When she runs, she forgets herself. With every sharp intake of breath, she forgets her father and her brothers and the tension in their household after she asked them to call her Jamie. With every pitching stitch in her side, she forgets the stress and the fights that happened at her old school. When she runs, she doesn’t have the energy to focus on anything except the heavy pounding of her shoes on the pavement, the rush of cool air on her cheeks, the steady beat of her pulse in her ears. Running is the only thing that can clear her head.
She’s pretty good at it too as it turns out.
As she surveys the grounds of her new school, she considers it briefly. She could take off around the corner and no one, she thinks with a bit of smugness, could stop her. As the guidance counsellor--a cheery man with a wide smile underneath a dark mustache--gestures brightly at the deteriorating buildings and the gravel paths, she wonders if anyone would bother to try.
“I know it doesn’t look like much,” Mr Sharma offers, “But this school- it’s got a lot of heart.” Jamie fights the urge to roll her eyes. She follows Mr Sharma as he continues his friendly commentary about the cafeteria. He has an accent like hers, which surprised her when they were first introduced, but it isn’t enough to keep her attention now. She gazes absently at her surroundings and spots a girl--a student, she assumes--standing on the other side of the courtyard. She wears a soft pink blouse and her blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail with a brightly coloured scrunchy.
“Dani!” Mr Sharma calls and the girl lifts her head. She meets Jamie’s eye and smiles. Jamie’s heart stutters at the sight. “I don’t have time to give you the rest of the tour I’m afraid,” Mr Sharma says as the girl approaches. “I’ve got to see one of the seniors about a test result.” The comment surprises Jamie. She didn’t expect the school to emphasise academics so strongly. The girl reaches them before she has a chance to question it.
“Hi, Mr Sharma!”
“Hi, Dani!” Mr Sharma greets warmly, “How's your shoulder healing up after training?”
“It’s a lot better than last week,” Dani rubs her shoulder and winces slightly. “It should be back to normal soon.”
“That’s great to hear.” Mr Sharma motions between them. “Dani, this is Jamie. Just moved here from England, my old stomping ground.” Jamie smiles apprehensively and Dani lifts her hand in a little wave. “Jamie hasn’t seen the sports field yet,” Mr Sharma continues, “Why don’t you take her on a tour and give her the run down of all the extracurriculars?” He laughs heartily and this time Jamie does roll her eyes.
Dani laughs. “Sure thing, Mr Sharma!”
“Great!” He turns to Jamie. “I’m sure you’ll settle in quickly, Jamie, but if you have any questions or if you run into any trouble- with the other students or any of your teachers- my door’s always open.” Jamie has to stop herself from scoffing at the offer. She manages a noncommittal nod and Mr Sharma smiles, seemingly satisfied with Jamie’s thinly-veiled scepticism, and disappears into a nearby building.
Jamie turns to Dani and she smiles again. Jamie ducks her head as heat rises in her cheeks. She scuffs her shoes on the ground. “So,” she starts cautiously, “The, uh- the sports field?”
“Oh! Of course!” Dani spins abruptly, her ponytail whipping in the air, and starts along the path with her fists held close to her sides. Jamie stares at her for a moment, bemused by her sudden focus, before hurrying after her. “There aren’t many extracurriculars unfortunately,” Dani explains as Jamie matches her stride, “But there’s still a couple of sports and clubs to choose from.”
They reach the other side of the building in a couple of minutes. Dani stops abruptly and Jamie almost bumps into her back. She stands beside her and stares in astonishment at the sight ahead of them: A paddock of dry, patchy grass surrounded by a three-foot mesh fence. In the distance, a mountain range shimmers in the midday heat.
“What the fuck.” Jamie’s mouth drops open in dismay.
“A lot of our sports funding had to be reallocated to the drugs and alcohol program,” Dani offers sheepishly.
Jamie takes in the broken wooden benches on the sidelines and the goalposts at both ends sticking out of the ground at odd angles. “I think I’ll just stick with running,” she says eventually, “I’m good at that.” She leans against the fence on her forearms and looks at Dani.
“We don’t have a track team.” Dani gestures to the empty field in front of them. “We don’t even really have a track.”
Jamie raises her eyebrows in disbelief. “So what do you have?”
Dani slides her backpack off her shoulder and pulls out a slip of paper from the front pocket. “We’ve got, uh-” she peers at the paper, “Student newspaper, theatre, debate, basketball, cheerleading, and, of course, football.” She returns the paper to her backpack.
“Football,” Jamie says incredulously, “I can’t run, but I can play football.”
“There’d be a riot if the school got rid of football.”
