Read an Excerpt
Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
TODAY’S MY SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY.
Through the grogginess, I take a moment to really absorb the feeling of it. My first few seconds in my bedroom as a sixteen-year-old.
My last day being in my room before the world knows I’m gay.
That’s right, I’m gay. I’ve said it to myself a hundred times, but I’ve never spoken those words out loud. Not even in here.
My TV is still buzzing with ESPN that I left on last night, next to the basketball medals and trophies on my dresser. Posters of LeBron James, Trae Young, and Dominique Wilkins plastered on the walls. My gaze skims over a pile of laundry I need to do, lying next to the Xbox I may have spent too long playing last night. It’s a model behind what rich people like my teammate Tim Ostrowski have, but it does the job and I’ve gotten in the habit of zoning into it before important days. I don’t linger on the Xbox now, though, instead I turn to my phone sitting on top of it, and the stupid text from none other than Ostrowski waiting for me in the team’s group chat:
GOOD MORNING BOYS. PEP RALLY TODAY!!! AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS. TIME TO ACT LIKE FUCKING CHAMPIONS. LETS WEAR ALL BLACK. INTIMIDATE THE FUCK OUTTA EVERYBODY AND BE READY FOR TONIGHT’S AFTERPARTY
I roll my eyes, glad to see no one else has responded, then turn to shut off the TV and check my clock. Sure enough, it’s flipped from 18,616 to 18,615 and my stomach sinks. I bought the countdown clock barely hours after my grandpa Scratch died and set it to fifty-one years from now, when I’ll be the same age as he was. Every day since then, I’ve been panicking, watching the time tick away, thinking about the years I’ve already wasted in the closet. I force a slow breath, knowing the next time I look at it, all that panic will be gone. Even if I only have 18,615 days left, after two p.m. today, they’ll be spent with me living my fullest life. Like he would have wanted. I just wish I’d realized it while he was still here.
I throw on gym shorts and a T-shirt and head down to the kitchen, wondering what birthday surprise Mom will have cooked up this year. She makes super-elaborate cakes every birthday and covers the house in decorations that change depending on what team, movie, or hobby my siblings and I have adopted over the last year.
But when I get to the kitchen, everything’s just as we left it last night: plain walls, sunken couch cushions, and dishes stacked in the sink. The only exception is a card displayed on the counter and my little sister, Maggie, sitting on the neighboring living room couch rifling through a box of Oreo Pop-Tarts with her science textbook splayed open on the coffee table. Maggie never wastes a chance to study, not even to enjoy a Pop-Tart.
“That’s not even a breakfast-adjacent flavor,” I comment as I swipe a protein bar out of a box I left out after practice last night.
Maggie eyes the bar in my hand and glares at me. “You’re eating the exact same flavor, jerk.”
I take an annoyingly large bite and grab my card. Nice of Mom to at least leave me this. But when I open it, I’m confused. It’s a hand-drawn anime-style cartoon with a spiky-haired boy holding an over-the-top cake; definitely not Mom’s style. I look closer, though, where I find the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY BARCLAY!!!!! LOVE, MAGGIE on the picture of the cake.
Heat rushes to my face as I glance back at Maggie, really feeling like a jerk. “Thanks for the card,” I say.
She sighs. “Whatever. Scratch would have made me make it for you.”
I give her a nod even though just hearing his name hurts and let the unspoken I find you unbearably annoying but still do care about you agreement settle between us as I glance outside. Mom’s missed so much work that it’s fair to assume that she’s just gone in early to make up for lost time. Can’t really blame her for not getting a birthday display up when she’s covering the funeral expenses and the second income we lost when Scratch died. But when I look outside, her car is still in the driveway. As if on cue, I hear footsteps behind me—and spy Mom still in her pajamas, lines under her eyes that no makeup can hide. But the thing I notice most is she’s still. Mom’s usually a blur of motion, rummaging around the cabinets, looking for her inevitably misplaced keys or shoes, but now... she just stands there, saying nothing.
