The description will be updated when I've figured out what the story is.
|"I'M NOT LOOKING FOR ANY MIRACLES, TYLER," Coach Qualls told me as Cole—supported by two officials—came limping in off the field. "I'll take a touchdown, but mostly I want us in control of the ball for as long as possible."
I nodded, then trotted out onto the field. Cheers and whistles rose from the crowd, but the skin on the back of my neck was hot and prickly from the hard, eager stares I was getting.
I knew where one of them at least was coming from.
Cole gave me a gimlet-eyed grimace as I passed him. Most of it I chalked it up to the pain he was in. The rest, I figured, was him telling me not to fuck up the game he'd almost won for us.
The other guys pulled up into a quick huddle as I ran up. I looked around at them. Rogers, Cochrane, Lavalee ... Gillard, Pope ... Quintana ... Almost all of them guys I'd known since middle school, some of them since elementary school. They knew me from back yard games and school games, and their eyes crinkled up behind their masks. "Glad you made it out, man," Phil Lavalee said, and clapped me in the shoulder.
I nodded. "Okay, let's keep playing it the way Cole was," I told them. "Keep in close. 'Cept for you," I told Quintana. "I'll look for you in the end zone, but don't take it wrong if I throw it to someone else." He nodded. "Alright, let's take it home," I said, and we broke.
The ball surprised me when I felt it thrust into my hand for the first time, and for a split second I thought I was going to drop it. But muscle-memory saved me. I gripped it tight, looked left for Cochrane as he sprinted at me, faked him a hand-off, and ran back the way he'd come. I saw an opening and dodged for it, but the doors shut on me as I went through, one defender clipping me in the left hip and another boffing me in the right shoulder. I pivoted, twisted, and made it another yard before being pulled to the ground. The wiry grass scratched, but I sucked up the dry smell of the earth through my mask and knew happiness.
On the next play I again faked a hand-off to Cochrane, then sprinted sideways looking for a receiver. They were all covered except for Quintana, who I spotted sprinting across the field behind the Menefee line. I dodged a tackle who came out of nowhere, and when Quintana broke to my right I threw the ball to where I thought he would be. But it curved too far ahead of him and fell out of bounds for an incomplete.
That was okay. Now Menefee knew I had my eye on Quintana, and they'd have to keep an eye on him too.
Next play I handed off to Cochrane and ran at the defensive line while he took the ball the other way. The whole Menefee squad, it felt like, came at me like the big roller at the beach, but I sheered off, laughing to myself when they saw I didn't have the ball. Behind them, I saw Cochrane go down under two tackles, but he'd gotten us a first down.
Jogging back to the center of the field, I saw Georgina on the sidelines. She gave me two more thumbs up, and I flashed her a surreptitious signal of my own down near my belt. She grinned, and I wasn't sure but I think she blushed.
Then as I lifted my eyes skyward, I finally picked out Madison high up in the stands.
She was impossible to miss, and it startled me that I hadn't spotted her before. She was sitting on the very top row, wearing my varsity jacket, with her butter-colored hair tumbling out from under a tartan cap. She was sitting primly in the midst of her friends—Ashleigh and the rest of her girlfriends, and a couple of the skinny guys from the school chorale that hung out with them all—and hunched up like she was cold.
I wavered, feeling like I should give her a signal like I gave to Georgina, and settled on stroking the crown of my helmet. But if she saw me, she didn't react, though her friend Rachel leaned in to murmur something at her.
"Don't watch the crowd," Dave Gillard reminded me. I didn't reply as I turned back to the field.
For the next two minutes of play we did it like Coach Qualls asked, clawing first downs out of the turf with a mix of short rushes and short passes. It was like pushing a big piano up the field, but as third downs and fourth downs turned into firsts it started to feel like we were on a treadmill, getting no closer to the Menefee end zone. No one said anything, but I started to think the guys were getting a little antsy at the slow pace of things.
Or maybe it was just me.
But, play by play we pushed Menefee back to their thirty-yard line, though their defense was solidifying. Second down saw us at their twenty-eight, and third at the twenty-five. That's when I shot a pass to Quintana, who was dancing about in the end zone, but it was another incomplete.
