Universe W-2020: The Sideshows 7
October 29th, 2020
“All right guys, only six hundred until the gun. Spikes on, let’s head over to the line.”
As the team marches across the field and a cold autumn wind whips through Dakota’s aerodynamically cut hair, he flashes back to the first practice of last year’s spring track season. He, along with the other six kids that once made up the entire spring track distance team (let’s run ‘em off: Jack (rest in peace, old boy), Prief, Dennis, Jaden, Gio, and Gino), were all sitting in a circle doing the butterfly stretch, the first in their first series of stretches. Their coach, a man named Running Coach, was running late that day. Under different circumstances this would have been an issue, but this is running we’re talking about, it’s not rocket science. Plus, this same group of seven kids – well, six now – stay with the program the entire school year; they know what’s expected of them. As far as the coach goes, well, his coworkers aren’t fans of him anyway, and he knows better than to try to change the mind of humans set in their ways.
That said, even as a frosh Dakota memorized the routine quickly and proved himself to be quite the runner, inspiring a noticeable boost in effort in all of the juniors and seniors who had been slacking their slacks off the past few years. Dakota had never excelled at any sports before competitive running; he tried paying tee-ball when he was younger, but he’d always miss the ball. Then he tried soccer – he scored tons of points, but in the wrong goal – and basketball – couldn’t dribble to save his life – and finally football – he tackled his own teammates on accident – before finally caving and trying cross country. It’s hard to play team sports when you’re colorblind, but running? Running is easy. You just do it.
After that first cross country season, Dakota let his buddy Jack convince him to do winter and spring track so they could both stay in shape together. Coincidentally, this was also the year that Coach was promoted from volunteer assistant-coach to full co-head coach; although they’re separated by a mere few years of time, the boys and Running had the same goal: salvage and revive Hoffman Regional High School’s distance running program.
The boys were just coming around the last bend of their eight-hundred-meter warm-up when Coach drove in along the road behind the school, his blaringly loud music arriving before he did. When he was first hired here, some of the more youthfully-challenged faculty members gave him all sorts of problems for playing his music too loud when he drove in, having his hair too long and unkempt, being too loud and excitable with the kids, and really just for being young in general; he avoided paying them any attention and they eventually piped down.
“Hello children!” Coach bellowed as he walked up the grassy knoll to the Athletics Plateau. “My apologies for being tardy. To be totally honest, I was napping in a tree. Welcome to the spring track distance team, also known as cross country lite.”
During cross country, the standard race is five kilometers long, roughly three and a tenth miles of pushing one’s body to its absolute limits over trails, dirt pathways, and semi-paved roadways that are more often active than not. Whether the precipitation is frozen or not, track’s longest race is the thirty-two-hundred-meter dash, a two-mile sprint around a rubber circle; that said, the runners don’t need to try quite as hard during either of the track seasons. Dakota and Jack knew this and were none too thrilled, so they always tried hard anyway. They were Coach’s favorites.
“For our first practice, we’ll not be focusing on actual running but on how to run, how to make your body go fast by using your mind. I’m talking control here, children; one of the most important aspects of distance running, possibly even more important than the physical aspect, is the psychological aspect. Today, in order to learn to master our minds, we’re gonna go over the three major principles of distance runni– yo, Gino! Keep stretching!”
“There will be three commands: runners take your mark, get set, and the gun.”
Boneless Rib Sandwich
“Number one: your opponents are hurting as bad, if not worse, than you are. This is the first indisputable truth of running a footrace – everybody’s running the same course under the same conditions with the same laces in their shoes. Everybody’s cold or hot or sweaty or whatever; everybody’s beating their bodies against the forces of the Universe, everybody’s racing with you.”
Coach looked around and saw a couple of his runners rolling their eyes instead of their ankles, cracking jokes – he made a mental note of it and acted like he didn’t notice. Then, “Prief! You could explain this better than I. Tell us your story.”
Prief Stevontaine, one of the top five on this team of seven, put his left leg back on the ground and cleared his throat whilst everyone around him got visibly excited to hear something great. He began the tale of his first race, a chain of events that utterly decimated his preconceptions about what it meant to run that all started when, “I downed that boneless rib sandwich for lunch.”
