[Book Extract] Dream Runner, by Gail McFarland
Los Angeles, 1984
Marlea Kellogg was eight going on nine years old the sunny afternoon she and her mother climbed off the cross-town bus to stand outside the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles.
Cyndra Kellogg had already explained why they wouldn’t be going in — tickets cost too much for a single mother raising two growing kids in Watts, and I could be puttin’ that money into shoes… But standing outside was free. A kid should be able to dream, and just the idea of being close… so close to the best athletes in the world was exciting for both of them. Cyndra held onto the damp hand Marlea slipped beneath her palm.
Marlea was fairly dancing, and hadn’t been able to keep still since she had talked Cyndra into bringing her here. “This is the Olympic Stadium,” the girl breathed. “Valerie Brisco-Hooks is going to be in there. So is Evelyn Ashford. You know she can run the hundred in under eleven seconds? That girl is for sure fast.”
“Fast,” Cyndra agreed, trying to remember a time when she got that excited over anything. How many lifetimes ago was that?
“Yeah, fast,” Marlea echoed, bouncing from foot to foot, watching people with tickets heading for the stadium. “I wish we could go, but I know…” Twisting to watch the lucky ticketed ones line up for entry, she sighed a little. “You know, tonight is just the opening ceremony, but later on, when they get ready to run… watch out! That lady from Jamaica? The one they’ve been talking about so much, Merlene Ottey-Page? Humph! They say she’s so fast, but she ain’t gonna see nothin’ but dust when my team takes the track.”
An’ she oughta know, Cyndra thought. Marlea collected sports magazines and cut up the sports pages for her scrapbook the way other young girls collected fashion magazines and make-up tips. The girl was in love with the track and field women, called them ‘fly sisters,’ but loved them because they had goals and did so much more than just look good. With their strong bodies, fast feet, and focused eyes, they were different from the few singers and actresses that she had pinned to her bedroom walls — different even from Janet Jackson. These runners were the young sisters who defined womanhood for Marlea. They were about more than just rump shakin’ and glamorous clothes. Janet Jackson, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston? Marlea would tell you right fast, none of them could compete in a run for the gold.
“One day, I will, though,” Marlea was always quick to promise herself, and anybody else who would listen. “One day.”
Determined little thing, Cyndra noted, looking sideways at Marlea. She was a tall and slender young woman-in-training. Almost nine and already dang near as tall as me. No hips or butt to speak of, though. Thank goodness.
She’s a good girl, but I don’t know what I’d do if she was like one of those fast little womanish things down the block from us. Or like her mother…
Cyndra refused to let the thought go any further. She had already spent years banning such thoughts from her mind: down that road lay bitter tears and madness. Down that road lay the story of a pretty baby sister and a charismatic wild man. It was the story of a man who had enough music in him to make a good girl turn away from a grandmother’s powerful teachings. A man who had enough will to knock up a pretty girl, but not enough to stay out of petty card games that he couldn’t win. Cyndra sighed, and tried not to remember, but she did. She remembered honey-skinned Marlon Carlyle with his curly eyelashes and sweet Cupid’s bow lips; too good-looking, and no good for any woman around him. Certainly, he was no good for Leah, never married her, but Leah swore she would die without him. As it was, Leah died because of him.
An’ she left me Marlea for my own, made me a mother even as my own son was being born. Not that it mattered; Cyndra loved her niece every bit as much as she did her own son, Joshua. She called Marlea her daughter for the girl’s entire life, and she meant it every time. When she bought shoes or toys for Josh, she bought them for Marlea, too. A single parent, Cyndra never made a difference between the two children. She couldn’t.
I look in Marlea’s face and see my sister. She’s the spittin’ image of her mother, with those big ol’ sparkly eyes and dimples. Thank God, she hasn’t got her mother’s ways. A boy don’t mean nothin’ to her. All she wants to do is run and run, and run faster still. Thankful for the child’s tomboy bent, Cyndra enjoyed the sight of the coltish legs revealed by Marlea’s denim shorts. Long brown legs and that need to run seemed to define the girl’s body and her life. Seems like she’s been runnin’ from day one. Guess it’s a good thing though; it keeps her out of trouble.
Marlea slipped her arm around her mother’s waist, and leaned against her shoulder. “They say American women don’t take the 400, but they’re wrong.”
