Bum, buh, bum, buh; the sound of feet beating on the ground brought a smile to Rebecca’s face. At least once Rebecca Rushman would look over her shoulder, before she outpaced the competition. A bad habit, she knew, but one she couldn’t kick, even if it slowed her down. Running until the others fell back over her shoulders like hair blown out of sight by the speed of her running feet felt fantastic.
Three championships, two league finals and an all-county title were achieved in a kind of flash. In San Diego of this year alone she embarrassed at least five of the eight good runners during the big tri-county meet. Next year, she told herself, she would sweep them all. Her coaches told her parent same exultant litany – Only fifteen and still plenty of time to lengthen out, her form is perfect, her gait incredible and her edge sharp. Except for that tick, she has, where she looks over her shoulders.
She trained non-stop. At school while other students skulked in the back of gym bleachers, she went to a special track phys.ed. course for the varsity team. Then after school another two hours devoted to the more accelerated intra-mural team, whizzed by like nothing.
There was only one girl who kept sneaking around the corner, creeping closer to Rebecca’s times by quarter and half seconds. Fiona Shawn, also an all-county title winner and three time championship participant, was like that one annoying strand of hair that would inexplicably dash across her forehead. The physics of why a stray hair pushes forward when all the other hairs bend back denied Rebecca’s intuition. Yet always it seems that one hair flicks out ahead, tickling. Fiona was that hair.
Rebecca, without even knowing it, started a new tick. Before the run she would undo her ponytail and begin pulling at her hair with a methodical raking of her fingers over her scalp before eventually wrapping a hair tie around the fist-size rope of hair. Somehow she kept feeling that she was missing one strand, but couldn’t grab it. And during races or practices Rebecca’s hand would brush across her forehead trying to get at that one hair.
With every yank of the hair tie from her head, more hairs were ripped from her scalp. Then she would have to take a pair of scissors to the tangled strands still wrapped in loops around the elastics. Her mother found hairs still looped around scrunchies Rebecca missed, and the shower walls became a graveyard of dismembered strands. It just never felt tight enough, so Rebecca started adding bobby pins to the routine. A pack of bobby pins were added to the monthly grocery list, but this hardly kept up with the rate at which Rebecca went through them.
After watching the Olympic trials on television, Rebecca started waking early before school to practice. Even then, Rebecca would tug the hair back from her face and twist it, straining the skin at her temples. Hair accessories became like gold. If she couldn’t find another hair tie in her bathroom, she’d use her sister’s or her mother’s hair ties. They began to hide them. But she would find the hidden hair ties and immediately yank her hair back or stack the elastics around her wrists as bracelets to be used at need. And multiple pins glittered along the top of her head like a crown.
Of course with all the practice, her times were beginning to show serious progress. As she improved, the extra-mural coach recommended that she become the anchor for the new relay team. Rebecca glowed. That day, after warm up, for a second, Rebecca could have sworn she saw Fiona standing at the fence, watching her practice. Impossible, since Fiona went to Roosevelt High. She shook her head and tapped the bobby pins on the side of her head making sure they were all in place.
Practice continued. They ran a few short distance runs and then prepared to start practicing their relay. The other girls fell in line and they began to hand off. They were pretty rough at first and Rebecca kept twisting her head to the side, trying to see the runner behind her before she passed the baton. Each time, she felt she could see a little flick of Fiona’s red hair waving past her. But then she would see the baton and she would shake her head and try to just focus on the race. Still, in the corner of her eye something distracted her. It was like a flash on a mirror, or a leaf rolling by on the ground. Only it only appeared right by her line of sight.
In the showers, Rebecca dragged the pins and hair tie from her head and picked the straggling strands away. There were an awful lot of them it seemed, more than usual, but she was more concerned with her running times. Despite the long day of running, she still wasn’t able to fully concentrate on the relay format. For the next few weeks she woke up early, tied up her hair and kept her eyes forward. Then school and track and more practice.
