“So, you’re from New Jersey?”
“Sure am. And you’ve got to be a Cali girl with a voice like that.”
Christen laughed, pulling her socks over her shin guards as she looked across to the Jersey girl who was smiling widely.
Christen loved her smile already.
“What’s wrong with my voice?”
“No, no, there’s nothing wrong with it!” The Jersey girl quickly said, a faint blush coming onto her cheeks. “It’s really pretty actually - uh...I mean...I really like - I really, your voice is...nice.”
The smile remained on Christen’s face even as she looked away, back to where she was tying her laces. She told herself it was to save the blushing girl from tripping over her words in embarrassment more. If she were being honest, she found it endearing.
She knew a similar blush was rising to her own cheeks.
“Well, thank you. You have a nice voice too. Do I get to know your name?” Christen stood up, holding out her hand for the Jersey girl to take as she pulled her to her feet.
“Tobin. Tobin Heath.” The wide smile on Tobin’s face was back. “And you?”
Christen stared dumbly at Tobin, wondering how she even managed to take in her name when her mind was in a spiral over how soft the girl’s hand was. At this point she was sure she was in a full body blush. Her brain eventually managed to convince her hand to get moving and she let go of Tobin’s hand, smiling softly at the girl. “Christen. Christen -“
A loud whistle reverberating through the changing rooms cut Christen off before she could get her last name out, and the national u-17 camp’s coach called out to all the girls, coming into the room to discuss how the camp would play out.
As soon as the coach began talking soccer, Christen’s brain switched completely to that focus.
At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself, even when she caught herself stealing glances at Tobin next to her, who sat relaxed in her seat, arms crossed over her chest. When she did manage to maintain focus on the coach’s whiteboard diagrams, she swore she could feel Tobin’s eyes on her as well.
For one fleeting glance, the two caught each other’s eyes at the same time and looked away quickly, a blush appearing on Christen’s cheeks and Tobin’s alike.
If this was just the first hour, Christen knew she’d be coming away from this camp with long lasting memories of more than just soccer.
The two weeks flew by, and Christen was proved correct, having gotten to know all of the girls at camp well. There were a lot of big group bonding activities, people moving in and out, loud voices chattering.
Throughout the time, Christen and Tobin found themselves naturally gravitating to each other.
Christen was overwhelmed when the group got too chaotic. Tobin never liked being the centre of attention. They would easily find each other in the quiet spaces, shoulders brushing as they sat next to each other, sometimes one of them being brave enough to lean slightly into the other.
For Christen, spending time with Tobin was as easy as breathing.
They would pair off to run drills together, gliding in and out of each other on the field like they had been doing it their whole lives.
They talked, a lot, mostly about soccer, but also about their dreams. Getting a soccer scholarship to college, making it to the national team, winning Olympic gold, winning a World Cup.
That kind of talk got them giddy. They were still far off, sure. Only 15 years old. Most people didn’t break into the national team until they were at least 21, and even then, you had to be the best of the best.
But they could feel it, they had a good thing going. There was electricity on the field when they played. They both had a high work ethic. They’d do anything to achieve their dream.
It wasn’t a matter of ego. If anything, they underestimated their talents. They were always the last ones on the field after practices and scrimmages. They worked together harder and longer than anyone else.
Tobin would watch as Christen took 200 shots every day, half on her left and half on her right. She would sometimes play keeper for the last ones, trying to make Christen’s focus crack and get a smile out of her.
Christen would stare determinedly at the balls and the net, trying not to let her eyes wander to Tobin juggling the ball for 10 minutes straight. She would focus on the way the ball glided into the goal. She definitely would not focus on the way the sun shined off Tobin’s honey coloured hair, and the way her calf muscles showed prominently when the ball bounced off her feet, and the way a slither of her olive skinned waist would show when she stretched her arms up into the air.
Tobin taught Christen how to nutmeg someone, Christen taught Tobin how to cut away from a defender and send the ball into the top right of the net.