Cyndra leaned her head against the girl’s, enjoying the closeness. “Who is ‘they’?”
“‘They’ is people who don’t know me… And if I keep on runnin’, keep on trainin’, then Coach says I can do anything, go anywhere.” Marlea looked at her mother, eyes wide with the innocence of youth. “An’ I can show them that American women really can run the 400. Maybe I could start with a PAC10 school in college. You think I could maybe get a scholarship? For running? Maybe go to college?”
“College? I never thought about college.” I guess I was too busy tryin’ to feed y’all. “What would you study in college, Marlea?”
“I would be a teacher, maybe work with the special kids. You know, the ones who don’t always get enough attention. The kind of kids who need me.”
“I can see you now,” Cyndra smiled. “You would make a good teacher.”
Marlea’s eyes went across the parking lot that separated them from the stadium. “Yeah, Ma. After college, maybe the Olympics?”
“Maybe.” Her mother smiled and stuffed work-roughened fingers into the pockets of her white work uniform. Do they give girls running scholarships? I ain’t never heard of one, but if they do… Cyndra’s breast swelled with pride. Wouldn’t that be something? Just the best thing? My Running Baby in college. Get a good education and have a real career! Would never have to worry about mopping no floors and cleanin’ up other folks’ nastiness. Have her own money, make her own way. No leftover, second-hand nothin’ for my baby. No more. “Maybe…”
“Run in the Olympics. Run. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
St. Louis, Missouri
In the “zone,” Marlea Kellogg closed her eyes and let the breath settle through her body. Exhaling slowly, she counted eight beats, then sucked in another big breath and let it course through her long, lean frame. She visualized herself heading for lane four and bending to the blocks, concentrating on what it would feel like to release the power and run, to feel the slap and push of her feet against the track.
Palms flat against the cool tile wall of the field house, her eyes moved behind her closed lids, tracking, seeing herself flashing past the others. Though her feet were still, Marlea could almost feel her body crashing the finish line, and she blew out hard when she imagined the kind of exhilaration that only a win could bring.
“Yeah,” she whispered, sliding her hands over her sleek head. Ponytail intact, she almost laughed out loud. “Libby was right; this mind/body thing has got me so revved up, I can outrun anything and anybody on the track.”
She had proven that in the trials. Moving as though she was the only one on the track, Marlea Kellogg kicked it. She had blown past the two girls from Cal State as if they were standing still, never mind that they were from her alma mater. Marlea had done what she had to do, showing them the way it was supposed to be done. Her time on the 400-meter run was an effortless 49.75 seconds. Libby, restricted to trackside with the other coaches and trainers, had gone wild. Six years as Marlea’s coach, and she had never seen her protégé come so close to a record time.
“It was a fluke,” Marlea said, when Libby finally reached her side. “I’ve always loved the 400, and this time it just loved me back.”
“Shut your mouth, girl! Be humble with somebody who doesn’t know you. Honey, you ran the hell out of that track and you know it as well as I do. And you can do it again if you just get your head right.”
So Marlea took another deep breath and concentrated on the sound of her heartbeat and the rush of her blood. Opening her eyes, slowly grounding herself, she knew Libby was right. This run, this race, they belonged to her, and nothing about them could be called fluke. Marlea bent into a lunge, felt the balance, shifted her legs, and knew the truth. “This is my destiny.”
Raising her arms high over her head when she stood, continuing to stretch as she walked the path back to the track, Marlea struggled to keep her feet on the ground. “This time is gonna be different.”
“Talking to yourself?” Libby Belcher spotted Marlea the second she stepped onto the cinder path leading to the track and pushed past other runners to get closer. “All I’ve got to say is, go on out there and do what you came here to do: run.”
Above her head, the tinny loud speaker blared, “400-meter contestants to the staging area, please. 400-meter contestants, please.” And Marlea knew it was time to move forward. She felt the edge of her red spandex top separating from her brief shorts and tugged it down. A moment of panic made her drop her hand to check for her hip number. It was there; her fingers found it right where it was supposed to be. No panic, no fear, she reminded herself. “Time to run.”
Libby raised both hands in victory. “Do your thing, girl.”
“No doubt,” Marlea winked. It would have been a privilege to have run in the first heat, but she knew those were for elite runners, runners with higher lifetime marks, but that was okay. She had run in the second heat, and that was okay, too, because her time put her in the finals, easy. They have to face me now. Now they have to run my race, my way.
