She bounces up and down, trying to keep her heart rate up, waiting impatiently at the designated spot. Checking her watch, Penelope looks at the pulse reading and then the time: 5:29. He should be here soon. She listens over the sound of gravel beneath her feet, her breathing, and the rustle of the wind, for the sound of his feet. But she hears nothing. Running in place, she continues to wait. Not even considering that this might not happen. That he might not show.
Seconds later, she hears the sound she’s been waiting for. Looking to her left, a giant smile spreads across her face. Then a pair of women jog around the corner. Her smile faltering, Penelope nods to them and backs towards the trail’s edge, making room for them to pass. She continues to bounce in place, looking at her watch again. 5:35. He’ll be here. Five more minutes. She’ll wait five more minutes. A minute later, footsteps sound again. She looks up, uncertain, and sees a head of curly brown hair bobbing around the corner. Black running gear smooth against his body. This time, her smile breaks with genuine happiness. Without making him break stride, Penelope falls in place beside Gilbert.
Side by side, their pace begins to match. Each foot hitting the ground in sync with the other person’s. Arms pumping in unison. Breathing together. Increasing in rhythm. Air rushes quickly in and out of their lungs. Pushing the other harder. Driving faster and faster as they round each corner until they break the tree line at the top of the hill. Spent, they come to a halt. Smiling at each other as they lean over, hands on knees, trying to catch their breath. Chests caving as air flows from their lungs. Expanding as they refill. Skin shining under the skein of sweat. Pushing herself into a standing position, Penelope reaches over, patting Gil on the arm.
“You were good.” She pants, still short of breath.
“Shit. You can run.” He exhales, hunched over “Now I think I’ll just lay down and die.” Walking to an expanse of grass, he flops onto his back on the ground.
“Come on. Walk it off. You’ll cramp.” She holds out her hand to help him up.
“The dead do not cramp.” He bats her hand away with a weak swat.
“None of that, lazy ass” Putting one foot on either side of his legs, she reaches over and grabs his hands. “Now get up.” She pulls, and with a little resistance, he allows her to help him into a standing position.
Less than an inch apart. Their chests touching as they breathe. Penelope feels the same draw as in the car. Her hands wander towards him arms. Her fingers trace the edge where the fabric meets his wrist. For a moment it seems perfect, then Gil steps away, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Remember the rules.” He chastises. “Let’s head back.” Their pace is slower this time, a little tenser, more aware of other runners. Eventually, they relax and continue jogging until they reach a widened area where the path separates just beyond where they met that morning. Gil slows to a stop.
“So, I guess I’ll see you at school.” Penelope pulls her water bottle from her belt.
“Do it again tomorrow?” Gil takes the bottle from her, and pours water into his mouth. The early morning sun peaks through the leaves, glinting off their sweaty skin.
“Absolutely.” Penelope reaches out, placing her hand on his forearm. Using him for balance as she leans over to adjust her shoe and steal one last chance to touch him before they go their separate ways.
“See you in a couple hours.” He presses his hand over hers before jogging down the left branch. Penelope watches him go, thinking about what a difference a day can make. Her smile feels etched into her face.
****** ****** ******
Their routine continues for the rest of the week. Meeting every morning, running together, becoming more and more in sync. Then at school, they pretend they don’t know one another any better than Gil knows any other student. Less since she’s not in any of his classes. Friday afternoon, Penelope and Rowena sit in an alcove in the hallway, trying to come up with plans for the weekend. Bouncing her heels against the wall below their seat, Penelope stares down at the floor.
“Ms. Chisholm. Do you disrespect your walls at home like that?”
Penelope looks up at the sound of the familiar voice. Gil’s eyes glint with humour, but his face is set in a stern, teachery expression.
“Maybe I do.” She responses belligerently, biting back a smile. Rowena stares into her lap, pretending not to know what’s happening between her best friend and her new teacher.
“Perhaps you should have a little more respect for our school.”
“Perhaps,” She mimics “it’s not your school.” Propping her foot up against the edge of the seat, she runs a hand along her leg. Her mouth hitching into a tiny smile.
“Your attitude is uncalled for. I’d like to speak to you privately.” He uses his most teacherlike tone before opening the door to the classroom across the hall.
“Whatever.” She mumbles, jumping off the seat. Winking quickly at Rowena, she slips between Mr. Staal and the door. He glances quickly down the hall and closes the door behind them. The frosted glass in the door distorts the view into the room.
“Well, that was bitchy.” Gil smiles, propping himself up on the edge of a desk impossible to see from the door.
“Just playing the part.” Her mouth pulls up on one side. Stepping close to him, but not touching.
“What are we doing about our run tomorrow?”
“Ummm, running…?” She raises an eyebrow.
“But that’s it.”
“Yes, just like we’ve been doing all week.” She isn’t sure what he’s getting at.
“But we’ve always had school when that run ends. Tomorrow is Saturday.”
“And there’s this whole empty day just waiting to be filled.” Understanding finally clicks.
“Exactly. And that will only end in badness.”
“I guess you’ll just have to show some self control. Won’t you.” She brushes her hand across his knee.
“I’ll have to, will I?” His eyebrows rising sceptically.
“Yes. You will.” Planting both hands on his knees, she leans into him, stopping centimetres from him lips. “Do you think you can?” Her fingers dance slowly up his legs. Gil’s hands find her arms. Fingers wrapping around her strong biceps. The lean muscle tensing under the touch of his skin through her white blouse. The breath seeping through the slit between his lips warms her skin. She leans in. Further. Moist lips brush against moist lips. Then the fingers tighten. More than necessary, to the point of pain. Suddenly her feet lift off the ground. Her toes scramble for purchase. She’s stumbles backwards, trying to regain her balance, stopping when she backs into a shelf running along the wall.
