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Teens & Young Adult Contemporary Fiction

I’m pushing up Huddleston Road. It’s a hard climb. I’m into my second mile. I push till the toxins build up and it burns. Burns bad, hurts; My body is pouring acid on my muscles. It’s telling me to stop. I ignore it.

It scares me that I like the pain now. I look forward to it. I know the others burn too, but I’m tougher. I like the hills. The hills pays the bills, they say and I always push going down, no free rides. Let’s face it, it’s the only thing I’m good at. I am good at running long and hard. I’ve been on the cross country team since I was eleven. I win. I don’t really care about the team. I run for me, but my placing means the team does well. If I’m not first I swear and throw stuff around, I’m pissed for the week. I don’t have much else to lose. I’ve never been a popular kid.

The boys seem more interested in me these days. The ones who don’t know me anyway. Fit, muscle-toned bodies are in at the moment aren’t they. Hope says I’m beautiful, but she’s as soft as fresh playdough, she thinks everyone is ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’ and ‘kind’ ; because she is, with her sweet ‘love everyone’ smile. I’m not. My hair is a nightmare, rain and sweat will do that. In running gear, I will get eyed by middle aged guys; They make whistle lips. I guess I have ‘good’ legs to look at. Shorts and pale skin. Happy birthday middle aged men who can get off on a fifteen year old’s sweaty legs. Why should I care.

Blackpink sing, “Make ‘em whistle like a missile bomb, bomb”

Funny I have pale legs, my dad’s dad was north African, had to flee from Eritrea. My gran was Scottish, had red hair and anger and was dirt poor. My family doesn’t seem to be on the right side of any lottery. Bad history, bad geography, bad genes. Genes will out they say. Dad’s dead. Mums tired and depressed and has never been good with money.

Huddleston Road. Concentrate on technique, ignore the burning. Push hard with my arms. At the top it levels off and then it’s a slow descent toward Regent’s Park. I’m heading to the Zoo. Mum works in the restaurant on Weekends. Two miles to go. I’ll kick a lap of the sports fields at the top of the park then meet mum at the gate.

Too many people on Camden Road and I hate running on pavements. Makes my shins ache. I have to pass the Co-op. Connor has a Saturday job there. Look down. If I can’t see him, he can’t see me. Stupid, I know. We went to Starbucks. He seemed crushed when I didn’t want cake. Don’t need the fat, don’t need the sugar, there are better carbs.

He didn’t pick up his phone at least, but it got quiet and kill me now embarrassing. I asked something stupid about his sister. He told me about Alysa, seen her in the changing rooms. She has a body like a weightlifter. Nice breasts though. I didn’t tell him that, obviously.

Then it dried up completely. Death by silence.

And for ten solid minutes on the way home I rehearsed him attempting to kiss me. Cos I figured, that’s why he’s here really, isn’t it. He didn’t even try. So, I’m guessing the date scored zero out of ten for him too. He was sweeter than I thought he’d be, but there isn’t likely to be another round.

The Park, soft ground, feels good. Turn up the pace. The trees are turning golden. More leaves on the ground make it slippery, I’m not wearing spikes. I crunch along frightening squirrels into trees.

At the gates I slump, panting hard. Coach gives us thirty seconds of collapse before we support the team. Back to cheering. ‘Good job! Come on Lizzy!’ Slapping teammates on the back as they run in. She has me well trained. Thirty seconds. I grab my rucksack. “Thanks mum.”

“How was your run?”

“Fine, it was a run, the roads haven’t moved, I wasn’t mugged.”

“I was just asking.”

“I know, it was fine. I’m gonna change.”

“I’ve put your water bottle in there, but you need to go to the refill, OK?”

“Bread and water again is it?”

“Sandwiches, tuna, and yes, water. You finished the juice.”

Yea, I know, I know, times is hard.”

“I’m trying Elaine, it’s not easy.”

“God, I was joking, I know you’re trying.” I give her a hard stare cos I know it gets to her.

  ---0---

What’s that game you play as a kid, where if you step on the cracks in the pavement a bear gets you? Next to the running lanes there’s a row of white lines painted close together and we start by stepping between them. Moving fast with rabbit hops between the lines. The bears don’t get me, so next we are running sideways. Then backwards. Then windmilling arms like wild little kids.

Warmed up we start a moderate workout – four by one mile with a ninety second recovery, it’s a good kind of test to see where our fitness is, we’re not looking for speed. It feels easy and that’s good.. I’m trying to be a metronome, hit the target every time, an even pace, hitting the numbers. Coach just shouts numbers and the occasional ‘nice.’

