After the Game (Page 14)

“Yep.”

He shook his head. “I’ve got to straighten him out. I’ll call Mom. We can leave in a few.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

You Need Rattling

CHAPTER 16

BRADY

Ivy had decorated my locker and left brownies with icing on them inside. She was still acting like we were an item on game days. I didn’t want to say something to hurt her feelings, but she had to stop this. We didn’t talk the rest of the week. Her mom’s brownies were good and all, but they weren’t going to fix us. We’d never been right to begin with.

I ate two brownies and drank a large glass of milk before going upstairs to get my bag. Mom would have washed my uniform and packed things up for me to take to the bus. Tonight was important. Vitally. If we didn’t win this game, we were out.

The studying of game tapes and all the extra practice had made me feel ready. I thought the team was prepared. It wasn’t them that was weighing on my mind. Instead it was me. The center of the team. The quarterback. Who needed his head adjusted. I hadn’t been able to shake loose Riley’s visit the other night. It bothered me that she was hurt. That I had been the one to hurt her.

This wasn’t new. I was the nice guy. Not because I was labeled with it but because it was simply who I was. Sometimes I seriously hated it.

However, this Riley thing was different. I was worried about her more so than I’d ever worried about Ivy and her feelings. Ivy and I had been on again off again for almost two years, but I’d never felt as strongly for her as I did about Riley. The only reason that I could think of for this was the little girl. Riley had been handed a raw deal and made the best of it. I respected that.

My bag was sitting on my bed like expected, all packed up for me. Mom wasn’t home from work yet, but she’d be at the game along with my dad. They would bring Maggie, and it would be the normal Friday night. Except today, my head was not just on the game the way it always is.

Frustrated, I grabbed my bag and headed back downstairs. I had to deal with this now. We were supposed to be at the field house to load the bus in one hour. Before I went there, I was going to see Riley. If I didn’t talk to her and ease my mind, I wasn’t sure I could pull tonight off. The Panthers were also undefeated. We had a job on our hands, and I had to be 100 percent.

“You leaving already?” Maggie asked as I passed her bedroom door.

I paused and looked in the room. She was on her bed sitting with her legs crossed and a book open in her lap. The girl read more than anyone I knew.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“West went home to take a nap before y’all have to meet to leave.”

“I need to go do something,” I said, not giving her any more detail.

“Well, good luck tonight.”

“Thanks. I need it.”

She tilted her head to one side and her dark brown hair fell over one shoulder. “Never heard you say that before.”

Because I never felt that before. I had always been focused and confident. Not now.

“I’ve got a lot on my mind is all.”

“Riley Young,” Maggie replied. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, and started to walk off.

“You’ve been off since she threw the rock at the window the other night. You made the wrong decision, and it’s haunting you.”

This wasn’t something I wanted to discuss. I just needed to fix it. “You didn’t say anything to West, did you?”

She shook her head. “Not my information to tell.”

I really liked that about my cousin. She wasn’t a gossip. She kept to herself mostly. No drama or girly stuff to contend with. A lot like Riley, I guess.

“I’m working out what the right thing is. Not just for me but for everyone involved.” I wasn’t making sense, but that was all I was willing to say.

“I don’t know her. But I like her.”

“Why?” I asked, curious.

“No girl has ever rattled you like this. Not even Willa. Certainly not Ivy. You need rattling.”

No, I needed to be levelheaded and ready to win this game. “I disagree.”

Maggie picked her book back up like she was done with this conversation. Which was something I liked about her. She didn’t go on and on about a topic I was done discussing.

“I’ve found that the things that rattle us the most are the ones worth making sacrifices for.” She said this without looking up at me.

Damn. That struck a chord.

“Did you make sacrifices for West?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

This time she looked up from her book. “I spoke, Brady. I braved the sound of my own voice.”

The reason why that was a sacrifice didn’t need explaining. I understood. With a nod of my head, I left her there with her book. She had gained life again when she’d spoken to West. A large part of her that had been missing was filled with new reasons to be happy.

I didn’t think I was missing anything. I had great parents, I had good friends, and I was going to play football at an SEC college next year. My life couldn’t get much better. Before I picked up Riley and Bryony in my truck the other day, I didn’t question any of this. I knew I was solid. I was ready for my future.

Now I wondered if I was just living the easy life. Not facing challenges or really making a mark on anyone. Maggie had been West’s rock through a hell I never wanted to imagine. Even as broken as she was, she’d stood by him and become his center. She had done something with her life that meant more than just her happiness. She’d found happiness helping someone else.

Was I happy? This life I had . . . Did it make me happy? Did playing football and being the star at Lawton High really make me happy?

No. It didn’t. I wasn’t fulfilled.

I was empty. Pointless. I was a vessel to win games at my high school. Girls liked me, and I had my pick if I wanted them. My truck wasn’t new, but it was nice and had been given to me without my having to work for it. There was nothing worth mentioning I had done for anyone.

Tossing my bag into the passenger seat of my truck I decided that was over. I wasn’t focusing on Brady Higgens anymore. Someone needed me. She needed friendship, and she had come to me. F**k my friends getting mad. They all needed to wake up and realize that was two years ago and we’d all been wrong. I was worried about winning a championship and there was a single mom who I had once considered a friend reaching out. I wasn’t ignoring that. Not for a damn game.

You’ve Got a Championship to Win

CHAPTER 17

RILEY

There were painted car windows, blue flags with lions on them, and of course large signs in every yard except ours with LIONS #1. My house wasn’t worried about the game. We were the only ones in town without some Lions sign in their yard, and in the next town meeting they could possibly vote to run us out of town . . . again . . . because we’ve failed to be football obsessed.

Smiling at that thought, I shook my head. It wouldn’t happen, of course, but the way they all made over a football game you would think it was the presidential election. Bryony pointed at another car that passed us leaving town for the game. The painted windows and flags flying were fascinating to her. At least they were good for something.

The next vehicle that passed wasn’t a painted car. It was Brady Higgens’s truck. My chest tightened at the sight, and I began walking faster. Getting home wasn’t going to make the reminder of the other night go away, but I could at least get busy with making Bryony a snack and cleaning my closet or something. Anything not to remember the fool I’d made of myself.

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