The creaking sigh of the floorboards wakes Jess most mornings. She knows Dad's routine by the rush of water in the pipes, then his careful steps squeaking over the kitchen linoleum. The whiny complaint of the kitchen door hinges when he goes down to the restaurant, that's the first sign it's morning. It's the last moment of quiet Jess is gonna get for what feels like too many hours. Light grows on her bedroom wall, from dark to grey to piercing orange-bronze, and it's her chance to ease out of sleep, listening to the house get quieter without him.
Then the clock numbers tick over to six o'clock, Sammy's yelling about what kind of day it is and how many left til Friday, and Jess's feet hit the floor. She slaps him silent before he can get in his first mention of how amazing the Panthers were in their last game and how anyone else should just give up now instead of playing them.
"Hey," Jess says, knocking on the boys' door. She pushes it open, sweeping a mess of Lego ahead of it. "Hey, let's go."
If Andre had a nightmare last night, he's just as likely to be puppy-piled in with Darius. Caleb's getting to the point where he thinks they're babies for huddling up together, and he wrestles them out when they try to invade his bed with game board pieces and their ratty old teddies. Caleb's getting as fast as her to wake up, running to steal the shower first and check himself in the mirror like he might've gained six inches or twenty pounds of muscle overnight. Jess pushes him out of the bathroom and says, "Watch your brothers," which she's heard so many times in her life that it's nearly a mantra.
Dad's left half a pot of strong coffee, and Jess slaps Caleb away from that too when she finishes dressing and reaches the kitchen. "It'll stunt your growth," sounds like her mom but it's the only thing that keeps the coffee safe from him. It'll be cold by the time she drinks it, but she almost likes it better like that, because it's the only way she gets it after herding the boys.
Setting out cereal bowls, she spins around to catch Darius running by and stop him pounding on Andre, Andre shrieking the whole way that he's being killed. Once she's got them set down and crunching on breakfast, she gets to figure out where their books are, and whose cleats got left by the washing machine, and who has a game or a practice and whether they told Mrs. Turner they'd need a ride, and then they're all three of them out the door faster than Jess can follow.
Standing on the cracked cement stoop, breathing in, she lets them get their start. The morning's turned from orange-bright to rising sky. The air might smell like burning trash and tires, or somebody's spilled oil and coolant from a junker car, but underneath that it's yellow grass and the mud that springs up after rain. Jess breathes in until she can taste it, all that clearness underneath.
The boys race down to the restaurant and Jess catches up after Dad's hugged them and kissed their foreheads and sent them sprinting for the bus stop. Some mornings Jess just walks right into his arms and squeezes him too, smelling his aftershave and the barbeque scent that clings like smoke to all his shirts no matter how much they're washed.
Mornings, the world's so big that Jess tips her head back and gets dizzy trying to see it all, until she's late, and she runs after the boys for the bus and swings aboard, into the bright wild yells and the wheeze of exhaust carrying her to school.
She's not used to East Dillon High yet. The hallways are painted so white, and the scuffing sneakers still haven't worn through that new-smell and the shiny cleanness even after a month. Doesn't seem like it'll last, around here. It's pretty, but Jess figures it'll get real soon enough.
As long as they want to try, though, Jess is gonna take what she can get. She's still got Academic Smackdown after school. The fire and pop of the questions comes faster during the practice sessions that Principal Burnwell puts them through. The meets are slower because they all get serious then, for the echo-empty auditoriums where the feedback screeches every single time, 'cause no one can get the mics set up right no matter how often they try.
Janisse and Chante don't care so much about this, and Jess can't really explain how much she loves learning all these facts and making them matter. Dad used to bring out the Trivial Pursuit game when she was younger, and Jess loved the plastic edges of the pie pieces, the tiny triangular indentations they'd leave as she squeezed them between her fingertips, biting her lip and thinking on the right answers.
Dad would raise his eyebrows, mouth set skeptical when Jess got an answer right he didn't see coming. "Is that right?" he said, not like he thought she was wrong, but like it was surprising, interesting, to learn something new. "Jess, go on and get the encyclopedia."
The encyclopedia was just a kids' one, five volumes with bright colours on the spines, that they got volume by volume from the supermarket giveaway. More often than not it was too crappy to have the answer they wanted in it, but there'd always be an entry before or after that he'd stop to read. Dad would hm over what it said, and Jess would follow along with her finger because just knowing meant something.
