Read False Start Online

Authors: Barbara Valentin

False Start (7 page)

"No, never." Feeling panic rise up and grip her by the throat, Mattie gurgled, "Do you think this is a bad idea?"

Dianne shot back, "Remember when Oprah went on her fitness binge?"

"Which one?"

"Don't diss Oprah," Dianne scolded. "She ran the Marine Corps Marathon, for God's sake. You can do this."

In a somber tone, Mattie replied, "I suppose. But what if I can't? What if I just end up making a fool of myself again? Except this time it will be at the hands of a different DeRosa and in front of the entire subscription base of the
Chicago Gazette
." She shuddered at the thought.

Dianne laughed. "You'll be fine. Just remember, what doesn't destroy us makes us smarter."

"Stronger," Mattie corrected. "It makes us stronger."

"Same difference," Dianne chuckled.

Mattie stepped out of her closet dressed in a pair of too-tight sweat pants and an old sports bra that had lost it supportive properties several wash loads back.

As she assessed herself in the mirror, she gripped her phone like it held the last supply of oxygen on the planet. "Dianne. There's no way I can run a marathon next October. I jiggle like Jell-O."

"So don't jiggle."

Mattie watched herself as she hopped up and down. "Right. I don't think you can run without at least jiggling a little. Or, in my case, a lot."

"As I told you this afternoon, go get some running tights and a compression jacket. I see women jogging along the lakefront all the time in those. Not a jiggle in sight. Now get to bed. You'll want to be well rested for your assessment. And make sure you have something better for breakfast than a Twinkie. Good night and good luck, doll."

The phone clicked, and Dianne was gone.

Mattie went to the kitchen and dug into a tub of premium, slow-churned chocolate ice cream, searching for the empathy her editor did not provide.

 

*  *  *

 

Nick turned the key in the dead bolt on the door of his parents' bungalow. He could smell his mother's legendary pasta sauce as soon as he reached the top step on their back porch.

"Hey, Ma. How ya doing?"

Lucy DeRosa waved at him from across the warm, cozy kitchen, then pointed to the phone receiver and mouthed, "Your father."

Nick nodded his acknowledgement, hung up his coat in the foyer closet, and sauntered over to the refrigerator as he loosened his tie. He flung open the door and stood staring at its contents.

"If you're hot, go outside," his mother scolded after she hung up the phone. "But if you're hungry," she continued, "sit down. Dinner's ready. Your pop should be home in about an hour, but he said not to wait for him."

Nick, still guilt-ridden after his parents drained their retirement fund to cover his legal expenses, did as instructed.

"Aren't you eating?" he asked.

"Nah, I'll wait." Instead, Lucy joined him at the table.

On the day Nick was exonerated, she threw a party for him, inviting no less than fifty friends and family from their Ravenswood neighborhood. She forbade all of them to speak Eddie's name from that day forward, declaring, "He is dead to me."

It was Nick, of all people, who counseled her to forgive and forget.

Still, when his parents insisted that he move back in with them, he did so reluctantly. With no job, no car, no income, and no prospects, he knew he didn't have a choice. It wasn't long afterwards that he remembered the healing powers of his mother's manicotti. That they didn't charge him a dime in rent helped, too.

"Just 'til you get back on your feet," they cooed as he unpacked his belongings in his old room.

It took him a year to find a place of his own that he could afford, but it didn't stop him from accepting his mother's invitations to dinner.

She waited until he shoveled a forkful of hot spaghetti into his mouth before asking, "So how did it go at the
Gazette
?"

Nick looked at her, incredulous. Chewing quickly, he tried to manage, "Fine," without spewing food.

"Don't talk with your mouth full. Did they offer you a job? I'd be leery. Make sure you get everything in writing. Newspapers are going under just like everything else these days."

Nick finished chewing and responded. "Yeah, they sort of offered me a job. And yeah, they'll put it all in writing."

His mother arched her penciled-in eyebrows. "What do you mean 'sort of'?"

"Well, it's not a regular nine-to-five job. I'm going to be a consultant."

This did not appease Mrs. DeRosa. "What kind of consultant?"

