As comfortable as I am with my name, it still sounds a little strange bellowed into a megaphone and echoing off the bleachers. Sometimes people in the stands laugh when they hear it announced, but not today. Today's too serious to be getting giggles over the horse kid.
The stretches are easy. My muscles are young, fresh, limber. I snap into and out of positions, breathing deep through my nose and out slow through my mouth, the cold morning air smooth in my throat. My hair falls across my eyes and I try to get a picture in my head of how other folks must see me, but all I can see is the track beneath my feet and a vague picture of my face in the bathroom mirror. Two-Bit says I'm getting real handsome like Soda, but I'm still seeing that tired boyish face, nothing like Soda's at all.
I shake out my legs. The other names have been called and we're lining up. I'm between a Skiatook kid who's always been slow and a tow-headed stranger built like a whip. I crouch into position as the count starts. Inhale, exhale. The gun sounds and Steve screams like a wildcat in the stands as we explode.
My legs spring out and I'm gone, flying down the stretch of black. A few guys pull ahead, but they're straining already to get past me. I won't need to strain until the end. Breathe deep, Ponyboy, breathe deep. Remember to thank Darry later for hiding your cigarettes. Breathe deep.
I'm running and it's always been this way - legs racing, arms pumping, head bent forward into the wind. We're always in this form, tearing across life in bright streaks, taking everything in our path in destruction and rebirth.
We round the corner and I'm just behind the tow-headed kid. The smooth air is harsh now, stinging in my throat. The bleachers are full of people yelling their heads off, chanting names, but two names are rising above the rest.
It's always been this way, some mad dash for a pointless end, everybody running but not really going anywhere. And even if this is as real as anything, the sun breaking through the clouds and my cold sweat and my burning throat and the track slapping up against my pounding feet in time with my pounding heart - no matter how real it all is, it's still just running with no end. A race for a trophy, a rumble for our side of town, it doesn't matter. We're still running without a purpose. Running to remember that we're alive.
Nobody ever slows down to wonder where we're headed.
Once more up the stretch to the tape, and the boys are screaming my name like bloody murder. My shoulder is even with the tow-headed boy's. I look at him, but he doesn't look at me. His cold eyes are fixed forward.
Mercury knew. Or Hermes, if you prefer. It doesn't matter. Either way, he knew. I don't know as much about mythology as I'd like to, so I'm not all that sure what he did, but there's a picture of him in that part of my history book. He had wings on his feet, you know? And so he must've known that it shouldn't be the running itself that matters, but where you're going. 'Cause you can really fly with wings on your feet, maybe even get high enough to see everything and finally understand.
I pull ahead. The crowd explodes. The kid pushes forward but it doesn't matter, he can't catch me now. Nobody can. My wings are flaring and I'm lifting up, running on the wind, soaring up to where I want to be and where I can see everything-
My ears fill with shouts and I spiral down to Earth. My lungs and legs are burning. Hands rain down on my back. I catch my breath and push my hair out of my eyes, and the team's coming up to me cheering and my brothers come out of nowhere to bear-hug me, but I look over their shoulders at the tow-headed kid with the distant eyes.
Breaking free from the crowd, I go over to him and hold out my hand. He shakes it sportsman-like, but his face is so empty that I have to look away. He can't see anything but the track beneath his feet, his own feet running frantically to no end. I want to say something, but I don't know what.
We're all running, always have been, cutting into the wind and leaving our bright streaks of destruction and rebirth behind. We win, we lose, we die beneath streetlights and none of it matters because we don't know where we're going. But somebody - maybe not really Mercury, but somebody - knows, and I know, and I can taste what purpose feels like. A race for a trophy, a rumble for our side of town. A sunset for a death and a sunrise for a birth. A good way to be.
Darry's grinning from ear to ear, standing beside the coach. "There's a rep from OU here," he says. "Wants to talk to you about an athletic scholarship in track."
I look up at the sky where I was running a minute ago, where maybe heaven is. And I think maybe I know where I'm going.
Tell everyone. I don't think they know.