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The Dysasters, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  A column of uniforms jogged by, their cleats crunching on the track ringing the football field. “Nighthawk! Let’s go, bro! Coach will shit if we’re not huddled up soon.”

  “Yeah, I’m coming!” Tate called to the players as he started jogging slowly backward, following the rear of the pack. “Hey, Strawberry, let me show you how not an ass I am.”

  “Jesus! Don’t call me Strawberry.”

  “Then tell me your name!”

  She sighed. “Foster.”

  “Well, Foster, there’s always a party after we win. And as long as I’m out there, we’re winning. How ’bout I give you my number, so you can find out where it’s at, and so I can show you how much of a non-ass, nice guy I am?”

  “Answer a question first.”

  “Shoot, Strawberry!”

  “What’s your favorite book?”

  “Sports Illustrated!” He winked.

  “Yep, exactly what I thought.”

  Pink bloomed in his cheeks.

  I’d be embarrassed, too. Maybe he realized he sounded like a total douche—hawk or not.

  Then he started to speak again, and she decided it was probably sun and not sense coloring his cheeks.

  “My number’s really easy to remember. It’s just—”

  Foster held up her hand. “No. Just no. Not if my life depended on it. But good luck out there, Douchehawk.” She gave him a salute, spun on her heels, and headed to section one twenty-five, her feet clomping noisily as she trudged up the aluminum bleachers.

  Cora was examining the flimsy little one-page program as Foster slid in next to her. “You will not believe what just happened,” Foster said around a mouthful of sour Skittles. “I met the most stereotypical jock douchebag. He asked me out. Sorta.”

  “On a date?” Cora’s brow hit her hairline.

  Foster snorted, sounding a lot like her adoptive mom. “Not the kind you used to get asked out on to the disco back in the eighties or whenever. This is one of those, ‘show up at this place, and if I feel like hanging out with you, I will, but if not, I never officially asked you to go with me, so you can’t get mad’ things. Total guy garbage logic.” Annoyed, she popped another Skittle into her mouth and chewed sharply. “And I’m sure it was really just about him showing me how awesome he, and everyone in Podunk, Misery, thinks he is.”

  “For the last time, it’s Missouri, not misery,” Cora said. “And the disco? In the eighties? Really? Baby girl, you gotta stop watching so many sci-fi shows and start with those history programs that are on your schedule. If you want to graduate, that is.”

  “I know a lot about World War Two. You can quiz me, which should get me at least a few extra points toward my history homework.” Foster paused, waiting hopefully for Cora to give her a break on the boring documentaries.

  “You don’t get extra points for learning about something that’s not in this semester’s curriculum. You should be doing that regardless.”

  “Fine,” Foster huffed. “But back to my interaction with the native Missourian, the guy introduced himself as Tate Nighthawk Taylor. Nighthawk! I swear, I can’t make this crap up. Isn’t that like the most ridiculous dudebro thing you’ve ever heard?”

  “Tate Taylor?” Cora asked.

  “Yeah, Tate Douchehawk Taylor. Can’t forget that part.”

  Cora sighed.

  “What?” Foster asked, taking a swig out of Cora’s water bottle.

  “The person we’re here to meet, his name is—”

  “No,” Foster interrupted. “Don’t do this to me, Cora.”

  “Tate Taylor.”



  Tate inhaled deeply as he jogged into the locker room. The scent of Icy Hot and sweat said he was where he belonged—home. Guys he’d been playing with since peewee football milled around, popping towels and smacking shoulder pads as they tried to harness pregame nerves and psyche themselves up for Homer High School’s version of Friday Night Lights. Tate didn’t need to psyche himself up. His two favorite things were brewing just outside the locker room—a big storm, and a big game.

  His least favorite thing, though, had him staring blankly into his locker as he considered bashing his forehead against its metal sides. Tate Nighthawk Taylor sucked at talking to girls. And if the girl was pretty …

  His shoulders slumped.

  I actually told her Sports Illustrated was my favorite book. After I already made myself sound like a deluded superhero wannabe by introducing myself as Nighthawk—to a total stranger—a hot, disinterested, total stranger.

