In “Red State,” by Allie Torgan, Honorable Mention in our first Novel Excerpt Contest, find Jill and Kat on a Friday night in Fall, 1989, deep in Texas. High school football. What could be more important? The historical present that drives Torgan’s prose in “Red State” grabs hold of you immediately and won’t let go.
It’s in our blood like the Republican party and Jesus Christ. Football. It’s life here; plasma fueling veins, throbbing arteries, pounding hearts. You can feel the pulse in this flat Texas town tonight.
An away game; a Friday night. We advance like warriors.
Wildcats. Vikings. Cougars. Lions and Tigers and Bears oh my.
I’m 11, in the backseat of my dad’s Suburban heading west on I-20. My dad says it’s a straight shot for 40 miles and then we’ll see the lights, beacons from the interstate, they’ll lead us like prey to Tiger territory.
We’ll tailgate first. Kick-off’s at 7pm.
From my side of town, the “good” side, pink-cheeked families caravan in shoe-polished Suburbans, minivanned chariots. Kids are decked out in Wildcat hats, Wildcat shirts, Wildcat windbreakers. College-educated fathers with flasks, perfumed mothers, coolers rattling in the way-back.
Tony’s Pizzeria has changed their billboard. “Slice the Tigers.” Donna’s Christian Gifts has a banner up too. “Pray for the Wildcats.” Even the gas station got in on it. “Get Pumped Wildcats.”
Gas is 96 cents a gallon.
Ted Bundy is dead. George Bush Senior’s in charge. Two years ago, Baby Jessica fell in a well not so far from here. The Berlin Wall will come down next week, but tonight, there is no rest of the world. Just here, the road to glory. I-20.
Crush the Tigers. Whip them. Beat them.
“Slaughter the Tigers!!!” is written in shoe polish on the back window. My sister Wendy’s curly-cute handwriting is hard to read; a cursive bubble font with extra loopy g’s.
Still, my mom, more rah-rah, less murder, has said twice that she doesn’t want the word “slaughter” on our car. It’s “trashy,” she tells my dad.
“Let’s hope no one from PETA shows up.” That’s me. I’m the second youngest kid in the whole seventh grade and am holding my sister Wendy’s jean jacket in the backseat. She’s at the high school and will take the cheer bus to away games, we’re stopping there first to drop her jacket off.
My dad chuckles. He laughs at all of my jokes and my mom rolls her eyes, says “you two.” My dad turns up the Oak Ridge Boys. It’s ‘Elvira’ and when they get to the part with the bass singer he and I sing along.
Giddy up oom poppa omm poppa mow mow.
From the East Side, the “white trash” part, rednecks and bubbas take the onramp by Frank’s Liquor in jacked-up pickup trucks with naked lady decals and confederate flags, bumper stickers that say stuff like “I’d rather be Hunting” and “The Buck stops here.” The truck in front of us has pit bulls and teenagers in the bed. They are lit, frothing; meaty fists air pounding, shouting anti-Tiger vulgarities, slurs about the Tigers way worse than “slaughter.” They hurl empty beer cans on the highway.
My mom shakes her head.
My dad says, “Don’t mess with Texas.”
Heigh-ho silver, away.
Mudflaps beat against tires when the farm folk hit I-20 coming in from the country. Family farmers whose kids have bad teeth and bad grades and bad manners and get bussed in until ninth grade. After that they’re on their own and usually stop coming to school; work at Sonic or drive tractors or something. My dad says they’d breed more sturdy defensive linemen like Dickie McClurg if they’d let their kids stay in school long enough. Last year Dickie drove his daddy’s tractor to a home game when his truck wouldn’t start. There was an article about it in the paper. Dickie posed by the tractor in front of the high school. “Farm Boy Drives Tractor to Game” was the headline.
The South Side is mostly Black. Young people, basses booming, gold chains; some driving “pimp sleds.” Older folks are cautious and polite. Working men and proud mamas and aunties and grannies with star players; backseats full of kids.
Skeeter Jenkins is our star running back. His daddy Slater drags a pit grill behind an F150. Slater’s Rib Shack. Best in Texas. He’ll serve up hot ribs for five dollars a plate tonight, tailgate special.
A few “fuzzy dicers” are mixed in here too. Mexicans blasting music from lowriders. José José, Selena. Not many Mexicans play football here. My dad says they’re scared; don’t want to draw attention. When you live in fear of being picked up by border patrol, team sports fall by the wayside.
