On the seventeenth lap Aisley’s toenail begins to bruise, a purpling she feels so deeply she can nearly see it through the mesh of her sneakers. On the twenty-third lap it cracks, softly, like an egg. She finishes her program, twenty five laps in total, then heads to the locker room showers where she unlaces her sneakers and peels off her socks and lets the bloody yolk run down the drain. It’s not the first toenail she’s lost, so she knows not to tug at the loose, blackened edges. In a few days the halves will fall away and a new nail will grow in behind it, just like that. She doesn’t bother checking her watch to note her time; she knows the nail distracted her, unbalanced her last few laps, slowed her down. She’s been sluggish for weeks, like coming out of a cold leaves you moving as if underwater. Coach Kennison gives her no slack so she’s here at the track on her day off, pacing herself through laps instead of running the wooded course, trying to burn out whatever is churning inside her in the open instead of on the shaded course crowded with chatty teammates and boys perched high above on the rocks they’ve scrambled onto to smoke and ogle.
Track used to be something she did to keep in shape during field hockey’s off season, but she isn’t going back to field hockey next year. She hasn’t told anyone this, has only made up her mind privately, but it is a definite decision, made one afternoon watching Brit, the JV team goalie, run around the track alone, clad in all her gear, urged on by the varsity head coach, Coach Quinn.
“Keep running, Brit,” Coach Quinn said, her voice echoing back to them from the empty bleachers surrounding the pristine field, nicer than even the downtown football stadium because the field hockey team rakes in more crowds and money. The only other sound was Brit’s sobs, muffled from beneath her helmet. “You better run until you puke. Being a goalie’s no excuse to be fat.” Never mind Coach Quinn’s own soft body, her own inability to jog, let alone sprint, around the field. She’d made the girls line up along the edge of the field to watch as Brit chugged along. This kind of torture was not unheard of; after one particularly humiliating 5–1 loss, Coach Quinn brought a See ‘N Say toy to practice and, as the girls watched in growing horror, cranked the string to let the tiny farmer pointer spin around the dial. He’d land on an animal—duck, cow, rooster, pig—and as the toy emitted its animal noises, the girls dropped to their knees and crawled, imitating the sounds. “Louder!” Coach Quinn yelled, and louder they quacked. “Louder!” she said as she spun again, and their moos deepened. After what felt like hours but could only have been twenty or thirty minutes, Coach dismissed them from practice in disgust, and they stood in the parking lot waiting for rides home, knees and shin pads muddy and grass stained, bodies shivering. No one met Brit’s eyes.
That was a collective punishment, though; this particular torment was singular, though in hindsight, not completely unexpected. During the previous weeks, Coach Quinn and Brit circled each other, Brit laughing during pregame warm-ups, Coach eyeing her stretching on the bench as the other girls ran sprints during practice. The team lost both games during a weekend double-header, and in the locker room after Coach screamed at Brit, blaming her lazy legs for the goals scored. “You’re too fat to even move!” she said, Brit not crying or yelling back, or even reacting at all beyond an acknowledging nod. Coach Quinn was the one who seemed deflated at the end of the tirade.
As Brit grew closer, then limped in front of them, Coach Quinn called out, “Do you hear that girls? Listen to her breathing. She sounds like she’s in labor. Get it together, Brit! I told you, you’re not quitting until you puke!” It took nearly thirty torturous minutes, but in the end she puked, collapsing behind a goal to do so, looking both humiliated and grateful to be done with it. Aisley wondered why Brit hadn’t made herself throw up much earlier. She’d had to suppress the urge herself, watching her and listening to Coach Quinn laugh, seeing the spit fly from her mouth as she screamed, yellow teeth gleaming as she leered at Brit every time she passed the line of girls. Relieved to be excused from Coach’s rage for a day, many of the other girls aped her mocking laugh and feigned labored breathing. Though only Brit ran laps, all the girls dripped with sweat by the end of the drill. The whole line of them stank like fear.
They had four games after that. Aisley scored three goals and made four assists, then pushed her stick and uniform into the far back recesses of her closet and vowed to never play again.
Now all she can think about is track, and Coach Kennison. Lately she’s noticed Coach Kennison’s teeth are yellow in the same way that Coach Quinn’s are and now that she’s noticed this, she can’t uncouple the two women’s faces. Since the incident with Brit at the end of October, a fury has been stoked inside her, and no matter how far she runs, it does not seem to quiet; it only grows.
