Here’s an excerpt from James Acker’s debut novel, THE LONG RUN. Two young men find love unexpectedly when they just need someone to see them and understand them. Throw in a heap of New Jersey and we’ve got what’s sure to be an entertaining read.
I was behind the diner. I was sweating. I was thirteen minutes into my one break of the day and Matty wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
“You see table five?”
“Mm. The Cinnaminson kids?”
“Yeah. They were talking shit. Laughing and shit.”
I didn’t care. I didn’t care what the Cinnaminson track captains had to say. I didn’t care what my good friend Matty had to say. It was the hottest day in a month of hot days, and I guess I just didn’t care.
I sucked my teeth and ate my eggs.
“Cinnaminson kids ain’t shit.”
Matty paced around the dumpsters and I could tell I was disappointing him. He wanted me to take the bait, get angry too. He wanted me to cut my lunch short, storm back through those diner doors and knock some second-string relay meathead’s dick in the dirt. Personally, I just wanted to finish my eggs.
“You don’t wanna know what they were saying about you?”
“Really? ’Cause I’d wanna know.”
Matty rolled his eyes and kicked at the chain-link fence.
“They think ’cause they took State over us one fucking season, they can talk shit all they want. Eat lunch any place they want.”
“Like, we work here, man. This is our job, Villeda, they wanna fuck with us? With you?”
“It’s just talk, dude, don’t—”
“You just gonna let them call Bash the Flash a bitch?”
I sighed into my burnt plate of scrambled eggs. This wasn’t a problem that would go away. Matty or the Cinnaminson captains. This heat. I squinted up from my milk crate.
“Can I finish my break first?”
The sun had a bad habit of hitting hardest the second I went on breaks. Made the back of the Rte. 130 Diner a hard place to relax. That’s Jersey summers though. They begin and end with a heat wave. I could barely catch Matty’s smirk through all the glare.
“Fine. Enjoy your eggs. Bitch.”
He slipped through the back door, presumably to find someone else to talk at, and I breathed. That screen door slapped shut and the relief was instant. I was alone. Just me. And my dumpster. My eggs. Just the sun and the heat and this feeling and me for the last three minutes of my break.
I don’t know when summer decided to suck but here we are. And the sad thing is that I used to love summer. I mean, duh, every kid loves summer but, for real. Summer was my jam once upon a time. We were tight, went way back. I loved everything about summer. No school, no church, no homework, all my friends, all the swimming, all of it. But lately, I’ve only been swimming to condition for cross-country. And all my free time goes to extra shifts at the diner. And I kind of hate my friends. Then again, these are all things I’ve brought on myself. So maybe it’s me. Maybe I killed summer. Stabbed my oldest friend right in the back.
It should be said that summer did nothing wrong. This particular summer’s just sucked ass. Every day, something new is wrong. There’ve been a couple of things wrong with today and it’s barely past noon. For one, the air-conditioning unit broke in the diner and we’re about three weeks deep on this heat wave. The local news said the wave is breaking New Jersey records, so congrats, I guess? It got so bad today we ran out of ice and there were customers leaving mid-meal. Had to deal with two unpaid tickets by the end of the breakfast rush. Plus, my boss has been up my ass because he assumes I know how to fix shit like air conditioners. Avi is always asking me or Matty to check on the breakers or look at his shitty car, like busboys should double as a pit crew. He’s bold like that. Presumptuous. Like, he chewed me out this morning for not “smiling right.” I’m sorry, but what the hell does that even mean? I should be doing a song and dance while I wipe down tables at the ass-crack of dawn? Maybe stop counting my tips every close, I’ll give you a fucking grin.
I was getting too hot. I took a long breath and leaned back against the brick of the diner. It helped a little. I checked my phone. Two minutes left. I started eating quicker.
Thing is, I should’ve been home by then. Two new kids called out ’cause of the heat, all last minute and shit, turned my opening shift into a full double on the hottest day in decades. Had to steal myself a little minibreak around ten just to cool off. Hid my ass in the walk-in and just waited. Sat on a bag of frozen fries. Sipped a coffee. Stared at my breath. And that was the best part of my day. Which is sad.
