Ten minutes after the last class of the day, Lucy got a text message from her best friend, Sarah Hebert. “Need u,” it said.
“2 mins,” Lucy texted back. She sighed. Then she hefted her backpack and headed to the girls’ locker room, where, she knew, Sarah would be. Nothing and nobody, not even Jeff Mundy, got in the way of track practice.
Because of course this problem of Sarah’s would be about Jeff. Lucy had seen him at lunch period, leaning flirtatiously over an adorable freshman girl. Maybe this time Sarah would have had it with him for good. Lucy hoped so.
But still, it was delicate. And it wasn’t like Lucy had a lot of experience to guide her friend with. Or any, really, if you didn’t count Gray Spencer, which you couldn’t, not yet, anyway. No, she didn’t have experience, Lucy thought fiercely, but she did have years of understanding about who, exactly, Sarah was and what made her happy. And also, frankly, some basic common sense.
Which Sarah had totally lost.
Lucy found Sarah already changed and sitting on a bench by Lucy’s locker. “Are you all right?” Lucy asked.
“Yeah. It’s just—it’s not Jeff, it’s me. I’m the one with the problem.” Sarah made a little motion with her hand. “But now we have to go to practice.”
Lucy put an arm around her and squeezed. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk later if you want.”
Sarah nodded and tried to smile.
Lucy turned to change. Then they walked out together toward the school’s track, moving to the infield to stretch. Lucy’s practice routine as a hurdler was different from Sarah’s distance training, but they always did as much together as they could.
When they were side by side doing leg stretches, Sarah was finally able to talk. Lucy listened patiently to all of it, even the parts she’d heard many times before. But when Sarah said, “We both agreed from the start that we weren’t serious and Jeff’s right that it truly is my problem that I’m so jealous, not his, because he’s not doing anything wrong,” Lucy couldn’t help herself. She cut in.
“Sarah, please. It’s not a problem that you want something more serious than Jeff does. There’s nothing wrong with you that you want that! And there’s also nothing wrong that he doesn’t. Can’t you see? It’s just that you’re fundamentally incompatible. You should just say so and move on.”
“But I don’t want to move on! He’s such fun and so smart and good-looking and I just love him and if I could only control the way I feel when—”
“Then be his friend. But that’s it. For more, look around for somebody who’s not going to hurt you all the time. Even if Jeff doesn’t mean to hurt you, it’s still pain, right?” Lucy grabbed one foot, and, standing on the other leg, pulled the foot behind her to stretch her quad muscles. She decided not to say that Jeff knew perfectly well he was hurting Sarah, and didn’t care, so long as he got to do what he wanted to do, which included being with Sarah whenever he felt like it.
Sarah was silent for a minute, concentrating on her own quad stretch. Then she said, “Lucy, I don’t think you understand. I can’t really control how I feel. I can’t just look around for somebody else. I want what I want. Who I want.”
Lucy switched legs. She chose her words carefully. “But this is hurting you so much. It can’t be right.”
“Love hurts,” said Sarah simply. “That’s okay. It’s supposed to.”
“I don’t believe it,” Lucy said. “Look at Soledad and Leo.”
“People who’ve been married umpteen years like your foster parents are different,” said Sarah impatiently. “When you first fall in love, it’s supposed to be awful. Awful, uncertain, scary, wonderful, confusing, all at once. That’s how you know it’s real. You have to care deeply. Passionately. That hurts.”
Lucy got down on the ground, stretched her legs to each side, and began pressing her head and torso out to the left. “I don’t know.” As she switched to the right side, she found that Sarah had gotten down too, and was looking her in the face from three inches away.
“Lucy, look. You can’t just make a list of what qualities would be compatible for you and pick somebody based on that. You have to, well, consult your heart. And if love doesn’t hurt sometimes, well, then.” Sarah actually put a hand over her heart. “Then maybe you don’t truly care.”
“Oh, please!” Lucy sat up. “Can’t you consult both your heart and your head? Shouldn’t they be in agreement? And, also, I’m telling you, I continue to not like the pain thing. Continued pain is a signal to the body that there’s something wrong, not right.”
“But we’re talking about the heart, not the body.”
“Why should that be different? Pain is to be avoided.”
At this, Sarah laughed. “Really? That’s your philosophy? Tell me that after practice today.”
Lucy went to the left on her stretch again. “I don’t like interval training! I just do it. Anyway, that’s not the same kind of pain, and you know it.”