  “Shit. Maybe I am a douche.”

  “Yo, Nighthawk, who was that ginge you was talkin’ to? She ain’t from here, that’s for sure.” Kyle Case bumped Tate with his shoulder. “If you’re gettin’ in on that St. Joe action, you’re gonna be in major trouble with our women. Especially Emma.”

  “Emma and I broke up. I can talk to whoever I want.”

  “Not if they’re from St. Joe you can’t. She’s a Spartan. We’re Panthers. The two do not fraternize,” said Kyle.

  “Fraternize? You been studying your vocab words again, Ky-kee?” Tate waggled his brows at his best friend.

  “Dude.” Kyle lowered his voice. “We talked about this. Like, a million times. You cannot use my baby sister’s nickname for me. Ever.”

  “Oh, I can. I definitely can.”

  “Nope. It’s not cool.”

  “Hey, you call me a nickname all the time,” Tate said.

  “Nighthawk is cool. Ky-kee is not. End of discussion. Get back to the ginge with the big boobs.”

  “Big boobs? What? No.” Tate shook his head. “I wasn’t talking to her because of that.” He’d been so caught by Strawberry’s big green eyes, amazing red hair, and that skin that looked like she could have been carved from marble—smoking hot, flawless marble—that he hadn’t noticed anything else about her. Well, except that she didn’t like football and, more specifically, she didn’t like him.

  “Did you say big boobs?” asked Ryan. “Whose?” The linebacker’s head turned in Tate’s direction, along with half the team, making them look like mutant baby birds. “I thought you and Emma broke up.”

  “We did. Kyle’s just being an—”

  “Nighthawk got his hands on some boobs. Again!” Ryan, who had never been a genius, talked over him, knocking kids aside as he tunneled his six-foot-two, three-hundred-fifty-pound way through the team to get to Tate. “I gotta get me some details.”

  “No details!” Tate said. “I was talking to a girl. That’s all.”

  “She’s a Spartan,” Kyle said.

  “I didn’t say that!” Tate said. “I don’t know what she is, except not real friendly.”

  “Definitely a Spartan,” Ryan said. “But I think big boobs cancel out the Spartan-ness of her.”

  Kyle scoffed. “Tell that to Emma and her friends.”

  “We broke up!” Actually, Emma had dumped him. Two weeks ago. No explanation except “Babe, it’s not working out.” Not working out? What did that even mean? He was still trying to figure out what he’d done wrong.

  “Tate! Get your head out of your pants and into the game!” The team parted with biblical reverence as Tate’s dad strode toward him.

  “My head’s totally in the game, Coach!” Tate assured his dad as his teammates snapped to attention.

  “Good, because you have your work cut out for you tonight. Do I need to remind you that St. Joe’s a four-A school and we’re a two-A school?”

  “No, Coach!” Tate shouted.

  “No, Coach!” the team echoed.

  “And do I need to remind you that the weather out there is looking crappy, which means anything can happen when the field turns into a swamp?”

  “No, Coach!” the team shouted with Tate.

  “Hey, Coach, no worries about the weather,” Kyle said. “The darker it gets, the better Nighthawk sees!”

  Tate’s dad smacked the back of Kyle’s head. “Boy, when the entire team can se
e in the dark like Tate, then the crappy weather’s a plus. Can you see like a hawk in the dark?”

  “No, sir!” Kyle yelled.

  “Like I’ve told you boys since you were in grade school—nothing, not even great night vision, can replace hard work and focus. Now, huddle up and take a knee.”

  With the rest of the team, Tate took a knee in the circle of teammates around his dad while everyone bowed their heads and linked hands.

  “Keep us safe out there—strong out there—sure out there. Keep us Panthers out there!”

  “Go Panthers!” the team chorused.

  “Oh, yeah. Almost forgot,” his dad said, looking around the team conspiratorially. “Are you ready?”

  “Yes, Coach!” the entire team, except Tate, yelled.


  “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Nighthawk! Happy birthday to you!” They all sang—badly, but enthusiastically.