She brings all of that when she's staring down some blank scared face from Dillon High. Competition makes her pride fiercer, gets her angry in a deep-down wordless way. They might have it fancy there, but she knows more than them. She worked harder to know it. And all she needs is to clamp down on that anger and let it flow through her until she can use it. When she's cold-prickled with sweat and she can barely hear the question over the slam of her heart in her ears, she knows she's gotta listen, she's gotta hear more than anyone else does.
Eyes closed, she thinks back to morning, when the sky brings the whole world beautiful into her sight. And she closes her eyes and answers the question there and then, in the calm, when all she's thinking about is how smooth and slow the day rises up. Jess is always going to find her answer looking east.
She gathers up this wisdom and carries it with her. The questions and answers bring a rhythm Jess can dance to. It makes her stronger just to know.
All that knowing, seems like it makes her the person who sees more than most. Jess never misses seeing Vince slouching around school, or halfway through the day, she catches sight of him down a hall, easing his way out a side door.
She sees him kiss girls at parties and then laugh about it with Calvin. They like to shoot hoops and laugh about girls, how far they got, how far they're gonna get, like girls are another way to keep score. Jess tries to turn away, but it seems like she can't stop seeing it.
First year of high school, Vince kissed her, and Jess let him because she felt like it meant something. It even felt good, until he pushed his tongue into her mouth, all slick and bold and awkward. Still she didn't break away until his hand that'd been light on her hip moved up and tried to touch her chest. "Hey!" she said, shoving him off.
"What's your problem?" Vince said, soft, as if it was a romantic thing to say, accusing her of being the one in the wrong.
Licking her lips, trying to get the strange un-taste of another mouth out of hers, Jess said, "I'm done."
Vince frowned quickly, like she was telling a joke he didn't get. "What's that mean?"
"That means, I don't want to kiss you no more!"
"Hey, we were just getting started--" Vince stepped forward, tilting his head like he was lining up to kiss her again. He was smiling like his smile would hold her still, even if his arms weren't yet.
Jess planted both hands in his chest and pushed him back. No one's ever said that Vince could hurt someone, but maybe they were all so glad to give him what he wanted that it never mattered. All she knows is that she's not waiting around to find out which.
Vince looks so surprised at her shove that Jess does it again, and gets past him, walking away with her head bent and her arms crossed tight across her chest. Vince calls "Hey!" after her one more time, but Jess shuts his ears, and if he mutters anything else, she's too far away to hear. He doesn't follow her walking home, not even to tell her what she's been missing out on so long and what she'll miss out on longer now that she's told him to stop.
Jess doesn't even know she's crying until she slips through the kitchen door and finds Dad sitting at the table waiting for her. His face stills in one look that says she's in trouble, and Jess stands up straighter to take it. He seems to stand up slow, but it takes no time at all for him to cross the room to her side. Jess wipes the heel of her hand across her eyes and sniffs back the tears. She was close to stopping, and she never cried so hard it made a noise, but she nearly starts again just from seeing how angry Dad is. His hand on her shoulder was so tight that it broke her out of crying, surprised that he'd grab at her, which he's never done once before.
"Did he hurt you? Jess! What did that boy do?"
"Nothing," she said, words catching in her throat until they were whispers. "Daddy, he didn't do nothing, it was just kissing--"
Dad's fingers twitch tighter on her shoulder, like he wants to shake her, then he nearly pushes her back letting go of her. "I said don't you go near him!" He marches to the door, palm slamming it open til the hinges scream, as if Vince might be waiting in the yard to get his sorry self beaten.
"Don't!" Jess doesn't know what he's looking for, but this is something she doesn't want anyone to know. "Daddy, don't, it wasn't anything!"
Dad steps outside, his shoulders bunching up as he stares out past the streetlights, but no more than that. More the uselessness of chasing Vince down seems to stop him than any kind of restraint. Jess swallows down any defense she might have made, and eventually she slips back to her bedroom. She falls into bed and curls around a pillow, so glad that she has something to hug that won't try to hug her back.
The next morning at school, Vince's eyes slide right on over her, like she's somehow turned invisible to him. And still it's like she can always feel him looking. Even when he's not there, Jess tenses up under the touch of his eyes.