Nick, with his fork in mid-air, gave up all hope of being able to finish his food. "I'll be coaching someone on their staff to run for the Chicago Marathon."

"Oh yeah? Who? That doesn't sound like much of a job, training just one person. And what does that have to do with the newspaper business anyway?"

"You wouldn't know her, Ma."

"Her? Is she a reporter? Hey, it's not that gal that writes that column, is it? What is her name? The one who gives those snooty working mothers their what-for."

Lucy stood and started rifling through a stack of papers destined for the recycling bin. Pointing a finger at Nick, she added, "But she definitely knows her way around a kitchen."

Nick thought of Mattie. Stubborn. Impulsive. Undisciplined. "No, Ma. I can safely say it's not her."

At this, he stood and set his plate on the counter, hoping to stop her line of questioning.

It didn't work.

"Aw, that's too bad. I'd like to meet her someday. So who is she, huh? This one you'll be coaching? Does she have a name?"

Nick narrowed his eyes, mulling whether to respond. His mother, a top-notch seamstress, never missed a chance to remind anyone willing to listen that, after she tailored her off-the-rack Mother-of-the-Groom dress, as well as the gowns of all her sisters, none could be returned when Eddie's wedding fell through.

Divulging Mattie's name would most certainly dredge it all up again, and, after the day he had, Nick just wasn't up for it. Not on a partially empty stomach.

Stepping toward his mother, he took her by the shoulders and planted a kiss on her upturned cheek. "Mind if I spend the night? I've got to be at the track pretty early tomorrow."

 

Even after being away at college and running in races all over the world, Nick still relished the comfort and security of his childhood bedroom. As sparsely furnished as it was, it seemed luxurious compared to the minimum-security jail cell in which he was housed for one very long month.

His mother maintained it like a museum exhibit. The light-up globe that fascinated him as a kid still sat on his desk. The room didn't have a phone or television. Just a simple clock radio and a reading lamp on his night stand. On the walls hung posters of his heroes—running greats Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter.

His mother had already converted Eddie's into her sewing room that was, for all intents and purposes, a monument to Nick. The shelves were lined with his trophies, and the bookcase was stuffed with scrapbooks and newspaper clippings.

Pulling a pair of neatly folded pajama bottoms from his duffle bag, Nick tossed them on his bed and looped his tie on a hook in his closet. Slipping the brown leather belt out of the loops on his khakis with one yank, he slung it over the back of the plain wooden desk chair. Easing his pants off, he slid them carefully onto a hanger, careful not to wrinkle the creases. On top of that he draped the same pale blue button-down dress shirt he was wearing when the federal judge threw out the case against him a year earlier.

What should have been a day of great celebration was tempered only by the solemn resignation that his own brother had indeed framed him for embezzling millions of dollars from investors before vanishing without a trace.

 

*  *  *

 

Sleep didn't come easily to Mattie that night. When it finally did, she tossed and turned through a bad dream. In it, she was struggling to run as fast as she could through the marathon course, but her legs seemed to be filled with wet sand. Fit runners blew past her on either side. The route was lined with onlookers who all seemed to be yelling at her to hurry up. When the finish line finally appeared, Nick and Eddie were there, waiting side-by-side, pointing at her, laughing so hard they were wiping tears from their eyes. Mattie woke up shaking.

Tucked into a fetal position while her comforter sat in a pile at the foot of her bed, she was cold, groggy, and disoriented. She reached over, clutched her cell phone and squinted at it for several seconds before making out the time—4:55.

Throwing back her flannel sheets, she felt around under her bed for her flashlight, always at the ready and always right next to her trusty baseball bat. There was no time to shower and, worse, no coffee to drink. She yanked on the faded black too-tight sweat pants she had found the night before and an oversized sweatshirt bearing the logo of her alma mater. Taming her curls into a haphazard ponytail, she swiped on some mascara, inhaled a cold Pop Tart, slipped her ring on her finger, yanked her down coat around her shoulders, and headed for the train that would take her north to Nick. Doing her best to dodge the puddles in the dark, her shoes still managed to become waterlogged by the time she made it to the platform at the station.

