This story is by Sue L. Weems and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ava arrived at the field filled with the familiar ache of fall, the cooler air and rustling leaves a comfort. It was her son Josh’s final home football game, and homecoming no less. She climbed into the parents’ section, set out her stadium chair, and chatted nervously.
Josh had spent all summer in college football camps in pursuit of his one dream: to play college football. Coaches and scouts huddled in the stands and on the field after games, making bold promises. Ava tried to temper his excitement.
“Nothing is an offer until it’s in writing,” she’d told him. “Wait for something solid you can hold in your hand.”
As the team took the field, Ava’s stomach fluttered, knowing Josh’s dream was about to become a reality. At his age, she’d started her senior year late after Josh’s birth. She’d done everything to make sure he had this shot. Now here he was, one of the highest rated high school quarterbacks in the nation. She stood to cheer for kickoff.
The game was electric. Ava lost her voice by half-time and sat basking in the smell of the grass and popcorn and nacho cheese. The stadium lights buzzed, moths hovering in and out of the beams. Josh, rugged and rumpled, ran back to the sidelines in his grass-stained uniform. He waved at her. She didn’t want it to end.
The second half sped by, and they won by three points in the last two minutes. The crowd thinned as she sat with tears in her eyes, breathing in the last moments.
Her gaze stopped mid-field. A man in a red cap was with the head coach.
Time stopped and she was suddenly back in the little South Carolina town in her favorite dress and boots grinning at the star football player. She couldn’t breathe.
It can’t be him. Not now.
She ducked her head and collected her belongings, making her way to the car. She turned on the air conditioning to steady her nerves.
Her hands shook as she checked her phone. It was Josh.
“Mom! The O-coach from the Warriors is here. Can he come by?”
Surely it isn’t him, she told herself. This is just about Josh. Just Josh.
“Yes,” she replied.
In their apartment, Ava stopped to straighten the photo collage of Josh. His tousled hair in kindergarten, the buzz cut from the elementary years, the long sweeping Bieber-bangs through middle school. The high school pictures left a lump in her throat, especially that one last space waiting to be filled.
Beneath it, a shelf held a velvet box with his state championship ring from last year. He had given it to her with no regret, confident he would earn another.
“I wouldn’t be here without you, Momma,” he’d said at a celebratory dinner. She put on the heavy, oversized ring, aching for the past and something she wasn’t sure she’d lost, almost sorry she’d told him that his father refused to let her wear his ring in high school. Ava, eager to forget, kept his father nameless, formless. Josh had stopped asking about him in third grade, seemingly content with the only fact he knew, “I’m a football player like my dad.”
Josh bounded into the apartment and kitchen. “Mom! This is Mark Bradshaw! Coach, this is my mom, Ava.”
Ava held out a hand. Mark stood bewildered and dropped his cap before reaching out to shake her hand. The tingling at his touch charged up her arm. Her face warmed.
“I’d like to talk to your mom, Josh. Could you excuse us for a minute?”
Josh narrowed his eyes at Mark. “I’m managing all my offers with my coach. If you have anything…”
Mark interrupted. “I’m not…making an offer. I just want to talk to her privately.”
Ava forced a smile.
“Momma, I’ll stay if you want,” Josh said.
“I’m fine. We’ll only be a minute.”
Josh glanced back to Mark. “I’ll get my gear.” Ava shooed him out with a tuck of her chin. The front door closed.
Ava blinked back tears as Mark staggered into a chair.
“That’s our…God, how did I not see it was him from the film? Why didn’t you …” He paused studying her face. “My God, you are still beautiful. It’s been…”
His breath came in broken gasps. “I’ve looked you up several times. Your parents wouldn’t tell me…”
“I changed our last name.”
He held out a hand. Electricity seemed to leap off him. She crossed her arms.
His words came in a flurry. “I’ve never stopped thinking about you– I didn’t realize until I went home after signing that first year with the NFL and you were gone. You were the one I wanted to share it with and…”
“How convenient.” She hated the resentment in her voice.
“You were gone.” His arms were thick and strong. Distracting.
She crossed the apartment and opened the back glass sliding door. November’s crisp air crept in. She looked out at the changing leaves, thinking of the Saturday afternoons shivering while Josh played Pop Warner, the ache left from wishing Mark had been there, for both of them. But there was no highlight reel to play. She didn’t trust the media or Mark. Not with Josh.
“Ava, let me…” he put his hands gently on her shoulders.
She turned and took a step out of his reach, her feet planted.
“Don’t sign him. If you ever loved me, if you care at all, don’t sign him. The media will chew it up and spit him out. Maybe one day, once he’s established himself, maybe…”
“So you don’t think he deserves to know…”
She flew at him, the years of loneliness bursting through her fists against his chest.
“Don’t talk to me about what he deserves!” She struggled against him, tears flowing down her face. He held her tightly until she sagged against him. “He deserved a father, damn you.” He smelled of Polo cologne, the same scent she’d bought him for his birthday years ago.
Seventeen years melted between them and she held on like they were two teens being separated again by dreams and realities.
“I don’t forgive you,” she said into his shirt.
“I know,” he wiped his eyes. “Maybe we can start again. Please, Ava.”
She pushed him away reluctantly, pulling tissues from the counter. “Because Josh is a top recruit?”
“This is not about football.”
“It was always about football.” She blew her nose.
She took broken pleasure in his fallen countenance, his drooped shoulders. She had never seen him so vulnerable, but then, he’d been a cocky eighteen-year-old the last time she saw him in person, that summer morning at the end of his senior year when he’d kissed her goodbye before leaving for college out-of-state. He’d looked nervously at her bulging belly before driving away.
“They sent me to make him an offer. You can tell him to turn it down. It would cost me…”
She threw the tissues in the trash. “So it’s still football first.”
“I’d like to take you to dinner.” It wasn’t the cocky, rugged quarterback from high school asking. His voice was deep and knowing.
She bit her lip, thinking of Josh. “Not a chance. I won’t risk Josh’s future. Not now. Please,” her voice softened more than she intended.
“I don’t have a choice.”
She refused to look away. “You always have a choice.”
They heard the door.
Josh rounded the corner, his youthful exuberance shifting the energy. Mark had replaced the cap on his head, shielding his eyes. Ava smiled at her son, seeing both the tow-headed kindergartener and the muscled man-child.
“Everything okay?” Josh looked from one to the other.
“Yes,” Mark stood, clearing his throat. “Should we talk to your coach? I can drive.”
“I’ll drive, thanks. Mom, I’ll call, okay?” He hugged her and she fought the urge to hold on.
Josh headed to the entryway. Mark lingered. He fumbled with his wallet and pulled out a business card, writing on it.
“Once he signs somewhere, please call me.”
“Maybe in another seventeen years?” She laughed, annoyed at her own delight.
He winced. “I’m serious, Ava.”
They were nearly to the entryway, with Josh already outside. Mark stopped to smile at the photographs and then at the state championship ring.
“Josh gave it to me last year.”
The clock in the kitchen tolled, each chime taking a little longer than the last.
“I wish I’d been more like him at seventeen.” With a quick motion, Mark slipped a ring off his hand and pressed it into Ava’s palm. Her breath caught as he squeezed her hand, his eyes searching hers, promising something more. Then he was gone.
Ava stood shocked at the closed door, the business card in one hand and the ring in the other. It was still warm. Seventeen years, she thought. Seventeen years.