One day, someday, people in this town may say these were stereotypes, racist terms. That “fuzzy dicers” and “pimp sleds” and “white trash,” were wrong. We were racist. We are racist. We shouldn’t have used those words, judged those people.
But not tonight.
Tonight, it’s 1989, West Texas bootstraps and gunracks and tumbleweed, and tonight a steady stream of stereotypes and slurs heads west on I-20 with one common goal: Beat the Tigers.
The wind is picking up.
“A cold front is coming,” my dad says.
He’s right. November’s been inconsistent, mean. Sunny yesterday, a shoulder ride of a day. Then bam, the weather purged itself fast. Temperature falling. Skin and bones. Insides empty. It’s supposed to get below freezing next week.
My next-door neighbor Ashley Thorson purged all week too. My sister says she puts her finger down her throat to make herself throw up before drill team weigh-in. The drill team dancers have to meet four of five body requirements to perform at half-time. Waist, thighs and hips, body weight, and body fat. Wendy says that Ashley’s hips and thighs won’t budge even when she pukes and wraps her legs in saran wrap.
The senior boys call her Thunder Thighs Thorson.
We’ll learn next week that today Ashley was on day three of celery and rice cakes. That she took a laxative yesterday, a water pill today, and she passed four of five measurements this afternoon. Everything but thighs. Tonight, Ashley Thorson will dance but she will faint on the field mid-high-kick and paramedics will carry her off. She’ll be the first girl I know who is hospitalized for an eating disorder. Disordered eating we’ll call it one day. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
I’ll turn 12 at the end of November and only a boy from China who has to practice classical piano for three hours a day is younger than me. My name is boring, Jill Ann Meyer. But my initials are cool. JAM. My face is plain but my standardized test scores are through the roof.
My sister, Wendy Marie, is the opposite. She’s got a fancy name and a pretty face and weighs 109 pounds and competes on a dance team. I have her new acid-washed jacket in my lap and it’s Guess and cost $55 and she got it as an early Christmas slash birthday present.
Wendy will be 16 on December 24th and if that’s unfair which she says it is then God made it up to her with everything else. She is one of only two sophomores who made the Varsity cheerleading team last year.
The other is a girl named Kat who stole the tryouts with a series of back handsprings and then landed a roundoff double tuck. She was better than my sister and it was all a really, really big deal. None of the dance and gymnastics moms had ever heard of Kat except for Claire Ledbetter’s mom who said, “I think that’s the pretty girl who works at Tumble for Tots in the mall.”
Wendy and Kat got their picture in the paper and the headline was ‘Fresh Faces of Varsity.’
Now, Kat is my sister’s very best friend and also a little bit mine.
Kat said, when she was 11, that she had a unibrow and boys called her “ape-face.” Now those same boys want to take her out on dates. When Kat sleeps over, she lets me sit by her. She doesn’t tell me to shut up or go away. She laughs at my jokes. Last weekend, they watched ‘Dirty Dancing’ and I sat by Kat on the couch and we shared chips out of the same bag. Cool Ranch. We both love Johnny Castle and Kat cried when Johnny told Baby’s dad that he’s a nothing.
In August, Wendy bought Kat a BEST FRIENDS necklace that breaks in half. She kept the “BE FRI” half and gave Kat the “ST ENDS” half.
Today, I made Kat a mixtape and it’s in my pocket.
We arrive at 5pm. My mom says, “Just in time,” and “scoot,” and “hurry.”
“Hypothermia almost got her,” I say. I like to use big words and my dad snickers.
I have the jacket against my chest and the tape is in my pocket. The caravan of busses are still in rows, motors running. Band kids, cheerleaders, drill team and chaperones are all milling around.
Kat has wild, curly dark hair and she wears it piled high in a chip clip. I look for her first so I can give her the tape but I don’t see her.
A group has gathered by the cheerleaders’ bus and I see my sister’s back. She has the blondest hair of all of them and she wears a low ponytail with a longer ribbon, not a poofy high one. The cheer coach Linda Davis is talking to my sister and a senior captain named Betsy who talks like a baby. The girls call her “Betsy Wetsy” behind her back.
My sister’s hands are on her hips, she’s rocking back and forth. Her legs are perfect.
The cheer coach Linda Davis is pretty famous around here. She helped found some big association to keep cheerleaders safe and make it a real sport. Tonight, Coach Davis looks exasperated, angry maybe. She holds two fingers close together; they look like they are touching. I have the jacket and start to interrupt but don’t.
