My dad sat me down before he announced they were getting married and said Brandi made him happy. That’s the only reason I haven’t completely written her off.
“Maybe,” Brandi says, her cheery tone carrying across the quad, “this is for the best.”
“The best?” I give a short laugh as I stop and turn to her. “What’s the best about it?”
“I’ve decided to move back to Chicago to live with my family,” she says. “Since your dad’s gone for six months, I figure it’s the best thing for Julian. He’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall, you know.” Brandi gives me a big smile.
I think she expects me to jump up and down clapping in excitement at her big relocation news. Or smile right along with her. None of those things are about to happen.
“Brandi, I’m not movin’ to Chicago.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll love it in Chicago, Derek. They’ve got snow in the winter, and in the fall the leaves are, like, the coolest colors—”
“Come on,” I say, interrupting her Chicago-is-all-that speech. “No offense, but we’re hardly family. Y’all can move to Chicago. I’ll stay in San Diego.”
“Yeah . . . about that . . .” She bites her bottom lip. “I canceled the lease. Another family is moving into the house next week. I was gonna tell you, but I knew you had finals coming up, and since you’d already planned to stay on campus all summer I, like, didn’t think it was urgent.”
A feeling of dread settles in my stomach. “You’re sayin’ I, like, don’t have anywhere to live?”
She smiles once again. “Sure you do. In Chicago, with me and Julian.”
“Brandi, come on. You don’t honestly think I want to move to Chicago for my senior year.” People move from Chicago to California, not the other way around.
“I promise you’ll love Chicago,” she gushes.
No, I won’t. Unfortunately, there’s no one I can stay with in California. My dad’s parents are dead and I heard my mom’s dad died a while back. My mom’s mom . . . well, let’s just say she lives in Texas and leave it at that. No chance in hell I’m living with her. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”
“Not really.” Brandi shrugs. “Your dad left me responsible for you. If you can’t live at the academy, you’ll have to stay with me . . . in Chicago.”
If she mentions the word “Chicago” one more time I think my head might explode. This is not happening. I hope I’m living in some kind of realistic nightmare and I’ll wake up any minute.
“There’s one more thing I haven’t told you,” Brandi says as if she’s talking to a toddler.
I rub the back of my neck, where a knot is starting to form. “What?”
She puts her hand over her stomach and says in a high-pitched, excited voice, “I’m pregnant.”
No. Fucking. Way.
She can’t be.
I mean, it’s physically possible, but . . . the knot on the back of my neck is throbbing in earnest now, threatening to burst out of my skin. This is definitely a nightmare.
I want her to tell me she’s kidding, but she doesn’t. It was bad enough my dad married the bimbo. I expected him to realize eventually that marrying her was a mistake, but now . . . a baby permanently seals the deal.
I’m gonna be sick.
“I wanted to keep it a secret until you came home for the Fourth of July,” she explains excitedly. “Surprise! Your father and I are expecting a baby, Derek. I think your being expelled is a sign that we’re all supposed to be together in Chicago. As a family.”
She’s wrong. My being expelled is a sign, all right, but not that we’re supposed to be together in Chicago . . . it’s a sign that my life is about to implode.
I’ve been the only girl on the football team at Fremont High since freshman year, so it’s not a big deal when Coach Dieter shouts a warning to the guys to make sure they’re decent as I head into the boys’ locker room for the first football meeting of the summer. My coach pats me on the back as I pass, just like he does to the guys.
“You ready for senior year, Parker?” he asks.
“It’s the first day of summer break, Coach,” I answer. “Let me enjoy it.”
“Don’t enjoy it too much. Work hard this summer during practice and at that football camp in Texas, because I expect a winning season come the fall.”
“We’ll take State for the first time in forty years, Coach!” one of my teammates yells out. His words are met by enthusiastic cheers from the rest of the team, including me. We almost made it to State last season, but we lost in the playoffs.
“All right, all right. Don’t get ahead of yourselves,” Dieter says. “Let’s get down to business first. It’s that time of year to vote for who you consider the player most deserving of leading this team. Think of the player whose talent, hard work, and dedication to this team is undeniable. The player who receives the most votes will be chosen as captain for the coming season.”
Being voted captain is a huge deal at my school. There are a bunch of clubs and sports teams, but only one counts—football. I glance proudly at my boyfriend, Landon McKnight. He’ll be voted captain. He’s the first-string quarterback and expected to lead us to the Illinois state championship. His dad was in the NFL, and Landon is all set to follow in his footsteps. More than a few times last season Landon’s dad even brought college scouts to watch his son. With his talent and connections, there’s no question he’s going to get a scholarship to play in college.
