Getting schooled, p.4
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       Getting Schooled, p.4
 

           Emma Chase

  I'll never forget the day, the summer before my junior year, when Billy Golling had a seizure in the middle of a two-point conversion. Heat stroke.

  That'll never happen to one of my kids. I won't let it.

  But the fundamentals of this game haven't changed. It's brotherhood, mentorship, hero worship--it's dirt and grass, confidence and pain. It's hard . . . it takes real commitment and real sweat. The best things in life always do.

  We spend practice breaking them down, like in the military, then building them up into the champions they can be. And the kids love it. They want us to scream at them, direct them--fucking coach them. Because they know in their hearts if we didn't care, if we didn't see their potential, we wouldn't bother yelling at them.

  We treat them like warriors, and on the field . . . they play like kings.

  That's how it worked with me--that's how it works now.

  "No, no, no--god damn it, O'Riley! You drop that ball again, I'll have you doing suicides until you can't see straight!"

  Dean Walker is my offensive coach. He's also my second-place best friend, after Snoopy. He was my go-to receiver in high school, and together we were an unbeatable combination. Unlike me, he didn't play football in college; he majored in math--and is now the AP math teacher at Lakeside.

  Dean's a real Clark Kent kind of guy, depending on the time of year. He's a drummer in a band--having summers off allows him to tour all the local haunts up and down the Jersey shore. But from the end of August through June, he hangs up the drumsticks, puts on his glasses, and assumes the Mr. Walker, math-teacher-extraordinaire persona.

  He grabs O'Riley's face mask. "You're pulling a Lenny! Stop squeezing the puppy to death!"

  Some players are chokers--they freeze up when a big moment arrives. Others, like our sophomore receiver Nick O'Riley, are what I call clenchers. They're too eager, too rough, they clasp the ball too hard, making it easy to fumble the minute another player taps them.

  "I don't know what that means, Coach Walker," O'Riley grunts around his mouthpiece.

  "Lenny--Of Mice and Men--read a frigging book once in a while," Dean shouts back. "You're holding the ball too tight. What happens if you squeeze an egg too hard?"

  "It cracks, Coach."

  "Exactly. Hold the ball like an egg." Dean demonstrates with the ball in his hands. "Firm and secure--but don't strangle the bastard."

  I have a better idea. "Snoopy, come here!"

  Snoopy loves football practice. He runs around the field and herds the players like a sheepdog. In a white furry blur he runs and leaps into my arms.

  Then I put him in O'Riley's. "Snoopy's your football. You hold him too tight, or drop him, he'll bite your ass." I point down field. "Now run."

  Across the field, my defensive coach barks at my starting line. "What the hell was that?"

  Jerry Dorfman is a former all-state defensive back and a decorated marine. "I piss harder than you're hitting! Get the lead out! Stop acting like pussies!"

  He's also Lakeside's only guidance counselor and our emotional management therapist.

  So . . . yeah.

  ~

  A few hours later, when the air is cooler and the sun is on its downward descent, and the team is hydrating and the field is quieter, I watch my quarterback, Lipinski, throw long passes to my wide receiver, DJ King. I check their feet, their form, every move they make--looking for weakness or error and finding none.

  Watching them reminds me of why I love this game. Why I always have.

  It's those seconds of perfect clarity--when time freezes and even your heartbeat stops. The only sound is your own breath echoing in your helmet and the only two people on the field are you and your receiver. Your vision becomes eagle-focused and everything snaps into place. And you know--you feel it in your bones--that now, now is the time. The raw energy, the strength, rushes up your spine, and you step back, pump your arm . . . and throw.

  And the ball flies, swirls beautifully, not defying gravity but owning it--landing right where you've commanded it to go. Like you're a master, the god of the air and sky.

  And everything about it is perfect.

  Perfect throw, perfect choreographed dance . . . the perfect play.

  I clap my hands and pat DJ's back as he comes in. "Nice!" I tap Lipinski's helmet. "Beautiful! That's how it's done."

