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you are cruel, you are

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He tells Grandma that he twisted an ankle in practice and that he has to sit a few games out.

It's easier that way.

During practice, he gets dressed, runs drills, and then sits on the bench. His muscles relax and the sun burns the back of his neck.

 Coach isn't looking at him, he thinks, bitterly. Sometimes Coach almost turns around, half-turns, and stops, pivots, refocuses. On J.D.

 The second week, after J.D. (instead of Matt) wins the game and Riggins gets J.D. (instead of Matt) riotously drunk, Matt brings his homework along, sits on the bench, and writes half of his English essay. No one pays attention.

The third week, Julie asks if he wants to go to a movie, one of those independent ones where none of the actors washed their hair at all during the film shoot. He says he can't, he has practice.

So Julie offers to come along, instead, and they sit on the ground, ten feet back from the bench---”You can't be on th' field,” he says, apologetically, “n'ones allowed on the field during practice.”

She ignores him. They do their calculus homework and she goes on and on about studying for the SATs.

He thinks Coach might have looked over at them once.

The next week, Julie brings in her college applications.

“They're due in a month,” she says, stacking folder on top of folder. “A&M, UT, SMU, UNT, Texas Tech, and my top choice, Tulane,” she says. There's one folder left, one she shoves to the bottom of the pile, its purple font almost invisible under the other applications. “Northwestern,” she says. “It's...it's good. I won't get in, but. It's in Chicago. You can't tell my mom.”

She doesn't say not to tell her dad, but Matt and Coach haven't spoken more than a word in weeks anyway.

He hadn't started any applications. Hadn't thought about it. He's not stupid. He knows just how damn poor he is. How Grandma hasn't got anyone else, not even if Shelby is hanging around more often than not these days.

“What are your plans?” Julie asks. It's Thursday and it's the last practice before game day. Matt isn't going to play in the game.

“Guess I’ll get a job. Join the army, maybe, but Grandma...” There’s not really anything else to say after that. Matt thinks of long nights at the Alamo Freeze.

Julie just purses her lips and keeps circling answers in her SAT practice book.

Two weeks (two games, but Matt's life isn't measured by football anymore) later he skips the quarterback meeting on Saturday morning to pick Julie up after her test. She comes out nervous, chewing on the end of one of her number two pencils.

“I think it went well,” she says, and “you should take it too, you know. Just in case.”

--- 

It's late October and the summer heat is finally leaving. Julie has worry lines in her forehead, working on her history homework while sprawled out on the too-green grass of the sidelines.

He's sitting next to her, awkward, unable to really cross or fold his legs because of his football pads. He's done with his homework for the night---for the week, actually, because it's Wednesday and he's already had three days' worth of football practice.

“Fill them out,” Julie says, reaching out to grab his arm. She pushes a stack of papers into his lap and he turns, surprised. On the field, they're running the spread offense. J.D. makes a forty yard pass. Riggins catches it.

Matt looks at the papers. Texas Tech. A&M. UNT. UT.

“In-state is always cheaper,” Julie shrugs. “But if you want - I printed the other ones too.”

The print on the applications is almost too small to read, but he moves to lie on his stomach and takes out a pen anyway.

Behind him, Julie smiles.

After practice, Coach corners him in the locker room and he wants to run away.

“Listen up,” Coach starts, angry, “You can't just laze around on the field all day, it's disrespectful and I will not have you using my field as some sort of study hall, you're setting a bad example for your teammates and practice is not the time for homework--”

“'S'not homework,” he says, “s'for college stuff. An' it doesn' matter anyway. I quit.”

This time he walks out before Coach can say anything.

Julie is leaning against the fence, waiting.

They have sex the night that Dillon plays Arnett Meade in the semis. 

--

Mrs. Coach corners him in the hallway before Spanish and walks him down into her office.

“I was talking with Mr. Paulson and he said he wrote you a college recommendation,” she says, sitting across the desk and staring him down. “That's great, Matt, why didn't you say anything? You know Coach Taylor and I woulda written you--”

He thinks it's probably too dramatic just to walk out, so he waits and says “not everything is about football” and “I have to go to class.”

-- 

This is the start of his college essay:

I'm angry.

--

Every time the Taylors walk into the Alamo Freeze, Matt's throat closes up like that one kid in second grade who was allergic to peanuts. He feels Coach grabbing him by the neck, feels Julie pulling him down onto her bed, feels Mrs. Coach staring at him expectantly, all of them wantin' things for him that he doesn't even want himself.

--

The letters come in March, long after football season and a few weeks after he realizes that he doesn't ever talk to Landry anymore.

