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Coach Spencer pulled his coat closer to him, shivering against the November chill. He glumly regarded the spectacle before him as the announcer intoned, “And the extra point is good. The score is now Warriors, zero, Southwestern, twenty.”
Four days of rain and fifty minutes of football had turned the field into a sodden mass of frigid mud. The white lines still showed at the edges of the field, but no longer marked the middle. His players’ red and white uniforms and Southwestern’s gold and blue uniforms looked almost alike under their coatings of muck. He sighed. The rain had stopped yesterday afternoon, but the humidity had remained, and the ground still squelched like an Irish bog.
The amount by which his team trailed would not have bothered him so much had his star player not slipped and fallen onto his left wrist. The coach shook his head. Surely Rohrbach knew by now not to stretch out a hand to break a fall, but the silly kid had done it anyway. In the mud, it had slid out from under his body and another player had landed, knee first, on his forearm. The hospital would have a time cleaning up that compound fracture. The coach shuddered. He hated seeing bones sticking through skin.
The injury had occurred at the start of the second quarter. It was now midway through the fourth. The coach shook his head again. Without Rohrbach, the team hadn’t a prayer of getting to the divisional finals.
He saw the defensive players loping back toward him and turned his thoughts to the problem of getting through the rest of the game without suffering any further humiliations. The injury had rattled the kids — cripes, the sound of the bone snapping had shaken even him — and they had backed off from their usual aggressive style. Not even his half-time pep talk had helped. He scowled. Why did Rohrbach have to choose today to get injured? Couldn’t he have waited until the end of the game, at least?
Kate Taylor never tired of the bustle of a busy emergency room. She enjoyed doing her job, liked the stimulation of never knowing what would happen next, and found a good deal of satisfaction in helping not only her patients but their families and friends. In her opinion, emergency medics did not consider the needs of the patients’ loved ones as often as they could. She realized the need for speed overshadowed everything else about the job — the Golden Hour had a way of slipping by all too quickly — but still, one team member often could spend a few seconds reassuring the family as the others loaded the patient into the rig or packed up. If Kate had time, she made sure she did it.
Right now, she scanned the nearly empty waiting room for the father of a boy her squad had brought in from a football game. She saw only one clump of women and children. With a little frown, she returned to the nurses’ station.
“Someone called the father of the Rohrbach boy, didn’t they?”
“Yeah,” a nurse said. “He said he’d be in.”
“Wonder where he is?”
The nurse shrugged and went back to her paperwork. Kate tried to put the boy out of her mind as she shuffled to the crew room to fill out her trip sheet, her account of what had happened during the run from the football game. On it, she jotted down her assessment of the patient, his vital signs, which treatments they had administered and such. Most trip sheets took several minutes to complete, with complex cases requiring half an hour or more to record. Kate spent about ten minutes on hers, after which she used the restroom and meandered back out to see if the boy’s father had arrived.
He had. From where she stood near the nurses’ station, Kate could see a husky man with graying blond hair arguing with the nurse at the sign-in desk. Kate couldn’t quite hear every word, but she could see the nurse recoil from him, an unusual sight. Nurses generally brooked no nonsense from anyone. The scene caused one of the doctors behind Kate to look up, mutter something, and stride out to intercept the man before he took it into his head to charge into the patient treatment area.
“Are you Jeffrey Rohrbach’s father?” the doctor asked, courteously enough. He gave a brief nod to the security guard that stood near the automatic doors, signaling him to keep an eye on the situation.
The husky man turned, his mouth open to complain. The strong scent of stale beer wafted toward the doctor. Once the man noted his white coat and stethoscope, though, he deflated.
“Yeah, I’m Bill Rohrbach. Are you the doctor who saw my boy?”
“I’m one of them,” the doctor said. He motioned toward a grouping of chairs. “I’m Dr. Yates. Let’s have a seat and I’ll tell you what’s going on with your son, Mr. Rohrbach. And before we say anything else, let me reassure you, he’ll be just fine.”
Bill Rohrbach sank into a chair.
“That’s good. You sure?”
“Absolutely. Kids his age heal in no time.”
“They said he had a broken arm?”
“That’s right. Compound fracture of the left radius, the larger bone in the forearm. This Etlik Escort one,” and the doctor inched up his coat’s sleeve to point to his own radius. “It didn’t help that your son was covered with mud at the time, let me tell you. But we’ve cleaned him up and he’s next in line to go to the cast room.”