“Runners take your mark…”
A New Dimension Of Running
“…and I gave in halfway through the chute. As he passed me, I saw the blood trickling out his calf where the dee-qued guy’s spikes got him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I talked to him afterwards, the dude didn’t even realize it happened. He said his leg started feeling weird around mile two, but other than that he was fine. Unbelievable. The man was leaking out his calf and he didn’t even notice because he was running so hard. I will never half-ass another day in my life.”
Prief, who had stood up alongside Coach at some point during his story, sat back down and returned his left leg to its rightful place in the air. Coach thanked him and went about his teachings.
“Like Prief said, the other runner was so focused on his race that he was able to block out the pain of being maimed in the calf by a fresh pair of running spikes. This brings me to my next point: it is a given that your mind will always, always, get overwhelmed before your body does. Your mind is your ego, it gives all the fucks, but your body doesn’t give a single one. Never has, never will. Dakota, can you fill these monkeys in?”
Dakota obliged, of course, but he didn’t stop stretching. “When I first started my freshman year, I would always pay attention to my thoughts during the runs. They’d tell me that I was exhausted, that if I kept going so hard my spleen would burst and I would die, I even questioned why I was running in the first place. I was like, Why are you running? This is self-torture you twit, you’re not even enjoying it! Fucking stop! But then one day, my balls dropped and I decided I would no longer give in to that weak-ass little baby voice in my head. And that be all she wrote.”
Coach grinned, “Thank you, Dakota. I see it happen when you guys are running in practice and when you’re in a race, I see the moment that you decide in your head that enough is, in fact, enough. You noticeably slow down, you shrink a little bit, your aura fades from a vivacious violet to a mellow yellow.”
Coach held his head down as if stricken by a great sadness after saying those words, then, “It’s one of the most upsetting things a cross country coach can witness happening to his runners, even worse than me catching you vaping with the soccer jockeys in the locker room. Gio. Anyway, the moment you learn to listen to your body over your mind is the moment you enter into a new dimension of running.”
The last bit of that went right over the heads of the majority of the runners, but that’s okay. Coach kept trucking along, the children at full attention, as they had finished their stretching routine and gotten their sips of water. At that point, Coach was only putting off their run, and they had no qualms about that whatsoever.
You Must Care
“…number three; this is the big one guys, really complicated stuff. Jack, listen up.”
Jack Monta, both the fastest runner on the team at the time and by far also the scrawniest, got preoccupied with his headphones and mentally checked out of practice. Coach stared him down for a full minute before Jack realized his teammates were giggling at him.
“You with us, spaceman?”
“Yes Coach, sorry,” Jack laughed as he returned to Earth. “I was watching too much Terry last night. What’s number three?”
“Number three: you must care more than your opponents. I can explain this one myself: when I used to run for this school, I was voted the most enthusiastic runner. Maybe that’s because I’m so eccentric, but let’s pretend for a moment that I’m a normal fella and pay attention to my mouthwords anyway. When I stepped up to that starting line, nobody could talk to me, nobody could break me from my zone, nobody even tried. You want to know why?”
Everybody knew why after being coached by Coach for a few seasons, but they let the man do his thing anyway.
“Because I knew, when it came down to that finish line, I was crossing first. I wasn’t about to run three miles just to get passed in the last twenty meters, absolutely not. No matter what it took, I was going to out-sprint that punk-ass little shit who thought he had a chance against me. When the end of the race came around and I caught a whiff of the chute, something within me woke up, and I would kick so hard that my hearing and vision would go out. Do y’all get what I’m saying? After the race ended when we were all shaking hands, the other runners would ask me what time I ran, and I’d ask back, You saw a clock?”
They had all heard the story before; in fact, Coach delivered this entire spiel, giftwrap and all, during the first cross country practice and during the first winter track practice. The kids still weren’t sure whether or not to believe the runnin’ dude, but they kept on listening regardless.