* * *
After her right toenail falls off, Aisley’s nipples begin to chafe. They do this sometimes, especially in colder weather, as they harden against the unforgiving spandex of her sports bra. She adds a few more minutes to her morning routine, using gauze and medical tape to protect the cracked nipples she soothes first in lanolin cream. Other troubles begin to plague her, though. Split lips, easily solved with heavy globs of Vaseline. Watery eyes: wear sunglasses, even on overcast days. But there are knots in muscles that have never bothered her before, places beneath her hamstrings that have never even registered as part of her body. A toe that becomes so enraged at the idea of doing anything, even walking, that the school sports doctor suggests wearing a boot. A boot! Aisley’s troubles pile up on her body and weigh her down like an old woman. Her own body, just sixteen years old, contains her like a cage. It infuriates her. It infuriates Coach Kennison, too.
“You’ve overworked yourself, pushed too hard, too far,” she says. Aisley is listening but not meeting Coach’s eyes. “There’s a reason for rest days.”
“I’ll have to take you off of the 10,000.”
“What?” At this, Aisley looks up. “Who else will do it?”
Coach Kennison shrugs. “Tory? Cora? Someone. But I can’t have you run the meets like this. You can do the field events, maybe.”
Aisley doesn’t even stifle the groan that slides out of her, morphing into a laugh. Those are events for the people biding time, checking off an activity for their resume.
“Is something about this funny to you?” Coach asks.
Aisley remembers the way Coach Quinn laughed at Brit, the way the other girls on the team, nervous and frightened to be called out next, had laughed too, all of their laughs echoing across the field like hyenas, chasing Brit as she put one foot in front of the other for thirty whole minutes. Nothing has seemed funny to her since.
* * *
She stays late to work with the sports doctor on her toe, so it’s purely coincidence she finds Coach Quinn’s car, the only other one parked in the lot after hours. It’s easily recognized—a bright orange box, an ornament of crossed field hockey sticks hanging from the rearview window. It’s dark out and though Aisley checks the field, Coach Quinn is not there. It’s as if the car has appeared on its own, shown up specifically to meet Aisley.
The thought comes to her before she considers cameras, other people, basic morality. Her arm moves before the thought settles in her mind. Key against metal, the sound so grating it’s satisfying, the pop of paint like fizzes of pleasure. B-U-L-L. She works quickly, her artistry neat, thinking of Brit dragging her body across the field, on display for her teammates. D-Y-K-E. The words mean nothing to her. Coach Quinn’s lesbianism isn’t a secret, exactly; everyone on the team has met her wife at Sunday spaghetti suppers, though she has never been introduced so explicitly, only as “Linda,” which everyone understands to mean “my wife.” It doesn’t bother Aisley, and is perhaps the one neutral thing she could say about Coach Quinn. Yet it comes to her, standing before the orange car, because of all the things she could call Coach Quinn, Aisley knows bull dyke would be the worst, the most painful. On a retreat once, Coach told the girls about being bullied for “being different,” another vague gesture at her sexuality. As she told them her stories she cried, and many of the girls hugged her, crying too at the thought of others’ brutality and inhumanity. Those same girls were the ones who joined Coach Quinn in laughing at Brit as she jogged around the field in tears, mocking her strenuous breathing, calling out to her to ask when her baby was due.
When she’s done she steps back to assess her work. If there’s guilt in her body, she flicks it away, replaces it with the image of Coach Quinn’s bared yellow teeth, her braying laugh. Besides, it’s done.
That night, she’ll wake, sure someone is in the room, but every time, no one’s there.
* * *
The next morning at school the car remains parked in the same spot like a warning. People gather around it, a buzz emanating far beyond their tight circle. Aisley parks and walks over to see, her face and body betraying nothing; inside, her colon twisting. BULL DYKE looks more gruesome than she remembers, the scratches longer, sharper, more venomous and sparking like little flames in full sunlight. The crowd is really quite large, and now the principal and vice principal stride over, trying to wrangle students inside the building before the homeroom bell sounds. Aisley looks around but doesn’t see Coach Quinn. Has she seen the car yet? After finding it last night, did she abandon it in anger? In terror?
In homeroom they’re informed there will be a school wide assembly in the auditorium during first period. Settling into her seat, Aisley looks again but doesn’t see Coach Quinn.
The principal steps on stage, face arranged in a grim mask. Aisley should feel fear, but she feels nothing. It startles her, this realization. The fury she’s been holding for some months now hasn’t just abated—it’s gone.
“As most of you saw, we’ve had a very serious vandalism on our campus this morning,” the principal begins, and Aisley has to stop herself from laughing. A campus! They’re a public school with a narrow triangle of dead grass separating the brick and glass building from the concrete expanse of the parking lot and the more expansive, but still mostly dead grass of the various sports’ fields. She is so light she’s afraid if she laughs, if she opens her mouth to take a breath, she may float up to the rafters and get stuck there with all the old balloons no one’s ever bothered to bring down.
“Coach Quinn’s car was defiled overnight with a nasty, derogatory slur, which constitutes this as a hate crime. This means the police will be getting involved, and not our campus police, Officer Patty, but the local police.” At this proclamation, a vibration across the auditorium. Aisley lets it hum through her body, slinging through her ribcage.