“The cast room is where we put plaster casts on people.”
“Oh. I didn’t know there was a special room for that.”
“Anyway, once he’s in a cast, he’ll be much more comfortable.”
“How long’ll he have to have it?”
“Oh, I’d say about a month, but that’s really Dr. Wong’s call. He’s the bone doctor who’s treating your son now.”
But Mr. Rohrbach had stopped listening.
“Are you saying he won’t play football again this year?” he barked.
“I’m afraid not. The cast won’t come off until mid-December at the earliest, and after that he’ll need a couple of weeks of physical therapy.”
“That’s not good enough! My boy’s got to play ball. The scout from, uh, Penn State’s coming next week. How else is he gonna get a scholarship?”
Dr. Yates leaned back. He hated this part of the job.
“I’m sorry this happened to your son, Mr. Rohrbach. I’m sure a solution will come up. Now, would you like to see your son?”
Bill Rohrbach blinked. See his son? Why would he want to see his son? The stupid kid had just screwed up his chance to get out of that scrap heap the city called a house and for which it charged him indecently high taxes. Jeff was supposed to be his ticket out of there. If Jeff didn’t get a football scholarship, how was he, Bill, supposed to escape his shabby little existence and live in style, in a nice house with all the scotch and women he could handle?
He realized the doctor was waiting for an answer to a question Bill no longer remembered.
“Yeah,” he said, guessing.
“Right this way,” Dr. Yates said, relieved this interview had ended.
The nurses watched with suspicious eyes as the doctor led the man past them. Nadine at the sign-in desk had warned them that the man reeked of booze, and they all knew drunks too well to feel comfortable with one in their midst.
They passed a couple of patients in cubicles bounded by curtains. At the end of the row, Dr. Yates opened a curtain and led Bill into his son’s makeshift room.
“Jeff, your dad’s here,” he said cheerily.
Jeff barely opened his eyes.
“Great,” he said in a flat voice.
“Your son’s still in a good bit of pain,” Dr. Yates said, covering for Jeff’s lack of enthusiasm. “He’ll feel much better after he gets his cast. Well, I’ll just leave you two alone for a couple of minutes, until they’re ready for you in the cast room. After that, Dr. Wong will explain what happens next. Good luck on your recovery, Jeff.”
He left the two eyeing each other. Not the happiest father-son relationship he had ever seen, although he had, in fact, seen worse. Dr. Yates wondered where the mother was, then put the twosome out of his mind as he collected the folder for his next case.
For several seconds, the Rohrbachs simply looked at each other.
“Well,” Bill Rohrbach finally said, “you’ve really done it this time.”
“Thanks a lot for your love and encouragement,” Jeff said, heavily sarcastic.
“No need to bite my head off,” the older man flared.
They lapsed into a mutually sullen silence.
“The doc told me it’ll be weeks before your cast is off.”
“Yeah. It sucks. The Penn State scout was supposed to be here next week.”
“Stupid shit. Why’d you have to bust your arm now? You’ve never been injured.”
“It’s not like I did it on purpose. I don’t want a busted arm any more than you want me to have one.”
A head poked through the curtains.
A slim, short man drew the hanging sheets back.
“It’s time to go to the cast room. Ready?”
Jeff flicked a brief glance at his father, rolled his eyes, and sighed.
“Yeah. Get me out of here.”
At school Monday, a few girls cooed over his cast and his bravery on the field. Jeff liked that. His old man certainly had not made a fuss over him. He had done nothing, in fact, except criticize Jeff’s clumsiness and complain about having to do the cooking.
Jeff’s buddies felt torn between sympathy and wariness. They knew he had counted on getting a scholarship. That seemed unlikely now. What they did not know was how he would take it. So they all watched him carefully Monday morning, looking for cues to his mood. When he seemed pleased with the girls’ attentions, they relaxed.
His affable mood lasted until the following Saturday. He elected to sit on the bench with his teammates, wearing his jersey over his street clothes. A special cheer greeted his arrival and he took his place among his compadres with pleasure. But as the minutes trudged by, and the cold of the metal bench seeped into his bones, and his team fell further behind, his mood shifted. Since third grade, he had taken his Keçiören Escort rightful place among the tallest, strongest and most athletic children in his class. Hardly ever sick and always chosen first for teams, Jeff had never known how it felt to want to play and not be able to do so.