Eyes sweeping the stands, Marlea saw the crowd as one great blur, and loved the busy low roar it made. She heard the final call for the 400-meter run and her blood stirred. Orgasmic anticipation trembled through her, and she looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Not that it mattered; she knew with undeniable certainty what the outcome of this race would be.
Runners, take your mark…
Shaking off anything that had nothing to do with the run, she approached the start. Coiling her body, she folded low to fit herself into position. Pressing her heel against the block, she silently called on Jesus and dropped her head.
Breathe… find the rhythm.
The sound of the gunshot was almost a cliché, but Marlea was more than ready for it as her body broke free. Long legs working with hydraulic precision, her feet found their flawless path. Never good at shorter distances, Marlea had no time to worry about it. Knowing that she had enough distance to build, she felt the speed pump through her muscled thighs as she passed someone at 100 meters. Passing the fast-talking Jamaican woman at 200 meters, all Marlea could hear was her own breathing. Rising on the wind, flying the only way a woman can without wings, she barely saw the competition, scarcely felt the break of the ribbon across her chest, and almost cried when she realized her 400-meter dance was done.
Her feet, trained for more years than she could count, continued to run, carrying her another 25 meters before the adrenaline began a slow ebb through her hot-fired body. Her breath pulled tight through her nose and rushed out past her open lips. Her mouth was dry and her lips parched, but her legs felt like she could run for an eternity. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.
“You did it! You did it!” Libby Belcher screamed, running toward Marlea. Six years together and every win still made the trainer spastic. Libby’s short, dark hair stood on end, and her arms flailed the air in delight as she ran toward the fence separating the stands from the track.
Marlea, high on adrenaline, couldn’t hear Libby. The sound of the crowd and the slap of her slowing feet filled her ears. Breast rising fast, eyes on the time clock, she feared the seconds might not be enough, might not buy the dream she had wanted for so very long. What was taking them so long to…
In lane four… Marlea Kellogg…
Her knees turned buttery, and her head ached with the effort of trying to hear.
… track record… time of…
“You made it!” The Jamaican runner slapped her back, and Marlea remembered to breathe. Libby finally made it to Marlea’s side just as the roar of the crowd confirmed what the runner cherished with her own eyes as her time was posted.
“I qualify,” Marlea whispered. “Team trials, and then the Olympics. I qualify.” Her eyes closed on the tears she had promised herself she would never shed. She had made that promise back when the “cute” girls teased her for racing boys, and foolishly beating them. And she had promised the tears would never fall back when her back and legs were sore from pounding out the miles, and she still had to make it in to her job at McDonald’s, a job that she had to keep to pay for her running shoes.
“I qualify.” I’m finally good enough, she didn’t say, not daring to give voice to the hope that dared to creep around the disappointment she had learned to live with back when she was beaten out of a spot on the 1996 team in Barcelona. Gwen Torrance had blown by her like a force of nature. Marlea had bitten down hard on the hurt back in 2000 when she shortened her distance to 100 meters. The shorter run was nothing like her beloved 400, and all she ever saw of glorious Gail Devers was the back of the girl’s head hurdling toward 100 meter glory — and she missed the U.S. team again.
After failing to make the team in Sacramento, she had watched Marion Jones’s bright smile televised live from Australia and tried to smile back. Swallowing the bitter taste of ashes, she ignored Jones’s flashy speed suit and accumulated medals from 2004. Knowing it was time to get on with her life, Marlea told herself that running didn’t matter, but her heart had been promised Olympic gold, and her soul wouldn’t rest without it.
When Libby and Hal Belcher decided to move to Atlanta to be close to aging parents, Marlea packed up her special ed degree and followed, as there was nothing left to hold her in Los Angeles. Not a bad move, all things considered. She settled in Marietta, just north of the city, and found a place on the staff of the Runyon Day School. Small and private, Runyon gave her a chance to work with the children she loved, and time to run.
At Runyon, Marlea met the kind of children she longed to teach. Diagnosed autistic, dyslexic, troubled, and otherwise learning disabled, they were children of wealth, privilege, and circumstance. They came from old aristocratic and new money families, and they were of diverse racial backgrounds. But they shared one thing: they all loved their teacher. In part, that love might have come from the fact that she expected the best from each of them and went out of her way to draw out their best efforts.
