“That’s right, Crimson, forty pushups!” Doyle barked as I slumped down to the grass. “And I am going to stand here and watch you do them all.”
“Argh!” I whined, exerting all my strength through my scrawny arms to push my torso upward.
When my arms had accomplished the impossible, I let myself fall flat to the ground and rolled over to face the endless blue sky. I didn’t even care that the grass was unbearably itchy on my bare back, since I had decided to wear an aerobics bra to practice in hopes it would be more comfortable; I hadn’t realized that it would just attract more bugs.
The weekend had passed by much too quickly and it was Wednesday already. The school day had been fatiguingly uneventful. In art class, Brianna wasn’t talking to me, not even to insult me, but every time she came in, she would shoot me a dirty look, which I would gladly return.
Presently, Tianna walked over and sat down by me.
“You want some water?” she asked.
I sat up, took the bottle she offered me and drank three gulps, choking on the last one. Then I handed it back to her.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Doyle sure likes to pick on you,” she said. “What did you even do that she made you do pushups?”
“I was texting while she was talking,” I answered. “But she said we were going on break, so I just assumed it was safe to get out my phone.” I shook my head. “She’s just a bitch.”
We sat in peaceful silence, enjoying our few precious moments of R&R. When I checked my phone, it was 6:15, and practice wasn’t over until 8:00. Great, an hour and forty-five minutes left of hell…
Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I noticed heads turning, so mine instinctively followed. A horde of large teenage boys in tight blue pants and cleats, half of them in shirtless glory, followed Coach Mendoza onto our field.
“What’s going on here?” he shouted to Doyle. “This is our practice time.”
“No,” she said as if she was speaking to an ill-informed child. “This is our time. It’s always been our scheduled practice time.”
“Well, all I know is the superintendant told me that the only available times for the practice field were Mondays and Wednesdays,” the coach sneered.
“So, what then, we share?” Doyle scoffed.
“Looks that way to me,” he said.
She shook her head and muttered under her breath as she made her way across the grass to negotiate with him. A few minutes and strained words later, the two administrators went their separate ways. Doyle turned her microphone back on.
“Alright gang, we are taking the east half of the field and they are taking the west,” she said. “Sound good to everybody?” Saying that only made it clear that the idea didn’t sound good to her.
We gathered onto the east side, finished our break, then drudged back to our beginning marching positions.
“No, no, flutes,” she said after our third take. “You have to pivot on your heel. Don’t get sloppy. Let’s do it again, just the flutes this time.”
The six of us grunted and went back to our first positions. Wanting to make it so good that she couldn’t find anything wrong, I focused diligently on my footing as we started to march backward.
Suddenly something slammed into my back. I fell forward, just barely catching myself before my face met the ground. The heavy thing that had smacked into me slammed down beside me.
“Whoa!” a male voice said. “Crap, are you okay?”
He dropped the football and pulled me up by my upper arm. When I got my hair out of my face, I saw who it was.
“I’m so, so sorry,” Stephen Tucker said sincerely. “I had no idea you were so close. I was just trying to catch the ball and I wasn’t watching where I was going. Are you okay?” he asked again.
“I’ll let you know after I can breathe again,” I joked.
We both stood up, and I dusted myself off. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes glued to my bare stomach.
“Tucker!” the coach yelled. “Just apologize to the girl and get back over here! Does this look like happy hour at the Wildcat House to you?”
“Later,” Stephen whispered to me, smiling before running back to his team.
The other flutes and I drew back in to the edge of the field.
“That was good,” Doyle said, “aside from Crimson’s brush with death. Any broken bones?”
“If I say yes, can I be excused from practice?” I said slyly.
She scowled at me. “Alright, give me forty more pushups,” she ordered.
“Aw, come on!” I groaned, but I got down on my knees anyway.
When I woke up the next morning, my back was aching at one locus. As I puzzled at the pain, I vaguely remembered my run in with Stephen and realized it was a wonder that a small pain was all I had as a result of that encounter. Stephen was a pretty big guy, and at that velocity, I could have been road kill.
I lethargically slid out of my bed, threw on whatever clothing happened to be closest to me, then pulled up my favorite pair of black leather boots.
I went into the living room to sit and wait, and I decided that there was no way I was going to band practice this morning. I didn’t care what the repercussions were. I was not in the mood to march today, or to get yelled at by the Wicked Witch of the West Side.
So when Mom dropped me off at school, I just went straight to the cafeteria and fell asleep at the table to the sounds of my iPod. Some period of time later, the gentle comforting rub of small hands on my back brought me out of my stupor.
