Chapter 1: The Race
“Unbelievable,” Mr. Wortz said, holding my twin sister’s file in one hand and mine in the other. He set them both down on the desk and ran a hand through his beard. It was the sort of beard that made me wonder if you could shear it and make a sweater, but I didn’t want to get close enough to touch it and test my theory.
“Well, what is it?” Jody asked. Her shoulders went rigid, and she squeezed her hands together in her lap. Her breathing had become shallower and I knew she had begun to sweat. I was sweating too. I had a sweating problem: overactive glands that left circles under my armpits. I’d once watched one of those self-help shows that said during hot days in the summer you could apply a menstrual pad to the inside of your shirt, but I was afraid it would slip out and fall to the ground.
Those circles were beginning to form and my breathing began to grow shallow too, as if to match my sister’s. Jody cleared her throat, trying to urge Mr. Wortz on. I thought of my inhaler, tucked into my backpack all the way back in my locker. If Mr. Wortz didn’t speak soon, my sister would have to run back for it. She was on the cross country team, had a shelf full of trophies and medals. Surely, she could sprint quickly enough to save me. I took a deep breath and recalled the image of the beautiful bullfrog I’d seen down at the pond just yesterday. It had lean legs and a beautifully plump body that kept it afloat. I couldn’t wait to get home and make the walk down the road to see the frogs again.
“You have the same exact grade point averages,” Mr. Wortz finally said. “You’re tied for valedictorian. You don’t even have the same averages in every class. They just add up to the same average.” Of course. We were fraternal, the fraternal part being unfortunate. I lacked my sister’s thin, attractive frame and instead was big-boned and thicker. (Really the term was fat, but my mother didn’t like me saying that.)
“Well.” He leaned forward, put his elbows on his desk, glanced at Jody and then at me. “You’ll have to race it out this year.” He smiled. Like it was a game. Like it was a thrill for us to carry that heavy bag of books home and then stay up all night, trying to please our parents, our teachers, usually forgetting about ourselves somewhere along the way, but never forgetting that we were racing against each other.
You had to go all the way back to a coloring contest in kindergarten to find a time when I had beaten my sister at anything. Even as the pressure of a long year began to sink in, pushing me deeper into that cushioned chair across from Mr. Wortz, a strange tingle ran through the back of my neck because I had, at the very least, tied my sister. We already knew graduation was going to fall on our eighteenth birthday. My parents were planning a huge celebration, wanted to invite out-of-state relatives we hadn’t seen in years. I imagined myself in the valedictorian position, the crowd cheering so much my ears buzzed, before imagining the worst: falling behind my sister and the rest of the class, ending up twelfth or thirteenth, just out of the top ten.
“Is that it?” Jody asked.
He gave our files another glance and then nodded.
Jody let out a breath of air. “When will the winner be decided? When does this end?”
“Fourth quarter?” I guessed.
Jody stared Mr. Wortz down.
“Early in the fourth quarter. There has to be time to notify the media and for you to form speeches,” Mr. Wortz said.
“So that’s like May?” Jody asked.
“Come on,” I said, putting a hand on Jody’s back. I could feel her heart beating, her pulse quick. As much pressure as I put on myself, she put even more on herself. She stood up on shaky legs and we walked out together. It wasn’t the sort of thing she needed just before cross country practice. It was hard enough for her to go to the nurse’s office to weigh in first.
“Hey,” I said. I took her hand in mine as she was about to go inside. She’d barely touched her lunch; we’d known about the meeting with Mr. Wortz since that morning. “Maybe if you don’t weigh enough… I mean, if you can’t go to practice, we can watch one of those old movies together. You know, Miss Congeniality.”
Jody pulled her hand out of mine. “We have an AP Calculus test on Friday,” she said, leaving to meet Nurse Nelson as I stood in the hallway and pushed my hands into my pockets.
She needed to run today. I’d been to nearly every one of her cross country meets. I’d seen her small legs stretch out into the most magnificent of strides, powering up hills, and somehow managing to pass girls heads taller than her. When she crossed that finish line, there was always a look of quiet determination spread across her face.
She seemed out of place, smaller, stepping into the office, her khakis baggy, the sleeves of her turtleneck slipping down her thin wrists. She was wearing her hiking boots—the heaviest shoes she had. Nurse Nelson put her hands on her hips while Jody let her gaze fall to the floor.
“Take off the boots,” Nurse Nelson said.