Her kids were especially proud of her running. There had never been a teacher quite like Marlea at Runyon. Her students thought she was a superhero, kind of like Wonder Woman or something. In each of her races, she had worn something they made for her, and she had won every time. Those gifts were the closest things to good luck charms Marlea Kellogg had ever owned. Today, she wore a band of bright braided thread around her right ankle, a gift from the kids.
And now she had a special gift for them. “I qualify,” she said again, just loving the sound of the words.
“Not quite,” her coach said. “You’re only a couple of points short. A good local race and you’re in. This is your year, babe. There’s no denying you. Just hit a solid 10K, pick up the points you need, and you’re good to go.”
“The Peachtree,” Marlea said without hesitation. She had already spent a lot of her off time working with her kids and their families on 2, 5, and 10K runs during the school year. Her children, labeled and sometimes limited by their learning disabilities, loved to run. And having them run with her sometimes gave her an advantage in the classroom. A 10K was a longer distance than she preferred to run, but Marlea knew it was absolutely doable.
“If I gotta run one more, then that’s a good one.” She stopped there. No need telling Libby that she would run through hell in gasoline drawers if it would help get that Olympic gold. One final race to run to qualify for the Olympic Trials and it’s the Peachtree Road Race — a piece of cake. Fourth of July in Atlanta would be one hot piece of cake.
Wind sprints were the most irritating thing in the world but… if they kept a brother fast enough to stay in the NFL, then he would run wind sprints until he couldn’t move. A running back, AJ Yarborough knew he had outlasted a lot of the best, but he also knew that a knee, blown two years earlier, still took some pampering.
“I take care of you, and you take care of me,” he bargained with his right knee. “It takes two, you know.” The knee didn’t make an audible reply, but AJ felt it twinge, and slowed to a jog. “No need overdoin’ it,” he cautioned himself. Four months out of surgery and a contract up for review — this was no time to jam up your knee, especially with new kids out there every year making it harder and harder to compete, particularly when you looked at players like LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, and Shaun Alexander.
“The new guys are all so damned young, and not in a refreshing way like the guys who came along with me.” True enough, most of those who started with him were done; except for the rare ones like Ahman Green or Warrick Dunn, most of them were retired warhorses. But these young ones, they were fire-eaters. The boys weren’t just young and fast, they were smart, and learning more every time out. They were the competition, the contenders. They were the future.
The future. “Humph, that used to sound like, ‘once upon a time’ to me. Now it sounds like a deadline.” Truth be told, coming back from injury, it sounded like the end of a lifelong passion. At thirty-four, AJ knew the career wouldn’t last forever — but that didn’t stop him from wishing and hoping for the best. So he ran harder. Liking the solid sound of his feet against the road, he sniffed cool air and ignored the tiny electrical jolt in his knee. “Doc said I’d feel a little somethin’ there,” he recalled. “Least I know that my knee is working now.”
The click in his knee paced his run and made him analyze his whole body. Taking inventory as he ran, he was pretty sure that everything seemed to work right, but he could practically hear his knee. The surgical reminder sounded almost mechanical to AJ’s ear. “A machine,” he complimented himself, looking for the silver lining and enjoying the free flow of his healthy body as he ran. “This man is a machine.”
Following the rolling hills of his southwest Atlanta property, that was easy enough to say, but he sure hadn’t felt like a machine during that last game. That was the one where he had been close enough to taste the rushing record. Instead, he had taken the hit — a hard one, right at the knees. It sent him airborne and he had to be helped from the field in anguish.
Still running, he heard the steps of another runner. The pace had a distinctive rhythm, one foot slightly lagging. A hard-breathing man from the sound of it, probably his on-again, off-again house guest. He turned to see who it was. Sure enough, Dench Traylor slugged along, steadily pickin’ ‘em up and puttin’ ‘em down. Struggling, the man pulled even with AJ when the bigger man slowed to accommodate him. Puffing, he put out a hand, entreating.
AJ was surprised. Dench had always hated running and he had never made any secret of his dislike for recreational running — not even during their days of scholarship-enforced athletics. Traylor, now a Miami assistant special-team coach, wasn’t in bad shape, just not NFL prime. “You running today?”
“Tryin’,” Dench puffed.
The player slowed, then stopped. “You might as well know it now, Rissa’s not out here with me,” he teased. Marissa Yarborough was about the only person in the world that Dench would willingly run behind.