Something is wrong.
I follow suspicious people at the mall sometimes and write down license plate numbers of all the white vans in our neighborhood. I also found a missing elder wandering outside my grandma’s senior center and have rescued two lost dogs and one cat and called 9-1-1 on a suspected burglar. False alarm. But I am always watching. Looking for clues. My sister’s latest secrets. Mysteries. Gossip. Drama.
Like last week, I found a pregnancy test wrapped in a paper towel at the bottom of the trashcan in our alley but I don’t know whose and I don’t know how to read it.
Wendy glances over at me and I hold up the jacket for her to see but she ignores me. She bites her lower lip when she’s worried.
Wendy used to tell me things. I know secrets like she let a guy finger her at summer camp and Ashlee Dupree got a nose job. But lately she’s been keeping more secrets.
Coach Davis says, “She knows the rules.”
Coach Davis says, “She’s this close to losing her spot.”
Betsy is talking in a whiny baby voice and says, “This ruins everything,” and “We need a top girl.”
The mixtape I made for Kat has Eric Carmen and the Bangles and the breaks are perfectly timed. I made a collage of little Patrick Swayze heads from magazines for the cover of it.
Wendy acknowledges me, takes her jacket. Her eyes are darting from Coach Davis to the parking lot and she whispers, “Kat’s late.” I catch Coach Davis’s eye and Wendy says, “Her stepdad’s a drunk,” and she says it loud enough for Coach Davis to hear. Wendy likes to play dumb but she’s actually really, really smart. My dad says if she’d pay half as much attention to her grades as she does to boys and her friends she’d get a scholarship. But Wendy doesn’t really care about grades or scholarships.
“I can tell dad.” I say this loud too because she did first, adding, “We can go to Kat’s house.” I look to see if Coach Davis is watching and she is. “We can bring her here.”
Coach Davis looks at me, says, “This isn’t your problem Jill.”
* * *
He knew, he knew, he fucking knew. 5pm on the dot. Now it’s 5:10pm and Lindsey is wailing and RJ’s had an accident.
She came home to check on the twins; to make sure their fever was down, that Randy wasn’t asleep. He’d slithered out right past her, said, “Quick errand, gimme just a sec.”
She cleans RJ up, gets him in new big boy underwear. “Everyone has accidents buddy, even grown-ups.” It makes him giggle.
Lindsey twirls and dances. Kat claps, looks at her watch. “You dance like a real ballerina, Lins.”
Gives RJ a juice box. Checks the driveway. No Randy.
It’s 5:17pm. The bus is usually twenty minutes late to leave. If right now, this second, dear God please now, please this second, if he walks in the door then they can race.
Maybe she can make it. Maybe.
She’s on her fourth tampon since noon. It feels like someone stomped on her groin. Cramps like she’s never had before. Her period came at lunch which is the only good thing that’s happened all day. Six days late, six agonizing days like a penance of waiting for what she did with Jeremy Rollins, what she let happen. Another stupid move, her own fault for letting Jeremy go so far. She was hoping to stop it at third base, then she couldn’t get out from under him. He’d pinned her down and now her body has to punish her; blood flooding like a broken dam. She’s running out of tampons and out ten bucks for a pregnancy test.
She swallows three aspirin. She’s not pregnant. She’s not pregnant. Repeats this. It’s the only good thing right now. She can close her eyes and push the rest to one side. She’s not pregnant with Jeremy’s baby. Just that. Just keep thinking that. Refocus.
Please God again come in right now Randy you motherfucker. She’s ready. In her uniform, bags packed.
The phone rings and she jumps; it’s Coach Davis from a payphone.
Her voice quakes. “They’re three years old. I can’t leave them.” It’s not her fault this time and she says so, begs for another chance. “I’ll get there as soon as he’s back, I’ll make him drive me there himself.”
They’re her babies, too. She started praying for a sibling back when she was 11. When Randy and her mom got married. When her mom found out it was twins Kat told them maybe she prayed too hard. Randy had howled, scooped her up like he used to and spun her around, said, “Lordy, kiddo. Two for the price of one, huh?”
He called her “kiddo” back then. “Buddy,” too. And “Giddy-up” sometimes, because of how fast she could run when she played basketball. His fuse was short but not like lately. They’d all laughed on the way back from the clinic, her mom and Randy up front. Her in the backseat. Twins.
