***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Laurie Halse Anderson
The crowd in the stadium roared so loudly I couldn't hear what the mom manning the ticket booth said.
"Why?" I asked again.
She glared and waited a beat for the noise to die down. "Everybody pays to get into the game. No exceptions."
"But I'm the press," I whined. "On assignment."
"Students get a dollar discount." She put her hand out. "Four dollars or don't go in."
I paid her. Finn now owed me nineteen bucks.
The bleachers were a wall of people dressed in Belmont yellow. For one second, it felt like they were all staring at me, that they all knew I came to the football game alone and didn't know where to sit, but then a whistle blew and the football teams on the field behind me crashed into each other and the crowd cheered and jumped up and down. I was invisible to them.
I turned my back to the stands. On the other side of the field sat the enemy, the Richardson Ravens, dressed in black and silver. Beyond the goalposts at the far end of the field rose a gentle hill that was dotted with people sitting on blankets, little kids zooming around them, cheerfully ignoring the sad excuse for a football game.
The referee blew his whistle and the two lines of players crashed into each other again, grunting and shouting. I couldn't see what happened to the ball, but the Richardson side of the field erupted in cheers.
I texted Gracie:
After a long pause, she wrote back:
at movie ttyl?
I sent a simple smiley face, because my phone did not have a smiley face that was wrapping her hands around her own throat and beating her head against a wall.
The two teams ran to their huddles to plot out their next bit of brilliant strategy. They ended the huddle and ran back to line up, each face inches away from the scowling face of the enemy, feet pawing at the ground like impatient horses. The quarterback grunted, the lines crashed together, and they all fell down again. Everyone in Belmont yellow screamed and whistled.
Should I be writing this down? I looked up at the stands. Wouldn't anyone who cared about this game be here? Why would they want to read about it? Answer: they wouldn't. My earlier plan to get the stats and eavesdrop for quotes first period Monday was still viable and even more attractive than it had been on the bus. I just needed someplace to go that was not my house. It was only a quarter to eight. I could probably make it to the mall before nine.
I texted Gracie.
She didn't answer, which meant she was with Topher, which meant any hope I had of crashing her Friday night plans had just evaporated. How lame would it be for me to go to Gracie's house and ask her mom if she wanted to hang out? Mrs. Rappaport was a big fan of home makeover shows. Last time I was at her house, she'd been talking about redesigning her kitchen. Maybe we could watch a few episodes about countertops.
I shuddered. I'd be better off spending the evening chasing rats out of Dumpsters.
The clock clicked down the last few seconds to halftime, the refs blew their whistles, and people raced for the bathrooms and the food stand.
"This is ridiculous," I muttered as I pressed against the fence that separated the spectators from the field. As soon as the herd moved past, I followed, intending to head for the parking lot, unchain my bike, and ride. Not home, not for a few hours. Just ride in the dark and hope that Topher and Gracie would have a huge fight and she'd call in tears and ask me to spend the night and mention that they had a lot of ice cream in the freezer.
"Great game, huh?"
I turned around, ready to spew venom about parents who were happy to pay taxes for football coaches but would be good-God-damned if they were going to waste their money on librarians or gym teachers.
"I was certain we'd be down thirty points by now," Finn said.
In his left hand, he was holding a flimsy cardboard box loaded with cheeseburgers, greasy fries, and two soda cups. In his right, he held a third cup that was filled with marigolds that looked like they'd been yanked out of somebody's backyard.
"What'd you think of that first-down denial?" he asked. "Great way to end the half, right?"
"What happened to your date?" I asked.
"She's here," he said.
"You brought your big date to this football game? You could have written the article yourself."
"No, I couldn't," he said. "What girl wants to be ignored on a date? Hold this for me."
He shoved the box that held the food and drink at me, pulled his buzzing phone out of his pocket, glanced at it, and typed a reply. Behind us, the marching band took their position on the field, drummers beating a solemn cadence.
"Okay." Finn put his phone away. "Want to meet her?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world." I followed him through the crowd. "Is she a zombie?" I asked. "I bet she's wearing Belmont yellow. Oh, God, Finn—is she a cheerleader?"
"Definitely not a zombie or a cheerleader or a zombie cheerleader. I'm just getting to know her. Actually, it's sort of a blind date."