“We’ve already begun our investigation, but if any of you have information on this, you’ll need to come forward immediately. It will be better for all involved to confess to the crime early, and willingly, as that will be taken into consideration with the law.”
Aisley nearly hiccups here. As students file out of the auditorium, she grows even lighter as she realizes they can’t know it was her. If there were cameras, she would have been brought in by now—questioned at the very least, arrested at the worst. They don’t know! The thought is a bubble she rides on until the end of the day, when she alights to the path out behind the weight shed and informs Coach Kennison she’s feeling much better and she’d like to try the mile today, something to ease back into her distance. It’s true: nothing about her body hurts. Every sinew is a rubber band snapped into place. Coach Kennison, wary, nods. Aisley knots her laces, scrapes her hair into a tight ponytail, and is off.
Her gait is more flying than running, though she won’t jinx it by looking at her watch. The faces of the boys on the rocks are blurs, barely registering as separate from the boulders they rest upon. Maybe they’ve melted into them, smoked themselves in place. She soars over a tricky rooted section and counts the seconds until she returns to the ground—one, two, three, four—it feels more like minutes than moments, like she’s Hermes of the winged feet crossing between the mortal and the divine. Blood rushes through her head, ringing in her ears like laughter, tingling her fingers as it presses against the cold’s constriction, and when has she last felt so alive? Ahead in the clearing she sees the rounded disc of the track, the other runners stretching, Coach Kennison hunched over a clipboard discussing something with an assistant coach. They seem far away, tiny people in a snow globe, or a vision at the end of a long telescope, but then they are there, in front of her, or rather she is there, in front of them, at the end of her run. She stops her timer, looks down. 5:03:86.
“Aisley.” She looks up at Coach Kennison. “How fast was that?” She shows her the watch. Coach stares at it for a long time. While she does, Aisley runs through a checklist of her body. Toenails, fine. Nipples, fine. Legs, toes, arches, lips, fine, fine, fine, fine.
Coach Kennison smiles, and maybe her smile isn’t like Coach Quinn’s after all. Maybe her teeth aren’t so yellow; maybe it was just the lighting that day, the way the sun casts odd shadows in those end-of-fall, beginning-of-winter afternoons.
“Congrats on breaking your rut kid.”
* * *
It doesn’t last.
She feels the buoyancy ebbing from her body, time like tiny weights pooling in her limbs, until she has another idea.
She is both surprised and not to find a back door to the school unlocked at four in the morning. Jenna’s locker is in the cafeteria, which she thought might have cameras, but no, nothing. Still, she wears a hood. The black paint is already chipping so the key against metal feels softer, less satisfying than before. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. She writes in long vertical lines, striping the entire locker so someone at the other end of the cafeteria could read the message. For the last few letters, she closes her eyes, her lettering imprecise. She’s picturing Jenna on the field that day, profile in line with Coach Quinn’s, captain’s band snug around her upper arm. Why bother wearing that to practice, where everyone already knows? Knows. She laughs as she starts the next word parallel to the first. N-O-S-E. Something Jenna declares less proudly: the nose job she had done over summer break. “So subtle,” she heard another girl whisper to Jenna in the locker room once. “Exactly,” Jenna said. “No one will ever know.” But how can it be subtle when once you had one nose, and now you have another? And if no one should notice, what’s the point?
Aisley is in line for breakfast the next morning when Jenna discovers the message. She falls to her knees, keening. People laugh and point, the crowd growing as word spreads, and the scene shifts in front of Aisley, blurring into déjà vu; there’s Brit, running, the girls and Coach laughing. She abandons her bagel and juice carton, walking past the knot of onlookers, upstairs and outside. Her sneakers are in the trunk of her car.
While the rest of the school sits through another emergency assembly, Aisley runs seven miles through the woods and finishes in forty minutes, a personal record. She forgot socks so in the shower after her blisters ooze, but she can’t feel their pain; she feels nothing, in fact, besides the edges of her muscles pressed up against the inside of her body, pulsing with the mere fact of being alive.
* * *
Another teammate next, Amanda: across the wide back of her black SUV she keys V-I-R-G-I-N-?. Amanda’s parents take away the car when they find out it’s true, and her boyfriend breaks up with her when he realizes she lied to him, too. At that Saturday’s all-county meet, Aisley breaks a school record for the 10K and in the final lap of the 4×4 relay, she catches up to and passes another girl to charge across the finish line and place first.
Next is freshman forward Taylor, the lead scorer on the team: her locker is green, not black, but when Aisley begins scratching at the paint she finds it’s red underneath, so the resulting tableau is like some sort of fucked-up Christmas card announcing this year’s news: D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T D-A-D. Both Taylor and her older sister Kayla are escorted out of school the following afternoon. Aisley watches as she stretches in front of the gym, loosening her muscles before completing a medley of sprints around the track. Coach Kennison claps and hollers on the sideline, her double-fingered whistle echoing against the school’s brick walls.
