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Chapter 1 – Inches

Inches. To finish my run all I needed to do was gain just a few inches.

Running track was my new sport. it was nice to be part of a team again, even if it was at the very small St. John’s Lutheran Church and School. I had just finished clearing my best height yet in high jump. Coach was impressed. I thought that was going to be it for the day, but Mom hadn’t arrived to pick me up yet, so I left the high jump in the gym and headed outside to run on the track. Mom on the other hand was apparently running late.

Hurdles require much more endurance compared to high jump. High Jump was one burst of running, a Jump, and a fun tumble onto the mat But hurdles require speed and jumping, over and over again, while maintaining that speed. While high jump was fun, hurdles was a rush. Although it didn’t come as natural as high jump, I found myself at the starting line of the hurdles run more often than not Plus, Coach told me we needed someone to fill that gap on the team. I was the only 8th grader who could get a decent time on the hurdles.

I had started at the school just months prior, but right away Coach had an eye for my athleticism. When Morn enrolled me Coach gave my thighs some creepy, hard squeezes, “Oooh, those are running legs. You play sports, son? Ever run track?” I hadn’t run track before. Football was my sport, but I wasn’t about to tell my new Coach/Principal/Pastor that St. Paul’s was a school so small one man could manage the athletics department, the entire administration, and saving the soul of every student.

It was a beautiful day outside. Really, it felt like summer was just around the corner, even though it wasn’t even June yet Early May in Michigan was a roll of the dice when it came to weather. Could be pissing rain, could be cold as shit, or it could be glorious. And that’s how I felt standing out there at the starting line. For the first time in around a year and a half, I actually felt good. I felt glorious.

Inches. My slim body was coated with a glistening sheen of sweat. The sun, slowly sinking in the sky, hit my red hair casting a slight tint of rose into my bright blue eyes. I studied the 100 meters ahead of me, the ten hurdles interspersed along the way. I had run it plenty of times, but I stared at it to get into the zone. Just the right amount of jump, lift, carry over, just the right amount of inches to clear each hurdle. Inches would make all the difference in my run.

I staggered my legs slightly, started my stop watch, and brought my hands down to the line, spread shoulder width apart. Alter checking their placement I cocked my head up, looking ahead once again. 100 meters.  10 hurdles. Inches. I checked my watch, waiting for it to hit the 30 second mark – the amount I’d deduct off my total. 27, 28, 29…

I burst forward from the line, feeling like a bullet out of a barrel I pumped my legs hard, my flat hands coming up in front of me with each stride. Within just a moment I was nearly at top speed, but here came the first hurdle. Jump, lift, carry over, inches… cleared! Speed. I continued pumping hard, my momentum hardly dropping off the jump. Acting on impulse, my body prepared for the next jump as it neared.

Jump, lift, carry over, inches… another one cleared! Sweat continued to permeate from my skin. The speed made the air feel like a breeze on my lace. My mind was … clear. There was something very Zen about being in the zone. My body and reflexes were in control, my mind would do best to just stay quiet and let the run unfold naturally. But alas, if enlightenment is supposed to fill the tempered mind of a Zen master, only distraction crept into the mind of a boy three weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

Jump, lift, carry over, inches … cleared! My mind drifted. Where was Mom? Hopefully she’d pull up and watch me clear the last hurdle and I could tell her how it was my best run and how awesome I did at high jump. She’d buy me new track shoes that would make all the other kids jealous and with my new shoes we’d win the state championship.

Jump, lift, carry over, inches… shit that was close. Nearly clipped that one. Ok, it was time to focus. Focus. Pump, drive, speed. My mind cleared again, and then drifted again. Why wasn’t my coach out here watching this run? Weill he was the Pastor too, who knows who’s soul needed tending to, needed comforting, needed to be brought back from the edge. We were Lutheran because Grandpa and Grandma were Lutheran. Because Grandma…

Jump, lift, carry over, inches… grazed it. I just grazed the hurdle. It didn’t affect my landing or my speed. I was good. I settled back into stride. Focus dammit! My mind cleared, but only for the briefest of moments. Where was Mom? Coming back to Mom in my melancholic state wasn’t easy, especially after the heartbreaking and cruel words that I said about…

Jump, lift, carry over, inches… shit, more inches… clipped, but not down! The hurdle tilted back when my foot caught it, but my shoe let go of it just in time to keep my landing relatively clean. Focus. I worked my legs feverishly to get back in stride. I could salvage this run yet. The grip on my shoes was pretty good, but if I had a new set of track shoes I’d be better. Dad would have bought me new shoes…

Jump, lift, carry, inches… tuck! The hurdle came down as my back leg hit it. I stumbled, heading straight for the ground. The pain in my leg was secondary to my concern of breaking my face on the track. My hand shot out and saved me. I got a leg underneath me and kept myself from falling. My limbs flailed as I tried to regain my composure, my stride. Where the fuck was Mom? I looked away from the track. My mind had drifted far from the track, and now my body was as well. Looking toward the parking lot, I hoped to see the minivan parked waiting for me. Was that Grandpa behind the wheel of his white Lincoln?

Shit! Jump, lift, inches! My front leg’s knee connected with the hurdle. I was falling. I went sprawling down onto the track with the hurdle. I tried to save myself again, but this time I landed heavy on my palm and forearm. Thankfully i was covered in enough sweat my skin was saved from tearing, instead I just slid. That didn’t save me from the pain of my knees connecting hard with the track. I couldn’t get my other arm out fast enough and I shut my eyes as the side of my head bounced off the track. Rolling to my side, one hand grabbed at the pain in my knee, the other attended to my head. I rocked in place, hurt all over. My body instantly throbbed with pain and my mind filled with rage.

