The incessant pounding of rubber soles to pavement thumped focus. Then determination. I can do this. I will do this, each stride seemed to say. I must do this, thought the runner, why I don't know, but I won't rest until the training is done and the race is complete.
The sweltering heat was relentless. Lelanni wanted it that way. Anyone can train at six in the morning before the torturing sun is high in the sky. That which doesn't kill me will only make me stronger. The twelve ounces of water that was all she could comfortably manage to carry was long gone, leaving behind the plastic bottle that now dangled from her waistband, bouncing against her bronzed and well-toned thigh.
She had resisted the water as long as she could, as the beads of sweat from the bottle oozed a refreshing coolness down her cheeks when she'd rub it across her face and through her hair. She'd left her University of Georgia ballcap at home, safety giving way to vanity. Hot as it was, she enjoyed the tickle of her jet black hair over the top of her back, training herself to sense a shiver through her body. The shiver was an illusion, for sure, but a welcome distraction from the elements.
Fit and muscular, Lelanni did not have the typical body of a distance runner. She was tall, more like a tennis player, her 125 pound frame just enough to make her knees and ankles ache from all the pounding her training required. Nothing 400 milligrams of ibuprofen couldn't keep under control. A little pain's not going to stop me.
Focus. Determination. Maybe when she was finished with the race she'd tattoo those two words on her arm as a personal reward. And maybe cross-stitch them on a pillow, too. If she knew how.
Her favorite route, the hilliest and most challenging one of course, took her through a neighborhood typical of unbridled yuppie growth, burgeoning thirtysomething affluence, and suburban sprawl. The "starting from the 400s" two-story transitional homes each sat on a fifth of an acre, their close quarters accentuating their sameness, contrary to the production builder's insistence that the three different floor plans and multiple elevations offered "variety" and "uniqueness".
An uberconservative homeowner's association did its part, as each home was painted in one's favorite shade of white, crème, or beige on three sides, with red brick covering the front of each. Most driveways sported a late-ish model minivan or SUV, mostly tan or white, with an accompanying Camry/Accord/Maxima, as the garages for which they were intended bulged with garden tools, riding mowers, bicycles, and unchecked accumulation. In short, Funderburke Farms looked much like the two dozen or so Kids and Cul-de-Sac neighborhoods that had sprung up in the area over the past five years.
Lelanni barely noticed the dearth of color "On the Farm", nor did she notice the man distributing the homeowner's monthly newsletter bearing that name as he drove on the wrong side of the street inserting the "never-to-be-read-by-most" two-pager into the cubby beneath each identical mailbox. She made a wide circle around the somewhat out-of-place yellow Ford Fusion with the "SGLNLVNIT" vanity plate, Peace is Patriotic bumper sticker, and "Alzheimers Awareness" ribbon magnet, meeting the gaze of its driver, a dark-haired fellow with a goatee who looked perhaps a size or two too big for his vehicle. She looked away at once, focusing instead on the incline that was Funderburke Parkway, but felt the driver's gaze boring through her black-short clad ass like a phaser on stun.
Creep, she thought. Got no time for you or your lame-assed sled. Lelanni quickened her pace, taking the hill with a bit more ease than her first attempt two months ago when she first began her training, well on her way to a personal best for this twelve-mile training route.
His cock was throbbing before he even pulled into the driveway. God, I can't believe how horny I am lately, he thought. Well, come to think of it, maybe I can. Will watched the garage door slowly make its way up the tracks, revealing his employer's own pile of garage crap. He briefly pondered the "just enough room" space the garage afforded his modest little ride, but turned his attention instead to the pressure in his drawers.
She was absolutely gorgeous. Not everyday a dark-skinned Athena comes blazing through this lily-white neck of the woods.
Visions of her round bottom consumed him, her black mesh running shorts revealing the bottoms of her ass cheeks, a sexy yet start contrast to her muscular machine-like legs. Jacking off in broad daylight was hardly his M.O., but sometimes cheap thrills were better than no thrills at all. His pecker popped right out of his pants, anxious for daylight so it seemd, as his hand moved up and down its rigid shaft. As he caressed himself with loving, care, his all-too familiar Pavarotti ringtone blared, the caller ID from his phone revealing nothing.
