Two weeks into the new semester, Faatihah blows her ankle clearing a steeple.

The last thing she sees before landing is the black-and-white checkered barricade like her coach’s finger pointing to some distant point. She’s still in good enough shape to jog back to the stands. But her coach doesn’t say much. He just shakes his head, pretends to dictate the workouts to her teammates. He leaves even before the others finish their rounds.

Then Pamela, her 1500m pacer and captain, takes her aside. She talks low, sounds like she’s delivering a sermon. Faatihah knows what’s coming, but it still hurts when Pamela says it anyway:

“For the sake of your season, I don’t want to see you training. Take a break. Please.”
Barred from the track, Faatihah goes to the hills. In her state, she takes just over two hours to follow the twisted gravel road across the summit and back down again. She tries not to think of the other girls doing rounds, calculating their 400s. Instead, she tries to imagine the hills. No white lines on red, no boundaries, just a path she prefers to do alone.

She could ask for company. But she doesn’t. Because sometimes she has to wait for the other girls (or have them wait for her), and she doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. But now, she just doesn’t want company.

A forest begins at a pond near the road until it completely overtakes the cliff side, like a beard of green on the dark slopes. The road climbs steadily, easy enough for Faatihah not to work up a sweat for up to an hour while running. Later on, the road turns from stone to fine, steel-coloured gravel after the bridge over a stream, where Faatihah always takes a break before attempting the tougher slopes further on. She settles, controls her breathing, and does her stretches, relaxing her uncooperative ankle.

So she doesn’t notice when a pacer joins her. All she knows is she hears another person’s footsteps on the bridge as she sweeps across it. 

It takes a while before she understands he is trying to match her speed. So she slows, and he pulls up beside her. He’s shorter, pale, a cloud of dark hair across his forehead, a scratch at the base of his chin. He wears a pair of battered Asics and a dri-fit shirt. It looks like he bashed through bushes just to reach the trail. Faatihah nods to him; he returns it.

He equals her stride when the slope steepens. At the longest rise, they are so close his arm strafes hers, and cold wet sweat lubricates the point of contact. He never strays more than a step from her side, even though she holds back for the sake of her ankle. She likes his patience. She likes this competition, the hard breathing, the scent of sweat like perfume.

When he looks at her, she hopes her hair and the flush of exertion will camouflage the heat now rising to her cheeks.

The gravel road evens out. There is no summit, but a ridge where there no forest grows, the bald head of the hills. Faatihah drags heavily on the air as she loops around the empty hilltop and its row of downward-pointing sets of binoculars. The boy beside her follows, not missing a step. She pretends to slow, blinking away the incision-like strain carving up her ankle. The sound of her panting echoes in the still air.

She compliments him on his running, but instantly regrets it. She thinks it’s this kind of over-confident, talking-down that makes both the girls and guys on her team uncomfortable.

But the boy gives her a small smile. And she’s relieved. She likes this: the silence, the communicating without breaking pace. So they do the slopes downhill together. He follows her back, but breaks off near the bridge. When Faatihah yells a goodbye down the trail, she sees him wave.

For the next month and the month after, he’s always there, taking her up by the bridge, following her on the most grueling up-slopes, before parting where they first met. The discomfort in ankle, a sore emblem of her mistakes on the track, fades into the lush trees and sweet misty air.

Several months pass before another of the girls decides to join Faatihah. Pamela doesn’t approve of her teammate’s secret training, but says she won’t tell Coach. Pamela has enough stamina outrun her, but she decides to go easy on the slopes. Faatihah and her pacer have finished two loops at the ridge when she arrives.

“Ugh.” Pamela has her hands on her hips. Faatihah notices that her posture is wrong, her breathing as fast as a car without its brakes on. She thinks Pamela’s been doing too much track work.

She brings the boy to meet Pamela. She introduces him. He nods, and goes off to prepare for the downward journey.

“Hmm. He joins you only when you run hills?” Pamela asks.

It’s not so much a question as a statement. Faatihah sees her eye him, her face shadowed by the lack of light.

“He looks fit,” she says again, and when they finally start downhill, she lags behind, adds: “You two go first.”

But he has left when Pamela finally reaches the bridge. On the way back, Pamela doesn’t look at her. Faatihah thinks she’s just tired. Or maybe she’s trying to see if she’s recovered.

“Maybe you should let the team know about him,” she suggests.
For one session when Coach isn’t around, the team relocates their trainings to the hills. Faatihah doesn’t like it: it’s too crowded, the trails are too small, and some people talk too much when they run. But the boy, his pale skin wavy with sweat, is always waiting by the bridge.

