YOU’VE GOT A TALENT
by Stefani Nellen
Another 5K, another easy win. With about half a mile to go, Shanna knew she had first female. Time to overtake some guys. This one, for instance, with the long hair and the Union Jack shorts. She surged past him, already eyeing the next target: the red-haired geek in the Hash House Harriers shirt, no idea what his name was, they’d raced each other before but they’d never spoken. She passed him at the finish line.
Once she could walk again, Shanna handed in her timing chip and picked up a banana. The harrier ambled past her, and they acknowledged each other with a nod.
People crowded the lawn next to the finish. A band shredded through Walking on Sunshine, and the Children’s School sold pancakes. Pink ribbons and healthy living information were on display everywhere.
Shanna walked to the curb to watch the other runners coming in. She hated the moments between the finish and the podium, when the adrenaline drained away and the soreness set in. Her desire to win embarrassed her as soon as it was satisfied. Once she’d made the mistake of looking at the finish photo provided by the race organizers as part of the registration swag; she’d looked like a boiling, contorting lizard.
As if on cue, Meghan arrived. Perfectly decked out in pink-and-black running gear, she shot out of a group of walkers and strode towards the line in photogenic agony, raising her fists to show that she had Overcome. As soon as she’d passed the photographer huddled on the ground, she dropped her arms.
Shanna hadn’t expected her. Sure, a few weeks ago, Meghan had announced that she had taken up running, too, that she had to find out what kept Shanna pounding the pavement for hours each week without going nuts, but she hadn’t mentioned wanting to run a race, let alone this one. Yet here she was, pointing a finger at Shanna with a gesture between threat and favor. You. Don’t move.
Once she was next to Shanna, Meghan said, “Man, this was brutal. So brutal.”
Shanna wondered whether she should tell Meghan that she had won the race.
“Where’s that husband of mine?” Meghan said.
“I haven’t seen him.”
“Typical.” Meghan put her foot on the curb and leaned forward. The sight of her legs and butt contained in shining black fabric made Shanna think of a scorpion.
“I had an idea for us,” Meghan said. “A friend of mine can get us entries for the Chicago Marathon. He works for a charity, I forget which.” Before Shanna could say anything, Meghan continued. “I know I’m slow. But I’ll work so hard. And besides, it’s about doing this together, right?”
Shanna felt lonely at times, but never during running. On the contrary, running was the one thing she wanted to keep for herself. She could try to explain, but it was hopeless.
“What do you say?” The question was a ritual. “You and me?”
Shanna and Meghan had met as teenagers. Shanna had been the new girl in class, and Meghan knew everything about bras, boys, and beyond. Every once in a while, Meghan singled out a girl to make fun of. Not often, not excessively, but there was always a moment when Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, a bunch of people behind her, and the victim scrunched up her face trying not to cry. When Meghan asked her to hang out after school, Shanna was terrified and expected Meghan to drop her quickly. Instead, Meghan kept her.
With Meghan as a friend, Shanna didn’t need to talk to anyone: Meghan spoke for both of them. Her voice was deep and clear. You wanted to listen to her.
A few weeks into their friendship, Meghan would sometimes close her eyes as if she were asleep, and become smaller than before, more fragile. It happened after parties, when they sat in the back seat of Meghan’s car, music playing softly on the radio, or when they lay next to the pool and toasted on hot stones, screams and the smell of chlorine, hot dogs and sunscreen all around them. When Meghan opened her eyes again, she’d whisper: “Hey. You and me.” The words were Shanna’s treasure. They proved how important she was—more important than anyone could guess.
Meghan spent her first post-grad year volunteering and shopping around a children’s book about gay marriage. She herself married an older man named Kyle, who played the cello for the Pittsburgh Symphony. They quickly had a son, Leo. Shanna moved into a one-bedroom rental with a view of the Giant Eagle parking lot and worked as a research assistant for the Psychology Department. The part of her job she hated most was cold-calling potential research participants; she memorized a script to work through her list as efficiently as possible, and not a few people became irritated with her droning voice. Some thought she was mocking them. Her strong point was data analysis, and the professor she worked for regularly asked her to talk him through the statistics she’d used so I can sell it to the funding agencies; she’d been co-author on quite a few papers. The professor kept encouraging her to apply to graduate school, but the thought of teaching classes or presenting at conferences was too intimidating. “As you wish,” the professor said. “Remain our secret as long as you want.”
Shanna became a runner by accident. One evening, after a whole day inside, she put on sweatpants, a fleece sweater, and an old pair of sneakers and started to jog around the block, not expecting to last longer than half an hour. She came home long after dark.
