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Authors: Mike Lupica

QB 1 (9 page)

BOOK: QB 1
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16

IT WAS ALL SET UP TO BE A BIG SATURDAY NIGHT AT STONE'S,
the way it always was after a win for the Granger Cowboys, everything half-price when the team won, even the most expensive steaks on the menu, what Bobby Ray Stone called his big 'uns.

Maybe it wasn't the whole squad in the back room by the time Jake and Nate and Bear arrived, but it sure seemed to be close enough, players everywhere, in booths and round tables and the long table against one of the walls.

And soon as they walked in, knowing they were on their way to the corner booth that Bobby Ray always saved for any member of the Cullen family, Jake spotted Sarah with three of her friends from cheerleading: Beth Ayers, Amanda Starling, and Monica Moroni. All of the others cute, but none as cute as Sarah, not even close.

“Well, now, how's this gonna go?” Nate said, all of them standing just inside the door to the back room.

He could see Sarah, too.

“I'm the one who's gonna go—home—if you start in on me,” Jake said.

“Chill, my brother,” Nate said. “Just be as cool as you were playin' ball today, not getting that cold rush of you-know-what because of some girl.”

That was Nate's definition of choking in sports: a cold rush of you-know-what to the heart.

“Who couldn't relax after a fine pep talk like that?” Jake said.

Bear just stood there grinning, taking it all in.

“Here's what we're gonna do, 'cause we can't just stand here all night,” Nate said. “We're just gonna pause at the girls' table and you're gonna say hello, the way we all are, and then keep moving. Just on one condition.”

Jake said, “Who said you get to make conditions about anything?”

“The condition,” Nate said, “is that you
do
say hidy to Miss Sarah.”

“And if I don't?”

“Then I'll do all the talking,” Nate said.

Bear said, “No one wants that.”

Jake said, “And maybe I'll start chattin' up Emma Jean, when she comes to take our order.”

“No need to lash out at me,” Bear said. “I'm just trying to help.”

“Sure you are.”

But Jake did exactly as Nate asked, stopped when he got to Sarah's table, knowing he wasn't just doing it because of Nate, that he wanted to talk to her on a night like this, after a game like the one he'd played. Nate was right: If he could take the team down the field against Benton, he could surely do
that.

He could talk to a girl, even if it was
this
girl.

Nate and Bear led the way, both of them smiling at the girls and saying “Hey,” moving on to their booth. Jake stopped and said, “Hi, Sarah,” said hi to the other girls, too, calling them by their names, his mom's voice inside his head telling him that there was no fault in being polite to a fault.

“Hi, Jake!” Sarah, smiling at him, actually seeming happy to see him.

Before Jake could think of something else to say, she said, “
Great
game today!”

“Wasn't just me,” he said. “Everybody did pretty good there at the end.”

“But you were the one making all those plays and all those throws,” she said. “Somebody said you looked as cool out there as Wyatt.”

“Hey, even Wyatt Cullen knew it's hard
not
to look cool throwing it to Calvin.”

Casey.

Jake turned and said, “Man, you got that right.”

Casey must have come in right behind Jake and his boys. Casey was with his own boys, Dicky Grider and Roy Gilley. Jake noticed Calvin and Justice behind them, but they seemed to be on their way to Melvin's table.

Jake knew Casey was just announcing himself, a little louder than he needed to, the way Calvin sometimes did.

It was Sarah who spoke next, saying, “Well, all us Cowboys fans hope he stays lucky
and
good.” Smiling as she added, “You
both
looked good out there.”

Casey grinned and said, “Miss Sarah, you haven't seen
nothin'
yet, trust me.”

Jake knew he was talking about himself, but let it go. Nobody said anything now, both Jake and Casey standing there in front of Sarah's table, Jake knowing he felt awkward even if Casey didn't. Maybe the guy never felt awkward; he always thought he was right where he was supposed to be.

“Well, I gotta go sit,” Jake said to Sarah now. “You know how ornery Nate gets when he's hungry.”

“Thanks for stopping by,” Sarah said. “And again:
awesome
game.”

Jake walked across the room, not looking back, sat down with Nate and Bear, still not looking back at Sarah's table. “Tell me Casey didn't sit down with them,” he said.

Nate said, “He did not.”

“How'd all that go?” Bear said. “We could only hear Casey.”

“Went fine,” Jake said.

“Figured as much,” Nate said, “since your face is the color of ketchup right now.”

“Is not.”

“Nate speaks the truth,” Bear said as they all watched Casey and Dicky and Roy head off to their own table, Jake not caring if they sat on Jupiter or Mars as long as Casey wasn't with Sarah.

