Being slow as a turtle—even slower than that, it seemed—wasn’t my norm. My body was aerodynamic, thin and sleek. My legs used to reach outward with the grace of the gazelle, bounding me forward with ease. They said I would go places, that I’d have my pick of colleges. Coach lined up college recruiters for our biggest meets, all I had to do was show up and let go. My heart would do the rest.
I missed the wind in my face and the teardrops that collected in the corners of my eyes as the world blurred behind me. I missed the crunch of pebbles beneath my shoes. I missed the tickle of my ponytail grazing the back of my neck with each swaying step. I missed pushing through the burn in my lungs and deep within my legs. Faster, faster, faster. I missed every single shin splint and weeping blister. I missed running so hard the world spun behind my eyes, struggling to catch up. Heck, I even missed throwing up in the grass because I’d pushed myself to my limits. Even the worst day on the track paled in comparison to what my life looked like now. This was not life at all.
They said I would go places. Somehow I doubted this is what they meant.
I bit my lip to keep from sobbing as I continued forward at my numbingly slow pace. The forest around me fell silent except for the low crunch of the pine needles under my feet. The sulfuric air grew thicker and so heavy that it pressed on my chest and I had to stop to draw in a really good breath. My throat burned with the effort, and I coughed. The fire was close, and so was my rescue.
The pines crowded close together ahead with branches intertwined in protest. Even the forest wanted to keep me stranded in this pit. I knew following the trees until I could find a large enough opening to squeeze through would mean going to my right or left instead of forward. Sideways was frustrating to me. Sideways wouldn’t get me away from Oliver or Mitte, two things I wanted more than anything. It was not one of my brightest ideas, but I gritted my teeth and pushed forward into the arms of the pines. The needles welcomed me, sliding across my skin like feathers. The tang of pine tar overtook the smell of soot and destruction. Maybe this wasn’t so bad, after all. Spreading the branches of the tangle before me, I smiled. Yes, this plan would work. Adios, Oliver!
Almost as soon as I’d thought it, the needles turned against me. Pins made contact with my face, pricking my lips and drawing tiny beads of blood.
“Ouch!” I yelped, trying to bring my arm up to shield my face, which only made me more of a human pincushion. No one came to help me, even though it was pretty obvious that I was stuck.
Oliver left. He left.
He didn’t owe me anything, and I figure most of the messes I’d found myself in since fate dumped me in Mitte had been his fault. Not even two minutes ago I wanted as far away from that boy as humanly possible. Finally, something had gone my way. From where I cowered, shrouded in flesh-eating vegetation, I couldn’t bring myself to feel happy he’d gotten around to taking a hint.
If Dad was here he’d have torn himself in two to protect me. There was no way he’d let me wander off alone into the wilderness, no matter how much I kicked and screamed. Dad would have kicked and screamed right back at me, and then, when he’d had enough, thrown me over his shoulder and carried me back to safety. I would have hated him every step of the way, as much as I loved him. He knew never to give up on me, but it didn’t matter anymore. Even Dad had abandoned me as the dragon drew near.
A flood of anger surged through me, and its intensity vibrated wildly across my skin like a bolt of lightning. Feeling sorry for myself wouldn’t do a single thing except kill me faster. I was no damsel in distress, and this was the furthest thing from a fairy tale. Death would track me to this forest, one way or another. A man couldn’t stop the inevitable. I felt it as sure as the pulse pounding in my veins. Wiping the blood from my mouth, I forced myself further into the green. Goosebumps sprung on the back of my neck and rippled down my arms. What in the--? The frantic rhythm slamming through my body crushed the breath from my lungs.
My grandpa suffered his first heart attack right in front of me as I blew out the candles on my birthday cake on my tenth birthday. I’ll never forget--his eyes bugged out of his head like he was a fish out of water, gulping for air and finding none. Yeah, my life sucked.