With the dedication they sensed from each other, they knew it wasn’t a matter of if they’d make the national team, but when.
“So, I’ll see you here next camp?”
Christen smiled down at her cleats as she unlaced them, thinking about Tobin’s question. They were in the changing room at the end of the fortnight, camp over, parting ways until who knew when.
“Are you suddenly in charge of who gets to come back and who doesn’t?”
“If only. But Chris, they’d have to be blind not to call you back. The u-17 World Cup is next year. You’re a shoo in with those shots of yours.”
“You too.” Christen couldn’t stop the blush from taking over her face, trying not to think about the fact that Tobin just called her Chris. “They’d be stupid not to pick you.”
“Exactly!” Tobin’s wide grin appeared, and then she got a serious look on her face. “I’ll really miss you, Christen.”
“Yeah, Tobs. I’m really going to miss you, too.” Christen tried not to blush at the way Tobin beamed at the nickname.
“I can see it happening, Chris. You know, me and you making it all the way. The national team, World Cup gold. I really can.” Tobin got a thoughtful look on her face, then, and started playing with her fingers. “I want you to have this.”
Christen’s eyes widened as Tobin pulled a ring off her right middle finger she had been wearing all camp. It wasn’t worth anything outrageous - they were only 15 after all - but the way the simple gold band sat on Tobin’s outstretched palm made tears prick in Christen’s eyes.
“Tobin, no, I can’t let you give me your ring.” Christen tried to protest, even though Tobin’s encouraging smile really made her want to accept it.
“Just until next camp, just take it until then. Something to remember me by.”
As if Christen could forget Tobin.
Christen found herself nodding, before seeming to remember something of her own. She pulled her own simple gold ring she had been wearing off her left middle finger and held it out to Tobin, letting the other girl see it.
“Then you take mine. To remember me, as well.”
Christen saw the blush hit Tobin’s cheeks that she could feel on her own. They exchanged rings, putting each other’s on the finger their own was just on. Christen tried not to shiver when her hand brushed against Tobin’s but it must not have worked, because Tobin gave her hand a squeeze.
Christen was sure it was meant to be a reassuring gesture, but when she felt Tobin’s hand in hers her heart rate spiked so high she thought she might pass out.
“So, like I said,” Tobin started, looking at Christen with an excited grin, “I’ll see you here next camp?”
“I guess you will, then. Right here?” Christen teased, gesturing to where Tobin was sat cross legged on the changing room bench to Christen’s right, just as she had been all fortnight.
“Right here, I mean it. I won’t go out onto the field until I see you walk into this changing room. I’ll wait for you right here.”
If Christen could have frozen Tobin’s smile and have it in her mind forever, she would have. But a smile like that was so enigmatic she didn’t feel like she would have trouble remembering it.
Tobin’s smile was something you could think about anytime, anywhere, and you couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Christen knew the memory of Tobin’s smile would forever be able to bring her out of her own mind, motivate her when she had nothing left, make her heart skip a beat.
She wanted to promise Tobin she would meet her there as well, that Tobin would wait for a reason - she was going to show up. But she couldn’t. Her phone was ringing.
“I’ll wait for you right here.” Tobin’s voice floated over and over in Christen’s mind. Christen tried to respond, but her damn phone kept blaring. She went to reach into her u-17 jacket pocket to fish it out before she remembered she didn’t have a phone at age 15. Why was there a phone rin-
Christen jolted up, ripped from her dream, fumbling around for where her phone had fallen down the side of the tattered couch. She finally grabbed it, hitting the accept button with barely a flicker of a glance at who was calling – it would only really be one person.
Christen didn’t exactly have a phone book of friends trying to get in touch with her.
“Chris, you’ll never believe what just happened.”
“Tell me.” Christen tried to stop a yawn coming through, stretching out on the couch as she did so.
“Shit, sorry, did I wake you up?”
“You did, but it’s ok, I needed to get up anyways. I have work starting soon.” Christen glanced at the time on her phone, seeing it was 8pm already. She absently fidgeted with the ring on her left finger, a habit she hadn’t grown out of in 12 years.
