Say No to the Bro
The first thing I thought when my mother left was that now I was going to have to take over the cooking.
I remember standing in the driveway of our old house in Carbondale—old in every sense of the word, built in 1903 and now a relic of the life all four of us have left behind. I was wearing a pale yellow dress that flapped around my knees as the car that wasn’t Dad’s sped away with my mom in the passenger seat. I’d been shopping with her just two weeks ago for that dress and it was my first time wearing it, with my hair down and sans product, the way I knew she liked it best. I wanted to make her happy. I thought maybe if she saw me in the dress, a miracle would happen. Maybe she wouldn’t go.
At fifteen, there was no excuse for believing in miracles.
As the car pulled out of sight, I’d noticed the bite of the gravel against my bare feet and thought, I’d better learn some recipes. I’d changed into jeans and hung the dress in the back of my closet where I wouldn’t have to look at it. I’d gone online and ordered a book called Teens Cook, which looked fun and not too complicated.
I was being proactive, and I was proud of myself. I could do this. I could be the woman of the house.
But Dad surprised me. Dad is actually a decent cook.
It’s game night tonight, so we’re having his signature dish—spicy chili with extra onions. My mom used to complain about the onions every time, even though Dad, Sean, and I all love them. She wouldn’t have allowed devices at the table either, but Dad does, probably so he can review plays for tonight’s game. Patterson High has its season opener against Mount Pleasant, and Dad needs to start the year with a win.
Honestly, I could use a win too.
Dad looks up from his phone. “Sean? Go get dressed.”
My brother, who’s been shoveling down chili too fast to taste it, drops his spoon with a clatter. “Why do I have to dress out? There’s no JV game.”
“Didn’t your coach tell you to?”
“He said it was optional.”
“And I say it’s not. Part of being on a team is showing your support even when you’re not playing.”
“Dad . . .”
Dad folds his arms across his barrel chest. “Why don’t you want to?”
And Sean is stumped. I knew it. He doesn’t have a reason, he’s just doing that fourteen-year-old obstinate thing. I’ve seen him in his room, brushing imaginary lint off his jersey, spit-polishing the big white number seventy-seven until there isn’t a speck of dirt
on it. Watching him shuffle off to get changed, I kind of wish I had my own jersey to wear to the game tonight so I could stand behind the bench and cheer Dad on the way Sean can.
“Are you coming to the game, Ava?” Dad scoops a titanic amount of chili into his mouth. A little bit dribbles down his chin. “I bet all your new friends will be there.”
New friends. Right. Dad’s fishing. I know it, and he knows I know it. He wants to hear that I’m thrilled with Patterson, that I’m part of a big crowd of kids and we’re going to meet up at the game. “Maybe.”
“Yeah?” Dad looks encouraged, and I can’t help softening. He wants me to do well. This new coaching job means so much to him. He’s been talking about his playing days at Patterson since before I can remember. There are pictures of me as a baby wrapped up in a Patterson jersey, for God’s sake.
“Do you need a ride?” Dad asks, getting up to clear his plate.
“It’s okay.” If I ride in with Dad, he’ll be looking up into the stands all through warm-ups, waiting for my alleged friends to arrive. If I go on my own, I’ll be able to disappear into the crowd. I’ll call Charlotte for a ride. My cousin may not count as a friend, but she’s made a point of talking to me every day this week. Charlotte and I haven’t spent time around each other since we were little kids, so I’m thinking maybe her mom told her to look out for me and Sean in school or something. And I know she’s going, because she and her friend Elise were gossiping about the players all through Pre-Calc.
“Sean!” Dad bellows up the stairs.
“No minutes! Now!” He turns to me. “Get him out the door, will you?”
Dad goes out to the car. A minute later, Sean comes thundering down the stairs. He’s changed his pants and added an extra glob of gel to his shellacked hair. If I were a different kind of sister, I’d have the personal grooming talk with Sean. But the extent of my hair knowledge involves wetting it down before winding it into my customary two braids so loose ends don’t poke out the sides.
Sean pauses to grab a Gatorade out of the fridge. “Coming, Ave?”
“Dad’s really charged about all this, huh?”
“Yeah, seems like.”
“I mean, like . . . he’s like before. You know. Before Mom split.”
He’s right, but I don’t want to talk about her. “Sean, go get in the car. You’re gonna make Dad late.”
Sean rolls his eyes and leaves, and I’m alone in the cherrywood kitchen with high granite countertops that’s too fancy and doesn’t feel like it’s ours yet. The wood floors are varnished and shiny, and the rag rug I made in Girl Scouts in the fourth grade is in the upstairs hallway instead of in front of the sink where it always used to be.