“Are... you going to work today?” I ask, shifting my weight back and forth, trying not to notice she hasn’t wished me a happy birthday yet.
“Not yet. The morning got away from me and...”
She trails off and adjusts a piece of her thick honey-brown hair—the same color she gave me—and the pit in my stomach starts to deepen. I need this day to go exactly according to plan. And that plan happened to involve Mom being at her best—or at least the best she can be after what we’ve been through. Today is clearly already not Mom’s best day. Today isn’t even as good as yesterday. I can’t take this as an omen, so I press ahead.
“Well, that’s okay,” I say. “No one will be working this afternoon anyway since the pep rally’s today.”
This, at least, gets Mom to half smile. “Right. Kick off the season.” But she says it like a sigh, not a cheer.
“I’m gonna”—I’m going to come out at it—“be doing a big speech as captain, so I’m glad you’ll be there.” I practically hear the countdown clock upstairs ticking as I chicken out. Again.
“Hon, I’ve got to take Maggie to her sketching sleepover with Emily tonight.”
My heart squeezes. She’s been making excuse after excuse to avoid seeing anyone since the funeral, abandoning her book club friends, ditching drinks out with her coworkers, refusing to let our out-of-state family drop in. Still, I never thought she’d actually miss a Chitwood pep rally.
Maggie glances up from her phone, frowning. “Emily said she had a ton of homework, so we canceled. It’s okay. It gives me more time to work on my portfolio for the Chitwood Young Arts Award—”
Good. Perfect, actually. Thank you, Emily and Maggie’s never-ending quest to be the best students and artists under age fourteen in Chitwood.
“Well then, you should come too, it’s not that long,” I say.
“Are you sure?” Maggie presses. “I really need to finish.”
All she really needs to be there for is my speech, so yes, I’m sure. Besides, when she says “work on” her art portfolios, she usually means adding a sixth unnecessary layer onto an already incredible piece. None of the Neanderthals who judge the competitions will be able to tell.
But then we’re all left in silence. Silence that should be filled with Mom assuring me that she’ll get herself and Maggie to the pep rally come hell or high water.
A second more passes before she finally speaks.
“Barc, I’ve—” She massages her shoulder. “I’m barely back at work and I’m just not up for seeing so many people right now. Zack’s mom always records the rallies, right? I’ll—I’ll watch it after.” She gives me the most feeble smile, as if willing me to say it’s fine. “I’m sure you’ll be incredible.”
Mom’s not coming to the rally.
I can feel the blow hit me, pushing me to take a seat at the kitchen counter as a stinging prickles across my eyes and nose. But worse than Mom flaking, worse than Mom being definitely not okay, is the new issue she’s created for me.
I was really planning on coming out to her before the pep rally regardless, since it feels like information a mom should know before a whole town, but with her so overwhelmed already... now I don’t know. I know being gay isn’t a bad thing, but we’ve never talked about girls or guys. Most of what we talk about lately is just basketball. How’s she going to take something else she’s not even expecting?
“Hey, Mom, can you look at my newest sketch?” Maggie starts to say, but Mom overlaps her, saying, “Speaking of basketball, how’re you feeling about the season?” Mom tries to smile, like she’s making up for not being there today, but Maggie deflates.
I reach over to her mega box and grab a packet of Pop-Tarts, trying to let Maggie get Mom’s attention again, but Maggie’s eyes lock onto me like a video game enemy, shooting a laser glare my way.
“Has your school list changed?” Mom continues like she didn’t hear her. “I hear every state school will have scouts here at the first big game, it was in the paper and everything. You know it’d be something to have you at Georgia Tech with your brother.”
As Maggie’s hands clench into fists, I feel myself getting frustrated too. If Mom’s too wrecked to go to my pep rally, why bother talking basketball at all? And especially not the stuff that’s already keeping me up at night, the pressure that sits heavy in my chest. The worries about if I’ll even be able to get into Georgia Tech, let alone Villanova, or Kansas, or any other big-city D1 school I dream of being able to attend. The possibility that we’ll lose in the championship again this year and all those dreams will dry up. The fear that I can’t do any of it without Scratch.
