Sweet Dreams Are Made of This
Calvin taps my shoulder. I look up and take my headphones off my ears.
“How you holdin’ up?” he asks. “You ready?”
I’m shaking. It’s cold and raining and the first game of the season. I’m in my uniform - full padding and everything - which feels much heavier when wet. Goosebumps scatter up and down my bare arms. I’m sitting on the aluminum bench before warm-up. The metal is so cold it stings through my pants.
“I’m good,” I say, consciously lying. I’d heard in Psychology that if someone lies to themself enough, they start to believe the lie is the truth. Maybe it’ll work on me: if I tell myself I’m good, then maybe I’ll believe it and actually be okay. I rub my hands together, put them up to my mouth and puff hot air on them. My knee is bouncing on its own.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You’re gonna do great.”
It’s a Friday night game. Even though the sun technically hasn’t set, the sky is so dark with clouds that they have the stadium lights on. Kids are filing into the stands. More than usual, I would say. Probably here to watch the Freak make a fool of herself. That’s what they’re all waiting for - the moment when I screw up next. I’m a form of entertainment to them. They are spectators at the Colosseum, and I am the poor schmuck getting thrown into the ring with the lion.
“Thanks,” I say mechanically. I don’t look at him. I just stare at the glistening, emerald grass around my cleats. I inhale the cold, damp air deeply and slowly. Maybe that will stop my heart from racing.
The students’ footsteps thump and clang in the stands. Their laughter sets me on edge. It’s not going to be directed at me tonight. I won’t let it.
I spot the visiting team’s bus pull into the parking lot. Titans descend the steps, donned in sleek red and black battle armor. My stomach drops. They’re huge.
“Cal,” I say. I keep the fear out of my voice as best I can.
“Don’t let them tackle me,” I say.
“I’ll do my best,“′ he says. “But I can’t promise you that. You signed up for this. You know the risks involved.”
“I know,” I say, still staring at the colossi.
Tractor whacks my upper arm lightly. He’s standing - towering above me - coated in raindrops.
“I’ve got your back,” he says. “I’ll do my best to block them for you.”
“Thanks, man,” I say.
Joshua settles into the empty spot on the bench next to me. He props his elbow on my shoulder, as if I were his arm rest.
“Don’t worry, Stevie,” he says, grinning impishly. “Even if you totally mess up, and completely let the team down, and the entire school sees...well, I’ll still act like I know you,” he laughs.
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence,” I frown.
Calvin shakes his head. “Not helping,” he mouths. He doesn’t know I saw that.
“I mean, you’re gonna do great,” Josh corrects himself. He pats my back awkwardly. Cal shoots him a sly thumbs-up.
The rain picks up. Coach blows the whistle and we begin warm-up drills. The entire time, I catch one of the Goliaths on the opposing team eyeing me. My long ponytail gives me away. That and the boobs, probably. He looks at me like I’m a bug he can’t wait to squish.
Justin sees him, too. He passes behind me and mutters, “I see you’ve made a friend,” then shoots a glance over at the behemoth.
He and Calvin take their place at the 50-yard line with Coach, the zebra-striped refs, and the opposing team’s coach and captains. A coin is flipped. Justin calls it. He wins. We choose to receive the kickoff.
The usual formalities follow. Everyone stands and puts their hands over their hearts for the national anthem, which is sung by some obscure choir member. She acts like this is a nationally televised debut. I hate to break it to you, honey, but this ain’t the Super Bowl, and you’re no Whitney Houston.
“You should sing it sometime,” Cal whispers beneath her wailing.
“Yeah, right,” I scoff.
The song ends. We huddle up on the sidelines, rain like sweat pouring down our helmets. My mouth guard is attached to my face cage and hangs to the side. Coach stands in the middle and tells us the starting lineup. My jaw drops when I hear my name called. I don’t know whether to be honored or shit myself.
We put our arms in the middle, scream the Truman High Tigers chant, end with a guttural HOO-YAH!, and break. The crowd goes crazy. The guys thunk each other’s helmets.
No one thunks mine.
I walk, dazed, with the guys over to our positions. Being on the field is a very different experience than being in the stands. The stadium lights are overwhelming. The cheering fans are exhilarating. Adrenaline pulses through each vein. I feel like I could run a marathon or vomit - my body hasn’t made up its mind.
My body tenses, like a bullet waiting to be shot down the barrel of a gun. It’s the moment where the racehorse is trapped behind the gate but can’t wait to run. I’m ready. Let’s do this.
One of the refs blows the whistle, and the other team’s kicker launches the ball.
I see it flying through the raindrops, mentally map its trajectory, and take off, sprinting down the field. My arms pump, propelling myself forward. My cleats squish against the ground and spatter muddy water behind me. I’m booking it - It’s startling.
I blow past guys twice my size. When I realize the ball is dropping right in front of me, I shock myself. No way. This can’t be happening. This isn’t real. I’m dreaming.
I reach my arms out and easily catch the ball.
No. Fucking. Way.
The crowd goes crazy.
I just caught the kickoff.
Using my momentum, I make a wide arc and start running back the way I came, down the field towards the goal. I gain ten yards when -
Goliath tackles me. I hit the sloppy ground with a suctioning thwok. The Giant jumps up and chest-bumps his teammates. They sound a victory screech.
Cal, suddenly by my side, reaches a hand down.