Julie makes him promise to open everything together, so he waits until all of the letters come in and they drive out to the reservoir and sit on a cement wall. It's unseasonably cool and he pulls at his sweatshirt--an Army one his dad gave him when he was ten, the only one he owns that doesn't have Panthers written all over it.

She's excited about it; he doesn't really care. She talks herself into starting small, working up to the last letter. She gets acceptance after acceptance until it's that purple font again, and she's looking at him with a shine in her eyes.

"I got in, Matt, I got in!!"

-- 

He doesn't tell Grandma (Shelby's long gone, left for Oklahoma way back before Thanksgiving) until after they send their letters in, him and Julie, on a Friday night, holding hands while they hear them fall into the mailbox. She's going to Chicago--says it took her two weeks to convince her parents and another to promise that they wouldn't have to go into debt.

He's going to New Orleans--Tulane gave him a free ride, something about his family income being so damn low.

He sits down with Grandma at the table and tries to tell her. But she's gotten worse, and even though she cries and says she's proud and she'll miss him and what will she do without him, she doesn't remember any of it on Tuesday.

He makes arrangements for her, of course, checks out a shabby place in Odessa and figures out that his dad's checks will cover it if she agrees to share a room (fat chance, but he'll go with what he's got).

He takes Grandma down to see it, explaining again about college on the way. She doesn't hear any of it and when they get there she asks why are we visiting Aunt Irma, didn't she die last year?

Matt's never heard of an Aunt Irma, but he looks it up later and realizes Grandma thought it was 1974.

--

Two weeks after graduation he comes home and she's gone.

--

He slumps to the floor in the kitchen and there's a sharp pain in his chest and he thinks that this must be what a heart attack feels like, all beat and no breath, tightness in his limbs and his throat too dry to swallow.

Later, he doesn't know how much, he reaches up for the phone on the counter. It falls with a crash but there's still a dial tone when he picks it up. He calls Julie and it rings, and rings, and rings.

He tries again.

On the third ring someone picks up.

"Is J--Is Julie there?"

"Saracen? Matt?" Coach.

"Is Julie there? I need--"

"She left for Chicago on Sunday, summer program, Saracen, it's two o'clock in the morning, what's going on?"

"I need to talk to--"

"Are you okay, son?"

"No," he manages. "No. No. No. No. I need," he gasps, "I need--"

But then he looks sideways and sees her, there, in her chair, and he drops the phone. There's nothing he wants to say.

--

Coach and Mrs. Coach's truck pulls up with a screech that Matt almost hears. He thinks they must've torn across town to get there that fast.

They don't wait to knock.

Matt can hear the moment when they see it, her--when they know--Mrs. Coach gasps, hushing herself, and Coach's footsteps stop. Stop dead.

"Call the hospital," Coach says, an eternity later. "They'll know what to do."

Matt hears Mrs. Coach dial.

"Matt?" Coach is walking through the living room, picking his way around the---the chair.

He's still on the floor, one knee bent, wearing his uniform from the Alamo Freeze, backpack tangled on one of his arms.

"I'm so sorry, son," Coach says, and Matt wants to scream it, you're not my father, except that he doesn't and he doesn't think he could right now, anyway.

"I wanted--I wanted to talk to Julie," Matt says. "I wanted to--"

"I know," Coach sits down next to him, puts an arm around his shoulders. "I know."

--

The Taylors stay with him until they--the hospital, the funeral home, Matt doesn't know--come to take her away.

When she's gone, Matt slowly starts to breathe again. He's sitting on the floor next to Mrs. Coach and for the first time in ages he notices how filthy it is (hasn't been mopped, there's no time, not with working double shifts to pay for his car and getting a computer for college). He gets up and tries to ignore the stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

Coach is in the living room, leaning against the wall, hand over his face.

"Y'all can go now," Matt says, turning away, going back to his room. "Thanks."

He thinks they might say something in response, but he doesn't hear it. He closes his door and lies down on his bed (not made, there's no time) and falls asleep.

When he wakes up, Mrs. Coach is still in the kitchen--only this time there're pans and pans of casseroles laid out on the counter and she's trying to stuff a pie pan into the fridge. There are flowers lined up on the table and the whole room smells like lemons.

Matt notices one of the cards--it's from J.D. McCoy's mom.

"How do you feel?" asks Mrs. Coach, standing up straight. Her hair is pulled back and she's changed into jeans and a ratty t-shirt and he realizes with a start that she's been cleaning--cleaning his house. The fridge. The floors.

"Fine," he says, but he can feel something hot in his face, like shame. "I should go--call my dad."