“Those reporters haven’t stopped calling,” Mom continues, eyes now back on the stairs, like she can’t wait to be back in bed. “I swear they’re going to cost me a listing one day, but it’ll be worth it.” I’m sure she’s teasing, but I still sweat a little. “I know you’re so good, but you can’t rest on your laurels now. Make sure you’re taking it all seriously.” She squeezes my arm, then moves to the stairs. I check my phone; I’m going to be late if I don’t leave right now. And I can’t be late today. Another opportunity has slipped by and this just... isn’t how I thought today would start.
“Well, can we talk after?” I say, trying to salvage it.
—and Maggie slams out of her chair.
“Can we ever talk about anything besides basketball?” Maggie exclaims, her voice high and sharp.
She rockets out of the kitchen and toward her room. Mom takes a long, deep breath and heads up after her. My moment to come out to Mom has officially passed.
I force myself to walk toward the back door but glance at the Georgia nature calendar on the wall as I do. At the little heart on the date.
This birthday, this pep rally, will be the first family event without Scratch. She hasn’t even mentioned it. No one wants me to be distracted. Like Coach keeps saying, Just swallow it all, push harder. But this feeling and this secret are like lead, weighing me down. I can’t end up like Mom. I won’t. I’m going out there and taking control of my life, just like my grandpa would’ve wanted. She’ll understand. I’ll tell her about the gay thing once I’m home again. Once I have everyone else’s support.
I step outside to head to the detached garage for my bike, but right away I notice something’s different out here too. The baby hoop that Scratch bought me years ago is gone. I outgrew it before we could put together the time and money to install a standard size, but now in its place, there’s a brand-new adult-sized basketball hoop, the rim a shining bright orange, with a red ribbon around it. A piece of printer paper is taped on the backboard that reads KEEP DOING YOUR AMAZING THING, BUT WITH #SWAG. LOVE YOU. DEVIN. I smile at it so wide it hurts my face. My older brother, Devin, must’ve come home from college and put it up while I was sleeping. It’s the big gesture I was expecting from Mom, a sign I didn’t know I needed.
I grab a worn ball out from the garage and shoot a perfect arc. It flies through the net with that beautiful swish. My tension released, I scoop it up again. Despite the time ticking away, I don’t stop until I make ten in a row.
Once my shoulders have finally relaxed, I send Devin a Thank you! see you tonight! text and load up my bike.
Today’s finally starting to feel like the good vibes I was hoping for. My phone starts to ding with happy birthday messages as I pedal out. Each one feels like a reminder—This is right. I’ve got this.
The good feeling continues to grow as I enter town ten minutes later, passing by businesses decked out in Wildcats blue and gold. Neighbors shoot me a wave as I pedal by, some even making signs already for the first game of the season tomorrow. Then people I barely know look up from their phones to smile and say “happy birthday” when I walk into school. Most of the team is lined up right by the entryway, slapping me on the back as they yell, “It’s Barclay’s birthday!” so even the teachers in their classrooms can hear.
When I make my way over to my locker, it’s covered top to bottom in homemade cards—more than I think I’ve ever gotten. My fingertips put in my combination as I look the cards over. But even that small amount of concentration is lost as a pair of soft lips press against my cheek, accompanied by the scent of expensive perfume. I know without looking it’s Catherine Finney, the cheer captain.
“Good luck today,” she says, her voice a purr. “I’ll be there cheering you on the whole time.”
I feel a little guilty. We made out drunk at an off-season party last year, but it just confirmed for me that yeah, I’m pretty gay. I know I should’ve just let her down easy right after, but I didn’t know what to tell her without outing myself before I was ready. At least we’ll probably laugh about it after today.
