I crack my knuckles and touch the ground, stretching my calves the way Olympic runners do before a race. The gravel spikes at my palms; my muscles burn from the stretching. Jogging in place, I breathe in short bursts that form into clouds in the chilly air.
Max paces back and forth next to me, holding a clipboard and waving his pen like a conductor. My body is so full of electricity from the anticipation that I want to slap him as hard as I can just for the sake of letting go of the tension. Instead, I crack my knuckles again, making Max cringe in a satisfying way.
Shaking it off, Max checks his watch before pushing his glasses to the top of his head. “Four minutes,” he says, reading off the clipboard. “The race starts at the fifth period bell. That way, you won’t meet any teachers in the hallways who are running late, but there might be some girls still rushing to class after lunch.” He looks up, scrunching his eyebrows together. “Although I really don’t know why you bother. Everyone knows that all the girls at St Cecilia’s are lesbos.”
A murmur of agreement waves over the guys crowded around me. I roll my eyes at them.
Max continues. “You’ve checked the map? You know where you’re going?” I nod, shaking my hands to keep warm in the gray November afternoon. “You’ve thought of an escape route?”
“Shut up, Max,” my buddy Jake says. “You’re killing his concentration.”
I smile gratefully at him, my stomach rolling around with nerves. The old stone building looms in front of me, the wall huge and windowless, almost like a prison. Although instead of keeping its students inside, it keeps guys like us out.
St Cecilia’s Catholic School for Girls has been around for God knows how long. There are two contrasting assumptions about the girls that go there: one, that they’re all totally desperate and would throw themselves at the first guy they see, and two, that they’re all gay. There’s much mystery surrounding the school, and thus was born the Race.
It all started with this one guy, Louis Raye, who figured he could just waltz through the front door and walk out dripping with hot girls. But he didn’t even make it past the front desk before being turned away. After that, it became a game to see who could make it the farthest inside the building, guys skipping school and showing up in hordes to watch the races. There was always at least one guy every year who would try his hand at it, and they all saw varying numbers of hot girls before being chased out. One runner even locked himself in the janitor’s closet just inside the school before the police showed up to drag him away.
Then, there was Gary Reynolds. No one knows how he did it, but he managed to make it all the way to a courtyard in the center of the school without getting caught. Legend has it, he spray painted his initials on one of the walls in the courtyard, and the tag is still there today. Ever since then, the competition’s been increasingly fierce, but I’m still the first person this year to attempt the Race.
“Hey, Charlie?” This guy everyone calls Pocket stumbles toward me, tiny and trembling in the cold. “What about Ms. Marlowe?”
Ms. Marlowe is St Cecilia’s secret weapon, and anyone who’s ever encountered her has the bruises to show it. Nobody knows what kind of teacher she is, just that she roams the halls with her trusty broom in hand, waiting for someone to attempt the Race. They say she’s ugly enough to turn a person to stone and huge enough to crush someone with her weight.
“Charlie doesn’t believe those stupid stories, Pocket,” Jake cuts in, clapping me on the shoulder. I jump slightly at his touch, lost in my thoughts.
“Right,” I say. I bend my neck to either side. “She probably can’t even run.”
Truth is, I’ve been training for this day all summer. I’ve been running a couple of times every week, imagining what it’s going to be like to jog out of St Cecilia’s unscathed. If I’m honest, it’s not the hot girls I care much about, although they’re a pretty good incentive too. Mostly, I want to get my initials on that wall. I want my name to go down in history like Louis Raye and Gary Reynolds. I want to walk into school tomorrow and hear people say, “That’s the guy who won the Race.” I want to freaking win, already.
“Ten seconds,” Max says, checking his watch. He digs a stopwatch out of his pocket and places a thumb on the start button.
My heart thumps louder, trying to break out of my chest. Bending down to my starting position, I feel the blood rush to my head. The guys around me cheer, shouting “Good luck”s and “Go get ‘em”s. Jake is the loudest, growling in a deep voice like a football coach pumping up his top player for the game. My legs tremble in anticipation as Max counts down over the encouragements of the guys. “Three… Two… One…”
The bell rings inside the school, and I’m off.
My mind is a blur; all I can think of is my legs pedaling below me, pushing me toward the dark opening that is the entrance. It’s like a cave with nothing but black and mystery beyond it, and I want in. The gravel under my running shoes turns to pavement, which turns to wood as I race up the few steps to the door. Before I even know what I’m doing, I pass under the arch and enter the school.