I think my mom would probably love this kitchen. She likes new things.
• • •
Charlotte picks me up an hour later. An hour fashionably later, I guess. Her hair is curled and her nails are still wet. At intervals, she lifts her hand from the steering wheel to blow on them.
“Should I have dressed up?” I know the answer to that. It’s a football game, for God’s sake. How many of them have I been to? It’s got to be in the thousands. But maybe Patterson kids are different. Maybe they dress up for football.
Charlotte says, “Nah.”
“You look good.”
“Oh yeah, do you like this necklace? It’s my mom’s.”
Charlotte’s mom, my Aunt Claire, is ten years younger than Dad. She is pregnant in her wedding pictures, which Dad always shakes his head at, but she’s also still happily married. Plus she apparently has great accessories. “Yeah,” I tell Charlotte. “I love bronze.”
“It’s not bronze, it’s rose gold!”
“You’re wearing gold to the game?”
“There are going to be guys there, Ava.” She glances at me, side-eye. “But don’t worry. Guys are stupid about jewelry. They can’t tell if something’s cheap.”
Surreptitiously, I slide my Forever 21 bangles off and drop them in the passenger door pocket.
“I’m so glad you decided to come out!” Charlotte takes her eyes off the road to flash me a grin.
“Ava, it’s going to be great. I’ve always wanted a little sister.”
“Um. Thank you.”
“It’ll be like having a built-in best friend, don’t you think?”
She wrinkles her nose. “Do not call me that. I hate nicknames.”
“I guess you wouldn’t understand because your name kind of already is a nickname.” Charlotte pulls into the parking lot and I wonder what she thinks “Ava” is short for. Avery? Avagail?
• • •
Patterson has one of the nicest football stadiums I’ve seen at a high school, with state-of-the-art scoreboards and seating on all four sides of the field. The marching band is high-stepping across the AstroTurf as Charlotte and I take our seats.
“Look.” Charlotte grabs my arm and points. “Okay, that’s Laura Baretta. She’s head cheerleader.”
“Oh. Are you friends?”
“Yeah, kind of,” Charlotte says, with the airy no-big-deal tone of someone who could not possibly think it was a bigger deal. “I could have gotten onto the squad, but cheerleading’s a little passé, at least around here. I don’t know what it’s like in Carterdale.”
“My dad wanted me to be a cheerleader,” I confess.
“Really? Your dad? Why?”
“Because they’re involved with the team, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you try out?”
“Come on, Charlotte.”
“You know they wouldn’t have taken me.”
She’s quiet for a minute. “Ava, you’re not . . .”
I scuff my sneaker on the bleacher.
“You’re pretty.” She ducks her head to look me in the eyes. “A lot of people would kill for your hair.”
It’s my mom’s hair: big, bushy, unruly. The only thing it has in common with Dad’s and Sean’s is the color—auburn, where my mom’s was jet-black. I don’t want her hair to be the thing that makes me pretty. I wish Charlotte had mentioned my eyes, which are too big for my face and blue like Sean’s, or the stupid dimple in my chin that I actually like because it comes from Dad, or even my figure, even though that would have been a transparent lie because not one of the perky girls bouncing on the sidelines is over one hundred twenty pounds or wears a bra larger than a B cup.
“I’m too big,” I say to Charlotte.
She puts an arm around me. “You’re not that much bigger than me.”
She’s lying, obviously. Charlotte has the Vanguard genes I’ve always wanted, the tall, slim frame topped off with feather-soft hair. She looks more like my brother than I do, and she’s probably
thirty pounds lighter than I am. Still, it’s the thought that counts, right? “Thank you, Char.”
“Oh look! Here come the guys!”
Most football teams I’ve seen, when they take the field, have some kind of ritual to pump themselves up. They knock their helmets together, or they burst through a hand-painted sign made by the cheerleaders or the booster club. The Patterson team trots out like regimented soldiers. Dad’s really taking this seriously.
“That’s Cody Spencer,” Charlotte says. “He’s, like, the king of detention.”
“Really? What does he do?”
“Mostly talks back to teachers. But he always brings donuts when he gets detention, so everyone likes him. And that’s Brad Lennox. I totally want to go out with him this year.”
“The one by the cooler.”
“Oh. Yeah. Don’t you think he’s the cutest?”
“He’s pretty cute, I guess.” I’ve been watching high school football teams since I was four years old, so I’ve never thought of the players as potential dates. “Who’s the QB?”
“That stands for quarterback, right?”
“Mark Palmer.” She points him out. “I hear he’s pretty good.”
“You hear? Don’t you usually come to the football games?”
She gives me a look like I’m crazy. “Not, like, to watch them.”
