“People are going to come into your life that need you, and being there for them makes the day worth living. People are going to come into your life that you need, and that’s the really crazy thing.” ~Amy Grant
 October 
The cross country season continued on as it had my previous years of running. I began to grow and run faster than ever before, beating my personal records and finishing first a lot of times during practice. I was psyched.
“So I hear you’re the fastest kid on the team, yeah?” Jimmy said to me one day at lunch.
“Yeah, I’m getting up there,” I replied, pride spreading in my chest.
“There isn’t any Seniors running this year, is there?” Marcus asked.
The table was oddly quiet, hanging onto every one of our words. Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it, I just thought I was that interesting and people actually cared how I was doing in the only sport I participated in.
“No, not this time. But coach says I’m the fastest runner they’ve had in a few years, even above the Seniors,” I showed off.
“You know, my brother was a Senior two years ago and he broke the record,” Shelly tried. She hated when the attention was off of her and Ace, so she tried to “relate” to any topic discussed at the table.
“I bet I can beat the record at the next meet, which is tomorrow if you want to come, by the way,” I challenged. Shelly gave me a hard stare and I smiled at her. It was a legit bet, I was very close to the record.
“Tell you what,” Ace started. “If you beat the record, I’ll get the whole varsity football team to wear dresses on Friday, the night of our home game.”
“You sure you want to make that bet?” I dared him. “I’m literally two tenths of a second away.”
“As sure as Marcus is about getting all A’s on his report card this year,” he answered, raising his eyebrows. I grinned. There was no way I wasn’t beating the record tomorrow.
“Fine,” I said, “deal.”
I went back to my sandwich, hardly taking notice of Ace winking in Shelly’s direction at the last second.
  
That evening, I went home and found Mom setting the table.
It was the oddest thing for me to see. I’ve never come home to a dinner and Mom setting the table. I walked into the kitchen, smelling something really good. I didn’t know she could cook.
“Mom? What are you doing?” I asked, readjusting my duffle bag and standing awkwardly by the stairs.
“Making dinner,” she said shortly. She began to stir something on the stove vigorously, not looking up at me.
“Why?” I asked, completely confused.
“Because you father is coming home and we have some things to discuss,” she huffed, looking up at me pointedly.
I nearly rolled my eyes, but decided against it. I looked right back at her and sighed slightly.
About an hour later, I found myself sitting where I rarely sat: at the dinner table with my family. Actually getting ready to eat dinner. Together. It was completely awkward and silent, unlike Sawyer and Alivia’s family dinners. Suddenly, I noticed myself longing to go back to that evening.
We began eating. I honestly was in shock on how well Mom could cook. Sure, she had made stuff before, but that was just stuff like brownie mix from the box. I glanced across the table at my father, who sat straight in his seat, eating his broccoli. Pearl was to my right. I desperately wanted to get out of there.
“Tonight, I will be leaving on a business trip,” Dad announced, setting his fork on the edge of his plate, which was already clean. “I won’t be back for a week. Tomorrow your mother is going to be job hunting and Grandma is taking the day off, so Fletcher--”
“Please don’t call me that,” I said under my breath. He either didn’t hear me or acted like he didn’t hear me. Pearl and I exchanged looks.
“--I’ll need you to take Asher to daycare and pick him up,” he finished, staring at me.
“I can take him,” I answered, shoving a piece of roast beef in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed before answering, even though I wanted to talk with my mouth open, just to see what he would do. I took a drink of water, then set down the glass, and looked him in the eye.
“Can’t pick him up though.”
“Fletcher--” he began in a warning voice.
“It’s Tin Tin,” Pearl interrupted, sounding annoyed.
“Don’t correct your father,” Mom told her, her hand frozen in mid-air with Asher’s spoonful of food.
“Anyway, I need you to do this for me. When I’m gone, you’re the man of the house. The daycare closes at six,” he stated, standing up to take his plate to the sink.