I’ve memorized the map of the building, so I follow my legs as they rush me past the front desk and down the hallway. I hear the secretary stand up behind the desk, and I imagine her rubbing her eyes in disbelief and she yells, “Robert, we got a runner!” several seconds too late. I’ve already turned a corner and am safe from whoever Robert is. That’s when I see her.
I barely allow my mind to register the large limbs, the greasy hair held up in a bun, and the broom clutched in her hand before I squeak to a stop on the wooden floor and spin around, starting again in the other direction.
“Hey! Stop!” Ms. Marlowe squeals. I hear her shoes click, uninterrupted, as she launches in pursuit. Damn, that lady can run. I try to erase her image from my mind and concentrate on the fact that I’m inside St Cecilia’s.
Trophy cases line the walls, and murals painted in neutral colours make me feel like I’m inside an old photograph. The hallways are too empty, although I hear voices behind the doors I pass. Two girls stroll toward me, their hair long, their makeup perfect, their uniform letting me see just enough leg that I grow excited. I smile at them a throw a “hi” their way as I speed past, and they giggle in response. Pushing my hair out of my face, I skid around a corner and leave them, trying to escape Ms. Marlowe.
But she keeps coming. When I turn my head, I see that she has somehow gained on me. Her broom whacks the air like it longs to whack me, and I’ve completely lost track of where I am. I try to visualize the map in my mind, but I’m sweating so much that I think it’s gone to my brain. I can’t give up now, I think, panting and trying to see through the sweat in my eyes. But Ms. Marlowe’s clicking shoes are right behind me.
I push myself into a final sprint, ignoring the burn in my legs. Turning a corner, I crash through the first door I see and slam it closed behind me. My legs shaking, I lean against it, almost falling over. The clicking passes close to me, but doesn’t stop, doesn’t even pause. I exhale, letting my shoulders relax against the door.
There’s a single desk in the room, and behind that desk is a girl. And yes, she is, indeed, very hot. Her bangs fall in front of her eyes, while the rest of her hair is swept up into a high ponytail. She’s not wearing any makeup, but her face is round and her ears are adorable, which I admit is a weird thought to have at this time. She stands up behind her desk and her lips form a tiny O.
I smile in what I imagine would be a seductive way if I weren’t covered in sweat, and say, “Hi,” in a low voice. My legs almost give beneath me, but she doesn’t seem concerned or even innocently curious.
“What the hell?” she says, still standing behind the wide desk. “You’re not one of those stupid runners, are you?”
“Hey! We’re not stupid,” I protest. I force myself to stand up properly and stumble toward the desk. “It’s a sacred tradition.”
“Well your tradition can go—”
She stops at the knock on the door. “Avery?” a man’s voice calls in.
“Shit,” she says. “Hide under the desk. But don’t try any of that Breakfast Club BS on me.”
Dropping to my knees, I follow her orders and crawl under the desk, where I curl up into a tight ball. Her smooth, pale legs taunt me a few inches away from my face. Now that she’s put the image of Bender shoving his face between Claire’s thighs, I can’t chase it away. I shake my head and concentrate on steadying my frantic breaths.
The door opens, and I hear heavy footsteps thump on the floorboards. “How’s it going?” a deep voice asks. “Are you almost done?”
“Nearly,” the girl—Avery—squeaks.
“Just hand it in when you’re finished,” the voice continues.
The minute the door closes again, Avery pushes her chair out like she’s eager to get far away from me. I bang my head on the desk before I manage to crawl my way out. Sitting on the floor, I rub the top of my head.
“You’re a horrible liar,” I say.
“Shut up,” she replies, crossing her arms and looking at a spot near my ear. Her eyelashes are long and quivering.
“What are you doing?” I ask, because I don’t know what to say.
“Taking an exam. I missed a class last week because I had a dentist appointment, and—why am I telling you this?”
I scooch closer until I’m next to the creaky chair. I’m careful to look only at her eyes, brown and large and staring into anything but mine. I smile with only a corner of my mouth, like actors do on television. “I’m Charlie.”
My shoulders slouch. “Jesus, Max was right,” I mutter. “All the girls at this school are lesbos.”
She snorts, unamused. “You’re a pig.”
“I need a way out.”
Throwing her head back, she laughs. Her bangs sweep off to the side of her face. “Why would I help you?”
