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The only word I’d ever known was run. It seems obvious. When you’re an Olympic track star, that’s what you expect to hear. Run! Run! Run! And people yelled that word over and over as if it had some sort of power as a secret prayer. Ever since I’d turned eight, I’d heard that word at track practice five hundred times a day, seven days a week.
But there was a problem with hearing that word so many times. Eventually it turned into the only thing I knew how to do. It became engraved in my brain until it became a part of who I was. And the minute things anything started to get bad, the first word that popped into my head was run.
So, you can imagine that as I stand here with a gun aimed at the side of my head, my instincts scream at me to flee.
“Do what is best for you and run,” says the guy in a dark-black, tight hat that drapes over his eyebrows but doesn’t quite cover his eyes. He stands with his elbow locked as one leg extends in front of the other in a ready position.
I turn to Jessa as she holds onto my arm and hides a little bit behind me. And maybe I should run, but how can I just leave her here?
“Who is he?” I ask her quietly. Why is this guy in her house? Shouldn’t your house be a haven?
“Nathan,” she speaks my name quietly as if trying to keep the situation as calm as possible. “This is Andrew Weaver.”
Her eyes look at me intensely, and her hand gives my wrist a death grip. The way she stares at me makes it seem like I should know him. We stare at each other for a long second and her lips mouth the word think.
“Coffee shop,” she whispers. “Remember?”
And so I think back to the beautiful day where the sunlight fell like melting crayons as I walked into a little coffee shop no bigger than a basketball court. My hand reached into my back pocket to ready my money as my attention shifted to the menu.
“Nathan?” I heard someone say inquisitively from behind me. I turned around to see who would have recognized me.
I saw a girl standing behind me. She had gorgeous brown hair that the sun tinted as it gleamed through the wall size windows, giving her whole face a beautiful shine. She smiled from ear to ear with her glamorous, unforgettable smile that I distinctly remembered from middle school.
“Jessa?” I asked as my confused expression started to shift into a smile.
She took one step towards me and hugged me as if to acknowledge that she hadn’t forgotten the times where we used to be best friends.
“I can’t believe it’s really you! How’ve you been?”
“I’m doing well,” I said still trying to figure out how I’d gotten lucky enough to run into her.
“What have you been up to these days?”
“Well, I’m a runner,” I said, and something about this made her face turn sour for a quick second as if remembering my issue with constantly running away. That was what had put an end to our friendship nearly fifteen years ago. She had been the only person that had ever seemed to actually take the time to realize that there was more to me than someone who could run.
We spent time together after school, and on the weekends, we’d go see a movie or go to the mall to hang out.
But eventually, my coaches had started to get worried that I’d been spending too much of my energy on her and not enough on track. A few times, I ditched track practice to go spend more time with her. Even though I was still young, when my coaches had looked at me, they didn’t see a middle school boy wanting to have fun; they just saw two feet that could run fast.
And eventually, I had to choose between track or friends, and like I said, the only word I’d ever known was run.
I switched the topic off of me and back to her.
“What about you?” I asked her. “What do you do?”
“I’m a doctor,” she nodded as if to try to pass the time before my response.
I knew absolutely nothing about medical things. “Well, that’s cool.”
She laughed a little. “Not always. Like today,” she took a deep breath as if trying to breath out everything bad.
She didn’t look me in the eyes when she responded. “I work in the emergency room. This lady had a heart attack and died. She was young too. Her husband came in, and he was just devastated.”
Her face turned into a deep frown, and something about it made my heart burn. Normally this kind of thing didn’t happen to me, but looking at her when she was sad somehow broke my heart.
“He just couldn’t believe that she was dead. I swear, the look in his eyes made it seem like his entire world had shattered, like someone had just sucked every bit of happiness out of his life forever.”
She stared off into space for a while as though failing to shake off the pain of what had happened. I could see how much this had bothered her. A little tear streamed out of her eye and down her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I tried to think of something to say to make it better. But what was there to say? No words could change reality.
“You know you won’t be sad forever,” I whispered.
The smell of the metal gun brings my attention back to the matter at hand.
“I don’t get it,” I say to Jessa. “What doesn’t that day have to do with any of this?”
“That’s the guy whose wife died!” She says forcefully yet barely above a whisper.
Slowly, my focus turns off of Jessa and back to Andrew, the man holding the gun.
“What do you want, man?” I ask. “Money?”
The gun stares me with intense an eye that penetrates my mind revealing to myself that I’m scared. My heart rate increases to the point where my heart pounds against my chest.
I begin to pull out my wallet.
“Here, take as much as you want,” I throw the entire thing at him. “And here’s the keys to my car. Just set the gun down.”
Andrew doesn’t move at all, and I start to panic as I desperately try to think of anything else that I have to offer him.
“I don’t want your money!” he yells. “Your little girlfriend here killed my wife!”
“I didn’t kill her,” Jessa defends. “We tried our best to save her. It was just too late; there was nothing left to do. I’m sorry for your loss, and honestly, I wish more than anything there would have been some way to save her.”
“Well, you didn’t!” Andrew lowers the gun for a second as if too drained with sadness to hold the gun up anymore. I take a quick step towards him, trying to get close enough to grab the gun and force it out of his hand. However, this makes him regain his previous ready position.
“If you take one more step, I’ll shoot you!” he says forcefully. I study his eyes for an extra second. He raises his gun and shoots the ceiling as if to confirm the fact that the gun is loaded. My hands cover my ears to get rid of the ringing sound. The ceiling shatters down onto us. I look at the distance between Andrew and me. It is only fifteen feet, but even that is too far. I might be faster than a lot of things, but a bullet isn’t one of them.
“Look, just tell me what you want, and you can have it. We don’t want any trouble,” I say hoping to somehow get a different answer out of him the second time.
