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by Cole Parker

Chapter 5

I was nervous at our first meet of the season, an at-home match for us against a school that had beaten us last year but had lost its top two runners, seniors who'd graduated. I didn't know how good they were this year, but thought we had a good chance to beat them. My nervousness was mostly excitement. I loved running! It felt good to be back competing again.

We generally practiced on 6-mile courses. Most high school official cross-country meets were 5 km runs. No one on our team would get tired running half the distance of our training runs. The only question was speed. Could we run fast enough to put the competition away?

Scott was standing right next to me at the start. I sprinted to a lead as usual. No one from the other team stayed with me, but Scott did. I glanced at him, and he had a grin on his face. I had the idea that he loved running and racing as much as I did. As always, my heart beat a little faster when he was around, and I didn't know if that was why it was doing so now or if the running was the reason.

The course we were running wasn't one we ran during training. It had elements of our training runs; it used parts of three of our runs. There were uphill and downhill sections. I knew them all well.

I pushed the pace, knowing I'd have lots of energy. Scott stayed with me. It still annoyed me that he seemed to have boundless stamina. He never showed any exhaustion. How could that be? I didn't know but tried just to enjoy having him as a wingman.

I glanced back a few times and saw the pack all running pretty much together 50 or 60 yards behind us with the school we were competing against having two of its runners ahead of that pack. I sped up, wanting even more distance than we now had. Scott stayed on my heels.

At the two-and-a-half-K marker, when I looked back, I could see the pack was much more spaced out, which was normal for a high school meet. I saw the two other-team jerseys still in front and that they'd opened up some space between them and the crowd. Devin followed them, then came another two enemy jerseys. Brian was nowhere in sight.

"Damn," I said. This was going to be closer than I wanted it to be. Scott and I needed much faster times to make up for our final two runners.

I sped up more; Scott stayed right there. The 3-K marker was coming up, and then the 4-K, and soon thereafter I could see the finish line in the distance. No one was making a move on Scott and me. I kicked into a sprint on the slight uphill rise and finished the race all alone. Well, all alone if one didn't count Scott, who was one step behind me.

We won the meet, but only by an eyelash, with Brian outsprinting the man he had to beat. Those longer training runs paid off! We had more at the end than they had, and the uphill grind finishing the race hadn't affected us like it had them. We were happy but restrained in the showers afterwards. We'd all thought we'd have an easier time of it than we had. We'd won, and that was good, but we all had thought we'd be better than this. There was pride in our unit, and this race brought us back to earth a bit. The thinking was, maybe we weren't as good as we thought we were.

I talked to the coach the next afternoon before our practice run. It would be a short one, only three miles, and we were going to take it slowly, just to keep our muscles loose after the hard race the day before. The coach congratulated us all and told us he'd talk to us individually after practice or next day. Then he pulled me aside as the others took off, Scott and Brian leading them away.

"What do you think, Xander?" he asked me. We were in his office, and he'd given me another can of Diet Coke.

"I think we have a great team. We all pull for each other. There's no jealousy or backbiting. Good group to run with. Good guys, period."

Coach Dryer smiled at me. I hadn't said what he'd thought I would. I'd avoided what he'd wanted to discuss. We both knew that.

"And moving forward. How will we do this year?"

He wasn't going to let me off the hook, that was apparent.

"Well," I said, "being brutally honest, to win our conference, I think we're probably okay. To go further than that, we need one more good runner. The four of us can compete, but if we run against schools with five good runners, we'll lose some of those meets."

He nodded. "I agree. So, what do we do about that?"

I shook my head. "What can we do? Our team is what it is. You already hung out a sign-up sheet, and the kids in the school who want to run are already on board. What are you suggesting?" Then I looked more closely at him and grinned. "I can tell by your forced innocence you have an idea."

He laughed. "Got me. Yeah, I do have an idea. Well, more than an idea. I have a proposal for you: a runner who could join the team. A runner with competitive times, even comparable with Brian and Devin. A runner who's maybe—even probably—better."

"Well, great!"

"I think so, with your help."

I stopped. Something wasn't right here. "Uh, there's some problem, isn't there? What does that mean, 'with my help'? You're not telling me something. If this was what you'd normally do, you'd just have introduced him to the team and let him start training with us. Something's screwy here."