Before my mom died, she gave my stepdad a big box of gifts for me. He keeps them in this storage unit at his warehouse and brings me one every Christmas or birthday. They range from stocking-stuffers to books to handwritten notes. Nothing too fancy but I like it that way. So, when I turned eighteen a few weeks ago I pulled a Spanish word-a-day calendar from her pile. It was an inside joke between us because I never had any interest in learning the language. My dad left us when I was eight and, in my head, not learning his language was a great Fuck You to his sorry ass. Mom said I’d regret not learning it one day. Hence, el calendario. As a concession to her, I try to work the day’s word into my life. Some have been easier than others. Today was cansado.
Cansado, cansado, cansado. It was love at first sight, man. I love cansado because it finally puts into words what I’ve been feeling all summer.
All tied up in one word. I’ve been chewing over cansado all day, even in the freezer. Trying it out loud. Tasting it. Cansado. ’Cause sad wouldn’t cut it. It wasn’t like I was depressed or nothing. The internet says depressed is when you can’t feel anything and that wasn’t me. I was feeling a lot of things. I just didn’t like any of the feelings. But cansado? Tired. Weary. Miserable. Fit me like a trusty pair of jeans.
Why was I tired? If I wasn’t clear before, I’ve been working opening shifts and the occasional double six days a week this entire summer. Throw that on top of the long-distance regimen my coach put me on to prep for cross-country and I’m surprised my body hasn’t forced itself into hibernation mode.
As for weary? Now, I see tired and weary as two separate, distinct feelings. I’m tired because I’ve been running hot (literally and figuratively) for three months now. I’m weary for other reasons. Customers who skip out on their bill make me tired. Avi side-eying my tips ’cause he thinks I’m pocketing from the register makes me tired. People I don’t care about make me tired. It’s the other people making me weary. My “friends.”
I use quotes because if I was drawing up my will, I’d maybe call two people in my life an actual friend. I don’t give out the word easy. It’s not that I’m not liked—the opposite, actually. I am a well-regarded individual. Even got myself a nickname. Bash the Flash. Fastest legs in the Tri-State. I don’t call myself that, but people like to talk.
Ask around about me and you’ll hear a lot of differing opinions.
“Bash? Bash the Flash? He’s chill.”
I’m a lot of different things to a lot of different people but the feedback’s mostly all positive. The only thing everyone in my school seems to agree on is that I am “the best.”
I hear this all the time. It seems like a compliment, I get that, but what it really means is that I have to be a chill, loud, cocky, sweet, Mexican, Black, funny, quiet guy depending on whoever’s in my face. And because I’m the best, people are always in my face. The problem with being the best is everyone wants to find out why. The problem with being the best is you gotta prove it every day. To people you don’t know. Or like. That’s what makes me weary. All these people of mine thinking I’m the best.
So, why was I miserable?
Because I love being the best.
Bash the Flash.
I don’t know when it started but I have this itchy need to be great at shit. I guess it’s a competition thing. Probably why I’m such a good runner. It’s not like I get off on being better than people. It’s really not that. I just always want to be improving. It’s a competition with myself. I think that’s why I’ve been so distant with people this summer. I didn’t have a great junior year. My grades were fine, my times were okay, but I just started to get sick of people. I used to be better at the juggling part of school but by March I stopped seeing the point. So, on the last day of classes, I made a deal with myself to focus on myself. Improve my times. Make some good money for the Rutgers fund. Figure myself out a bit. Maybe that’s why summer’s sucked so much. Too much myself. I don’t know about myself. I don’t really know what he wants.
On the Fourth of July a few weeks ago, after I left Matty’s USAAAAAAAY party early, I ended up drunk at Zelley Park. I was sitting on the top of this metal slide I used to love as a kid and I asked myself a simple question.
“Hey. Bash. Whatchu want?”
And I just sat there like a jerk waiting for a response. I didn’t have one. ’Cause I didn’t know.
I banged my head against the brick of the diner and checked my phone again. One minute left. I’d say a minute and some wiggle room but Avi has a sixth sense for when our breaks are up. To his credit, Avi’s good enough to let staff eat free as long as we stick to basics and don’t do it where anyone can see us. My current hideaway is this nice nook between the recycling dumpster and a stack of milk crates/chairs. When I started my break, the dumpster was giving me the perfect amount of shade but it didn’t last for long. Never did. The sun had better places to be.
I squinted up at the big fireball glaring down at me from the sky.
The sun had no response. Coward.
It took a second to blink the shine out of my eyes. After a few good rubs, my vision came back and I could focus on what was in front of me.
So, the back of the diner looks out onto this strip mall parking lot. It’s mostly boarded-up businesses, Korean takeout, and this one exotic pet store I have heavy theories is a front for the New Jersey mafia. The lot is usually pretty vacant which makes my dumpster lunch bubble the perfect getaway. I could just breathe there. Not have to be someone. Not have to be.
