Jensen was waiting for me when I left the locker room after our last practice. "Can we talk?" she asked.
"Sure. Right now?"
"If you're like me," she said, "you're starved after training, more so than even after a race; I think the excitement of a real race takes the edge off my appetite. But for training runs, I don't eat much at lunch beforehand and then need food afterwards. You must know where to go to get something to eat. Let's talk there. Unless you've got somewhere to go?"
She put that as a question, and I shook my head. "I know where to go. I've got my bike, but I can walk with you."
She grinned. "I ride, too. Let's go."
I was happy she'd approached me. I hadn't gotten to know her at all, and I wanted to. This was my opportunity.
We went to Burger Barn, a place where kids from school went that was large enough that we could have a booth that wasn't close to anyone else. She'd told me on the way that she wanted to talk to me privately, and Burger Barn was the place for that. It was always noisy, and in our case, that would help keep our conversation from being overheard.
When we had burgers, fries and milkshakes on the table in front of us and none of the other booths around us were occupied, I complimented her on her time in the last race—she'd smoked both Devin and Brian by over two minutes and run with their best runner the entire way—and then asked her what she wanted to talk about.
She stared at me with the same intensity she'd given the runner who'd disparaged her before that earlier race, not saying anything, quite obviously trying to assess me for some reason. Hey, I'm not a complicated guy. Quiet, yes, but not deep at all. What you saw with me was what you got. Except for my one secret, of course.
Finally, she dropped her eyes, ate a fry, and spoke. "This is a little awkward, and I don't know you well enough to know what to expect. But the season isn't very long, our next race is an away race and, well, I want you to back me on something, but . . ."
She stopped, picked up her burger but didn't bite into it, instead just looked at me. It was impossible to read her face. I thought I saw a number of expressions there but wasn't really sure of any of them.
"I guess you'll just have to try me," I said.
"You seem nice," she said. "You seem uncomfortable as a captain, nothing like most I've dealt with. That gives me some hope you'll at least listen."
"Oh, sure. I'll listen. What is it?"
She sighed. "I guess if you say no, it won't be any worse than it is now, and it's possible you'll say yes."
I smiled and kept my mouth shut. She was wrestling with herself, and I didn't want to interfere.
She ate a few more fries, then pushed the container away and sat up straight. "Okay," she said, but then stopped.
"Okay," I said supportively.
She grinned. "This is hopeless. I'll just say it. Look, this season has been wonderful. I've really enjoyed it. Both the training runs and the races. All you guys are sweethearts. I come from North Dakota. People take girls' sports very seriously there. Cross country is a big sport. Very serious competition. Very serious coaches. It was never as easy-going as here. All the girls on the team were fighting for places, fighting to get into the scoring group. None of us were really friendly with any of the others. If you were in the top five, you were making damn sure you stayed there. If you were just below that, you were trying hard to beat the slowest girl ahead of you and at the same time not be pushed aside by the one right behind you. Not friends. None of us."
She finally took a bite of her burger. Mine was just a pleasant memory by now. I did have a few fries left.
"So," she continued, "running here has been an awakening. There, it was just hard, competitive work; here, it's fun! Sure, it's work, too, but everyone is supportive of each other, everyone's working hard together, and that makes it really satisfying. I'm loving it."
She stopped for another bite, and I had a chance to speak. "So what's the problem?"
She frowned. "It's not so much a problem as a wish. See, we had great fun today. Then you guys went off to shower and kept having fun, and I wasn't part of that. I missed out. It doesn't seem fair that I'm part of the team but can't be part of the celebrations and fun after runs. I feel like I'm not one of you guys when that happens. I am part of the team but not, and I'm missing that important part, the bonding part. It's where the guys all tease each other, and, well, are naked together so nothing's hidden, and it has to make you all closer because of that. I'm missing that and want in. I really want in. And that's only part of it."
"Yeah. You know about our next meet, don't you?"
"What do you mean? I know it's against Brayn Academy. That they're very good even if they're all assholes, but with you, I think we'll beat them. Not as easily as our last races, but still win. Why? What do you mean, 'know about them'?"
"They're a boys' school, that's what."
"So they don't have a girls' shower. That means you guys will all get to shower afterwards and I'll ride back on the bus all sweaty and grungy. How's that fair?"
I finally realized what she was saying. Her idea was so over the top, it hadn't occurred to me. I think my mouth actually dropped open. "You mean, you want to shower with us?"
She smiled. "Exactly! It's only fair," she said. "And this is my chance to be with you guys when you're celebrating, my best chance—because it's the law, too. The law says if what the boys have isn't available for the girls, the girls get to share."