Unusually I’m not leading. Zaib is ahead of me. I watch her wide Arab hips swing and olive calves pushing her along.

I fill up on water, pouring some over my head and jog half a mile. We finish with snappy sprints. I follow the herd and shower. Familiar smell of the changing rooms. Lizzy’s long black hairs getting everywhere to my right. Helen unconcerned by nakedness, the marks of her sports bra still cut into her white skin, jumps around joking with everyone. Heidi, the captain, to my left, not the strongest runner, but popular, kind. They leave me alone, mostly. We've struck a deal. I win, I get left alone. Cross country is based on the first four places. Everyone’s happy when I win.

Helen shouts, “Lizzy, your breasts are really uneven, it’s surprising you don’t run in circles.”

Heidi cuts her off, “That’s enough Helen.”

For some inexplicable reason I say, “Don’t take any notice Lizzy, you have lovely breasts.” It comes out before I think about it and I’m turning red before I’ve even finished. Lizzy smiles to me; mouths a thank you. No one else seems to notice, thank God.

  ---0---

Lizzy’s mum is driving my mum, Lizzy and I to the first meet of the year. Lizzy is jumpy, nervous, but isn’t talking much.

Mum is explaining that she gave up nursing to go back to college, “Priority right now is to get a bit of money in the bank, keep the wolves from the door. You know what it’s like, One thing after another. Like the car.”

They laugh about our dying car. I doubt they know what it’s like. They’re pretty flush. Lizzy’s runners are Saucony peregrines, about the best you can get, expensive and they weren’t a birthday present.. Mine are New Wave, but a hundred and forty quid for a pair means I don’t get them if they aren’t presents. I think it was a stretch even then, last birthday. Mum never said anything, but cheap meals for a few weeks, pasta and stews and cheap breakfast cereals. I like porridge so no big deal and I walk Mrs Hauxwell’s mad dog for a bit of cash for me. It’s enough for energy bars and new spikes. I changed my spikes last weekend, screwed the new ones on tight. They are sharp and shiny.

The huge car park is black and smooth with  fresh, white lines. It’s a posh school, large grounds next to a park. We follow the path and the recently painted signposts. No one walks on the grass here. The changing rooms smell the same though. I will never get used to the smell of meet bathrooms. Everyone keeps to themselves mostly.

Today we warm up in a swish new hall, which is a lot better than yoga mats on a muddy track. Then everyone buzzes around. There’s a girl from some posh Hampstead school I recognise from last year. She looks Jewish and as if she might be taking a break from her work on Baywatch. I’m not sure how you run with breasts like that. Where does she put them when she sleeps?  I give her a smile, chug a bit more water, then find our slot at the starting line. 

I go out hard for the first two hundred, making sure I’m not boxed in the middle. At one point five the burn builds. Sometimes I worry cos I look forward to it. I’ve done the training, I’ll be ok. When I find my rhythm, I go inside my head. A series of weird random images float through my mind, filling the void. Caring for Dad toward the end. He was too heavy for Mum, so I had to help. Then my old bedroom, full of children’s books which went when we moved into the flat. Then the changing rooms, Lizzy naked. Then I drift off, empty my mind and just run.

Just three to hunt. The first is failing and I cruise past, kick a little as I pass and make sure she knows she isn’t coming back. Demoralise them and they accept they’re beaten, stay behind you. Two more. They know I’m coming and are fighting to stay ahead. I’m tougher than they are. As we hit the hill I start my kick. Don’t think of the end. Push hard. Take the pain and lay it on the grass verge, outside of me. Turn my body into a machine, accelerate up the hill, arms working mechanically, pushing me forward. They hold me level for a while but I can see they are suffering. When we reach the peak they look relieved so I push, pressing hard on the down, smiling, I want to break them. Then I’m away and they’ve had it. I’m ten yards ahead at the end. We shout for Lizzy who breaks out of a bunch and pushes to get sixteen.

We jog and wind down, shower and change. Helen next to me, apologising and saying the hill just got her. We tease her and tell her coach will work her arse off if a little hill is going to slow her down. She is standing around naked again and she has a great body, but she needs to burn some fat if she is going to up her game. Shame really, she looks good.