“And why should I do this for you?” I said loudly. I stood too and followed him. “I have a cross country meet two hours away and I’m about to beat the school record.”
“Then you’ll have to miss it. You will do what I tell you to do.” He set the plate in the sink and crossed his arms.
“Well, I can’t miss it, Dad. This is the only sport I play and next year is my last year doing it. I can’t pick him up,” I protested, standing across the counter from him.
“After everything I’ve done for you, you can’t do this one thing I ask of you?” he asked, started to show how irritated he was with me. He set his jaw as his brown eyes bore into mine.
Something snapped inside of me. He hasn’t done anything for me. He never came to my cross country meets, Pearl’s soccer games, or even to pick me up off the side of the road. Anger bubbled in my chest and for one long, tense moment, it was silent.
“You haven’t done a thing for me,” I finally said in a low warning voice.
He narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth, but I cut him off.
“You haven’t done a single thing for me in the past year! You don’t care about my running or school or even that I was on the side of the highway walking home! I can’t and won’t pick up Asher because I have to be at the meet.”
“You are not to talk to me like that! I am your father and you will do anything I tell you!” he yelled back.
I slam my palm on the counter in frustration.
“Why do you expect me to do this?!”
“Because you’re my son and I told you to.”
“Maybe if you tried, I would be a little more willing to do this for you! But you never show up! I see other kids’ parents cheering them on at meets and all I get is my coach screaming at me! I am a runner and I have school, but I can’t be a parent too, alright?! If you at least tried, maybe I would try for you, but you didn’t, so I’m not either!”
“Fletcher!” my mother exclaimed. I turned to look at her and she seemed just as angry as Dad.
“You can’t make me!” I shouted. My throat was tight. “I care about Asher more than you know, but I am not missing that meet.”
“You don’t have a choice,” my dad barked. I spun back to him, full of rage.
“I have a choice!” I cried, the words tearing at my throat. I took a deep breath, forcing myself to calm down. “I always have a choice.”
I headed for the stairs and walked as calmly as I could to my bedroom. I was about to slam my door when I heard my father shout, “Not in this situation you don’t! End of discussion, you’re picking up your brother.”
I wanted to yell something back, but I just slammed the door as loud as I could instead, resisting the sudden urge to pack my bags and run away. No matter what I thought or what happened, Asher needed someone. I think that was the only thing that held me back.
Huffing angrily, I threw myself onto my bed. I wanted to scream. No one understands this situation. My friends wouldn’t be of any help. The only one I told was Sawyer and we hadn’t talked in weeks.
As I laid there staring at the ceiling, I grew restless. I had to do something, laying here wasn’t going to fix anything. Did I even want to fix things? It wasn’t like Dad and I hadn’t fought before. When we did, neither of us apologized or tried to work things out.
Glancing around the room, I attempted to find something to distract me. This would pass over like everything else, without resolve. He’d know I didn’t listen when I didn’t pick up Asher. Then again, I couldn’t do that to the little guy. I had to be at the meet though.
My eyes landed on my desk. Despite me being a runner, there was a time when I played Little League Baseball. I don’t know why, but I had a baseball on my desk from that time. I’m not even sure why I kept it.
An idea flew into my mind the longer I stared at the ball. Sawyer did say to let him know if I needed anything. Really, I didn’t have anyone left to turn to.
I dove for my phone on top of my backpack, feeling like I had won.
“Hello?” he said as soon as he picked up. He sounded tired, and I hesitated. If he didn’t have time, that wouldn’t be a surprise. What other choice did I have?
“Hey Sawyer, it’s Tin Tin.”
“Oh hey. What’s up?”
“Okay so, I hate to ask, but would you mind doing something for me?”
  
The next day was Tuesday, the first one in October. We only had two weeks left in the season. Most of us were ready to be done, honestly. There weren’t many of us on the cross country team, but that meant we all got seats to ourselves on the ride over.