Jamie sighs. “I guess I’ll give sports a miss.”
“What?” Jamie asks suspiciously.
“It’s part of the curriculum,” Dani explains, “You have to do at least one to pass.”
“So I have to choose between football and basketball and whatever else?”
Dani nods apologetically. “Sorry.”
Jamie grumbles and kicks at the gravel in frustration.
“I’m part of the football team,” Dani says after a moment. Jamie glances at her. She grins proudly and goes on, “They started accepting girls on the team after the numbers got low. I mean, it’s only me and one other girl so far- and we’re third string, so neither of us has actually played a game yet, but...” she trails off awkwardly as Jamie looks away.
“M’not a girl.” Jamie mumbles the correction before her brain catches up to her mouth.
A slight crease appears between Dani’s brows as she considers Jamie’s comment. But it disappears as quickly as it appears. She shrugs affably. “Well, they need the players because the team’s pretty bad. So if you’re as good at running as you say, they won’t care if you’re a girl or boy or whoever.” She smiles at Jamie and for a moment Jamie is lost in the curve of her lips and forgets her own name. She moves away from the fence as Dani motions with her head. “Come on, I’ll show you the gymnasium- it’s got a new basketball net and everything.”
She reminds herself of this as she approaches the field with her sports bag slung over her shoulder. It doesn’t matter if it’s football. It doesn’t matter if her father started another argument about her name this morning. It doesn’t matter if one of her teachers glared at her as she came out of the toilet this afternoon. It doesn’t matter as long as she runs.
There’s a group of thirty-odd students gathered on the grass. Jamie doesn’t give them a second glance. She slouches towards a woman standing to the side with a clipboard in hand. The woman has a shaved head and wears a long dark skirt, which appears inappropriate in the heat, but she seems so cool and self-composed that Jamie doesn’t dare comment. To add to the effect, she somehow doesn’t have any trace of sweat or dirt on her even though the sun is high in the cloudless sky and it seems like the entire township is covered in a layer of dust.
“Is this, uh- is this football practice?”
The woman regards her with an amused smile. “I suppose you could call it that.” She has an accent too. Jamie wonders what could possibly inspire so many people to move to this tedious mining town in the middle of nowhere, but comes up empty.
“You the coach?”
“No,” the woman says with her lips pressed together in a thin line. “I’m Mrs Grose, one of the administrators- unfortunately Coach Wingrave is, ah, indisposed at the moment. So I’ve been asked to take practice, despite my poor knowledge of football.”
She remembers being introduced to Coach Wingrave by Mr Sharma on her first day. She remembers his bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol on his breath. She isn’t at all surprised to hear that he’s incapacitated in the middle of the day. But Jamie doesn’t want to focus on any of that. She doesn’t care if Coach Wingrave is drunk during school hours. She doesn’t mind if Mrs Grose makes up the rules to the game. It doesn’t matter as long as she runs. “So when do we start?”
“Soon,” Mrs Grose responds. Jamie nods obediently and scans the faces of the students nearby. She spots Dani immediately and strides in her direction. With her eyes closed and earbuds in, she doesn’t notice Jamie. She’s stretched out on the grass, one leg crossed over the other, while her shoe taps along to an unheard song. She startles when Jamie slides her sports bag from her shoulder and drops to the ground beside her. She sits up suddenly and looks around. When her gaze lands on Jamie, she grins.
“Jamie! You came!” she exclaims as she removes her earbuds.
“Yeah, well-” Jamie scratches the back of her head awkwardly. “I wasn’t going to do any running in debate, was I?”
Dani smirks. “Are you sure this isn’t just an excuse to spend more time with me?” she asks cheekily. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and turns to face Jamie properly. She’s wearing sweatpants and bulky shoulder pads with a shirt stretched over the top. A helmet rests by her feet. Jamie feels underdressed in comparison. She’s only wearing an old T-shirt and shorts. She self-consciously fusses with the laces of her shoes.
“Jamie!” Dani gasps, “You don’t have cleats!”
“Your shoes,” Dani clarifies, “They don’t have studs.” She lifts her own shoes to show Jamie the spikes sticking out of the bottom.
“Do I need them?”
Dani nods vigorously. “Absolutely!” She tilts her head and considers Jamie for a moment. She taps her finger to her chin in thought. “Your feet look pretty small,” she says eventually, “I might have an old pair you can borrow?”
Jamie frowns. She opens her mouth to respond when Mrs Grose calls everyone over. “They’re not that small,” she mumbles under her breath as she gets to her feet and follows the group.
“Alright,” Mrs Grose says once everyone is gathered, “We’re going to do a warm up and then practice a couple of plays. So grab your gear and start with some laps and stretches.” She waves them away without another word.