My best friend, Zack Ito, slides up and replaces Catherine in her perfume-y wake. “Hey, man! Look at you. Birthday! Championship season start day!” He grins a little wider as he pushes his long, dark hair back. “Finney wants to blow you day. When I push her your way after we win tomorrow, you better fucking ask her out this time.”
It’s not that I’m upset that Zack and the rest of the guys will throw around comments like this, but I feel the unspoken words between us, the curious glances they give me every time I say I have to work or want to go stag to a school dance, the way I have nothing to say during locker room talk. Not quite at He’s gay yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I hate that feeling, but this is the last time I’ll feel it. Two words and it’ll all be out there. On my terms.
But for now, I just give my locker another try and say, “I don’t even think she wants to blow me.”
Zack glances back and Catherine gives me a tiny wave like she was waiting for me to look. There’s a flirty smile on her face as she tucks a light brown curl behind her ear.
“Okay, maybe she wants to blow me,” I admit. Not for long.
“Oh, I see you, Elliot!” a voice says behind me, shaking me out of my thoughts.
It’s Ostrowski. Great.
“But remember, can’t stop at just one. Especially not after we”—his voice suddenly rises—“WIN! THIS! GAME!”
He even pulls me into a bro-handshake, like he’s not the reason we lost last year’s championship.
I grab my books as he runs off chanting and turn to head to class with Zack.
“Now that that moron’s gone, sorry I didn’t get you a card like everyone else on the planet,” Zack says. “I bet you’ll like this better, though.” He shoves something in front of my face. It takes me a second to realize it’s a newspaper. I look at him, puzzled as to A) where he got an actual physical newspaper and B) why he’s showing it to me. “Just read this column here.” He points to the top left. When I do, my heart leaps. TOP TEN COLLEGE BASKETBALL RECRUITS IN GEORGIA. And there’s me, BARCLAY ELLIOT, my name written in that sports news font I’ve daydreamed about, sitting right at number one.
“Dude, is this real?” I ask, grinning.
“It must be if they wasted actual paper on it. With this kind of press, scouts will be falling over themselves to come see us. This season is it, bro,” he says, punching me in the arm. He’s bouncing with excitement, but the more I look at him, the more I start to notice a tightness around his smile and in his shoulders, like an invisible pressure sitting on him. It’s a feeling I definitely recognize, but Zack is the chillest guy I know; he didn’t even break a sweat before the championship last year.
I’m about to ask what’s up, but I’ve been so focused on the paper I almost run smack into this girl, Tabby. Her eyes look bigger than usual in her thick glasses, but her bright red hair is the same as always. She’s positively shaking as she hands me a cupcake, neck craned to look up at me. The cupcake is clearly homemade, with what I think is an animal on the top.
“I made these for you for the game,” Tabby says. “That’s supposed to be a Wildcat.” It looks more like a horse. “Well, here’s one. There’s more, so...”
It’s pretty common that one of the cheerleaders will bake for us before the game, but I’m not really even friends with Tabby. I wish I could remember where I even know her from. Science class? Math class? She’s definitely not a basketball fan. But, whatever, I’ll take it. I’m about to thank Tabby for the gesture, but she gets swallowed up by a group of freshmen going the opposite direction, all walking and talking down the middle of the hallway. One high school traffic hazard and she’s gone. Which is good because then I can pass this off without hurting her feelings. Thinking about the rally has already killed my appetite.
“Do you want this? I had something sweet for breakfast,” I say.
Zack plucks it right out of my hand and takes a bite as we walk to first period. He makes a “mmm” sound, like he’s on a baking show. “Looks like shit, but tastes pretty good.” All traces of worry that I saw before are gone. I wonder if they were even really there.
