The Shadow of Perfection

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Summary

No one knows a sister like her sister, right? One silently suffers in her "perfect" sibling's shadow. But, what if one sister is not nearly as perfect as everyone thinks? Heather Prince has it all: High-school basketball star, college All-American, fiancé, brilliant smile, and a bright future. Hayley Prince, to observers, has it all: She should be honored as the basketball-playing younger sister of the awesome and infuriatingly-humble Heather Prince. What else does Hayley need, standing knee-deep in a classic sibling rivalry – quite a lot if she’s to emerge from the shadow of perfection? All things that glitter are not gold. Heather and Hayley discover their relationship, and how they’ve always thought of each other, is not as appears. A well-intended, ill-fated choice triggers an explosion that further fractures the sisters’ already-fragile relationship. It’s worse. A dark cloud hangs over the sisters, and so many people around them. Two murders hit too close to home. A mysterious, unhinged killer is on the loose – perhaps the one force that can truly bring the sisters together. What’s the cost? While relentlessly pursuing individual goals, and defining their true identities, Hayley and Heather risk it all to lure a cornered, desperate killer, poised to claim one more victim, into the open.

Genre:
Mystery / Drama
Author:
Sandy
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
14
Rating:
4.8 6 reviews
Age Rating:
16+

Chapter One

Newman County West High School’s halls were creepy on some weekends, empty of human activity, especially in the early-morning hours.

Silas Vernon, the old-man custodian who never missed a girls’ basketball game, offered Hayley access to the gym whenever she wanted, even weekends. Sure, the old man was creepy, but the offer was too good to pass up. Hayley heard that he offered the top girl athletes a spare key to the school – no guys, a few girls.

The long north hallway leading from the main entrance to the recently-renovated, three-thousand-seat gym, a corridor that felt longer and larger without students, teachers, staff, and resource police officers roaming about. Hayley used her key to unlock the gym before she stepped inside. Silas was off watching TV and eating pizza. He liked the TVs almost as much as he loved an escape from his family. Most of the interior lights were turned off. Windows welcomed limited light – enough so a person could walk around the gym without stumbling. The well-lit areas were up by the walking track used mostly by the older women who formed a walking club. Most of their activity was during the early-morning hours before they had to be at work.

Hayley paused, looked up, and locked her eyes on one of the dozens of banners hanging from the rafters – symbols of athletic successes. One banner stood out. The others were blurred to Hayley’s eyes. At some schools, her basketball jersey might hang up there – amongst the legends. It was wishful thinking at this school. The name on that banner was “Heather Prince.” Well, she was just “Heather” to most people – celebrity-like, in the tradition of one-named stars like Cher, Madonna, and Prince. Principals, teachers, and newspaper reporters bought into Heather’s celebrity status. Fans. That’s what they were: weirdo fans so obsessively fawning Hayley sometimes thought she was going to puke.

Heather? Well, she shrugged it off. She would.

“Oh, you know how people are, Hayley. People are going to talk. That is all it is: talk. People are always going to talk. That is all it is … talk. It is nothing anyone should worry about,” Heather would smile. Of course, Hayley was the one who had to look at that giant photo of Heather as the school’s first All-American.

Two years Hayley’s senior, Heather set the bar high.

Hayley was second to her sister among Newman County West’s girls’ basketball all-time leading scorers – by the end of her high school career.

Heather scored a record-setting 2,199 points. Four times she was named all-state, all-region, all-area, and pretty much all-everything. She was four times area player of the year, for the local newspaper, The Beacon. Hayley figured it was easier to list what Heather hadn’t accomplished than what she had. The Board of Education unanimously voted to retire Heather’s jersey number, thirty-two. Heather was the first female athlete to earn that honor. “Really,” Hayley thought – more than once – as rumors circulated. The board and several insanely-wealthy boosters kicked around ideas to honor Heather: renaming the high school gymnasium court, in her honor, or commissioning the construction of a statue that would be installed outside of the entrance to the high school nearest the gymnasium.

Taking off the backpack holding her shoes and basketball, Hayley groaned, “Seriously, though? How freaking far can this town take its love affair with Heather?”

“You’re doing it to yourself, again,” a familiar voice said, from across the empty gym. “I know it’s easier said than done, but I see it’s bothering you.”

“Always been that way. It probably always will,” Hayley said, not even turning around as she heard the familiar flip flops nearby.

Darcy Krause was the closest Hayley had to a friend in school or the neighborhood, for that matter. Talk about a straight arrow: Darcy was the classic straight-A student, she did not drink alcohol, and was easily one of the state’s best high school softball players – blasting home runs left and right. Darcy played basketball, too, but it wasn’t her best sport. Basketball was her favorite, secretly.

