The Runner

Weeping Duck

She ran to the beat of her music.

It was a fact that she'd admitted with that sparkling laugh of hers, her eyes a brilliant shade of blue. The expression of happiness on her lovely face made him weak at the knees, fuzzy at his stomach, and sweaty at his palms, but, more than anything, her happiness brought a smile to his lips, and he'd do absolutely anything to watch that smile shine on her face.

It was love.

It had been love since day one.

And day one had happened over four years ago.

Now, he was sitting at a small café in the town where they had gone to college, admiring the beautiful spring weather outside. He was a senior, finishing up his last semester of undergraduate work before he went on to law school in the fall. She had gotten her undergraduate degree in three years and had started school to become a physical therapist. Although he really hadn't been sure how he could manage through his final year of college without her there by his side, he had done well—probably because they talked so often on the phone and managed to visit each other frequently.

"Can I get you anything to drink?" a petite waitress asked.

He glanced over at her. "No, thanks," he replied. "I'm waiting on someone."

The waitress smiled back at him. "All right. I'll check back on you."

He stole a glance at his watch. She wasn't late—he was just early. Hopelessly early. Mainly because he couldn't wait any longer to see her.

The two had met in a philosophy class that both of them hated. Well, technically, she hated it, as she could not wrap her scientific brain around the far-fetched theories. She was all about math and sciences. For him, the philosophy wasn't as bad as he pretended it was to have something to link him to her; sharing a hatred for a class seemed like a good idea.

"Do you want to get hot chocolate or something in the library?" he'd finally asked after class one day. It had taken him almost three months to get up the nerve to suggest that they hang out without studying for their class, which had only happened a couple of times, always in groups.

She'd smiled in return. "Sure. Is six o'clock okay?"

Any time that she'd named would have been okay for him, but he suppressed the words from falling from his mouth. Instead, he'd agreed, and, later that day, they'd met up and talked over her smoothie and his hot chocolate. Her bubbly chatter kept him entertained for over an hour, and it was when they left to walk around campus that he discovered her greatest weakness—gravity.

Going down the stairs of the library, without any force or collision, she'd tripped and landed flat on her backside on the ground. Stunned for a moment, she stared up at him with those enormous, gorgeous blue eyes of hers, and then peals of laughter spilled from inside of her, making him laugh right along with her. He'd offered his hand and pulled her to her feet, and she confessed that she was probably the clumsiest person he would ever meet.

Later, he'd admit that nothing could have been closer to the truth.

"Gravity seriously conspires against me," she explained, rubbing her hip as if it had been injured during her fall. "I fall for no reason at all, usually multiple times a day, and I don't even want to get started on how often I run into things that I shouldn't even be close enough to hit. It's ridiculous how spastic I am."

He smiled, believing that she was ridiculously cute and finding it adorable that her one fault just made her more endearing to him.

After that day, it became a weekly tradition for them to get drinks at the café in the library. A typical Wednesday afternoon—to encourage them to get through the rest of the week, she'd said—was spent in that café, talking over different drinks. It was a tradition that they kept for the duration of their freshman year of college.

During one of those Wednesday afternoons, he got up the nerve to ask her out to dinner. "What are you doing Friday night?" he asked offhandedly, feeling nervous of her response.

She seemed momentarily thoughtful. "Well…probably nothing. Except for running." Her eyes lit up—he couldn't miss their shine. "But I do that every day. So pretty much nothing. What are your plans?"

His nerves were getting the better of him. She wasn't doing anything! That meant he could ask her to do something with him! Oh, nausea… "I don't have any," he muttered. Silently he prayed that he didn't sound as pathetic to her as he did to himself. "I don't have any at all."

"You should run with me," she suggested with a laugh, obviously kidding.

He smiled. "I like to run. I haven't much since football in high school though."

"Then now's the time to start again." She tossed her hair over her shoulder and sipped from her hot chocolate. "It'll make you feel way better. It's a huge stress reliever." She scowled. "That's why I have to run extra on days that we have that stupid philosophy class."

"Extra?" he repeated. He gave a playful scoff. "What is extra for you? Like an extra block?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Do not underestimate me. Extra is at least a mile. But usually two miles."