It's late in Iraq, too late for a call, but Matt's been a military kid long enough to know how to work the system. He calls his dad's regular base in Texas and lets Mrs. Coach do the talking, until the line gets crackly with static and she hands it back to him and it's his dad's unit commander on the phone and then a minute or two later it's his dad, sounding dead tired, angry, and worried at the same time. 

"What is it, Matt?"

"Grandma's dead," Matt says, and somehow it's easier that way, blunt and open.

There's silence on the other end of the line.

"It's fine," Matt says, finally. "Don't come home. I'm leavin' Dillon anyways."

He can hear his dad's breathing.

"College," Matt says. "I thought you should know."

--

After the phone call--after his dad insisted that he give the phone over to Mrs. Coach for adult talk--not that Matt isn't an adult, more than anyone else has ever been--Matt is sitting on the porch and Mrs. Coach comes out, corners him. 

"Now I know you can't really be fine," she says, sitting down. "Seems to me that you got a lot bottled up inside. And it's not just this. You haven't talked a word to almost anyone other than Julie in months, Matt."

"I...I don't want to be rude, Mrs. Coach, but I'm fine. It's not--" Matt says, turns away.

"Not my problem?" She sighs, but she doesn't sound angry. Matt ventures a glance back in her direction.

"I'm sorry for what my husband did to you. What that team did to you. What God did to you when J.D. McCoy's daddy up and moved to Dillon," she says, quietly. "Don't--don't take it out on yourself. There are a lot of people here who love you."

"No," Matt says, "There are a lot of people here who used to love me."

--

Almost everyone comes to the funeral, even Shelby. Julie makes him go to the library and get on videochat with her the morning beforehand. She cries and cries and tells him how sorry she is.

While they're in the church he's alone, alone following the coffin up the aisle and alone sitting in the first row. No one tries to sit down next to him, not even the Taylors, until finally Tim Riggins and Lyla Garrity walk in, the both of them sun-bronzed and gorgeous and back from Riggs' summer training camp at A&M. Lyla sits down next to him and reaches for his hand and even though he barely knows her, they hold hands for the rest of the service, even when they are standing up.

Riggs is on her other side, clumsily holding the hymnal open. Afterwards, when the guests start coming up to Matt and offering their condolences, Riggs looks like he might punch something.

At the end, Lyla leaves with a hug and it's him and Riggs.

"I'm sorry, Seven," Riggs says, and when Matt looks at him he knows he means it. "You need anything, you let me and Garrity know. You got a raw deal, man."

--

Coach shows up right before closing on Matt's last day at the Alamo Freeze. Matt doesn't know how he knew, but in a town like Dillon it's no big surprise.

"Welcome to the Alamo Freeze, how may I help you?" Matt rattles off, barely looking up. It's only Coach and him; Jake is cleaning in the back, so there's no one to rat on Matt for being rude to a customer.

"You can stand there, look at me, and hear me out, son," Coach says, and it's odd and quiet.

Matt's not sure if he wants to be rude, anymore. His stomach twists.

"I came to apologize," Coach says. "I'm sorry it took so long, and I'm sorry for how we acted--how I acted--when McCoy showed up."

Matt looks up. Coach's eyes are dark and wide open, and he's talking slowly, like he means it.

"You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to forgive me," Coach continues. "I just came to say my part, and tell you that you were a damn good quarterback. Better than McCoy---Lord help me--as good as if not better than Street. Jules tells me you're going to New Orleans, but if you ever need anything, you let me and Tami know, you hear?"

Coach sticks his hand out.

Matt swallows and takes it, but Coach pulls him into a tight hug, until he's half bent over the cash register.

--

When Matt gets to Tulane, he ignores the signs for the football team.

--

He's signed up for Spanish, biology, economics, and a writing-intensive freshman English course that his assigned faculty advisor recommended, nose wrinkled, after reading his Dillon High transcript.

He gets his first paper back, a B-minus, with a note attached to see the professor and talk about rewrites. He goes to office hours the next day--Matt's got a lot of free time, now, no practice and no two-a-days.

The professor lists a bunch of things that Matt can change. Matt nods--it's all things he probably shoulda thought of but hadn't, not before, not when nobody would’ve ever given the quarterback anything lower than a B.

"Why don't you tell me about yourself, Matt," the professor, McLaren, says, finally. He's a younger guy, can't be more than thirty-five, athletic, Northern accent.

"I'm from Texas," Matt says. He doesn't say anything else--what else is there to say?

"That it? You're from Texas?" McLaren repeats. "No hobbies, no interests, no intended major or what you want to be when you grow up? What about your family?"

"Not really," Matt says. "My grandma died, my dad's in Iraq, my mother left when I was four."

"Sports?"

"No," Matt says.

It feels good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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