“No,” she tells Coach Davis, “there isn’t anyone else who can come watch them.” It’s just her. An aunt in Tampa, Randy’s brother doesn’t have a landline. That’s it. “He knew 5pm. I don’t know where he is.”
Coach says, “It’s a real shame,” and Kat doesn’t know what she means, and then Coach Davis hangs up and the clock keeps ticking. Every few minutes she recalculates.
5:25pm, she can make it by 6:05pm for warm-up if he comes home now and drives her.
Betsy the cheer captain wanted to have a talk with her yesterday about missing a practice and an event, tardiness, her reputation. “Your reputation is the squad’s reputation too,” Betsy’d said in a baby voice. “People are talking, that’s all.”
She missed one morning workout three weeks ago because she overslept. One. Once. One time. She hit stop not snooze and she owned it. That one was on her. She sat through a lecture from Coach Davis, did the 30 pushups and 30 sit-ups and ran the 10 extra laps, stayed late to clean and organize the supply closet.
But being tardy when she can’t find a ride or telling Betsy she can’t attend some impromptu banner painting event she sprung on everyone for a Saturday morning. That’s not her fault. She works on Saturdays. And getting called a slut when Jeremy held her down. Jesus. She couldn’t control that either. Or maybe she could have. She should have thought about going to third base first. She shouldn’t have gone so far.
She’d said “no” but then she couldn’t move. She closed her eyes and froze.
He hadn’t even pulled out. When she cried after, all he’d said was he couldn’t hear her say “no.” The music was loud. She should have fought or spoken up. Kept her legs together.
5:35pm. If Randy gets home by 5:40pm she can make it by 6:20.
It’s getting cold. She puts a sweatshirt on. It’s so big it covers her cheer skirt, swallows her.
She can’t call her mom at work. They need her mom’s extra hours. Randy’s going on six months with no paycheck and rent is due. Christmas is coming. Money is disappearing left and right. The twins were up and down all night with a fever, home from daycare today. Her mom said, “Come home and check if you can, Randy’s back is hurting him again.”
Or so he says.
She touches her half-heart necklace. ST ENDS. Refocuses. One day it will change. One day it won’t be like this. She’ll make sure of it. It will end.
Dishes are piled up. Laundry in heaps. Tylenol and a thermometer and empty juice boxes are on the counter. Cracker crumbs and spoons with caked peanut butter. Randy’s Frito bags. He can’t even throw his own wrappers away.
Crusts and apple slices on plates are on the living room table. Toys are strewn around. No one has vacuumed all week. When it’s dusty RJ’s asthma flares up.
She picks up plates, puts toys in baskets.
At least Randy took their temperature. Fed them. Kept them alive. She runs the vacuum, puts the kids in front of “DuckTales” and plays ‘how fast can I do all of this.’
When her mom says, “Let me relax, I’m bone-tired,” Kat can list all of the things she did, in no time at all. Why can’t anyone else?
Her mom ignores her. Depending on the fire in Randy’s eyes, Kat may add something more. “He was home all day and did nothing.”
It sets him off when she criticizes him. When he’s down and drinking he gets mean. She knows his triggers, his eyes blaze when she talks back. She makes sure she’s out of his arm’s reach.
In August, RJ bit Lindsey and Randy’d raised his hand to smack him. She’d grabbed his forearm to stop him and he flung her off. It threw her so hard she fell sideways into the fireplace mantle.
Her mom was screaming, Lindsey was sobbing. Blood was dripping down her temple. RJ wet the bed for two weeks after.
Randy had recoiled. He does when he strikes. Crumbles, cares. He’d rushed to help her, said, “Shit I’m sorry, bud.”
It wasn’t that deep; it just bled a lot. It was hard to cover.
Wendy saw it. When they were getting ready for a back-to-school party. In Wendy’s pretty house, where it’s always clean and Wendy has her own pink bedroom, a bathroom with a vanity. Pretty soaps and an eyeshadow palette from Neiman Marcus with 25 shades. Wendy’s lipsticks were lined up in front of them and Frosted Brownie fell. When Kat reached down she looked up to see Wendy staring down; Kat’s forehead was exposed.
“Your head.” That’s all Wendy had said. Kat covered it with her bangs, said, “It was an accident.”
Wendy doesn’t react like other people. She’d squinted her eyes, bitten her lip, then posed sideways and looked at herself in the mirror, sucked in, said, “Do I look fat in these jeans?”
