A/N: This is chapter 1 of my WIP, Crossing the Finish Line. It is a tumultuous love story set during 1988 about a talented, street smart, African American teen named Charlene Jacobson from the projects of Detroit, Michigan. She moves to the fictional rural town of Millersville, GA after her younger brother is killed in a random shooting. She meets and reluctantly falls in love with a handsome, but flawed, white senior track star named Ryan Quinn who dreams of moving to California to get away from his controlling father so he can compete in the Olympics. Their newfound love is tested by family, friends and society, but the real obstacle is overcoming their own insecurities and beliefs about race, sex, and following their dreams. If you would like to see pics and bios of the main characters just go to my profile and click on CAST OF CHARACTERS.
Chapter One – Changes
August 28, 1988
"Child, change can be a good thing," said Nana.
Charlene gave a sideways glance to her father's mother, a heavy set black woman she couldn't remember seeing more than twice in the past 17 years. She turned her gaze to the passing scenery outside the truck's passenger window. "What's so damn good about it?" she mumbled under her breath.
It had been made clear to Charlene that change was bad—evil in fact. Change ripped her from her home in Detroit, Michigan and dumped her in a backwater town in who-knows-where, Georgia.
Yeah, change sucked.
She leaned against the headrest. Tears stung the back of her eyes thinking about Darnell, her fourteen year old brother, in a cold, dark grave with only his Chicago Bulls jersey and a sketch pad to keep him company. A flood of tears was threatening to spill over, but she fought them back. She refused to cry at his funeral and she wasn't going to do it now. Crying wasn't going to bring Darnell back or change her current situation. It would only make her seem weak. Her father taught her at an early age to be tough and to trust no one, but her immediate family.
She turned her attention back to the rolling landscape, counting the mile markers along the rural road. Millersville, Georgia seemed like an entirely different world. For the past half-hour, the only things she saw were rickety old barns, vast fields of corn stalks and tall green grass, or what she thought was grass. At the Avery Whitman housing projects in Brentwood, an urban district of Detroit, there had been barely a blade of grass to be seen, unless you counted the weeds that sprouted up between cracks in the sidewalks.
Whoa! Is that a cow? She straightened in her seat. Horses too!
A small herd came galloping over a clearing only a few yards from the road. Charlene's eyes widened as she craned her neck back to see. Cows and horses were not common Brentwood wildlife. Rats, roaches, and a variety of stray dogs were in heavy supply, though. She hadn't seen a real horse since she was six. Her parents had scraped up enough money to take her and Darnell to the circus. Of course, those horses had been wearing pink tutus and standing on their hind hooves twirling in circles, but dancing horses or not, she still couldn't help staring at them in awe just as she was doing now.
She rolled the window down and poked her head out to get a better look. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the rising sun on her face, a gentle breeze caressing her corkscrew curls, and the fresh smell of…
Ewww, gross! She pinched her eyes closed as the fierce scent of manure filled her nostrils. So much for fresh air.
She drew back, wrinkling her nose, and rolled her window back up. Not that it did any good. The smell was trapped inside the cabin of the truck now.
She slumped lower in her seat and covered her nose with her hand. Already she hated Millersville, Georgia, hated her soon-to-be new school, and hated not being able to control anything in her life.
As if reading her mind, Nana glanced over and gave her a sympathetic smile. "Honey, it ain't so bad. A lil' fresh air and country living gonna do you right good. You'll see."
Yeah right! The smell of horse shit and being bored out my skull is gonna be the miracle cure for fixing my fucked up life. Here Charlene, take two whiffs of horse shit and call me when you forget about your brother getting capped and being forced to leave behind everyone and everything you care about.
The old woman was so wrong it was almost funny. Too bad she didn't feel like laughing. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared out the window.
"Your daddy's just tryin' to do right by you. He hoped sendin' you here would give you a chance at a normal life until things get better for you back home."
Charlene stared at her grandmother's profile. Nana's face, the color of dark bitter chocolate, was surprisingly free of wrinkles for a woman pushing seventy. Too bad she was wearing the most hideous looking wig Charlene had ever laid eyes on. Perhaps, once they got to know each other better, she could convince her to do something different with her hair and lose the flower-printed mu-mu. She frowned in disapproval. That look just wasn't fly on anybody, not even an old lady.
"Nana," she said tentatively.
"Why can't I hold off going to school for a few days?"
"Because classes already started two weeks ago and I don't want you fallin' even more behind."
Charlene tried to keep the whine from her voice, but failed. "I just got here yesterday. It's not like I'll be missing anything important. Plus, I need more time to make the transition."
Charlene let out an impatient sigh before explaining, "I need more time to settle in and get use to my surroundings." And the funky smell. "I barely had a chance to unpack last night. I feel like everything's moving way too fast after…" Her voice trailed off. She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.
