After the Game (Page 44)

The crowd was roaring with excitement, and I was immersed in the smell of popcorn and hot dogs. Tonight was more exciting than last week. This was it. The end and their chance to win the State title. I wanted that for all of them, but I really wanted it for Brady.

I kept scanning the crowd for his father. I knew he had told his father he didn’t want him there, but I was worried he may show up anyway. This was the biggest game in Brady’s life so far. I knew his father would want to be here. Not that he deserved to be here but that he would want to be.

“I’m watching for him too,” Maggie whispered in my ear. “If you spot him, tell me quietly and I’ll go handle it.”

I nodded. Neither of us wanted Coralee to know what we were talking about. She had been excited today. Talking about the game and how hard Brady and the boys had worked to get here.

I hadn’t realized they’d all been through so much. West had lost his dad at the first of the football season to cancer, Gunner had found out his father wasn’t his father but his brother and in turn lost most of his family, and Brady had caught his father in an affair. Three starting seniors who had grown up playing ball together and building dreams all faced something hard, yet here they stood, about to play for the state championship.

I wanted it for them. So did the rest of this crowd. Cowbells were being rung. Cheerleaders were already starting up, and banners were everywhere. I tried not to let it get to me when I saw signs in the crowd that said I LOVE HIGGENS, BRADY HIGGENS IS MY HERO, and the worst one yet: MARRY ME BRADY.

I figured this was just the beginning of all that. He’d be playing for an SEC crowd next year and the female adoration would increase. Yet today . . . he’d told me he loved me.

My heart fluttered in my chest at the memory, and I wanted that. I wanted Brady. What we could have. But winter was almost here. Soon spring would come, and then with its end he would graduate and things would change once again.

“I’m not sure my nerves can handle this,” Willa said, looking over at us nervously. “And to think two months ago I didn’t care a thing about football.”

Maggie laughed. “I know what you mean.”

The three of us had changed too. Each for different reasons. Maggie and Willa had also fallen in love, but they had plans. They would go to college with their boyfriends. Build their life together. They didn’t have a daughter that came first before anything else.

It made falling in love much more complicated for me. I had been trying to protect myself, and my heart had just gone on ahead and done what it pleased. But then, Brady Higgens was hard not to love. He made it just about impossible.

Coralee reached over and squeezed my hand. “He’s looking for you,” she said.

I turned my attention to the field and Brady was there staring up at us. I waved and he blew me a kiss before running to the field house with the rest of the team. Warm-ups were over. This would all be starting soon.

“I like you so much more than Ivy,” Maggie said. “I did like the brownies, but they did not make up for her endless pointless chatter about stupid things.”

Smiling, I wrapped my arms around myself as if to keep warm from the cold wind, when I was actually holding in the warmth that being accepted created inside me. I hadn’t expected acceptance here, yet I was getting it. All because Brady Higgens had chosen to believe me. He held a power that most didn’t have and he’d used his power for good. In my world, that made him a superhero. If this town had one, it would be Brady.

Not because he was a star quarterback but because his heart was big. He wasn’t perfect, and he had made mistakes, but at the end of the day if he had to make a choice, he tried his best to make the right one. Even if it hurt to do it. That was superhero status in my book.

“Not sure what he’d have done without you through all this,” Coralee said beside me, her voice laced with emotion. “For him to see what he did and deal with it through the toughest two games of his high school career seems impossible. Him having you has made the difference. You give him strength. I have seen it this week.”

I didn’t think I’d given him anything but an ear and some advice. Because I knew what having your world fall apart felt like. Brady was strong before I came along. But if I had any part in his making it through all this, then maybe I was a superhero too. Smiling, I reached for my soda and took a sip.

“Ivy seems to have a new interest,” Willa said, pointing to the field at the sign Ivy was holding up: GET US STATE, RYKER!

I wondered if Ryker knew he was next for her. Maybe he wanted to be. She was beautiful, and she was the head cheerleader. Ivy had always been the good girl and a little overly sweet. But if she was moving on, then I was happy for her.

“Anyone want a hot dog? The smell is getting to me,” Maggie said, standing up.

“I do,” Coralee said.

I did too. I stood up. “I’ll go with you.”

Willa shook her head. “No, thanks. Too nervous to eat.”

“Want another drink?” Maggie asked her.

“I’m good for now.”

We headed down the stairs and toward the concession stand. It seemed all very normal, like I belonged here. I guessed I did now. Actually I always had. Just because others hadn’t accepted me hadn’t made me less of a person.

“I know Brady has already said this, but thanks for this week. Your bringing Bryony to visit has helped Aunt Coralee.”

I wondered if anyone had asked Maggie how she was doing. “How have you been through all this?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s my uncle, but until I moved here I didn’t know him that well. I spent more time with Aunt Coralee than with him. Now I know why he was rarely home.” She winced. “I’m stronger than Brady because I’ve already lived through a nightmare.”

Oh God, Save Me from the Mushy S**t

CHAPTER 52

BRADY

It was over.

My high school football jersey had seen its last game.

The smell of the fresh-cut grass, the night air cooling my overheated skin.

Next to me, the guys I’d been playing ball with since I was a kid.

This was it. It’d ended, but it wasn’t like I had always imagined it would.

West and Gunner were at my side, the crowd’s cheering was loud enough to be heard for miles, and the victory we had always planned on was in our hands.

But I wouldn’t be celebrating with my father tonight, or any night.

He wouldn’t be there when I walked off this field. He wouldn’t share in the end of an era. We wouldn’t hug and he wouldn’t slap my back and tell me good game. We wouldn’t rejoice in the three touchdowns that had made us winners tonight.

He wasn’t even here. Because he’d made a choice to rip us apart. He wasn’t the man I’d thought he was. With tonight’s dream coming true, another one was dead.

I didn’t have a father to be proud of. I looked to West at my left and thought about how he felt right now. His dad would be thrilled. I knew he was wishing he could be here now. That he had been able to live to see this night.

Then I turned to Gunner, who had never really had a father. He had lived a life of the wealthy rich kid who no one gave any attention to. All along chasing his own dreams. We were all three fatherless now for different reasons, but through it we had become men.

“We did it,” West said as we watched the rest of the team jump all over one another and pour the Gatorade over Coach’s head in celebration. I always thought it would be the three of us doing that. It was the younger guys, though. The ones who had their own dreams to chase.