"That's gross," I said. "Old people go on blind dates when they get divorced and don't know what else to do. You're only, what? Sixteen?"
"Almost eighteen," he corrected.
"And you already need other people to fix you up?" I laughed.
"This way." He took the box from me and headed for the exit.
"Did you lock her in your trunk?"
"I'm meeting her up on the hill. I thought it would be more romantic than cement bleachers."
The marching band launched into "Louie, Louie," saving him from hearing my answer.
I followed him past the giggling children rolling down the hills like sausages. Past their tired parents sitting on stained comforters with their arms around each other. Past people critiquing the performance of the band and the flag twirlers. We walked all the way to the top of the hill and into the shadows beyond the reach of the stadium lights.
"She dumped you," I said.
"Not yet." He put the box of food and soda at the edge of a plaid blanket.
"Maybe she had to pee," I said. "What's her name again?"
"Her name is Hayley." He straightened up and handed me the cup of marigolds. "Hello, Miss Blue."
"Me," I said.
"You," he confirmed.
The marching band started playing the theme from the latest Batman movie.
"Why didn't you just ask me?"
"I was afraid you'd say no."
"What if I say no right now?"
"Do you want to?"
I watched the band move in and out of their formations. "I haven't decided yet."
"You could sit and eat while you're thinking about it," he suggested.
We sat on the blanket, the cheeseburgers, fries, and flowers a border between us, watching the little kids and the band until halftime was over. It was marginally less awkward when the game started again, if only because there was so much to mock. Finally, the ref blew his whistle and it was official. The Belmont Machinists had lost their sixth game of the season and I had no idea what would happen next. I didn't know what I wanted to happen next. The stadium slowly emptied; the families on the hill gathered their kids and shepherded them toward the parking lot, and soon we were the only ones left.
"Okay, here's the tricky part," Finn said. "The security guard is going to walk by to see if anyone is up here partying. I'm pretty sure we're far enough away that he won't be able to see us, but we should lie down for ten minutes or so, to be safe."
"That is the lamest attempt ever to get a girl on her back," I said.
"I'm serious. Look." Finn pointed to two security guards at the far end of the football field. "I'm not going to try anything. I swear. I'll move over here so you're comfortable."
He scuttled about four yards away and lay on the grass. "How's this?" he whispered loudly.
I lay down on the blanket carefully, keeping my head turned and my eyes open so I could watch him. "If you touch me, I'll cram your nose into your brain with the heel of my hand."
"Shh," he said.
The lights in the stadium started to click off, one at a time, until darkness took over the field.
"A couple minutes more," Finn whispered, his voice reassuringly far away.
The last of the cars pulled out of the parking lot, tires squealing. The chatter of the security guard's radio moved along the hill below us like a stray breeze. As it faded, I sat up and watched his flashlight bob into the distance. A few minutes later, the guard reached his car and slowly drove away, tires crunching over the gravel.
"Close your eyes." Finn's voice startled me. "Count to twenty."
"After I shove your nose into your brain, I will break your fingers and disable your kneecaps," I warned.
"I'll stay here," he promised. "I'll keep talking so you know I haven't moved. Five. Six. Seven. Talking, talking, talking, okay? Eyes closed? You're lying down? I'm still talking and I am looking for something to talk about but it's tough because this is a bizarre situation. Fifteen. Sixteen. Somehow I failed to anticipate that your response to my well-thought-out date would be to threaten me with violence. I should have been prepared for that. The next time I'm in a meeting with MI5—"
"Can I open my eyes yet?" I asked.
"Twenty," he replied. "Look straight up."
The night sky stretched on forever above me, the stars flung like glass beads and pearls on a black velvet cloak.
"Wow," I whispered.
"Yeah," he said. "I had to pull a lot of strings to get the weather to cooperate, but it all worked out in the end. Can I sit on the blanket now?"
"Not yet." I found the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt with no problem, but didn't know the names of anything else. Had there always been this many stars in the sky?
"I won't try anything," Finn continued. "Unless you want me to. Of course, if you wanted to try anything, I'd be a very willing participant. Do you want to try anything?"
"I haven't decided."
"Did I mention that the grass I'm lying on is soaked with dew?" he asked.