That's when coach called his last time out.
I thought he would, because I'd seen Mike Brown pacing and stretching with one sock and shoe off when I'd glanced over at the benches.
"We'll try for a field goal," Coach told me.
"We don't need one," I told him. "We just need five yards for another first."
"They're not gonna let you through."
"Even if we don't make it, we can hold them for—" I glanced at the clock. "A minute and change."
Cole, who was standing nearby with his ankle bandaged, jumped in. "Make a field goal, and maybe they can still tie us," he growled. "No field goal, and if they get the ball—"
"Yeah yeah," I said. "We—"
I broke off. Behind him, I saw that Madison had descended from the clouds and forced her way into the first row, almost directly across from where I was standing. Our eyes met. I don't know what mine registered, but hers were inscrutable.
Still, I wavered, and I probably would have given in, except that Quintana had followed me over. "Come on, give us a chance for another touchdown," he whined at the coach. "C.C. can get it to me."
"Like he got it to you on that last pass," Cole retorted.
Coach gave Quintana and me a look, and I could see the pang of worry behind his eyes.
"Menefee gets the ball anyway if we punt or go for a field goal," I told him. "But if we make these five yards, even without getting a touchdown—"
I let the rest of the sentence hang. I was pleading for the strategy he'd sent me in with. Draw out our time possessing the ball.
He hesitated, then gave me a curt nod. Cole put his hands on his hips and glared at the ground.
Back on the field I quickly relayed our next play to the guys. The ball snapped, I faked a hand-off, then sprinted the other way, looking for an opening. A wall of Menefee uniforms closed at me. I swerved, wheeled, fell back, and sent the ball zipping back the way I came. Joe Pope caught it just behind the line of scrimmage. Two defenders wheeled to block him, but he pivoted past. They knocked him off balance, and for five yards he flailed, trying to keep the ball in his hands and himself on his feet. But when he went down, he'd got us six yards and another first down.
I looked back at the bench. Coach was wearing his steely grin. Even Cole was smiling through his scowl.
Twenty yards and less than a minute to go. I played for time, rushing to one end of the field with the ball, sprinting back the way I'd come, lurching toward an opening, and ducking an aerial assault by one of Menefee's linebackers. It cost us three yards, but I'd burned up a chunk of time. I tried the same thing on the second play, but Menefee closed too fast and I wound up running out of bounds for another two yard loss.
Coach wasn't going to pass up another field goal opportunity, I knew. So this play was our last chance to score another touchdown against Menefee, my last chance to score against them. I kept my eyes on the backs of my teammates' helmets, tried to imagine I was playing in an empty stadium, tried not to think about the girls who were watching me. We only had to gain back a little of the lost yardage, and then we could try for that field goal. With the clock down to its last seconds, that would end it for Menefee.
As my hands closed on the ball I was already leaning sideways, looking for an opening.
And I found it, like the parting of the Red Sea. Half the Menefee defensive line was taking off one way after Cochrane, who was barreling along the sidelines, just as our blockers were pushing their defenders in the other direction. It opened up a corridor leading straight into the end zone.
Marcos Quintana stood at the other end of it. He turned, saw me, opened out his hands.
I pulled my arm back and threw.
It was a beautiful pass, if I say so myself. A spin so perfect I could almost hear it hum.
It was too bad I sent it right into the arms of a Menefee safety, who dove out of nowhere to snag it in mid-air.
He landed on one foot, dance sideways for three steps. Then he caught his balance, put his head down, and charged up that same goddamned corridor at me. He dodged as I lunged at him, and he probably didn't even feel my hands brush his jersey as he flitted past.
For eighty yards he ran like the devil and all the demons of hell were on his heels.
I fell to my knees as he crossed into the end zone, and grabbed two fistfuls of turf, bending almost double under the weight of the crowd's roar as Menefee passed us and won the game in those final seconds.
Not for the first time, I found myself wishing hard that life came with checkpoints and do-overs, like it does in videogames.