“Nah they’re great. You have the best legs.”
“You sure? I think I’m fat.” Wendy always says she’s fat.
“You are so not fat. You have the best body.”
Wendy turned to face her, touched Kat’s forehead, traced the edges of the cut while Kat closed her eyes, repeated, “It was an accident.”
Wendy’d opened a small bottle of base and mixed it with some Neosporin and dabbed it on with a Q-tip so gently Kat couldn’t feel it, said, “I won’t have a best friend anymore if he accidentally kills you.”
It’s 6:10pm. Kick off’s at seven. If Randy walks in the door now right now she could just make it.
During a commercial, Lindsey is chatty. “We got stamps and we got candy and Daddy took a nap today.”
“Daddy fixed pipes,” RJ adds.
“What pipes buddy?”
“The sink ones,” he tells her.
When the show is back on Kat checks, slides on her back until her torso is under the sink. Mother. Fucker. Randy’s hidden a bottle of Old Crow way back there. She puts the bottle in her duffle bag.
She feeds the twins French fries and hot dog bits, cut up small so they don’t choke. Canned peaches for dessert.
The twins smell like peaches and pee. She herds them to the tub, soaps them, shampoos their hair, does it fast in case he comes home. They smell like powder now and they’re cuddly. RJ clings to her. Wants her to stay, put them to bed. Never leave again. Read them a book.
She wants to scream.
Kick-off is now and her blood is boiling. She fights tears. Breathes. Reads ‘Runaway Bunny’ then ‘Goodnight Moon.’
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.
7:10pm and the sound of an engine and she’s up and his truck is pulling into the carport. She flings the front door open and intercepts Randy, maybe maybe maybe she can make halftime. Maybe 7:50pm if they speed. She has the kids to the front door before Randy’s inside.
“I was supposed to be there at 5pm.” She faces him, she’s angry. “I need a ride.”
She pushes past him, moves bags and blankets out fast. She can smell cigarettes and cinnamon chewing gum and his kerosine breath, a whiff of Old Crow. He can’t hide it. It comes out of his pores even when he seems sober.
“The game’s at eight, we have time.” Randy scoops Lindsey and a bag up. Ushers RJ out.
“My game was at seven, asshole.”
He grabs her arm and stops her in her tracks, glares. “Watch your mouth.”
His grip is hard and she freezes.
Lindsey starts to whimper. He’s amped and jacked up on whatever amphetamine he takes during the day. Says it keeps him awake, on his toes. Says the doctor gives it to him but who knows. Right about now he needs a different kind of pill and a beer to come down.
“I was top girl at halftime.”
“The fucking car wouldn’t start,” Randy hisses and his grip hurts. Lindsey starts to cry, reaches her arms out for Kat, wiggles and squirms.
There is a pause and they hold. Kat’s voice quakes, she says, “It’s okay Lins,” and reaches for her with her free arm.
Randy loosens his grip, says, “Get in the truck.”
The truck is so high off the ground she has to step on a bar attached to the side to get in. The heat is out again but the back seatbelts work. Kat tucks blankets around the kids’ legs.
It’s 7:15pm when Randy pulls out of the carport, lights a cigarette, runs a stop sign. He is driving too fast.
“Don’t kill us all. They’ve probably replaced me anyway.” She sees his jaw clench.
“Lay off,” he seethes.
Lindsey’s chatty. Pointing out landmarks. “Hello, park! Look it’s McDonald’s. Hello, McDonald’s. Can we have fries?”
Let him fume. What’s he going to do now?
Lindsey babbles on. “Hello, ice cream store, can we get ice cream, Daddy?”
“Tomorrow if you’re good,” Randy tells her.
It’s 7:20pm when they pass Frank’s Liquor to get on I-20. No way she’ll make it. Best case, she’ll get there at eight, 8:10pm. No way in hell they’ll let her just run out and wing it.
“Hello, stamp store,” Lindsey squeals and waves at Frank’s Liquor store.
Kat pauses. Turns to look at Lindsey, her feet kicking, chubby hand waving. “That’s the place where Daddy buys stamps?”
Lindsey smiles, nods. “We wait in the car. No kids allowed.”
“You took them to a liquor store in the middle of the day?” She’s livid. He’s breathing out of his nose.
“I don’t want to hear another word from you.” Randy’s jaw is clenched, he grips the wheel so tightly she can see his knuckles whiten. He turns up the radio.