“You know what? You would be certifiably insane if it was not for me being in your life,” Darcy said as she walked up and smacked Hayley on the butt.

Her sanity foundation wasn’t as simple as Darcy. She was a part of Hayley’s sanity – if that was the most descriptive word. Who else was she going to talk to about whatever? It boiled down to Darcy – plain and simple.

“Well, you’re assuming that I have a degree of sanity,” Hayley said, avoiding eye contact as her eyes locked on that banner.

“Oh, I know you do.”

“I appreciate your faith in me,” Hayley smiled – a bit of a forced smile.

“So, can we focus on getting some shots up?” Darcy said as she sat on the floor, kicked off her flip flops, and pulled out her socks and shoes.

“That’s what I need,” Hayley said as she sat down next to Darcy and started to put on her socks and shoes. “This, here, is my escape. It always has been. Maybe it always will be.”

######

College life would supposedly present new challenges: academics, of course; socially, sure; and, basketball, yeah, that, too. Change was constant; dad used to tell her. In other words, she was supposed to get used to it and adjust, accordingly.

Other than basketball, high school mostly sucked. Hayley hated most of it, mainly the academic part. The only English she cared about was in a newspaper’s sports section. The only math that motivated her was basketball stats. The only chemistry that mattered is what takes place within the team. The rest of it was mostly pointless, too. Even some basketball stats bored her, well, except one – when she started to approach two thousand points scored during her high school career. It was one of those significant milestones that people celebrated.

Basketball was no worry. Hayley had been playing ball forever. Playing in college was simply basketball on a different level – a higher level. It wasn’t as if people were hyping her up – certainly not to the level they did for Heather. A recruiter once said, “You’ve had the quietest, most low-key, great career, ever.” The man, probably in his fifties, continued, “With your skill set, you should honestly be a household name in this state, young lady.” Hayley figured he intended a compliment in there, somewhere. Maybe the old dude was right.

Hayley picked up all the usual accolades: all-district, all-region, and all-state. She was named area player of the year by The Beacon, Marshalltown Springs’ local newspaper.

That was high school, though.

These college classes. It was enough to leave Hayley ready to puke her guts out. Dad and mom, Larry and Alaina, went above and beyond to stress her out about the toughness of classes she had registered to take.

Socially smart? Check.

Book smart? Sort of – when she wanted to be.

Yeah. The book-smart part was a work in progress.

Parent-teacher conferences centered on Hayley’s attitude more than her intelligence. Besides, Hayley figured most people saw her as a low-budget version of Heather. Her grades were above average, but hardly elite – not up to Heather’s standard. One teacher said, “Hayley’s grades are good, but could be significantly better.” It was like fingernails on a chalkboard for mom and dad, who measured Hayley’s accomplishments against Heathers. “Holy high standards,” Hayley once mumbled under her breath.

Heather, once, brought home a grade lower than an “A” on a report card. It was a “B” in a math class. She wasn’t even pissed off. Heather protested, politely, offered evidence to support her case the grade had been improperly calculated. Heather successfully appealed – the “B” turned into an “A” grade.

######

Mom and dad were life planners for their daughters. Heather was fast-tracked – consistently exceeding their highest expectations. Their blueprints for success included everything, including boyfriend types. Heather never protested – at least not as far as Hayley could remember. Hayley wanted to scream.

“She has been difficult since the day she was born … before she was born, when I was carrying her,” mom once said to dad during pillow talk. Hayley knew they understood their youngest daughter. Unbeknownst to them, Hayley could hear their conversations through the vent – when their vent was left open. Mom and dad knew their daughter hated to be bossed around, hated to have other people making decisions for them – despite their positive intent. Dad once joked that if Hayley had a nickname, “Rebel” would fit her like a perfect glove. College was the ideal location for Hayley to embrace her inner rebel – an inner rebel ready to be released.

######

Solon State University was nestled in the fields and woods of northern Michigan. It was Hayley’s first choice. Academically, Solon’s reputation was solid, but not elite – meeting the expectations of mom and dad, barely. Hayley didn’t want to admit as much, but her choice of Solon State was based on basketball – pure and simple, for her. The recruiting pitch continued to ring in her ear, “You were meant to be part of something special we’re building … team, family, tradition. That’s what we’re building, and you’re going to be one of our cornerstones. You’re tailor-made for us.” During her visit, Hayley remembered a quote that was painted on a wall in the locker room. It read: “The champion builds something great, makes no excuses in the face of great challenge, and wins with humility and respect.”

######

Hayley wrapped up her day’s final class – one of those seminar courses designed to help first-year students transition, successfully, to college life.