I lifted my head and, through the red curtain of hair that always managed to irritatingly fall in front of my face, I saw Reina sitting beside me. I turned off my iPod as she pushed a breakfast tray toward me.
“Oh, you got me breakfast?” I said, surprised but grateful.
“The line was about to close and I didn’t want you to miss breakfast,” she said.
“I’ll pay you back—” I started to say.
“No, don’t worry about it,” she insisted. “I like helping.” She smiled. Reina was always so helpful, so kind, maybe a little too kind sometimes. It’s a good thing we were such good friends to her, because someone like Reina begged to be taken advantage of.
I pulled the tray closer and started to eat.
When the first morning bell rang, everyone around me began to rustle and leave to their first period classes. But I didn’t make any motion to that effect; I just kept in my seat and continued to slowly eat my cereal.
“Crimson, didn’t you hear the bell?” Reina asked, throwing her backpack over her shoulder.
“I’m not going to band today,” I replied with a shrug.
“What are you going to do, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I mused, absently poking at a flake of cereal with my spoon. “I was thinking I could go hang out in the art class. The art teacher is so oblivious, I could probably get away with it.”
Reina stood there for a moment, apparently unsatisfied with my answer.
“Well, see you in math class, then,” she said finally, then turned for the exit.
I let the second and third morning bells ring before I dumped my tray and left the cafeteria. I started to walk toward the art room, but I passed it and turned at the corner heading toward the football field, which should be empty now.
I walked across the track and started climbing the bleachers, all the way to the top where the announcer’s box sat. The lock on the door was broken, and I was pretty sure that I was the only student who knew that. This was the best spot for ditching class.
Once inside, I sat up against the window and took out the first book in the Nicholae Albaric series. It was my favorite, and I’d read it so many times that the pages were worn and yellowed. I flipped to the page I had folded over to mark my place and started reading. I had last left off at the part where Nicholae turned William, a young British noble whose fiancée Madeline was murdered by her cousin for her fortune. William was at his wits end at the loss of his love, and Nicholae promised to help take vengeance against the cousin if William would choose eternity with him.
Suddenly the door to the announcer’s box opened. Abruptly afraid that maybe a school official had spotted me and come up here after me, I froze and stared at the intruder.
But to my utter shock, the figure standing in the doorway was none other than Stephen Tucker. His eyes were also locked on me, just as surprised to see me here as I was to see him.
I laughed with relief. “I thought you were a teacher.”
He smiled and sat in the other chair, dropping his bag next to mine.
“I didn’t know anyone else came up here,” he said.
“Yeah, me either,” I said. So much for being the only one who knew about the broken lock…
“It’s Crimson, right?” he asked for verification.
“Yeah, I know who you are,” I said.
“Sorry about yesterday, at practice,” he said. “You probably think I’m an idiot, running into you like that.”
“No, I get it,” I said with a laugh. “We were both just in the wrong place at the wrong time. No big deal.”
It was quiet after that, and I felt kind of awkward so I went back to reading.
“Aren’t you in my Art class?” he asked.
“And Physics,” I added.
“I thought I recognized you. You chewed out Brianna last week.”
“Yeah. She just has that kinda personality that makes you want to strangle her.” I had that fantasy as I said it.
“I know,” he said. “I used to go out with her.”
“Were you brain dead at the time?” I teased.
“Heh, I guess,” he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “What class are you ditching right now?”
I nodded. “Isn’t that an oxymoron? A jock ditching P.E.?”
“That depends on your definition of jock,” he replied. “Just because I play football doesn’t mean I want to spend all my time doing mindless physical activities. We aren’t all meat heads, you know.”
His response caught me off guard, and I found myself intrigued by his wit.
“So why are you ditching band?” he asked.
“My teacher’s the devil. Wait, no, saying that would be an insult to the devil.”
He laughed. “You’re pretty funny, you know that.”
“Yea, well, just as not all football players are meat heads, not all band kids are geeks,” I teased.
“Touché,” he said.
We talked inanely about school until the bell rang announcing the end of first period. We both stood up and grabbed our bags. He held the door open for me and we descended the bleachers together.
“So I guess I’ll see you in Physics,” he said. “Unless you’re planning on ditching that class, too.”
“No, I’ll be there,” I said. “I actually like science.”
“Alright, then.” He started to walk away, but then stopped and looked back. “You going to the game on Friday?”
“Now that’s school spirit.” He smiled, then continued on to his next class.
The rest of my classes flew by, except for math, which was a headachy blur of Greek symbols and terms like “limits” and “derivatives” that failed to make any sense to me.
I was relieved for lunchtime.