“This is not about your sister, man.”
AJ grinned when Dench stopped and sucked wind. AJ circled him, letting his cooling muscles wind themselves down. Dench Traylor shook his lowered head and held out a white envelope. “Whatcha got?” AJ grinned, slitting the envelope’s flap with a long thick finger.
Pulling the typewritten sheet from the envelope, AJ was confused by the stiff formal paper. Didn’t that make whatever was written official? The letterhead sheet featured his team logo, and for a blank half second, he wondered why anyone from the Miami-based team would be sending him mail. Baffled, he shook the letter completely open and read it. He had to read it twice to make sure of the contents. “They’re letting me go? Just like that?” He read it again. “Just like that?”
“Dude,” Dench said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” AJ was hard pressed to know whether it was a comment or a criticism. He crushed the letter in his meaty hand and glared at the assistant coach.
Finally able to breathe, Dench stood straighter and stared at the ground. “I thought you ought to know,” he said. Ought to know that his career was over? Know that his numbers were as high as they were ever going to go? That he would never earn a Super Bowl ring to call his own?
Eyes on the sky, it took AJ long seconds to reply.
“Yeah, but I thought that when it got to be this time…” What? They would throw me some kind of special big hints? An “over the hill” party? What? That last play of his last game unwound itself in his head again. The memory was so vivid, he almost felt the searing rip hack its way through his knee when he went down. He could hear the muted voices, as if they thought he couldn’t hear…
He’s had a long run…
Could be career ending…
More than a setback…
What if this time…
What could anybody say that would make it any easier? He could go back to his agent, get her to find another team. That was the beauty of hiring your kid sister as your agent. She could ask for some kind of waiver that would give him… a Super Bowl ring? That rushing record I’ve run my whole life for? Or maybe I should just shut my eyes on the game, the only thing in life that has truly given me pleasure, and move on. Suck it up.
“I didn’t want this to come as any more of a shock than it already is. They won’t make the announcement for another couple of weeks, but I wanted you to be ready when it came out.” Dench watched AJ circle him, and knew the thoughts that must be running through his mind. He had come so close over the years. Been traded twice, always up, but traded all the same. Every team promised but none fully delivered. AJ was always left hungry.
“I always knew this wouldn’t last forever…” Even as he said it, AJ couldn’t stop himself. A lot of what he thought tended to spill from his lips. It was a bad habit, talking to himself, but it was one he had never been quite able to shake.
Dench crossed his arms over his solid barrel of a chest. “We’ve been together a long time, man. I know the hurt you’re feelin’, but this doesn’t have to be the end. You’ve still got power. You can still run.”
“An’ I’m a thirty-four year old runner in a game played like war by twenty-two year olds. Lasting ‘til you reach thirty is a good stretch for a runner. The irony is not lost on me.”
“But it’s not the only thing you know. You’ve got other things going for you,” Dench suggested.
Antoine Jacob Yarborough Jr. was a smart man, smart in a lot of ways. Not a lot of the men gifted enough to play in the NFL had his kind of savvy — even if he did talk to himself.
AJ might truly hate his given name, but he was smart enough to have finished the education degree as he had promised his folks. He had gone on to complete the master’s degree that got him into physical therapy school during the off-seasons. It’s not like he’ll ever be hurtin’ for money, his friend thought, realizing where the real pain would always come from.
“So, ah, AJ? You got any plans?”
“Not yet,” the now ex-player said, pacing. “Maybe I’ll go ahead and set up a PT practice on my own. The Lord knows I’ll sure have time for it now.” Stopping midstep, he looked back the way he had come, then turned and stared out at the road ahead of him. His eyes narrowed, and he wiped his big hands against his sweatpants. “Besides that, I don’t know, but I gotta go forward. Got to.”
“How you gonna do that, AJ?”
The player began a steady jog up the road. “Only way I know how.” He picked up speed, forcing the other man to run harder. “I’m gonna run.”
(c) Gail McFarland, 2008
Dream Runner is published by Genesis Press
About the author
Gail McFarland attended Cleveland State University, where she was a psychology major with a minor in special education. Her books include Summer Wind (Arabesque, 1997); The Best for Last (Arabesque, 1998); When Love Calls (Arabesque, 1999) and Lady Killer (Lulu.com, 2000).
Dream Runner (Genesis Press, 2008) is her latest novel.