“Another night shift? Christen, this is crazy, you’ve done too many in a row now.”
Christen rolled her eyes at her younger sister’s attempt at a stern tone of voice. “Well someone’s gotta pay the rent for our 5 bedroom penthouse apartment.” The sarcasm dripped from Christen’s mouth as she looked around their apartment, paint chipped on the ceiling, a shower that constantly let out a single drip of water, one tiny bedroom that barely fit the bed they both shared.
Mal snorted at that comment and Christen kept talking. “Plus, with you gone to the free babysitting service for two weeks I have so much time on my hands I’m basically desperate to go to work.”
The way Christen’s entire body ached at her words proved their falsity, but she’d never let her younger sister know that.
Truth was, without needing to be home looking after Mal, Christen immediately snapped up any chance for extra work. The only thing she spent more time thinking about after Mal was their ever empty bank account, constantly taunting her with its low figures and sending her to an early grave whenever it dipped below zero.
“Ok first of all, I’m not at free babysitting, it’s the 2015 United States under-20’s soccer camp.” Mal put on a fake British accent as she spoke, making her words more grandiose in a self-mockery way. Christen laughed and put on the same accent, making impressed sounds with her nose turned up. “And second of all, you wouldn’t have to work so much if you would just let me get a job. I could help -”
“Mal, shut up.” Christen interrupted, keen to put this argument to bed before it could resurface again. “Tell me your news. It can’t be that exciting if you’d rather talk about getting a job than what you called about.”
Successful in her diversion, Christen listened in triumph as Mal took an excited deep breath in. “I got invited to train with the full national team today.”
That had Christen sitting right up on the couch. “What! Get out, are you serious? The full national team?”
“I know, right! I’m still in shock, I can’t believe it.”
“What are they doing there? Do they have a camp on as well? Tell me everything.”
Christen listened with rapt attention as Mal recounted her day, explaining how the full national team were at Carson for a camp before they were to head up to Canada for the World Cup.
“Baby, I’m so proud of you. That’s so, so cool.” Christen gushed into the phone, her heart bursting with pride. “You must be absolutely killing it out there.”
“Were they nice to you?”
Mal laughed, making Christen laugh too. “Yes, Christen, they were all nice to me. I was so nervous. But then Lauren Holiday and Sydney Leroux talked to me before it started and were really nice. So was Tobin Heath, she talked to me at the end.”
Christen tried not to get a hitch in her breath when Mal mentioned Tobin, especially after she had just woken up from a dream about her, same as she’d been doing at least once a week for 12 years. She felt the ring tighten on her finger and she wrung it around, thinking about Tobin’s smile and feeling a calm wash over her. “Listen to you, dropping those names casually. I can see it now, Mallory Press, 17 years old, the youngest call up to the US women’s national team in over a decade.”
“Oh my god, Christen, shut up, it was just one training.”
Christen laughed through the phone, loving to embarrass Mal any chance she got. But, she truly did believe it. “Hey, the fact they asked you to train with them means something, Mal. Be humble, always. But you can be proud of yourself, too.”
“I know, I know. Well I was definitely humbled at practice today, I totally shanked a shot at goal, right in front. It was pretty embarrassing. And the speed of play they play at - I’ve got to work on my touch more when I get back.”
“Speaking of, are you still ok to get dropped to the diner when camp ends? I couldn’t get it off to pick you up.”
“Yeah, I sorted it.”
Christen nodded absently, tapping the phone onto speaker. She got up to walk around the tiny apartment, picking up various items she had dropped on her route to the couch so she could get ready for her second job. “How is everything else going?”
“It’s good. Tiring but real fun. We’re all meshing well as a team now. And today was just crazy. I can’t believe it.”
A proud smile grew on Christen’s face as she listened to Mal talk. All of her sacrifices, everything of her own she dropped for Mal, it was all paying off. Seeing her baby sister’s dreams coming true was enough for Christen, even if those same dreams were once her own.