He had a smug sort of smile on his face. Well, smug wasn't quite the right word. Maybe a cat-that-got-the-cream sort of look. Like he was happy with himself and knew something I didn't. Huh!

"Okay, maybe you figured me out. Maybe you didn't. We'll see. I want to introduce you to Jensen Lewis, your new teammate if you agree." He got up and walked to the office door, said something I couldn't make out, then walked back in with Jensen Lewis.

"A girl?" I was shocked. "But . . ." Then I realized how rude I was being, and I think I blushed. "Uh, hi," I said and sort of stuck out my hand and sort of didn't. I wasn't good at being introduced to girls.

She looked at me and started laughing. While she laughed, I looked back. She was almost as tall as I was and very slender. Slender but not waifish. Just the way she held herself, she looked strong. I guessed she was a sophomore. She looked like a sophomore. The thing was, she was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, her hair was shorter than Scott's, and, well, I guess I should be clear here: the way her tee shirt fit her, she didn't really show any signs that she was a girl. Know what I mean? Yeah, that.

Her hair, halfway between blonde and brown, was cut all around in bangs and was kind of tomboyish; it wouldn't have looked awkward on a boy, either.

She finished her laughter and said, "Hi. I'm Jensen. Not Jen. Not Jennifer: Jensen." She had a pleasant voice, lower pitched than many girls. She reached and took my half-extended hand and shook it. Firm grip, too. Not hard, not proving a point of how strong she was like some guys did, but firm. "I like to run, and I did on the girls' team back home. In the Dakotas, most high schools have girls' teams in most sports. Cross country is a big, big sport there. I guess not so much for girls here, huh?"

'Here' meant Bishop, a medium-small town in northeastern California,. Some schools in the various towns around us were large enough to have girls' teams; ours wasn't and we didn't.

I didn't answer her; the coach jumped in and answered her. I then had a question for him.

"Are we allowed to have a girl on our team?"

"Yes," he said, and smiled at Jensen. "It is in certain circumstances, ones we happen to meet. If the girl is good enough to meet the same qualifying standards the boys have to meet, and if the school doesn't have a girls' team in the sport in question but does have one for the boys, then yes, it's not only legal but the law says we're required to accommodate the girls. Jensen," he continued, turning to me, "ran cross country where she went to school before and had excellent times. Our school only has a boys' cross country because no girls ever showed an interest in it when we had money in the budget for a girls' team.

"So, how do you feel about this?"

"Uh . . ." This was embarrassing! I had to think about this, but she was standing right there, watching me. And to tell the truth, it pissed me off a little, the coach putting me on the spot. So, I decided to throw it back at him.

"Coach, why are you asking me? She's a runner and good enough to run with us, the law says we have to accept her, so it sounds to me like a done deal. You don't need to ask me. You're the coach. Just give her a uniform and introduce her to the guys."

Jensen was watching the interplay between the coach and me. She turned to the coach to see how he'd answer. I was looking at him as well. If he was flustered by this, he wasn't showing it.

"I'll tell you both why I asked you, Xander. It's because I wouldn't be surprised for at least some of the guys on the team to be unhappy having a girl running with them, especially a girl who'll be a better runner and will have better times than they do. You're the captain. The captain has to be able to pull the team together, and it'll be up to you to calm things down, keep the group together. You told me this was a good group of boys, and I agree with that. I think they'll be okay with Jensen, but you need to sell this. I think with your strong support going in, they'll follow your lead and she'll be welcomed, and it'll work fine. And, with her aboard, if she's as good as her times show her to be, I think we might very well go undefeated this year, something this school has never done in any sport."

I was surprised at how well she fit in. Yeah, I supported her. Yeah, I talked her up to the guys before they even met her. But still, there was the male ego involved, and that's a big deal in high school where everyone is still trying to establish their place in the crowd and it's important for them to fit into the niche they feel is theirs by right. And it was obvious from the start that Jensen was a better runner than most of the guys. Certainly on the level of Brian and Devin and, as Coach had predicted, even better. That was my judgment after watching her train with us the first few days; I didn't know how she'd perform in competition, but I was getting a feel for her personality and thought she'd do even better once she was running for real. She was a feisty, take-no-prisoners sort of girl.

I had a lot on my mind these days. Getting and keeping the team behind her was one of them. Working out where I fit in with Scott was another.