“You left them in the car?” She doesn’t care, it’s over. She’ll be kicked off anyway. “They could have been kidnapped.”
Randy hits the steering wheel. “Shut your fucking mouth before I smack it.”
Lindsey stops chattering, stops kicking her feet, starts to whimper again. Best case Kat’ll sit on a cold bench before she’s told she’s off the squad. Randy picks up speed down I-20.
“Do you keep your stamps under the sink too?” She scoots closer to the window, further from his reach. She tucks her bare legs under her sweatshirt and leans against the door, thinks if he smacked her now, hard in the mouth, she could show up and blame him. Keep her spot. But she never knows where the blow will land. It’s more shameful somehow when it doesn’t show.
He’s on fire, raises his right hand fast but clenches his fist in the air instead.
“One more word I swear to God.”
* * *
I know all of the cheerleaders’ names. When I can, I sit on the front row in the bleachers right in front of them. Sometimes I yell things down like, “I love your bow, Mandy!” or, “Awesome hurky, Betsy!” This mortifies Wendy but leaves me with a warm feeling inside.
I know the football players too. If I run into one, I say stuff like, “Go get ‘em, Adam!” or, “Great game last week, Skeeter!”
Tonight, the front row is taken and I’m in the stands about 15 rows up from the field, between my mom and dad. I brought a cookie form because I’m allowed to wander a little under the guise of selling Girl Scout cookies. I’m on the fence about Girl Scouts. Really, it’s an excuse to roam around. Spy on people.
I’m usually banned from pestering my sister but tonight we all see Wendy waving at us and she motions for me. “Me?” I point to myself and she nods. I am needed. I show my dad what she’s doing and he agrees, says, “Go see what she needs.”
Wendy can’t leave the field but she hands me up four quarters and a piece of paper with a phone number on it. She’s nervous and says, “Kat missed the bus, her stepdad was supposed to drop her off.”
I look around. Coach Davis is watching us.
Wendy makes me look her in the eyes. “Pay attention.” She tells me to call Kat’s house from a payphone. If she answers all I am supposed to say is, “Did you fall?”
I am supposed to get a “Yes” or a “No” and report back.
Wendy makes me repeat the instructions back to her, reiterates don’t chit-chat or try to be funny. I can say, “Wendy is asking” but nothing else. Just get a “Yes” or a “No.”
It’s a mission. An important one and there is a code.
I still have Kat’s mixtape in my pocket and repeat the question out loud. Try and try again but the phone just rings and rings. I try three more times. Same. All the quarters come back out.
I report back to Wendy. Coach Davis approaches us, asks, “Did she pick up?”
I shake my head. Wendy bites her lip, says, “Try again.”
Then it’s halftime.
Then there is no top girl at halftime and the cheerleaders do a shorter, modified routine. Without Kat.
My parents share a worried look.
Then the drill team is on and I want to go call Kat’s house again but my mom says it’s rude to leave when the drill team performs.
And from the stadium speakers ‘O’Lamour’ blasts tinny and fuzzy and the drill team charges the field. All of their 75 perfect waists and thighs and hips populate the field. They are perfect females like my sister, gifted and coordinated.
Broke my heart, now I’m aching for you…
My mom says something about how talented our Wildcat ladies are and then, something is off and there is some commotion and the right end of the high-kick line falls apart. A cluster of girls stops dancing altogether, they huddle around someone. Some are screaming, one girl runs to the sidelines.
What’s a boy in love supposed to do…
Music is still playing. Spectators are standing now and some adults run onto the field. More dancers stop, some kneel, some hold hands, some cry. About ten of them on the far-left end dance until the music stops.
Then silence, confusion, and the drill team leaders take shaky charge and lead 74 of the 75 girls back to the sidelines in a straight-line formation.
One body is left on the field.
Someone says, “I think it’s Ashley,” and another says, “It’s Ashley Thorson,” and a body is wheeled off on a stretcher.
Someone says, “I saw her hand move,” and we hope and we pray that Ashley Thorson is not dead.
Someone on the speaker leads us in prayer.
Two years ago, after Baby Jessica had been trapped in the well for 53 hours, someone on the speaker led us in prayer for Jessica McClure at the beginning of the game. Then the same announcer interrupted the second quarter when they pulled her out alive.
It seems like it may have worked. For Baby Jessica and Ashley Thorson so after I say a prayer in my head that Kat shows up soon.
My dad lets me go try her on the payphone again.
