Image: Kirsten Killer via Creative Commons
Below you’ll find the first chapter of something that was initially a short story. The chapter is set several years before The Teacher (the first part of the third chapter) which I’ve also posted on this blog.
* * *
No tears. She’d promised.
“When’re you comin’ home?”
A crackly voice emanated from the bus station speaker. “Ardmore. Last call.”
“Call me,” she said after they kissed for what she feared was the last time.
Funny how a place could come to mean so much to someone. Both good and bad. Especially considering he’d never even been to Ardmore til the time he and his mama first drove there on that hot August day.
He thought she was taking him to the dentist until she drove right by.
“We’re leavin’, ain’t we?” Cal said.
“We ain’t got no other choice.”
“I know it, Mama.”
And he did.
Ardmore was close and affordable. But more importantly, it was away from his daddy. Plus, Ardmore High had a competitive football team most years and that year, they needed a good running back. That’s exactly Cal was. Great, even. And since he was movin’ from out of town, the coaches said he’d be eligible to play right away.
It was right there on the football field where Lauren first laid eyes on him during the season opener their senior year. Only she didn’t exactly lay eyes on him. Couldn’t quite make him out through his uniform. Especially the helmet he never took off. Even when he was on the sidelines.
Didn’t matter that she couldn’t see him all that well, though. She liked him plenty right away. Knew it by the way he moved. He was long and strong. Way faster than anyone she’d ever seen before, and she’d cheered every single game since freshman year, so she’d seen them all. And none of the others were like him.
After his second touchdown, she needed answers.
“Who is that?”
“Cal,” Kate said with a wave of her pom pom.
“How come I ain’t never heard of him?”
“He’s a transfer.”
“But that’s in Oakman, ain’t it?”
“Yep. Him and his mama just moved here.”
“How come you know so much about him?”
“They live in the Johnson’s old house.”
“He’s your neighbor?”
“And you ain’t never told me about him?”
“Never thought to. Besides, he was my little secret,” Kate said smiling. “If it weren’t for Billy…mmm, mmm, mmm.”
“Well, I ain’t got no Billy,” Lauren said with a confident flip of her blond hair before turning to lead her squad in a touchdown cheer.
Ardmore won that night going away. After the game, most of the class went out to celebrate, but Kate and Lauren went back to Kate’s house where they sat on the front porch swing talking. And waiting.
“What’re you gonna say?” Kate said.
“I guess I’m just gonna ask him.”
“You want me to introduce y’all first?”
“ ‘Course I do. He ain’t gonna say yes if he don’t even know my name.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows your name, Lauren.”
An old station wagon kicked up gravel as it eased past Kate’s house and turned into the driveway across the street. Cal got out of the front seat, carrying his pads and helmet over his shoulder. He beat his mama to the door and held it open for her, unaware of the audience across the street. Until Kate hollered at him, that is.
“Cal, come over when you get a sec.”
Cal laid his shoulder pads and helmet inside the front door and headed over.
“Cal, this is Lauren Cole. Lauren, this is Cal.”
“Seen you around, Lauren. It’s nice to ‘ficially meet you,” he said quietly.
“Same here,” Lauren said looking at the hardwood planks beneath the swing. “You sure played good tonight.”
“I reckon I was okay. You can always do better, though.”
“Be hard to do better’n what you did. You was runnin’ all over the place.”
“Did y’all hear that?” Kate said suddenly.
“Hear what?” said Cal.
“Wasn’t that the phone? I better go check.”
The screen door slammed shut, interrupting the awkward silence that had just begun.
“Speakin’ of checkin’, reckon I better get back and check on Mama,” Cal said.
“Wait. Cal. There’s something I wanna to ask you.”
“What’s that, Lauren?”
“There’s a Sadie Hawkins dance in a coupla weeks and I was wonderin’ if you’d maybe wanna go with me. We could double with Kate and Billy. You know him from football, right?”
“ ‘Course I know Billy. And I’d love to,” Cal said. “But I can’t.”
“I gotta girlfriend back home. Wouldn’t be right.”
By the time it sank in, Cal was already halfway across the street. Lauren tried to think of something to say that might save a little face. Anything.
“What’s that, Lauren?”
“Why do you keep your helmet on when you’re not in the game?”
“ ‘Cause you never know what’s gonna happen next. When someone’ll need you.”
“I s’pose that’s right,” Lauren said. “It’s good to always be ready, ain’t it?”
“I think so.”
Lauren walked through the living room and into the kitchen where she found Kate making a sandwich.
“Want one?” Kate said.
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Well what?” Lauren said.
“Did you ask him?”
“He said no.”
“Whatever, Lauren. We doublin’ or not?”
“I’m serious. He said no.”
Kate looked confused. “Why?
“He’s gotta girlfriend back home. Told me it wouldn’t be right,” Lauren said through watery blue eyes. Kate grabbed her hand and led her out to the porch. Back and forth they rocked in total silence save the slow, steady creak of the old swing.
Lauren saw Cal plenty the rest of that year. And it was never awkward between the two of them. At least not visibly. Sure, Lauren was mortified each time, but Cal always made her feel completely at ease despite the fact that he’d rejected her.
He didn’t ever tell anyone. At least that’s what Lauren and Kate gathered. Because if he had, they would have surely heard about it. Everyone would have.
Cal led Ardmore to the state championship game in Birmingham that year. He rushed for three touchdowns and almost 200 yards, but it wasn’t enough. They lost by two on a last-second field goal.
His Mama hugged him at midfield after the game. Most of the boys on his team were crying. Cal wasn’t, though. Looked like he might, but he wasn’t.
“You ain’t got nothin’ to cry ‘bout, y’hear, baby? You done played as good as you could. Some things just ain’t meant to be.”
“I know it, Mama.”
And he did.