He shot her a disbelieving glance. "Uh-huh…"

Her chin stuck out stubbornly. "You don't believe me? Run with me. Tonight. Seven-thirty, in front of my dorm. You be there."

It was that easy for her.

She made that simple command, and he showed up in front of her dorm at seven-fifteen that evening, wearing his tennis shoes.

She wanted to run? He'd run with her.

If she wanted to build a plane to fly to Egypt, he'd do it with her.

At seven twenty-five, she bounded down the stairs of her dorm, wearing gray shorts and a t-shirt representing her high school choir. Pink tennis shoes donned her feet. She approached him easily, grinning broadly, with her eyes all alight. Her eyes were beautiful. Chattering over the upcoming philosophy test, both of them walked to the track.

"Are you ready?" she asked, placing the earbuds of her iPod in her ears upon arrival.

It was a challenge.

They both started off running, staying side by side.

Well, side by side for the duration of about an eighth of a mile.

Jogging, he watched her run. Her pace would speed up and then taper off, only to speed up again. He'd later learn that she ran faster during the choruses; it was all about the beat. Her pace changed often, and he was captivated by the swinging of her ponytail. The confidence that she portrayed daily multiplied when she was running. She was definitely in her element.

Because he'd counted her laps, he knew that it was eight miles later when she slowed to walking. He caught up with her, out of breath. Of course, her breathing was completely normal.

She smirked at him. "I told you I run."

Running did not become a tradition that they shared, although he did sometimes run with her. He could keep up with her better when she ran on the sidewalks, since he couldn't count his laps and realize just how much he was running. But, mostly, she ran, and sometimes he'd watch—in a completely non-stalkerish way. He'd read by the track or at the bench in front of her dorm, and when she'd finished running, she would playfully brag about how much better she felt and how much benefit he'd get from the endorphins.

She didn't know it, but he got enough benefit from seeing her happiness.

Sitting at the café, he couldn't help but smile at his reflections of the past. Even after so much time had passed, he still got an exhilarating feeling whenever he thought about her. Her name, the sound of her voice, the expressions of her face…everything about her initiated that feeling inside of him.

He glanced again at his watch. He really had arrived early.

"What am I going to do without my Wednesday doses of you?" she asked when they met up for dinner on the last day of finals. Their freshman year was over, and summer vacation had, technically, arrived, though many students weren't leaving till the next morning. "I won't know how to get through the rest of my week!"

"Me either," he replied, more troubled than he let on. "I'm going miss you like you crazy."

She smiled at him. "I know. We'll have to make up for it in the fall."

"Absolutely," he agreed, grinning. "Make sure you make up for all the times I won't get to see you trip too."

Sweet laughed spilled from her. "Look." She held up her forearm and displayed the most awkwardly placed bruise he'd ever seen. He raised his eyebrows at her. "I ran into my door. It hurt more than you'd ever believe."

He shook his head sadly. "Please try not to kill yourself in Mexico."

"I'm going to Mexico!" she squealed excitedly. He resisted grinning at her cuteness; the simple reminder excited her as much as the initial knowledge of her trip had. "I'm going to Mexico in four days!"

"And you're going to work miracles."

The excitement in her eyes turned to hopefulness. "I hope I can help," she answered, emotion coating her words. "It's going to be an awesome experience."

He was very proud of her. She was going to Mexico for six weeks of her summer to volunteer with children. Though she'd explained it to him, he didn't understand all of the details. It was maybe some sort of internship or something—she'd be gaining experience for becoming a physical therapist. Her dream of encompassing her compassion for children (or people in general) and her interest in physical therapy was passionate, and he knew that the trip to Mexico meant the world to her.

He also knew she'd do well.

That's why he wasn't surprised when she was bubbling over with stories from Mexico when they returned to school in the fall. It was all she could talk about for a straight week, and he hung on every word, having no trouble imagining all the help she'd been.

Their Wednesdays in the café continued, and he felt as if they knew every little detail of each other's lives.

"I'm so nervous." It was a comment that he hadn't expected to hear from her on that Wednesday in early November. "So, so nervous."

