The starter gun shatters the silence, releasing the runners from their blocks.
Track season starts in a couple weeks, but no one has told Coach Lindt about winter. He's convinced that the only way to get us into shape is to practice-even when my breath freezes right in front of me.
This is Opportunity, Alabama. Sane people don't leave their homes when it's white and frosty outside. We stock up on canned food, drink hot chocolate until we succumb to sugar comas, and pray to be saved from the cold.
Still, Coach Lindt's start-of-season training beats Principal Trenton's long and arduous start-of-semester speech-virtue, hard work, and the proper behavior of young ladies and gentlemen. After almost four years at Opportunity High, I can recite her words from memory, which is exactly what I did for Matt at breakfast this morning-responsibility, opportunity ("no pun intended"), and her favorite, our school motto: We Shape the Future.
It sounds glorious, but with months left until graduation, I have no clue what the future looks like. If Opportunity shaped me, I didn't notice. Running, I know. This track, I know. One step after another after another. It doesn't matter what comes next as long as I keep moving forward.
My foot slips, and I stumble.
From his position on the field, Coach curses. "Claire, attention! One misstep's the difference between success and failure."
Straightening, I refocus.
A familiar laugh colors the still morning. "Did you freeze up over holiday break, Sarge? A snail could catch up with you floundering like that." On the straightaway of the track, Chris falls into step with me.
I suck in a breath before I answer him. "Oh, shut up."
My best friend only laughs louder. The even rhythm of his footsteps and his breathing challenge me to find my pace. His presence steadies me like it always does. At six-foot-five and with sun-touched hair and blue eyes, Chris is not just our best runner but also Opportunity's poster-boy athlete. On uniform days, the freshman girls fawn over him.
With Chris by my side, my stride shortens. The other two runners on our varsity team are far behind us, on the other side of the field. Chris and I move in perfect synchrony, and the very air parts before us.
Nothing can touch us. Not snow. Not even time.
? ? ?
Time's up. The small clock on the bookshelf strikes ten with an annoying little tune, and I thumb through the tabs in front of me at supersonic speed. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.
It only took superglue-strategically squirted on the desk drawers of my favorite Spanish teacher, Mr. Look-At-Me-Strutting-My-Stuff-Like-A-Walking-Midlife-Crisis-for Far and me to find our way to the administrative office. But it took both our student IDs before we managed to jiggle the lock on Principal Trenton's door. And it'll all be for nothing if I can't find the file I'm looking for. I scan the folders in the filing cabinet. When an elbow pokes my side, I startle. "Dammit, Far. What the hell?"
Fareed rolls his eyes and gestures for me to keep quiet. Someone's in the hallway, he mouths. He tiptoes back to the door.
How do I explain this? "No, ma'am, I'm not doing anything, just breaking into school records"?
Whatever. I'm sure I have a legal right to see my own permanent record, so I can always use that as my excuse. The fact that these folders just happened to be "Last Names, A?C" instead of "Last Names, M?N" is nothing more than a coincidence. No one knows whose file I'm looking for, except Far. And even he doesn't know the whole reason.
If anything, I can always "find" Al-Sahar, Fareed as a cover. The school administration can't even file his name right.
A door opens and closes. A lock clicks.
Footsteps squeak on the linoleum outside the administrative office.
Footsteps that pause before the principal's door-our door.
I quietly push the file drawer shut. Better not to stir up trouble-more trouble-if I get caught red-handed.
Far and I both hold our breath.
After what feels like forever, the footsteps move on. Whomever it was, they're not out to get us. Not today.
? ? ?
"...it's all a matter of the decisions you make, today and every day. Your behavior reflects not only on yourself but also on your parents, your family, and your school.
"Here at Opportunity, we pride ourselves on shaping the doctors, lawyers, and politicians of tomorrow. And it's the choices you make now that will determine your future. You have to ask yourself how you can become the best you can be. Ask not what your school can do for you but what you can do for you."
Trenton holds the microphone loosely while she scans the crowd, as if memorizing every single face. So many students come and go, leaving nothing but the faintest impression, names scratched into desks and graffitied onto bathroom stalls, yet she knows us all.
All our hopes. All our heartbreaks. All our sleepless nights.
Her eyes linger on me, and my neck burns. I reach for the chair to my right, but it remains as it was when the assembly started. Empty.
To my left, Sylv groans. "After all these years, you'd think she'd come up with something more original."
"Don't you want to be the best you can be?" The words come out harsher than I intend.
In truth, Sylv will have plenty of colleges to choose from. She's a shoo-in for all her dream schools. And I should be happy for her. I am happy for her.
But for me, college is the only way out of this misery, and Dad sure as hell isn't going to pay my ride. Not to study dance. "Look what happened to your mother," he'd say, as if I haven't counted the days, hours, minutes since Mom's accident. "Dance took everything from her. No daughter of mine is going into that business. Not if I can stop it."
So he tries to stop me-every day. And with Mom gone, there's no one to stop him. Not from drinking. Not from hitting me. There's no one to keep our family from falling apart.
I grip my crumpled coffee cup, grab the threadbare denim messenger bag from under my seat, and block out Ty's voice in the back of my mind. My brother would tell me that Principal Trenton's words are truer than I think, that the world is at my fingertips and it's up to me to make my future the best it can be.
I tried that and I lost. Now I'd rather escape.
? ? ?
I sink deep into my seat and glance at the empty place next to Autumn. He's not coming after all. He'd have been here by now. He won't come. I'm safe here.
He won't come.
The knot in my stomach unfurls and recoils with every twist and turn of my mind. I could ask Autumn about Tyler, but she's lost in memories. Today is two years since the accident. She refuses to share her grief with me-or anyone. Even when she smiles, she isn't the girl she used to be.
And I miss her.
Some days, when she thinks no one is watching, she still moves across the floor as if she's flying. La golondrina, Mamá used to call her. The swallow. All grace and beauty. When Autumn dances, all her worry falls away and she shines.
I wish she could dance forever.
Madre de Dios, how I wish I could watch her dance forever.
Instead, it is another Monday. Life goes on. The assembly is over, and Autumn holds herself ramrod straight. I'm the only one who knows she'll fly out of this cage and leave us all behind as soon as she can.
Meanwhile, next period is the last review for my AP U.S. History midterm, and I haven't even touched my books. Mamá had another one of her bad spells over break. We were supposed to go into town together last Saturday, but when Abuelo brought the car around, she barely recognized him. She didn't want to leave the house. She didn't understand where we were going. I sat with her for hours, talked to her-listen, Mamá-told her the stories that wove our family around her. She was disoriented for days afterward, and I can't shake the feeling that with every day that passes, she slips away like starlight at dawn.
At least history suits me. You already know if those stories will end happily.