Football's everything in West Canaan. Because there's not much else. Every girl in school wants to date a football player. Or be a cheerleader. The West Canaan Coyotes and their unbeaten record seems to be a huge aphrodisiac. I thought I was immune. I mean, I've grown up with most of these people. Maybe not from the same side of the tracks. . . Mama and Papí don't exactly mix in with the mainstream town. . .but I've always been in the middle of it. My older brother Ricky played for the Coyotes a few years ago. . . and now he works at the cannery like most of the other Tex-Mex chicos who never got a chance for a scholarship. Of course Tejanos and whites alike sit around over beers and talk about their glory days. As I said, football's all this place has.
Sure I've got school spirit. But I've always been a brain. Leticia "Tisha" Juarez, at the top of the class. In senior English even though I'm only a junior. Hanging out with my best friend Jules whenever she's not out with Mox. Jonathan Moxon. Star quarterback for the last five games of the season. Smart-mouthed, cute, kept the bench warm until Lance tore all those ligaments. He's still great fun during class discussions about Vonnegut. But I was never a groupie. Never one of those girls who gets all ga-ga and wears the short skirts and tries to get laid by any and everybody in a Coyotes jersey. Its Mox's fault, you see. I grew up watching him and Lance and Tweeder and Billy Bob play. And I never thought much of Lance. His little sister's best girl friend. Always thought he was sweet and loco and then plain amazing when he went all-state. I never thought I would ever have a chance with him. Or want one. Until he got hurt. And Mox took his place. And Darcy stopped seeing him. Until I went one night with Jules to the hospital and saw him lying there. All helpless. Lost. Abandoned by practically everybody because he suddenly wasn't the star.
I'm not immune anymore. I want Lance Harbor more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. Even a scholarship to Brown like Mox's. This is so stupid. And pointless. Even on crutches and coaching instead of Kilmer, he's out of my league.
Tisha stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. Redid her coffee lipstick and surveyed her eyes. Huge, hazel. Tired. Skylar Hayes and Jenny Myers were hairspraying their hair and gossiping about a wild night with some of the halfbacks, but it wasn't hard to block out. She stepped back a few steps, biting her lip as she took in her tight blue jeans and red crop top. Not exactly up to par with football player bait, but still close. She didn't want to be up there anyway. She was who she was. Petite, Latina, Tisha Juarez, with straight black hair that fell to her waist and a 4.0 GPA.
Maybe it would be enough for once. Maybe today, Lance would look beyond the girls who hung around his crowd. The floozies and the tramps. And notice her. Or maybe not.
The school was still on fire. From the win. Hallways crowded with whooping students even though a week had passed. Classes would grind to a halt for 20 minutes at a time so people could slap Billy Bob or Wendell or Tweeder on the back. And Mox and Lance? It was like going to school with Jesus and John the Baptist.
Luckily Tisha had the connection with Jules. It was like knowing Mary Magdalene, she thought wryly as she found her desk in the midst of a bunch of hollering and congratulating. It gave her an in. She looked over where Linc Fryson and Dana Walters had cornered Mox on the way to his desk. Of course with different intentions. Linc was "dude, oh awesome"-ing about the last quarter of the game. . . and Dana had on one of the most trashy low cut blouses she'd ever seen. Jules would cringe. Or laugh.
Mox caught her eye. . .and she grinned. There was a bewildered but amused twinkle in those gorgeous eyes. Pobrecito. He skirted his attackers with a few stammered comments and slid into his seat right in front of her.
"Hey, Tish," he greeted, setting down his backpack.
"Hey, Johnny," she said back, trying not to laugh. "Suffering from the price of fame?" she wondered, leaning forward on her elbows.
He blushed, shrugging as a bunch of fans decided to settle down and sit instead of coming at him again. "Least I made it in the door this time."
She chuckled again and slouched down, twirling her pen in her hands. "Where's Lance today?" she asked, hoping it didn't sound too obvious. "Is he gone for a check-up or will he be coming into school?"