He tipped his head at her. "Why?"

"Because Justin asked me to dinner, and I have no idea what I'm going to wear."

His heart dropped into his stomach, and it felt as if tidal waves were crashing around in his torso. He swallowed—hard. "What? Justin who?"

"Justin Stewart. From my chemistry lab?" She sighed and sloshed her smoothie around. The name was familiar now; they were lab partners, and they often studied for chemistry together. "We're going out on Friday night, and I don't know what I'm supposed to wear because I don't know where we're going."

He didn't know what to say to that. There was no response to be made. Someone else had gotten the nerve up to ask her out, and that someone was going to take her out to dinner.

Pain and jealousy stabbed at him.

"Are you sure you don't want anything to drink or eat?"

The petite waitress had returned. He looked at her curiously. Hadn't she just left?

"We've got an amazing blueberry pie today."

His watch was again consulted. She was five minutes late. There was probably traffic—there typically was. "No, thanks," he answered politely. "I'll keep waiting."

"All right. Let me know if you change your mind."

There would be no changing his mind. Oh no, this time his mind was made up. This would be the day that he would profess his love for her—the affection that he'd felt since day one. Today was the day that he would let her know just how much he was in love with her.

He had waited and waited for this moment, but he knew that it had to be done now. It couldn't be put off any longer. Additionally, he had more news for her. He'd decided to go to the law school that was only thirty minutes away from her school. They could be together all the time!

"Focus. The provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. I know you know this."

She rolled off of her bed onto the rug on her dorm room's floor dramatically. "Ugh… No more history! I don't want to study anymore!"

"Come on…you've named them twice already today." He was sitting at her desk, leaned back in the chair, with a binder full of history notes on his lap. They were supposed to be studying for their exam, but, after an hour, she had stopped being able to focus. "I know you can name them again."

"I've already named them twice," she moaned, burying her head under her arms. "Let me be!"

He shook his head firmly. "Third time's the charm."

The door to her dorm opened then, and her roommate appeared, snow flurries showing in her dark hair. "Hey, guys," she greeted, placing her books on her bed. "What's up?"

She jumped up from the floor. "Brittany, save me!" she wailed. "He's trying to make me study history, and I just can't do it!"

Brittany glanced at him. "When's the exam?"

"Not until Wednesday!" she burst out, hopping between both feet excitedly. "It's Saturday! I don't need to study now!"

"You can't list the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles," he reminded her.

She scoffed. "I've done it twice today." She turned back to her roommate. "Make it stop, Brit, make it stop!"

Brittany took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She often mediated in times like these—usually siding with the side of study, so he wasn't worried. "How long have you been studying today?"

"Only an hour," he replied.

"But I studied for two hours last night!" she declared. "I really did!"

"Okay…" Brittany glanced at the clock on the wall and then studied her roommate carefully. "Justin's picking you up in two hours. I don't expect you to be able to focus." She took another deep breath and exhaled slower. "Stop studying, and you go start getting ready." Then Brittany looked at him. "You can study more if you like, but I suggest taking a break."

She squealed and threw her arms around Brittany excitedly. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Looking back at him, she grinned. "You can help me pick out my outfit, if you want to."

He wrinkled his nose, hoping the hurt and envy he was feeling didn't show on his face. She had been dating Justin for three months, and it was obvious that she was completely crazy about him.

There was no way to describe the amount of intolerance he had for the situation.

"No, thanks." He closed his binder and stood. "Have fun."

That lovely grin appeared on her face, and she hugged him tightly. "Oh, you too!" she cried, overflowing with happiness that he knew she deserved. "Thanks so much for studying with me. I love you to death! We'll study more later, okay? Promise! By the way, happy Valentine's Day!"

All of her words shook him, and he had to flee the room before he said them back, way more seriously than she had said them.

She was thirty minutes late. She had never been more than five minutes late for anything in her entire life.

He reached for his cell phone and made sure that she hadn't tried to call him about being stuck in traffic. Anxiously, he called her—she was first on his speed dial. He listened to the rings, waiting for her sweet voice to come on and inform him that she was on her way.