Jamie sidles up next to Mrs Grose nervously as the group scatters to collect their gear. Dani stays by her side.
“Which, uh- which position am I going to play?”
Mrs Grose raises an eyebrow. “What are you good at?”
“Running,” Jamie replies firmly.
“That’s a start, but are you quick on your feet? And how willing are you to take a hit?”
Jamie sets her shoulders confidently. “I’m not afraid to take one.”
Mrs Grose hums thoughtfully and scans her clipboard. “How about running back?”
Jamie has no idea what a running back is, but if it has running in the name, it’s good enough for her. She nods resolutely. Beside her, she hears a low scoff. She turns and sees a tall boy standing nearby with his arms folded smugly across his chest. He sneers at her when she looks at him. “You don’t know anything about football, do you?” Jamie shrugs. She doesn’t know. She also doesn’t care.
Mrs Grose sighs. “I’m not a coach, Mr Quint, and I don’t care to be one,” she says blandly, “Taylor says she can run, so she’s running back. If you have a problem, you can take it up with Coach Wingrave once he’s back on the wagon.” The boy scoffs again and walks away.
Jamie rolls her eyes and turns to Dani. “Shall we?”
On their third lap, they stop for a break at the far side of the field. She flops to the ground with an exaggerated groan. Dani leans forward and rests her hands on her knees. Jamie lifts the hem of her T-shirt to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Her flat, toned abdomen is revealed in the process. When she lowers her shirt, her gaze lands on Dani.
Dani, staring at her.
Dani, averting her gaze when Jamie catches her in the act.
“Sorry,” Dani says, embarrassed. Her cheeks, already flushed from the exercise, somehow blush a deeper red. She darts her gaze to Jamie. “It’s just- I think you’re pretty,” she adds in a rush and she looks away again.
Jamie’s eyes widen in surprise. She didn’t expect that. She didn’t hate it either.
“Sorry,” Dani winces, “Is that- is that bad to say? Because you’re not-”
“I don’t think you have to be a girl to be pretty, right?” She fiddles with her T-shirt and fixes Dani with an earnest expression.
“Good,” Dani grins, “Because you are- pretty, I mean.”
Now it’s Jamie’s turn to blush. She smiles shyly and glances at the group on the other side of the field. “Should we-” she gestures vaguely.
“Yeah.” Dani holds out a hand and Jamie takes it. She’s hauled to her feet. “Want to run back?” Dani asks. She’s still holding Jamie’s hand. She releases it hurriedly with a bashful huff.
Jamie glances at the group again as she brushes dry grass from her shorts. “Nah,” she says, “I don’t want to injure myself before my debut as the best runner back in the school.”
“You mean running back?”
She is generally thinking about running at any given moment. Her leg bounces with excess energy as she sits in her classroom and listens to her teacher talk about calculus. Her mind drifts and daydreams about gravel crunching under her shoes and the sun beating down on the back of her neck. Her muscles tense in anticipation of the next available moment where she can run.
But as she sits beside Dani on the sidelines at the beginning of her first game, she isn’t thinking about running at all. Instead, they ramble on about a wide range of topics. They discuss the latest nature documentary that Jamie watched on the Discovery Channel. They chat about the new cake recipe that Dani wants to try out tomorrow. Jamie ignores the crowd of adults who have come to watch their children and barely notices the group of boys--their opponents--gathered at the other end of the field. She isn’t fussed about her first game in the slightest. She isn’t even going to be on the field.
She doesn’t hear Coach Wingrave call her name.
Dani nudges her shoulder and nods to Coach Wingrave. Jamie looks around. “Yeah?”
“Taylor,” Coach Wingrave sways slightly as he stands in front of her. “Quint and Crain are out,” he says. She winces as she catches the smell of whisky on his breath. “So you’re running back.”
“What?” she squawks.
Coach Wingrave sighs and massages his temple with his hand. “Quint and Crain returned positive tests after a party on the weekend,” he explains tiredly, “So you’ll have to be running back. Otherwise we don’t have enough players and we have to forfeit...again.” He doesn’t hang around for her response. He doesn’t appear to care. Jamie sits in shock.
Dani grips her on the shoulder and shakes gently. “You’re playing!” she squeals in excitement, “You’re the first person who isn’t a boy to play in the whole county!” She urges Jamie to her feet and reaches for her helmet.
“I don’t- I don’t even remember most of the plays,” Jamie stammers as Dani fits the helmet over her curls and flips the face guard in front of her eyes. She tightens the chin strap with nimble fingers while Jamie stares at her cleats--at Dani’s cleats. She’d only given them to her yesterday.
