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Chapter 1 - Hunter

Hunter paid for the bag of chips and an energy drink, and headed back out to the car. He knew it was a terrible snack but it would wake him up a bit, and he only had two hours left to drive. Two hours, until he reached his new life.

As he pulled out of the gas station parking lot, he realized that the old Hunter – the Hunter who was one of the best runners on the cross-country team and had been acing his college classes on a full scholarship – never would have chosen chips and an energy drink. He was far too healthy. But he wasn’t that person anymore; that was the old him. That was who he had been before Brooke.

He had been lots of things before Brooke. Happy, for one. But not anymore. That was why he was on this trip, though. That was why he had dropped out of classes, applied to a college on the other side of the country, packed up his stuff (and his cat), and left his old life behind. He was tired of being the “after Brooke” version of himself, the version that had no motivation to exercise or eat right and who barely functioned. He wanted to be healthy again, happy again. And for that, he needed a fresh start.

He looked down at the bag of chips in his lap and shrugged, then opened it and popped a chip in his mouth. The fresh start could wait until he arrived at his new apartment.

He drove. Music from the radio filled the car but he barely heard it. He focused instead on the interstate, on the lines and road and sky all blurring together into the distance. His parents had been happy about his move. They saw it as a sign that he was finally coming out of his “funk,” as they called it. They hoped that after failing his classes and spending months in bed with depression, he was finally coming back to himself. But Hunter knew the truth – there was no going back to himself. Not to that old self, anyway. The old self had been naïve, hopeful, and blissfully in love with Brooke with every belief that it would last forever. What a fool.

Hunter didn’t want to go back to the old self. He wanted a new self, a self that could move on and learn from the past and be stronger for it. A self that could learn to trust again, to love again – eventually – but who was wiser, better, and more confident. Definitely more confident, because right now, he was stuck in an in-between version of himself that he abhorred, one that was closed-off and suspicious and lonely and which ached. He had fallen hard, that old Hunter, upon discovering that the love of his life had been cheating on him with his best friend, and that everyone (but him) had known it. It had crushed him. But now, he was ready to move on. He was ready to leave behind the friends that hid secrets and the classes that felt like only pressure and even the place on the cross-country team that had earned him his scholarship. That last one was the hardest. He missed the running, his teammates, his reputation and success and his position as a competitor for Regionals – he missed it, but what choice did he have? To make a clean break meant breaking with all of it. It would be fine. He would start over. He would try out for the team at his new college and he would carve out a place for himself. He would carve out a life.

He was about to arrive at an apartment he had never seen but had rented over the phone, to attend classes at a campus he’d never been to and live in a city where he knew not a soul. That thought would have made the old Hunter anxious. But maybe there was something good about this in-between Hunter after all, or maybe there was already some of the new-and-better Hunter emerging, because as he flicked on his blinker and moved over toward his approaching exit, he felt no anxiety – only a small tremor of excitement.

Hunter arrived at his apartment late in the afternoon and settled himself (and his cat, Bruno) into his new home. He hadn’t brought much with him, just a few boxes of books and movies, his computer and television and Xbox One, and his clothes. There was no food in his apartment, but at least there was furniture. The landlord had allowed him to have a bed, a couch and a small table delivered ahead of time, and someone had already set them up. He would have to thank his parents later for paying for his new furniture. He had lived in the dorms before, where furniture had been provided, and when he dropped out, he had moved back home. He’d had a part time job, but he’d lost it after not showing up to work several times while suffering from depression. When he finally decided to start over at a new college, he realized he was nearly broke. Now that he was up and setting goals again and had decided to move, his parents insisted on helping him get some stuff for his new place. He would pay them back when he could. He didn’t mind them helping him, but they didn’t have a lot of money themselves, and he knew they had struggled to afford it. He had lined up a job at a Radio Shack down the road from the college, and he would start work next week. After paying his rent and buying some food, saving up to pay his parents back was next on his list.

Hunter fed the cat and set up the litter box, then unpacked his small amount of belongings. Afterward, he collapsed on the couch and pulled open his phone’s calendar. It was August 24, 2016. Classes started tomorrow. He felt a sudden weight in the pit of his stomach, but he took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. The first day of class was always a little stressful, no matter what the circumstances. But this was also his chance for a new start. He sat up and rummaged through his backpack, which he had dropped beside the couch when he came in. He had crammed it with his school books and supplies before tossing it in his car. He pulled out a slightly-wrinkled map of his new school campus and unfolded it, then pulled up the email with his class schedule on his phone. He would figure out where to park and how to get to his classes, and plan out what time he needed to be up in the morning to get to campus on time. Then he would call for a pizza, shower, eat, and go to bed. After all, tomorrow was going to be a big day.

Hunter left for campus the next morning with plenty of time to spare, which of course meant that by the time he’d finally found a parking space, he had only ten minutes to run across campus and find his first class. He barely made it on time to Chemistry, but he was there and once he got settled in, things actually felt pretty familiar. He tried not to think about the fact that the reason it seemed so familiar is because he had already taken Chemistry. Since he’d failed all his classes at the other college after the break-up, he was now retaking all his first-semester classes even though he would have otherwise been a Sophomore. But it was okay; a fresh start meant replacing some things with new versions and new memories. This Chemistry class was a replacement, a sign that he was diving into his new life. This time he was determined to do well in it.