  And Lipinski . . . rolls his eyes.

  It's quick and shielded by his helmet, but I catch it. And I pause, open my mouth to call the little shit out . . . and then I close it. Because Lipinski is a senior, he's feeling his oats--that cocksure, adrenaline-fueled superiority that comes with being the best and knowing it. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I was an arrogant little prick myself, and it worked out well for me.

  A kid can't grow if he's walking around with his coach's foot on his neck 24/7. You have to give the leash some slack before you can snap it back--when needed.

  My players huddle around me and take a knee.

  "Good practice today, boys. We'll do the same tomorrow. Go home, eat, shower, sleep." They groan collectively, because it's the last week of the summer. "Don't go out with your girlfriends, don't frigging drink, don't stay up until two in the morning playing Xbox with your idiot friends across town." A few of them chuckle guiltily. "Eat, shower, sleep--I'll know if you don't--and I'll make it hurt tomorrow." I scan their faces. "Now let me hear it."

  Lipinski calls it out, "Who are we?"

  The team answers in one voice: "Lions!"

  "Who are we?!"

  "Lions!"

  "Can't be beat!"

  "Can't be beat! Can't be beat! Lions, lions, LIONS!"

  And that's what they are--especially this year. They're everything we've made them--a well-oiled machine. Disciplined, strong, cohesive--fuck yeah.

  ~

  Before I head home, I put Snoopy in the Jeep and walk down to my classroom, where I'll be teaching US history in a few more days. I have a good roster--especially third period--a nice mix of smart, well-behaved kids and smart, mouthy ones to keep things from being too boring. They're juniors, which is a good age--they know the routine, know their way around, but still care enough about their grades not to tell me and my assignments to go screw myself. That tends to happen senior year.

  I put a stack of rubber-band-wrapped index cards in the top drawer of the desk. It's for the first-day assignment I always give, where I play "We Didn't Start the Fire," by Billy Joel and hang the lyrics around the classroom. Then, they each pick two index cards and have to give an oral report the next day on the two people or events they chose. It makes history more relevant for them--interesting--which is big for a generation of kids who are basically immediate-gratification junkies.

  Child psychologists will tell you the human brain isn't fully developed until age twenty-five, but--not to go all touchy-feely on you--I think the soul stops growing at the end of high school, and who you are when you graduate is who you'll always be. I've seen it in action: if you're a dick at eighteen--you'll probably be a dick for life.

  That's another reason I like this job . . . because there's still hope for these kids. No matter where they come from, who their parents are, who their dipshit friends are, we get them in this building for seven hours a day. So, if we do what we're supposed to, set the example, listen, teach the right things, and yeah--figuratively knock them upside the head once in a while--we can help shape their souls. Change them--make them better human beings than they would've been without us.

  That's my theory, anyway.

  I sit down in the desk chair and lean back, balancing on the hind legs like my mother always told me not to. I fold my hands behind my head, put my feet on the desk, and sigh with contentment. Because life is sweet.

  It's going to be a great year.

  They're not all great--some years suck donkey balls. My best players graduate and it's a rebuilding year, which means a lot of L's on the board, or sometimes you just get a crappy crop of students. But this year's going to be awesome--I
can feel it.

  And then, something catches my eye outside the window in the parking lot.Someone.

  And my balance goes to shit.

  I swing my arms like a baby bird, hang in the air for half a second . . . and then topple back in a heap. Not my smoothest move.

  But right now, it doesn't matter.

  I pull myself up to my feet, step over the chair towards the window, all the while peering at the blonde in the navy-blue pencil skirt walking across the parking lot.

  And the ass that, even from this distance, I would know anywhere.

  Callaway Carpenter. Holy shit.

  She looks amazing, even more beautiful than the last time I saw her . . . than the first time I saw her. You never forget your first. Isn't that what they say? Callie was my first and for a long time, I thought she'd be my only.