I shrug and stand up, digging my hands into my pockets. I feel the tiny spray can, and I know that I can still make it, I haven’t lost yet. “What kind of exam are you taking?”
“On Civil War generals.” Her eyes slide over to my face. “And other dead people.”
We stare at each other for a few seconds, her eyes defiant, mine pleading. It’s difficult to hold her gaze; it feels so physical, even though we’re several feet apart. Finally, she exhales and lets her eyelids drop, relaxing into her chair.
“I know a shortcut,” she says.
Avery and I tiptoe through the halls, stopping every once in awhile to listen for the clicking of Ms. Marlowe’s shoes. However, all seems calm; only our footsteps disturb the silence. I’m shaking and jump at every movement in the corner of my eye, even when it’s my own hair bouncing next to my cheek. Avery, though, is completely relaxed, her shiny shoes barely making a sound as we pad down the hallway.
Finally, she stops at a door. Turning to me, she mouths “Wait here,” before poking her head into the room.
“Mr. Henry?” she asks. A moment crawls by as I crouch next to the door. I hear the shuffling of papers inside, and a drop of sweat rolls down the side of my face. “My cramps are really bad,” she continues. “Do you have any Advil?” Her voice is slightly rough, convincing even me that she could be in pain. Her acting isn’t that bad, after all.
Mr. Henry mutters something, his chair screeching and he pushes it out. Before I know what’s happening, Avery drags me into a standing position and through the door, waving me off. I creep past Mr. Henry, whose head is stuffed into his briefcase as he rummages through it. Other than him, the teacher’s lounge is empty, all the cubicles disorganized yet lonely. I eye the door at the other end of the room and slink toward it. As I slip out of the room, I give a little wave to Avery…
...and find myself in the courtyard.
It’s huge, huge and gray like a storm cloud, and yet so old, so still, that it almost feels like I’m standing in a church. My footsteps echo on the stones, the sound bouncing on the walls and the benches and the windows hung high on the walls. Through them, I see girls bent over their desks, although a few point toward me and whisper to their neighbours. I wave and wink, allowing myself a few short seconds of glory, before turning toward The Wall.
There it is. G.R. in black paint on the stone, standing out like a sore thumb. A very legendary sore thumb. Without wasting a moment, I race toward it, pulling out the spray can from my pocket.
“I knew you’d be here.”
I turn around and find myself face to face with the the grimace, the large limbs, the greasy hair pulled into a bun. Ms. Marlowe, proudly carrying her broom like a sword. I involuntarily shudder, and she rightfully takes it personally.
“I’ll call the police,” she says, enjoying the moment too much for my liking. “I’ll have you arrested for vandalism.”
“I haven’t even done anything yet!” I protest. I’m so close. So close…
“Yes, you have,” she sneers, pointing at Gary Reynolds’s initials on the wall. “Leave. Now.”
I want to slap her as hard as I can, not to let go of any tension this time, just for the sake of slapping her. My shoulders slouch in submission, and I’m about to head out the exit, foiled, when I see Avery.
“Ms. Marlowe!” she calls, standing just inside the courtyard in her navy uniform. “There’s another one, another runner.”
“That’s fine,” she replies without taking her eyes off me. “He’ll end up right here, just like this one.”
Avery’s face brightens, winking at me. “That’s great!” Ms. Marlowe turns to her for a second, but touches the tip of her broom to my forehead like a warning. “The other runner is my boyfriend, so I guess I’ll just keep him company for awhile.” Grinning, she disappears into the school, and I can’t help but think that she really is a great actress. At the very least, she has great instinct.
Ms. Marlowe hesitates between catching me and stopping a furious make-out session from taking place for several painful moments, before growling in my direction and running out of the courtyard and after Avery.
Before I know it, my initials are painted on the wall, a C.H. even bigger than G.R. I hear clapping and look up to see the girls, their noses pressed to the windows, applauding my success. I bow to my audience, take one last look at the initials, my initials, and, remembering my escape route, slip back into the building and begin my sprint to freedom. My feet are moving so fast, no one could ever catch me—not even Ms. Marlowe, whose broom leans casually on a classroom door. Without thinking, I grab it as I race past, and then I’m out.
In the street, Jake, Pocket, Max, and the rest of the guys run to catch up to me, but I’m flying, flying down the sidewalk and away from St Cecilia’s with the broom in my hand like a trophy, because I won. I won the Great Race, and I’m screeching and whooping, and I could slap myself right now just to be certain that I really am alive.