I looked towards the parking lot again. Grandpa got out of his car and moved brusquely into the school. Why was Grandpa…? Picking myself up, t limped slowly towards the back doors of the school. I turned in place and started walking in the other direction in an attempt to walk away from the pain. I looked up to the sky, eyes wide open, lengthening my body as best I could. The pain was not diminishing. Turning again, I started for the doors ail over again, head down, eyes squinting from the pain. My walking stride marginally improved. The sharp pain started to subside as blood traveled around my body, bruises starting to form. The dull pain was setting in.

By the time I reached the main hallway of the school I was moving better, still slow, but better. Coach came out of his office, a grave look of concern written all over his face. “Joshua!” He was dressed as Coach–running shoes, socks hiked up to his knees, short orange shorts, an undersized white polo shirt displaying his girth tucked tightly into his shorts, a whistle hanging from his wide neck below his round face–but this was the voice of Pastor Baldwin. When he was in Coach mode he’d either cali me “Josh” or “Red,” something a lot of my coaches called me over the years. “Oh Joshua, there you are. Urn, please come in the office. Come with me son.”

I did my best to pick up my speed, but I winced as I walked. “What’s going on? Why is my Grandpa-” I tried to ask. “Come on, we’ll explain everything in a moment here. Just, urn, just come in the office son:· Clearly he wasn’t concerned with my funky walk, or the marks on my knees, or the mark I was sure was on my forehead. He held the door open to his office. He would often say, “My door is always open to the needs of the students, to the needs of the community.” I just wished he could keep an open mind. Then there wouldn’t have to be all this lying and sneaking around. That must be it. The school must’ve found out somehow.

Grandpa was pacing back and forth in the office when I entered. “Joshua!” He embraced me fiercely, exhaling a large sigh that seemed to give him no relief at ail. His hug was so tight my banged up body hurt from the pressure. Grandpa always hugged me hello and goodbye–it was part of his warm loving nature– but it was usually a soft, pleasant hug.

This… this was different. Something was wrong. “Grandpa, what’s going on?” I was certain he was going to tell me I had to switch schools and that Mom wasn’t even allowed to pick me up. I looked at Grandpa closely. His wrinkles seemed deeper than I’d ever noticed, and his eyes puffier than I’d ever seen. He was a tall man, standing just over 6 feet, but today his body was seemingly compressed on itself, making him seem shorter, smaller, diminished. Grandpa always took pride in his appearance, but he looked disheveled standing in front of me, his white t-shirt hanging untucked underneath a sweater I’d only ever seen him wear at home.

“Here.” Grandpa extended a shaky arm and put a pill in my hand and picked up a glass of water already sitting at the edge of the Pastor’s desk. “And here’s some water. Go ahead, Joshua.” He put the glass in my hand and started lifting my hand with the pill on it towards my face. I jerked back slightly and pulled both hands away slightly.

“What is this? I’m not sick. Grandpa… ”

“Just- Joshua, please take this, it’ll make you feel better,” Grandpa said in his most sincere and concerned voice. He again tried to move my hand gently toward my face. I pulled away and put the glass back down on the table.

“I just fell. I’ll be fine.” I started to get anxious. This wasn’t like Grandpa at all. I hadn’t seen him act this way since…

“Now, Joshua,” Pastor Baldwin said, picking up the glass of water from the table trying to hand it back to me, “do as your grandfather asks and swallow the pill and drink this water. We know best.” Even when Pastor Baldwin was at his nicest, he never spoke this softly. Something very weird was going on, and there was no way I was taking some random pill even if Grandpa was trying to give it to me.

“No! What’s going on? Grandpa, you’re- where’s Mom?” I asked him, putting a hand up to refuse the glass of water and putting the pill down on the table. I backed away from the desk and from the both of them, a look of concern on Grandpa’s face. No, that wasn’t concern, that look was… was something else. It was concern, and horror, and tear, and frustration, and pain, all wrapped up in one. Something was terribly, horribly wrong.

Pastor Baldwin picked up the pill while still holding the glass of water in the other hand. “Um, Mr. Puckett, a word if you would. ~ Grandpa broke his gaze with me and went into the corner of the room with the Pastor. Their backs were to me as they spoke some hushed words to each other. “We’ll just… and there… he won’t… ” I couldn’t make out much.

They turned back to me, the glass of water in Grandpa’s hand now. He extended it to me. While I could physically refuse Pastor Baldwin’s attempt to pass me the glass, I couldn’t refuse Grandpa. “Just drink this, don’t worry about anything else, just drink,”Grandpa encouraged. I took the glass in my hand and looked at Paster Baldwin who wasn’t holding the pill anymore. It was obvious they had crushed it and put it in the water when their backs were to me. I once again put the glass of water down on the table.

“No, Grandpa. I want to know what’s going on. Tell me where Mom is.” Grandpa knew me well enough to know once I set my mind in a certain direction it was hard to persuade me to deviate from that path.

Grandpa sighed again, and once again it seemed to provide him little relief if at all. He hung his head, downcast and defeated. “Sit down son,” he said without looking up at me. I sat. “Something’s happened,” his voice wavered, “something- it’s your mom, she-” He couldn’t go on, his voice broke up.

“Your mother is with God now son,” Pastor Baldwin said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “She’s in heaven with God now, and you’ll be in heaven with her one day, in heaven.” “What? 1- I don’t understand, in heaven?” I muttered, truly not understanding what he was saying. Grandpa’s head raised up and he looked at me with the worst expression I’d ever seen on his face. The look of pure misery. ”Your mother, she was shot–she’s dead.”

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