“What it really comes down to, guys, is this: the minute that gun goes off, you go off, too. And you don’t stop until you’ve crossed the finish. I know that’s easier said than done, especially for those of you who still don’t understand the difference between a kick and a sprint, but you’re on the cross country team. Well, not right now, but you get what I mean. These kids that you practice with, they’re your family, and so am I; know what that means? You do what you need to do for your family. Now, since today is day one, it’s going to be a hell day; after a quick five minutes of meditation, we’ll be running The Gauntlet. Yeah keep groaning, those hills aren’t getting any less steep. Y’all will get it eventually.”
The race has begun. All ninety-two teenagers take off across the massive open field in a mob headed directly towards a trail that’s far too narrow to accommodate them all equally. There are a few rabbits still hanging at the front by the time the crowd hits the woods, but Dakota passes the majority of them in the very beginning. He can hear Coach’s words echo in his head: ‘Never go out with the rabbits unless you want to limp across the finish with them, too.’
As he’s working up a hill whilst bobbing and weaving through slower runners, Dakota notices a familiar red uniform caught in the fray. Acting fast, Dak catches up to his teammate to give a likely much needed morale boost.
“C’mon Prief keep pushing we’re just getting started here man! You and I didn’t run together all summer to get killed on the first hill! They’re hurting just like you are,” Dakota half-gasps and half-yells to Prief before getting a sudden burst of energy and flying over the apex of the hill, passing another kid with a bunch of scars on his calf. If this wasn’t a racing event and he was one to pay attention to life’s smaller, less noticeable details, Dakota would have noticed that Prief’s shadow is a few shades darker than everyone else’s, but it is so he doesn’t.
Dakota allows the downhill to take him and give him a natural speed boost, which he holds on to for the majority of the half mile-long path that runs alongside the one-way paved road that traverses the state park. Dubbed The Ridge, it serves as the first of the three passing zones on this course, those wide stretches where the real runners separate from the rest of the pack and boys turn into men; you and I both know Dakota is one of those real runners.
After The Ridge comes a windy gravel downhill path that runs through a wooded section of the park until it smacks into the lake. The hill doesn’t have a proper name, but if it did it would be called The Killzone, because today, just like any other day he races here, Dakota passes everyone in his sight. By the time he hits the lake he doesn’t know for sure that he’s in first place, but he doesn’t care much, either.
‘Can’t get comfortable, not yet.’
Once the trail dries off it bangs a right, turns to dirt, and circles the lake, the circle ending back at the smack point. Around the back of the lake is the second passing zone, dubbed The Bog. While it’s dry, dusty, and not at all boggish today, this stretch of course is dotted with potholes of the cavernous and craterous varieties that turn into veritable ponds during precipitative weather conditions. When it rains (as it often does on days that cross country meets are held), the runners get to run their race anyway, left to deal with any weather-borne hazards on the course all by themselves. Dakota claims that he runs faster when the sky is weeping than he does when weather conditions are, how you say, optimal, so the dude’s duly disappointed when he hits The Bog and trips over a pothole instead of splashing through a pond.
The Bog is not only a passing zone, but also the most secluded section of the racecourse. It runs between a cliff face and an active street, leaving little to no room for spectators, officials, nor coaches. The runners are completely on their own out here in the backwoods; no rules, no regulations, no yellowcoated grandpas (read: officials) watching for unsportsmanlike conduct. Most teams are pretty good about not being dicks to each other at these competitive events, but when a big race is going down and the brain chemicals are flowing, anything can happen.
Speaking of which, just when Dakota thinks he’s about to get through The Bog unscathed and unfollowed, he hears an enraged panting approaching him from behind. He tightens his focus and speeds up a bit, not about to lose his pole position. There’s still a mile to go until Heartbreaker Hill, a half-mile stretch of ebullience that winds up a long and grueling hill until it morphs into the finish line at the top. Heartbreaker Hill is the third and final passing zone, and the nastiest one at that; getting passed on this hill makes one feel like a piece of human shit laying in an alleyway in old timey England mere days before the bubonic plague reared its rat-infested head. If Dakota can just hold on until the bottom of that hill, nobody will be able to stop him, not even the tribe of Hane Wills kids that like to build walls out of themselves during these meets.
‘Treering is a bunch of houses built on the sides of mountains,’ Dakota’s inner Coach tells him. ‘These other teams just can’t run hills like you Quarryville bo–’ “GAGH!”