Mox was grinning. Damn. Likely that Jules told him everything. He dragged a hand through his dark hair. "Lance oughta be here soon," he assured. "Although I hear Darcy called him last night. She might just want him back."
Tisha's eyes flashed over the blond, perfect, cheerleader over in the first row. Miss Whipped Cream Bikini. Who wanted nothing more than a quick way out of town. Lance had been it. Before. "Really?" she murmured. . . but as her eyes came back to her friend's face, she saw that look. The kidding one. "Cabrón!" she spat, smacking his arm. "You are such a jerk, Johnny Moxon!"
He shrugged casually. "Maybe. . .but I'm a star jerk now," he pointed out, wiggling his eyebrows.
She couldn't help but laugh. "If I tell Jules you said that, I bet you won't get lucky for the next week."
Mrs. Harris was at the front of the room now, frantically trying to get everyone settled. It wasn't working. "I'm lucky just to have her," Mox murmured, still twisted around in his seat, and the fondness was obvious in his low voice.
Sí, Tisha thought. Mox and Jules were both lucky. They'd overcome a lot these last few weeks. And stayed together for years before that. Since the boys had played Pee Wee, in fact. The closest she'd gotten was going to the 8th grade spring dance with Tweeder. One kiss. And then he'd ditched her for someone who helped him lose his virginity in the back of Billy Bob's truck. Not that she was sorry. Tweeder was Tweeder. No staying power there. And there'd been dates here and there with neighborhood boys like Mateo and Luis, but she knew that her life was not meant to be with future factory workers, raising tons of babies and making tortillas. Or sleeping with pretty boy blond football players who would toss her aside. If she got Lance, it would be for a lot more than one night. It would be for love.
Tisha moved through the hallway almost like a zombie. Dios, ever since she'd realized how she felt about Lance, a zombie was exactly what she had become. Moony. Unfocused. She'd gotten her SAT scores back just two days ago and the 1560 hadn't meant nearly as much as hearing that Lance would eventually be able to walk unaided. She was sick.
In a perfect world, it was Mox she should've been in love with. Mox was just like her. Full of big Ivy League dreams and hopes beyond sports and West Canaan. But since Jules had always been there, Johnny had become a friend. A pretty good one. So she went and fell for Lance instead. Mr.-My-Face-is-on-Every-Billboard-in-Town. Mr. Star. Mr. -Future-Football-Coach-at-WC High-Now-That-My-Knee's-Busted. He'd also never dated someone who wasn't blonde. Not that he was shallow, she reasoned quickly. For someone who'd had so much riding on his shoulders for so long, Lance had been surprisingly laid back. Always nice when she came over to watch movies. He'd liked pulling on her braids when they were kids and he still did it once in a while if she and Jules were sacked out on the couch engrossed in chick flicks.
She stopped cold by a row of lockers as she recognized the voice and the sharp tone. Darcy Sears. And she slowly turned around. "What?" she wondered, checking out the other girl's ultra-short black mini and her printed halter top. She also had on three inch high heels. She towered like some Nordic goddess.
Darcy's blue eyes were narrowed. Not friendly. "I saw you talking to Mox in class," she said, hefting a few notebooks in one arm.
"I always talk to Johnny." She didn't bat an eyelash. What had she done to earn this particular strain of conversation? Darcy and her type usually didn't give her the time of day.
"Does Jules know you're after him?" Darcy's blond brows knitted together with both curiosity and malice.
Tisha laughed at the absurdity. "What in the world put that idea in your head?" she demanded between chuckles, ignoring people shoving past them to get to class. "I wouldn't go after Mox! Even if he wasn't my best friend's boyfriend! We're just friends."
The head cheerleader's eyes grew even shrewder. And there was silence between them. . . not quite so quiet since people were chattering around them. But icy still. "So, its Lance you want," she concluded softly.
"Lance?" She'd always had a good poker face. "My God, Darcy. Every girl in the school has wanted Lance Harbor at one time or another. Doesn't mean anything. Its not exactly headline news," she cracked, shifting her backpack from one shoulder to the other. "What's it to you?" she asked lightly, cocking her head. "I thought you broke up with him."