I turn off in the car on the way home. Lizzy is on her phone. She’s popular, probably getting likes on Instagram for looking cute in running gear. My mind flips through images of the girls faces as I passed them and Helen’s body. I try not to think about dad again.

  ---0---

I’m holding hard onto Diego’s lead. He’s a sex-obsessed Labrador with meaty shoulders. It takes all my strength to hold him. Wherever we are he wants to be ten yards in front of me. I have no idea why. I shout at him and he stops, looks at me with his head to one side, puzzled and panting.

“You idiotic dog, what’s wrong with here? Ten yards ago you were desperate to get here.”  

This yard of pavement is clearly a disappointment.

“Look, I’m going to be the best bloody runner in the country. Number one, in the whole country. After that you can pull my arm off, ok?”

He stands for a second, then starts pulling as bad as before.

  ---0---

Wednesday morning is circuit training; Want to die at the end, muscle burning, drenched in sweat, work outs. They help. The pain still comes, but it comes later, I can push harder. They build muscle, protect me from injury on rough ground, burn off fat.

Thirty seconds up, ten seconds down. By round two everything is burning. Bench presses, fast as I can. Panting in the down ten. Step ups, not so bad. Bicep curls and the sweating starts. And I swear, hard, under my breath, cos it starts to get ugly. Planks with leg raises, the chance that I will throw up starts to creep in. Kettle ball swings get my shoulders, they get a good burst of my foulest swearing. Its nearly over, surely? Plank jacks, panting hard. Plate press overhead. What sadist came up with that? Mountain climbers and I can see Lizzy losing it. Suffering so bad she’s getting angry. God make it stop. Zaib is more resilient - stronger and tougher - and she looks good with her muscles pumped up, covered in sweat.

Double battle rope slam. I can see sweat splattering on the floor below me. I forget to swear under my breath and see Lizzy smiling through her pain at me spitting out obscenities.

It feels good afterwards. Your whole body feels invincible. Next time I run I can feel it, the strength. The team goes once a week, I go twice.

  ---0---

I’m in the back of Zaib’s dad’s car.. He seems nice and clearly adores her. He should, she’s cute. They are relaxed with each other. Same sense of humour.

It’s a short drive to a private college in the countryside. Horses and shit. The usual routine. I try to not look anywhere near Lizzy. Jewish girl gives me a furtive wave and I give her a smile.

Heidi’s pep talks; “we have a good chance here if we all push. Elaine, top three would be cool, everyone be careful, its slippery and winds around a lot, choose safe routes. We don’t want any injuries. Let’s get to Nationals”

It goes off fast, but I hang on. It a rough and twisty roller coaster and muddier than it should be. Hard work, the pain kicks in fast, which is good, easier to hunt is they’re suffering.

Sit comfortable, stick with them, ride the pain, keep pushing, go into my head. Thirteen years old, my dad dying. I blink to clear my eyes, the pain is really digging in, memories and pain add up and I want to be held. I want Lizzy to hug me and let me cry. Shake it off. I’m pretty clear of the second pack. I see Zaib a way back, she’s flying today. Time to hunt. I start pushing hard, digging my spikes in and pushing through the mud. And I pass them one by one, pulling air in and fighting my body. I can keep going, keep going harder. Throw the pain aside and push, jaw locked tight. Pulling in air through a snarl. Two more to go, a few metres ahead. Time to kick, to take off, cruise past, watch their grimacing faces. Hear them, for a few seconds, gasping in air, feet pounding, then I’m gone and ahead. Keep pushing, make it clear, I win this.

I hit the mud. On my back, chest heaving, until coach pulls me up, “You’ve put a target on your back now, that time will make you the one they want to hunt.”

I almost shout, “let ‘em try, I’m going to win.”

Then Zaib is coming in and I do shout, “Well done, brilliant!” Her dad’s going wild. Lizzy’s not far behind and she’s killing herself for twelfth. Heidi, somewhere in the low twenties. We’re going to nationals. Lizzy hugs me, still hot and chest heaving, wide eyed and smiling her wide Spanish grin. I kiss her salty cheek and she squeezes me. Feels so good. It’s winning I guess?

When Zaib’s dad drops me off and I trudge past the bins to the front door, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m going to nationals.