The coach began to hold her back after the relay prep to try and get Rebecca up to speed. I know you have what it takes, Rebecca, just focus on the pass – Coach repeated over and over. Yet it was the most difficult thing she had ever faced. Anticipating the hand off rubbed at her nerves. Rebecca just couldn’t help looking back over her shoulder. She had to keep ahead.
The hair in the drain built up, and she was down to her last four hair ties but after weeks of training the big meet was finally happening. The track was springy and her socks were new and soft. Rebecca felt the wind begin to rush in her ears just sitting in the bleachers. She pulled back her hair when the elastic snapped. Her hand pulled back in surprise and her knuckle smarted. Around the corner, Fiona sipped water and talked with her teammates. Rebecca grabbed another hair tie from around her wrist and swung it around her hair in a tight bun. It held, but she was down to only two more ties and she kept seeing Fiona floating somewhere on the edges of her eye.
Rebecca struggled to calm herself down before the relay. On the roster, Fiona was also running in the relay for her school. A few short distance runs went by, and she did alright. But her coach didn’t want the relay team to tire themselves out too much. During the first run, about to finish rounding the first corner, she thought she saw someone in the corner of her right eye. A flick of red, just the color of Fiona’s hair whisked by and she balked. When she reached the end of the run, the coach showed her the stopwatch. A lousy two seconds past her usual times. Sitting with her elbows on her knees, the tips of her fingers automatically went to her temples and tap, tap, tapped the baby wispy strands against the side of her head. On the second and third runs, things went a little better and although she kept feeling that tickle on her periphery, she was able to finish with a decent time once again.
Finally the relay was beginning. And Rebecca huffed with anticipation. Beside her mark, she noticed Fiona already waiting just behind and to the right. As anchors they would have to wait until the other runners completed their run. Fiona would be just on the edge of her sight for most of the race, itching at her right temple.
The race started. The other runners shot forward. In the corners of their eyes, Fiona and Rebecca they could see each other perfectly. Just as their teammates were about to finish rounding the first corner, she thought she saw Fiona inch closer to her. It was against the rules, but it seemed that no one saw it. Rebecca watched her anxiously, her heart already beginning to pound in her chest. What the hell did she think she was doing? Rebecca wondered.
Fiona was getting close now. The urge to do something was starting to scramble her guts with frustration. No one else seemed aware of Fiona inching her way towards Rebecca. Clearly the girl was trying to intimidate her. Yet none of the refs were blowing the whistle and the shape of the Fiona’s shadow was growing closer and closer in the corner of her eye. All of a sudden Rebecca decided to take action. With a sharp turn of her shoulder she jabbed her elbow outward catching a stomach.
The baton fell clanking to the track and Rebecca whipped around realizing it was her own teammate doubled over behind her with one hand on her stomach and the other reaching out for the dropped baton. In an instant, Fiona had disappeared, racing down the track, her own baton in hand, finishing the relay.
At home, in the shower, Rebecca found hair tangled in her fingers as she rinsed out the shampoo. And still, when she got out of the shower, some hair, longer than the rest, showed dark and thin against her pale skin. Multiple strands came slowly out like a handkerchief in a magician’s sleeve and Rebecca had to gather them up one by one and throw them out.
Weeks went by and the coach finally let her join the relay practice team again. At the end of the season, the coach explained that due to budget cuts the team would most likely be different next year. A few girls from one of the other squads would be joining them for try-outs on their team. Just beyond the edge of a stands, a group of girls suddenly drew into focus. Rebecca was gulping down water when in the corner of her eye she noticed it, a flash of red in the corner of her eye. A bit of water went dribbling down her chin.
“Girls, these are some potential new teammates for next year. They’re going to be trying out today to see if they can gain a spot on our team.”
Fiona walked over to the track and stretched her arms over her head. From the behind a forearm, Rebecca could see the corner of Fiona’s eye staring at her past the slicked back bun of hair pulled back tightly from her temples.
I chose this week’s music challenge of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”. You can read the story written by Trebez here. I have a feeling this won’t be the last story inspired by this truly incredible piece of music.