Michela Walters’s Picture Choice: 1
The alarm rung in her ear, exactly at five oh five, just like it did everyday. She got up well before her parents roused from their daily hangover. Dani made sure to be out of the house early enough to give her an hour to jog on the school’s track before homeroom. For some reason, running gave her strength, an odd sense of calm before she had to fight her way through the day of being teased and tormented first by her classmates, and then by her alcoholic parents. If it wasn’t for her Grandmother’s passing, leaving the house and some money for her family, they’d likely be homeless and Dani in foster care.
Grabbing her backpack, she hustled down the stairs, avoiding the fifth step that had a little creak, not that it could wake her parents. Yesterday had been payday at the mill, and her dad had splurged on something better than the rotgut they usually drank. Hopping on her bike, an old ten speed she’d gotten for ten bucks at a garage sale, she rode up to the school. The sun was just peeking over the horizon when she arrived at the top of the hill where Ben Franklin High School stood, looking rundown and sad in the morning sunlight. She locked up her bike and backpack, stowing it beneath the stairwell before jogging over to to the track.
Opening up the gate, she was startled to see another person running laps. She’d been coming to the track every morning for three years and had never seen anyone here before. The guy was wiry and wearing a grey striped beanie and black hoodie. She couldn’t quite make out the face, but her spidey sense wasn’t pinging off the walls. He looked like just another person out for a morning run. Instead of her usual warm up of a casual jog twice around the track, she sauntered towards the bleachers and stretched her legs, appearing to not care that someone had encroached into her safe place.
The guy rounded the near corner and it was then that Dani finally was able to see her interloper’s face. It was Josh Watterson, a quiet boy who was in a few of her classes. He seemed nice, or rather he’d never been mean to Dani, which was a step up from most of her classmates. The only thing she really knew about him was that he was an amazing artist. His work hung in various cases around the school, many boasting ribbons from some art show or another. Figuring he was harmless she decided to get on with her routine.
Waiting until Josh was on the far side of the track, she began to run, her legs pumping in time with her breath. Two inhales for one exhale kept her on pace to run as far as she could go until the first buses began to arrive, when she’d make her way into the showers to get ready for school.
With the thump of her feet and the wind in her face, her brain cleared, thoughts unscrambling from all the useless noise she had to put up with on a daily basis. The fighting at home, the bullying at school and the annoying customers she served at the Denny’s most evenings. Her life felt out of her control, and she hated it. She hated that her chances of ever getting out of Harbor Springs was slim to none. She despised her station in life, living in squalor with drunk parents whose only real concern with Dani was how much she made in tips, and how many beers it would buy them at the Dusty Road Tavern. How at the ripe old age of seventeen did her life already feel over? Swept out to sea by the rising tide of choices she had little to no control over.
She’d circled the track twice when she was shaken out of her runners trance by the thumping of Josh’s feet behind her. He was catching up. She slowed slightly, hoping he’d pass her by with little more than a nod of acknowledgement. Instead, he slowed his pace, matching hers perfectly to run side by side, stride for stride.
“Morning.” he huffed, a little out of breath.
Flicking her gaze sideways, she mumbled her hello and continued to drag out her steps, hoping he’d get the picture she didn’t want to chat. They ran beside each other for a few moments before he started again.
“What are you running from, Dani?” His astute question made her stumble, her stride becoming irregular for a moment.
Once she’d gotten back on pace she answered wryly, “Nothing, Josh. This is a track. We all run around in circles, never going anywhere.” With that, she sped up, trying to shake him off. She felt like he knew things she didn’t really want anyone to know and it frightened her to death.
He sped up, but instead of catching up and running beside her, he shouted to the back of her, “You know I see you, right? Not just what you want people to see, but who you really are. I see you, Dani Mitchell and someday you’ll stop running.”
Her heart sped up with his confession, but she didn’t stop jogging until she saw he was no longer around. She stopped, hands on her knees to suck in gasps of air, not realizing how fast she’d been running. She left the track and went about her day, the thought of Josh keeping tabs on her, nagged her, but she kept her head down and pretended that it didn’t matter. Even if he did see the real her, she wasn’t a sparkly package wrapped up with a pretty bow. Her life was dark, depressing and if he really wanted to get stuck in the mire, he could go right on ahead, but she wasn’t going to give him any fodder.
The next morning, her routine started all over again. She glanced into the mirror only to see exactly what she expected, tired, bloodshot eyes staring back at her. Her parents had come home late from the bar last night, arguing about some guy hitting on Dani’s mom. It escalated until her dad finally passed out on the sofa, a beer sitting limply in his hand. Once she was sure they were both asleep, or passed out, Dani made her way downstairs to clean up the mess of bottles, dinner plates and trash that had accumulated over the course of the day. She gently extricated the beer from her father’s grasp, tucking it into the refrigerator knowing a beer was a beer regardless of how flat it might be. “Mitchell family motto,” she growled tossing the trash into the bin.
She rode her bike along the quiet streets, her thoughts still stuck on the events of last night and didn’t realize Josh was standing at the gate waiting for her until she’d already parked and locked up her bike.
“We really have to stop meeting like this,” Dani grumbled, marching past the man who was hell bent on ruining her only peace and quiet.
He jogged up to her, touching her on the shoulder, begging her to wait. The cracked tone in his voice startled her and she spun to look at him. His lip was swollen, a dark bruise creeping up his neck across his chin. “What happened?” she asked, her hand automatically touching his cheek.
“Ah, you know. The football team doesn’t like-- Pansies like me.” he mumbled, waving a hand in front of his torso like Vanna White. “Jeez, just because someone likes art doesn’t turn me into a girl or anything.”
“And what’s wrong with being a girl?” Dani challenged, her annoyance at the classic ‘don’t be a girl”, and “you throw like a girl” as insults was a pet peeve she corrected automatically.
Josh bowed his head, and Dani immediately felt ashamed that she too had just hurt this boy’s feelings. “Sorry, just a little peeve of mine.” She touched his shoulder, reminding him that he approached her, “Did you need something?” Dani didn’t want to be rude but her run awaited and it sucked he was getting pushed around, but what did it have to do with her.
He tugged off his beanie, showing his thick mop of brown curly hair. He played with the hat while shuffling from one foot to the other. “Uh, I didn’t mean to scare you yesterday. I just wanted you to know you weren’t alone, you know?”
His confession was disarming and Dani quirked her head to the side like a dog trying to figure out a puzzle.
“I-- I don’t know. I guess maybe I needed to know that I wasn’t alone either?” He turned his head side to side, looking lost and uncomfortable. “I’m stupid. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bug you or anything. I-- guess I wanted to know if we could maybe be friends?” His face was starting to turn a hazy shade of tomato when he finally huffed with her silence and turned to stalk off.
Dani’s mind finally kicked into gear at the sight of his slumped shoulders wandering off towards the gate. “Wait, Josh.” She jogged over to him and gave him a hug from behind, something she wished someone would give to her. “I understand, and yes,” she whispered before turning back to the track to start her run. She turned her head and told him to join her if he liked, for once not minding the company.
From then on, Josh and Dani were inseparable. They hadn’t realized how similar their lives were and how much better life could look sitting beside a friend.
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Michela Walters is a wife, mother and book enthusiast. She is currently attempting her hand at writing her first romantic fiction novella. You can read her other stories on her blog: michelawalters.wordpress.com