Not that Mal needed to know that.
“Make sure you thank all the people who helped make that happen, ok?”
“I did, and I will thank Frenchie again when I see her later.”
“Ok, good.” Christen yanked off the shirt from her bartending job off, pulling the 24 Hour Diner shirt on after. She knew she really should have showered first, but even the thought was too exhausting. She groaned as the muscles in her body protested with the lift of her arms, and she shook them out, trying to limber up.
“You ok?” Mal’s voice came through the phone small and unsure, the way Christen knew she talked when she was worried about her. The last thing she wanted was for Mal to be distracted at camp because she was concerned about her.
Christen couldn’t help but smile at her sister’s kind nature. “Baby, I promise I’m fine. My arms were just a bit stiff. It’s called getting old.”
Mal laughed through the phone. “Ok, simmer down, you’re only 27.”
“Exactly! Pretty soon you’ll be carting me off to a nursing home.”
“Oh my god.”
Christen grinned, imagining Mal rolling her eyes at her bad humour from there. “They’ll serve me mashed carrots for dinner every night at 4pm and send me off to bed.”
“I actually hate you.”
“I’ll be lucky if my hot shot little sister ever pays me a visit.”
“I’m hanging up the phone now!” Mal said in between her laughter.
“I love you!”
“Love you back.”
Christen waited on the phone to hear Mal hang up after that, but the beep tone never came. Just as she was about to say something, Mal spoke up.
“I miss you, Chrissy.”
Christen’s heart hurt hearing the softness in Mal’s voice. She took the phone off speaker, putting it back to her ear and pressing it into it as if that would bring her closer to Mal.
Sometimes Mal got like this when she was away from Christen for soccer. For essentially Mal’s entire living memory, they’d only ever been together. Christen was Mal’s stability. She knew how anxiety inducing it was to be away from that – Mal offered that same comfort to her. “I miss you more, baby. I’ll see you soon though, ok?”
“Yeah.” Mal said, taking a pause. “Just promise me you’re taking care of yourself.”
“Mal, I promise. I always do. And you promise me as well?”
“Ok, good. Please don’t worry about me, baby, just focus on camp and keep killing it out there. Knowing you’re doing that brings a smile to my face even at 3am when I’m serving coffee to some dude so high he can’t even tell which way is up.”
Hearing Mal’s laugh relieved Christen, and Mal seemed to accept her answer, promising her she was giving it her all, just like every other camp she had been called to since she was 13 years old.
“Ok go on now back to the team, or you know, go hang out with Lauren Holiday and Sydney Leroux since they’re your new BFFs.” Christen teased, laughing when Mal groaned. She knew she purposefully left out Tobin’s name, but she wasn’t going to dwell on why. That required emotional capacity her brain just could not give at that moment. “Love you.”
“Love you forever.”
“What a sap. Who raised you?”
Mal groaned. “You’re actually so annoying. Why am I ever nice to you.”
“Bye, ya little loser.” Christen was grinning before she finished talking, never being able to resist winding Mal up, no matter how old she got.
She hit end on the call, the grin still on her face but not lasting long. She had really started to think about what Mal had said.
Mal had talked to Tobin today. What did they discuss? Did Tobin still talk with her eyes shining through her smile? Did she still juggle the ball like it was attached to her leg?
Did she look at Mal and recognise someone from her past?
Would she even remember Christen?
“Fucking hell, get it together.” Christen scolded herself, shaking her head as if to shake out the ludicrous thought. Of course Tobin didn’t remember her. It had been 12 years. She didn’t show up to camp, and Tobin would have immediately forgotten about her.
Christen didn’t have time to try and kid herself that Tobin gave her even a fraction of the thought she gave to Tobin. It was Tobin Heath. World Cup champion and Olympic Gold winner. Christen was well aware how ridiculous it was to be dreaming of her on the regular, let alone wearing her ring after all these years.
So, she pulled on her worn down diner shoes and tried not to think about all the other worlds that could exist where she would be lacing up her cleats with Tobin by her side instead.