Now, the thing is, I'm not dumb. I could see possibilities right away. I could envision her in the showers with us. Well, I guess that's the sort of fantasy all boys my age would make up. The thing is, I made that fantasy run in my mind differently from how most of those boys would. Much different.
"Jensen, that's, well . . ."
"I know, I know. But you have another week to think about how to do it. If you tell the coach, he'll say no. If you don't tell the coach, you're going behind his back. And what about the other guys on the team? Will they go along with it? If we just spring it on them, that's not fair to them, but if you talk to them about it, they're sure to tell other people at school, and it'll become a major thing before it even happens, and we won't be able to do it, and that would mean no shower for me. Unfair. But you're smart. Maybe you can figure this out. I asked around. Everyone said you were an A-student. That's what I need, a smart guy on my side who's willing to go into battle for me. Are you? I mean, what do you think about it, me in the showers with you guys?"
I would like it. I'd like it very much. Even if it wasn't for the reason she was thinking of.
I nodded. "I'll think about it, but at first glance, for sure, I'm on your side with this." I told her, and this time her smile was even larger.
"It isn't about sex, you know," she said. "When you guys are showering, even though everyone's naked, no one's thinking about sex. They're thinking about the race, talking about the race, and that's what I want to be part of."
I had to give this a lot of thought. It was big. It was asking for a world of trouble, and I wasn't that kind of risk-taking guy. I was an under-the-radar, back-of-the-line sort of guy. Not one that sticks his neck out, and certainly not one to lay his head on the chopping block while doing so.
It was obvious what to do. Just go dump this in the coach's lap. Coach Dryer would think about it for maybe a half second, then say no, and that would be that. No chopping block. Off the hook. But I wanted to do this! His saying no would keep me from being the one to disappoint Jensen, but it wouldn't accomplish my objective. I wanted to do this!
Nothing was clearer than the fact that the coach would say no if he was aware of what Jensen wanted to do. So, I wasn't going to tell him. And I felt awful about that. He and I were close, and that bond would certainly be stretched to the breaking point and maybe beyond. How much did I want this? Enough for that?
Well, maybe I could form a plan that would keep Coach mollified. Not happy. No matter what I did, he'd not be happy. But if I had a solid reason for not talking to him about it, maybe he wouldn't be furious enough to lose his faith in me. Maybe.
But I had to talk to the guys about this. I was the team captain; I had to work in the team's best interests. To have her walk into the showers naked and confront a bunch or hormonal teen boys all unaware—no. No, that wasn't what a captain should be all about.
I thought about it, knowing the next meet, the one where she had a perfectly good reason for doing this, was a week away. Seven days. Whatever I came up with had to be quick.
So I thought about it the rest of that day and all day Saturday, and by Sunday I knew what I was going to do. What I didn't know was what all the ramifications would be. Would I be in deep doo-doo? Maybe expelled? Or maybe sued? What if one of our team members had an overly zealous religious parent who thought their boy seeing a naked girl would be the end of the world for them? Lawsuit city with Leviticus the sitting judge.
I kept getting thoughts like that, reasons not to move forward with this. Jensen and I had traded phone numbers and I even started to call her a couple of times, saying this was impossible, but I always put my phone down without hitting the last button. I wanted to do this!
By Sunday morning I had come up with something that was ridiculous, but kept working on it, and by Monday, was ready to act.
After school Monday on our training run, Scott was with me as usual, blathering away as usual, pissing me off as usual, though not so much now that I knew why he could run like he did. Finally, when he took a breath a little deeper than most, I had a chance to jump in, and I did.
"Hey, Scott, what do you think of Jensen?"
"She's great. Why?"
"Well, she spoke to me Friday after our race. She loves it here, loves the team, loves running with us."
"Good. Now, as I was saying—"
"Hold it!" I had to stifle a burst of laughter. That was so Scott. But I had this speech ready for him and didn't want to be distracted. "That was the preamble. Now the rest of it. She has a problem and wants me to fix it for her. It's tricky. So I wanted to bounce it off you before talking to any of the others. I want your opinion."
Damn! I wished he'd at least be breathing hard. But it was what it was, and now I had hopes I'd be the same as him next year. Now I had a job to do.
"Okay back at ya. Here's the deal. She wants to be as close with our team as she was back with her other one before she came here. They always celebrated wins and losses together. We do too, of course, but most of that is in the shower after the race. She misses being part of that. She wants to be in on it. Also, at our next meet, she won't have a chance to shower afterwards unless she does so with us. So that's two reasons she asked me if she could join us."