As a girl she used to dream of having her pack: friends that accepted her without words, recognized her like a long-lost sibling. She found them in books about running: The Lonely Breed, Young Men in a Hurry, The Perfect Mile – grainy black-and-white pictures showing young men running on grass tracks and in Scandinavian forests and in the dunes at Portsea. She was running, too, on the hills in the park and on the public track. Over the months, her hard training sessions started to feel easy. She shed the cocoon of her daytime self and became a new person – but only in her mind. The fewer people she met while running, the easier it was to imagine she was in the grainy black-and-white world of her books, so she made it a habit to run early in the morning or late at night.
Only at the races did she briefly show her face, her body, and—most intimate of all—her speed. With each race, she moved up in the local hierarchy, until she was one of the fast girls. At first she competed in baggy clothes, but eventually she switched to “professional” running sets she would never dare put on anywhere else. During a race she spat and groaned and fought to beat as many others as possible, as if she were in one of the legendary races she read about at night instead of a harmless footrace for weekend warriors.
It was as if Meghan had leapt from behind a black-and-white tree in one of the pictures in Shanna’s books, shouting, “Hey! Did you forget about me?”
The Chicago Marathon was in October, which left them about five months to get ready. Their first official training run took place on a hot and humid Tuesday. Meghan planted her feet with rhythmic concentration. Shanna ran as slowly as she could.
At the picnic area, Meghan splashed water on the back of her neck, sliding her fingers inside her shirt.
“How are Kyle and Leo?” Shanna asked.
“Don’t get me started.”
“All right,” Meghan said. “I might as well fill you in. Kyle moved out.”
“Oh my God. What happened?”
“It’s been building for a while. He hasn’t been sleeping, and he’s been saying really strange things. He’s in Boston now. His mother knows a psychiatrist there.” She wiped her hands on her thighs. “He said he needs to get away from me—as if I’m some kind of monster.”
“That sounds scary. Is there anything I can do?”
“You already are. Being out here makes me feel so much better.”
As spring turned into summer, Meghan and Shanna built mileage. Their long runs became their short runs. Kyle was crying every time they talked on the phone, Meghan said, and they’d talked about divorce and dropped it. Kyle was so incoherent it was hard to tell what he wanted. Leo took it the hardest: he was only two and half years old and kept asking for Daddy.
“Wait,” Meghan said. “Side stitch.”
“Put your hand there.” Shanna tapped a spot above her own belly button. “Maybe move your hand around a bit so your muscles can warm up. ” She demonstrated.
Shanna put her hand on Meghan’s belly. “Here. Try to breathe into my hand.”
“You’re my savior,” Meghan said. She moved into the touch, and Shanna felt her warmth through the wet nylon.
“You and me,” Meghan said. “Once more.”
Shanna pushed back against Meghan’s weight.
September brought cold rain, muddy trails, and the return of Kyle.
“He’s stable,” Meghan said, and left it at that. She and Shanna were meeting for coffee to discuss the charity that sponsored their marathon: the American ALS Foundation.
“How does it work?” Shanna asked.
“They bought race entries and sold them to runners like us, who agree to run in their name—wearing t-shirts and stuff. There will be a bunch of us in Chicago. Team ALS. Most importantly, they hope we’ll tell our friends that we’re running the marathon, and inspire them enough to make a donation.”
“Why should they?”
“It works, you’ll see. We can post our training runs and share pictures on social media. What do you think?”
“It sounds fake. I thought we were going to train and try to run a good time. I didn’t know we need an audience.”
Meghan looked up in surprise. “It’s a charity, you know? Don’t be such a bitch.”
With Kyle back in town, Meghan started to skip training. Kyle needed a ride to therapy, the mortgage person had promised to call, she needed to search for jobs to apply for.
When the time came for their most important workout—a twenty-mile long run—Shanna arrived at Meghan’s house to find her sitting on the porch in black jeans and a sequin top, smoking a menthol cigarette as she sometimes did after a really bad day. “Look, I’m not feeling it tonight. Join me for drinks, okay? Tanya is coming too. Remember her? From Pitt.”
“We can’t run a marathon if we don’t train.”
“I don’t have time for this. The sitter’s with Leo, Kyle’s with his mom, and I’m partying tonight. Join me or don’t.” Meghan brushed past Shanna and started walking towards her car.
“You call this inspiring?” Shanna called. She hadn’t meant to.
Meghan turned around. “Cute. I know you have nothing better to do on a Friday night than run loops in the park. And you know what? You’re damn lucky. My family’s on the brink. We’ll have to sell the house, my kid is biting his friends, and I’m married to someone I don’t know anymore. And I will not run twenty miles tonight. End of story.”