Her teammates all say hello. But he just nods. Then he gently brushes against her arm, and the two of them are up the slopes, strides perfectly identical. She prefers this. Faatihah would rather lead at a crazy pace with him then fall behind with the pack.

Time passes. Her team returns to the track. Faatihah needs to sit for papers. But her ankle is always at the back of her mind. Even though she can’t feel it anymore she knows it’s there, its shivering muscle waiting to be tested. Still, she does the hills twice a week. She needs to feel the boy’s presence as she pushes herself, pushes the thought of pain into oblivion.

“Please pace me,” she says. He obliges without protest.

She watches race season come and go. Pamela runs her 1500 races and places twice in the top three. Faatihah doesn’t think about the placings, medals or races. She just thinks of the hills she needs to do after she’s finished her homework readings. She thinks of the boy who accompanies her nodding sometimes when she complains about her inability to understand her work, about how studies are screwing with her fitness.

After her papers, Faatihah decides to step up the pace. She meets the boy and, in the rush of her good mood, completes the slopes in a record time. She feels great, so they do five loops of the ridge. The boy doesn’t say anything. He just nods when she announces the changes to their training plan.

When they reach the bridge, Faatihah slows down. Before the boy can disappear into the trails near the bridge, she says to him: “Follow me down.”

For the first time since they’ve met, he shakes his head. He points to where he’s going. But Faatihah latches onto his bicep. It’s cold and sweaty and slippery, but she wants him to follow her to the pond near the road.

“Race me to the road!”  She says. “Come on!”

She breaks into a sprint. The boy’s weight slows her, but she pulls him free of his reluctance. Once across the bridge, her grip lessens, and he runs beside her. But now it’s his breathing that echoes around the trail, sharp and noisy like a nail scratching a window.

She dashes downhill so fast the trees are like a blur. Branches grab at her compression tights, but she evades them. The boy drops back, his throaty panting diminishing, the only sign he’s getting further away. But she encourages him on, clapping.

It’s evening when she reaches the first set of traffic lights at the base of the hill. She feels her muscles working under her orders, her ankle perfectly landing. She’s almost sprinting towards the triple-eyed face of the traffic lights. Then the boy overtakes her in a final burst. This is the last vision she has of him: his back, his face turned sideways in a halo of artificial light.

When she breaks the cover of the trees, she’s alone. There’s no boy sweating and panting. Just the street lights glowing like naked limbs. Just herself, wondering if she’s crazy, wondering if she’s even alive.

She is. Because pain threads its way back into her ankle, its needle point so sharp she has to limp home.

Faatihah doesn’t go running for a while. She doesn’t return to the hills. Instead, she gets a job with her professor. She spends her summer holidays photocopying chunks of text from reference books, something that needs minimal movement. In the library, she stabs at passages with neon highlighter, only to forget later why she marked them out. She leaves her shoes at home, so she won’t be tempted to run.

She is in the library when Pamela sits opposite her. So many days have passed since they’ve last talked.

“I heard your ankle is still giving you problems,” Pamela says. “You want I can recommend you a physio.”

Faatihah doesn’t look up.

“Sometimes you just need some rest, to let your body recover.”

“But you still let me kill myself on those hills,” Faatihah says, without looking up. “With that boy –”


 “So who – what was he then?” Faatihah turns to Pamela. “You saw him right? You spoke – everyone spoke –”

“He was all yours.”

“Then you knew something yeah? Eh you – you knew something and you didn’t tell me.”

“We all knew ah. Or at least the seniors knew. Some saw him years ago.” She clears her throat. “I’m no genius lah. But these things represent things – things that we fear or want. Like how you want to do well so badly at a run that you screw up.”

Faatihah tries to understand what Pamela’s saying. As she thinks, her hand flirts with her ankle, feeling the rush of blood push through the soft flesh.

“So why didn’t you stop me?”

Pamela sighs, closes her eyes. “You were happy ah. I’ve never seen you so happy running. That’s rare.”

 “I’ll be happy when I’m back.”


In the quiet library, she can hear her teammate’s soft breathing, the rise and fall of her shoulders. After years of running beside her, Faatihah sits facing Pamela. She’s not sure if they’re here as teammates or as competitors, or whatever. Faatihah wants to say something, but Pamela doesn’t look her in the eye.


Yap Xiong is a corporate communications executive at a university in Singapore. He is a volunteer with a local project called the Budding Writers League that helps student writers develop their talent.