The all-school meetings occur daily, students filing into the auditorium instead of homeroom. The principal is unhinged and throws out wild threats—“Expelled from school! Banned from ever applying to college! Possible federal charges!”—though the fact that no one has noticed all of the targets are connected to field hockey reassures Aisley she’s far from being found out. She runs all the time now, not just after school in practice, but before school too, and late at night when she can’t sleep. It’s become easy to slip in and out of places unseen. She’s like a ghost herself these days, so gaunt everything about her is an edge. Days ago someone brushed her shoulder in the hallway and she retreated in shock at the touch, her face a snarl. Nothing sticks in her head, besides the words that come to her when she imagines these girls’ faces. All that’s left is her body’s urge—its need—to move.
* * *
Three days from the state finals meet, her pacing is off. When she lifts her thighs she can see the muscles hew from the bones, yet they feel huge and heavy. Her toe hounds every step. In practice she runs like her body is a knife against the world, but it’s like coming up against stone. Three girls finish before her in the last long run before tapering off in preparation for the meet. She heads to the showers without looking at Coach Kennison.
The water runs cold and the motion-sensor lights flick off as she lies sprawled across the tiles, picking at her loose, blackened toenails. She sits over the drain and empties her bowels. She’s shitting liquid now, has been for days. As she dresses, she runs her hands over her hip bones, knees, elbows, collarbones—all the edges she can find, to remind herself she’s still there.
In the parking lot there are only a few cars left. Parked in the spot next to hers is Brit’s baby blue VW Bug. Aisley’s heart races as she recognizes the daisy light covers and the chain of mardi gras beads hanging from the rear view mirror. There, again, is the bubble of lightness she first felt in this same parking lot, the one she hasn’t felt in days. Her pace quickens without instruction. No, she thinks, I don’t want this. But as the words form in her mind, her fingers tingle, keys already in hand.
Crouched between their cars for cover, she scratches at the pastel paint on the driver side door. F-A-T. She’s lined up, shoulder to shoulder with her teammates, watching Brit run, watching them laugh, but whose laugh is that she hears? Whose laugh rattles inside her beautiful, empty, skeleton bones? F-U-C-K. Isn’t that what she’s been running from, all this time? The sound of her own hyena laugh joining the rest of the pack, wailing in time with Coach Quinn’s?
Her hands shake as she unlocks her car. Paint falls and lands on her knee as she turns the key in the ignition. The car runs, but she can’t move.
Someone knocks on the window. She jumps, screams. It’s Brit.
She points at the side of her car, FAT FUCK white like scar tissue against the pale blue door. Aisley lowers the passenger side window.
“Did you do this?”
Brit’s face is as blank as it was the afternoon Coach Quinn yelled at her in the locker room. Her voice belies nothing—not anger, not sadness, nothing—behind the question.
“Yes.” Aisley’s answer is as small and meek as she feels.
Brit looks at the car, cocking her head like an animal examining something unknown. She looks back at Aisley. “Why?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Because I’m fat?”
“No, it’s not quite…you’re not…” Aisley can’t begin to explain.
“I mean, I am,” Brit says. “But I’m not sure why you added ‘fuck’. Or felt like it had to go on my car. You did all the other ones?”
Aisley nods. She braces her body for the impact of anger, but none comes. Brit is silent.
“I’m so sorry,” Aisley says. “Let me make it up to you. Please.”
Brit shakes her head.
“No, really.” Desperate, she unbuckles her seat belt, climbs across the console to the passenger seat to be closer to Brit. “Write something on my car. Anything. The worst thing. Whatever you think of me. Here, use my key.” She rips her keys out of the ignition, the air going still around them as the engine quits.
“I don’t want to do that,” Brit says.
“Please!” Aisley realizes she’s yelling. “Please,” she says again, in a whisper.
Brit unzips her backpack and rummages around until she comes up with a permanent marker. Aisley anticipates the squeak of the felt tip against the plastic shell of her car, but instead Brit grabs her hand, opens it wide. U-N-R-E-M-A-R-K-A-B-L-E, she writes. The word cuts across her palm, pinky to thumb, the L and the E smushed against each other at the end. Aisley’s hand burns like the word’s been carved.
“You’re just like all the others,” Brit says, capping her pen. “I learned to tune you all out a long time ago.”
She gets in her car and drives off. Through the open window rushes the rest of the night. At home, Aisley will scrub her palm until the skin opens, but she’ll still be able to feel UNREMARKABLE as she lines up for the 10K on the morning of the meet, her body the same hard lines and her eyes the same focused onyx stones as all the other girls.
Casey Guerin lives and teaches in Connecticut. She received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center of Writers at Eastern Washington University. Visit her website at www.caseyguerin.com.