Oh, he's handsome, all right. Jess has seen too much of handsome and what it can do. And now, she sees him working with the team, having less time to do those ugly things that being handsome makes so easy. Jess stays away, hating the disappointed look that her dad can't hold back when she isn't perfect and pristine the way he'd like, even when she's barely done anything wrong. There's gotta be something better than handsome, and some day, she's going to find what it is.
Janisse took one look up at the near-empty bleachers during the Lions' second game, and wrinkled her nose, saying, "You know they're cheering for the boys."
Chante nearly laughed herself silly, since the team barely held onto the ball for fifteen minutes of possession, and it was just one long slog for the defense, play after play with the Rattlers burning through the line. The Lions have been more or less running a clinic in how to get taken advantage of when you throw a dozen interceptions, and they were giving up turnovers on downs and sacks all night.
"Why'd they even come, if they're just gonna sit there?" Jess said, when they were left there panting at the end of the night while the people on the bleachers trickled out to the parking lot and drove away without so much as watching the boys leave the field. "If they aren't even gonna act like it means something?"
But the team's getting better. Jess sees that, and after a few games, Chante and Janisse see it too. It's not just dancing, then, that's fun on its own. It starts to be about raising the energy in the crowd (that starts being a crowd) when the Lions have the ball. Moving the sticks is enough of a reason to start a cheer.
There's that energy, come game time. You'd think, all that practicing, all that working day in and day out to get things right, on the beat and one two three four, that she'd be thinking through every move before it happens. Instead, it's like her body moves her, not the other way round. She's just dancing. And she can imagine that cheering's for her.
Jess wants that crowd to have that pride she feels when the boys climb up to their feet again and again. There's so few of them, most of the backs play defense and offense, wherever they're needed. Jess knows how much they must be hurting. She's close enough to hear when the coach grabs them by their jersey necks and yells into their helmets, "What can you give me, huh? You got one more in you?" and they say, "Yeah Coach--"
"You gonna give me one more?"
"I said yeah Coach!"
"Then get in there, no use standing around talking about it!"
Yes sir. And they go back in, set themselves on the line of scrimmage. Jess can hear the crunch of shoulder pads meeting, the hoarse grunts, the panting breaths.
And that's worth cheering, whatever Dad says. She wants Caleb and Darius seeing that all they have to do is keep trying, keep going. That's all she's done all her life, is just keep going, and she wants them to learn it too. For boys football's the way to do that.
Jess finds her own way. Her mind gets up over the crowd and the yells and the shriek of the whistles, until it's like she can hear the music they picked even though the crappy stereo system spits and crackles. And when she does, when she hears that, she lets her body go. It's not her, it's just that place where her body moves. That's not so different from the boys. She knows muscle memory. She knows what that was, to move like that, to be there, like the whole world's watching and all you can do is keep on.
There's some kids who work so they can pretend their daddies aren't paying for their cars and their gas and all the beer they can get down their throats. Plenty of people Jess knows, they work because they don't get anything from their parents, so a job's all they got if they want to go out on the weekends and get stupid drunk. Jess wanted her bike so that she wouldn't always get stuck waiting for buses that in East Dillon never seemed likely to show up. She couldn't always be begging Dad for rides when he probably wouldn't like where she wanted to get dropped off. And that bike, it meant she could get out away from the boys. On a bike, she looks like she's going somewhere, and she can always pedal so hard that she leaves the whistles and calls of hey girl what your name is? behind.
That bike means something. But her job, that's closer to dancing than anything else. That's muscle memory. She's been playing in Ray's BarBQ so long she was there when her granddad was the one running it. She knows it so well it's like her feet have memorized the floor, and she is so precise her footsteps probably land in the same grooves every time.
The regulars are likely to call out an order when they're walking in, before they even get a table or a menu. And then there are the ones who hem and haw over choices like it's a five-star dining establishment and they don't know the difference between brisket and pulled pork, and the decision about whether they want the corn muffin is more like life and death.
"Trust me," Jess says, while she's clearing an armload of grease-spotted containers and sauce-streaked napkins from in front of them. Two steps to the garbage can, two steps back with drinks, and a hip-checked swing past the fridge for more of the hickory barbeque sauce. "You always want the corn muffin."
She usually comes in late, after Dad has locked up, to help him closing up. She spins light between tables, scooping up crumbs, scrubbing down the wood, making everything gleam that lemon-wax shine that mixes with the hickory smoke smell and the spicy tang of sauce.