Oddly enough, there was a crack in Darcy's perfect face. Something almost. . . sad. Mox'd said as much last week. . .told her to lay off Darcy because she really wasn't as bad as people thought. Not that that had changed Tisha's private opinion.
"I did," the taller girl said. And then the moment of weakness was gone. Proud cruelty replaced it. Proud and rather loud. "I just thought I'd warn you. It takes a lot to win over a guy like Lance. More than tequila and a Miss Chiquita Banana dance from the wrong side of town."
Tisha wasn't too surprised. But the words still hurt. She felt her face flush red. People had heard. Tweeder was over at his locker. Dana. . . Linc. Bobby Miller. At least six or seven others. They were all looking half-shocked and half-sorry. The sound of Tweeder's locker slamming shut actually echoed through the corridor. And she saw him step forward just a little. She swallowed hard. No, this wasn't a fight for her 8th grade boyfriend. She summoned up all her acid, stepped firmly past the racism. And went for the jugular. "Well," she said calmly, tossing her head. "I guess there's always whipped cream, isn't there, Darcy?"
Darcy actually went pale. And students starting chuckling. Tisha took another deep breath. "At least if I leave this town, it'll be with my head high in the air and an academic scholarship. I don't plan to do it by being flat on my back," she assured. And she moved to step around her opponent.
Only to find that someone had come up and joined the crowd of on-lookers. Leaning on crutches, a Coyotes hat pulled down over his blond curls. Blue eyes unreadable. She was face to face with Lance. And before anything else could be said--although it was enough time for her to register that he looked totally gorgeous in his jeans and blue sweater--she ducked past him and fled towards AP History with as much dignity as she could muster.
"Tish!" His voice. . . he was calling her.
"Lance, let her go."
"Shut up, you cocksucking whore."
"Tweeder, watch your mouth."
"Man. . .did you hear alla that. . .? Lance, I ain't watchin' nothin' but my fist!"
"Hrmmph. . .bitch. . .jeez. . ."
"Poor Kid. . ."
"Tish, come on back!"
Sorry, she thought. Not right now. And the tears blinded her vision as she kept moving farther and farther away from the melee. She'd come to school this morning hoping that Lance would notice her. Thanks to Darcy, that wish had come true.
"I heard what happened." Jules's voice didn't make her jump. "I'm sorry."
"Why?" She smiled bitterly, leaning against the base of Coach Kilmer's statue and exhaling smoke as the Camel Light dangled from her fingers. "It was Darcy being a bitch, not you." It'd been hard to get through class. Sitting there and pretending to learn about the Korean War when all she could hear in her head was that stupid exchange by the lockers. But at least during lunch she could come out to the back field and light up.
"Leticia." Julie was the only one who could get away with using her whole name at school. "We both know you don't give two shits about Darcy. This is about my brother."
Tisha half-turned. "Your brother. . ." she echoed, twisting her lips into some semblance of a real grin. "Your brother is the school heartthrob."
Jules crossed her arms over the chest of her hooded gray parka. "No," she disagreed, dark eyes dancing. "My boyfriend is."
They laughed about that together. And Tisha sighed, looking at her best friend's pretty, all-American face. "You know what I mean. I've known Lance since I was three years old. And this fighting over him thing is just ridiculous. I don't know why Darcy'd go and jump on me like that over someone I've always known."
"Because you're a threat now," Jules answered quickly. Wisely. "Now that Lance's out of the hospital and her clutches, he's a free agent. And she probably heard you like him."
"From who?" she demanded, amazed. "The only reason you know is 'cause. . .Cristo, you just do. And Mox knows 'cause you told him and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't tell the other boys on the team. How could Darcy even put me on a list of targets?"
Jules shook her dark red head. "I didn't tell Mox," she said softly. "I keep secrets, Tish. You know that."
"Th-then how?" Tisha took another drag off her cigarette, chilly despite the fact that it wasn't all that nasty out.