  The first time I laid my eyes on her, it felt like getting sacked by a three-hundred-pound defensive lineman with an ax to grind. She looked like an angel. Golden hair framing petite, delicate features--a heart-shaped face, a dainty jaw, a cute nose and these big, round, blinking green eyes I wanted to drown in.

  Wait . . . back up . . . that's not actually true. That's a lie.

  I was fifteen when I met Callie, and fifteen-year-old boys are notorious perverts, so the first thing I noticed about her wasn't her face. It was her tits--they were full and round and absolutely perfect.

  The second thing I noticed was her mouth--shiny and pink with a bee-stung bottom lip. In a blink, a hundred fantasies had gone through my head of what she could do with that mouth . . . what I could show her how to do.

  Then I saw her angel face. That's how it happened.

  And just like that--I was gone.

  We were "the" couple in high school--Brenda and Eddie from that Billy Joel song. The star quarterback and the theater queen.

  She was the love of my life, before I had any fucking idea what love was . . . and then, still, even after I did.

  We broke up when she went away to college and I stayed here in Jersey--couldn't survive the distance. It was a quiet ending when I went out to visit her in California, no drama or hysterics. Just some hard truths, tears, one last night together in her dorm-room bed, and a morning of goodbye.

  She never really came home again after that. At least, not long enough for us to run into each other. I haven't seen her in years--in a lifetime.

  But she's here now.

  At my school.

  And you can bet Callie's sweet ass I'm going to find out why.

  Chapter Five

  Callie

  I was fourteen the first time Garrett Daniels spoke to me. I remember every detail--I could close my eyes and it's like I'm right there again.

  It was after school, a week into my freshman year, TLC was singing "Waterfalls" from the radio on the floor next to me. I was sitting on the bench outside the school theater when I saw his black dress shoes first, because football players wore suits on game days. His suit was dark blue, his shirt white, his tie a deep burgundy. I looked up, and those gorgeous brown eyes, with long "pretty" lashes that should've been given to a girl, gazed back at me. His mouth was full and soft looking and smiled so easily. His hair was thick and fell over his forehead in that dark, cool, careless way that made my fingers twitch to brush it back.

  Then he uttered the smoothest opening line in the history of forever.

  Do you have a quarter I could borrow? I was gonna get a soda from the vending machine but I'm short.

  I did, in fact, have a quarter and I handed it to him. But he didn't go to get his soda--he stayed right where he was and asked me my name.

  Callaway.

  I'd mentally cursed myself immediately for using my full name because of its weirdness.

  But Mr. Confident didn't think it was weird.

  That's a really pretty name. I'm Garrett.

  I'd already known that--I'd heard a lot about Garrett Daniels. He was a popular "middle school" boy because he'd gone to Lakeside public schools, as opposed to me, who was a "St. Bart's" girl because I'd spent grades one through eight at the only Catholic school in town. He was a freshman, already playing on the varsity team, because he was just that good. Garrett was the third of the Daniels boys. Rumor had it he'd had sex in eighth grade with his then-girlfriend, though I would come to find out later that that was just the middle-school gossip mill run amuck.

  Are you going to the game tonight?

  He asked, and seemed genuinely interested in my answer.

  I glanced at my theater friend, Sydney, who was watching the whole exchange in wide-eyed, open-mouthed silence. Then I shrugged.

  Maybe.

  He nodded slowly, staring at my face, like he couldn't look away. Like he didn't want to stop watching me. And I was perfectly happy to watch him right back.

  Until a group of varsity jackets called his name from the end of the hallway. And Garrett started walking backwards towards them, eyes still on me.

  You should come to my house after the game--to the party.

  There was always a party after a home game, usually at an upperclassman's house. That week, word around the school hallway was the party was at Ryan Daniels' house.

  Technically, it's my brother's party, but I can invite people. You should come, Callaway.

  Another flash of devastating smile.

  It'll be fun.

  I went to the game. And the party.

  Although my sister didn't exactly run in the same circle as Ryan, she had some friends on the cheerleading squad and had already planned on going.