Thankfully, the professor never picked her to answer questions or otherwise speak in class. Hayley was thankful. No matter how convinced she had been, that she had the right answer, something always convinced her she was wrong. Besides, basketball was her focus – to the point she suffered through one of her worst-ever nights of sleep. Hayley figured she experienced maybe four or five hours of decent sleep. That estimation was probably overly generous. Hayley completed her homework – a basic reading assignment that required a short-essay answer.

Thankfully, her professor loved the female athletes – particularly those who played basketball and volleyball. Hayley learned that, among the female athletes, his love was more like an obsession. At the drop of a hat, this man could rattle off no shortage of statistics of the star players. He was indeed a human encyclopedia of Solon State sports information.

Hayley expected him to kick off the class with a long, in-depth conversation related to the evening’s non-conference game against Arden College – a school Hayley knew next to nothing about, for now.

As class ended, before the professor could finish the sentence, Hayley was on her feet and on her way toward the door – after she shot back a smile at him.

Hayley never broke stride on her way to the Southwest Commons Dining Center, for an early lunch. The cafeteria would be far less crowded. Not that it would matter, much, since she would be glued to her smartphone. Hayley opted for a basic lettuce-and-tomato salad with a few splashes of a hearty Italian dressing. Her nerves would not allow her preferred option: ranch dressing. She was not about to pass on the seasoned croutons she loved so much. She mostly picked through her salad, however. Hayley spent most of her time on the phone – hopeful keeping busy would take her mind off her nerves before she headed to O’Connor Fieldhouse.

The walk, from the dining center to the fieldhouse, was easy walking distance for Hayley. Besides, she was excited about fresh air – hopeful that would leave her feeling a little better.

Stepping inside the empty arena, with the lights turned off, Hayley closed her eyes and imagined what it was going to be like when the game started.

Hayley headed to the locker room and punched in the code on the keyless entry to gain access. The locker room was silent. A person could be in the locker room and hear next to nothing happening in the arena. The arena and locker room were empty – a perfect source of solitude. Hayley loved an empty locker room.

Hayley approached her stall and dropped her large Solon State University duffel bag in front of it. Each stall had the name and uniform number of the corresponding player. No matter how many times Hayley entered the locker room, she could never help herself. She had to look at it, stare at it. This was so different from the way it had been during her high school days. No one had an assigned locker. You looked for an open locker, and most people elected not to leave their belongings inside even a locked locker. Rumor had it some people had sticky fingers. Maybe it was a custodian; perhaps it was another athlete, or some coach looking for something.

Jill Burgess, one of the younger college head coaches around, entered the locker room. She was flanked by her assistant coaches: Devin Gordon and Maria DeAngelo. Devin always walked in, last, in case a woman was in the locker room – and, quite possibly, not fully dressed. The coaches arrived early for everything – film sessions, meetings, practices, and games. By now, they had grown accustomed to Hayley hanging out in the locker room. Hayley was initially oblivious to the presence of the coaches. Looking up, at the coaches, Hayley halfway smiled.

“How are you?” Burgess asked with her unmistakable deep voice. Behind her back, the players referred to it as a “man voice.” Burgess didn’t need to know that, however. “I see you are doing your usual thing in here.”

Hayley smiled and hoped she did not puke up her meager lunch. The right music sometimes soothed her, relaxed her stomach, a bit. Had she eaten a cheeseburger and fries, something along those lines, she would have already puked it up. It sounded good. Maybe it would have gone down well. It might not have come up, well — no way she wanted to suffer through something along those lines.

“You know … I’ve had my eyes on you, and the work you’ve been putting in to prepare yourself. At times, you’ve looked on the verge of a panic attack,” Burgess said. “Are you feeling OK? I want to check up on my point guard.”

“I’m doing pretty well, coach. I’m feeling a little better, I guess, from what I was feeling, earlier,” Hayley said. That was a bit of a lie, but it made sense, at the time. She wondered if the coach was savvy enough to pick up on what was a rather obvious lie. “Well, I guess I’ve got nerves. I’m sure I’ll be OK once the game starts.”

Burgess did not react, initially, but eventually winked. Interesting, Hayley thought. She was sure the coach saw right through her.

“I’m glad to hear you’re doing well, kid. Nerves are part of it. Don’t feel like you’re so different from others. Honestly, it means you’re a human being,” the coach said. “Look, I know you can’t wait to get out there, but when you do get out there don’t let yourself get caught up in the emotion. Play your game and let your teammates play the way they can play. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready. I think I got most of my nerves out this morning in my dorm room … in my bathroom,” Hayley said.

Burgess nodded.

“Those nerves are kicking in, huh?” the coach asked. “Keep your focus, through it all; you’ll be fine. Figure out your routine, figure out what’s going to help you get into the proper game mindset. It can take some time, but you’ll find a way to get into your comfort zone, your zone.”

“I can’t lie,” Hayley smiled. “I’ve tried everything. But, as you said, I’m sure I’m going to figure something out. It probably is the right type of music.”