"I haven't even decided if this is officially a date."
"What would you call it?"
"I brought you flowers."
"I like them. It's still an anti-date." I paused. "But I don't want you to blame me if you get sick. You can come back if you want."
"You promise not to maim me?"
"I promise to give fair warning before I maim you."
I watched out of the corner of my eye as Finn's shape stood, walked over, and lay down two inches away from me. I could feel the heat radiating off his skin. He smelled of wet grass and sweat and soap. No body spray.
"Nights like this," he said quietly, "I could look at the sky forever."
I expected him to keep talking, to ramble on about the stars or his adventures as an astronaut or the time he was abducted by aliens (which I might have believed), but he just lay there, staring at the corner of the Milky Way that was smeared right above us. The layers of noise—cars on the road, distant airplanes, the farewells of crickets, the flutter of bat wings—all faded until I could hear only the sound of my heart beating in my ears, and the slow, steady rhythm of Finn's breath.
Somehow my hand found its way to his. Our fingers entwined. He squeezed once and sighed.
I grinned, grateful for the dark.
We left about an hour later so that Finn could drive me home and get back to his house before curfew. Neither one of us had much to say. We didn't talk in the car, either, but that was easier because he turned on the radio. It felt like the time under the stars had delivered us to a new country that we didn't have the language for yet, but I didn't know what it felt like for him because I didn't have the guts to ask.
I finally spoke up just before he turned into my driveway.
"No," I said. "Pull up by those bushes."
"You're having a party without me?" he asked.
"An army buddy of my dad's is here with a bunch of guys on leave. They're headed up to the Adirondacks tomorrow."
I unbuckled my seat belt and opened my door the instant he shut the engine off because I didn't know what I wanted to happen in the front seat. Well, I kind of knew, but I wasn't 100 percent sure, and it seemed like the safest course of action was to get my bike out of the backseat as soon as possible. The handlebars got caught on the coat hook above the back door, but Finn reached in and unhooked them.
"Thanks." I leaned on the handlebars. "That was a . . . I had a good time."
He leaned against his car. "Can we call it a date yet?"
"Can we call it a pretty good anti-date?"
I chuckled. "Yeah."
He tossed his keys up and down. "I would like to point out, for the record, that my pants remained zipped and my belt buckled for the entire evening."
"Smart move on your part." I hesitated, because I wanted to kiss him and I was pretty sure he wanted to kiss me, too, but the bike was in front of me, and Finn was several steps away and then two soldiers came around the side of the house and started rummaging in the back of one of the trucks.
"I better go," I said.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked. "I mean, with all those guys around and everything?"
"You're the one who should be worried. You just took out the captain's daughter without his permission."
Dad was sitting by the bonfire in the backyard with Roy and a bunch of the others. The conversation died when I stepped into the circle of light.
"Didn't mean to interrupt," I said. "Just wanted to tell you I'm home."
"How was the game?" Roy asked.
"We lost," I said. "But the stars were nice."
"Sleep tight, princess." Dad's face was half in shadow, angular and old-looking. I wanted to sit on the ground next to him and lean against his knee and have him smooth my hair back and tell me that everything was going to be all right, but the awful thing was, I wasn't sure it could be. He was sober, still drinking soda, surrounded by guys who understood everything he'd been through, but his good mood of the afternoon had vanished. He looked lost again, haunted.
One of the younger soldiers got up and offered me a chair, but I muttered a quick g'night, and hurried inside.
Michael was parked in front of the television gaming with a couple of the privates, dribbling chew-stained spit into a paper cup. I went straight to my room without saying a word. Didn't bother with a shower or brushing my teeth. I locked my bedroom door, changed into my pj's, and crawled into bed with a book and my phone.
Finn texted just as I got comfortable:
I texted back.
I waited, staring at the screen. Should I say anything else? Were we supposed to text all night long?
I hesitated, then held my breath and typed quickly:
flowers were sweet
He didn't reply and he didn't reply and he didn't reply. I smacked myself in the forehead."Anti-date," what was that supposed to mean? He thinks I'm a nutcase now, a total crazy cakes, I said I was going to shove his nose into his brain, who says crap like that? and then my phone lit up again.
nxt to you
i didnt notice any stars