Usually on long bus rides like those, the majority took naps or listened to their headphones or did homework. It was silent except for a few people talking in the back. I just sat and listened to music.
We stepped off the bus into warm, early October air. We were already in uniform and started warming up. Boys raced first, then girls. Eventually, after all the teams had a chance to warm up, we were corralled over to the start, which was the entrance to a narrow path through the woods.
Bottleneck races. You’d have to sprint to get to the front of the pack before the cut off. I leaned forward a bit, anticipating the gun start.
“Runners ready!” the official shouted. I tensed and started in position. “On your mark... Set!”
The fake shot went off and the mob surged forward. I weaved my way through the runners, quickly making my way to the front of the pack. Only three miles. I’ve ran so many more before, this would be easy.
I had covered a bunch of ground and made it to the leading runners’ group. I kept in pace with them as the shade sent cold chills up my arms. The first mile was always the hardest; you had to find your pace to keep up with the competitors, but still save some power for later.
One particular guy in my group kept eying me as we entered into the second mile, which was mostly woods. He was tall, muscular, and menacing. He should’ve been a football player. I would edge ahead of him and he’d speed up. It was a race, made to be competitive. Then he went too far.
I was ahead of him by a little, keeping up with the first guy who was picking up his pace to stay with me. Tall and Muscular was right on my heels. His hands came down on my shoulders, gripping them tightly. I was already out of breath, but it was so unexpected that I nearly stopped breathing altogether.
He practically threw me off the course. It felt like he threw me, maybe he just shoved me, but either way my foot got caught on a root sticking out of the ground. As I kept going through the air, my ankle was tugged farther than ankles should. I hadn’t hit the ground yet, and I knew something was wrong. Then my head slammed into a tree trunk.
Pain exploded through my head as it started throbbing. I groaned, trying to blink spots away from my vision. I could see the group turning the corner and going out of sight.
“The record,” I thought immediately. I jumped up, trying to ignore my ankle and my head and started to run again.
My ankle buckled and I almost fell. I ground my teeth together and pushed on. It didn’t hurt that bad. It didn’t hurt that bad...
Forcing myself to sped up, I ran as fast as I could to catch them. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck by the time I caught them at the end of mile two.
As the light changed between the trees, I found it harder and harder to focus on running. The world spun, my head throbbed, my ankle screamed at me to stop-- but somehow I managed to keep running and stay with the group. All I knew was, I had to beat the record. Make those friends of mine eat their words.
Mile three was a blur. Most of it was spent on me trying not to pass out. With each step, the pain grew.
Then, ahead of me, was a clear field and the finish line up ahead. People started cheering at the sight of us. My head cleared for a brief moment and I began to sprint the last stretch, my lungs burning, my legs numb.
I was so close.
Tall and Muscular was right by my side.
I pushed harder, willed myself to run faster. He was one step ahead of me. I lengthened my stride and I was in front of him. The finish line was fifty yards away, I could make it--
He did something stupid. He pushed me and I tripped, but kept my balance, kept up with him. Another time. Another. I didn’t fight back, knowing he would get disqualified from shoving me in the first place. Finally, he succeeded.
  
With one last, scarily strong push in the shoulder, my face was in the dirt. My forehead hit the ground, my ankle twisting as I fell. The film of clarity I had moments ago shattered, and I felt his foot to my back. The crowd was full on yelling.
I managed to roll over and stare at the sky when I heard it.
“C’mon Tin Tin, you can do it!”
It wasn’t my coach.
I sat up, head spinning and squinted at the small group of onlookers. I spotted Sawyer and then Alivia by his side holding Asher. While I could barely see straight, I saw it was them.
“You got this!” Alivia shouted. A worried expression was on her face.
Someone had come to watch.
I pushed myself up off the ground, swaying a little. All my movements felt slow, like I was underwater. In a weird way, I just knew I had to get across the finish line. I couldn’t pass out, I had to finish.