There was no question in my mind what I thought about him. I really liked him. He was a little quirky, maybe a bit too self-assured for my taste, but he wasn't really cocky with that. He didn't lord it over anyone. He was just sure of what he could do, and he then showed that he really could do it. Self-confident was what he was. Very self-confident.

He was also cute to the nth degree. Okay, I know, earlier I said he was plain-looking. I think I was being defensive, trying to be defensive for some reason. Now, knowing him, seeing him in all different situations, clothed and not, I can tell the truth: cute! Definitely cute. What I didn't know, and didn't know how to find out, was whether he was gay. He sort of seemed that way to me, but I didn't know for sure. Like in the locker room. He still dressed out with me, right next to me, he still showered right next to me, still dressed right next to me, and he didn't need to do that. But he did. He also made no effort at all to cover himself up. He wasn't brazen about it; he simply let himself be seen more than most boys would have. I always turned away at least somewhat when I was getting naked. He didn't. He didn't necessarily quickly change either into his jock or into his underpants, either. He didn't seem to feel the need to get covered up again when totally bare.

Was this deliberate so I could see him? It didn't seem to be, but maybe it was. I didn't really think so, though. There seemed to be no agenda to it at all. It seemed more like simply one more manifestation of the self-confidence he had.

He was a couple of grades below me, so our only real contact was on the cross-country team. That kept me from getting to know him better. He ran with me all the time, and on training runs, we were able to chat. Well, I'd never talked during runs and didn't now. But he did. He talked all the time! That was something else that pissed me off, how he could talk and run and never run out of wind? I started to wonder about robotic lungs. Well, I was still mostly a kid pretending to be a grownup. Kids think about, fantasize about, things like that.

I was going to have to ask him about this at some point. How he seemed to have leather lungs. How he was such a good runner. And maybe something else, too. Something there was no way I could talk to him about but still wondered.

I mean, anyone would, wouldn't they, if they thought about it? He was a freshman. Freshmen, early in the school year, are almost all 14 years old. Some are only 13. I'm no expert in penis size, of course, but I do see boys in the showers. A lot of boys in a range of ages. And I've seen enough to know that freshmen boys are at the beginning of the growth cycle. They get bigger every year until they're 17 or 18. I'm talking flaccid here. In general, boys like me, at 16, are enough bigger than boys of 14 for it to be easily noticeable. And Scott, well, he was bigger than most freshmen I'd seen, either 13- or 14- year-olds. He was at least as big as I was flaccid. I'd also seen him hard that once, and he looked about the same size I was that way, too. Larger than he should be at that age.

So what gave? I couldn't ask him about this. How do you ask a boy why his penis is larger than one could expect it to be? I couldn't! But I was certainly curious. I was curious about a lot of things about Scott and had no way to find out. Ask a kid if he's gay and he'll immediately think you're either setting him up to be bullied or asking because you are and want to see if he's a potential partner.

Meaning he'd think I'm gay. And I wasn't out. So I couldn't ask him. And I really, really wanted to know. Because I was starting to crush on him really hard. I couldn't get him out of my mind. Much as I liked his looks, his personality was what made the difference between just someone to crush on and someone I really wanted to get with. This matching of personalities was surprising as I was so reserved and he was so open. Maybe saying his personality appealed to me was the wrong term. Maybe, actually, I was jealous of it.

The thing was, I'd been questioning my sexuality all along up till this point. Thinking I might be, probably was, gay, but not sure. Scott had changed my mind. I was sure now. I liked Scott too much not to be gay. I liked him. I wanted to have sex with him. Fantasized about it. No more questioning.

I really needed to know if he was gay. Then I could worry if he liked me or not, but why even think about that without knowing more?

Anyway, Jensen. After three practices, heading for our next meet, she was working out okay with the team, but I still had to keep an eye on that. The Scott problem was one that I wasn't making any headway on at all. Both were keeping me on my toes, however, and of course school and all that entailed was keeping me busy. Which was why I liked running so much. It freed me from so much thinking. I was out there with nature, and my body was functioning like bodies do when you're a teenager and healthy. Everything felt right when I was running, alone with myself and the world around me.

Except I wasn't alone anymore. Scott was right there, often one or two steps behind me, but just as often right beside me. Talking. Goddammit!

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