Dakota’s train of thought is interrupted when Prief passes him and throws an elbow into his ribcage. Dakota almost falls over, but quickly recovers just in time to see Prief gun it and turn the corner that marks the end of The Bog.
‘What the fuck was THAT, Prief?! Fuckin’ ASSHOLE!’
Between The Bog and Heartbreaker Hill is a one mile stretch of dirt with more tree roots popping out of it than… well, there’s a lot of roots, and they grab at runners’ legs like the hands of the freshly undead. Jaden, usually only one place behind Dakota, seems to have fallen victim to the roots; when the dust is flying and one’s body is overcome with pain, adrenalin, and pain, they can be heard to spot. That must be why he’s on the ground struggling to relocate his left foot back into its socket as Dakota passes him, our boy still battling the nausea from catching that flying ‘bow. He gives Jaden a look and Jaden nods; Dakota then flashes a smile and keeps running, even picking up his pace a little bit.
‘Prief probably knocked him down, I need to pick it up! Gotta beat that fuckin’ PRICK!’
The base of Heartbreaker Hill comes to Dakota faster than he expected, but that’s okay; he done been ready. The hill starts with a loose gravel path that winds through an especially dense thicket of forest. During the odd practice when the Hoffman Administration would actually fork over the dough for a bus ride to the park, Coach would usually find a tree to climb so he could shout encouraging words at his runners and they passed underneath him, but today’s not a practice. Dakota drops his shit into fourth gear and rips up the hill, blocking out all the pain until he reaches the light at the end of the tunnel.
Suddenly he’s out – the forest is dense, but the treeline stops on a chopstick and Dakota finds himself between a basketball court and a different part of that one-way road he ran beside earlier. Knowing his heart is halfway done being broken usually helps Dakota out, but today it just makes things worse; his legs ache, his arms are heavy, there’s no Jack Monta to push himself against, and he can’t seem to shed this overwhelming furiosity that’s bubbling up inside him like the black goo inside a swamp witch’s cauldron; everything is awful, and nothing will make it not awful.
Dakota raises his head out of the swamp that is running-induced exhaustion and sees a familiar red uniform lumbering up the hill ahead of him, and that’s it; Dakota is thrust into the zone once more.
It’s no simple feat, but Dakota manages to catch up to Prief as soon as they hit The Chute. The Chute is the twenty-meter stretch of hay-scattered earth before the finish line that the officials fence off with orange plastic… stuff. Nobody really knows what the stuff is made of, but it appears and disappears the day of the meet, and Dakota’s never seen it being sold in stores. Not that he goes to stores often, but…
Regardless, the boys engage a kicksprint through The Chute, still neck-and-neck halfway down the stretch. ‘Come on motherfucker, you think you’re gonna act like a dick and beat me? FUCK you, I’m going to be the best fuckin’ runner on this fuckin’ team, I’m gonna do it for Jack Fucking Monta, you’re gonna be kissing my fuc–’
Prief finishes the race in first place, Dakota securing the number two slot mere milliseconds after.
Prief attempts to approach Dakota to indulge in the sportsmanly handshake after they’ve both caught their collective breaths, as one does following a battle at the end of a race, but Dakota just tells him to, “Fuck off, you fucking cunt,” before storming back to his team’s camp alone. The other runners on the team get a similar response when they return and ask Dakota how he finished; the taste of pure rage and unkindness is especially bitter when it flies from the mouth of a teammate. Coach picks up on this too, deciding to wait until the rest of the team is cleaning up base camp before attempting to cast guidance.
Dakota’s sat by himself in the very back seat of the bus on the way back to the school. The boys’ team and the girls’ team are sitting in the first five rows, everybody singing along to Welcome to the Black Parade by Chemicular Romance with coaches Coach and Scoompa, but Dakota’s chosen to isolate himself and allow his anger to fester. The talk with Coach went about as well as you might expect.
‘Who the fuck does that guy think he is, anyway? Wow Coach, you ran cross country in school and you have so little of a future that you came back to coach. Such a big hotshot, fuuuuuck you.’