Will grabbed his phone off the passenger seat with his right hand and thumbed the rollover button, half-covering his dick with his left. That call's just going to have to wait. He felt a twinge of panic shoot through him as he saw the mailman's car in the rearview mirror, not thinking to put the phone down and fumbling with his pants one-handed.
"Ouch!" The zipper caught pubic hair as he frantically tried to close his pants, almost succeeding.
"Hi, Will!" He heard the muffled voice of his next door neighbor through the glass as she ran down her driveway to fetch the mail. Since when is SHE home during the day?? I hope she doesn't come over here, he thought, though his erection was all but gone. I'll just pretend I didn't hear her, which wasn't a bad plan, save for having already turned his head in the direction of her voice.
As he saw his neighbor scurry back into the house, he had to laugh at himself. Next time I'll wait until I'm inside. Much safer that way. Well, at least there's nothing to clean up.
Twelve miles. Every weekday. Same bat-time. Same bat-channel. Eighteen to twenty on Saturday, with Sunday being a day of rest. Tuesday was yet another welcome scorcher, the black pavement rippling in her sight. For most the cheery Funderburke Farms pansied and petuniaed brick entrance said "Welcome", or "Buy your next home here". To Lelanni it was a harbinger to Jellyleg Hill. Without the adrenaline from yesterday's mild creepout, she might have wilted. Instead, with a new confidence she attacked the hill, sucking in whatever aerobic nourishment she could from the heavy, humid air and paraphrasing silly lines from A Few Good Men, which had been on TNT the night before.
You want me on that Hill! You NEED me on that Hill!
You can't HANDLE the Hill!
He was ready for her. Perhaps Bronzed Lightning would strike twice. He'd grabbed the kitchen marshboard, long replaced as the keeper of the to-do list by PDAs, and had scribbled ALOHA with dry-erase markers. A different color for a different letter. Less threatening if it had an artsy touch to it, ya see? The smiley didn't hurt, either. As he saw her reaching the apex of Funderburke Parkway, he sauntered outside, holding his makeshift greeting high over his head, accompanied by his best shit-eating grin.
She caught the sign out of the corner of her eye, making no movement that acknowledged the effort to its maker. ALOHA? Damn, she thought. Good guess.
Some people just need to get a life. Even if he is a threat, which I'm pretty sure he's not, I think I could a) outrun his tired ass or b) kick his tired ass if I had to. Doesn't he have anything better to do? Her thoughts distracted and annoyed her. Focus! But how can I? Why would a perfect stranger stand outside his house with a sign that says I'm Will, what's your name? Sheesh, might be time to scope out a new set of hills and cul-de-sacs.
Jellyleg Hill better be worth the aggravation. Looks like I won't be changing my route, and I know he'll be there again. Damn. Focus! Just continue to ignore him and he'll stop. Wishful thinking. For a thrill, dial 1-800-555-WILL. God, that's stupid. Lelanni unwittingly picked up her pace. Is that a lump in his pants? That's so gross.
"It was 19 and 61. That Mantle, he was a horse. Sweetest swing you'd ever see from either side of the plate. It was Maris's year, but everyone wanted to see the Mick break Ruth's single season record," the old man said.
Single-season record? More like broken record. But we're having a good day today, Will thought, keeping his hand under Mr. Tyler's chin in the event his charge dropped his water glass. The shakes were becoming a bit more pronounced, the early stage of Parkinson's adding insult to injury.
"Damn, those boys could hit," Mr. Tyler continued. "These players today got it too easy. Can't imagine what those M&M boys...that's what they called Mantle and Maris in those days...the M&M boys, would be making today. And they'd be earning it, too."
"They'd be making A-Rod money for sure," Will's canned response whenever the conversation meandered to All Things Pinstripes, which was about every day.
"I took Francis to her first ballgame in '61. Proposed to her during the seventh inning stretch. We've been hand in hand ever since," a sweet smile smeared across the old man's face. The late Mrs. Tyler was anything but in Chadford Tyler's reality, but that was OK at this point.
"Let me give you a piece of advice, Will," Mr. Tyler continued. "Don't ever let a day go by without doing a good deed..." His sweet smile become a tad naughty, his trembling index finger pointed right at Will's face.
"...and never pass up an opportunity to kiss a pretty girl."
