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Chapter 1

Mysteries of Middle

She just had a way about her.

Hannah Jennings.

There were certainly many reasons why Blake Douglas thought this, too many to sort through in an ever-expanding list. Maybe it was her long hair draped just past her shoulder blades, blonde, but not ghostly white like those girls on perfume commercials. Maybe it was her vintage LA Gear tennis shoes. Like, real ones, not some cheap knock-offs. Maybe it was more than that, though, more than just the little things. Her ideas and beliefs rang true to him. She could explain things in a way where it felt like he didn’t have to worry, because that’s what he was best at, worrying and overthinking about every situation.

“Runners for Heat Three in the hundred-meter-dash, please report to the starting line,” the announcer’s voice echoed throughout the stadium.

Blake should have rushed over and started his warmup, but his feet didn’t budge. He was trying to find where Hannah was sitting in the bleachers. He spotted her in the front row, jammed between a couple of senior girls. Before he could wave to her, she stood up and yelled out, “Good luck!” He smiled and, for a brief second, pretended they were actually a couple. Then, he snapped out of it and walked over to the end of the track where the rest of the runners were assembling. 

An official started calling out lane numbers. Blake was in lane five. Richard McMan from South Coast High School, his biggest competition today, was in lane four. It was going to be an epic showdown.   

So far, the County Track Invitational was going Blake’s way. Richard had barely won Heat One and Two. In a way, Blake had planned that. He wanted Richard to get cocky going into the final heat. It wasn’t just about Blake beating Richard today; it was about smashing his high school hundred-meter-dash record of 10.81 seconds while he did it. All the hard work, the late nights running extra sprints instead of doing homework (Pre-Calc got the shaft the most) would finally pay off. They’d etch his name into the record board hanging in the gym, a permanent reminder that on this day he was the fastest kid in the county. He was a senior, so it was now or never.

Blake started his warm-up routine, some bobbing up and down, a few leg stretches. He was finally starting to think about the race instead of his not-girlfriend Hannah when a loud rumble behind the bleachers interrupted his concentration. A line of Humvees barreled down Patterson Road like they were in the middle of a high-speed chase. Some of the runners stepped out of their lanes to watch the spectacle. People pushed and shoved to get to the top of the bleachers for a better view. They pulled out their phones and took pictures, whispering to one another. Even Hannah was leaning on a taller girl’s shoulder, focused on the Humvees rather than Blake. The Humvees drove down the center of the road like they owned the place. For a few weeks now, that had been true.

Lately, the boring, quiet town of Middle, Michigan had transformed into a bustling hub of military activity. It all had to do with the discovery at Pine Mill, whatever it was. Blake had no clue, his friends had no clue, and all the fake news surrounding the military presence had the town on edge. Conspiracy theories ran amuck: aliens, terrorism, paranormal entities—you name it. Blake thought it was all kind of bullshit, especially because Hannah’s dad had lost his job after the mill reconstruction project got shut down by the military. What were they protecting? When would they leave?

“Please, please, get back to your seats,” the announcer said. “We have an important race to run here.”

Yes, we do.

Blake wanted Middle to go back to normal. There was nothing wrong with living in a boring town. In fact, he preferred it because his tendency to overthink everything only got worse when things were chaotic.

The thundering Humvees took a sharp left, kicking up a cloud of dirt before they disappeared down the road. People got their last photos in, then started filing back to their seats. The runners moved back in their lanes. Blake took a deep breath, attempting to regain his concentration.

“Runners, take your marks,” an official said into a megaphone, wasting no time. He looked pissed about the delay and wanted to get on with it. Blake placed his feet on the starting block. The finish line was only a hundred meters away, but in that instant, it seemed to stretch forward, bending in at the sides, making it look thousands of miles away. His eyes wandered over to Richard who was focused, stiff as a statue. Richard’s eyes didn’t even blink. Blake’s mind drifted again, wondering if Richard was fantasizing about something at the finish line to help him win.

