I think Mother Nature must have lost her box of crayons. She has shaded every bit of the outdoors with a lead pencil, and her heavy breath is sending cobwebs of grayish fog drifting aimlessly through the air. There isn’t even a sky overhead. She’s sent gloomy winter in for an early appearance on this October morning. But my smile still feels as bright as a summer sun.
It’s a perfect morning, a perfect morning for running. Or so the runners say. I’m not really a runner. Even though I’ve been part of the cross-country team for two years, I’ve never participated in anything other than practice and the two mandatory school meets. Running might as well be listed along with the Iron Chair, Catherine Wheel, the Strappado. It’s torture.
Running is like trying to move my concrete legs with two anvils lodged inside my chest. Add to that the profuse sweating and gasping for breath, and it’s a recipe for 100% organic anguish. There’s nothing enjoyable about running. Except Jeff Salcedo.
Jeff Salcedo makes me swoon. He doesn’t sweat; his sun-kissed olive skin glistens at the end of every practice. Even after sprints, each strand of his caramel-streaked hair stays set in place. And his smile ignites two perfectly placed dimples, lighting up everything around him. Jeff Salcedo is the tilt-a-whirl that spins my carnival heart into a pink cotton candy haze. My heart is the only thing that races every day at practice.
He’s the reason I run cross-country. And he’s also the reason I’m at a water station at 5:30 a.m. on this gray Saturday morning.
“Listen up, everyone,” an extremely tall woman with short red hair shouts at the volunteers. She wears a giant badge that reads “Fall Festival 10k Head Volunteer,” but her tone speaks more loudly than her badge. “We need the tables set up and all the boxes of cups opened. Do not start setting cups out yet. We need everything in place first.”
A few kids I recognize from student council and cross-country make a move toward the boxes, but most just continue talking to their friends or stand still as statues. These are not the waking hours for teens.
I walk toward the boxes of Dixie cups stacked on the sidewalk. A curly-haired girl from cross-country joins me. “Ugh. I can’t believe I had to get up this early. I mean, no one should be awake at five a.m. It should be against the law,” she complains. I nod, like I totally know what she means, but I’ve been awake since three a.m. I’m wired for this morning. I even planned out my outfit a week ago. I’m in my lime green Nike sweatshirt. My friends told me it accentuates my green eyes—something Jeff and I have in common. Swoon. I’ve paired it with my brand new Lululemon running tights and my running shoes, so I look like I belong with the running crowd. Or at least with one runner in particular.
I unpack several boxes and carry stacks of plain white cups to the tables that have finally been set up along the edge of the street. A few girls wake up and start setting out the cups I’ve brought over.
“Don’t set the cups out just yet,” Red Hair barks at us. “We need to get all the water over to the tables. Then I’ll show you how to fill the cups.”
The girl next to me smirks. “She’s going to show us how to fill cups? As if we’ve never filled a cup with water before?”
I laugh. It does seem ridiculous, but I’m not surprised. Everything about competitive running seems so serious to these people.
A few minutes later, all the tables are set up with a Dixie cup mountain range stretching across them. Nobody dares to move on without direction, so the guys sit down and most of the girls huddle, sleepily gossiping. I grab a single cup and step out in front of the table. I extend my arm and practice a steady hand-off. My gaze settles on a spot down the road, at the corner the runners will turn in just an hour or so. Before long, Jeff will stride down this street straight toward me. I envision him reaching out for my cup of water, and as I hand it to him, he smiles at me. The thought of his dimples sends tiny electric shocks all over my skin. Soon I’m going to have my moment, the moment I’ve been dreaming of.
I’ve been in love with Jeff Salcedo for 427 days. Day one was a hot August morning, the hottest morning ever recorded anywhere on Earth. It was the first long run of my freshman season of cross-country. I joined just to escape P.E., an agony even worse than running. Despite my lack of conditioning and talent, I finished in the middle of the pack, a fitting place for me. As I sat on the grass on the inside of the track gulping water, I noticed one of the elite runners over by the entrance gate. It was an especially odd sight because most of the serious runners on the team treated the rest of us P.E.-avoiders as second-class citizens. They immediately headed to the locker room after short runs or track sprints. They certainly had no time to wait for the ten-minute mile crowd.
But not Jeff. I recognized him immediately by his hair. It looked the same after a four-mile run as it did in the hallway between second and third periods where I saw him each day. He was handing out cups of water to the back-of-the-pack finishers and cheering them on. He repeatedly dashed back to the giant orange Gatorade cooler to fill more cups for the red-faced finishers dragging their lifeless bodies across the finish line. In one moment his hair and his glistening olive skin caught in the sunlight, and in the next moment when he smiled and high-fived a girl who stumbled across the finish line, fireworks exploded in my heart and I fell in love. He was no longer just some cute sophomore I saw in the hall between classes.
The story in its entirety can be found in the Pen Name Publishing charity anthology
From Words to Water
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All proceeds go to Wine to Water, an organization that works to bring clean water to communities across the globe.