She didn't answer.

"I can't believe you're graduating a year early," he griped, fidgeting with the tie he was wearing for her graduation ceremony. "I still have a year left!"

"Whatever will you do without me?" she asked playfully, placing the black cap on her head. Her gown swished as she walked to the mirror to check her appearance. "You'll go crazy."

You have no idea, he thought.

"I can't imagine what it'll be like without you around." He sighed and looked at her sadly. "What am I supposed to do without my best friend?"

She smiled and hugged him tightly. "Just think—you won't have to put up with me annoying you all the time. You won't have to try to catch me when I fall over stuff. You won't have to listen to me brag about how much more I can run than you."

But he loved it all. He loved it all and so much more about her. The words were on the tip of his tongue to say.

"What will I do without you?" she asked. She pouted at him, her enormous blue eyes full of emotion. "No one will be there to make me study or listen to me complain about stupid classes or how much I hate the food in the cafeteria." She kissed his cheek softly and grinned playfully. "You're going to have it made, dude."

I love you.

How hard was it to say those words? He'd felt every ounce of them for three years. Three years! And he couldn't tell her. Would he ever be able to tell her? Why couldn't he just tell her?

I'm carrying your love with me…West Virginia down to Tennessee…

The music erupted from her cell phone, and he used every bit of self control not to groan. That was why he couldn't just tell her.

Adoration appeared on her face. "That's Justin!" she squealed, having recognized the ringtone.

He watched her walk away to answer her phone. New sadness overwhelmed him. Perhaps he could deal with the pain of her graduating without him. After all, she was only going to school three hours away. He would drive ten hours just to spend every weekend with her if that was necessary, but it was only three hours. Just three hours!

But there was Justin.

She had been dating Justin—almost constantly, aside from a few little spats—since that fateful date in November. She had even told him a few months ago that she was pretty sure that she was in love with Justin, and that had sealed the deal. He most certainly could not tell her that he was in love with her if she was in love with another guy. Only moments ago, he'd thought that he could, but, as if by conspiracy, Justin had called.


"He's here!" she gushed, having hung up her phone. She moved in front of him and studied him thoughtfully. "Your tie's crooked." She fixed it and then gave him a gentle shove, grinning. "Get out there already and find a seat. I'll be so pissed if you don't see me walk the line."

He listened to her. He took his seat beside her family—who all loved him—and beside Justin, who probably cheered louder than anybody when her name was called.

It was love. For her and Justin. And for him.

An hour had passed. She was an hour late, and now he was really nervous. There was no way that she would ever stand him up, but she would have called to let him know that she running late. Something must have been wrong. A wreck? He cringed. He knew he should've driven to her, rather than let her drive to him. He reached into his pocket for his phone, ready to call her again, but he felt it vibrate before his hand could settle on it.

Relief surged through him. She was calling him back.

Only it wasn't her. It was her cousin, who had also gone to college with them.

"Hello?" he answered.

"Matt." Abby's voice was grim, unsettling. "Where are you?"

"At Dixon's," he answered immediately, citing the café. "What's wrong?"

"I've been meaning to call you since last night—honestly, I have—but it's been so crazy…" She swallowed audibly. "I'm so sorry that I didn't call you sooner."

"Abby…what's wrong?"

There was a lengthy pause, further unsettling Matt. He could barely breathe at this point. His hand gripped the phone so tightly that his knuckles were already white.

Finally, Abby's voice came on the line again. "Please try to stay as calm as possible, Matt." She paused again, and he felt as if he could kill her. "Something bad happened last night. Sam was running—you know, like she does—and…and it was late. Dark." His heart was pounding, fear gripping his soul. "She was hit by a car, Matt. It-it's bad."

"Where is she?"

Less than a minute later, Matt was storming for his car. The hospital was an hour away, but he knew that he could make it there in much less time than that. Samantha—his precious Sam—was there and hurt badly. He wasn't thinking about how long it had taken anyone to inform him, as he suspected that things truly were crazy. All he could think about was how she was doing, how she was, what she was thinking or feeling…if she could think or feel.