  “Sweet eighteen and never been kissed!” Ryan quipped.

  “Shit, sweet eighteen and never been missed!” Kyle said.

  “Okay, okay, you’ve had your fun. Time to line it up. Captain and co-captain first.”

  Tate and Kyle took their places at the front of the double column of Panthers. They moved in perfect time to their end zone, where they waited together for the band to start playing the fight song.

  “Damn, your dad wasn’t kidding about the weather,” Kyle said, giving the green sky with its ominous dark clouds a nervous look. “Think they’ll call the game?”

  “Hell, no!” Tate said. “Well, not unless the lightning starts. And I hope it doesn’t.” He breathed deeply, loving the scent of rain and the sudden cooling of the air that signaled a storm. He was obsessed with storms! He always had been. It was as if he could feel the power building inside him in time with the distant thunder and the rolling clouds.

  “Be careful out there tonight, Son.” His dad was beside him, putting a firm, familiar hand on his shoulder. “I know you like your storms, but if that sky opens and starts pouring, watch yourself. That ground’ll get slick as pig shit. Break something, and you’ll be sidelined. It’s early in the season, but you can’t mess yourself up or you’ll risk losing that Mizzou scholarship.”

  “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be fine—like always.”

  His dad patted his shoulder and smiled affectionately at him. “Right. I’ll leave the worrying to your mother. Don’t forget to wave to her.”

  “She’s out there? But she hates storms.”

  “Of course she’s out there—right on the fifty-yard line as usual. Your mom hates storms, but she loves her little Nighthawk more.”

  “I’m six-one, and eighteen years old as of today. Why does she have to add the little part? Jeesh, Dad, only Mom could make that nickname lame.” Well, Mom and that green-eyed strawberry, he thought.

  The first snare drum beats of the fight song drowned out his dad’s laughter, and had the home side of the small stadium coming to their feet as Tate sprinted through the tunnel of cheerleaders and pompoms, leading his team onto the field. As they circled to begin their warm-up, Tate waved to his mom. She was easy to find. Her thick blond hair, which Tate had always thought made her look like a Disney princess, was a golden beacon under the bright lights. She waved and blew him a kiss while the rising wind lifted her tresses like a restless spirit.

  Tate was calling cadence for their warm-up burpees when a blaze of red in the bleachers above his mom snagged his attention. Red hair, broken free from whatever had held it on top of her head, spilled around her. Damn, that girl had a lot of hair. Tate blinked—and then blinked again. It was her! The strawberry! She was sitting next to a big black woman who was studying him like he was a two-headed science fair experiment. But the strawberry? She was busy trying to tame all that wind-crazed ginger hair while she looked everywhere but the field.

  Burpees done, Tate called for the team to change positions and begin jumping jacks. He snuck another look at the girl. Yep, she was still staring everywhere but at him. No, wait. She’s not staring everywhere. She’s staring up at the sky.

  The ref’s whistle sounded the end of warm-ups, calling team captains to the center of the field for the coin toss. He jogged to meet the Spartan—shaking his hand and trying not to think about the fact that the kid’s lack of a neck and full beard made him look thirty instead of seventeen.

  “Heads,” the Spartan called in a voice so deep and gravelly it sounded like he’d been smoking for decades.

  “Tails! Panthers’ choice!” the referee announced, shouting to be heard above the wind.

  “We’ll receive,” Tate told them. He jogged quickly off the field, huddling with the rest of the offense as his dad put his hand into the middle of their circle. He had to yell to be heard over the whining wind, but his strong voice rose to the challenge.

  “All right, Panthers. Get that damn ball and show those Spartans that bigger doesn’t mean better! On three—one, two, PANTHERS!”

  Like the well-practiced machine they were, Tate’s team flowed to their positions, standing at the ready as the Spartans lined up for the opening kickoff, but before the ref could blow the whistle to start the clock, the bruised sky opened, spilling ropes of rain down on them. The bright stadium lights flickered along with the scoreboard, and the ref hesitated before blowing the starting whistle.

