Off Course (A Boys on the Brink Short Story)

OffCourse

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He should never have gone running that afternoon—not with the roads so treacherous, and certainly not without checking his phone was charged. Then again, if there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Jason Connor is famous for, besides being the star of his cross country team, it’s his impulsiveness. So, when an injured ankle leaves him stranded in the woods with no means of calling for aid, it isn’t the first time a rash decision has led him into trouble.

As dusk approaches, Jason believes his situation can’t get any worse…until rescue arrives in the form of Tarek Bahrani—beautiful, infuriating, and the very last person Jason would choose to find him sprawled in the mud. The two have been enemies since clashing at the Brookshire County Championships, but while Taz is a constant reminder of Jason’s biggest mistake, he might just be the only one who can help him put things right.

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Excerpt

I know I’m in trouble an instant before I hit the ground.

It’s the autumn leaves that do it. Yesterday’s rain, coupled with the frost of this morning, has turned them into a natural ice rink, and even the soles of my running shoes stand no chance. One moment, I’m jogging along the wooded path, lost in the familiar thud of my feet on the dirt and the harsh rhythm of my breathing; the next, my foot slides out from under me and I’m falling. On instinct, I throw out a hand to save myself, but still I land hard in the damp earth by the side of the trail, my ankle twisting beneath me.

My curse sets off a rustling in the undergrowth, some unseen creature scurrying for cover. Agony shoots up my leg and I grit my teeth against the surge of nausea. You prat, Jason Connor. You complete and utter pillock. I haul in a deep breath and force myself to relax. I’ll be fine; only a sprain. I just need to sit here for a moment and wait for the pain to ease off.

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Gradually, my heart rate slows. I rest my back against the trunk of the ancient oak behind me and scan my surroundings for potential aid. The trees crowding in on all sides make the overcast November afternoon seem even darker. Save for the crackle of the wind in the branches, the woods that give the town of Oakmere its name are deathly quiet. This is my favourite place to run, being just a few minutes from my street. In fine weather, the winding trails are popular with dog walkers and cyclists, but now there isn’t a soul to be seen. Well, anyone with a milligram of sense would be at home in the warm, enjoying a Sunday roast in front of the EastEnders omnibus.

I shiver, the chill air cooling the sweat on my skin. The hoodie and track bottoms that had me overheating while I was running offer little protection against the cold…and it’s only going to get colder. Even in the short time I’ve been sprawled in the dirt, the sky has darkened from slate-grey to an ominous pewter that threatens rain at any moment. No way I’m sitting here like an idiot waiting to freeze. The pain in my ankle has lessened to a dull throb. If I can drag my sorry arse off the ground, I should be able to hobble my way home. It might take a while, but at least I won’t die of hypothermia.

I clench my shoulders, bracing myself. Then I lay my palms flat against the frostbitten soil and push. A current of white-hot agony zips from my foot to my hip, and I collapse with a strangled gasp, my back slamming into the tree.

Bloody fucking hell!

Tears blur my vision and my breathing comes fast and ragged. For some time I can’t move, can scarcely think straight. I simply rest there, willing the waves of pain to subside.

It’s no use. If I have any hope of making it out of the woods before nightfall, I need help. Careful to avoid jarring my ankle, I pull my mobile from my pocket. No good calling Mum and Dad. Much as they’d rush to my side if they could, York is a three-hour drive away and far be it from me to interrupt their rare romantic weekend. Normally, I’d be able to rely on one or both of my best friends, but, because the universe really hates me today, Craig and Sarah are in Paris with their A’ Level French class. There are any number of other people I could call, but none I trust enough to see me in this state.

Not that it matters, as it turns out. When I press the button to unlock my phone, the screen remains blank and unresponsive. Damn it! I punch a fist into the unforgiving earth, achieving nothing but bruised knuckles. How had I failed to notice the battery was running low before I left? Come to that, what possessed me to abandon the central-heated cosiness of my house and venture out into the cold and the gloom? I hunch farther inside my hoodie . I could be soaking in a hot bath right now, hands curled around a steaming mug of tea, the water spreading tingling warmth to every part of my body. Instead, I’m in the middle of the woods, my balls slowly turning to ice cubes, and with a busted ankle that will put me out of competing for the foreseeable future.

My head snaps up and I strain my ears to listen. Footsteps. Not the hurried, uneven footsteps of someone fleeing a pursuer, but the measured pace of a serious jogger. My heart high-jumps into my throat, then drops in an ungainly tumble to my stomach. God, not him. Please let it be anyone else but him.

Even as the prayer forms in my mind, I know it’s hopeless. I grind my teeth, frustrated at my own impotence, and watch for the figure to come into view. There’s only one person around here dedicated enough to be out running with the clouds about to burst, and it also happens to be the last person in the world I’d choose to find me on my backside in the mud.