She never sees the place all the way clean. Dad pulls her into a quick hug, a kiss landing against her temple before he says, "You get on home, now, I'll finish up here." He always gives her those few minutes to walk home. The air moves cool over her, easing away the ache and sweat of working.
Jess gives him those minutes in return, when he can have the place to himself. Jess thinks maybe that's his way of staying calm. Seeing what he's got, in the quiet dark, before he comes home, smiling, to all of them.
It's not easy, being in charge of three brothers. Jess never knew all the million things a parent had to figure out, like explaining long division or fishing Lego pieces out of the sink with a half-bent paperclip so that the water will drain. And there is no moment when she's studying or writing an essay when Darius might not run screaming into the room to tell on Caleb or Andre for something that she's gonna have to put a stop to.
Other times, though, it can mean so much to know that she's the one they look up to. The three of them, they think their life's being wasted if they aren't sprinting somewhere or tackling somebody, which is no good for furniture, but at least she can always send them out for an hour with a football and expect them to stay busy.
It's not easy for Dad to see them all out playing, like he used to love to do so much. But every year he still finds the money to get all of them signed up for Pop Warner, even if Andre and Darius are still wearing Caleb's old hand-me-down equipment, and Caleb has to scrunch his toes to get another season out of his cleats. There's at least one new piece of padding, a helmet, or something, on Christmas and at their birthdays, and they get by.
Jess tries to make it to most of their games, at least the important ones. It really is something else, to see the boys on Andre's team all converging on the ball at the same time. It's like a football game between puppies. As long as they all end up in a pile of jerseys with the ball underneath somewhere, then they're winning. They pass like they're lobbing couch cushions instead of footballs, and usually the throws only go a yard or two, if they can even make it over the backs at the scrimmage line. Jess spends her time on the sidelines trying not to laugh too hard. In a couple of years, when the younger ones get to Caleb's age, they'll be managing actual plays, little shovel passes and running plays that find the holes in the defense. And the line starts to read the coverage, and keep the pocket solid.
She wishes Dad could see them getting better. He says he can't, but what that really means is he won't. Caleb doesn't believe it anymore, that Dad really needs to be at the restaurant all that time, but he doesn't say so where Andre can hear. When Darius get sick before a game, Jess rubs his back and tries to say what Dad would, if he ever talked about football.
None of that stops the boys. They all get solemn and do their best, and Dad does manage a grin for them when they come home and tell him the score, and then turn the living room upside down acting out all the best plays.
Some nights, Jess takes all of them out and plays two-on-two with them, her and Andre against Caleb and Darius. The sunset light fades until the grass turns from dry-yellow to twilight-grey, and the boys run until they fall and roll to their backs and watch the pink undersides of the western clouds. Sometimes Jess rolls with them, gets a thousand pinprickles of grass up her shirt. When they finally get to their feet and walk home, they're all three of them quiet silhouettes against the long sky.
Jess loves the game. Seems like she's always known how to play. Around Dillon, her being a girl meant she'd never really get to play, because being a girl mattered, from Mini-Mites on out. Dad never seemed to mind, when she was five or six years old, taking her out and wrapping her hand around a ball, showing her how to line up her too-small fingers with the stitching. He played on his knees, let her tackle him. On Sundays, after church, she'd race him to the couch, both of them sprawling out as he watched the games, and she snuggled in beside him, raising her arms to cheer because he did.
Chante knows the game. Janisse just loves to dance. But Jess bets that she not only knows more than them, she probably knows more than some of Coach Taylor's team. Dad was always asking her what it meant, until she was predicting what every dropped flag meant before the ref stood out to signal the penalty.
Landry, now. He seems to go into game only knowing what Coach Taylor tells him. Maybe that's not fair for her to think. Maybe he knows it every time he takes a wrong step. But there's so many times Jess would love to stop him running a post and send him on a flag route instead, because that's where the ball's waiting to reach him. It's not long before Coach Taylor takes him off receiving. Even with as few players as the Lions have, there are guys who learn faster which way is which.
It's not that Landry's stupid, because she can see that he's anything but. It's just that the pressure trips him up. When he's not thinking about where he's going, or why, he can do beautiful things. He's not as fast or as strong as some of the guys, but he knows how to move, when he's not thinking.
Landry's thinking gets in his way more than on the field. When he stumbles over his words and his thoughts, it's like watching him run a wheel instead of a hook. He reads the defense wrong and he goes down under a crunch of bodies.