That got his attention! So much so he stopped running. "She wants to shower with us?"
"Yeah. What do you think?" I loved seeing him startled by this, startled to the point he was dumbfounded and didn't know what to say. First time I'd ever seen that in him. He stood looking at me, then looked even harder, then said, "What do you think?"
"I don't want to tell you till you've answered. I don't want to sway your opinion. Would you be okay for her to be in there with us after a race. Yes or no. And your thoughts, too."
Scott started running again, and I stayed beside him. He hadn't gone far before talking. "What do the other guys say?"
"I told you, I came to you first."
"Yeah, you said that but didn't say why. Why me?"
"Why not? We train together, we're alone, and I had to start somewhere."
He glanced over at me, his face showing suspicion, but suspicious of what? I remained inscrutable. At least that's what I was shooting for.
We then ran in silence for a minute or so. I liked silence. It saved air, made running easier.
Then he spoke. His befuddlement was gone, and the trace of humor and challenge that usually marked his voice was back in place. "It really doesn't make any difference to me. I've never seen a naked girl in the flesh, just on the internet, but this wouldn't have anything to do with sex, would it? Just washing and celebrating and ragging each other and badmouthing the other team. I'm not shy at all and have a great body that not enough people get to see. She's probably really asking to do this so she can see me naked. I'm pretty sure of that. Why deny her the privilege? So, yeah, bring it on."
"You have a great body? Where've you been hiding it?"
He reached over and hit my shoulder, then took off. I tried to stay with him. Man, that boy could run. I slowed down fairly quickly. I wasn't going to catch him, and it was best if I didn't make that so apparent to him. I'd excuse myself by saying we weren't training sprints today, this was supposed to be a stamina workout, and discipline was everything in running.
Next up were Devin and Brian. I found them at lunch. They always ate together outside. Sometimes they had friends with them, some days they were alone. I was lucky they were alone that day.
I asked if I could sit with them, and they said sure. I explained what was up, gave them Jensen's reasons for wanting to shower with us and asked their opinion.
They looked at each other, then Devin asked, "What does Coach say? I can't believe he's approving it."
"I haven't spoken to him yet. If the team, anyone on the team, is against it, then there's no need to bother him with it. So, how about you guys?"
They looked at each other again, and this time Brian was the spokesman. "We don't care. You might have guessed by now that we're boyfriends. We don't advertise it, but we spend enough time together that people have to be thinking we are. We don't mind you knowing. But having a naked girl in the shower with us? We're not into girls at all. Seeing a naked girl will be interesting, but that's all. Her reasons for wanting to be there make sense. If she just wanted to ogle naked guys, we'd say no, but that isn't it at all. So, yeah, okay by us."
I grinned at him, happy for his answer—but for another reason as well. "How," I asked, "did you know Devin would go along with it? How'd you know what he'd think about having a naked girl ogling him? Or ogling you?"
He grinned back. "We can read each other like a book. He's a gothic novel; I'm a comedy."
So much for that. If he didn't want to say, that was fine with me. What it meant was, half the team was okay with Jensen showering with us. I still had five more guys to ask.
In the next couple of days, I hit the other five. The two seniors and the other two juniors were okay with it, and in fact it looked like they were more than okay; they were eager. I stressed that sex had nothing to do with this and to erase that from their minds. They tried to look innocent and failed, but they all okayed the idea.
That left the other freshman. Cary. He was a typical freshman, and we were still near enough to the beginning of the year that he was even then a little uncertain about how he fit into most things. Especially showering with a girl.
"But she'll see me!"
"Yeah, but you'll see her, too, and if you think she'll spend a lot of time looking at your dick, well, other guys in there have bigger ones. Uh, I'm not saying that because I spend a lot of time in there comparing dicks. But everyone looks at everyone, and she'll probably do that, too, but maybe not. If anyone's going to be embarrassed, it'll probably be her more than any of us. We're all just normal guys. You, too. You're fine. But this isn't a sex thing. It's her wanting to be one of us and wanting to ride back on the bus clean. So, come on. All of us have said yes. It's up to you now. You say no, I'll tell her we can't do it. You say yes, and then the burden's on me. That's when the coach will have to be involved. So, yes or no?"
I think he agreed only so he wouldn't be the one who'd put the kibosh on it and because he was pretty sure the coach wouldn't go along with it and so his willy would remain a mystery to the girl. I could see in his eyes, the more he thought about it, that maybe it would be cool to be seen by a girl, and even cooler to see one for himself.
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