I snort and feel the good vibes grow. People at this school love me; hell, someone I barely know baked me cupcakes. And I’ve been gay this whole time. Nothing’s changing except now I’ll be leading us to victory without this goddamn weight on my chest. After I say the words, the whole team will surround me as they cheer. We’ll be united and play the hell out of the first game of the season. Hell, there might even be newspaper articles that talk about me like Jason Collins, first openly gay athlete in Chitwood, Georgia, history. I bet there are other gay kids at this school who just need someone to pave the way for them. I can do that. Show them it’ll be okay.
And I’m finally going to be free.
The rest of the morning flies by in a rush of cards, birthday wishes, and Wildcat chants. I’m about to head to the cafeteria for pizza day when a black-nail-polished hand that can only belong to one person thrusts a Cane’s bag in front of my nose.
“Have I ever told you you’re my best friend?” I say, turning to see Amy Baltra staring back at me, her red lips in a mischievous grin. Her self-cut bob falls into her light blue eyes, perfectly done in eyeliner. Amy’s said many times she’d gladly live at a punk concert and always look the part.
“Yeah, yeah, happy birthday, but this won’t be a usual thing,” she says. “My senior connection is only going to last so long.”
As in: she made out with some senior in band at a party earlier this year and he proceeded to never stop asking about hanging out with the team. She hates it, but since he agrees to buy food for both of us, she keeps the complaining to a minimum. I peek into my bag, the steam from the chicken heating my fingertips.
“Besides, this is a bribe,” Amy says, grabbing my arm and pulling me into the journalism classroom before I get a chance to dig in. With anyone else, I’d be annoyed to be thrown off from enjoying my usual table with the team. But Amy and I have been friends for so long, I don’t think there’re many paths I won’t let her lead this friendship down.
“All right, what’s the catch for my birthday lunch?”
Before I can respond, the classroom door opens again. A guy walks in and Amy waves. He’s average height, slim, white with the kind of pale skin you can only get around here by actively avoiding going outside. His lips twitch, like he was about to smile but changed his mind.
“Hey...” I know this guy, but as with Tabby, I just can’t place from where. He looks like he answers questions correctly in class. Did we work on a group project together or something?
“Christopher Dillon,” he says, holding a hand out. He scrutinizes me, but his expression doesn’t change past this neutral look, like I’m not worth engaging his facial muscles. His semi-rimless glasses highlight his gray eyes, surrounded by dark eyelashes. “Not Chris, not Topher. Christopher.”
Oh shit, yes, that’s it. Christopher is the band guy Amy always talks about on the newspaper. He’s also the only guy I know who’s out at Chitwood High, but he flies pretty under the radar. He’s definitely changed since the last time I saw him, though. Gotten taller, new glasses, changed his fashion maybe? He’s got one of those hipster-y dressy-casual outfits—a vertical-stripe peach-tone button-up, slim jeans that stop before the ankle. I don’t know, it’s not my vibe, but it works on him, almost like he’s... cuter. It comes into my head and like a reflex, I look away, locking onto his dress shoes.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re an old man,” Amy says. “We get it. This is Barclay. Stephan Dixon used to bark at him in elementary school, so I think his name is more tragic than yours.”
I frown. “Thank you for bringing that up, Amy.”
Christopher drops into the desk next to me, darting his gaze to my food, then his notebook. He pulls out a pen and clicks it against a mole on his sharp cheekbone to get it open. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
I look right over to Amy, like I’m a kid again not understanding long division or what himbo means. “Get what over with?”
Amy smirks. “Well, you know how I was always fighting the last newspaper advisor about writing something that actually matters for the paper? The new advisor, Ms. Cho, is totally on board. She and I came up with a way in. I get to write my column on voting rights if I interview you for a shiny worship piece. Lead the meatheads and admin in with you, then slip in some hot button issues. But no offense, I’d rather vom than interview you, so Christopher is doing it. He owes me.”
She punctuates my roast with a wink at Christopher, who rolls his eyes and rakes a hand through the dark locks framing his face. It goes right back into his eyes before he even pulls his hand away. “I owe you nothing and yet still I’m writing this article. A good, old-fashioned hand-to-dick piece, the pinnacle of journalism. So let’s make it as painless as possible, considering it’s just about high school basketball.”
