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twelfth man

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She's always early to practice because she comes straight from physical education, so she doesn't have to change. She usually brings a ball with her; she can use the extra practice time. Today's no different. She whiles the minutes away playing keep-up with herself, dribbling patterns around the field until she ends up in front of the net and takes the shot, straight to the high corner. It goes in clean.

She jogs up to the net to collect the ball. When she turns around, she's not alone.

There's a boy watching from the edge of the field. She bends over and tugs at her socks. The hems keep drooping. She straightens up and reaffixes her hairtie – her hair, blunt cut, tangled, falls past her shoulders – and walks over, slowly.

He's not much taller than she is. A little gangly, hands shoved in his pockets, heavy brows and a face set in an unconscious frown.

He says, "I heard the school had a girls' team."

Too obvious for her to answer. "I play right back," she says instead. "What about you? You play?"

"No," he says. Then abruptly, "You're really good."

She raises her eyebrows. "Thanks."

"Are you trying out for a club team?" he says. "You should."

She can't help laughing at the conviction of a boy who not a minute ago said he didn’t play football. "You'd know, huh. I've got a trial coming up, so I guess we’ll see."

"You’ll make it."

She’s not stupid enough to tempt fate with just three weeks to go. She laughs again – snorts, really – and repeats, "We'll see. Trust me, it's harder than it looks."

Months later, when he tells her late one night about the injury – casual shrug, no big deal, just one of those things, as if she doesn't know by now how he carries his wounds – she thinks back to her careless words and burns inside. But there's no way she can know, in this moment, what this frowning and slightly awkward boy has given up.

All he says is, "So where is it?"

"Zaragoza," she says. "Next month."

His eyebrows make funny squinched triangles. "Zaragoza?"

"Inter Aragon."

"Huh," he says, instead of the Never heard of them she was expecting. "Gijón have a girls' team."

She almost asks him how he knows that; on second thought, it's clear he’s the intense type, and he must be a Sporting fan. "Women's team," she says instead, "and they’re okay. But all the best are back east."

The Basque clubs like Añorga are the strongest, but then there’s Sabadell and L’Estartit, all the clubs around Barcelona. And then, to the south – the big news is that Sant Vicent, last year’s runners up, were just acquired by Levante. A real club, not a school, not a neighborhood team. She has her eye on the city of Valencia.

First, though, she has to make the trial.

Behind them, she can hear a couple of her teammates' voices as they approach the field. She jerks a shoulder back. "I've got practice, so..."

His eyebrows go down again. "Right. Cool. Guess I'll see you around."

"Sure." She watches him turn to go, and something makes her say, "Hey." When he turns back around, she tells him, "You should come by a match sometime. If you want."

He sticks out a hand. She shakes it, pressing back her smile.

"David," he says. "Villa."

"Patricia González," she answers, and this smile she doesn't stop.