Will mentally mouthed the words as Mr. Tyler spoke, but still delighted in the charming old bastard's recurring advice. Pedro Say Just 20 Miles to South of the Border. Let's try the goofball route on for size today.
Don't laugh. Don't even roll your eyes. God, what does he do all day? If I'm the most important person in his pathetic little life there's a real problem here. That was kinda funny, though. I hate those stupid Pedro signs. Focus, woman, focus.
"OK, just stop it, Will. Or whatever your name is. I'm trying to train for a marathon here. Do you even have a life? I mean, what do you DO all day anyway?"
Her legs really were jelly today. Enough of an excuse to stop today's training run and force the inevitable interaction. I'm sure it wouldn't be the way HE'D want it if I got in his face. Her anger was getting her up the Hill today, the only emotion she had left in her waning armamentarium, depleted by the triple-digit heat.
Her "jump down his throat" fantasy dissipated as she made those last strides over the Hill and around the bend, greeted by Doncha Wish Your Boyfriend Was Hot Like Me? Worn down and punchy, Lelanni couldn't suppress a giggle.
"Don't YOU wish?" she called back over her shoulder, a renewed energy speeding up her pace as she gave Will the slightest wave.
Missed You Yesterday •. Yeah, I wonder what was on THAT sign? I think I'm glad I missed it. Never should have encouraged him. Time to put this guy back on "Ignore".
I Know She's Digs Me by the Way She Ignores Me. This IS a, what the hell do they call it, a Community Watch Neighborhood? I need my Hill. I'm not altering my route. There's kids on Razor Scooters for chrissakes, how unsafe could this place be? Focus! He looks kinda good in those jeans. Focus, dammit!
SGLNLVNIT. Aahh, the cryptic vanity plate. Wonder how many times he's almost got rear-ended from people trying to figure it out? God, I haven't improved my time all week. I think I'll shoot him my best Whatever Face. What does it mean anyway? So Glan…Siggle New…No, wait, Single New Living? Single and Living It…no, I got it! Ha! Single and Lovin…
"That lady just said a bad word! Mommy, MOM-MEEE! that lady just said 'fuck'. She said 'fuck', Mommy."
"Kaitlin, honey, we do NOT use those kind of words. Now go inside and play."
The mason's truck has just rumbled away from the last lot under construction, leaving behind a lone Funderburke Farms red issue brick. With Focus and Determination out for an extended lunch, Lelanni never saw the rectangular obstacle, but she knew the instant her toe stubbed the brick her balance would fail her. She felt the heat of the pavement sear through both her palms, as if she'd touched a preheated stove that had warmed up quicker than expected. Unable to completely break her fall, Lelanni winced as her already sore knee banged and scraped against the unforgiving asphalt.
It's over, was her first thought. She did, however, manage to avoid Nancy Kerrigan "I've just been gilloolied"-like "Why, WHY?" drama, having already spent all her "Make a Scene Bucks" by screaming "Fuck" in neighborhood full of preschoolers. Too full of piss and vinegar to stay down, plus the street was freaking hot, Lelanni was on her feet in a flash, hoping to convince herself her knee would hold her up.
"Are you all right?" Will came running, quickly breaking a sweat that caused his glasses to slip down the bridge of his nose, Clark Kent not bothering to change into his superhero gear.
Lelanni clenched her jaw, poised to redirect the frustration boiling inside. "You…YOU!! With your fucking signs! You see what you made me do? It's OVER! OVER, thanks to you."
"Just calm down, calm…"
Will, like most men, had never and would never quite learn not to tell an emotionally-charged woman just to calm down.
"I'm not going to calm down. How can I calm down? It's OVER!!"
"I dunno. Deep breath maybe?" Will's tone was even as he tried to restore calm other than telling her so.
Lelanni simply glared at him, wincing finally when she remembered the pain screaming from her knee.
"Let me have a look at that, I'm a nurse."
"A nurse?? Oh that's rich. I think you've done enough, Nightengale! Where's your hat?"
Nursing caps were to male nurses what Dunkin' Donuts was to cops. Whatever. She's pissed and hurt.
"It's good you're able to stand up. May just be a scrape. What's 'over', anyway?"
"Probably nothing, now that I think of it." Step. Hobble. Step. Bit less of a hobble. Lelanni steeled herself to the pain, becoming as oblivious to it as she was to the two trails of blood snaking down her shin in an impromptu drag race. "I'm running this race, a marathon. Nothing's going to stop me, not a brick, not a knee, not you."