  We were there a few minutes, in the basement, with Bruce Springsteen playing on the stereo, when Garrett walked up to me. He handed me a red plastic cup of beer that was mostly foam and kept another for himself. It was loud in his basement, teenagers shoulder to shoulder and wall to wall, so we ended up in his backyard, just the two of us. We sat on the rusty swing set and talked about silly things. Our classes, what teachers we had, the star constellations we could see and name, why a quarterback was called a quarterback.

  And that's how we started. That's how we began.

  That's how we became us.

  "Callie!"

  Although I haven't seen Garrett in years, I would know his voice anywhere--I hear it in my head all the time. So when my name bounces off the parking lot pavement in that rich, steady tone, I know right away who's calling it.

  "Hey--Callie!"

  Garrett's leaning out of a first-floor window on the east side of the high school. I wave, and my smile is instant and genuine.

  He points at me. "Wait there."

  I wait. His head disappears from the window and a few moments later, he emerges from the door, jogging over to me with those long strides I remember so well, but on a fuller, more mature frame. My eyes recognize him, and so does my heart. It speeds up as he comes closer, pounding out a happy greeting inside my chest.

  He's smiling when he reaches me, that same, easy smile. Then he hugs me, envelops me in a warm, friendly embrace. His arms are bigger than I remember, but we fit together perfectly.

  We always did.

  My nose presses against the gray cotton of his Lakeside Lions T-shirt . . . and he smells the same.

  Exactly the same.

  I've dated many men through the years, artists and actors and businessmen, but not one of them ever smelled as fantastic as Garrett: a hint of cologne, and that clean, male, ocean scent.

  And just like that, I'm sucked back to being seventeen again--standing in this parking lot after school. How many times did he hug me right here in this spot? How many times did he kiss me--sometimes quick and fleeting, sometimes slow, with longing, cradling my face in his large hands?

  "Wow. Callie Carpenter. It's good to see you."

  I tilt my head, gazing up into those same gorgeous eyes with the same pretty lashes.

  It's a strange sensation standing in front of someone you've loved deeply--someone who, once upon a time, you couldn't imagine not seeing, not talkin
g to every day. Someone who used to be the center of your whole world . . . that you just don't know anymore.

  It's kind of like when I was eight and my Grandma Bella died. I stood next to her casket and thought, it's her, Grandma, she's right there. But the part of her that I knew, the part that made her who she was to me . . . that wasn't there anymore.

  That was forever changed. Forever gone.

  I know a version of Garrett intimately, as well as I know myself. But do those intimate details still apply? Does he still like room-temperature soda with no ice? Does he still talk to the television when he watches a football game--like the players can hear him? Does he still fold his pillow in half when he sleeps?

  "Garrett Daniels. It's good to see you too. It's been a long time."

  "Yeah." He nods, his gaze drifting over my face. Then he smirks devilishly. "You just couldn't stay away from me any longer, huh?"

  I laugh out loud--we both do--because there he is.

  That's him . . . that's the sweet, cocky boy I know.

  "You look great."

  And, God, does he ever. Garrett was always cute, handsome, the kind of good-looking that would make teenage girls and middle-aged moms alike drool while watching him play football or mow the lawn shirtless.

  But here, now--Man-Garrett? Oh, mama. There's no comparison.

  His jaw is stronger, more prominent and chiseled with a dusting of dark stubble. There are tiny, faint lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth that weren't there before--but they only add to his handsomeness, making him look even more capable and adventurous. His shoulders and chest are broad, solid, and the muscles under his short-sleeved T-shirt are rippled and sculpted. His waist is tight, not an inch of bulge to be seen. His hips are taut and his legs powerful. The way he carries himself, the way he stands--head high, back straight and proud--it radiates that effortless confidence, the unwavering self-assurance of a man who takes charge.

  Grown-up Garrett is knee-weakeningly, panty-incineratingly, H-O-T, double-fuck, hot.

 
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