Our school’s side of the football field was a zoo of cheers and excited footsteps against the metal bleachers echoing into the night. The crown made rowdy, inhuman noises of victory when the team’s runner-back crossed the end zone, scoring the touchdown that saved and won the game for the Northwood tigers. The voices of the cheerleaders that had once over-powered hundreds were ghosts floating in the background to the scene as we clapped and chanted school cheers that we rehearsed specifically for the occasion that we won. Liz Montgomery, however, was just as much a mess of happiness as everyone else, squealing and jumping uncontrollably, mumbling gibberish to the beat of the chants.
I laughed as I tried to place my hands on either side of my best friend’s bouncing shoulders. “Will you calm down?”
Then Clay, the runner-back, hero of the day, dropped the football and turned to face our direction– or more specifically, her direction– and pointed a victorious finger at her, dedicating the touchdown to her. Sweet as it was, the action produced soft sighs and girly squeals from the other cheerleaders in our team and a nudge to Liz’s side from me. Liz didn’t blush like I expected based on her reactions at any other thing sweet her boyfriend of five months did, but if she did, I wouldn’t have noticed with her hands cupped around her mouth to yell more cheers of encouragement to her boyfriend as the rest of the winning team surrounded him with pats on the back.
“I need a boyfriend,” Ashley said beside me, playing with the hem of her cheer skirt, staring at the football players gathered on the field eagerly. “Preferably, a football playing one.”
“Good luck with that.” I knew what the football guys around Northwood were like. I knew what football guys anywhere were like. They were all trouble and the worst kind with their intimidating conceit that put them on the top of the food chain. “They aren’t really worth it. Waste of time, Ashley. They’re not boyfriend material anyway.”
“You’re bitter,” Ashley laughed. But bitter wasn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe my feelings towards the football player folk. The people I lived with were of that species and my friends were one of them, too. I was often associated with football players, pretty much being a ‘groupie’– I hated that, by the way– myself. ‘Fed up’ was a more accurate term. “And how would you know what boyfriend material is?” I gave her a flat look. “Lighten up, Kody. And don’t let any of the champions hear you say that they aren’t worth it or you’ll be in big trouble.”
“I’m so scared.”
Liz didn’t seem to notice that we were talking. She was too busy smiling like a fool at a boy.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, though she had nothing to be sorry about, really. “I can’t calm down. I’m just so happy for him. We would’ve lost if we didn’t have Clay on the team, right? He’s amazing.”
And she obviously wasn’t okay. She was so love sick. It was almost contagious.
This was a fresh relationship. I hoped that she wouldn’t be this bad forever.
Not a minute later, Clay, the ‘amazing’, emerged from the crowd of big muscular boys on the field and jogged toward her. He pulled her into his arms, which was honestly unruly because he was sweaty and he probably reeked of body odor– or probably not because Liz didn’t make a face or complain like she usually would when a smelly teenage boy passed by.
“You were great,” Liz praised.
“I wanted to impress you.” As if anything he did didn’t impress her.
“Not again,” I said with an exaggerated tone for them to hear me so that he would release her from his sweaty hold.
Without even giving me a glance, he let go. “Leave us alone, Kody,” he said, not unkindly. If it weren’t for the post-victory music, I could probably hear the chuckle.
“Congratulations, lover boy,” I said.
“Thanks, Taylor.” And when he leaned in; I took that as my cue to walk away– very far away. And since I hated to feel alone, I dragged Ashley, who actually didn’t look the slightest uncomfortable with the public display of affection, away with me.
Ashley watched the couple longingly before I waved my fingers in front of her face to snap her out of her daze. She focused on me as she tucked a lose strand of her light blonde hair behind her ear. “They’re adorable.”
I agreed. “Sickening, but they are kind of cute.”
“They’re not that bad,” she said.
“They’re terrible,” I corrected. “I mean can they be a little bit more subtle about their love life?” They hadn’t actually said the ‘L word’. I knew this because there was no way it would happen without me knowing about it. In the seventh grade, Liz and I made a pact about that kind of stuff after she hadn’t told me about her first kiss that Josh Ames gave her on her birthday that year. In senior high school, I didn’t want to know any more information about kissing but I knew that she wouldn’t forget to tell me the important things, like her being in love.
“Way to take all the fun out of it. Let them be.”
“I don’t understand how she can stand so close to him like that. He’s sweaty and gross right now.” I’ve lived with boys long enough to know how many times one can pick their nose, fart and burp on average and that wasn’t even the worst part. “Most guys are gross all of the time.”
“Not all of them,” she said.
And if they weren’t gross, they had an ulterior motive, which was usually to make you love them just so they could break your heart after.
“Yeah? Like who?”
Ashley’s smile grew wide as she cocked her head towards the crowd of football players. “Like him.”
I followed her gaze back onto the field where the boys were walking toward the sidelines. He was Austin Collins, the bane of my existence, quarterback and captain of the football team, jersey number seventeen and while today was a rare occasion where Clay received all the praise for the win, Austin had always belonged in that spotlight. Northwood’s golden boy was as physically flawless as they came, according to the rest of the female population, whose judgment relied solely on outer appearance. His sandy brown hair and warm hazel eyes gave the impression that he was gentle and trustworthy, though I could definitely vouch against that. Ironically, while most girls saw him as perfect, I’d pick the nose picker over him any day.
But, despite my hostile feelings toward Austin, other people seemed to follow a pattern of getting the impression that we were dating. I didn’t blame them. It was only human nature to go along with ridiculous clichés of head cheerleaders and football quarterbacks falling in love, winning homecoming king and queen than eventually getting married and having kids, reminiscing about the time they were on the top of the world and not dealing with problems like bills. People seemed to believe that we were ‘made for each other’ but it was really only the jackets and the uniforms and the titles that gave the majority that illusion.
This was his first game as captain of the team, something he’d worked so hard for since he discovered the sport. I could only imagine how thrilled he was but he didn’t show it like the rest of the players, hooting and pumping their fists up in the air like they’d never won a game in their lives. Austin Collins was totally cool and calm, with a certain confidence that implied he had already known that they were going to win and that he’d never known loss.
He was also incredibly arrogant– I didn’t know who wouldn’t be if they got the same treatment he received– which was the exact reason I was not going to go up to him and congratulate him to only enkindle his steel self-esteem.
Walking along with Austin, I spotted two of my friends, who were the main source of all the hooting and wolf calling. I waved at them and after seeing me, the chanted louder and pointed at me.
“Congrats, guys!” I shouted over all the noise and shot them a thumb up. “You were amazing.”
Somehow, my small voice in the midst all the laughter and after game excitement caught the attention of the leader of the Red Tigers.
His eyes focused on me as he walked past and I couldn’t find it in me to say congratulations. My pride was gnawing at me at the back of my head. He’d probably laugh. Someone else would probably laugh. But he was looking right at me. Ashley was looking at me expectantly too. I had to do something so it wouldn’t be so awkward and so that I didn’t come off as an utter witch.
Though I was surprised he wasn’t frowning but maybe he was too ecstatic to do so. Five seconds passed, which wasn’t so long come to think of it, but our gazes remained locked and the background remained a disaster.
I settled for a nod– a brief and curt nod that wouldn’t catch anyone else’s attention and I was barely sure he caught it. It wasn’t much of a congratulations and much more of an acknowledgement of the win.
Then he stopped in his tracks, letting the others brush past him.
And with a cocky smirk, the one that I hated ever so dearly, he returned the gesture.