  Tate couldn’t help it. He had to glance at the bleachers. He had to get a glimpse of that soggy strawberry. He found her easily. She was the only person standing, one arm raised, pointing up at the sky. As he watched, wide-eyed, she screamed one word so loud and in a voice so filled with raw terror that everyone turned to look up at where she was pointing.


  Tate’s world exploded.

  The whining of the wind shifted, morphing to a scream. From the black clouds above, the hook of a funnel began to descend, heading directly for the field.

  “Everyone, get into the school! Now!” bellowed the loudspeaker.

  Panic had the crowd on their feet as everyone tried to run from the bleachers. Tate felt as if he had been nail-gunned to the ground. His gaze trapped on the descending funnel. He could feel the power of the tornado—feel its anger and its destructive strength pass through him, swirl around him, and build … build, until he wanted to lift his arms and embrace it and let his shout join its raging roar.

  “Tate! Run!”

  His father’s bellow broke through the tornado’s spell and suddenly Tate was no longer filled with the excitement of the storm. He was just a kid, standing alone in the middle of a football field as death in the shape of a funnel plunged from the sky.

  Everyone on the field sprinted for the locker room, but the bleachers were a nightmare of panicked people. Through the wind-slanted rain, he found his mom’s blond hair. She was at the edge of the bleachers. He watched in horror as someone shoved her from behind and she fell.

  “Mom!” Tate yelled, racing toward the stands.

  “Tate! Get to the locker room!” His dad seemed to materialize out of the rain beside him, grabbing his wrist.

  “But Mom’s—”

  “Go! I’ll get your mom. You’re the captain. Be sure your team’s safe!” his dad shouted, hugging his son hard and fast, before shoving him toward the stream of people flooding into the school.

  Caught in the tide, Tate was swept along the sidelines with hysterical cheerleaders and panicked parents. He meant to go into the locker room. He meant to do as his dad had told him—to make sure his team was safe. But the closer he got to the concrete building and safety, the more he felt it—the need to stay out there, to stay in the heart of the storm, to do something … anything …

  The funnel cloud connected with the earth at the far side of the field, ripping the metal goalposts from the ground and slinging them into the field parking lot and onto the cars and trucks parked there—as well as the helpless people who had chosen to run for their vehicles instead of the school. The screa
ms started in earnest then, mixing with the wind and rain to create a symphony of terror.

  The tornado moved down the center of the field in a bizarre parody of the game it had destroyed. From the sidelines, Tate watched it close in on the second goalpost.

  A flash of red glinted through the rain and wind. For a strange moment—a moment Tate would never forget—he was able to see the strawberry girl called Foster. Her back was to him. She was on her knees beside the black woman she’d been sitting with. The older woman lay crumpled on her side, clutching her chest as Foster tried futilely to lift her to her feet.

  Horrified that the tornado was making its way directly toward them, he ran. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Foster! Get out of there!”

  Her head whipped around and he saw those big green eyes go wide with shock as she looked over his shoulder at the black funnel bearing down on her.

  He thought she would run. She should have run.

  But she didn’t.

  He could see in that instant she wasn’t going to. She wasn’t going to leave her fallen friend.

  And he wasn’t going to get to them in time to help. He would be too late. He slid to a stop, wishing he were dreaming. Wishing he wasn’t going to see a beautiful stranger get sucked into the air and killed.

  Numb with shock, he watched Foster get to her feet. Instead of running away, she stood straight and strong, and began walking toward the roaring funnel. Her lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying until she stopped, planted her feet wide, put her hands on her hips, and shouted directly at the tornado.


  Her words sizzled through Tate’s body. He felt them in the core of his soul. It was as if her voice was moving inside him, as palpable as the wind and rain, and with it he also felt the power—the pulsing, pounding force that mirrored the whirling maelstrom before them. Her words were a leash, tethering the tornado as if it were as alive as a plunging stallion. Tate could feel that tether, that bind, and his mind, his heart, his soul, followed it.

  The girl had somehow pressed a massive pause button. The tornado stopped! Right there in the middle of the fifty-yard line, the funnel quivered, spinning and spinning, straining at its leash, but not moving forward.