Wendy and I make eye contact.
I shake my head.
Coach Davis is still watching us.
* * *
The needle is teetering near E and Randy lights another cigarette.
“It’s bad for RJ’s asthma.”
Randy glares at her but throws it out, grits his teeth, breathes out of his nose, like a bull.
He turns off into a Texaco off the highway, says, “I need to borrow some cash, I forgot my wallet.”
Kat knows that’s for sure another lie. She’d seen his wallet in his back pocket.
She unzips the duffle bag at her feet and fishes around, pulls a twenty out, holds it just out of his reach. “How come you have money for booze and not gas?” and he grabs the twenty.
Lindsey starts to cry again.
It’s 7:55pm. She can feel the blood boiling in her face. Every Saturday, she works so he can drink her money, steal from her. Her mom is working late so he can take her money too.
He pumps her twenty into the truck then accelerates fast out of the gas station.
RJ throws some goldfish at Lindsey and Randy turns and smacks RJ’s leg hard and RJ starts to howl.
“Don’t hit him.” Kat unfurls herself from her ball and turns to check on RJ who is holding his thigh.
“Don’t tell me how to discipline my kids.”
“It’s not discipline,” she mutters and he lights a cigarette and slams the steering wheel.
Kat has two more greens suckers left and they have ten more miles to go. Half time is over. It’s probably the third quarter already. She’ll be benched. She’ll be off. It doesn’t really matter what happens now.
“You steal my money. Now, you’ve ruined my life.” She’s pushing him, wants acknowledgment at least, wants him to know what he’s done.
Randy has gone stone cold staring ahead and his jaw is frozen.
She’s on fire now. Thinks maybe he’ll pause, give her a “Hey now. Truce buddy, I’ve been fucking up. I’ve got to get some work. This back pain. I’m gonna do better.”
It’s in him. He’s done it before.
But he doesn’t. And she doesn’t care anymore.
RJ drops the sucker and whines and she leans into the backseat and fishes it off the floor, licks it clean, hands it back.
Randy is looking straight ahead. Eyes blazing.
Kat thinks, “We hate you,” and she thinks it hard.
She thinks, “We’d be better off without you.”
Then she says it. Mean and ruthless and the words hang in the air with the smell of Camel reds and sour whiskey breath and Pampers that need changing.
“We all hate you. We’d all be better off without you.”
And then there is a moment, a silence so calm, an instant where Kat thinks maybe. Maybe she’s broken through. Maybe now, maybe now he knows what he’s done, how bad it’s gotten.
Then a jolt, brakes screeching. She flies forward, hitting the dashboard, and he jerks the car onto the road’s shoulder and her head hits the window.
Lindsey screams and Kat turns; sees their seatbelts, goldfish, a sucker. Starts to say something but before she can speak, or beg or cry or run, Randy’s door is flung open and he is coming around the front of the truck in the headlights.
* * *
Wildcats 14, Tigers 34.
I’ve tried the number three more times and my dad says, “Sit down. We’ll find her later.”
“So much for God being on our side,” I say to my dad and then something is happening. There is a big girl with a big instrument on the field with the cheerleaders.
A trumpet? Or a trombone?
“Is that a trumpet or trombone?” I ask my dad. He’s watching too.
The big instrument girl pulls my sister aside. Wendy looks frantic and then she disappears. I stand, start to go down there but my dad tells me to sit.
Then she’s running to us, up in the stands. She’s whispering to my dad.
* * *
The stadium lights are garish, blinding, painful. They sizzle overhead. Parts of it are black, some white, but mostly just grey that stings when she touches it.
There are holes, missing chunks of time; but this exit, this ache, she will remember for a lifetime.
This final walk. Who held her up, who walked bedside her. How she got out.
Allie Torgan is a writer and TV producer.
She was a 2020 winner of The Academy for Teachers flash fiction contest judged by Susan Choi. Her piece, “The Sub” was published in The Commuter, a weekly literary magazine from Electric Literature and was nominated for The PEN America’s Robert J.Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She was also a 2021 Finalist for the CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Masie Cochran. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas El Paso.
Torgan is a Peabody award winner, a three-time Emmy nominee and the recipient of other honors including the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for “Help for Haiti Now,” and an Entertainment Media Award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She serves as an Emmy Awards Judge for the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and volunteers with WriteGirl and 826 Dallas Project.
She holds a BA in English from Southern Methodist University and studied Film and Production at New York University.