“I’m fine,” I snap, pushing myself up. They can’t see me as weak.
My front is coated in mud. I join my team on the line of scrimmage, facing the opposition.
“Tractor,” I shout over the roar of the wind, rain, and crowd. He looks at me. I point to the Titan who tackled me. The one who kept eyeing me. “Keep him off me,” I command. He shoots me a thumbs-up. I put my mouth guard in.
The Titan doesn’t know what he just did. He just set me on fire. That’s the last time I’ll be tackled tonight.
Justin yells the play.
“Blue! Twenty-four! Kentucky! Chattanooga!”
I know what that means - and I can’t believe it. That’s my play. The one where I catch a long pass to the right. Justin is gonna pass to me. I can’t believe this.
He’s actually acknowledging that I’m good. Whoa. His love for winning must be greater than his hatred of me.
“Hike!” he shouts. The ball is snapped. I know where I’m going.
I zig-zag, dodging defenders as I advance down the field. Being small, skinny, and fast has its advantages after all.
Justin looks for the long pass to me. He throws.
I take off, high-tailing it towards the end zone. The defense comes at me on all sides, but I skid around them in the mud, leap over them when they dive to take out my feet.
Suddenly, Goliath comes out of nowhere. I can see him gaining on my periphery. But I’m almost to the end zone. Just a little farther, Stevie! You’re gonna make it -
“Touchdown!” the announcer booms over the loudspeaker. “Number forty-two, Stephanie Rogers!” Cowbells ring - an old tradition in our farm town - and Melissa, Kelsey, and the other cheerleaders have to cheer for me. It’s the sweetest thing I’ve tasted in years. The crowd goes nuts. I can’t help myself - I scream with ecstasy.
“WOO-HOO!” I shout, throwing my hands up. Calvin and Gunner run over and thunk my helmet.
“Atta girl!” Cal grins. My teammates are scattered around me, gaping.
“I told you I was good,” I mumble. Just no one believed me.
After the field goal is kicked in, the offense walks off the field. Justin brushes past me, catching my attention.
“Nice job,” he says in passing. Then he spits on the ground.
And that’s it. I know I’ll never get anything more than that out of him. But it’s enough.
It’s an acknowledgment that I do, in fact, have some form of worth, no matter how small, in his eyes. I did it. I fucking did it. I beam - joyful, radiant, unsuppressed - for the first time in probably years. I haven’t felt like this for so long, I’d forgotten what it feels like.
“WOOOO!” Joshua howls as he jogs past me onto the field to play defense. “Girl, whatever that was, you got it! Keep it up! OW-OW!”
My cheeks hurt. My heart is fit to burst. This is what I came here to do. And I did it. This is the turning point I’ve been waiting for. Try and hate me now.
By the time the game ends, I have racked up the most receiving yards out of anyone on the team. I scored another touchdown. And I can’t stop smiling. I don’t want this night to end.
I pack up my stuff off the sideline bench and head with Calvin to the parking lot, where he’s gonna drive me home. While we walk, Justin and his dad fall into step with us a little ways away. They, too, are heading to the parking lot.
Justin’s dad is - well, like Justin. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Tan. Graying hair. He drives a white convertible and is on his third marriage. His latest wife is maybe eight, ten years older than us. He plays golf, eats strictly meat, and wears Aviators even at night. Every shirt he owns is a v-neck that shows off a frock of graying chest hair. His mustache could rival Tom Selleck’s from his Magnum PI days. His voice is a booming baritone that carries with it the weight of a command, even if he’s just ordering chicken wings at Skinny’s.
“You could’ve done better,” he says to Justin. “You let that girl upstage you. Number forty-two.”
“I - I’m sorry,” Justin mumbles. “I didn’t think she - I just wanted to win, sir,” he says.
His attitude always changes when he’s around his dad. I noticed that even while we were dating. His dad enters the room, and he becomes a different person.
“You know, I’ve contacted scouts for you? And if any of them were in the stands today, their focus wouldn’t have been on you,” his dad says. He shakes his head.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Justin says again. His shoulders are drooping. Gone is his usual cockiness and big smile.
“Get to bed early,” his dad says, putting a hand around the back of Justin’s neck. “Because tomorrow we’re getting up at five to go running and then hit the weight room.”
“Aw, come on!” Justin protests. “I’ve got homework, I want to sleep in for once!”
His dad stops. Puts his large hands on Justin’s shoulders and pivots him so they’re standing face to face. Cal and I arrive at his truck. Cal gets in, but I stop.
“Do you want to play football?” his dad asks, his cold blue eyes boring into his son’s. “Because if you don’t want this bad enough, you can march over to your coach and hand in your uniform right now.”
Justin’s head drops.
“No, sir,” he mumbles.
“Excuse me?” his dad asks.
“No, sir!” Justin raises his voice and looks his dad in the eyes. His mouth is set in a firm, thin line. Emotionless. He always got like that around his dad.
“That’s my boy,” his dad says finally. He puts his hand on the back of Justin’s neck again and the two of them get in the convertible.
I get in Cal’s truck at last. I watch out the window as Justin and his dad drive away.
“Hey,” Cal murmurs. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, still staring out the window. “You know, I hate the guy, but I feel damn sorry for him.”
Cal turns the key in the ignition and pulls out of the parking lot. He says nothing.
My dad walked out on me and my family when I was only ten, but Justin’s the one I feel sorry for.