It’s with me in my sleep.
The girl who has always owned my heart.
I struggle not to glance over at her now, to make sure she’s all right. I have a hard time concentrating at away games because I don’t like Jill being in unfamiliar—and often hostile—territory. And I can’t be in two places at once. If I had my pick, I would walk off the field right now and find a discreet but nearby place to stand and look out for her. But I don’t have a choice. Not really. Because what would that look like? The ugly, hulking linebacker stalking the sweet, gorgeous little cheer captain. I’d embarrass her. Hell, I’d embarrass myself.
It doesn’t help my mood that my teammates were talking about her in the locker room. Wondering out loud why the prettiest girl in school doesn’t have a homecoming date yet. They reached the conclusion I reached weeks ago—Jill is waiting for Miguel to ask her. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? The head cheerleader going to the dance with the quarterback.
The offensive lineman directly across from me blanches, the color leeching from his face and I realize I must look deranged, biting down on my mouthpiece hard enough to cut through the rubber, my fingers digging into the sod.
My coach and teammates think I’m ruthless by nature. I’m not.
I’m only on this team so I can keep an eye on Jill without being obvious.
But then I have these moments, these bursts of frustration and they translate into me making the all-county team three years running. It might be kind of funny if it wasn’t so tragic. The lineman mooning over the girl who is light years out of his fucking league, spending hours practicing and attending games, just so nobody tries to mess with her on the bus rides.
The ball gets snapped and I plow through their lineman, diving for the quarterback and wrapping an arm around his waist, dragging him down to the ground. Our cheering section is still huge at away games and they go crazy now, but all I hear is her voice.
Go, Zach! Oh my God! That’s his third sack!
They launch into a cheer and I chance a look over at the sidelines while we wait for the offense to finish their huddle. There she is. The girl who is a terrible singer, sleeps in a fluffy pink eye mask and dressed up as Judge Judy three Halloweens in a row. The girl who is kind to everyone, even the people who hate her on sight because they assume she’s a cliché. She’s not. She is goofy, she always supports an underdog and will pick up bugs and spiders with her bare hands. When my grandmother passed away, she came over and cooked for our family for two weeks. And she burned most of it, but I savored every bite. Damn, she’s so beautiful. My fucking heart can barely keep up with the beats required to be this close to her.
We win the game.
Afterward, I head for the bus, but I don’t see Jill. Not even in the group of cheerleaders. Her blonde hair tied up in its red, game night bow is nowhere to be found and I panic. Acid spears up into my chest and sounds are tinny, the ground seems to expand and contract under my feet. What if she wandered into the rival stands and they hurt her?
I throw my helmet down on the ground. Ignoring the questioning looks from my teammates, I dig through the pocket of my sweatshirt for my phone. Not wanting to freak her out or show my hand, I rarely call her unless it’s an emergency, but she should be here. She should be here and she’s not.
Her voice in my ear stops my pulse and restarts it. “Hey, Zach.”
I take several centering breaths and I still sound like I’m being strangled. She sounds okay. Doesn’t sound hurt. Calm down. “Where are you?”
“Oh, I hopped on the bus already.” My eyes tick to the row of windows. There she is, her giant bow peeking over the sill of the very last one. She pinkie waves at me. “Hi.”
Absently, I hear Miguel asking the group of cheerleaders if they’ve seen Jill and my hand squeezes around the phone until it creaks. He’s going to ask her to homecoming. I’ve seen it coming. But the closer the day gets, the harder it gets for me not to deck the motherfucker. And the worst part is, he’s a pretty nice guy. I’d even let my sister date him. But him with Jill? Agonizing. “Why are you on the bus early? Was someone bothering you?”
“No. No, not at all. I, um…wanted to finish up this podcast. It’s about the mating habits of the Atlantic walrus. Fascinating stuff.”