“Relax and focus on doing what you do … play good basketball, and don’t try to be a hero,” Burgess said. “In time, you’ll find what works best for you to cope with your anxiety. I’ve known many people who deal with anxiety, like this. I went through it, a little when I was a player. No one ever knew what I was dealing with. It was a big secret – a secret few people ever knew about.”

“I hope so. I’m excited to play,” Hayley said as she continued to become a believer. “I can’t believe I’m about to play in my first college game.”

“Good. You should be excited … about this game and your future,” Burgess said. “I have no doubt you’ll be fine, Hayley. You’re here for a reason, young lady. It’s why we brought you here. We all have great confidence in you.”

Hayley maintained eye contact as she nodded and smiled.

“I’m glad to be here, to be recruited by Solon State,” she said. “This is home for me. This has become my home, and the team has become my family.”

“As it should. You belong. Never let anyone tell you anything different. Make sure you have your mind right. Be focused, and you will achieve the success you deserve. Now, you need to go out and earn success. You get what you deserve,” Burgess said. “You’ve got this, Hayley. Play your game and take care of business.”

“I will, coach. Thanks,” Hayley said before Burgess tapped her starting point guard on the back, and politely excused herself.

Hayley fixed her hair in a neat bun – as she had done so many times in the hours or minutes before a game. She considered wearing makeup but opted against it. Some of the girls, in high school, wore makeup. Some wore far too much. Most of the girls wore makeup for the guys who were watching. That was only part of it, however. The other part of it was an obsession with tanning. Hayley kept makeup to a minimum, but tanning was different. A nice tan was a small boost that she coveted. She didn’t mind being white – maybe not too white. The tan did one thing, however. It gave her more of a Heather-like appearance.

Hanging inside her locker was a brand-new uniform – the white tank top and white shorts. The equipment manager, a quiet guy who was quiet around the women athletes, took great care of the uniforms. With these uniforms, however, he didn’t have to work too hard to care for the uniforms, yet. These were new. The only time the girls had worn them was during a team photo shoot with the university photographer.

“Sweet … so sweet,” Hayley whispered to herself as she could not take her eyes off the jersey.

It was real, now.

All players were supposed to arrive in the locker room a minimum of ninety minutes before the start of a home. On the road, it didn’t matter – they were together all the time, anyway. Home or away, Hayley never worried much. She was always well ahead of the minimum arrival time. Hayley could hear sounds from across the arena as she picked up a basketball from the rack, squeezed it, and took a deep breath.

Dad told Hayley and Heather “There’s no sense in pre-panicking. Wait until you have a reason to panic, first. If you’ve learned and done things the right way, you’ll know what to do. You’ll be fine. You’ll be ready for the challenges you face.”

The freshmen were not a tight-knit group. By the start of the season, Hayley knew they had her back, and she had their back: Lucy Lohan and Shannon Hill. The trio grew into best friends before their decisions to play ball together became official. Their bond had been forged at a summer basketball camp a few years back. The competition brought the group together rather than drive them apart. Social media kept them connected during the time between face-to-face time together, during the summer, and the start of the school year. Many of them first made contact as each one signed their national letter of intent, making their scholarships official.

Hayley had generally been oblivious to the size of the crowd, and mostly oblivious to what they were doing and saying. Maybe it would be different, now, in college. Perhaps some of the other stuff would matter. Burgess mentioned, once, drawing more massive crowds to their games was a work in progress. “Most kids, on campus, have little clue as to even the location of the basketball arena … let alone the knowledge to name even one of our players. It’s on us to make sure they know about us,” she added, “For now, our motivation needs to come within. It always should, anyway, but it will great when we have crowds behind us.”

Hayley couldn’t believe it.

Her heart rate slowed to normal.

Her stomach, previously twisted in knots, calmed.

Maybe she wasn’t going to puke her guts out. Burgess had been correct.

“Time to seize the moment,” Hayley whispered to herself as she dribbled hard into an open lane. Two defenders stepped forward to cut her off her path to the basket. Hayley passed the ball to Shannon, who scored on an easy layup.

Hayley’s first assist was in the books.

She hadn’t puked, turned the ball over, or shot an airball.

That was a first small victory – a good omen.

Hayley had gone over the scouting report enough to know the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of her counterpart – Arden College’s Rhonda Price. Hayley also watched a YouTube game video to learn more. Hayley had been no basketball coach, maybe she would be someday, but she picked up a few things.

“You’ve got to be nervous, Price,” Hayley said, softly, as she moved closer – close enough to be heard without a loud voice. “It’s a matter of time before I rip that basketball from you. It’s a matter of time, Price.”