As White Rose High’s point deficit deepened and Jeff saw his friends make error after error, an ember of anger ignited within him. By the final twenty seconds, when one of his teammates fumbled five yards from the goal line, Jeff found himself on his feet, shouting abuse at the humiliated player. Coach Spencer strode over at once.
“Rohrbach! Shut your mouth! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“That stupid son of a bitch fumbled!”
“I know Turner fumbled,” the coach said through gritted teeth. “My question to you is why you’re yelling at him?”
Jeff’s eyes flicked from the field to the man’s face as he realized with a jolt what he had done.
“I’m sorry,” Jeff said. “I guess I lost my head.”
The coach narrowed his eyes and glared at him.
“I expected better of you, Rohrbach. I’ll talk to you later.”
As the coach stalked back to his waiting players, Jeff felt a surge of anxiety. He sank back onto the bench, breathing hard as he considered the fact that Coach no longer needed him, that his presence on the bench wasn’t necessarily automatic anymore.
The final seconds passed in a merciful blur. Southeastern reached White Rose High’s forty-yard line before the clock ran out and the ref blew the final whistle. The handshakes of winners with losers went quickly, as all the boys had only one goal now: to get out of the cold and under a hot shower.
Coach Spencer motioned his players to the locker room. Just as well to let the kids get a shower first and warm up before he yelled at them. They’d pay better attention to him then. In the meantime, he’d deal with Rohrbach. Jeff had stood at the game’s end — his backside felt frozen solid — and awaited his coach.
In those brief moments, Coach Spencer considered several approaches before settling on making Jeff analyze what he had done wrong.
“All right, Jeff,” the older man drawled. “Let’s talk. Tell me why you think you’re on the bench today, other than the obvious reason.”
“Uh, I’m part of the team and it’s good for morale for me to sit here.”
“Right. Now, how does your yelling at one of your teammates affect morale?”
The boy’s face reddened with more than cold.
“It’s bad,” he murmured.
“Right again. In fact, we have a rule to cover this. Tell me what it is.”
“When we’re on the field, we support one another in words and actions.”
“Uh huh. Do you think calling Turner a stupid son of a bitch is supportive?”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Like I told you before, I just lost it for a second. I didn’t mean to.”
“Rohrbach, I’ve coached you for four years now. I’ve seen you step over the line plenty of times when it comes to aggression, but I have never once seen you ‘lose it.’ What makes today any different?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do. You’ve just had a hard lesson in what it’s like to sit on the bench for the entire game and know you’re not gonna play. Well, let me tell you something, kid. Davidson’s been doing that all year and I haven’t heard him screaming at anyone. He’s always got a good word for everyone.”
The coach paused for effect.
“If you want to continue sitting with the team, I’d suggest you take a few notes from his playbook. He may not be the player you are on the field, but he’s one heck of a better one off.”
Jeff had always considered Davidson a snot-nosed little fairy. Hearing Coach call him a better player in any sense riled him. Still, he knew better than to argue.
“All right,” he said sullenly. “I’ll watch my mouth next time.”
“You can do better than that, Jeff,” Coach said in a kinder voice. “Don’t just watch your mouth. Aim to be a good example, a good leader. The other kids look up to you. Give them a reason to do so off the field as well as on.”
“Yeah,” Jeff mumbled. “I’ll try.”
The coach slapped him on the back.
“Healthy or injured, you’re an important part of this team, son. Even with a broken arm, we need you. We’ll always be here for you, no matter what. Now get on home. I know it’s been a hard day for you.”
“Okay. Thanks, Coach.”
The boy plodded away. He walked not in the direction of his own home, but toward his girlfriend’s. She hadn’t come to the game — “It won’t be worth watching if you’re not in it, honey” — and he figured he deserved some sympathy and sex, and not necessarily in that order.
Along the twenty-minute walk, he dwelt on the unfairness of it all. By the time he reached his destination, he had worked himself into a strong state of self-pity and anger.
He rang the bell. A thudding of feet preceded the clicking of the deadbolt. The door opened a crack and Jeff saw Mr. Strauss peer up at him Kızılay Escort from under the chain.
“Hi,” Jeff said. “Is Kristen here?”
