“Still can’t miss a game?” Jeff asks as he jumps onto the bench of the picnic table at The Ice Shack and sits next to me. Students from Hillsdale have been showing up in droves for the past twenty minutes. The Shack is always the place to hang after Friday night games, especially the first game of the year.
I shrug; he knows me well.
“Why do you keep showing up if it bothers you?”
“Who said it bothers me?” I ask with another shrug, and Jeff raises his brow. “Whatever… you played a good game. A little weak to the right, but you keep it up and A&M won’t regret recruiting you.”
“It’s a long year, man,” Jeff says with a rueful shake of his head. “Senior year.”
“Senior year,” I repeat, sending a knowing smile his way. “Hard to believe we’ve almost made it.”
“Psh… hell, it’s hard to believe we’ve survived this long. Hey, why don’t you come hang out with the living for a change tonight?” Jeff mocks, nodding toward the crowd of jocks and students from Hillsdale who are hanging around the parking lot. I’m spared the need to refuse by the uptick in crowd noise as the sudden blare of a car horn pulls Jeff’s attention.
With a smile, Jeff hops down from the table and motions to a car sitting in the middle of the parking lot. “Gotta run, my girl’s here.”
“You and Katie? Again, man?” I groan, knowing it’s pointless to argue. “Will you ever learn?” I call after him as I survey the scene behind his back.
“Come over,” Jeff offers again, and I shake my head. “Don’t pretend those little skirts have no effect on you, Rutledge. I know where your eyes focus.” Jeff shouts with laughter as he jogs backward to join the others. I flip him off before turning my back to the crowd.
Instead of joining them, I remain in my spot on the table looking to the left of the Shack as I out into the shadowy field in front of me. The late summer night is humid and a trail of sweat trickles down the small of my back as a light breeze picks up. It’s the last weekend of summer break. Senior year starts Monday and I’m not sure if I’m relieved or not. I have no concrete plans for my life after high school. Not anymore. I’ll go to A&M - because that’s what Rutledge boys do - but I won’t be doing what I’d always planned. Instead I’ll spend my Saturday’s cheering on Jeff, my best friend, and my brother Austin as they chase their dreams without me. That thought leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. A hollow feeling sinks into my chest and I push it aside as my ears pick up the cheers and name calling around me. Funny enough, I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on anything. I like it here in the dark corner away from the rest of the kids I’ve known most of my life. Flipping a small flask around between my fingers, I contemplate what Jeff said when he first showed up. Going to football games, the ones I should be playing in, doesn’t bother me. Not really… at least not usually. It’s been four years since I took an official snap, threw a pass under the Friday night lights, and hoisted a teammate into the air after an amazing connection. Four years since I gave it up. Yet, I show up to every game my old teammates play and I watch. I still find myself studying their moves, deciphering the playbook mentally. I curse their stupid mistakes as though they affect me, and I begrudgingly cheer their wins.
My breath catches at the word. Maybe I care more than I’ll admit, but it’s too late now.
"Poor Tanya, that can't be comfortable.”
The unmistakable voice of Jules - head cheerleader, town sweetheart, and Quarterback’s girlfriend - Blacklin breaks into my confusing thoughts. Startled, I shift and look over my shoulder. Jules has taken a seat at my picnic table, her back to me. Her tiny cheerleading uniform hugs her figure, the pleated skirt riding low on her hips offers me a tantalizing glance at the smooth skin of her lower back. I bite back an admiring smile, and a dozen dirty thoughts, and engage her. "You always talk to yourself, cheerleader?"
Jules’ red hair flies over her shoulder as her head snaps my way. Her eyes are wide as though I’ve surprised her. She blinks as though she’s trying to recognize me. Her forehead wrinkles as she speaks, "Excuse me?"
"You're excused, Buffy," I drawl, shocking myself with my own words as I tip my head to the side and allow my eyes to rove over her backside again. I've barely spoken to Jules in years. I’ve watched her, though, the good Lord knows that’s the truth.
Jules takes me in, her head tilting to the side to get a better look, before her russet brow arches as she asks prettily, “Does that make you Spike? Sitting here brooding in the dark with your flask?"
I don’t bother suppressing my grin at her witty comeback as I lift said flask to my mouth saluting her with a mock toast. Jules’ eyes focus on my mouth and a million thoughts whirl through my mind. Why the hell is she sitting here? I’m shocked she didn’t walk away the moment I spoke, and I’m doubly shocked at her poking back at me. But that’s nothing compared to the jolt I receive at the way she watches my mouth as though she wants to taste the liquid dripping from my bottom lip. My insides clench at the thought and I swallow hard. Making the decision to enjoy this rare encounter, I turn fully toward her and lean my elbows to my knees as she abruptly stands with a shake of her head.
"I think I could live with you calling me Spike,” I say, hoping for another verbal punch as a breeze lifts her red and white pleated skirt A guy’s gotta love those little skirts.
"Really? You do know Buffy and Spike hated each other?"
Her voice is filled with surprise when she asks me her question, almost as though she’s hurt. I can’t fathom why she’d feel disappointment and I brush the thought aside as the lights in the Shack flicker next to us. I’m reminded of the enemies-to-lovers story arc between the characters of Buffy and Spike and grin. Silently thanking my ex, Carley, for forcing her addiction to the show upon me when we were dating, I lower my voice and correct Jules’ statement. "At first.”
Her eyes narrow. “At first?"
"Jules!" interrupts Katie, jogging our way. "Can you believe this? Every freaking weekend they do this crap. Can’t we just get Tanya and go? I'm so tired of all the pissing contests."
Straightening, I ignore Jeff’s on-again-off-again girl and lock my eyes on Jules. Silently, I will her to grasp the meaning behind my comment. Katie pays me no heed as she grabs Jules hand, ready to pull her away, but Jules doesn’t budge. I sense the moment she catches it, the double meaning of my words. Her blue eyes widen and she stammers, “Oh, at first.”
A blush creeps up her ivory skin and I’m transfixed. Without warning, my memories fly back to the seventh grade and a kiss with the girl I wanted to impress so badly that I manufactured our being picked for the age old game of Seven Minutes in Heaven. This is the girl Jeff was referring to only minutes ago as he laughed at me. The one my eyes always go to, the one who might have been mine once upon a time, if not for cancer. If not for Stuart Daniels. If not for my being a quitter. Jules Blacklin.
"Come on," begs Katie, tugging at Jules again as the lights around us flicker on and off once more.
Irritated at my thoughts, I salute the girls with a chuckle. “See ya around, Buff,” I say as I slide down from the picnic table and force myself to step away. Or I would have stepped away if it weren’t for the shouts that delay me.
Katie's angry interruption makes sense now as I look to where she came from. A fight has broken out in the parking and I shake my head, mumbling beneath my breath, “Stupid pricks.” I’m not able to identify the participants before their shouts are drowned out by a sound infinitely more terrifying. My pulse quickens as the piercing scream of the early warning storm sirens go off, making me and everyone around jump at the sound. I turn toward town as The Ice Shack goes silent and hold my breath as I take in the normally cheerful town of Tyler. It currently resembles a disco, the lights flashing on and off, and I know - we all know - something isn’t right.