Price’s head snapped over, and her eyes locked onto Hayley’s eyes. It worked – even if it was a bit early to start. Price passed the basketball but got it back as the shot clock ticked down. In the blink of an eye, Hayley poked the ball free with her right hand. In one motion, she scooped up the ball, dribbled down the floor, and scored on an uncontested layup.

Hayley was quickly falling in love with college basketball.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” Hayley said clapping her hands, loudly, as she moved back down the court. It was like old times – like back in her hometown, Marshalltown, and playing ball at Newman County West. In those days, Hayley and her teammates beat the crap out of many opponents. Most times, they were hardly challenged until the district tournament started. Moreover, even then, the competition was sometimes not too stiff.

“TOO EASY!” Hayley sneered as she could practically smell the proverbial blood in the water, not to mention Price’s fear. “No way you can guard me, girl. ... You’re a fatty. You should be on a treadmill running off cheeseburgers and pizzas. Guys like thick girls, but not on the basketball court. Get your ass on a treadmill. Get your ass on an exercise bike – before it’s too late.”

Hayley bumped Price and fired a sharp elbow into her ribs. Price doubled over and grimaced. None of the officials, apparently, had seen anything. Hayley won that part of the battle – not getting caught. She lost the other part of the battle – inflicting significant damage. Maybe Price was tougher than Hayley had considered. “If at first, you don’t succeed, you try and try, again,” Hayley thought to herself as Price appeared to have fully recovered – physically, at least. This was no time to be reckless, but Hayley figured her time would come.

“Tell your coach to take you out. You’re freaking horrible,” Hayley growled – low enough the officials could not hear, but loud enough for the message to get through to Rhonda Price.

The message was received. Price sneered as she rolled her eyes.

“Seriously,” Hayley said as she rolled her eyes and looked away. “You’re terrible. You should quit, pick another sport, get a hobby … something outside of basketball. Maybe you should play intramural basketball ... you might be a star, there, maybe. Your spot is better off with someone who can play ball.”

Price didn’t even look in Hayley’s direction. Hayley wondered, briefly, if Price was deaf or had a hearing problem of some kind. If this Price chick was rattled, she was doing one hell of a job of hiding it.

The bait was set. Price, savvy perhaps, hadn’t taken it.

The game clock showed two minutes remained before the clock would read 0:00, and game one would be in the books.

Hayley hadn’t rattled Price, much. That was hardly due to any lack of effort on Hayley’s part. Price’s body language remained unflinchingly neutral – as if she was studying in a campus library.

Price’s physical defensive game plan included heavy use of her hands. Ugh. Hayley hated defenders like this – aggressive hand-checkers. With some of these defenders, their hand checking bordered on molestation. The tactic was familiar enough Hayley figured she should have grown accustomed to it. She hadn’t become accustomed to it – far from it. Defenders used the same tactic in high school. It had to be something opponents shoved in the scouting report. That’s what it was. They wanted to push Hayley enough to piss her off, get her off her game.

“GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY BUTT … YOU FREAK,” Hayley barked loud enough for most of the players on the court to hear.

“Shut up, little freshman,” Price finally snapped back. Hayley, had she not wanted to slap Price across the face, might have smiled. “You run your mouth a lot for a girl who hasn’t done anything. Maybe you should accomplish something, first, before you start running your mouth.”

“Don’t talk to me, fatty,” Hayley said as she passed the ball to a teammate and jumped into Price’s larger-than-advertised chest. “You’re not good enough.”

“Go away, little freshman,” Price rolled her eyes as she started to turn away. “Come back when you’ve proven something, anything.”

“I’m in your head and staying there, fatty,” Hayley said. “When you go to sleep, I’ll be in your head reminding you of all this. I promise that.”

“Enough,” said one of the referees, an older woman who appeared to be in her fifties – probably late fifties. “Knock it off, ladies. Play ball, and quit all this talking. If you want to keep talking go join a debate team, something else.”

Hayley turned away and rolled her eyes before she paused. She checked the other officials. As best she could tell, none of them were looking in her direction. The timing was perfect. Hayley shoved Price, who turned back, with her hands out and her palms up. “Really?” Price said. Arden’s coaches exploded off the bench as if shot out of cannons. They all wanted the same thing – a technical foul, maybe an ejection. They wanted something but got nothing.

“You’re freaking horrible ... you should give it up,” Hayley said – ventriloquist-like, as she looked in a different direction. “You can call me the warden, baby, because I’ve got you locked up and under control.”

“Grow up,” Price responded. “No matter how good you think you are, you’ll never be good as your sister. She’s the one with real game and class. She’s older, better, and smarter than you’ll ever be – a lifetime better than you’ll ever be, little sister. You’ll always be the little sister. Remember that, Hayley.”

Hayley tensed up, her fists clenched.

Those words were fighting words.

Price clutched the basketball. Hayley took a defensive stance.