“Jesus, Gil!” She rubs her arm.
“I’ve told you not to push it, Penelope.” Gil crosses his arms, stepping towards her. “I’m sorry.” He reaches out, touching the side of her face gently. “We just can’t risk getting caught. Especially not in the school. What if someone had opened the door?”
“I know. I’m sorry. Sometimes, it’s just…”
“Impossible not to touch you.” He nods. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He pushes her hair behind her ear.
“Same bat time. Same bat channel.” She grins, watching him disappear through the door.
***** ***** *****
“Hey Sullie?” Ash calls across the newspaper room.
“Yeah?” She answers distractedly.
“You know those teacher profiles we talked about at the end of last year?”
“Vaguely. We were going to do a monthly thing, weren’t we? What ever happened to that?”
“Got pushed aside for something else, but I’m thinking we should start doing them. Think we need a vote?”
“Nah. People were in favour of it next year.” Sullie spins in her chair and rolls over to Ash’s desk. “I assume we start with Principal Frederique?”
“I was actually thinking we should do one on Mr. Staal.” Ash suggests with an air of casualness he doesn’t feel.
“Staal? The sub?” She leans forward, resting her elbows on the desk. “Are we going to include all the subs in this profile thing?”
“Nah, but he’s going to be here for at least a month. It seems right that we should pay some attention to him. Find out what makes him tick. Find out why he’s a sub and not in a permanent position somewhere.”
“Dig up the good stuff?” Sullivan grins. “You taking this one for yourself.”
“I was thinking you might want to handle this one. Your first big byline? Front page maybe?” Ash grins at her. “And I know you love a good research project.”
“You’re awesome!” Sullie jumps up and runs around the desk to pull him into a hug. “I’m going to start right now!”
“Don’t you have some kind of Friday plans you have to get to? My sister and Row aren’t waiting for you somewhere?”
“Shit. Right.” Sullie glances up at the clock. “I’ll start tomorrow. Later, dude. Don’t stay too late.” She waves over her shoulder and rushes out of the room.
Leaning back in his chair, Ash props his shoes up against the edge of his desk. The screen in front of him white. The black line of the cursor flashing ominously. Taunting him. He hasn’t typed a single word since they entered the room. Talking to Sullivan had been more an excuse to look away from the computer. Closing his eyes, he pushes his fingers against the edge of his nose, up and across his eyebrows. Shaking himself out of his daze, he grabs the keyboard from desk and pulls it into his lap. Hunching over, dropping his feet to the floor, his fingers begin to fly across the keyboard as his thoughts finally starting to take shape. As each key clicks, the world of the school begins to fall away. Soon, all he hears is the keyboard and the rhythmic sounds of his own breathing.
“What are you doing under there?”
Ash jumps as the voice erupts close to his ear, his hand slamming into the desk. Looking up, he sees Emmette leaning on the desk, peering cautiously over the edge.
“Man! Fuck.” He pushes Emmette away from him, shaking the sore hand.
“What? You’re all stooped over, going at something underneath the desk, your face set in that far away, dazed look… You expect people to think what?”
“That I would at least close the door.” Ash raises an eyebrow and brings the keyboard up onto the desk.
“Well, you might be feeling a little backed up without Brooke to relieve things for you. Decided to take matters into your own hand. Too distracted for logic.”
“Emmette.” Ash sighs.
“Really, what are you doing?”
“Working on the Crim project. I’m trying to put together this proposal for next week.”
“Great project, but I ask you again, what are you doing?”
“Working on the project for crim…” He adds hand movements to emphasize his words.
“Don’t be a douche.” Emmette hops up to sit on the desk.
“I’m not sure how much clearer I can be.”
“It’s Friday. School’s over. And you’re sitting in here working like a big nerd.”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s the year of the nerd.” Ash glances over his shoulder at the clock, “It’s not even 5:00.” He turns back to the monitor.
“Dude.” Emmette reaches forward and hits the power button.
“It’s just the monitor, shut up. You need to remove the croquet mallet from your ass and start having some fun.”
“They’re big and would be seriously uncomfortable.”
“You spend a lot of time playing croquet, do you? Before or after the tea and finger sandwiches?” Ash jokes.
“You’ve been acting like kind of a tight ass since the year started. And since you broke up with Brooke, you’ve been a complete yawn.”
“It’s been less than a week. Give me a break. Jesus.” Reaching forward, Ash attempts to turn the monitor of the computer back on. Emmette knocks his hand out of the way.
“Pack it up, dude. We’re having fun tonight, whether you want to or not.”
“I will be the dictator of my own fun.”
“Nope. You’re terrible at it. I am taking over. I am the cruise director of fun.”
“You know that where ever we go, Brooke is going to show up.” Ash leans back in his chair, crossing his arms across his chest.
“No fear, buddy. We’ve got a plan, and I guarantee you she’s not going to show up.” Striding around the desk, Emmette peaks out the window behind Ash’s desk. “And look, there she goes.” He watches Brooke’s pink convertible pull out of the student parking lot. “I’m picking you up at 8:00.” Kicking Ash’s chair away from the desk, Emmette turns and walks out of the room. “Be ready.”
Catching himself before his chair rolls into the wall, Ash turns back towards the computer. Flipping on the monitor, he looks at the mostly blank screen in front of him, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. “Screw it, whatever.” Hitting the save button, he waits for a second before pulling his flash drive from the computer. Jamming everything back in his bag, Ash heads out to his car, ready to let go of everything, for a little while at least.