“Smith! Get the hell over here!” My track and gym coach, Mr. Parkinson barked. I sighed and jogged over, earning a series of sympathetic glances from my friends. It was the last block of the day, and I really didn’t need another lecture from him about how I was missing too many track practices after school. But knowing the look on his face, I was almost certain I knew what he was going to say.
Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. “Listen Smith. I know things are tough back at home, and I’m here to talk if you need someone, but the amount of practices you have been missing is unacceptable.”
“I’m sorry, sir…” I muttered.
Coach sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I know you’re sorry, Jamie, and I wish I didn’t I have to do this…”
“You see, the rule book says if you miss practices, you can’t be in the meets. I wish I could make an exception under the circumstances, but well…”
“You can’t,” I said, begging myself not to blush.
The bell rang, saving me from even more humiliation.
I tried to smile. “See you on Monday.” I quickly walked out of the gym.
“Hey, Jamie!” Kyle Jagger, my best friend since the first grade, grinned in his lopsided way. His mischievous green eyes twinkled, making him look much younger than he really was. Kyle hurried over, mopping his sweat with his already soaked shirt.
“That’s disgusting,” I said promptly. I had this thing for cleanliness, and preferred to leave my sweat on my face rather than wipe my forehead all over my clothes.
Kyle and I both got into his rusty pickup truck; he had inherited this piece of junk from his dad. I myself was eligible to drive, but was too busy now to take the test. I cranked up the music, turning to the station we both loved. Between the radio and the rickety engine, Kyle had to shout to be heard over the noise.
“So what did old Parkinson want? Make you, the best runner on our team and favorite of every idiot who watches high school track, a one-man show?” Although he said this lightly and with a joking manner, I could hear a little iron in his voice.
“I wish…” I groaned, burying my face in my hands. After I had finished telling Kyle about all the coach had said, he was shocked.
“Are you sure?” He asked for the hundredth time as we pulled into my driveway. “Parkinson pulled you, the star, out of Saturday’s lineup?”
“Yes!” I said more forcefully this time, opening the door. “Hey, I’ve gotta go. Thanks for the ride.”
Kyle grunted in response and gunned the engine, pulling out of my driveway.
I hurried up the steps, pulling out the screen door and shutting it as softly as I could.
I pulled off my shoes and put them in a corner, then walked upstairs as softly as my socked feet could carry me, which was pretty soft after months of practice.
Peeking in the door closest to mine, I could see my mothers’ sleeping form in the dim light of her lamp. I breathed a sigh of relief, ignoring the pang of guilt that came with it. Just as I was about to creep away, a small voice croaked, “Jamie?”
I paused and considered just leaving, but I knew that it would only lead to an even bigger catastrophe later. “Yes Mom?”
“I haven’t seen you all day,” she whispered, slowly sitting up and stretching out her thin, almost translucent arms.
“Well, I had school,” I say tentatively, almost daring to hope that this would be a normal conversation. “And didn’t Nurse Ellie come today?”
Instantly, though, my mother’s demeanor changed. “Couldn’t you have taken some time off to see me? Do you even care about me? Your mother? Obviously you don’t. A good son wouldn’t leave me with some nurse! You don’t even love me!” she said angrily.
I shrunk back, stung, even though I knew that this wasn’t my mom speaking. It was her brain tumor. It was twisting her thoughts and making them vicious and scary and hurtful. Not the kind, caring woman I had grown up around. I knew this better than anybody, but her words still hurt me in a way I could not comprehend.
“Mom, I’m-“ I tried, tears threatening to spill over and water the carpet.
“Don’t talk to me,” she hissed.
In that instant, I could not think of a better alternative. I needed to let everything out. I needed to leave. So I ran.
I spent the rest of the day in the woods, sitting in a pile of leaves, watching a fat caterpillar crawl up a log. I knew it was stupid, but for some reason, I wanted to be that bug. Carefree. No sick mother, nothing.
I squeezed my eyes closed, and then opened them. Then, in the middle of the woods, I could hear and see everything. I saw a small chipmunk scurrying up a tree trunk. I heard the familiar chirping of frogs and insects, little things that I had paid no attention to before. I saw a beautiful bird I had no name for swoop down with grace that could easily beat my long strides while running the 200.
Yes, nature can do strange things to you. Being alone can do strange things to you too. Perhaps I’m like that Dimmesdale guy in the Scarlet Letter who finally breaks down after hiding for too long.
This is me, Jamie, the guy who never gets mad, the golden boy who takes care of his sick mother, the track star, the boy who never, ever breaks down. But now, I have the power to break. I have the power to let my emotions out, to feel, to understand. In this lonely world, I don’t need the company of others.
I have myself. And for now, that is enough.