"I'm not stopping you, especially since you look like you're about to do something foolish and run on that thing," Will said, pointing to her bloody pulp of a knee. "Can you at least wait until I get some Neosporin for it?"
"Neosporin? What's next? You gotta burp towel in your pocket?"
Will resisted the "No, I'm just happy to see you" retort. He did have burp towel, actually, but not for the reasons Lelanni was implying. "Well OK, then," he finally said. "Why don't you just take some of that blood and wipe some under your eyes, Miss Xena Warrior Princess?"
"Not a bad idea." With a curl of her slender index finger, Lelanni blunted the downward trail of the longer blood line and with a cocky, toothless smile, she dabbed one cheek with her crimson warpaint, and then the other: Little Miss Badass in the midst of Teletubbies, carpools, playdates, and homeowner dues. Without another word she was off, slower but steady. Her cellphone shrieked, causing Will to triple-take, having already indulged himself with a bird's-eye view of the twitch of her ass, accentuated by the limp in her gait. She was moving slowly enough that he could catch snippets of the conversation as she labored her way up the street.
"…not going to make the checkpoint today. Took a spill."
"I know, you're right, it WAS stupid…"
"You've really outdone yourself this time."
Lemonade, 25 cents. Ask about our runner's discount.
"Sugar-free, too. Always worried about cavities amongst my clientele."
"You set this up often, then?"
"I'm a…onta-panure. Nursing pays like shit."
"I don't have any money on me."
"Here…on the house." Will got up off the chair fit for a four year old, almost losing his balance in the process, as he handed over a slightly too full Dixie Cup full of Pink Country Time.
"Pink. How nice."
"Listen, I want to apologize for yesterday. I don't even know you, not like that should make a difference, but I shouldn't have snapped at you like that."
"Fuggedaboudit. You were in pain. And thinking it was the end of the world."
"Yeah. Hurt a bit this morning. I took a naproxen, which is what I usually take for my period." Lelanni flushed slightly at her own unexpected admission.
"Ohhh, you mean the pill you forgot to take YESTERDAY, hmmm?" Will punctuated his sarcasm with a bulge of the eyes and a Church Lady disapproving pursing of the lips.
Lelanni giggled. He was starting to like it when she did. "Yeah, mighta helped with the mood, I guess. So what's your deal, anyway?"
"I look after Chancellor Tyler, he lives with his daughter and her…"
"Oh, I heard he was a sweetheart! My older brother was at Georgia when he was there. Had to quit because of Alzheimer's right?"
"Yeah. Really sad. Early onset. He's still only 68. Parkinson's too. Has his good days and bad days. Sleeps a lot during the day. The nights can be a real killer."
"Shouldn't you be in there with him?"
"Baby monitor." Will nodded towards the monitor just as it hissed slightly. "Low tech, but very effective. His daughter was home first time I saw you in my car last week."
"Hmmm, birth of an obsession, maybe?" Lelanni said, winking and then immediately regretting it. "Listen, the signs are cute and everything, but do you think you could maybe stop?"
"Sure. Hell, I just wanted to meet you. Mission accomplished. You're as nice as you are b-beautiful". Will hardly ever stuttered anymore, but picked a bad time to get a scratch in his throat.
"Thanks, you're sweet."
"That's me. Captain Sweet! Hey, you wanna meet Chancellor Tyler?"
Lelanni pondered the offer. "What if he's asleep?"
"I gotta rouse him to take his meds."
"Well, uh, sure. I think I'd like that, you sure it's…" Yesterday's phone shriek revisited. "…hold on…hello?" A pause. "No. No, not today, either. Yes I took the Anaprox. I'll get there as fast as I can. OK. O-KAYY! Bye."
Lelanni's face was ashen, and with a fretful bite of her lip, strong enough to leave behind two bite marks, she looked over at Will. "I gotta go."
"Wish you didn't. But I understand."
"No, not really, but it seems you should go."
"Yes, I must."
"It's nice to meet you."
"Uh, yeah, you're welcome."
"Sorry, I'm a little distracted."
"I may be a little off base here, but I suppose running a marathon is quite a personal challenge. I hope you're doing it for yourself."
"I am, I really gotta go, though. Bye."