Jody bit her lower lip. “Seriously? Aren’t we supposed to be wearing shoes all the time? Isn’t it unsanitary to stand in my socks?”
Nurse Nelson just waited and Jody sighed and untied her laces with shaky hands before eventually slipping off her boots and stepping onto the scale. Nurse Nelson played with the weights on top of the scale and Jody stood up straighter.
“Not quite enough this time,” Nurse Nelson said.
Jody dipped her head and bent to put her boots back on. Her voice was quieter now. “You know, I’ve seen pictures. There are people way worse off than me. I don’t have it that bad. I mean, I’m still running. I’m still getting good times. I can’t be sick.”
Jody was right that she wasn’t so bad as some of the others yet. In the back of my closet, I had a cardboard box filled with articles from the newspaper and pages printed from the Internet—some of them including pictures that made my stomach turn. I couldn’t explain my compulsion to collect them. It was a morbid thing to do. I knew that. And yet I couldn’t stop. It was as if by stockpiling all those names, I could stop the same thing from happening to Jody. I’d never told anyone I had them, though I sometimes guessed Jody knew they were there and I half hoped she’d find them and give the disease up for good.
Jody headed out into the hall, walking right past me and moving toward our lockers. I almost had to jog to keep up with her. She ripped open her locker door and started pushing all her heavy books into her backpack. I gathered up my own work and rolled my tongue around in my mouth, wondering what to say. “Maybe if you just tried to follow those goals, you know start small like the doctor said… “
Jody dropped her backpack and glared at me. “You can’t fix everything.”
“Then maybe you should stop trying so hard.” She reached for the Calculus book on the top shelf of her locker, but it slipped out of her hand and slammed to the floor. She pulled her lower lip into her mouth and sucked on it. Her eyes were brimming with tears.
I picked up the book and pushed it into her backpack, then squeezed her cold hand in mine.
Her voice was a whisper. “I haven’t gone to the bathroom all day. I haven’t peed.” She gave me a faint smile. “Usually that does the trick. Now, I have to, you know…” She headed down the hall.
I couldn’t even hear her feet pad against the floor. Seeing her sideways made me sick, like at any moment she might just disappear altogether. I slid down against our lockers, the metal cool against my back, my heart thudding away. I was scared to death of losing Jody.
I stared at the homecoming dance poster hanging beside the bathroom entrance. It had a blurred image of a girl in a silky purple dress, bright lights all around her. I’d never been to a dance. Neither had Jody. We didn’t believe in Cinderella dreams. But just then I wanted to slip into that poster and become that girl. She didn’t look like she had a care in the world. In the background, there was a guy in a tux and I supposed that in the middle of a slow dance she might rest her head on his shoulder, smell his cologne and feel his warm breath against her cheek.
I allowed myself to imagine the guy in the poster as Kendrick Wallen—a runner on the guy’s cross country team. If I said Jody was the only reason I went to the cross country meets each weekend, I’d be lying. Cross country was one of the few sports in which girls and guys competed at the same meet. Kendrick always ran too. He had beautiful long curls that I figured might brush my cheek as we danced. He’d pull me in and hold me steady in his strong arms.
I was trying to decide if he’d kiss me on the cheek or the lips when Jody emerged from the bathroom and kicked her shoe against mine. Her eyes were red and she pushed a balled-up tissue into her pocket. “What are you doing sitting there, looking all lost?”
“Just thinking.” I stood up slowly and pulled on my backpack while Jody did the same.
“That calculus test.”
“I think the logarithms are going to be the hardest.” She zipped her jacket.
“Jody, do you think maybe we could end up tying for valedictorian? Rig it so that our scores matched exactly?” It seemed perfect: the two of us sharing the spotlight for once. Maybe then we’d only have to make half a speech.
She closed her locker and looked over at me. “That’s a nice thought. But I’m just not sure how realistic it is.” She paused. “I mean what are the odds that we can keep tying each other like this?” We headed toward the buses together, our backpacks so heavy we slumped forward with the weight. Jody brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear and spoke in a low voice. “Last year, at states, I had this dream of finishing right alongside Allison McCarty. She was so fast and I figured I’d never be able to beat her, but I thought that just maybe I’d be able to match her stride for stride and we’d make for the first tie ever.”
We finished our walk to the buses in silence. We both knew what had had happened: Jody had passed out halfway through the race and never crossed the finish line at all.