A giant double bacon cheeseburger maybe? Or what about the pile of cash his grandma’s going to give him for doing such a super-duper job! Or how about— 

(who cares! who cares!)

Blake had his own ritual to worry about. He imagined the same thing every race: Hannah wearing her stunning yellow dress from last year’s prom, waving at the finish line. Even though they didn’t go together, that was the most beautiful she had ever looked. No question about it. He knew the ritual was sort of cheesy, and he knew Hannah would flip her shit if she found out, but he wasn’t going to give up his strategy just because it might be pathetic. It had worked for over a year now, so why quit?

He looked ahead again, waiting for Hannah to appear in her bombshell outfit. It didn’t happen. She wasn’t there. For a second, he wondered if he was trying too hard, then something totally bizarre took him by surprise. His mom appeared at the end of the track. Not Hannah, but his mom! She was hijacking his ritual. Sure, he was bummed his mom couldn’t make it to the meet today because she was out of state for work. He missed her, but certainly not enough to replace Hannah.

“Get set!” the official yelled. 

Blake was so surprised he almost false-started. He planted his hands on the track and got into his runner’s stance.

“I’m here, Blake. I’m always here for you,” the vision of his mom said. Daydreaming about his crush was one thing, but having his mom literally speak made him think he was going crazy.

Where’s Hannah? What’s going on? Where—

The official fired the starting gun. Blake launched himself off the block. Richard appeared to be ahead of him, and it was only meter ten. A second in, and Blake was already trailing. That whole mother-son moment really screwed things up. 

Blake’s hands cut the air with aggressive swipes. Each foot’s strike on the black surface was carefully timed with a deep breath. The crowd’s cheers blurred together. The track was the only thing he could see now, a black road to his …

His mom was gone. It was Hannah now, waving in her yellow dress. 

Blake’s adrenaline kicked into high gear. Things were coming into focus. No one else deserved this more than him. No one else wanted it more.

The finish line was approaching, and with every last ounce of endurance left, he leaned his head forward over the line and collapsed onto the track. A few of the slower runners dodged him when they passed by and gave him a dirty look. Blake shrugged it off. He looked around for Richard but couldn’t find him.

The crowd fell to a hush. The agonizing wait turned Blake’s insides into a twisted mess. It felt like hours before they finally delivered the results.

“I’ve just been informed that a couple records were broken,” the announcer said. He delivered the results for eighth through third place without mentioning Blake or Richard. Then, he shifted his tone and said, “With a time of 10.78 seconds and a new school record, in second place, from Middle High School, Blake Douglas!”

Blake jumped up and fist pumped the air. He thought about running over to Hannah in the bleachers and giving her a hug—scratch that—a kiss on the cheek. Why not? 

Just why the hell not? 

His dad was somewhere in the bleachers filming everything, and he couldn’t wait to relive it again. He’d make sure to upload the clip to YouTube so that by Monday, everyone would know what he had done. 

Can you put my name in gold on the record board, please? I want that shit beaming! 

“And in first place, with a new county record of 10.77 seconds, from South Coast High School, Richard McMan!” 

Richard sprinted past Blake and let out a barbaric yell. Everyone in the crowd went nuts. Blake couldn’t believe it, like literally couldn’t, because the announcer had said he got the record. What he forgot was that Richard went to another school, so even though he did break the school record like he had dreamed about for years, it still wasn’t enough. He had lost the race.

Blake felt dizzy and sat down on the track. Richard did a quick pass by the front of the bleachers, high-fiving anyone who had their hands out. It was insulting to watch Richard do that on Blake’s home track, especially since Blake didn’t understand what had gone wrong.

Was it because of the Humvees? The vision? His obsession with Hannah? Perhaps it all boiled down to one terrible truth.

Richard was just a little bit faster than him today. That’s all it takes in track. A little bit. One false move, and you’re toast.

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Map of Middle