It was a good night—even with Casey in the room—to be a high school football player, good to be a Granger Cowboy, good to be at Stone's with what felt like most of the team and half the town crammed into the place. Everybody moving around to everybody else's tables, like it was a party more than a night out on the town. Bear flirted with Emma Jean in his own bumbling way—
like I'm anybody to talk,
Jake thought—and Nate acted like the mayor of the back room, at least between courses.

Calvin worked the room, too, sitting with Jake and the boys for a few minutes, then going right across the room and sitting with Casey and
his
boys. Like he was trying to remain neutral on which quarterback he liked best, not wanting to declare after just one win for the Cowboys.

And why should he, when you really thought about it? They'd won today—always the most important thing to Calvin—and he'd gotten all the touches he wanted. Far as Calvin was concerned, life was good.

And life
was
good. One of those nights when you wondered how anything in your life was ever going to be better than high school, especially this high school on a Saturday night during football season.

Until Casey Lindell came over to their table, right after they'd finished up with dessert.

“Everybody here havin' a good time?” he said.

“Just had pie,” Nate said. “Never been a bad time for me that included pie.”

But Casey wasn't there to talk to Nate about what he'd ordered.

“How about you, Cullen?” he said, voice not loud enough to be heard over all the chirp and chatter in the room. “Everything good with you?”

Cullen.

“Tonight it is,” Jake said.

“Come on, man. You can't be happy with this deal we got going, you against me?”

“The only ones I'm
against,
” Jake said, “are the guys we're
playing
against.”

Casey said, “You know better than that.”

Nate shifted slightly in his seat. “Come on, man,” Nate said. “Let's not do this now.”

Casey ignored him. To Jake he said, “You know this can't work in the long run. You get that, right?”

“Last time I checked, we won the game today,” Jake said, his voice sounding like a whisper compared to Casey's, wondering if the people starting to turn their way could even hear him.

Hoping that might stop Casey, wherever he was going with all this. Such a good day up to now, a good night.

“You're telling me you're really good with this,” Casey said. “I play, then you play?”

“Doesn't matter if I'm good with it as long as Coach is,” Jake said. “He's the one makes the substitutions.”

The room had gotten quiet, way too quiet, Jake feeling as if everybody was looking their way now.

Casey said, “You know I didn't come here to back up a freshman, even if his name is Cullen.”

“Casey, you
got
to move on,” Nate said.

“Wasn't talking to you, Nate.”

“Well, if you're so on fire to have this talk with Jake, have it in private sometime. And someplace that ain't here.”

Again Casey acted as if he hadn't heard. Even Jake had to admit Casey Lindell had some brass to him, ignoring Nate Collins when he had to know Nate could pick him up like a baby if he wanted.

“You know guys in this room are already choosing up sides, me against you,” Casey said. “Right?”

Jake said, “Coach must think it'll work itself out, sooner rather than later.”

“Funny how freshman QBs don't have to wait their turn in Granger as long as they have the right last name,” Casey said.

Now his voice was the only one you could hear at Stone's Throw. Like he really was talking to the whole town.

Casey said, “We both know this isn't as much about what I can do, much as it is about who you are.”

“We won,” Jake said again.

“It's gonna tear this team apart,” Casey said.

“Not if we don't let it,” Jake said.

Almost saying,
Not if
you
don't let it.

He was at the end of the booth, closest to Casey, and stood up now, knowing he was the only one who could end this.

But also knowing in that moment he was probably making things worse, because when he slid out of the booth, there was hardly any air between them, Casey with that cocky look that seemed frozen on his face, maybe thinking Jake wanted to go, right here, right now.

“You want to do this here or outside?” Casey said.

“I don't want to
do
anything,” Jake said, “'cept leave.”

Somehow he got past Casey without touching him, looking back long enough to say, “See you at the truck,” to Nate and Bear, walking across the middle of the room, past Sarah's table, past where Calvin sat with his cousin Melvin and Justice, past everybody, feeling like he was walking by himself down Main Street, all of Granger watching him, walking through the back room and the front room and out of Stone's.

Trying to tell himself he was doing the right thing for his team.

But feeling humiliated anyway.

Feeling more like a little brother than he ever had in his life.

17

WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED?

Jake leaned against the driver's side of Bear's pickup, replaying it in his mind like he was watching film with Coach J, thinking of it like a play that had broken down, wondering if there'd been a better option for him. Coach J, he always talked about Jake's decision-making, how you either had it or you didn't, blah blah. But Jake didn't need Coach telling him; it was one of the things he'd always taken a quiet pride in, knowing the right play to make.

But had he done that just now with Casey?