  ---0---

Running to the gym, another workout, then to Heidi’s. When I arrive, I realise it’s the whole team. We are getting a protein injection, our tanks filled. Team building. We get salmon things to start, then huge steaks, chips and ice cream,. We don’t get a pep talk, but Heidi’s mum pulls out bottles of nail varnish that match our strip. I don’t normally do nails and shit but the idea is we all match. I hide my worn socks in my runners.. We all, super carefully, paint each other’s fingers and toes. Mine aren’t the only wrecked toenails, we are an ugly toed bunch. It’s sort of funny and fun. Heidi is smart. It’s odd having Lizzy hold my feet. Feet are funny aren’t they.

When we have stopped waving our fingers around and walking on our heels, her mum hands out matching scrunchies. Then we get purple socks. We laugh. They aren’t called socks: Higher state freedom running Anklets. The packet sounds like it’s describing a space station.

We will look good, with the matching nails and socks and scrunchies. Yep, Heidi is smart. The team has been built a little higher, a little tighter. We have a uniform; we are an army. I love these girls.

I asked my biology teacher why the mad dog is so desperate to get to the next lamppost.

“It’s a very competitive world, the first dog to smell the rabbit gets to eat it. And if the rabbit isn’t here, best to hurry to where it might be.”

“Is that why I run? Something deep in my DNA is hungry for a rabbit?”

“Yes possibly, or maybe you are the rabbit, they have their reasons to run too.”

Looking at Lizzy, I wonder if I’m the rabbit? I don’t want to think about what I’m running from. If I’m honest, I think I might know.

January 31, 2024 12:57

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16 comments

Paul Littler
15:01 Apr 06, 2024

Fantastic, what an acute deep dive into the mind of a teen. Too long ago for me to remember being youthful, but this flashes with enough brilliance enough to spark memories both painful and exultant.

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Kristi Gott
15:47 Feb 08, 2024

The first person stream of consciousness is done very well with strong sensory details that engage the reader and feel personal. Good character development with the unique author's voice giving the story its own personality. Very good!

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Vid Weeks
16:21 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks so much for reading and for your feedback Kristi

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Kathryn Kahn
16:44 Feb 07, 2024

Wow, what a ride! I felt like I was reading faster and faster to try to keep up with the narrator. I like the way her personhood unfolded as we went along, even though she was doing the same thing, dealing with the same pain. You did such a great job of unfolding the narrator bit by bit. So much vivid detail. Even though I am not a runner myself, I feel like I understand it better. Great story.

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Vid Weeks
18:57 Feb 07, 2024

Thanks so much Kathryn I've just read George Sanders book about Russian short stories and he discusses how they use repetition as a tool, so that might have inspired me.

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Stella Aurelius
04:11 Feb 05, 2024

Amazing job ! I've never really cared for running (or any sport. I like to joke that my sport of choice is watching quiz shows. Hahahaha !), but the way you described what running is for the main character was very vivid. It felt very real even to me.

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Vid Weeks
12:35 Feb 05, 2024

Thanks so much Stella

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John Rutherford
15:33 Feb 04, 2024

Interesting. How did you get into the head of young girl running?

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Vid Weeks
12:37 Feb 05, 2024

Thanks John. I guess until a teenage cross country runner tells me I did I won't know for sure if I did, but I did run cross country and I have known some girls.

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Vid Weeks
13:32 Feb 06, 2024

Coincidentally, I've just been reading Murakami's 'Novelist as a vocation' and in his chapter on Characters he says "One of the things I most enjoy about writing is the sense that I can become anyone I want to be." I cant be compared to Him, one of my writing heroes, but I do share that sentiment. Why I would want to become a fifteen year old girl would require a longer answer. There's a book there for me perhaps!

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Tom Skye
19:33 Jan 31, 2024

Very intense and vivid read. Some sexual undertones. This captured the simplicity of running, and gives some explanation as to how it can be addictive. The adrenaline highs. Always another person to chase or hold off. On the other hand, it is a very lonely sport which gives you a lot of time in your own head. This was a great read.

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Vid Weeks
20:31 Jan 31, 2024

Thanks Tom Yes, sexual undertones, but denied, she is stepping around the bears

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Mary Bendickson
13:52 Jan 31, 2024

Vivid truth about running. Probably why I never cared for it. Thanks for liking my 'All for Science '. A little different for me.

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Vid Weeks
14:41 Jan 31, 2024

Thanks Mary only true for competitive running, one can run for fun :)

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Mary Bendickson
15:15 Jan 31, 2024

What is that?

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Vid Weeks
20:35 Jan 31, 2024

Fun is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "light-hearted pleasure, enjoyment, or amusement." Some people do enjoy running, but I understand your doubt haha

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