The arena went silent, or so it seemed.

Hayley was sure she and Price were on stage – together and alone.

Price attempted a few fakes to shake Hayley off balance. Patience was the name of the game, for her.

It worked.

Price elevated for a jump shot.

Hayley recovered in time, slapped at the basketball, hit it clean, and watched as it caromed off Price’s head and flew out of bounds.

“Off her fat head. Our ball,” Hayley scowled as she pumped her fist and walked away. “YEAH.”

As for the final score – not even close.

Hayley and her teammates finished as a winner by twenty points. It was not even that close. Burgess screamed, almost nonstop, as the subs played poorly with a series of sloppy turnovers. Her screaming was somewhere between aggressive coaching and unhinged frustration.

Hayley, for her part, ended the game with seventeen points and eight assists. Running totals were in her head, throughout the game, despite her best efforts not to think about anything other than playing well and leading the team to victory.

Burgess didn’t harp as much on the team’s high-turnover total – likely because a large number occurred late in the game when the outcome was all but assured. Coach didn’t shy away from her turnover gripes but seemed to put it in some context – as a teachable moment for some of the lesser-experienced, lesser-talented freshmen who figured to have their playing time limited. What did Burgess expect, Hayley wondered – a bunch of Division I-caliber players.

This warm shower was as close to a massage as she was going to experience, on this night. Hayley was in no hurry to leave the shower’s comfort. That warm water soothed her sore muscles. Not that Hayley was closely watching, but most of her teammates had showered and exited the locker room area. Some of the parents had set up a food buffet near the entrance to the locker room – away from the high-traffic area. Hayley figured that most of the players wanted to be first to the buffet line or quicker to their time with families and friends. Hayley was hungry but thought she would enjoy the extra shower time, and still have an opportunity to eat well.

Fresh from the shower, Hayley grabbed ice-cold bottled water after she’d dressed, packed up her bag, and put her uniform items in the laundry bag for the equipment staff to manage. Hayley snacked mostly on veggies before she decided to munch on a quality batch of cheesy potatoes – one of her favorites. She made small talk with some parents who watched over the food and beverages. A few of the parents were chatty – far from unexpected. Hayley would have been shocked had the parents not wanted to engage her in conversation about the game.

A few steps from the buffet area, Hayley spotted a young woman walking in her direction. Hayley studied everything about the young woman she could see. It was a bit of a guess, but Hayley figured the woman was in her early-to-mid-twenties. She was a pretty girl – tall, skinny, curly blonde hair, and what looked like big boobs. Damn it. She did look good. Hayley looked over the approaching woman’s right shoulder. Behind her, Hayley could see that Burgess had an audience around her – a group of reporters.

Hayley was cornered. No way she could escape from the ongoing encounter, and not make it look painfully obvious. This woman was a newspaper reporter. Hayley figured she had likely broken away from the group. Hayley’s body tensed up, and her mouth fell dry as the woman made eye contact almost to the point of discomfort.

Burgess laughed and joked with reporters as they fired what appeared, from a distance, to be mostly easy questions. Hayley guessed as much based on the smile. Burgess paused her impromptu press conference and encouraged Hayley. She teased Hayley about having made an early statement for conference freshman of the year honors. Awkward. Hayley had no idea how to respond. It was a joke, probably. Verbally, she figured it was best she kept her mouth shut. Here goes nothing. Hayley smiled, shook her head, and shrugged it off. This had to be a test of some kind.

“Don’t worry, coach, my head’s the same size,” Hayley smiled and winked as she changed her mind and opted for a slice of pizza from a nearby table of food set up by parents outside of the locker room. Hayley reached for a slice of pizza as the woman made a move toward her. The woman held her phone up as if she was going to record something. The reporter also carried a notebook with a pen. She had newspaper reporter written all over her.

“Excuse me …,” the reporter spoke up with a loud voice and an ear-to-ear smile Hayley had to admit was pretty. Her voice was loud, deeper than what would be expected from a woman, a woman of her slim size. Her picture-perfect white teeth were well cared for – as if her family had dropped a small fortune on specialized care for her dental work. “Hayley Prince?”

“Hi. That’s me,” Hayley said as she wondered whether she should continue to eat, and risk that she would come across as a pig. Maybe a guy could get away with it. Hayley doubted a woman could get away with it in the same way. This was not worth the risk. “So, what can I do for you?” Maybe her tone had been a bit too casual. She could not take it back, at this point.

The woman extended her right hand, and Hayley shook it with her right hand. Times like this fueled Hayley’s self-consciousness of her unusually-large hand size. Her hand swallowed the woman reporter’s hand. The young woman’s handshake, even with her smaller hands, was firm.