Or had he just looked plain old weak, no matter how good his intentions were, no matter how much of a team man he was trying to be? Had he looked weak when quarterbacks—especially Granger quarterbacks, especially
Cullens
—were supposed to look strong? When they were supposed to look like leaders?

In the moment when he had to decide, under the gun, how far to take it with Casey, Jake had decided that the worst thing for the team was a fight, right there in front of everybody, between the two guys fighting it out to be quarterback of the team.

He wasn't afraid of Casey; heck, Jake hadn't ever been afraid of Wyatt when the two of them would get into it, even when Wyatt was still a lot bigger and stronger. What
was
he afraid of, then? That people would think he was as cocky as Casey Lindell?

“One of the things I love the most about you, Jacob, is that you've always known who you are,” his mom once said. “Even before the rest of us knew.”

Inside Stone's, Jake had known who he
wasn't,
even though everybody who'd watched him walk out had to think that Casey had backed him down.

He'd taken the high road and then found out how much the high road could suck.

“Hey.”

He looked up, and there standing in front of him, having come up on him so quietly it was like she'd just appeared somehow, was Sarah Rayburn.

Nobody with her.

Just her and Jake.

“Hey,” he said.

“Nate and Bear were on their way out,” she said. “I asked them to give us a minute. I just wanted to tell you something.”

He waited.

“I just wanted to tell you I thought you did the right thing back there.”

“Really?” Jake said.

“Really. Everybody thought it was about to get out of hand, but you didn't let it.”

“Thanks for saying that,” Jake said. “But I feel like I must've looked pretty weak in front of the team, in front of you. In front of everybody.”

“You're wrong,” she said.

“Well, thank you,” Jake said. “I guess.”

“You're welcome, I guess,” she said, smiling.

Past her, he could see Nate and Bear at the front door to Stone's, underneath the Stone's Throw sign, watching them, waiting.

Right now, though, there was just Sarah, just a few feet separating them, just air between them, Jake not sure what to say or do, just knowing he liked breathing that air.

But before he had to think of something to say, Sarah turned and ran back toward Stone's, waving at Nate and Bear as she went back through the front door, taking all that air with her.

18

WHEN THEY WERE ALL IN THE TRUCK, JAKE WANTED TO KNOW
what had happened in the back room after he'd walked out.

Nate said, “Well, I got up.”

“Never good.”

“Nah, not what you're thinkin',” Nate said. “Oh, I thought about gettin' up on Casey and askin' him, did he have anything he wanted to say to
me
? But I didn't.”

“Would've looked like you were fighting a fight I didn't want to have with him,” Jake said.

“Anybody who thought you were afraid of him is too dumb to play football,” Bear said.

“Anyways,” Nate said, “all I said was that we're all on the same team and everybody
on
the team should keep that in mind or they would have to be dealing with me, in what I described as a permanent-type manner.”

“So you basically said what I should've said,” Jake said.

“No,” Bear said. “You did right. That guy didn't care what you had to say, all he cared about was making you look bad, whether you tried to reason with his dumb self or not. No kidding, how does he even remember the plays, being as dumb as he is?”

Jake felt better, hearing it from his boys like this. He knew what Sarah had just told him, how she'd tried to pump him up. But she was a Granger cheerleader, not a Granger Cowboy.

They all sat in silence now, riding through the two-lane Texas night, on their way to the Cullen ranch, Bear finally saying, “Are we allowed to ask about Sarah?”

“Yes.”

“So how'd it go?”

Jake waited. Then he finally said, “Oh, you expected an answer, too?”

Bear said to Nate, “Boy must be starting to feel better. Thinks he's funny again.”

“It went amazing,” Jake said.

“Care to be more specific?” Nate said.

“I do not.”

“Didn't think you would.”

There was another silence now that took them through the gate to the ranch, up the long road to the house. As Jake walked toward the front door, he said he'd hit them up in the morning, they'd come up with a plan for what to do on Sunday.

Through his open window, Nate said, “Do me a favor? When you get inside, remember the way you played, not what happened at Stone's?”

Jake said he'd try.

His plan was to head straight upstairs, get himself some quiet and calm, try to sort out the whole long day and night. Try to figure out whether he'd come out ahead on the day or not. Already telling himself that he had, that not even Casey Lindell or his dad could ruin a day that had started with a big win and ended with Sarah Rayburn.

But before he made it to the stairs, he heard his dad's booming voice coming from his study.

“Jake Cullen,” he said, “get yourself in here and explain what all just happened at Stone's.”