But the game, Jess thinks he understands it like she does. Or he wants to. The beauty of it--Landry can see what she does. There's a space deep down inside where everything collects, and Landry knows he can reach it on the field. Jess wishes she could still find that with Dad. That they could go out into the back field like she does with the boys, and he could find her with bullet passes and long hail Marys, over and over again, telling her a pattern and then hitting her on the stride every time. She doesn't know why he can't find that joy the way he used to. It leaves him so lonely, and she knows there's nothing she can say.
The end of the season hits Jess slowly. No more boys wearing their jerseys in the hall on Fridays, no more shouts from the football field in the mornings and after school. The janitors take down the pep rally posters, and the morning announcements start talking about basketball tryouts, and later baseball. Seems like she looks up one day and all that's left is the old-sweat smell of cleats that Darius left in his equipment bag, and all the rest, all that energy, is gone.
When Caleb was eight or nine, that's when Jess remembers the end of football in their house. It was his first season playing Peewee, when positions started to matter more, when getting benched for a game or two was like sealing your destiny. Caleb wanted to be a quarterback, like Dad, and he was pretty good. He was too young to know if he'd turn out slim and fast like a quarterback, or if he'd end up the kind of tank that plays center and holds the line. That didn't matter to him, all he knew was he wanted to do what Dad did. He wanted to wear Dad's old State ring, and ask all these questions, like "Why'd you never play more, Dad?"
Why are you a cook, he meant. Why'd you take over the restaurant from Granddad Ray? Dad makes the best barbeque that Jess has ever tasted, and he runs the restaurant like he'd never do less than his best, but what's that when he could have played ball?
Dad went to college on a scholarship, but he didn't come back with a degree. He hurt himself playing, messed up his knee, that's all he ever said, but it feels like there's more of a story there that he won't tell.
Caleb asked about it too much, until Dad's face started getting stormy every time he looked like he'd ask again. Seems to Jess that Dad came back from college the way the Lions limped out of their first game. Broken. Shamed.
Jess wishes she knew what it was, so that she could tell Dad it wasn't going to be like that for the boys. But there's no point saying they'd never get hurt. Darius has already had a bad sprain, just from running down a gopher-holed field, and Caleb broke a finger getting it jammed back at the knuckle, catching a pass wrong.
It's not about getting hurt, though, either, because it's not that kind of sadness in Dad's eyes. The way he gets closed off, it's almost scary to see. It's frightening that there's something out there that could hurt him so deep, and it's something they all love.
When Jess looks back, it seems like all that football in their house just stopped, like the season after losing State. That team doesn't get a parade or all those fancy speeches. That team slinks back home, lonely as hell for what they couldn't have, feeling the disappointment of the whole town dragging them down. They try so damn hard to be proud, but they hide their naked ring fingers, angry and shamed for being second-best.
There are a lot of kids in towns like Dillon that have ambition and desire and not a lot else to go on. Jess has the cheerleading squad, she volunteers for the boys' Pop Warner teams, and she's the captain of the Academic Smackdown team. She might get a scholarship, and that could make college possible. It could also make saving up for the bike, twisted under Landry's car, like nothing but small change. Even so, she'd end up at UT, maybe, studying history, or maybe Spanish.
East Dillon's full of rusty chain link and broken down cars and grass that's only green for the five minutes after it rains, but it's beautiful to her. It's strange, maybe, but one thing Jess doesn't think about even when it seems like chaos is taking over her whole life is leaving. She thinks about the long blocks walking home in the twilight that lasts and lasts, and how the heat rises up long after the sun has set. The old fields, the rain. She loves them all, and she can't imagine never coming back.
In another town, in a city, there's more scope, a different pace to life. Jess doesn't want to be like Dad, going out there and getting shot down, coming back and grieving for the rest of her life for something she should've had.
When Jess dreams of leaving, she imagines coming home with some kind of triumph. What it is, she doesn't know yet. There's still a year left of school to think it through. What Jess wants to find, it feels like something out there in the twilight dark, something she'll go out and find.
Dillon's the porchlight. Dillon's like football; it's in her blood, and no matter what else happens in her life, she's always going to love it, no matter where she ends up. She'll always have that clear light of home in her eyes; to feel her heart full of Dillon and her family. Chaos isn't going to stop her. Everything, all that unknown she's chasing down, Jess is going to use it to fill herself up, until she can close her eyes and there's only the wide peaceful sky around her.