“Hi, Hayley. My name’s Amber Watts. I’m a reporter, from The Herald, and I was wondering if you have some time right now to answer a few questions. So, does that sound OK?” she asked, politely enough as she tilted her head slightly to the right, but continued to smile. “I have to be honest. I had a hard time working in a trip here, but my editor was interested in this story. My editor thinks we can get this story in a bunch of different places, maybe on the wire. So, we jumped at it.”

“Sounds good,” Hayley shrugged as she forced a smile. The reporter’s smile continued – with no end in sight.

The Herald was a large regional newspaper. Hayley was somewhat familiar with the publication. From time to time, Hayley heard that the paper assigned reporters up to cover games. The paper’s office was based a solid hour’s drive away from campus. Hayley’s inner skeptic wondered why The Herald would have interest in a game like this. It struck Hayley as odd that the newspaper’s staff could not come up with a better story to pursue its readers. The game was a blowout. Surely it was boring to watch, for reporters and fans.

Hayley sat her food on a nearby table, took a sip of water, and turned full attention to the reporter. It wasn’t Hayley’s first media interview. If she kept playing at least that well, it would not be her last. Burgess lectured the players, at least once, about media etiquette – what to say, what not to say to reporters.

“So, first, I was wondering how you felt about Heather’s 37-point performance, last night against Aurora State? I watched it, and it was awesome,” Watts said in a cheery way that made Hayley want to throat-punch her. “It must be awesome for you to have a sister who is such a great role model for you … someone who is such a bigtime national star for women’s college basketball.”

Hayley wanted to walk away. That was asking for trouble, from Burgess. Spit in my face, why don’t you, Hayley thought. This Amber Watts couldn’t resist firing a Heather question – and, right off the bat. Hayley wondered if it was too soon to declare her hatred for this chick. This was like high school. Hayley wondered if the reporter had even watched the game she had only played.

“Well … you know … she’s a great player, a member of a great team. Denton University has a great women’s basketball tradition,” Hayley shrugged. She wasn’t sure what else she should say.

“I was curious: Do you think Denton has a good shot at winning another national championship? Their team looks so strong, again,” Watts asked even as she mostly avoided eye contact. “They’ve got amazing talent back this year, and they’re hungry. They look awesome. I know many people are saying they’re the favorite to win the national championship. I mean … I think they’re the favorite to win another national championship. What do you think?”

Some question, Hayley thought.

That throat-punch thought was sounding better and better to Hayley.

“Denton has had a great program for many years. I’m sure they’ll be in the mix for the national championship,” Hayley said. She wondered if short answers would be as bad as telling the reporter to kiss her butt. “There are a lot of great teams.”

“Oh. Yeah. Do you think Heather’s the top women’s basketball player? I know many people talk about that, constantly, in blogs and on social media,” Watts continued. “There are a lot of big-time players out there, obviously, but do you think Heather’s the best?”

Hayley would be happy to yank Amber Watts’ teeth out with rusty pliers – doing everything possible to ensure infection.

“Well, like you were saying, there are a lot of great players. I don’t know how people figure all that, but she’s great, and I’m sure she’ll be there. She’s more focused on team accomplishments than individual awards and honors, to be honest,” Hayley said as she wondered if that was the last question.

Of course, Watts was not going to let it go.

“Do you think you’ve learned a lot, you know about basketball, from Heather?” she asked. “She seems so good, like she could be a great mentor or a teacher.”

A mentor? A teacher? Could this woman possibly be serious? Hayley wondered if she was on camera, punked by someone.

“Well, Heather and I, I guess, have taught each other,” Hayley said as she folded her arms and wondered if this woman could take a damn hint. “We’ve both had success in basketball, and in whatever else we’ve competed in.”

The reporter nodded and continued to smile.

“Well, thank you so much for answering my questions — best of luck with your season, Hayley. I’ll be keeping up with you,” Watts said as she smiled and extended a hand. Hayley questioned whether she should go through with this exit handshake. “I almost forgot. Can I have your email address … you know … in case I have some follow-up questions to ask?”

Hayley offered her main email and accepted the reporter’s handshake. Perhaps the follow-up questions, if Amber Watts were to press on, might include questions about the person she interviewed and the game that she had attended. Wishful thinking, Hayley figured. Any follow-up questions would be focused on Heather.

“You’re welcome,” Hayley said with a slight nod even as she opted against the phony, obligatory smile.

Watts exited the building and headed toward the parking lot – in the cold Michigan winter air. She never looked back. Good riddance, Hayley thought. Hayley hoped this reporter slipped on a patch of black ice – enough for a to fall, but not enough to injure. Well, at least the pizza was good. As she took a big bite of her pizza, she turned to see Lucy and Shannon making a slow approach. Not too far behind, visible to Hayley’s eyes as she looked between Lucy and Shannon, was Valerie Newton, another teammate.