“I want her dead!” He repeats. “She killed my wife, so she deserves to die!” His eyes beam with evilness.
“She didn’t kill her!” I say, trying to get him to understand. “I’m sorry about your wife, but this wasn’t her fault!” I try to keep calm, but no matter how hard I try, my heart won’t stop beating out of control. I struggle to keep a steady tone in my voice. “Look you loved your wife, right?”
He didn’t say anything, but instead he just stared at me.
“She wouldn’t want you to do this,” I say hoping that bringing her into the picture would change his mind.
“I loved her!” He yells as though that was some kind of an excuse, as though love itself can make someone do crazy things.
“But this wasn’t Jessa’s fault!” I repeat.
“Well, I don’t see it that way, so I suggest you leave! Consider her dead! You might as well at least save yourself.”
I turn back around to Jessa, and she gives me a little smile as if trying to reassure me that things will end up all right. But we both know that she’s wrong.
“You have your race in four weeks,” she says. “Don’t do anything stupid. Run.”
And I put my hand in hers. I can see it in her eyes that she honestly thinks I will leave.
My coach Eric had just finished giving me the same don’t-do-anything- stupid speech last week.
“Only five more weeks,” he said as I passed the white finish line, “You ready?”
“Of course,” I responded as my arm wiped the sweat off my forehead.
“You have a real shot at winning this year. Don’t do anything stupid. You’ve trained your whole life for this. Nothing’s gonna stop you now. Just stay focused.”
“Nothing’s going to get in my way,” I said as I bent down to catch my breath. “What would get in my way?”
He slapped the side of my shoulder in a friendly manner as he smiled. “That’s the spirit man. You’re unbeatable. If you run your best race, no one will even be able to touch you. A forty-two second 400 is blazing. Finally, everyone will know that you are the fastest man alive. Let that sink in.”
And as I did, I smiled.
So now, as I stand here with every bit of fame and fortune at stake, why aren’t my feet moving? If I want so badly to be famous than why am I not running?
“I can’t leave you,” I whisper.
She just shook her head back and forth. “This isn’t your problem.”
But the truth is that for some foreign reason, I don’t want to leave her. I repeat my thoughts in my head, trying to understand why I don’t want to go. The words sound surprising to me as they form in my head. Maybe somewhere along in the time I’d spent with her, I’d convinced myself that I needed her laugh, that I needed her smile, that I needed her angelic voice, that I needed her. Maybe I actually do.
After that day, nearly two months ago in the coffee shop, we continued to spend more and more time together until I remembered everything that I’d loved about her. She is fun and exciting, yet she contains a soft, gentle side that makes it easy to talk to her.
I capture a glimpse of the concerned look that occupies her eyes as she seems to worry about what will happen to me if I don’t leave.
“Go ahead,” she says. “Leave.”
Her voice manages to say the words without any trace of an accusing tone. She makes it seem like there’s no shame in just running away.
“Don’t you remember what you told me?” I ask her as my grip on her hand tightens.
And I begin to see the whole thing replay. It had happened about a week ago at the park where we’d met for lunch. We’d just finished eating and were planning our next date.
“So, what do you want to do tomorrow?” She asked me as we admired the streams of light seeping through cracks in the tree branches of an old oak tree.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, what do you do you have going on?”
“I have track.”
She laughed. “Oh my gosh, is that still all you do?”
I laughed back although I didn’t see what was so funny about that. “Kinda.”
She didn’t say anything, but instead just smiled as if there was something mysteriously funny.
“What?” I said. “We’ve been together for nearly two months, and you knew me all through middle school. You know that all I do is run.”
“Well we are going to have to change that a little bit,” she said.
I took a bite of my sandwich and stared back at her. “And how exactly are we going to do that?”
She twisted her mouth to the side, making her look somewhat confused. “We are going to go bowling than to dinner, then to a movie, and everywhere we go we will just walk, taking our time, enjoying something.”
I smiled at the way she said everything with such conviction as if she had the entire night mapped out.
“All right,” I said. “Sounds good.”
“There’s more to life than just running around a track. Eventually there will be something that you can’t run away from. You know that, right?”
And now as I look at her, I can’t get my feet to run.
“You’ve lived for a long time without me. Just go back to how things were. You’ll be fine,” she says. But things weren’t the same. I can’t just return to my old life.
“As touching as this is,” Andrew says as he rolls his eyes, “If you don’t leave, I’ll shoot you both!”
I turn to Andrew who still stands there with a face of hard stone. My feet slid so that I am standing in front of Jessa.
There are things I want to tell her, but I’ve never been one to use words to express my feelings. The words always seem to come out wrong, and I end up saying something I don’t mean. And as much as I want to look her in the eyes and tell her that I love her, I decide to skip saying the words and just show her.
“Kill me instead,” I say.
“This isn’t up for negotiation!”
“I know it’s not. According to you, she killed the one you loved, so why not kill the one she loves?”
Jessa grabs me and turns around.
“Nathan,” she says. “Nathan, stop it! Just stop this! Stop saying that!”
But I rotate away from her and look back towards Andrew.
“Is that a deal?”
He doesn’t say anything, but instead, he just turns the gun to my head.
I hear Jessa say something about how I’m “throwing my life away”.
“Fine,” Andrew says. His finger readies on the trigger.
Jessa tries to move in front of me, but I push her behind.
“There’s more to life than running,” I tell her as I smile. Something about me repeating her words makes her stop and stare at me for an extra second as though to see if I really mean it.
“3,2,” As Andrew looks at me in the eyes, an evil little grin occupies his face. “1.”
“No!” Jessa starts crying, and she continues to try to push me out of the way, but my strength overpowers hers.
His finger starts to pull back on the trigger, and I hear the sound of a gun firing.
And for the first time ever, I don’t run.