We started dating at the beginning of last season, right after Coach Dieter moved me up to first-string kicker. I perfected my technique the summer before my junior year and it paid off. The guys on the team would watch me practice, making bets on how many field goals I could make in a row.
I used to be self-conscious about being the only girl on the team. Freshman year I stayed in the background, hoping to blend in. The guys made comments to intimidate me, but I laughed them off and threw comments right back. I never wanted special consideration and fought to be treated like another teammate who just happened to be a girl.
Dieter, wearing his trademark khaki pants and polo shirt with FREMONT REBELS embroidered on it, hands me my ballot. Landon gives me a nod. Everyone knows we’re dating, but we keep our relationship on the down low at practice.
I write Landon’s name on the ballot, then hand it in.
Dieter goes over our brutal practice schedule while the assistant coaches count the ballots.
“You don’t win games by sitting on your asses,” Dieter says during his lecture. “And besides, we’re expecting to attract more college scouts this year. I know more than a few of you would like to play college ball. Seniors, this is your year to prove yourselves.” Dieter doesn’t say the obvious, that the scouts are coming to see Landon but we’ll all benefit from their presence.
It would be amazing to play college ball, but I’m not delusional enough to think scouts will be knocking down my door. Only a handful of girls have been chosen to play for collegiate teams, and almost all of them are walk-ons without scholarships. Except Katie Calhoun. She was the first female to get a Division I football scholarship. I’d do anything to be like Katie.
I’ve watched football with my dad for as long as I can remember. Even after my mom left and he checked out of being a parent, we still watched the Bears together. He was a kicker for Fremont High forty years ago, the first and last time our high school won the state championship. The lone championship banner hangs on the gymnasium wall.
I guess going out for football freshman year was a way for me to try to connect with my dad . . . Maybe if he saw me kick enough goals he’d be impressed. Freshman year, I hoped my dad would come to games and cheer me on. He never did—he still hasn’t, and I’ll be a senior in the fall. My mom hasn’t seen me play, either. I think she’s living in some high-rise apartment in New York, but I haven’t heard from her in almost a year. One day I’ll prove to my parents that they’re missing out, because it sucks feeling like your family doesn’t care if you exist.
Luckily I have Landon.
As Dieter winds up his big pep talk and lecture, one of the assistant coaches hands him the voting results. He reads the paper silently, nods his approval, then writes on the whiteboard:
Wait . . . what?
No way. I read that wrong.
I blink a few times as I feel pats on my back from my teammates. My name is clearly written, no mistake about that.
Jet Thacker, our star wide receiver, gives a hoot. “Way to go, Parker!”
The other guys start chanting my last name . . . “Parker! Parker! Parker!”
I glance at Landon. He’s staring at the whiteboard. I want him to look at me, congratulate me, or make me feel like this is okay. It’s not. I know he’s floored. I am, too. I feel like the earth just tilted on its axis.
Dieter blows his whistle. “Parker, meet me in my office. The rest of you are dismissed,” he says.
“Congrats, Ash,” Landon mumbles, barely pausing as he walks past me on his way out. I want to pull him back so I can tell him I had no clue how this happened, but he’s gone before I have a chance.
I follow Dieter to his office. “Congratulations, Parker,” he says as he tosses me a patch with the letter C on it so I can sew it onto my letterman jacket. Another one will be sewn onto my game jersey. “Starting in August you’ll have weekly meetings with me and the coaching staff. You’ll have to keep your GPA at or above a 3.0 and continue to lead this team on and off the field.” He talks to me more about my responsibilities and ends with: “The team is counting on you, and so am I.”
“Coach,” I say as I run my fingers over the smooth embroidery on the patch. I place it on his desk and step back. “Landon deserves to be captain, not me. I’ll step down and let him take my—”
Dieter holds up a hand. “Stop right there, Parker. You were voted captain, not McKnight. You got more votes than any other player. I don’t respect players who quit when they’re asked to step up by their peers. Are you a quitter?”
He tosses the patch back to me. “Then get out of here.”
I nod, then walk out of his office. Back in the locker room, I lean against a locker and look down at the patch with the big C on it. Captain. I take a deep breath as reality sinks in. I was voted captain of the football team. Me, Ashtyn Parker. I’m honored and thankful my teammates voted for me, but I’m still in shock.
Outside, I hope to see Landon waiting by my car. Instead Victor Salazar and Jet Thacker are talking in front of my old beat-up Dodge that needs a new paint job . . . and a new engine, for that matter.
Victor, our middle linebacker with more sacks than any other player in the state of Illinois, doesn’t talk much. His dad practically owns this town, and Vic is expected to do whatever his father orders. Behind his father’s back, Vic is reckless and a daredevil. It’s as if he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, which is why he’s so dangerous on the field.