“You don’t need to,” Dani says patiently. She readjusts Jamie’s shoulder pads and places a hand on her chest protector. “Just run to the end zone when the ball is passed to you, okay? That’s what most of the plays are about anyway, remember?”
Jamie doesn’t move. “Run?”
Dani nods firmly. “Run.”
Coach Wingrave calls her name again. Dani grabs her fingers and squeezes them encouragingly. Jamie smiles weakly. With a final push from Dani, she jogs onto the field to join the rest of the players. As she approaches the group, she hears a grumble from the opposing team.
“What’s this?” One of the players shouts over the shoulders of his teammates. He pushes to the front of the group and faces the referee. “We can’t play against a girl!”
His voice carries enough to be heard by the crowd and there’s a noise of agreement from a couple of the parents. Jamie lowers her head as her cheeks heat up. Then she hears someone yell out.
“She’s not a girl!” Jamie recognises the voice and raises her head. She finds Dani standing on the sideline with her hands on her hips. “She’s not a girl!” she repeats, “But she’s still going to kick your ass!”
Around her, Jamie’s teammates mumble their support.
“Yeah!” One of them yells. He points to the opposing players. “You’re going down!” Jamie smiles under her helmet.
The opposing team sneers in their direction, but no one brings it up again. The referee shrugs and gestures for the players to get into position. It’s a bit of scramble as everyone moves at once, but Jamie is pushed into her position by surprisingly gentle hands. She huddles between two boys who tower above her. She feels her breathing slow down.
The whistle blows.
The players snap into action and Jamie is still trying to orient herself when the whistle sounds again. She sees the referee speaking to a couple of players, but she doesn’t have a chance to ask what happened before she hears the whistle again and everyone is off. Jamie can barely keep track of the ball.
This continues for a while. Stop, start. Stop, start.
At some point, she feels the ball shoved into her hands by an unknown figure. She fumbles and drops it in surprise. It’s picked up by another player before the embarrassment even has time to manifest.
The opposing team scores another touchdown and Jamie sighs, frustrated and out of breath. After the kick-off, they return to their starting positions. Jamie crouches behind the line of boys and narrows her eyes in concentration. She wants to run. She needs to run.
The whistle sounds and then suddenly there’s a ball in her arms and a strong hand shoving against her back.
One of her teammates urges her to move. “Run!”
So she runs.
She hears every gasping breath escaping her mouth.
She hears the pounding of her cleats on the hard ground.
She hears the thrumming of her pulse inside her helmet.
But drowning out all of these sounds is Dani’s voice drifting from the sidelines.
“Run, Jamie!” she shouts. “Run!”
So she runs.
She turns her head in time to see someone lunge in her direction. She twists out of the way and clutches the ball to her chest. As the goalposts loom ahead of her, the noise of the crowd dwindles and the only thing she can hear is Dani’s cries of encouragement. She’s close.
She doesn’t notice him until it’s too late.
Jamie collides with the other player as he tackles her from the side and everything goes dark.
She comes to on the ground a moment later. She’s sprawled on her back. The stiff grass strands poke through her clothes and prickle her skin. Dani’s face appears above her. She’s talking, Jamie can see her mouth opening and closing, but her words are muted as though she’s under water. Jamie blinks and tries to sit up. She sways as her vision swims. She slumps back on the grass. The movement seems to burst the bubble around her and suddenly all the muffled sounds are loud--too loud. Jamie groans.
“Oh my god, Jamie!” Dani’s voice is clear and concerned. “Are you alright?” Jamie makes another noise of complaint. Dani reaches out and places a hand on her cheek. She realises absently that someone removed her helmet.
“Did I do it?” she asks. “Did I run?”
Dani’s lips twitch with a smile. “You scored.”
Jamie nods and a spark of pain splinters along her forehead. She feels a pair of hands pull her to her feet. Someone claps her on the back so hard it almost sends her tumbling to the ground again. Dani holds her upright with a firm hand around her arm. She glances around at the group of adults and players who have gathered around her. Coach Wingrave stands a few yards away.
“Good touchdown, Taylor.” Jamie turns to find one of her team members fixing her with a wide grin. She attempts a smile, still a bit dazed and desperately trying to ignore the twinge in her head.
Dani watches her with a worried look. “Do you want to keep playing?” she asks.
Jamie shakes her head, but stops abruptly when it begins to throb. “I think I’m done with running for a while,” she says, as Dani slips an arm around her shoulders and steers her off the field.
Coach Wingrave releases a sigh. “Well,” he turns to the referee. “I suppose we forfeit.”