“Where did you end up spending first period?” Reina asked as we sat in our spot on the grass behind the auto shop.
“The announcer’s box on the bleachers,” I said. “And you’ll never guess who I ran into, who I literally keep running into.”
“Not Brianna, I hope,” she said.
“Yeah. We collided on the field yesterday at practice, and he came up to the box today and spent the period talking to me.”
“Don’t tell Robert that.”
“What are you guys talkin’ about?” Robert suddenly asked as he came to sit by us.
“Nothing,” we answered together.
We enjoyed the rest of lunch, then Robert and I left for Physics.
“Oh my God, Crimson, don’t look now, but I think Stephen is actually looking at you!” Robert whispered dramatically.
I looked across the room and Stephen smiled at me briefly before looking away.
“You lucky bitch, why did he smile at you!?” Robert whispered.
“Who knows…Pay attention, class is starting,” I said, trying to hide my own smile.
On Friday before the football game, I joined the unruly mob at the band room. At fifteen minutes past six, Doyle had the band get into uniform, then we left the band room to march to the football field. The bleachers on both sides were full to the brim, and those who could not be seated were standing behind the fence with hotdogs or plastic cups in their hands.
We filled up our section of the bleachers and waited for the football team to come onto the field. When they did, we all stood up to play the school song, and the entire audience began to cheer and roar for the team.
Then the game finally started. I never paid much attention to the games, so Tiana and I spent most of the game talking and laughing, and, of course, flirting with some of the trumpet players.
My all-time favorite activity at football games, though, was when the percussion would play their best cadence. They started to play “Wild Boys,” and Doyle let a few of the rowdiest of us go onto the track and dance around, all to take away the attention of the crowd from the cheerleaders. Tiana and I and a few others climbed down to the track and did our famous and hilarious indian tribal dance. The audience roared with laughter. But the cheerleaders, hating not to be the center of attention, did their most popular routine.
“Agh! Dammit,” I growled. I looked at Doyle and she was sneering at them, too. I wasn’t going to let them show us up.
I saw the Sun Devil, the Sunny Mountain school mascot, waving to some kids at the end of the track. I ran over to him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, give me a boost and I’ll give you a kiss,” I said flirtatiously.
He eagerly, acquiescently knelt down and let me climb up on his back. He ran us to the center of the track next to the cheerleaders and I smiled and waved widely to the crowd. They cheered for me, and I could hear the band howling and laughing. I rode on the mascot’s back as he ran from one side of the track to the other, waving and throwing my fists the whole time.
When finally he put me down, I kissed the furry cheek of his Sun Devil mask, rendering a collective, “Aww,” from the bleachers. He dramatically put one hand to his cheek and another to his chest. I ran back up to the bleachers and slapped the outstretched palms that were inclined to me.
“Good thinking, Crimson,” Ms. Doyle said appreciatively, then turned back to look at the field.
My jaw dropped and Tiana and I stared at each other.
“Did she actually just give you a compliment?” she asked.
“I think she did!” I exclaimed.
At half-time, it was time for us to go down on the field and perform our show for the first time in public. Contrary to my own expectations, I didn’t miss a single step, and the show was a big hit with the crowd.
“Well, the half-time show is over, so do you want to go get some grub?” I asked Tiana after we got off the field.
“Yes, I am so hungry!” she said.
We and some of the clarinet players walked across the other side of the bleachers and around the corner to the concession stand. The line was really long, so we’d be standing here for a while.
For the first time this whole game, I looked at the field at all the running and hurdling men and wondered which of them was Stephen. Was he any good at football? Which position did he play? Not like it really mattered, because I didn’t know a quarterback from a quarter-pounder with cheese.
My eyes wandered around me at all the different people standing about, at the group of girls squealing and waving to a certain player, at three men who were arguing loudly over some facet of the game, at the man leaning against the fence, staring at me…
Wait! My eyes locked on him, and all the hairs on the back of my neck stood alert. Something wasn’t right about him. He seemed simple enough, of average height, dressed in gray jeans and a thin gray shirt with his hands stuffed into the pockets at his waist. He had a square, attractive face with slight Asian features. But his eyes, shimmering like cat eyes, were staring—no—glaring at me.
I couldn’t stop looking at him, even though the discomfort of his glare was urging me to look away and pretend I didn’t notice. There was just something about him, something menacing.
“Crimson, come on, the line’s moving,” Tiana called.
I quickly skipped forward to close the gap my lack of attention had caused. When I looked back at the fence, that spot was empty. I looked all around but the man was nowhere in sight. He had completely vanished.
For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even as I bought myself a chilly-cheese hotdog and started devouring it.