Troy Cullen was on his long leather couch, one of the Saturday night TV games on a flat screen that seemed to take up most of the far wall, Texas Tech against Kansas State, 24-all in the third quarter, Tech in those black jerseys of theirs, driving.

Troy Cullen: big iced tea in his hand, boots off, gesturing with his glass at the game, saying, “Tech's gonna be trouble for us when we play 'em, wait and see. They got more speed on the corners than those sprint cars.”

Now he looked at Jake, pointed to the easy chair to his right, Jake's game-watching chair when his dad was around, and said, “Sit.”

Jake did.

“I already heard Bobby Ray's version,” he said. “Now I'd like to hear yours.”

“Mr. Stone
called
you?” Jake said. “You're kidding.”

“Actually, I called him, wanting to make sure he didn't give away my table next Saturday night, your mom and me and the Leylands are going,” Troy Cullen said. “I know Bobby Ray'd throw people out of his place for us, but I always feel better having my name on the list, less people think I'm getting special treatment.”

Jake smiled at what they both knew was a harmless lie. Truth was, his dad lived to get special treatment; it was part of the fun of being Troy Cullen in Granger, a way for him to feel like the football star he used to be.

His dad put his drink down, careful to make sure it was on a coaster and not the antique coffee table, like Jake's mom was in the room with them even though she wasn't.

Jake wished she was.

His dad said, “Bobby Ray said the other boy gave you some pretty good lip in front of half the town, and that you just took it from him.”

Jake thought,
He said he was calling me in to hear my side, but maybe he just wants me to hear
his.

“I did what I thought was best for the team,” Jake said. “Didn't think it was the right time or place to make a scene.”

“Think you
didn't
make a scene?”

Jake waited, until his dad said, “It's been my experience that sometimes you don't get to pick the time or place if somebody calls you out.”

“Dad, it wasn't like one of your old westerns, the two of us drawing on each other in the middle of the street.”

“Maybe it was more like that than you think.”

“He was just blowin' off steam, is all.”

“Blowin' off steam at
you.
In front of your teammates.”

“At the situation,” Jake said. “At us sharing time. That's what's really making him hot, not me.”

“And I'm not hot at you, son, I'm not, just trying to understand how you could just walk away like Bobby Ray said you did.”

“It's what I'm trying to explain to you, even though I don't seem to be doing much of a job at that,” Jake said. “It was about me not making a bad situation worse.”

“See, right there, that's what I'm worried about: that whatever your intention was, you made things worse for your
self.

“By not fighting him?”

“There wasn't a way to handle it without fighting?”

“There wasn't a way to handle it without me acting as dumb as he was,” Jake said.

His dad started to say something, and Jake surprised himself—kind of the way he had been surprising himself, one way or another, all day—by putting up a hand and stopping him. Knowing that the only person who got away with interrupting him in this house was his mom.

“I'm just a freshman, Dad,” he said, “but I've been on teams my whole life, and I know how easy it is to rip one apart, even in Pop Warner. Casey and me had a chance to do that tonight. But if he
was
going to do that, I sure wasn't going to help him.”

“So you don't think you looked like somebody just takin' his ball and goin' home?”

Jake said, “Anybody thinks that doesn't know me.”

Wanting to add:
Do you?

He saw his dad staring at him now in the glow from the flat screen, this curious look on his face, even though his dad was always sure about everything.

Jake kept going. “It was you who always told me and Wyatt that being the real leader of your team meant making tough calls only you could make. Well, I reckon I made one tonight.”

His father stood up now, groaning like he did when he'd been sitting for a long time, pointing the remote at the TV set, now the only light in the room but for a slash of it coming through the half-open door from the front hall.

His dad looked down at Jake, and suddenly he smiled.

“Well, you found out something for sure, and for your own self tonight,” Troy Cullen said. “Being the quarterback of the Granger Cowboys isn't a job that ends when the game does.”

“No, sir,” Jake said. “It does not.”

“Ask you something before we drop this and I drag myself up the stairs?”

Jake nodded.

“What do you think your brother would have done, he found himself in the same situation?”

Always back there, to Wyatt.

“I honestly believe he would've done what I did.”

“You know something?” his dad said, that curious look still on his face, right eyebrow raised a little, still smiling at Jake. “I believe you might be right.”

Then he walked slowly toward the door, saying he felt one of his headaches coming on, what he called one of his Blue Ribbon Specials, saying he needed aspirin and sleep, in that order.

But over his shoulder he said, “You done good.”

Jake wasn't sure now whether his dad was talking about the game or about Stone's. Wasn't sure in that moment if he really cared. Just feeling as if he'd won a small victory in this room, even if he wasn't quite sure who he'd beaten.

Or what.

BOOK: QB 1
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