"Its written all over your face." Her friend was matter-of-fact. Her best quality. "Any time someone says his name, you light up. And when he's in the room. . . even if you're not looking at him, you start to glow."
Like a freaking nuclear reactor. "Shit." She ground out the rest of her smoke on Kilmer's bronze shoe, knowing the boys he'd lorded it over would love that gesture. "Does it bother you?" she quizzed.
"That you want Lance?" Jules looked dumbstruck and then she violently shook her head. "Tish, I'm glad you do. I love you. You're the best. I just wish my dumb-ass brother would wake up and see that. I think you'd be great for him!" she cried, punching her lightly in the arm.
Tisha blushed, scuffing at the concrete with the toe of her boot. "Thanks, J'," she murmured. "Thanks for making me feel better."
"You feeling good enough to talk to Lance?"
For a second, she actually believed Jules was kidding. But then she saw the figure coming slowly but surely across the lot. And Mox shadowing him. "Oh, no," she heard herself say as she scrambled for another Camel. "I don't believe this."
"Good luck!" And Jules was off. . . running gracefully off to her boyfriend's open arms. Kissing him. They gave her something like a hopeful look and then moved back towards the building with their arms around each other's waists.
And Lance crutched closer. Determination in every line of his athletic, hunky body and his hauntingly adorable face.
"Hey, Tish," he greeted, leaning against the statue.
"Hey, Lance." She drew in sharply on her second cig. Didn't look at him. But she could feel him next to her. . .his lean quarterback's body radiating energy. "How you feeling?"
"I'm all right. The knee's not trying me so much lately." He shifted his crutches to the side and leaned all his weight against Kilmer. "Thanks for coming to visit me in the hospital."
"You're welcome." She smiled to herself. Exhaled smoke.
"You shouldn't do that," he said after a few minutes of silence. "Smoke, I mean. Its bad for your health."
Tisha looked at him then. "So's playing football," she pointed out, gesturing at his brace. He'd taken off his ball cap. . .and his hair was all wind-tossed, catching the daylight and looking like a million different shades of gold. He flushed, and his dimples were the size of quarters. Despite her defense, she dropped her half-smoked cig and ground it out, reaching into her pocket for a Tic Tac.
"I heard what you and Darcy were talking about." No beating around the bush for Lance Harbor. No sirree. He slid his hands into his pockets and fixed her with a big blue stare.
"So'd half the hall." She shrugged, playing casual as she rolled the tangy mint around in her mouth. I'm immune, she thought to herself, please God let me be immune. "I thought Tweeder was gonna slap her," she murmured.
Lance was almost smiling. "He did."
Tisha choked on her Tic Tac, coughed violently for a few moments and all of a sudden Lance was slapping her on the back. And she coughed harder. His hand was like fire. Burning right through her thin shirt.
"Tish? You okay?" He rubbed his palm in circles. . . and the asthma set in.
"I-I'm f-fine. . ." she wheezed, grabbing Kilmer's leg for support. Let me go, let me go, stop touching me, she thought.
But he didn't. He just rested his hand on her shoulder and grinned. "I told you those cigarettes were bad for you," he teased.
It ain't the cigarettes, Honey. She breathed in and out a couple times. Long drafts of cool air. And when she was ready to look at him again, it was a big mistake. 'Cause his face was only inches away. All seriousness and concern. "Shut up, Lance," she managed to say before she looked away and went for a second round of self control.
"I heard the whole conversation," he continued like the five minute choking fit hadn't happened.
Tisha almost wanted to light up again. Instead, she used her Speech Team poise. "What does that mean, Captain Harbor?"
He didn't say anything right away. And then his eyes got all cloudy and he stared out towards the field. "I'm not Captain anymore," he reminded. "And that's the point. That's the end of it."
"Oh, bullshit!" she heard herself cry. "I liked you long before you became quarterback God of West Canaan High. You got more than football going for you. You got friends, Lance. You do count." There was no reason for him to start acting like every other grown man in town just yet. His glory days were long from over.