Coach tried to tell him not to get upset, that he still ran a great race and that trying one’s best is all one can do at the end of the day, but Dakota was totally unresponsive. Jaden, Prief, and even Gino also tried approaching Dakota for some light conversation, but they were ejected harder than an F-16 fighter pilot when a flying saucer unexpectedly emerges from the ocean ahead of his jet. Then, when Dakota was shoving the stupid fucking tent into the cubby hole on the bottom of the bus that doesn’t even fucking close right, he heard the other Hoffman Harbingers talking up a storm, but then, when he stepped onto the bus, everybody got quiet. That just pissed him off more, so, back of the bus it was.
‘Fucking assholes are just getting to me today. I swear to god, one more fucking issue with these asshats and I’m going to strangle someone.’
Fortunately for Dakota, (and everybody else on the bus), the ride home is only twenty minutes long, so the one more issue doesn’t occur. When the bus pulls onto the road that runs behind the school, Coach stands up and congratulates everyone on running well before reminding boys and girls alike to police the bus and make sure it’s cleaner now than it was when they got on before they get off to go home. Everybody, Coach Scoompa included, drops to the floor and starts searching for trash; everyone except Dakota. The dude hasn’t moved an inch since they left Garhett Park, hasn’t said a word. He’s barely even breathed.
Once the bus is spotless and everyone else is off, Dakota makes his move and exits, avoiding eye contact with the, ‘Creepy fucking old guy,’ who waves to him anyway. However, before our angriest avenger can make it to the safety of the boys locker room, Coach appears out of a burrow and tries to conversate.
‘God. Fucking. DAMNIT!’
“Hey Dakota, do you have a second? I’d like a word.”
“Zammy. Well bud, you still seem pretty peeved, and I’m a little concerned. You ran well, you and Prief finished first and second for the race and for the team. We didn’t even come in last in the meet. What’s wrong?”
Dakota just stares at him for a second, directly in the eyes. Being no fool when it comes to children and the mind games they play, Coach stares right back and begins to contort his face into a very odd-looking smile. When Dakota’s still staring a few minutes later, Coach knocks off the funny stuff.
“Look Dakota, I have more than my fair share of mental hilarity, and you’re reminding me of a younger me right now. Which is scary. Is everything all right, do you need to talk about anything?”
‘Are you fucking kidding me? Now this deranged fuck thinks I’m the sick one.’
After a few more moments of silent hesitation, Dakota clears his throat and says, “Yeah, no I’m fine Coach, thanks though. Hey, my stepdad’s apparently forgot to come pick me up, can you drive me home tonight?”
“Oh, uh… yeah, okay. No problem. Let me just finish putting our metric assload of supplies back into the closet so Len Then AD doesn’t have a conniption an–”
“No, please,” Dakota starts as he throws himself in front of Coach, desperate to get the man out of his sight. “Let me do it, I’ll be quick. Just bring your car around.”
Coach eyes his oddly enthusiastic student athlete, but eventually shrugs his shoulders, tossing Dakota his keycard and closet keys over his shoulder as he walks towards whichever parking lot he parked his car in. Once Coach rounds the corner, Dakota runs inside the school and, on purpose, messily stuffs all the supplies into the supply closet, cursing out the boys’ lacrosse club for existing and being forced to share this closet with the running teams. He turns away from the closet but stops to do a double-take when he sees something very out of place sitting on the one random burgundy cafeteria chair that’s always sitting in the locker room: a boxcutter, likely left by some dumbass football player trying to impress his friends.
By the time Dakota steps outside, Coach had already pulled his car up to the curb and is blasting his weird music loud enough to wake the dead and shatter the glass coffins they’re buried in. Dakota hops in, lowers the volume, then they’re off, cruising through the night to the tune of a white guy going hard on the beat.
The arguing is audible from halfway up Frick Hill, so Coach doesn’t even stop his car on the crest. This has happened before; Dakota’s birth mom and stepfather don’t exactly like or love or tolerate each other anymore; after three months of getting to know each other and three more months of marriage, the spark just died right out and everything went downhill from there. Oddly enough, Missus Dakota met stepMister Dakota at the memorial service for Jack Monta, but that’s probably just a coincidence. It never bothered Dakota that his mother used the death of his best friend to find a new fuckbuddy, he understands that humans get caught up in idiotic bullshit and take whatever escape they can find no matter how laced with carnality and disrespect that escape may be; if anything, as he told the school psychologist that the newly-appointed Principal Ghost made him talk to, dealing with his mom’s bullshit just makes him better at dealing with his own bullshit.