Shanna stood still, aware of her tight clothes and the sweat drying on her skin. Up and down the street, windows were lit; people could probably hear every word.
Meghan flexed the fingers of her right hand, then got her keys from her purse and opened the car door. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Shanna said.
Instead of doing the 20-miler on her own, Shanna entered a small marathon one state over. She was one of fifty participants. The course went out and back along a riverbank, and the field strung out quickly. Very far ahead of her, she saw two men reach the turnaround point marked by an orange cone, and start back. When they passed, they raised their hands in greeting. A thin layer of ice covered the water, and her cheeks felt hot and fresh in the cold. Afterwards, they ate chili in the boathouse to warm up. One of the two men who had greeted her pulled up the chair next to her. He was young, with a full beard.
“You’re a hell of a runner,” he said. “What was your time?”
“Three oh six.”
“Nice. Ever thought about trying to break three?”
“Not yet.” She glanced out the window, at the pebble trail along the water. She didn’t want to talk, but she loved the young man, and all the runners here, for their tacit agreement that they were not crazy doing this.
It took them hours to get their race numbers at the marathon expo because Meghan had forgotten her confirmation letter and got into an argument with the volunteers. When they finally got to their hotel room, Shanna wanted to lie down and sleep off her headache, but Meghan had scheduled dinner with the rest of Team ALS and insisted Shanna couldn’t leave her to go alone.
They ate burgers and pasta at an American food place. Meghan talked non-stop. Her eyes were bloodshot; she’d put on clumps of mascara, the way she used to as a teenager.
“Just think about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” she said. “Twenty-six point two grueling miles!”
Everyone except Shanna acted disgusted. Weren’t they all so crazy?
The woman next to Meghan was drawing the course in the air with her finger. “And here’s the wall. Right here. It’s us versus the distance.”
“I’ll drink to that,” her husband said, and they all raised their glasses of alcohol-free beer.
Back in the hotel room, Shanna and Meghan picked everything they needed for the race the next morning from their suitcase: their gels and drinks, socks and shoes, numbers and pins. They were both dressed for bed in drawstring pants and tank tops.
Meghan spread her race day outfit on the desk, on top of tourism folders and a laminated room service menu. On top of her race number she had written GO MEG. Below it, she had written STRENGTH.
“I’ll bonk so hard tomorrow,” she said. “It’s going to be embarrassing.”
Shanna put a hand on Meghan’s back and started to massage her shoulders. The muscles felt like caramel; they promised softness to someone with patience. Shanna circled her thumbs, and Meghan sighed.
“I was such an asshole the last couple of weeks,” Meghan said. “I was, like, an evil puppet.”
“You’ve got every excuse.”
“Tomorrow’s going to be hell.”
“We’ll do this together.” Shanna was still kneading Meghan’s shoulders, settling into the rhythm. “I’ve run a marathon before.”
“After you bailed on our twenty-miler.”
Meghan closed her eyes. “How did you do?”
“It was okay.” She slid her arms down Meghan’s side. “You would have liked it.”
“I would’ve spoiled it. One more beer, and then to bed?”
Shanna got a real beer from the mini bar, and they sat down on Meghan’s bed, knees up, backs against the pillows. All the lights were out, except the spots above the night tables.
“You know what?” Meghan passed Shanna the bottle. “ALS is giving me the creeps.”
“I know,” Shanna said. “Me too.” She drank and passed the bottle back.
“You know something else? I started running because someone told me they saw you run at like five in the morning. I was jealous. To have something like this all for yourself.” She turned to look at Shanna. “And now look at us. We’re here together.” She put down the empty beer bottle on the night table, and Shanna laid her hand on Meghan’s belly. Breathe here, right here. Slowly, she moved her hand down. When her fingertips reached and lifted the elastic of her pajamas, Meghan slid down on the bed so she lay flat on her back, and pushed down her pants. “That’s better.” She reached for Shanna’s hand again, leading her between her legs.
Shanna closed her eyes and felt the pubic hair shaved down to a precise triangle, the smooth, cold skin around it, the warm slipperiness further down, the lips so different from her own. She heard Meghan’s moan like a soft breath in her sleep, the hiss of her heels against the linen, a croak inside her throat. Shanna moved only her fingers, mere twitches in exactly the right place.
Meghan rammed her elbow into Shanna’s ribs and sat up.
“What?” Shanna whispered.
Meghan started to rub her crotch in a way that made Shanna think of scraping ice off a car window. After she had finished with a series of dry, efficient screams, she lay back again, sprawled out and kneading her breasts.
“Okay,” she said, “you want me to return the favor?”
Shanna palpated the sore spot where Meghan’s elbow had struck her. “No,” she managed.
