Maria Harley stumbled across the finish line, panting, and broke into a huge grin. Winning her team's final track meet against the rival high school: not a bad way to end her senior year. A few of her friends came running onto the track to hug her, and she leaned into their embrace as she heard, through pounding ears, the announcer shouting her name across the field. But a glance across the crowd in the bleachers brought the familiar heaviness back to her chest, a feeling only shortly ameliorated by her victory. She smiled at her friends but wriggled out of the hug, telling them she had to walk a few laps to cool down. They filed out with the rest of the thinning crowd as Maria set off again around the track.
Dad has a lot of work to do. He would have come if he could.
Maria pulled her curly brown hair out of it's ponytail and combed it back again with her fingers.
He's probably out with his new bimbo of the week.
"Five minutes," she called to her team's coach, who rolled her eyes. "I don't need a ride home, I can walk today." The coach nodded and began to walk out.
He wouldn't do that to me. It's work. Has to be work.
The stands were empty.
The last one was nearly my age.
Her legs were still sore. The weight in her chest felt like lead.
Has to be work.
"Miss Harley?" Maria started at the coarse voice, and whipped around. A tall man in a sports jacket was walking behind her. His jet-black hair was smattered with white, but his stride was strong, almost youthful. "Miss Harley, that was quite a performance today. You have excellent stamina You're a senior, yes?"
Maria stopped walking and faced him. Although his presence was a surprise, the praise was more so. She didn't get much of that elsewhere, especially where a report card was concerned.
"I do hope you'll continue running in college"
The lead sank to her stomach. She tried her best to lift it up, to put on the happy face she had learned to use.
"I'll be working as a trainer at a local gym after graduation. It's a great opportunity." The rehearsed phrase fell out of her mouth easily. People never questioned her long enough after that to find out what it was an opportunity for. She didn't really want to know either.
"A girl as strong as you, with her talents wasted at a gym?" The man's lined face crinkled into a smirk. Before he had seemed to be in his forties, but the sarcastic expression added at least twenty years. A shiver traced its way up Maria's spine.
"You'll have to excuse my bluntness." The man's smile faded, and he assumed a more serious disposition. It seemed more natural for him, and set Maria at ease. "I'm a part of a local recruiting team, and we've had our eye on you for a while. Granted, you're GPA isn't stellar. But you're obviously an excellent athlete, and you've maintained straight As in all you're English classes. You don't have to sign your future away just yet."
He had obviously been thorough. Maria shifted her weight on her feet. "I'm flattered," she began. "but what did you have in mind for me?" She pulled her hair down again, letting it fall over her shoulders in an attempt to stop the chill on the back of her neck.
"There's a local school. More of a science institute, I suppose. We're studying aspects of the human body, of endurance, strength, speed. It's very safe, of course, but we need athletes as test subjects. By participating, you would receive a full scholarship to the university. You would be expected to continue to run and, of course, participate in the science program, but we'd cover room, board, food, and tuition"
Maria hadn't realized she'd been hunched over. She straightened up, lifted her head.
"You could get an English degree. Work as a teacher, and author. You could have a future."
He waited for her response. Maria stayed silent. Strong, hardened, silent.
"Well, if you're not —"
"Have you got a number?" Her voice matched his. Dark, coarse. Her bubbly façade had dissolved.
"A number. This institute has to have contact information, right?"
The man smirked. The aging smirk, with something darker behind it. "Of course, Miss Harley." He pulled a wallet from his breast pocket and plucked out two white business cards, handing then to Maria and slipping the wallet back in place. "Here's the office number, and here's my personal number. Call anytime, day or night."
"Thanks. I — I'll look into it." She took the cards, and nodded politely before walking back to the stands, where her bag leaned against a chain link fence. She heard an almost imperceptible sigh, and footsteps in the opposite direction. She slung her purse over her shoulder and turned back, calling after the retreating figure.
He turned back and faced her.
"Does this school, er, institute, have a name?"
He was far off, but she could still make out the smirk. He began to walk away again.
"Well," he called over his shoulder, "Most people just call us The Initiative."