They pass by the Dakota house and, as Coach turns around in the road, Dakota witnesses a slipper fly through a previously solid window and land on the front lawn.
“Hm?” Coach asks, knowing exactly what it was that Dakota had uttered. “You say something?”
During the last stretch of the ride to Coach’s house, Dakota gets very introspective, almost as if he gets sucked into his own head. He can’t get the stupid race, my asshole friends, and this fucking dipshit Coach off my mind. Last year the guy was an unpaid volunteer and now he’s a full coach and what, he expects everyone to just follow along? Like we’re supposed to listen to this ridiculous shithead who just showed up one day out of nowhere? And the way he treats us like we’re adults, like we want to spend so much of our time running, like, is his brain damaged? What could the school be thinking? Although I guess I can’t be too surprised, they’ve gotta be damned imbeciles to be in charge of all the moronic brats who’re enrolled at Hoffman High, gotta be on the same level mentally. Especially those dickheads on the team with me, like Prief. The dickhead acts like my friend during school and stuff, but during the fuckin’ race he pulls that Hane Wills bullshit? And the race – the fucking race started all of this, all this infernal rage building up inside my head, taking over my being. It won’t stop, it keeps getting worse and I caN’T STOP IT! FUCK!’
A few minutes later they pull up to Coach’s house and park in the driveway, the clock on the dashboard incorrectly reading 11:11. Dakota’s entire body is trembling as he struggles to get out of the car, the poor kid has no idea what’s going on inside his own head. Coach gets out and gathers all his coachly belongings from the back seat. He asks Dakota to close the door for him, but when he gets to his front door, Coach notices a lack of SLAM from the door being shut. Coach turns around to see Dakota in the driveway staring at him, nay, through him,with something small gripped in his hands.
Coach hardly has the chance to expel the words, “What’s up, kid?” before he finds himself on the ground, belongings scattered all over the driveway and front lawn. Dakota’s on top of him, holding an unsheathed boxcutter to his throat. The air is uncomfortably still.
“Uhhh,” Coach calmly says, trying his best to not break eye contact with this apparently murderous little bugger. “You were silent in the car, but I can’t say I expected this.”
“Shut the fuck up! You fucking asshole, you fucked me up and I ran a shit race because of you. You and fuckin’ Prief!”
Coach looks up to Dakota, mouth agape, no words to offer.
“You and the other kids probably told Prief to elbow me like that to try to take me out, you guys don’t want me on the varsity roster since Jack isn’t here anymore. That’s fucked up!”
“Prief elbowed you during the race?”
“Fuck off, acting like you didn’t know,” Dakota spits at the defenseless Coach, pressing the blade of the knife firmly against his neck. “You’re a piece of shit, and so are all the other assholes. After tonight, there’s going to be one less of you worthless wastes of life polluting this Existence.”
Coach, remaining unsettlingly calm, simply says, “Control Dak, come on. I know you have it, show me that control.”
Dakota raises the blade like a hero raises a dagger over the head of a fallen dragon, ready to strike and shatter every last fragment of Coach’s wasted consciousness. Just as the razor-sharp blade is about to puncture the skin protecting Coach’s very vulnerable jugular vein, the voice of an angel calls out.
“Honey, is everything all right?” says Missus Coach’s voice as it flies out the open window to greet all the ears out and about on this fine night. “I heard all sorts of commotion, is there someone out there?”
Dakota freezes with the blade a mere few inches from Coach’s just as frozen neck. ‘Fuck, didn’t see that coming.’ Coach slowly looks up at the light shining out his open bedroom window, then back at Dakota, then he lingers on the knife for a moment before returning his gaze back to Dakota’s eyes.
“No worries babe, just me and one of the kids,” he says before gulping loud. “I tripped over a squirrel, no worries.”
