The description will be updated when I've figured out what the story is.
|TWENTY-FIVE YARDS AND TWENTY SECONDS TO GO.
Third down. Our last chance to score a touchdown. My last chance to score us a touchdown.
I was already leaning sideways as my hands closed on the ball, looking for an opening I could dive through.
And I found it, a gap like the parting of the Red Sea, leading straight to Marcos Quintana. He stood in the end zone with his hands open to receive the ball.
Instead, I pulled the ball to my chest, put down my head, and charged at him. I was halfway to the end zone when a Menefee safety flew out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground.
So I didn't get us the touchdown. But I did get us another first down.
And that was enough. The crowds were already filtering onto the field as we ran out the last of the clock for a twenty-sixteen win.
I let adrenaline and exhaustion and carry me crowd after that. I felt myself slapped and pummeled from all sides, I felt Derek try to climb onto my shoulders, I found myself face to face with Cole—I don't know how I got swept back to the sidelines—and I said, "How was that?" and he said "Good enough," and I gave him a hard clap to the back because he was the on who'd got us all the points. It was all jokes and snaps and high-fives in the locker room afterward as we cleaned up and changed, and not until we were filtering onto the bus for the ride back home did I look around and realize I hadn't seen Madison in the crowd, and seen Georgina only long enough to register her smile and a quick embrace.
Derek and I fell onto the back bench of the bus and propped ourselves up on our kits. He dug out a bag of rubber bands and amused himself for ten miles by shooting them around the inside of the bus.
Finally he popped one off the back of Quintana's head, and Quintana turned around into a narrow glare, which broke into sharp grin when Derek shot another rubber band at him. He got up and came down the swaying aisle to us, and pushed Derek aside to sit next to me.
"Great game," he said.
"It was too short," I said. "I could'a played longer."
He leaned back to peer at me. "You look half-beat."
"I'm coming down. It was Menefee, you know. You should go ask Cole how he's doing."
"He's into his phone."
Then he cocked his head and said, "So how come you didn't pass me the ball on that last play?"
I was expecting him to ask me that. Hell, I was expecting everyone to ask me that. "I dunno," I confessed.
He chewed on the tip of his tongue. "Trying to save the touchdown for yourself?"
"Fuck you. No."
He laughed. "We could'a had seven more points."
"We were didn't need them, we were winning already."
"Oooh!" A grin split his face. "You really wanted 'em for yourself."
"No! I mean, I did, but not for—" I rubbed my hand all over my nose. "I just didn't wanna let go of the ball," I said. "You know? I let go of the ball, maybe they could get it back. Then who knows."
He snorted. "They weren't gonna score any more, not in twenty seconds from their twenty yard line."
"You never know," I insisted.
"Yeah, well," Quintana said with a short laugh, "no harm, no foul, but you're gonna have to explain it to Coach." He clapped me on the knee and got up to totter his way back to his seat.
"Explain to Coach what?" Derek said after scooting back in close to me.
"Nothing. The last play."
"Something go wrong?"
"No, it went off fine. You saw it."
"There was a bunch'a guys between me and it," he said. "You got tackled."
"I got tackled," I agreed.
"So. You shouldn'a got tackled?"
"Just let me talk to Coach about it," I said.
And to show him I really didn't want to talk about it, I got out my phone.
I actually wasn't worried about what Coach would say when we talked about the game and that last play. I'd tell him what I told Quintana, which was the truth, that I didn't want to give Menefee even a chance at the ball. He'd get it, I was sure. He wanted me to do everything I could in those last minutes to stop them from getting the ball.
I was more worried about what Madison would say. I didn't get her any of those touchdowns she was wanting.
Which was a stupid thing to worry about. I didn't owe anything to her, it wasn't like I could just go out and score points to please her, she didn't have any right to demand anything from me except what Coach and me teammates demanded, which was for me to do my best, which I did.
And the more I thought about it, the madder I got at her, until I had to remind myself that I hadn't even seen or talked to her so I didn't have any idea what she thought of the game and how I did in it.
Which was itself a bad sign, I realized when I thought about it a little more. She hadn't texted me once. I was getting texts from other guys, I got one from Georgina, but the last text I had from Madison came before the game: Woo-hoo! Be watching you! Go Tigers! Which made my face hurt from wincing so hard when I read it.
As we were finally pulling into town I decided it was stupid to let her get into my head when she wasn't even around, so I shot her off a text of my own: We getting tgethr tnite? I nudged Derek. "We doing anything after we eat?" Coach always took the team out for pizza after a game.
"I dunno. What are you up for?"
I shrugged and didn't press it. I realized I was looking for an excuse to not do anything with Madison.
I didn't hear back from her until we were at the Ninth Street Pizzeria. And something really weird happened first.