He took notes on assignments and how to access the online grading system, but zoned out during the introductory Chemistry material he remembered from his other college and let his mind wander. He was more concerned with what would be happening after his classes today – his first cross-country practice. He'd heard the cross-country team was well-established, and that they had met for practice over the summer to stay in shape and get a head-start on training. The freshman and newcomers would be joining the practices today, and – with the exceptions of those who had been scouted and brought in on scholarships – would be on the team for a probationary period of one week. It was basically their version of tryouts. The coach would cut people each day as he saw fit, and at the end of the week, he would announce who was staying. Hunter was desperate to make a good impression. He had been one of the top runners at his other college, and had been recruited for the team out of high school. But here, no one knew him and he had no idea how his ability would compare to the rest of the team. He had resolved to prove himself and show them he was worth keeping on the team, whatever it took. Cross-country was the only part of his new life he had really put much thought into. He planned to work hard and pass his classes, sure; he’d lined up a job, of course, because he needed rent and food; but the cross-country team was something he actually wanted.

Before leaving for classes this morning, he’d thrown out the leftover pizza and poured out the last energy drink he’d stashed in his car. He had put his mind in the athlete-zone again, and that meant also eating like one. He’d had a healthy breakfast, he’d been drinking nothing but water all day, and later he’d eat a healthy lunch. He had been running and working out regularly, even through the depression – it was the only thing that gave him peace – but he hadn’t been fueling his body like he should, and he could feel the difference. It was time to get serious, and to take back the things that mattered to him. It was time to become the new-and-better Hunter, and running was pretty much the only thing he cared to carry over from his old self. Running and being a part of the team was an anchor for him, something he knew how to navigate and which grounded him. If he didn’t make the team, he wasn’t sure what he’d do.

His Chemistry class ended and he packed up his stuff and headed out into the hallway, where he pulled out the map for a quick glance. He hated to do that – it felt like such a freshman thing to do – but the campus was a bit confusing and he needed to find his classes. He moved to the side out of the flow of passersby and checked the map as inconspicuously and quickly as he could. Then, having gotten his bearings, he shoved it back into his backpack and stepped out into the flow of students walking down the corridor.

He checked his watch. He had about three minutes to make it to his Physics class, which was in this wing but still quite a way down the corridor, and he was stuck behind a girl wearing a huge backpack and walking very slowly. He slowed his pace so as not to bump into her, then took the first break in the students walking the opposite direction to try to move around the girl. Just as he started to pass her, he glanced back and hesitated. She was petite, about his age, and that giant backpack looked like it was about to crush her. She was plodding along under the weight of it, and he wondered whether he should offer to carry it for her so that she could get wherever she was going more easily. He had just decided to offer when her eyes lit up and she smiled, lifting her hand in a wave.

Hunter instinctively raised his hand to wave back, then flushed as he realized she was looking past him. Before he could turn to see who she’d been waving at, a girl with long, wavy brown hair ran past him, calling out a bright, “Sorry!” as her shoulder brushed against him. She crashed into the girl with the large backpack, embracing her in an exuberant hug.

Hunter realized he was standing stupidly in the middle of the hallway, a delta parting the river of students rushing past. And he was also about to be late to class. He turned to leave, but just as he did, the girl released her friend from the hug and turned slightly, putting her full face in Hunter’s view.

He gasped. She was beautiful, but it was more than that. There was an energy coming off of her, like pure life swirling in warm waves. It was in her smile, in her eyes framed with glasses that suited her perfectly, in her free laugh and in the excited movement of her hands as she gestured in conversation with her friend. This girl – there was just something about her that made Hunter feel as though a hammer had slammed into his chest and now his heart couldn’t quite catch back up to the right rhythm.

Suddenly he realized he was still standing in the middle of the hallway. He shook his head and turned away from the girl. He instantly felt a pang of regret, but he shrugged it off. He had to get to class, and besides, she had been talking with her friend. What would he have done? Walked up and interrupted them? That was definitely not his style, even on his braver days. No, he would just have to hope he’d see her around, and maybe he would eventually get a chance to meet her properly. Even as he thought it, he lectured himself. He hadn’t come here to meet girls. In fact, he’d been quite firm on the decision that the first semester was to be purely for cross-country, school, and working. His heart wasn’t ready for a relationship, or even for playing at romance. He had been hurt too badly, and he wasn’t ready to open up to anyone yet, not in that way. Maybe never – hopefully not never? – but definitely not right now.

And yet, this girl… there was something about her that called to him, in spite of his better judgment.

He’d think through it all later and hopefully talk himself out of it. For now, he had to get to class.

Class.

He had been so caught up in his thoughts he had passed the right classroom and was now all the way down at the other end of the corridor. He spun around, glancing at his watch. He had thirty seconds to get to class. He ran.

He burst into the classroom just in time to see the professor shuffling papers, getting ready to begin. The class had settled into an expectant hush, and Hunter felt eyes on him as he moved his way down the aisle toward the few open seats at the front of the room. He would have rather sat toward the back, but those seats all seemed –

His mind fumbled. In the rows behind him, there had been several faces that turned upward to watch him pass but he noticed only one – her. The girl. She was in this class. She must have finished talking with her friend and slipped in moments before him, while he was wandering the halls like an idiot. But she was here – in this class. His heart raced but he fought it down, chastising himself for letting one girl – not even anyone he knew, a complete stranger! – affect him so strongly. What was wrong with him? He knew nothing about this girl, and she meant nothing to him. And yet, he was keenly aware of her eyes watching the back of his head as he moved down the aisle. He turned all his concentration to walking forward without tripping.

He made it into a seat just in time, and the professor began speaking. He listened, taking notes as needed, but thoughts of that girl fought their way into his mind endlessly.

By the end of class, he had decided one thing – he needed to talk to her. He knew it didn’t make sense, and it was against everything he’d told himself he would do his first semester at this new college, but he would go crazy if he didn’t at least introduce himself and get her name.

As soon as class ended, Hunter shoved his notebook and pen into his backpack and pushed his way up the aisle, his eyes searching the back rows.

She was gone.


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Preface

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