I don’t think I’m the most important person to ever walk these halls, but man, Christopher has a chip on his shoulder. From the corner of my eye, I see Amy holding back laughter as she dips a chicken tender in Cane’s sauce, enjoying this lunchtime theater she’s set up for herself.
“Why don’t you want to do this?” I ask, annoyed.
Christopher clicks his pen in and back out on the desk. His index fingernails are painted blue. “Just a little outside my interest sphere,” he says, deadpan. “Before you ask, you haven’t been on record, but let’s start now. What do you think of the team this season?”
“I—” I fidget with my trash. And of course, instead of distracting from me, it just gets Christopher to watch me do it. “This year is gonna be different. You’ll see. This game is going to be one for the books, and that’s only the beginning of the path to the championship.”
“Wow, I can’t believe your life is a word-for-word sports movie,” Christopher says, raising his brows. “Well, how’s it going to be different? I mean what do you think went wrong in last year’s championship?”
I can still smell the exact punch of ammonia from the cleaner on the court that day. It was down to the buzzer, two points between us and the title, the one we hadn’t won since Scratch was a senior at West Chitwood fifty years ago. The crowd was screaming so loud it felt more like a concert than a game, chanting my name—Barclay, Barclay, Barclay! I whipped around to find my opening, squaring up for the shot. But the opposing team’s defense collapsed around me, shouting taunts about the sophomore prodigy losing his steam. The shot wasn’t there, so I’d passed Ostrowski the ball back outside the arc, then raced down the lane so he could feed it back to me. But he didn’t even pause, didn’t even look. He lobbed up a shit shot no one in their right mind would have taken, and as it died in the air, the buzzer sounded. I hadn’t had time to make the rebound, hadn’t had time to fix it. My soul sank to my feet watching the ball roll off the court. The shrill alarm of the buzzer sounded in my ear as I looked helplessly to my equally shocked teammates, the wilting painted faces of every Chitwood business owner in the stands, then finally to the fallen look on Scratch’s face from the front row of the bleachers. That slow, dizzying realization that it’d all come crashing down in one moment. A moment I can’t stop thinking I could’ve done better.
A voice in my head keeps telling me there was a way we could’ve won. That my grandpa could’ve seen another championship before he died. That maybe some effect in the universe would’ve kept him from dying all together.
But it’ll be different this year. When I come out today, this team is going to be tighter than ever—no secrets, no distractions, no ball hogging. We’ll rally around each other, because like Scratch used to say, Championships are won by teams, not players. I’m gonna set the example.
But I can’t tell Christopher any of that. Not yet.
Before I can think of anything else to say, the bell rings. Christopher looks to the clock hanging on the wall and closes his notebook.
“I guess we’ll have to pick this up later. Oh joy,” he says, his speed seemingly turned up three times as fast. “When we meet again, Finn.”
Definitely the weirdest school paper interview I’ve ever done. Whatever. I have so many other things to worry about than one singular person in this school not liking me. I’ll give him plenty to write about at the pep rally.
“My name isn’t even Finn,” I mutter as I collect my trash.
Amy just laughs.
As much as the rest of the day has flown, getting through this last class feels impossible. Spanish with Mrs. Shue is usually a solid okay—she’s one of the cooler teachers—but my mind is drifting hard today.
“The reflexive goes before the verb when that verb is conjugated. So in this sentence, ‘Please pass the mustard,’ you would say, ‘Me puedes pasar la mostaza.’ Does everyone understand that? Sí? Todos entienden?”
One last period. One last period until the pep rally.
I run my fingertips along the wood of the desk, antsy. After all this buildup, I’m beyond ready to do this. God, I can’t wait to get back in my uniform. In a way, the Wildcat uniform changes the way my body feels, making my blood pump better and injecting me with energy. It keeps my head clear when it needs to be, focused, like I can do anything. Most of all, though, it makes me feel like I’m part of something, along with everyone else in class already wearing their Wildcats apparel and whispering about the game.
