Can a season of pigskin help her overcome her natural timidity? Fans cheer as Swanee's personal journey takes her from the sidelines to the headlines. A yearning for success is kindled as she learns that she can do hard things, and the score at the final buzzer does not provide the only victory.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)|
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By June Marie Saxton
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 June Marie Saxton
All rights reserved.
Don't ask me why my parents named me Swanee Swanson.
It's like Johnny Johnson and Tommy Thompson, only not as cool. It's almost like Mom couldn't get enough of Dad's name—which seems completely ridiculous now. Now Dad's married to High Maintenance and my mother says that's a scream since Dad is absolutely no maintenance man. They divorced not long after I was born so I never grew up with things normal between them. It's hard for me to gauge what normal even is.
Dad's the football, basketball, and track coach at Black Willow High School. His assistant coaches in those sports are actually the head coaches of everything else. That's the way it is in small town, Wyoming. When I say small, I'm talking five hundred and ninety persons, not counting the new family that drifted into town last month. Our population is three thousand if you count dogs. I swear they are running amuck in this town. It seems like every family owns a mongrel pack.
My mom's career revolves around making things uncomfortable for my dad. The year he added basketball to his coaching duties, Mom became a certified referee. Our rival schools always hire Mom to officiate our games with them. I suspect they like the grief it causes my dad. Last year things got very heated when the Black Willow Cougars faced the Little Snake River Rattlers. In the last seconds of a tense game, Mom called a foul on our tall kid and Dad blew his stack. "Are you blind—or just stupid?" His outburst solicited unholy amusement from the lady ref. Mom smiled wickedly while slapping a T in his direction. Snake River's shooter sank both foul shots, followed by both technical shots, and that put the Rattler's up by four. Dad kicked the bench, Dad kicked the score table, Dad kicked two sophomore players, and then Mom kicked Dad right out of the game. That, my friends, constituted a long bus ride home.
"Hey Swan, wanna hit the gym?"
No, as a matter of fact, I didn't, but Mom was sporting her new workout clothes and already had her Adidas feather-light running shoes swung over her shoulder. I hesitated, figuring my chances of getting out of it somehow, but realized this was Mom I was dealing with, and the reality check sent me scurrying after my own shoes. My desire to do nothing was suddenly bust.
An hour later, Coach Swanson rattled his keys. "Are you about done? I'm locking up for the night."
"Thanks Dad," I called, finishing my lap to the door. Mom ran by him like he was a mere fixture of the gymnasium, turning two deaf ears while pounding a hard sprint. It was her way of daily saying, "You can't have this."
Dad hit the switch and suddenly Mom was running blind as well as deaf. Dad won that round, and we quickly changed into our street shoes and stepped into the crisp Wyoming air. "Feels good," Mom panted, wiping sweat off her forehead with her sleeve. "A workout is just what I need to help me sleep."
That was a joke! Mom didn't sleep. I don't recall her ever needing more than four or five hours of it, ever. She often gets the whim to clean in the middle of the night—more than once my nightmares have been orchestrated by the vacuum's sucking roar.
Mom is high octane. Back at home and she inserts a Zumba disc. "Let's do eight songs since we're already sweaty."
"Mom! I've got algebra and English."
"Okay, five songs. It'll be fun, come on."
"And I've got to read a chapter of history."
"Your dad is the teacher! What—is he going to flunk you?" Mom rubbed a hand through her bangs, spiking them up confidently. "He wouldn't dare." The DVD player swallowed the disc, and while I loathed my spineless attempt to do homework, I was soon getting my groove on with some spicy sugar-shaker Zumba instructor named Maria.
Mom was very gifted at anything physical, Zumba was no exception. In comparison, and even though I absolutely loved to dance, I felt like Pee Wee Herman in army boots and a tutu; dorky and stiff, not fluid, not saucy, not hip. "I don't dance Spanish any better than I speak it," I muttered.
"Just flow with it, freestyle it," Mom said. "Spice it up! It's easy—like making salsa with your hips!" And she hit a high spot in the song, her pelvis gyrated staccato rhythms, bam-bam-bam while her arms worked in fluid motions like a princess plucking an invisible harp.
Our supper consisted of tuna salad on rye. I don't think I like rye, but its Mom's newest craze. Mostly I pulled tuna out from under the bread, nibbling on bits of dill pickle and lettuce while cramming in a bit of Civil War history. "What are you learning?" Mom asked while I crunched mindlessly on a hidden bit of celery.
Mom was clever at disguising lots of vegetables into my food.
"John Brown's prophecy concerning the war. He predicted there would be lamentation and death if—"
"Reminds me of Granny Agnes."
"John Brown and his dire predictions."
"What does that have to do with Granny Agnes?"
"She predicted your dad was a no-good, and look what happened. Turns out Granny Agnes was a regular Madam Butterfly. If only I'd listened."