So, yeah, I was a little pissed to see Sandro Miceli waving at me.
He was a good stretch from the diner but, even with the sun in my eyes, I could still make him out through the chain-link. I don’t know the guy all that well but he’s pretty distinguishable. For starters, he’s giant. Biggest kid in my grade by a good three inches. The track guys call him the Italian Yeti. Tall and hairy. Dude looked like a fucking tree out there in the parking lot, waving a branch for absolutely no one. He had this bright neon green cast on his leg and some of the tallest crutches I’d ever seen wedged under his arms. The guy looked ridiculous. I don’t know how he managed to break his leg but you’d think a person with his injury would be in the shade or in a car or, God forbid, not waving at me across a hot blacktop like a fucking goon.
I took out my phone and pretended to text. Acted like I didn’t see his wave. It wasn’t like I didn’t know the dude. I was a track captain, he was a field captain. We went to the same school, similar parties, it wasn’t like we were strangers. But I still had half a plate of ketchup/eggs to scarf down in my remaining seconds of break and I was going to finish them in peace, damn it.
When I eventually looked up, Sandro Miceli was gone. For a moment, I wondered how long the Italian Yeti must’ve been waving before he realized I wasn’t a guy you wave to.
I checked my phone. I’d gone a minute over break and no one had come to tear my head off. Huh. Little victories.
I heard the sound of chain-link before I saw Matty climbing up the fence. He was running away from the two Cinnaminson guys I’d seated right before going on break. I was catching them midfight but the trio had already managed to give each other two bloody noses and a torn shirt.
God fucking damn it.
The bigger guy pulled Matty off the fence and sent him cracking onto the pavement. Before either could lay into him too much, there I was breaking a milk crate on the big boy’s back. A cheap shot, sure, but I was tired.
The guy crumpled to the ground and Matty screamed in his face.
“YEAH, MOTHERFUCKER, YEAH!”
Then everyone was up again and I guess we were fighting. It wasn’t the first time I’d fought at Matty’s side. It wasn’t the first time it was all Matty’s fault. But if I’d learned anything in my four-year friendship with Mateo Silva, it was that some people just needed to get punched in the face.
“PIECE OF SHIT!”
“HIJO DE PUTA!”
“CINNAMINSON SUCKS ASS!”
Matty was back on the ground with the smaller guy, rolling around, pushing faces and scratching elbows, and I had my guy up against the chain-link. I’d just whacked the dude upside the head, rocking his ear in the perfectly worst way, when I thought about what Avi had said to me maybe an hour ago. How I just couldn’t seem to smile right.
“Don’t look so miserable all the time, Villeda! You’re young! It’s summer! Cheer the fuck up!”
And, you know? I had to give him that. ’Cause the man was exactly right. I was young. It was summer. I should’ve been having the time of my fucking life.
I felt a fist crack against my jaw and knew I’d be losing a tooth. With blood in my mouth and another five hours left in my shift, I declared summer officially dead. Pulled the plug. Called it.
Time of Death: 1:33 p.m., August 17.
Excerpted from The Long Run by James Acker, Copyright © 2023 by James Acker. Published by Inkyard Press.
About THE LONG RUN
On Sale: February 7, 2023
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Two track and field athletes find an unexpected but powerful love in this unapologetically blunt and unforgettably real YA debut.
Sebastian Villeda is over it. Over his rep. Over his bros. Over being “Bash the Flash,” fastest sprinter in South Jersey. His dad is gone, his mom is dead, and his stepfather is clueless. Bash has no idea what he wants out of life. Until he meets Sandro.
Sandro Miceli is too nice for his own good. The middle child in an always-growing, always-screaming Italian family, Sandro walks around on a broken foot to not bother his busy parents. All he wants is to get out and never look back.
When fate—in the form of a party that gets busted—brings these two very different boys together, neither of them could’ve predicted finding a love that they’d risk everything for…
Find THE LONG RUN
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop.org | Indie Bound | Goodreads
About James Acker
James Acker grew up in New Jersey, and he’s based his entire personality off that fact. He received his Bachelor’s in Screenwriting & Playwriting from Drexel University and won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship for his screenplay Sadboi. When he’s not writing, James lives in Los Angeles with his wonderfully supportive partner and his two recurring stress dreams. This is his debut novel.
Find James Acker
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