"I know this is difficult for you, Sweetie. Lord knows you and Junior been through a lot," Nana consoled, "But it's best if you jump right in and not give y'self time to mope. Your daddy told me you was cooped up in your room for weeks after your brother's funeral. The sooner you get back into the swing of things, the sooner you can meet some young folks and make a few friends. Maybe give 'em a taste of that beautiful singing voice of yours."
Charlene crossed her arms and sank lower into the seat. She knew it was childish, but she didn't care. Why couldn't the she just leave her alone for a couple of days? That wasn't asking for much.
"Speaking of which," Nana rattled on, her eyes focused on the narrow road ahead. "We sure could use you in the church choir. Y'know nothing heals the soul better than singing his praise."
Oh great, she wants me to hang out with a bunch of holy rollers. That's even better.
Frustrated, Charlene turned to stare out the window. She thought about the friends she already had back in Detroit, AJ, Spider, her best friend, Tanisha. She barely had a chance to say goodbye before her father decided to ship her off. Right now putting on a fake smile to make nice with the country yokels was the furthest thing on her mind. And she most definitely didn't want to sing in front of them.
Her father had asked her to sing a solo at her brother's funeral. She had stood up at the podium, staring out at a sea of black. Black suits. Black dresses. A spectrum of black faces, each them riveted her. Behind all those mournful tears and looks of pity, Charlene thought saw the truth. They were all judging her, waiting to see her screw up. It was too much. The weight of their stares had made it impossible for her to breath. Reverend Wright had touched her shoulder, asking if she was okay. All she could do was utter the words, "I'm sorry" before running for the exit door. As far as Charlene was concerned, her singing days had died the moment they put Darnell in the ground.
"I'm not interested in meeting anybody new," she said, frowning. "I don't plan on being here that long anyway. Dad said this is only temporary until he finds another job and a better place for us to live."
Nana shrugged her wide shoulders. "Sure is a shame to have a gift like that and not share it with the world or at least make one special friend while you're here. But if that's how you feel about it then suit y'self."
For a split second Charlene reconsidered. Maybe it would be nice to have someone here to talk to, show me around so I won't feel so…alone. She shook her head in defiance. I don't need any new friends. As long as I got my journal, I'll be fine. Besides, what would I have in common with a bunch of hicks anyway? The kids here probably never seen the inside of a roller rink or even heard of Public Enemy or Doug E. Fresh. Do they even have black stations down here? They probably just listen to country music and spend all their free time hanging out at fishing holes, hunting up critters, or some stupid shit like that. I'll just keep to myself and bide my time while I'm here.
Green fields finally gave way to a line of small one level ranch houses. A bit further down the road Charlene saw a corner grocery store, a dry cleaners, a boutique shop and a diner called Cheesy's.
What kind of name is Cheesy's? she wondered as they drove passed the circa 1950s diner. Haven't they ever heard of McDonald's?
When Nana turned onto a street named Springmill, Charlene felt she had entered into a technicolored Mayberry. There were one and two story brick and stone buildings, some of which had huge storefront windows, setting only a few feet away from perfectly spaced trees along the cement sidewalks. She did not see a speck of dirt or trash anywhere and there weren't any drunks hanging on any of the street corners.
Does Millersville even have a liquor store? That's probably why Daddy never wanted to visit.
There were no stray dogs dodging on-coming traffic. No homeless people trudging down the sidewalks asking for change or pushing shopping carts filled with crushed aluminum cans.
The people here look so…, she scratched her head and searched for the right word. Happy.
Everyone in town was going about their daily routines, jogging, walking their dogs, crossing the streets, smiling and waving at each other.
What's next, Don Knotts in a deputy uniform? And where's all the black people?
Coming from an inner city like Detroit, it felt a bit Twilight Zone-ish not to see another brown face among the pedestrians. The whole thing seemed surreal.
No wonder Daddy moved to Chicago at sixteen to join the Black Panthers. Being surrounded by nothing but happy white folks all the time would piss me off too.
After five more minutes of driving, Nana finally pulled into the crowded school parking lot. A three story, box shaped building made of limestone and red brick loomed before them. It was connected to a smaller building, also brick and stone, with the word Gymnasium in large gray letters on the outside. Setting adjacent to it was a football field surrounded by a narrow four lane track and rows of tall bleachers.
Charlene squinted to make out the sign over the scoreboard. It read: "Home of the Cougars—State Champion Track Team" in bold green letters and a logo of a big yellow cat with brown spots, which Charlene assumed to be a poor interpretation of a cougar, baring its claws and fangs.
She frowned in disappointment. Her school back in Detroit was double this school's size and could accommodate nearly 1,600 students. By the looks of things Charlene didn't imagine there being more than 600 students at best in a school of its size.