My ankle was numb and my knees were weak as I began to run again. I tried to pick up speed, but my head went light. Other runners passed me. I made it to the end and I collapsed on the ground, breathing heavily and holding back tears.
Two pairs of hands were pulling me to my feet again. They put my arms around their shoulders so they could help me walk away. I tested putting pressure on my ankle in a daze, then immediately decided against it. I groaned.
“Hang in there, we’re getting a trainer to come and check you out,” the person on my left said. I didn’t know who it was.
“Good job finishing though.” I looked over to see Sawyer on the right, smiling a bit.
Part of me was surprised. I just asked him to pick up Asher for me, but he came all the way up to the actual meet itself to watch.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Figured you’d need a cheering section, you know, since nobody really comes to watch you and all,” he answered as we continued to move away from the crowds.
“Thanks,” I said, doing my best to smile.
“Anytime man,” he said, sighing as they both let me down on a blanket under a pavilion. The sunlight made my head throb, so I laid down and focused on the ceiling, even if it was hazy.
Sawyer sat down beside me and soon Alivia was by his side with Asher.
“Are you okay?” she asked immediately.
“I think I’ll be fine,” I said, swallowing hard and fighting off another dizzy spell.
“Here,” she said, taking off the sweatshirt she had on. I realized it was mine and smiled a little. “Lift up your head,” she told me, and I did. She shoved it under there, all nice and folded.
“Thanks,” I managed, starting to cool down a bit. The dizziness faded away and I was left with a pounding headache.
“Okay, let’s see. You’re Tin Tin Amble, correct?” a lady, who I assumed was the trainer, asked me, her face coming into view. A little hand grabbed a hold of my fingers and squeezed them tightly. I glanced over and saw Asher staring at me.
“Yes,” I answered.
“You took quite a fall there. Could you tell me all that happened?”
So I told her, to the best of my ability with a foggy mind, all that happened on the course. She nodded and scribbled some things down. One of my teammate’s mom’s showed up and stuck around, probably sent to find out fact then report back to the coach.
“Can you sit up for me?” she asked. I pushed myself up and felt a hand on my back, helping me. The room started to spin and a ring started in my ears.
“Awe man,” I groaned, closing my eyes for a moment, before opening them again. Everything seemed too bright. The hand still hadn’t left my back. I had the sensation that it was Alivia’s.
“Okay, let’s look at that ankle.”
I sat back on my hands, preparing for her to take my shoe off to look. Carefully, she unlaced it, then started pulling it off. Pain flashed through my foot.
I exhaled and tilted my head back.
“That hurts,” I said under my breath, laughing nervously.
As if taking off my shoe wasn’t enough, she then proceeded to touch my ankle, pressing it all around and asking if it hurt. Of course, it did. When I did look at it, I saw how swollen it was. I nearly threw up at how black and blue it had already turned.
When she left, she told me that it wasn’t a break and that I probably just sprained it severely. Then she diagnosed me with a mild concussion and told me to see our school’s trainer at least once a day until the headaches went away. There was really nothing they could do except wrap my ankle and put me on pain killers.
“We can take you home, if you want,” Sawyer offered as I gulped down some water.
“You wouldn’t mind?” I asked, setting down the water bottle.
“Nah. I have to take your brother home anyway.”
“Tin?” Asher asked. I looked down to see him by me feet, looking at my ankle in confusion. He was studying my bruise with pursed lips.
“Yeah Squirt?” I asked, smiling a little at the sight of him.
“Boo boo?” He pointed to my bruised foot and ankle, completely fascinated.
“Yep, I got a boo boo,” I said, wiggling my toes in my sock.
He scrambled up and came to sit on my lap. I grinned down at him.
“Come here,” he said, motioning for me to bend down. Tilting my head down, he planted a small kiss on my forehead. “All better?”
“All better,” I repeated, ruffling his hair. “Thanks buddy.”