He was actually shocked out of his brooding Prince Hamlet routine--not that Hamlet had ever tossed a pigskin in his life. "Tish?" He furrowed his brows. "I don't get it."
"Course you do." She sighed heavily, noticing that kids were heading back towards school. . . lunch was winding down. A few eyes were casted their way, but it didn't matter much. Not after being the center of attention earlier. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Lance! Darcy picked a fight 'cause she was pissed off and jealous that I could like you even without a football in your hand and a scholarship floating your hot lil ass to Florida State!" Shit.
"'Hot lil ass'?" he repeated, starting to grin.
"Yeah, hot lil ass! You don't think all those girls following you around want to fuck your football, do you?" As long as she was going down, she might as well go for the fiery crash, too. "They're not looking at your defensive strategy! They're looking for a tackling dummy! And its not your throwing arm that gets girls hot! Its Mr. Mushroomhead, Jack's magic beanstalk, the purple headed yogurt warrior! You know. . ." she stammered, breathless. . . finally just pointing at his crotch. "Pedro."
He was looking down. . .his eyes following the path of her accusatory finger. Not saying much. His shaggy curls hid his eyes but she could see his cheeks starting to redden. Oh, great. He was mad. Or worse. . . embarrassed. Tisha'd known her mouth would get her into trouble one day and today just seemed to be it. He looked up slowly, biting his lip. And she realized he was trying to not to bust out laughing.
"Pedro?" And he lost it. . .falling over and tangling with his crutches. He slid to the ground, covering his face with his hands and laughing that "hot lil ass" right off. She couldn't help but laugh along just watching him and replaying what'd she said. Finally, after what seemed like hours, they both got back on track. "A-actually," he began, shoulders still shaking with mirth. "I don't call mine Pedro. . .that's just Mox."
"Oh?" She arched an eyebrow. "And what *do* you call it?" she asked between a few remaining giggles.
She didn't know it was physically possible for him to get any redder. . . was there any blood in the rest of body? He was pushing at some weeds with his toe and staring at the grass like it was the Second Coming. "Hrmrmrmalltatechampionmtgmgmgh," he mumbled.
"What?" she asked, noting that the unnamed member in question seemed to have a little circulation since it was the center of attention.
"All State Champion," he said a little louder and a little clearer and definitely more uncomfortably.
She nodded. Tried to look serious. But failed miserably. It was her turn to hit the ground. "I-I'm sorry," she gasped as she tried to stop the influx. "I'm sorry. . . its just. . .oh, my gawd. . .All-State?"
"Aw, Tish, cut it out," he pleaded, face burning, shifting and looking towards the school's back entrance.
She regained her balance and put the laughter away for a minute. He was so cute when he was humiliated. She crawled over to sit beside him and lean against the cool stone base of the statue, reaching over to muss his hair. "I'm sorry, Sweets. I promise I won't tell or laugh again."
He turned back to her with the patented Lance Harbor puppy-dog face. "Promise?"
She couldn't help it. He was too cute, too vulnerable, and too close. "I promise," she whispered as she brushed his cheek with her lips.
He jumped like he'd been hit with a cattle prod. And all that blood left his face and went South. "Leticia?" he questioned softly.
She blushed this time and turned her face away. But then his cool palm was there, turning her back to him, stroking her chin. She couldn't meet his eyes and tried to chuckle away the strain and the nerves tumbling around inside her. "Jeez, Lance. . .you shouldn't be so surprised. I said I liked you."
"Well. . . I didn't think. . .I didn't know. . ." His thumb kept stroking her jaw-line. It was too much for her.
She jerked away and stood up quickly. . . too quickly as she was hit by a little dizziness. He just looked up at her, confused. "Come on Lancelot," she murmured, reaching over to the other side of Kilmer for her long forgotten backpack. "We're late for class."
And she didn't wait to see if he was following. . . she just ran. Dear God. What had just happened? And what had she done?
Go to the rest of "Touchdown."