Shanna got up and lay down in the other bed. Within minutes, Meghan slept.
The next morning, they stood next to each other in front of the bathroom mirror in their matching red ALS running tops.
Meghan waved at Shanna in the mirror. “Are you ready to rock this?”
They brushed their teeth, looking at each other. They spat out the foam and rinsed.
“Last night hit the spot,” Meghan said. “I slept like a baby. You’ve got a real talent.”
Shanna saw and felt the familiar blush spread on her neck and forehead, but forced herself to speak anyway. “Why did you push me away?”
“I like to finish by myself.”
“I guess,” Shanna said. “I’m sure Kyle appreciates it.”
Meghan put her toothbrush into the plastic cup. “Fine. Be that way.”
“You and me, right?”
Meghan leaned on her hands and looked at her reflection. “I always felt responsible for you. You never had anyone else.”
“You’re not responsible for me.”
“At least I’m watching the time,” Meghan said. “We’re late for the start.”
Thousands of people were looking for their corral, and it took them a long time to find theirs. Each charity had a different color: red for ALS, purple for cancer, gold for Parkinson’s. The start shot had already gone off, but it took another half hour before Shanna and Meghan crossed the starting line, bumping elbows and feet with strangers. The runners around them were chugging Gatorade and taking photos of each other with their cell phones. Some stopped to hug friends and family along the course. Discarded paper cups stuck to their shoes. At seven miles, the course freed up a little. Meghan was limping.
“Do you want to take a break?” Shanna said.
“Do I look like a quitter?”
One of the spectators heard her and shouted, “You’re a hero!” Meghan pushed out her chest and pointed at the ALS logo, pressing more cheers from the crowd. And so another slow mile crept by, and another. Shanna’s legs hurt from being reined in. At mile ten, she screamed at herself: Just run! Every time she sped up for sheer pain relief, the familiar voice called her back: “Hey! Wait!”
Between miles ten and eleven, Meghan’s limp got worse. When they passed an aid station, the medics trained their eyes on her like vultures. “Are you all right, ma’am?” Meghan gritted her teeth and pushed on. Once the aid station was out of sight, she stopped. “I can’t do it. It’s too much.”
“Where’s the pain exactly?”
“Let’s sit down. Over there, on the curb.”
Meghan took off her shoe. Her sock was drenched in blood. Shanna took a band-aid and gauze from her pocket. “Just look away for a sec.” She squeezed open the blister. Meghan groaned, and Shanna cleaned the blister with water from her bottle, dried it with gauze, and covered it with the band-aid. “If you have some painkillers, take them.” Meghan pulled a strip of pills from the back pocket of her shorts and took two with the rest of Shanna’s water. “How do you know how to do this stuff?”
“From my long runs.”
Meghan moved her jaw. Mascara was drying on her cheeks. “What was your time in the other marathon?”
“A little over three hours.”
Meghan put her shoe back on and tied the laces with great accuracy. “Hey!” she called to everyone close enough to hear. “Being fast isn’t important, right?”
“No!” someone shouted back. “It’s not!”
She pointed her thumb at Shanna. “My friend here just told me she’s faster than I am!”
Shanna looked down at the asphalt. She felt the spectators’ laughter like slaps to the face.
“But we’re all winners!” Meghan yelled. “No matter how fast, no matter how slow!”
“Right! Go Meg!”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
They started jogging again. To Shanna, it felt like running in place. She was sick of the toy-train speed of this run, and of Meghan. She thought about the swish of turning the pages, of the burned smell rising from her books, of veined necks and thighs and the snap of finish tapes in the fifties. Of sucking frost from her tongue during her solo marathon, and of crunching the pebbles under her toes with each step, as if she could push herself forward forever.
“Try walk-breaks,” she said to Meghan. “That’s your best chance to finish.” Then she took off.
At first, the spectators booed her for leaving her friend behind. This changed as soon as Meghan was out of sight.
“Way to move!”
“Get it, girl!”
The sun was high and she started to sweat, but she didn’t care. She was one of the fast girls, and if she was empty where the night before she had opened up and closed around another person, she preferred it—the lighter she was, the faster she could run. And she ran as fast as she could, because it felt good.
Stefani Nellen’s short stories are published or forthcoming in Guernica, AGNI, Glimmer Train, Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, PRISM International and Web Conjunctions, among others, and have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, the Montana Prize in Fiction (judged by Alexandra Kleeman), and placed as the runner-up for the Wabash Prize (judged by Adam Johnson). She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, where she had the opportunity to work with Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, among others. A psychologist by training and originally from Germany, she now lives in the Netherlands with her family. She’s at work on two novels and a collection of short stories.
Image credit: Stage 7 Photography on Unsplash