“Oh okay, I’ll stay in bed then. I hope you didn’t hurt the poor little thing!”
“Yeah,” Coach says, still looking at Dakota. “Me too.”
The two stay involved for longer than a few, Dakota’s trembling hands keeping the boxcutter stationed on Coach’s jugular vein. The most suspenseful thing about this situation is that nobody knows what’s about to happen, not even me. Coach is pretty sure he’s about to die, but he hasn’t given up hope yet, Dakota doesn’t exactly feel like he has control over his body, and Missus Coach is back asleep, completely unaware of the potential homicide about to go down in her driveway. So there they sit, the temperature falling around them for the next half hour until Dakota finally drops the blade and begins spewing saline from his eyes.
Coach shuffles out from under Dakota and sits up, embracing the broken boy in a hug until the emotions have calmed enough for Dakota’s weeps to somewhat resemble words. Dakota doesn’t know what to say so he keeps spewing gibberish, occasionally sobbing out a, “Sorry,” between the less wordish cries. Coach just pats him on the back and gives him all the time he needs to calm down. When Dakota’s still going ten minutes later, however, Coach is forced to rethink his strategy.
“Hey buddy, it’s getting pretty cold out here. The guest room is pretty much set up from last week, you just need to scrounge up a pillow from the hall closet. Think you can handle that?” Coach says softly, trying to coax perhaps his most misunderstood and somewhat murderous runner into the safety of his house. “You don’t have to worry about all that,” said with a wink and a head gesture towards the boxcutter, now held in his hand. “Everybody has bad days.”
Coach gathers his scattered coaching stuff and carries it all into the house, leaving the door open behind him. Dakota watches him, completely unable to believe the night’s turn of events. That anger just came out of nowhere, swallowed him into a great big miasma of murderous red, and all of the sudden it’s just… gone. Suddenly feeling tired, the tiredness evolving into exhaustion when the tears cease their flowing, Dakota notices the cold wind whipping against his rosy cheeks isn’t helping his situation even a little bit. He follows Coach’s lead and walks into the man’s house, heading straight into the guest room without finding the pillow first.
Before settling down for the night, Dakota decides to get a cup of water from the kitchen; when he’s in there, he scribbles out a note and, on his way back to the bedroom, slips said note underneath Coach’s door. He then treks back into the guest room, water in hand and, feeling more than ready to get to sleep, finally goes into the closet and gets himself a pillow.
Instead of inhabiting the bed tonight, Dakota decides to strip the blankets from the mattress and sleep on the floor, just like Jack would do at their sleepovers.
The next day, Coach brings Dakota to school and everything goes on as it normally would. Although he expects to be expelled, out boy suffers through all his classes (with an awkward lunch break in the middle of the day) completely incident free.
When he gets to cross country practice, he’s welcomed warmly by his friends, the opposite of what he expects and deserves. He apologizes to everyone for being a big jerk, Prief apologizes for throwing his elbow, Jaden apologizes for pulling a Gio and not getting back up after he fell, and a big group hug takes place. Coach is in a fantastic mood when he gets to practice and announces that he will be running with the team today, which puts a smile on the face of each and every one of the seven runners.
As the team begins their warm-up run on the track, Jaden speaks up. “So who tripped me yesterday? I’ve got a debt to settle.”
Coach looks at Jaden, then back to Dakota, then at Prief, then at a lowly chipmunk scurrying across the track to hide inside a nearby rock wall, then finally back at Jaden. “Control, Jaden. Show me that control and move on with your life.”
And so he does, and next week the team goes on to win their State Sectionals meet for the fifth year in a row.
Coach and Dakota are already on their way to the school and Missus Coach just got finished washing up from breakfast. She gets dressed, gathers her pens, folders, oxygen tank, and documents and throws herself into her car, ready to get workin’ as soon as her chemo drip starts. She pulls out of her driveway and, after hardly thirty seconds of driving, she feels a small bump.
Looking into her rear-view mirror, Missus Coach sees the flat, twitching corpse of a squirrel smeared into the road behind her that certainly wasn’t there when she started driving.
‘Stupid fucking squirrel, shouldn’t have run into the street.’