The rest of the team was filing into the restaurant but I was standing on the sidewalk outside and texting Madison to tell her we were back in town, when I felt someone stop next to me. I looked up, and almost stepped off the curb into the traffic.
He was a tall guy, taller even than me, and gaunt. Skeleton-like. His skin was stretched tight across his face, and there were hollows between his narrow jaw and his jutting cheekbones. His eyes were sunk down into his sockets, and his fine, blonde hair was shaved very close to his dome-like skull. In his black suit and tie, he looked like an undertaker.
No, actually, he looked like someone who had just come from an undertaker.
But his eyes were very bright, and his teeth strong as he grinned at me. "You're Charles Tyler, aren't you?" he said.
"Uh, yeah." I wondered if he knew my aunt or something and that's how he knew me.
"That was an exciting game this afternoon," he said. "Congratulations on the win. That was quite a comeback at the end."
Comeback? I thought. "Uh, thanks?" I said.
His smile widened and he held my eye, as though expecting me to continue. Finally, I said, "You're a Tigers fan?"
But he didn't reply. His smile just widened even more. Then he said, "Quite an amazing recovery," and continued to hold my eye.
Finally, when I only stared back, he turned away with a lingering, smiling glance. He swayed a little as he shambled off down the sidewalk, as though walking on stilts.
"Is she coming?" Derek asked when I joined him inside.
"Who?" I asked, because that crazy guy had totally driven Madison from my mind. "Oh. I dunno." Just then my phone dinged with her reply: She was on her way to join me and the rest of the team for the celebration.
I found a place at the table with the other guys, but I couldn't concentrate on the talk. After ten minutes, I went back out front, where they had a couple of old-fashioned arcade games. I figured Madison would like it if I was waiting out front for her.
I was sliding in a quarter for another game of Galaga when Derek wandered up to lean against the side of the machine. "Pizza's here," he said.
"You gonna go off and sit at a separate table with her?"
I sidestepped a dive-bombing alien, then rapidly blasted a swarm that came swooping in. "I'll see where she wants to sit," I muttered.
"Dude," he muttered.
Then the tenor of his voice changed, and he said it again. "Dude!"
I glanced over. He was grinning and biting down hard on his lower lip. His eyes bulged and glistened even as he shrank up against the side of the machine.
It was a girl. It had to be. A girl had just walked in, and Derek was about to pop the button off the front of his jeans. I rattled off a couple more shots, then let the bad guys blast my ship to space dust and stepped back to fiddle with another quarter.
Derek squeezed up closer, and I took another step back, then casually glanced over at the register. That's when I saw her.
I only saw her from the back, but that was enough. She had squeezed herself into a tight pair of faded blue jeans, flaunting hips that begged to be cupped and stroked with the palms of both hands, and had wrapped the rest of her, from herself down to her narrow waist inside a form-fitting jacket. Platinum hair cascaded down her back.
Derek turned to follow her with his eyes as she passed down the short hall to the dining room, and I leaned around the corner to follow her too. She lingered at the door into the dining room, a slim hand resting on the frame, as she searched within.
"She's looking for someone," I said.
"Why wasn't she looking for me?" Derek groaned.
"She got a look at your face, that's how come. Oh my God!" I punched him with my knuckle. "She's scoping out the guys!"
Derek squealed. "Shit! Is she a fangirl?"
"If she is, we need more like her. I haven't seen her at school, though."
"No way she goes to our school!" Derek sounded strangled. "I'd'a recognized her!"
"Fuck, man," I murmured. I got an idea, and it nearly melted my brain. "Come on." I nudged him. "Let's go bump into her. If she's into the team, we can, like, talk to her."
Derek only made a weird moaning noise in the back of his throat. I sympathized. My own knees felt watery.
I jumped at the voice, and at the hand suddenly laid against the small of my back. Madison also jumped back as I wheeled on her.
"Oh, hey," I gasped at her. My brain (melted) puddled uselessly as I tried to come up with something to say. "I didn't hear you. I mean, I was waiting for you."
"Yeah." She smiled uncertainly. "Did Alex come in?"
She looked past me. "Oh there she is. Alex!" She beckoned.
All the hairs on the back of my neck went up, and I grabbed the edge of the Galaga console for support.
"This is Alex, my cousin," Madison said. I had to wrench my eyes from off her face to look over as Derek shuffled back a step. "She had fun at the game," Madison said.
"Cool." I nodded at the girl with the platinum hair. Her face was as beautiful as the rest of her—coal-dark eyes glinting in a cherries-and-cream face—and I gripped the corner of the game console until my hand hurt.
"And this," Madison said, wrapping her arm around my waist, "is my boyfriend, C. C."