“Right.” What was I thinking? “He is good. I saw them practicing during preseason.”
“Hmm.” She stands and waves, and two girls I don’t know come over and join us. Charlotte launches into a conversation with them without even introducing me.
Seems like disappearing into the crowd is going to be easier than I thought.
My head itches from sweating into my helmet. One of my thigh pads is twisted at an awkward angle from when I landed hard, and I haven’t fixed it because there’s no way to do that without literally reaching down my pants. My cleats, last year’s, are worn at the soles and don’t absorb shock well, so my ankles kind of hurt. But who cares about any of that? We won!
Cody takes a knee in the huddle beside me. He’s all out of breath, which is stupid because the long snapper isn’t even involved in most plays, and when he is, he’s not exactly sprinting downfield. My guess is he just came running over from the kick line that the cheerleaders have going.
“What a game!” he crows. “We killed them!”
I can’t help grinning.
“Settle down, boys,” says Coach Vanguard.
I think tonight proves Coach Vanguard is a more effective coach than Coach Weir was. Our summer practices were grueling as hell, so it’s nice to see that pay off. And I’m going to lead us this year. Things couldn’t be going better.
I know not everything was perfect tonight—the pass Deon dropped in the third quarter was mostly my fault, and I got sacked twice in the first half—but Coach won’t bring up those things until practice tomorrow. Tonight he’s congratulating us, pointing out who’s done well and the things the whole team is doing right. I should be paying more attention, but this stuff isn’t that important and I’m happy and tired and the JV kids are squirting each other with Gatorade. It’s hard to focus.
One of the freshmen aims his Gatorade bottle at a girl standing behind the bench. After a beat, I recognize them. The boy is Sean Vanguard, Coach’s son and a strong fullback for the JV line. He’ll probably play Varsity next year. The girl has been around a few times over the summer, usually to pick Sean up from practices. I think she might be his big sister. She’s got the same stance as Coach, one elbow awkwardly propped on the arm she’s wrapped around her waist, chin in her hand. She doesn’t look much like him though. She doesn’t look much like anyone. Huge eyes. Huge hair. Huge . . . anyway.
Cody elbows me in the ribs and jerks his head toward Coach. “Dude.”
Right. That’d be a fine conversation. Why weren’t you paying
attention to my postgame talk, Palmer? Oh, I was checking out your daughter, sir. Benched forever.
And I can’t get benched. Especially not this year.
Coach finishes up his talk and tells us to hit the showers. It’s a figure of speech. We do have showers in the locker room, but no one’s going to hit them when we can just go home and shower there, in private. Institutional showers are probably the only part of football I don’t love. I mean, I’ll do it if it’s early morning practice and I have classes to get to. But I won’t like it.
The team begins to disperse. The unified block of purple and gold uniforms is now peppering its way throughout the bleachers as people find their parents or girlfriends. It seems everyone has someone in the crowd supporting them tonight. My parents are here too, Dad in his Patterson sweater and Mom with the crepe booster club pom-poms she’s had since my freshman year. They never miss a game. They’d come to practices if I’d let them. I should go up to meet them by the bleachers, but Dad’s talking to a man in a suit who I don’t recognize. I know what that means, and I am so not in the mood.
The girl is still standing by the bench, alone now that the JV kids have gone to the locker room to pick up towels and water bottles. I do a quick perimeter check for Coach and don’t see him anywhere. Who am I to pass up a perfect opportunity? Besides, she looks like she could use someone to talk to. “Hey.”
She startles like a bird, like she didn’t notice me walking over. “Me?”
“Yeah. You’re new to Patterson, right?”
“How are you liking it?”
“Pretty good.” She fidgets, hands in the pockets of her hoodie, rocking from one foot to the other. She doesn’t make eye contact. This isn’t a girl who’s had a pretty good week. This girl is spooked as hell.
“So . . .” I fish for something to say. The silence is dragging and she isn’t helping. “Coach Vanguard is your dad, right?”
“Did he . . . he mentioned me?”
“No, I saw you picking up Sean a few times.”
“Oh.” She sounds strangely disappointed. Could she really have been hoping Coach had talked about her? The last thing I’d want is to find out my parents had been talking about me to my classmates.
“You’re the quarterback,” she says, finally making eye contact. “Right?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“You threw a sixty-yard pass in the second quarter.”
It was sixty-five, actually, and short of my personal best, but I don’t have the hubris to say so. “I have good receivers on the field.”
“But a good QB, that’s everything.” She’s animated now. “My dad always wanted a good QB. He used to say that if he could
just get someone who could place a ball where it needed to go, he could drive a team all the way to a championship.”