“Guys,” Mrs. Shue says when no one responds, her voice laced with frustration from probably the seven classes before us combined.
“Sí, Sí, entiendo,” everyone but me says.
“Bueno, moving on,” Mrs. Shue says. I draw circles on my desk with my fingers. Little basketballs, imagining their rubber on my fingertips instead. “Barclay?”
Shit. I look up, heating rushing to my ears. “Yes—sí?”
“I’m sure you’re as excited for the season to start as I am,” she says, a smile forming across her face. “I’m thinking about letting you go early....”
Scratch is looking over me today. Getting out early from Spanish before she can ask for the homework I definitely didn’t do? Hell yes. “That would be awesome, Mrs. Shue.”
She smirks. “Say it in Spanish and I’ll let you go.”
Even I know that one. “Este es tan bueno, Señora Shue.”
She smiles again and says, “Consígamos una victoria, Barclay.”
The room erupts in cheers of “Go, Wildcats!” that feel like I’ve already won. As I pack up, Señora Shue leads the class in a Spanish rendition of “Happy Birthday.” I might only have 18,615 days left, but the 18,615th day has been pretty damn awesome so far.
And it’s only going to get better. I can feel it deep in my bones as I hustle off to the lockers to get ready. When I peek out through the locker room doors fifteen minutes later and see the crowd filling the stands with excited energy, the feeling grows.
“I think the whole town is here,” I say to Zack as he adjusts his uniform.
He grins. “They better be.”
I go back to scanning the crowd. Mom isn’t here. One promise she managed to keep. Still, I find myself looking over the crowd a couple more times, a lump forming in my throat as I fail to see her again and again. But I shake it off as quickly as I can. Focus on who is here—Maggie, Devin, Zack’s parents, the team’s families, our sponsors, people from town who serve us ice cream and fix our bike tires and check out our groceries. Random town personalities and politicians. People I’ve known my whole life and some whose faces I barely know, all holding signs with my name on them.
I wave at the people who spot me as I peek out, and I find Amy, who’s sitting with that girl Tabby who baked me cupcakes and that annoying guy Christopher. They’re both holding up these posters done in elaborate tiny calligraphy that just say yay. But even Amy, who thinks pep rallies are equivalent to nationalist propaganda, can’t hold back a smile at the infectious energy around us. Prerecorded wildcat roars fade into the school band playing an awesome version of our fight song, and I feel like a warrior ready for battle, blood pumping, itching for action. I start jumping up and down to release some of the energy, and the team follows suit, all getting hyped around me. I can feel it. We’re really in sync, comfortable in each other’s spaces for the first time since we lost last year. And I know, I’m ready.
I can hardly wait as Principal Horvath takes the stage. He’s got a Wildcats jersey on awkwardly over a suit and tie. I glance at Zack and we bite back grins.
“Dibs for my Halloween costume this year,” I whisper to him, and he curses under his breath that I beat him to it.
Coach stands at the end of the line, farthest from me, yet I can sense the tension in how he stands. I know he loves these pep rallies, but he’s ready for tomorrow’s game to get started too, to put last year behind us.
“Hellooooo Wildcats!” Principal Horvath says as he waves his arms to quiet the crowd. Everyone leans in. The man usually doesn’t have this much enthusiasm for anything. “This is one helluva team! Undefeated last year and went all the way to the state championship! And, if I know this team, they are hungrier than ever. This is the year we win our first state title in decades! Let’s welcome the Wildcaaaats!”
The crowd goes even wilder as the guys and I run onto the court. I find myself joining in, screaming my lungs out. So many friendly faces are cheering and grinning and jumping to their feet around me. For me and this team. God, I can’t believe I’m here, leading this team out as captain. I can’t believe we’re gonna win this year.
I can’t believe I’m finally doing this.