The jabs were nearly insufferable to me. Mom was the Mohamed Ali of sarcasm. Her left guard was always up while her right fist swung hard and fast. Jab, jab, jab. Occasionally she landed haymakers, smacking dad's character down for the count. If she couldn't jab, or punch, or poke at him, she pinched, and twisted, and picked. I should have been immune—inoculated daily by the cutting remarks, the insults. Maybe my dad was a first class jerk, but he was my jerk—and I liked him in spite of his poor taste in women. I said as much, and Mom scowled belligerently.
"Just for that—you can eat your bread."
"I'm serious. Eat! That! Bread!" She pointed to my plate. "You want to make a big joke out of that comment, to lump me into a category with High Maintenance? You can just eat your bread, and tomorrow for breakfast? I'm going to make French toast out of the whole fantastic loaf!"
"Rye French toast? That's disgusting."
So eleven o'clock found me still at the table, trying to swallow the remains of my meal. It was like a stale shell of what should have been a very tasty sandwich, but as Mom said, "I had sucked the life and soul out of it, and like a remorseful vampire, my duty remained to the corpse."
"Just open your mouth and bury those remains, Swanee."
"I'm certain this is considered child-abuse in at least twenty-five states."
"Call the officers, dear. I'm sure they'd like to frisk me."
Mom was nearly indefensible to spar with. I'm certain Dad had no choice but to wave a white flag of defeat and walk away while he was still a scrap of a man. Or maybe he crawled? Yes, I am nearly positive he was beaten down before slinking away.
With a bit of tuna salad and two dry slices of rye bread sitting like a stone in my stomach, I finally slinked away myself, waving the surrender flag between my teeth like the bloody, beaten south. I didn't say nighttime prayers; I never said prayers at this house. Praying was reserved for my life at Dad's—and because he had found religion with High Maintenance, it was strictly unwelcome here.
"Religion," Mom often scoffed. "If it's good enough for your Dad, it bloody well is not good enough for me!" My spiritual well-being was wind-tossed upon the tempest like a leaky craft on the heaving sea. I sometimes wondered about attempts at religion, or the general lack thereof, and decided God loved me no matter how abnormally normal of an upbringing I had.
I whistled and the patter of sharp Chihuahua paws trotted against the kitchen floor and up the hall until Gomez whined near my bed. "Hi boy," I crooned, scooping the little beast onto my cozy, faux down-feather comforter. He twisted around until he formed a wee dog nest out of the covers, settling in with a small buzzing snore. "I love you, Gomez," I whispered. I pet his curving back with tender strokes until darkness overtook my conscious and I was lost to the sappy fantasies of my dreaming mind.
It was embarrassing, really. We'd only been in school for three days and I had a kissing dream? Off to class I go, and see the kid that I'd accidentally kissed in my sleep. And the fact that my subconscious had selected him wasn't any mystery. He's the type of completely gorgeous, all-American male that girls should be dreaming about—but he's too focused to know we exist. In the fall he's focused on football, in the winter basketball draws his attention. Track calls his name in the springtime, and during the summer he works too hard on his dad's ranch. Some might even say he's arrogant, and it's true he's cocky enough, but I admire his over-confident manner.
"Hey Swan," he said casually.
I nodded like, "Hey, it's all good, I promise I didn't kiss you in my dreams," but my cheeks were scorching beneath the heat of violent blushing.
Blaze arched a brow. "Are you okay?"
"Hmm, yeah, I'm fine."
"You look flushed."
I shook my head, trying to jar a logical explanation. "Um, I think I might be allergic to rye bread."
This time Blaze's nose wrinkled with amusement. "Isn't everyone?"
"When Mr. Davis and Miss Swanson are done socializing, we will begin," cranky Mr. Chambers gruffed from the front of the room. That sent Blaze scurrying to his seat and the crimson in my cheeks felt like scarlet fever.
By lunchtime I was mostly over my morning haunt, but something my best friend said brought that dream right back into my mind. It played like a digital clip for a second, making me smile unwittingly at the image of Blaze's unattainable lips caressing mine, mmm ... yes. My eyes wandered over to Blaze's table, and he caught me looking! Instead of ducking quickly, which was my natural reaction, I sort of gazed past him, trying to look like I was really studying the next kid. It didn't help. My face bypassed red altogether and just turned purple. A second later I chanced a second peek—just to make sure Blaze didn't see the purple. He and the other boy were both laughing, looking right at me. Oh the humiliation of my teenage life!
I quickly scraped my tray and took off for chemistry ten minutes early, not wanting to risk any more ill-timed looks. Before last night I didn't have a crush on Blaze Davis! And now I felt like I'd kissed him even though my lips were as virgin as the rest of me; as pure as the driven snow. I was like a brand new jar of peanut butter, untried and untested. But the nauseous feeling in my stomach lent me to know it must be love, and for that purpose I quarantined myself in Mr. Abernathy's classroom.
The closer the clock ticked to the end of school the worse I felt; and there was a darn good reason for it, too. It all started three weeks ago when classmate Chandler Reid broke his pelvis. I knew something was immediately wrong when Dad knocked on our door. He tried to stay far away from our house if Mom was home, but on this odd Tuesday, he came banging at four in the afternoon.