“God, I’d love a championship.”
“Right? Us too.”
I grin at her and she bites her lip and smiles, just a little.
“So, Sean’s Sister—”
“Mark Palmer. Are you a senior too?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Do you know where you’re going for college?”
She raises her eyebrows. “Do you really want to play that game?”
“You know. The twenty questions everyone asks about life after graduation. Where are you going for college? Do you have a major picked out?”
“Have you applied yet?”
“Have you been accepted?”
“Will you be working?”
“Will you have a car?”
“Are you still going to play ball?”
“Well.” She giggles. “I don’t get that one so much.”
“So what do you do? Any sports? Music? Theater?”
She starts to answer, but a voice cuts her off. “Hey Palmer !”
I turn. Cody’s slipped out of his shoulderpads so his jersey hangs loosely, like a large T-shirt. He’s also in street pants. “Go
change,” he calls as he covers the last few feet between us. “Caity Pierce is having a postgame thing.”
I look back at Ava. “Do you want to come to a party? It’ll just be a lot of seniors hanging out, no stress. Caity’s got a pool table.”
“It’s invite-only,” Cody says.
“She didn’t invite me,” I argue.
Cody rolls his eyes. “You’re the quarterback, dude. We’re the Varsity football team. Don’t be stupid.”
Ava’s backing away now. “I need to get back to my dad. He’ll be worried.”
“No problem. Maybe I’ll see you around school?”
“Yeah. Totally. See you.” And she’s off, dodging into the crowd as skillfully as an assassin, gone before I can track where she went.
“Dude,” says Cody.
“Dude, Wild Card.”
“No, man, come on. She’s new.”
“So leave her out of it.”
He folds his arms. “You like her.” It’s an indictment. Cody is out with different girls every weekend, but he’d never stoop to liking one of them. Especially a girl like Ava, a clear loner with no circle of gossipy friends for Cody to work his way through.
Anyway, it’s irrelevant. “I don’t like her. I’m just trying to be a decent guy. She shouldn’t have to go through the whole Prom Bowl thing on top of being the new kid.”
Cody rolls his eyes. “Sure, Mark. Whatever.”
“Just pick a different Wild Card, okay?”
“Whatever you say.”
“I’m serious, Cody.”
“Are you coming to Caity’s or not?”
“I have History homework.”
• • •
I don’t have History homework. Cody probably knows it, too, since we have the same History teacher. I just don’t want to spend all night dodging Amy Spicoli and watching my teammates chug beers.
I find Mom and Dad in the parking lot doing jigsaw puzzles on their phones. “Hey guys.”
Mom jumps up. “Mark, that was wonderful! You were wonderful!”
“Thanks Mom.” She’s so over-the-top sometimes.
“A couple of errors,” Dad says casually. “Nothing too major. Nothing that would be considered a deal breaker.”
I knew it. “What scouts did you talk to?”
“Notre Dame?” Mom chimes in.
“No Notre Dame yet.”
I toe off my cleats and stretch out flat on my back in the backseat. “I’m not going to Notre Dame, Mom.”
“Mark, it’s such a good school, you should at least—”
“It doesn’t matter what college you go to,” I interrupt. This fact has been drilled in by Dr. Cruz, our school guidance counselor and a close personal friend of Mom’s, who we’ve met with countless times to discuss my future.
“Mark, that’s an excuse for students who can’t get into top schools. You can.”
“It’s not an excuse. What matters is that you pick a place that’s right for you and work hard.”
“Dr. Cruz didn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue big opportunities,” Mom counters.
“Dr. Cruz meant I should focus on what I’m doing right now. Kicking ass—kicking butt, sorry Mom—on the field and in the classroom. Which is what got us here in the first place, remember?” God knows I’ve worked hard the past three years. I’m a student-athlete. I’ve gotten more scholarship offers than anyone else on the team. You’d think they could relax now, enjoy the fact that I’m going to be the first person in our family to attend college, and let me play some damn ball.
Dad seems to be thinking along the same lines. “Let’s not do this tonight.”
“He needs to stay focused on scholarships,” Mom says like I’m not there.
“Not tonight. He just won a game. Let this go.”
Thank you, Dad.
It’s true that I need a scholarship or the college thing isn’t
going to happen, and I know I need to keep the burners on this year to prove I’m not a slacker. But I’m not a slacker. I’m sure the scouts saw my hustle. God, I hate this. This is why Coach doesn’t give us notes until the next day. I should be able to enjoy the feeling of a victory without picking every little thing apart.
Football used to be fun, is the thing.
Now I’m just wondering whether the scout from Stanford noticed my long bomb, the one Ava mentioned.
At least I know somebody liked my game.