“No,” the man replied, his quivering face growing red. “She isn’t here and as long as it’s you at the door, she never will be here. I swear, I’d knock you across the Codorus if I thought I could do it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t give me that innocent look. You know good and damn well what I’m talking about! Kristen told us everything. Everything.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jeff said in a cool, level voice.
“Well, then, I guess I’ll have to spell it out for you. She told us how you hit her, how you shoved her into tables and doors, how you took advantage of her and how you got her pregnant. Does any of that ring a bell?”
Jeff took a step back.
“No,” he said. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about. But I can see Kristen’s been telling lies again. She’s such a liar.”
The men’s eyes locked for a second.
“Tell her she’s fired,” Jeff said.
He wheeled around and strode down the front walk.
Luke walked away from his house, not seeing much of anything. He had finished his math and chemistry, so his mother had permitted him to leave the house for an hour or so. He decided to head toward the college and pick up a candy bar with some change he had found in his winter coat’s pocket. Funny about that, he thought idly. Finding money unexpectedly in a coat or under seat cushions usually made him happy. But today, he didn’t really care one way or the other. He felt that way about most things these days.
The cold, damp air cut right through his woolen coat, but he didn’t suppose it mattered. He was out of the house and away from his mother, and that was the main thing. He welcomed any break from her nagging.
Luke rounded the corner where the convenience store stood and nearly smacked into a girl with a dog on a leash.
“Sorry,” he said automatically, not looking at her.
“Are you?” she asked, her voice ironical.
Her tone brought his head up and he found himself looking into a pair of dark brown eyes belonging to a girl of about his own age. Unconsciously, he straightened up.
“Yeah,” he said, a smile tugging at his lips. “I really am. I didn’t see you.”
“Hmm,” she said, dropping her own gaze to her dog. “What do you think, Shelby? Does he mean it?”
The dog, a mid-sized mongrel, did not answer. Instead, he settled onto the concrete, stuck one hind foot into the air, and gave his nether region a few thoughtful licks. Both teens stared, then giggled.
“I’m not sure what that answer means and I’m not sure I want to,” the girl said.
Liking her, Luke gave her a quick once-over. Long dark hair framed her oval face before spilling down her chest and back. She stood a couple of inches shorter than he and her frame appeared even slighter than Luke’s. Her eyes held a melancholy glint, but her mouth seemed frozen into that sardonic half-smile.
“You’re cute,” she said. “How come I’ve never seen you around here before?”
“Uh, we just moved in,” he stammered, feeling the blood rush to his face. No girl had ever called him cute. He felt uncomfortably warm beneath his coat.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Shelly?” He looked at her, then at the dog, which had curled into a ball.
“Yeah. I’m Shelly, not to be confused with Shelby here,” she said, gently poking the dog with the toe of her boot. “We got him when I was a little kid and I wanted his name to be as close to mine as possible. That was a huge mistake. My mom is always calling me Shelby and him Shelly.” She paused. “What’s your name?”
They lapsed into a somewhat awkward silence, neither moving.
“Are you going into the store?” she finally asked.
“So am I. Let’s go before poor Shelby freezes to the sidewalk. Come on,” she said, tugging at the leash. Shelby gave her a bemused look and refused to budge.
“Shelby,” she said, a warning edge to her voice. “Get up.”
Shelby put his head on his paws and closed his eyes. Luke couldn’t help laughing.
“Oh, fine,” Shelly said. “Have a laugh at my expense.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” he reassured her. “I’m laughing at him.”
“Easy for you to do. You don’t have to make him move, or carry him if he decides he doesn’t feel like moving.”
She shifted her purse and bent over to grasp Shelby’s collar.
“Come on, you irritating mutt. Get up!”
She managed to hoist the pooch to his feet. The moment she let go of the collar, though, he sank back to the sidewalk with a reproachful look.
“Shelby! Get up!”
“Why don’t I carry him into the store?” Luke suggested. “He’s not that big. Maybe once he’s off this spot, he’ll behave.”
“Would you?” Shelly asked gratefully. “That’d be great.”
Shelby was not a light dog. Once Luke picked him up, he understood her struggle with him. The dog remained a passive dead weight, gazing wistfully at the sidewalk.
The teens walked into the mostly empty store.
“Weren’t you just in here?” the man at the counter asked Shelly.
“Forgot something,” she said shortly.
His spirits rising, Luke smiled to himself. It sounded to him as if Shelly had actually made an excuse to remain in his company. She turned to him.
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