Seconds Away Page 23

“Well, that special girl who stole my heart is lying in a hospital bed, clinging to life.”

Troy paused now and I wondered when he’d hired an acting coach. I rolled my eyes at one of the other guys in the bleachers, but he just glared at me.

They were buying it!

“Despite her condition, Rachel and I have, of course, been in touch.”

Huh? What a liar. Or . . . wait, hold up a sec . . .

“So I want you all to know. Rachel will pull through. She has promised me that. She has promised me that she will come back and put on her cheerleader uniform and cheer when Troy Taylor sinks his patented three-pointer . . .”

I wondered whether I had ever wanted to punch someone so badly in my entire life.

“So I want us all to keep Rachel in our thoughts. We are dedicating this season to her. All of our uniforms will have this on it.”

Troy pointed to the right side of his chest where the initials RC—Rachel Caldwell—had been sewn onto his practice jersey.

You have to be kidding me.

“And I want you to wear these initials with pride. I want you to think of Rachel, in that hospital bed, and I want that to make you play even better, even harder . . .” Troy started to bite his lips as though fighting back tears. Buck rose to comfort him, but Troy shook him off and pointed to the sky.

“Take care of my Rachel, Big Guy. Bring her back to me.”

There was a moment of silence—and then the guys sitting with me broke into thunderous applause. They start hooting and hollering and then they started up a “Troy! Troy! Troy!” chant. Troy actually raised his hand to acknowledge the ovation, like he’d just been introduced to present an Oscar. I sat there, thinking I might just vomit on the first day of tryouts.

Coach Grady blew his whistle. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said in a tone that maybe gave me hope he wasn’t buying it. “Everyone take five laps. Then JV to Gym Two and let’s start with layup drills.”

Chapter 19

There is plenty I don’t love about sports. I don’t love how athletes are worshipped because they can, say, hurl a sphere with greater velocity or jam a ball through a metallic hoop with more proficiency than most. I don’t love how important we make the games, comparing them to real battles and even wars. I don’t love how it is all anyone in towns like Kasselton talks about. I don’t love (hate, in fact) trash talk and excessive celebrating (as my father used to say, “Act like you’ve been there before”). I don’t like the way spectators scream at referees and whine about coaches. I don’t like the single-mindedness and selfishness that is inherent in all competitors, including me. And in a town like this, I don’t like all the babble about becoming a pro athlete when your odds are eight times better of falling and dying in your bathroom (true!).

But there is plenty I do love. I love sportsmanship, as corny as that sounds. I love shaking hands after the game and giving an opponent a knowing nod. I love sharing a great moment with my teammates, the joy in that singular connection. I love the sweat. I love making the effort, even if it doesn’t go my way. I love how you can be surrounded by a frenzy of activity—and yet still be completely alone. I love the sound of a ball dribbling off the gym floor. I love the escape you find only on a playing field. I love the purity of the game itself. I love the competition—and by that I mean “winning,” not “beating,” “besting,” or “belittling” your opponent, though I get how that can all get confused. I love the randomness of the breaks. I love how you really don’t know how that ball is going to bounce. And I love the honesty. I love the fact that even if your dad is your Little League coach and makes you pitcher or quarterback, eventually, if you don’t have the talent, that fact will win out.

My point?

It took a while. I was nervous at first. I missed more shots than I normally do. My new potential teammates froze me out at first, because I was the new kid, an interloper, and I had already made enemies with guys like Troy and Buck. But once we started to scrimmage, once we began to sprint up and down and shed our nervous energy, once I moved into that magical “zone” where the rest of the world disappears—that place I love like no other—I began to make passes and shots that drew gasps.

Coach Stashower, a younger English teacher, said nothing for a while, but about an hour into practice, I saw him go into Gym 1 and talk to Coach Grady. Coach Grady stood in the doorway and watched for a while, his arms folded. I upped my game. I made two straight three-pointers and then I drove hard to the hoop and dished off to one of my teammates, who made the easy layup. I grabbed rebounds. I shut down my man on defense. I focused on the game and for a while I even forgot that the varsity coach was watching me.

But I knew.

That was what I meant by the honesty of the game. On the court, you can run but you can’t hide. In that same vein, you can try to hold someone back but if he’s got the goods, he will eventually break free. Coach Grady might have wanted it neat and simple and expected. He had his returning seniors all ready to go. But sports in general never fits into the neat and simple and expected. If it did, we wouldn’t need to watch or even play, would we?

“Okay,” Coach Stashower shouted, “that’s it for today. Go shower up. Tryouts tomorrow are at five P.M. See you then.”

As we began to disperse, lots of the guys came over and congratulated me. They asked me questions about where I’d learned to play, where I was from, what classes I was taking. I know I said I loved the postgame handshake. I do. I like the respect you give an opponent or a teammate. But I don’t like the fact that because you happen to leap high or demonstrate above-average coordination that people suddenly want to be your friend.

But, hey, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the attention.

Some people might call that hypocritical. I would probably agree.

The JV was finished before the varsity, so I was able to shower and get dressed without running into Troy and Buck. As I calmed down, I start thinking back on Troy’s speech. Maybe, awful as this sounded, he was being somewhat legit. Maybe he and Rachel still had a relationship. They had dated, right? So maybe they had started up again. Maybe her brush with death had brought them back together.

I wished that the thought didn’t turn my stomach so much.

I dried off and let myself catch my breath for a second. When I checked my phone, my heart sped up all over again. There was a short text from Rachel: Hey

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