"I thought I smelled a rat. I see you haven't changed your after-shave," Mom said through the screen door.
"Can I speak with you?"
"I'm sorry Dexter, it's a little late for apologies," Mom said cynically, barring his entrance with cold posture.
"I really need to speak with you, Layni—and Swanee too, this is important."
"Layni? That term of endearment was reserved for more familiar times, and you Dex, are no longer familiar! You are a stranger to me now. I don't typically talk to strangers."
A tired breath left Dad's chest, making his shoulders droop somewhat. "Alayna," he amended, defeat edging into his voice. "Can we save the argument until after I've said the things I've come to say?"
"I suppose you might come inside," Mom said tersely. I could see she was enjoying Dad's tension. He had come onto her turf, humbly seeking something or another and that gave Mom the advantage. Intrigue tugged against the corners of her mouth, drawing a grin, but her eyes did not smile. Dad fidgeted, looking over at me momentarily. I tried to smile with everything I had: mouth, eyes—the whole package, just to even up his chances.
Whatever he wanted, I knew the answer would be no unless he actually wanted a no answer, and in that case Mom would say yes. Like this, "Alayna, do you plan on moving away from here any time soon?"
"Are you still officiating games?"
That sort of thing.
Gomez hunched up like a Doberman, teeth bare, rabid-sounding growls rolling between his threatening little jaws. His hackles were up and Mom encouraged his unfriendly manner by not sitting down. Impatiently she stood, arms crossed defensively with one hip jutted out. A person didn't need a master's degree in body language to get the full translation. She was mad that Dad was taking up her space, breathing her air, sitting in her house.
One time Dad said, "Well pardon me for living," and she answered, "There's no power high enough to pardon you for that." And that's kind of what her expression looked like again.
Dad rubbed a hand across his chin. "Well ... it's a tough afternoon. Chandler Reid was just rushed out of town in an ambulance."
"Fastest boy on the team," Mom said, overjoyed that the football coach had met with peril on only the third day of practice. "Your prized running back, if I'm not mistaken."
"Is he okay?" I asked, feeling bad for the poor kid.
"He'll be okay, but his mom just called; his pelvis is broken and it's going to require surgery. He's out."
Mom's lashes fluttered momentarily, her unsmiling eyes devoid of sympathy. "And?"
"I need a running back."
"Maybe you'll have to bring up a freshman."
"Layni, I can't! I've got to have some speed, that freshmen bunch are slow; determined, yes, coachable, yes—but not fast."
"It's a pity," Mom said, wondering the point of Dad's distress.
"I need Swanee."
For the first time my eyes ceased to smile and my jaw dropped. What did he say? I was now scowling with everything I had: mouth, eyes—the whole package.
"What did you say?" Mom's voice was shrill, she sounded like a verbal kick-boxer. I was afraid Dad's poor stupid head would get kicked right off.
"I need Swanee. I've got to have her."
"Swanee is a girl, Dex! She is athletic, yes, but not very big! Are you a complete idiot?"
"She's fast, Layni! You know she's fast! And if she runs a streak down the field, and my line proves their metal, she won't get hurt. She just has to outrun the opposition. With the exception of Blaze Davis, I don't think there is a boy in this state that can catch her."
"Then use Blaze Davis," I cried!
"I can't—he's too good of a quarterback."
The room was silent for a few moments. I expected Mom to throw the man out of our house. What nerve he had coming here with imbecilic notions! He must not linger a moment longer; not with feverish delusions burning across his brow! I was getting set to show him to the door. Dad needed counseling.
"She just needs to outrun them?" Mom asked, digesting the words. "Swanee Jo Swanson ... state track gold medalist as a sophomore ... and again as a junior ... broke two state records in both the two and four hundred meter races ..." She recounted my past achievements like a proper resume.
What? Had my mother taken leave of her senses as well? She couldn't possibly be considering this! "That's track! No padding required. No beefy boys chasing me down wanting to squash me," I reasoned, but Mom put up a hand. She was thinking, and the smile suddenly coming from her eyes in Dad's direction made me uneasy. "You can't be serious, either one of you!"
But the earnest look on Dad's face told me he was. And the sudden interest on Mom's face petrified me. Congenially she sat down on the couch, shushing Gomez with her foot. "Be quiet boy, that big dodo bird won't hurt you," she murmured under her breath. Her body language shifted so fast it was like switching from choppy Chinese to buttery French, all in twenty second's time.
I closed my eyes. No! This was still America. They couldn't force me to play football! I didn't want equal rights with the boys in our school; I could seek equality in other ways! I would be valedictorian of my po-dunk class. That would make them proud. I would be in the musical; would try out for the lead if it pleased them—but running back? No, as timid as I was, I had my limits.
Excerpted from Ball Baby by June Marie Saxton. Copyright © 2013 June Marie Saxton. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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