“What’s up?” Shannon asked as she smiled and playfully slapped Hayley on the butt. “What’s up, girl? You look like someone pulled a knife on you, or something and straight-up threatened you. What’s happening with you? Do we need to call the police or something … National Guard? We’re going to do whatever we need to do? So, you OK, Prince? What’s going on, now.”

“You want to know something? I’m sick and tired of answering questions my perfect sister?” she grumbled. “Some reporter came at me with a bunch of questions about Heather. It was like always … Heather this and Heather that. I was like, ‘You know our team played a game, here, right?’ She didn’t want to know anything about the game or anything about me. She might as well have emailed me or called me on the phone, something.”

Shannon and Lucy kept quiet, initially, but didn’t look at each other. They kept their eyes locked on Hayley. Without talking to each other, they wondered if this was a rant – merely a need for Hayley to get something off her chest.

“OK. So, maybe this isn’t the time or place for a question, like this one, but I was curious about something: Do you and Heather get along?” Valerie asked – perhaps taking on the task of the question as the oldest person in the group. “I get the question might be a sore spot. I was wondering.”

Hayley and Valerie didn’t hit it off, immediately. Their relationship was a slow blossom. As a teammate, even as a friend, the two inched closer together. One of their first encounters was in the quiet locker room. Hayley, like always, was in search of peace. Hayley tried to unlock and open the wrong stall – the one next to her own.

“Excuse me … my locker,” Valerie said.

Hayley looked away, sneered. A small part of her expected the word “freshman” to be thrown in there, at some point. She relaxed, turned to Valerie and mustered the best smile she could manage.

“Oh yeah. Sorry … wrong locker,” Hayley said as she stepped over to her locker, her assigned locker.

Maybe Coach Burgess had a sixth sense.

Somehow, Hayley was always matched up with Valerie – in basketball drills and scrimmages, and at team functions. Hayley was convinced. No way this was accidental.

“Honestly, me talking to Valerie is like melting an iceberg,” Hayley once told Darcy, when they crossed paths in their hall. Thank goodness, Hayley thought, Darcy turned down some major offers to play ball at Solon State University. “I think it’ll all be cool, eventually, but it’ll probably take some time, I guess. I don’t know. Whatever.”

The iceberg melted, slowly, as Hayley had expected. Burgess paired the two during a preseason shooting drill. An impromptu joke turned into a conversation, a conversation turned into friendliness, and friendliness turned into a legitimate friendship.

“I mean … we haven’t talked much about basketball, life, or anything else, lately … we’ve been quiet,” Hayley said, softly. “We sometimes talk when we’re back home, with mom and dad … for holidays. I’m not about to call her, get on Facebook to talk to her … if I can avoid it. She finds me on Facebook and acts all good to me and whatever … you know … cheery and stuff. Hayley gets all the press, television, radio, and some other stuff,” she added. “I’m sure she would love to offer all kinds of advice to me. She does. I mean … she doesn’t do it in a bad way. Maybe it comes across that way.”

Nothing changed.

“Well, look at it this way, if we can make it to the national tournament maybe we’ll get a chance to play against her and beat her,” Lucy said offering up a big smile aided by her retainer. “We might as well keep it real. I wouldn’t mind playing for a national championship … no matter who we play. Bring on any team long as we’re playing for a national championship.”

“You know … they’re on our schedule, next year,” Valerie said, bobbing her head and beginning to smile. “So, get this. I heard the coaches, in the office, talking about it. They were kind of shocked that they got the game.”

“That’s dope. Wow. I’m ready for it, already. I wish we could drop everything and play that game right now,” Hayley said. “I’m ready for that game. I wish we could play it, tonight.”

“It’ll be a heck of a game when we get them on our floor. I can’t wait for it to go down, finally,” Shannon said as she turned her attention to Hayley. “We have a lot that’s going to happen, but it’s fun to think about … especially if they end up winning another national championship, this year.”

“You know something,” Hayley said still allowing the reality of that future game to sink in, deeper. “Honestly, you know … I wonder who my parents would cheer for if we did end up playing. I guess they’re going to have to figure that one out. They’ve got time to figure it out, I guess. A part of me feels like they would be cheering a little harder for Heather. I think so. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s how I feel. Honestly, they’d cheer for Heather. It’s what I think.”

“Do you think that, Hayley? I mean … come on?” Valerie said. “Your mom and dad have love for you. You know they do.”

“Yeah. Pretty much,” Hayley shrugged. “Ah, we should forget this topic – move onto something different. I’ve had enough talking about Heather. Look, I know she’s not a bad person. I know. I’m ready to go chill do something or talk about something else, anything else.”

Maybe she’d never escape from the shadow of perfection – the shadow of her All-American sister, Heather Prince.

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