Abby hadn't elaborated on details. She'd only said that things were bad and that he should get there as soon as possible. Deep down, he knew how that sounded, but he couldn't let himself process what that could really mean. All that mattered was getting to that hospital in the shortest amount of time as possible.

Forty minutes later, he was parking. The door was slammed shut, and he ran inside the building. His speed was faster than it had ever been. Of this he was certain.

He found the intensive care unit quickly. The waiting room was full, but he spotted her parents immediately. Her father came to him, his eyes bloodshot. "Matt…you made it."

The words chilled him. Apparently, they had a similar meaning for Samantha's mother, who broke into hysterical sobs.

Abby took Matt's arm gently and steered him to the side. "Come with me," she murmured softly. "I'll take you back there."

At that moment, Matt realized how hard he was shaking. With that realization came the knowledge that he would have to see his perfect, beautiful best friend in a hospital bed. He wasn't sure that he was prepared for it, but he followed Abby anyway, knowing that nothing could keep him from Sam's bedside.

A door stared at him.

He paused for a moment, not sure what to do. But it was only for a moment that he was stumped; it was only a moment before he opened the door slowly, so as not to startle her.

On white sheets, on a cruel hospital bed, lied a frail body. Casts covered her right arm and right leg; bandages were strategically placed on her body, one covering half of her face. Beeping from machines haunted the room.

Matt didn't have to be pre-med to know that the frequency of the beeping was not good.


His soft murmur brought about some gentle stirring. Her eyes opened slowly, blue irises displayed. "Matty!"

Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but it held the notes of affection and excitement that it always did. He went to her side and held her left hand, careful not to use any pressure to keep from hurting her. "God, Sam…"

Tears filled her eyes as she made an effort to squeeze his hand tenderly. Her mouth opened, as though she was about to speak, but only a soft sob escaped her parted lips. Her expression was pained, and he knew that she was suffering badly.

His throat clogged with emotion, and it was evidently audible, for she tried again to squeeze his hand. He felt it then. His eyes trailed down to her left hand, where a diamond ring was seen on a very important finger. Matt froze, unable to process anything.

She obviously noticed. "I-I was going to…to tell you t-today." Her voice was soft and shaky, very weak. Another sob escaped. "J-Justin proposed."

And you said yes.

So much anguish was surging through Matt's body that he didn't know how to respond. His best friend was lying in front of him, dying, and he didn't know how to comfort her. Her blue eyes looked up at him, registering hopelessness—an emotion that Matt had never seen expressed by her.

"I-I love you so much." Tears poured down Samantha's face, her body shaking with suppressed sobs. "Y-you were the best friend that I-I ev-ever had, Matty. I l-love you so, s-so much."

His shaking had increased. He couldn't breathe.

She sobbed harder, clinging to his hand as tightly as she could in her weakened state. The beeping had changed on the machines, and something flashed in Matt's mind, helping him realize that she'd been hanging on for him. To say her goodbyes to him. For him to say his goodbyes to her.

"Y-you're so special to me," Samantha murmured tearfully. "And I-I know you're go-going to b-be so great at everyth-thing you do." Her nails dug into his hand, but he couldn't feel it. "Matty, be happy for me. Please be happy for me."

Pale, he opened his mouth. This was his last chance to tell her how he felt—like he'd never done before. The words 'I love you,' even in the friendly sense, had never been uttered from his lips. Now was his last chance. The moments were ticking away, robbing him off his best friend and leaving him with precious little time to convey his emotions to her.

"D-don't forget me."

Matt was aware of the door swinging open slowly, and he saw Samantha's eyes flicker in that direction. For a second, adoration, hope, love, happiness…every positive emotion that always radiated from her lit up her eyes. But then louder sobs erupted from her, stealing her last bit of energy and last moments of life.

A hand was laid on Matt's shoulder.

When he turned, he saw Justin standing there, heartbroken. Not a word had to be said. Matt swallowed, nodded, and stepped aside for Justin to be with Samantha—his precious Sam.

Matt moved toward the door, glimpsing back to see a sobbing Sam in Justin's arms.

He exited quietly.

And he never got to tell her how much he loved her.