It was good to hear Sarah laugh, she thought, even though she knew that the abrupt change of subject meant that Sarah was done, wanted no more advice, and would, no doubt, go right on breaking her heart over Jeff Mundy.
Well, all right. Lucy had said what she had to say. And she would say it again if and when she was asked.
Or possibly even if she wasn’t asked.
Sarah, who was done with her stretching, stood up.
“Listen, Lucy. Now that you’ve got this kind-of-sort-of-maybe dating thing about to happen with Gray Spencer, with the prom and all, I’m thinking that pretty soon you’ll start to see what I’m talking about.”
Lucy snorted. “I like Gray, but hello? Were you listening to me at all? About pain?”
“If you’re expecting a walk in the park—”
They were interrupted by the coach calling the track team around and assigning them their workouts. “Call me later,” Sarah said. Lucy nodded, and Sarah went off on her run. Lucy and the other two hurdlers began doing drills with tightly spaced hurdles, practicing alternating their lead legs.
Lucy worked out hard. She always did; it was her strongest point as an athlete. She was good, but she didn’t have any truly extraordinary level of talent, and she knew it. What she did have was will and determination. And next year, if she kept it up and was lucky, she thought she might have a shot at going to states and maybe also at some college scholarship money, which would be a big help to her foster parents. That was her real goal. Even though her parents had told her not to worry about college costs, that they would figure it out, she wanted to help all she could. Wonderful as they were, and loved as Lucy had always felt, she never lost a certain consciousness that she was indebted to them. She tried her best to be perfect for Soledad and Leo Markowitz.
Here it was really no problem, though. She loved hurdling. When it went well, when she got her striding length and her pace and her hurdles just right, there was nothing like it. Nothing like how competent and powerful and whole it made her feel.
Lucy didn’t know exactly what made her lose her focus during that practice. A prickly feeling on the back of her neck? The creeping conviction that she was being watched?
But suddenly she lost her rhythm and messed up her hurdle. She landed hard on the track on one knee, with the hurdle coming down beside her. And she looked up to see her mother. Not her foster mother, Soledad, but her real mother, Miranda.
It was unmistakably her.
Miranda had materialized on the other side of the track, right near the bleachers. She was wearing a thin purple gauze skirt and a red T-shirt that was far too big for her. She was pushing a supermarket shopping cart that was laden with returnable plastic and glass bottles and other trash.
“Lucy, you okay?” It was Sindy Gillespie, the best hurdler on the team, helping Lucy up.
“Sure.” Lucy got up slowly, trying to figure out what to do. What was right? Should she interrupt practice and go try to talk to Miranda? Or would that be the same exercise in futility it had always been?
Miranda had never come to Lucy’s school before. Always, in the past, on those rare occasions she showed up, she had come to Soledad and Leo’s house, and caused the entire family endless grief and anguish.
Sindy Gillespie was following Lucy’s gaze. Miranda had stopped walking now and was staring right at Lucy with her big, brown—and quite insane—eyes.
“Have you seen that crazy bag lady before?” Sindy asked Lucy. “I have. I saw her yesterday just outside the cafeteria. She was going through the trash and eating stuff. And she was singing! Poor thing, but still, ick.”
“No,” Lucy lied. “I’ve never seen her before.” She immediately felt guilty. And she felt a little stir of curiosity too. “What was she singing, Sindy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.” Lucy bit her lip, containing her impulse to sing a few bars of a particular song and ask if that was it. But she knew it was. Miranda had been singing one song, a version of an old folk ballad, every time she showed up in Lucy’s life. Lucy was sick of it.
But the ballad still haunted her. Twined itself unexpectedly in her mind and inner ear, which was where it was now.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She must be a true love of mine.
As Lucy and Sindy watched, Miranda parked her cart and sat down on the bottom bleacher. She pulled her legs up before her, under her skirt, and sat with her thin, muscular arms tightly corded around them. Her lips moved, though no sound came out.
“She’s looking right at us!” said Sindy. “And I think she’s singing again too.”
“I know,” said Lucy tersely. “Let’s ignore her.”
“Yeah. We need to get back to it anyway. Are you going to do another one?”
“Okay,” said Lucy.
What would Sindy think, Lucy thought, if she excused herself and went over? Or what if she said: “I do know her. That’s my mother.”
But she didn’t. Instead, she continued to practice, if badly. It wasn’t just Miranda’s gaze. The rhythm of the song in her inner ear also interfered with the rhythm of Lucy’s strides, and she couldn’t get it right.
When practice ended and she finally looked again, Miranda was gone.