 

The entire way there, she tried to imagine how he would assess her level of fitness. Would he count the number of jumping jacks she could do in a minute, or would his weapon of choice be push-ups? Crunches?

I swear to God, if he pulls out a measuring tape, I'm outta there.

She looked at her reflection in the window as the train flew past dark, wet building facades. Couldn't he tell just by looking at her that she hadn't intentionally broken a sweat before? Ever?

As hard as it was for her to discern Nick's methods, she couldn't even begin to fathom his motives. What a former Olympian was doing as a personal running coach payrolled by the
Gazette
, she had no idea. At the moment, all she cared about was getting this assessment over with as quickly as possible.

Mattie arrived at her old high school's field house with five minutes to spare. As soon as she stepped onto the property, she felt her face start to break out and her hair begin to frizz. The all-too-familiar urge to duck into the nearest bathroom and hide threatened to overtake her.

Standing at the entrance of the indoor track, the same debilitating unease that accompanied her every day before gym class began to wash over her. She scanned the cavernous space for any sign of Nick, but didn't see him. Instead, she spied a dozen or so senior citizens shuffling along on the inside lanes of the track and women wearing nothing but sport bras and matching shorts jogging past them in the outer lanes. Not a jiggle in sight.

The Pop Tart Mattie had for breakfast sat like a hard, indigestible lump in her stomach. She was cold, wet, and ready to sell her soul for a cup of hot coffee.

Before long, she heard footsteps approach behind her.

"Did you bring the forms?"

Startled by the sound of Nick's voice, Mattie turned to face him.

Like his brother, he had a commanding presence. He looked sharp, dressed in a charcoal gray workout suit and a slightly frayed, royal blue Cubs hat. And, like his brother, he had the annoying ability to look as drop-dead gorgeous first thing in the morning as he did when he was dressed to the nines for dinner at a five-star restaurant.

Mattie brushed an errant curl off her forehead and retrieved the folded sheets of paper from her pocket. "I trust it's ok that I didn't get my parents' signature?"

Nick inspected the forms before tucking them under other papers already affixed to his clipboard. Pointing at her feet, he asked, "What are those?"

She looked down at her plaid Keds, gushing with water every time she took a step, and replied, "Gee, Nick. I thought you of all people would know. These are called
shoes
."

In reply, he scrawled something on the clipboard he was carrying then led her to the center of the track. Hurrying after him, Mattie whispered as loudly as she dared, "Why is it so crowded in here? These aren't all teachers, are they? I thought we'd have some privacy."

Nick stared straight over the top of her head and said, "The track is open to the public from five to seven every morning. Anybody can use it. It's co-sponsored by the park district."

Nodding at his explanation, she hoped whatever he was going to make her do wouldn't take an hour and a half. She stood in front of him, arms folded, and braced herself.

"So, let's get this over with. Assess me."

From under the brim of his hat, Nick's eyes locked onto hers. "Excuse me?"

Mattie stared back at him for a second too long, feeling as if she had just been zapped by the tiniest of electric charges. She shifted from one waterlogged shoe to the other, wishing she could make herself invisible.

"Assess me," she repeated. "Isn't that what you said you were going to do this morning?"

He lowered his eyes to his clipboard. "When I'm good and ready."

Mattie rolled her eyes and shot back, "Fine."

Nick frowned at her. "Fine yourself. Give me a lap."

"What?" Mattie cried a little too loudly, drawing attention from the early morning fitness fanatics running circles around them.

"You heard me. One lap. No stopping." When she didn't move, he pointed to the track, clicked his stopwatch, and added, "Lane one. Move it."

I'm in hell…

She slipped off her jacket and let it fall in a puffy pile at Nick's feet.

As if she was testing for quick sand, she took a tentative step onto the black rubbery surface of the track. Once she was certain it would not swallow her whole, she began shuffling along in the same direction as everyone else, doing her best to minimize the jiggling. But, it was no use. Each time her foot hit the track, every cell in her body seemed to shout, "Jell-O City!"

Her pride abandoned her.

By the time she rounded the first corner, her lungs felt like they were about to burst into flames. She wondered if Nick knew CPR and began praying that she didn't have to find out.

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