glove compartment and rifled my hand around, trying to find my stash of acetaminophen while keeping my eyes on the road.
Dammit. I swore as I shook the bottle, finding it empty. My head throbbed more severely and more frequently.
My chest tightened, my breathing became labored and soon I was gasping for air. My head felt like it was going to split from the pressure.
I screamed in pain. In a sudden burst, my eyes felt like they were blinded from a bright light and my head felt like it was being torn apart. My head slammed onto the steering wheel as I felt the car swerve.
I felt the car spin out, but in my pain it felt far away. I tried to lift my head from the wheel as I felt the car stop moving, but my head felt like it was made of lead. My eyelids flickered open, but something bright obstructed my sight and burned my eyes, so I squeezed them shut once again. I slipped in and out of consciousness as I waited for the pain to subside.
It felt like ages that I was left in that half-dead half-dazed state. Then, I lifted my head and opened my eyes, feeling as if the strange incident had never happened.
I sat there for a few moments, staring blankly out into the woods. My car was facing directly where it started. I checked the dashboard to make sure I hadn’t done a 180.
Still facing east. I sat in a stunned silence, unable to process anything. Did I even spin out? Am I just insane?
Deciding it was better to just get home, I gingerly pressed the gas pedal, sighing a bit as the car rolled forward.
*** *** *** *** *** ***
After another ten minutes of driving in utter silence, having turned the radio off for my nerves, I pulled into my driveway. Exiting the car, I approached the small cottage. I stepped in through the creaky oak door, locking it behind me.
“Pa?” I called out softly. “I’m home.”
I listened, but there wasn’t a response. I waited a moment and pinned a soft snore coming from my left.
Walking into the living area, I found my father sprawled on the couch, plaid quilt sliding off onto the floor.
No wonder he didn’t text back, I thought, amused. I tiptoed up to him, fixing the quilt, intending on tiptoeing away quietly.
“Oh, Kyla dear, yer back?” he asked through a yawn. I turned back to him, and smiled. His accent was very thick, since he never tried to cover it up at home. Speaking to him at home brought our roots out in me, just as speaking to me at home did to him.
“Yeah, Pa. I just got back from the party. Had an odd drive, though.” I spoke in a quiet, quick pace.
“Oh yeah? What happened?” he yawned again, sitting up.
“Nothing really, had a headache, but then it went away suddenly.” I said, waving away anything that could worry. He worked too hard, I didn’t want him to worry about my medical condition. As I spoke, my dad’s eyes woke up, pale blue and alert with sudden concerned.
He and I didn’t look much alike, him with black hair and blue eyes, and me with red hair and light green eyes. He told me I resembled my mother, but I had very foggy memories at best, since she died when I was in the third grade. Shortly after, my Pa and I moved to the United States.
“You’re alright though?” He asked.
“I’m fine, Pa. It wasn’t anything at all. Just get yourself to bed, you have to work in the morning.” I chided gently. “Good night, Pa.”
He looked at me suspiciously. “If you say so, darling. I’ll see you in the morn.”
I pecked his cheek and turned away, walking towards the stairs.
When I reached my room, I closed my door, flopped on my bed and stared at the ceiling.
I left my bag in the car, I sighed.
I was too exhausted to change my clothes, let alone process the events of the day. As I stared at the light ivory ceiling in the low light, my eyes slowly shut as I drifted to a restless sleep.