Nana maneuvered her small faded green pickup truck into an empty parking space and turned off the engine.
"We're here," she said, announcing the obvious. "Come on, let's get you settled in. I gotta get to work. Mr. Humphrey is expecting me by nine."
It irked Charlene that her grandmother made a living as a housekeeper. It was 1988 for godsakes. Rev. Jessie Jackson, a black man, was actually running for president and her poor grandmother was still picking up after 'Massa'.
Mr. Humphrey should be picking up his own shit.
Charlene watched Nana's super-sized frame struggling out of her seat. It was now 7:50 am. Most of the buses had cleared out and only a few students were still loitering in the parking lot. Charlene observed a group of students entering the building just as she and her grandmother made their way towards the school.
I don't see a black person among them, except the old man over there in the janitor uniform sweeping the sidewalk? It figures! Probably don't even know Jim Crow went out with the sixties.
Charlene looked up at the name etched in stone over the wide double doors. It read: General Hanson Lee Adams Public High School.
She scoffed and shook her head.
Great! I go to a school named after some racist Confederate general. He's probably turning in his grave every time somebody black walks through these doors. She stared up at the flagpole. At least there's no Confederate flag hanging outside for the world to see. Ha! That's probably because it's out being cleaned.
Nana wobbled up the stone steps ahead of her. Her right and left butt cheeks moving up and down like two separate entities.
"Hurry up now. Don't wanna be late on your first day. It's bad `nuf you had to come so late in the semester." She paused turning back expectantly. "You gonna have to work hard to catch on and keep your grades up. I don't know how you did things back in Detroit, but I expect you to do your best here."
She tilted her gray head slightly and gave Charlene a reflective look. "I can't believe how much you take after Junior, except for you being a tad lighter and having them funny colored eyes like your mama, I'd swear you look just like him. Y'all got the same nose and high cheek bones just like your granddaddy. God rest his soul. His mama was part Cherokee Indian." A small smile appeared on Nana's face before she seemed to remember her speech and replaced it with a stern, no-nonsense grimace. "Now, I didn't tolerate bad grades or foolishness from your daddy so I ain't gonna allow it from you. You hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am," Charlene answered gruffly.
Nana's watery brown eyes softened. She reached out to caress her granddaughter's cheek with one beefy hand. "You'll do fine here. Just remember what I told you. And don't ever let nobody make you feel you don't belong. Ya daddy had a real hard time makin' friends, but you'll do better. You're smart and your talented, can't nothin' hold you back, Child, cept yourself."
She turned back around and continued up the wide steps leading to the entrance doors. Charlene signed heavily, resigned to her fate as she followed Nana inside.
Charlene trailed silently behind her grandmother taking in her new surroundings. It was a typical high school. The corridors were wide and brightly lit with overhead florescent lights. Rows of grey lockers lined the hallways on both sides and an occasional poster or banner was taped haphazardly to the walls announcing an upcoming rally or club meeting. So far, she'd seen nothing that held her interest until she came across the glass trophy case setting outside the principal's office.
While Nana was busy signing papers and talking with the secretary, Charlene examined the trophies and the blown up black and white photos encased inside.
Her lips quirked into a little grin. So the school's integrated after all, she thought sarcastically. At the very least the track team is.
She read the impressive display of gold plated plaques and large trophies that lined the glass shelves. It appeared the team had won state titles for the past three years.
Hmm, not bad. She looked over the photos more carefully. One of them was a close up of a white guy with a mop of dark curls with the sides shaved close around his ears. He was lifting his arms high above his head as he passed over the finish line. Another showed him jumping over a hurdle with a sharp look of concentration on his boyishly handsome face. There were photos of other young men in similar poses, but there was intensity in his dark eyes that the other runners didn't seem to possess. It made her want to look deeper, beyond the black and white photo.
Her mother had once told her that the eyes were a window to the soul and could reveal a person's true nature even if they tried to hide it. She touched the glass and stared at her own reflection. If what her mother said was true, could people see she wasn't the tough homegirl she pretended to be? That she was a coward that stayed up most nights staring at the ceiling, too afraid to turn off her night light. Jumping at any sound that resembled a gunshot.
Charlene frowned and snatched her hand from the glass. The thought of strangers seeing pass her façade and reading her like an open book sent a chill through her body. She would just have to remember to keep her guard up.
The principal's door opened and an attractive young woman wearing glasses with bleach-blonde hair tied back in a tight bun poked her head out.
"Principal McAbee will see you now."
Nana turned and waved impatiently for Charlene to follow.
She took a deep breath. There was no use in stalling. Her fate was sealed. This was her new school whether she liked it or not. She wondered how many more changes she'd have to endure before her life was under control again.
Charlene glanced at the trophy case once more and into the eyes of the curly haired runner. Only time will tell, she told herself then followed Nana inside.