“Special thanks to Gus Verrier from Verrier Electronics for the new uniforms,” Principal Horvath says, almost as an afterthought. “Thanks, Gus.”
Gus, a sort of tiny, former–AV Club–looking guy who fixes my iPhone whenever I drop it, which is a lot, waves to Horvath.
We all take our seats just behind Horvath’s podium, but I can practically feel everyone’s legs twitching as we try to sit still, itching to scrimmage.
“This kind of season doesn’t just happen without the best coach in the state of Georgia,” Principal Horvath continues, his voice rising like he’s in the WWE. “Folks, give a giant Wildcats roar for our coach, Brian Ferris!”
We focus and join in to give Coach the introduction he deserves. It’s like watching a legend strut onto a stage. Coach takes a moment to smile and even put his arms up a little, relishing in the attention the most I’ve ever seen him.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says. “I just want to say it’s an incredible honor to lead these fine young men seated behind me. But the Wildcats wouldn’t be the Wildcats without the support of all of you and the entire beautiful community of Chitwood behind it. And, as you know, we’re kicking off the season with one hell of a test against the Panthers tomorrow.”
The crowd boos.
“Now, now. We’re going to welcome them onto our court with respect and dignity—that’s what the Wildcats do.” He holds the mic closer, like he’s performing. “And then we’ll kick their asses!”
The roar that follows is deafening, and the heat in my body just spreads.
“In my twenty-three and a half years, this is the best team I’ve had the privilege of coaching. But we all know we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the exceptional play of one special young man.”
My stomach flips.
Now or never.
I can hear the ticking of my clock. Now. Now. Now.
Someone shouts, “Go Barclay!” and the crowd picks up on my name and starts chanting. But Coach cuts them short with another hand motion. He waits patiently as everyone calms. Zack claps me on the back as everyone jumps up around me in excitement. They’re all here for me. They’ve got my back.
“Last year, as a sophomore, he broke the Georgia state record for three-pointers. And, thanks to his leadership, talent, and exceptional, God-given purpose in this life, he leads us into what I believe is going to be a very special season. My fellow Wildcats, it is truly my honor to introduce to you, our team captain, Georgia’s reigning Gatorade Boys Player of the Year, Barclay Elliot.”
With my name, the crowd goes fucking nuts. Like I’m talking the whole bleachers swaying as everyone stands in unison.
“Barclay! Barclay! Barclay!”
This is it. The next time I walk back to this seat, I’ll be out. I run up toward the podium, but it feels more like taking the first step on a tightrope. I won’t look down.
Time is the enemy. I know now there is no time guaranteed other than the present. The cheers drown out any thoughts or doubts in my head until all that’s left is the thundering of my heartbeat.
“Um. Hi,” I say. The mic screeches with feedback. I launch back a step, resisting the urge to clutch my ears.
A voice from the crowd fills my moment of hesitation. “Happy Birthday, Barcs!”
Cheers erupt once more and I grin pointing at the voice in the crowd, but it’s hardly five seconds before I’m back in the silence.
The awareness of time gives us the courage to face our fears. Scratch said that all the time, but I never really appreciated it until now.
“I don’t have too much to say, uh, other than you guys are awesome. And I’m so proud of this team.”
And if we face those fears, we can defeat them.
I turn to the team. To Zack’s two thumbs up and grin, to Ostrowski rocking on his feet, antsy. To Coach watching me, nodding along as if I’m saying something profound.
“You guys are my family. And I’m proud to be your captain.”
They all smile back. Some of that confidence from this morning returns in a swell of energy.
“Hell, this entire school is like a second home to me!”
The crowd cheers again. My people, my family. They’re all here for me and nothing could stop that, nothing can stop us. It’s everything I could have ever dreamed of.
“... And you should be able to share everything with your family.”
Today is the day. I only have 18,615 of them left. What am I waiting for? Let’s fucking do this.
“So I want you to know...”
Two measly words and it’ll be done.
And then—there’s silence.