01 Dec Run With My Heart Sneak Peek!
Tucker Jackson’s blood boiled as he watched the seconds on the clock run out. The buzz of the clock felt like a nail straight to his heart as did the cheers from the other team’s fans. Three points. Just three measly points. How could they have gotten so close? They had tasted the victory and then lost it.
An urge to hit something surged within him, and he curled his hand into a fist to keep it at bay. He thought he’d quelled the angry beast that lived inside of him with his boxing classes. Boxing classes that his friend and former teammate Emmitt Brown had recommended when his anger had surfaced because of the trade. And they’d been helping. Five days a week of pounding a bag was generally enough to appease the hunger. So, anger wasn’t usually his go-to emotion anymore, but this was ridiculous.
This was their second loss in a row, and both were by fewer than ten points. Sure, this was the toughest part of the team’s schedule. The teams they were playing now had good records, but the Tornados did too. At least they had. Of course, if they continued playing like this, they would lose their spot in the playoffs. With this loss, they were now sitting in the wild card position. Which meant instead of a week off to recover, they had to play in the wild card game and win in order to move to the quarterfinals. One more loss, and they would be out. Their season would be over. They had to win the next game.
And the next game was on Christmas Day just ten days away. Not the best day to play a football game. Morale was always a little lower because the men wanted to be with their families, especially the men with kids. Tucker didn’t have any kids, and he wasn’t that close to his family any more, but he didn’t like playing on Christmas Day either. Christmas Day was for watching silly holiday movies and eating too much.
He took off his helmet, clenching it in his left hand, as he joined the line of his teammates. It was tradition after every game to slap hands with the opposing team members. It was supposed to encourage camaraderie and discourage fighting, but Tucker wasn’t sure how effective it was. Maybe in high school when their jobs and paychecks hadn’t been on the line, but this was pro-football. How much money you were paid depended on individual playing time during the games and team performance throughout the season, so every play mattered. Every game mattered. And slapping hands with the men who had just lowered your paycheck often felt unnatural and forced.
Tucker kept his eyes down as he made his way through the line. “Good game. Good game.” The rote words rolled off is tongue without a conscious thought as his mind wandered back to the trade that had landed him here. Last year at this time, he had been on the Rebels. Sure, he hadn’t gotten to play as much, but the Rebels had won the Championship game. He even had the ring to prove it, although it meant less than it might have because he’d known even then he was getting traded to the Texas Tornados.
Trades happened in football. All the time. But why did it have to happen to him? He’d always been one of the best – in high school, in college, but he hadn’t even gotten the chance to show the Rebels what he could do. And yes, the Tornados were letting him run more, but what good was that if they didn’t win? Perhaps, if the Rebels saw how good he was, they might trade for him back, but even that was a shot in the dark. Had a team ever done that? He didn’t know.
With the obligatory congratulatory line finished, he headed toward the locker room. Blaine Hollis, quarterback, captain, and longest team member stood at the door smiling and patting the guys’ shoulders as they entered. Blaine was the definition of good sportsmanship. In fact, Tucker was fairly certain his face would be next to the word in the dictionary. Win or lose, the man always had a smile and an encouraging word. Most days, Tucker found it refreshing – it reminded him of his former teammate Emmitt who everyone had called “Rev” – but not today. Not after losing a game they should have won.
“Good game.” Blaine nodded and clapped Tucker on the shoulder. “We’ll get them next time.” Hollis was a good guy, but he was always spouting platitudes like these. Platitudes that felt empty when the loss column rose in number instead of the win column. Tucker was tired of his optimism. Optimism and platitudes didn’t win championships.
“Will we?” Tucker asked. The condescension in his voice surprised him. He wasn’t normally so pessimistic, but he hadn’t adjusted to Southlake the way he thought he would have by now. People had flocked to him in the past, but he was beginning to wonder if that had been more because of his family’s money than himself.
His father was a prominent attorney in San Antonio, and he had donated a lot of money to buildings and charities to get his name on things – a dormitory hall, a high school stadium, a hospital wing. Tucker had enjoyed the fame, and he had never lacked for anything in his life, except maybe a father who was physically there; but he certainly wasn’t experiencing the same thing here. Not that the people weren’t nice, it was just that they were also like him. He didn’t stand out. Not like he used to. “If we lose the next game, we’re out for the rest of the season. If you had just let me run that last play…”
Blaine shook his head and fixed his steely eyes on Tucker. His voice dropped to his serious captain’s tone – the one that declared he was in charge and he would not allow backtalk. “I made a call. They were all over your running game today. Maybe it would have played out differently if you had run but maybe not. We can’t win every game, Tucker, and if you only focus on the ones we lose, you will never find the joy of playing the game.”
The joy of playing the game? This wasn’t some neighborhood tackle game. This was his livelihood Blaine was being so blase about. “Is that what you guys told yourselves when you lost last year?”
Tucker stared defiantly at Blaine. He knew Blaine wasn’t to blame for the Tornados’ losses last year; he was a good quarterback. In the top five of the league to be exact. The problem was that there were thirty-two teams and only two made it all the way to the championship game, so sometimes being good wasn’t good enough. Still, he couldn’t seem to tame the anger coursing through his veins.
“Shower and get out of here,” Blaine said with a nod toward the locker room behind him. “You need some time off.” Though his words were forceful, and his level gaze backed them up, he didn’t raise his voice or yell. Tucker might have felt better if he had. The quiet, even tone reminded him of his mother’s scolding when he’d been in trouble growing up; and just like then, it quelled Tucker’s anger and made him realize his mistake.
“Blaine, I’m sorry man. I’m just frustrated.” Tucker knew he had stepped over the line, and if he didn’t get back in Blaine’s good graces, he’d be riding the bench and probably facing another trade. In fact, if he didn’t watch it, he’d wind up with a label on his back that would make every team in the league shy away from him. And then where would he be?
“We all are, but I wasn’t kidding. Go clear your head and decide if this is still where you want to be, what you want to be doing. IF it is, I’ll see you at practice at five p.m. tomorrow.”
Tucker knew better than to argue. Like a scolded puppy, he hung his head and shuffled past Blaine, barely managing a “Yes, sir.” He berated himself as he walked to his locker. His temper was getting the better of him. Again. And he needed to get it under control. This was a struggle he thought he had won but apparently not.
Around him, the banter from his teammates created a soft buzz. A few words bypassed the static and reached his ears – favorite plays of the game, mistakes they’d made. How did they all appear in better spirits than Tucker? Why did he let his frustration get the better of him? Why did he always focus on the worst case scenario?
Shelby Doll sighed as she watched Quinn attempt to dribble a basketball and give up when the ball refused to bounce. She had already put air in the ball twice this week, but it seemed to lose the air as soon as she filled it. Just another thing she needed to replace if she only had the money.
“Uh oh, I know that sigh,” her friend Kenzi said beside her. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s always wrong?” Shelby didn’t know why Kenzi even asked. It was always the same answer. “Money. The rent is due on this place by the end of the month, and we don’t have it. Attendance has dropped since that trampoline park opened up down the street.”
She didn’t want to wish ill on any business, but that place was the bane of her existence. They’d come in a few months ago with flashy signs, a new sparkling building, and more money to spend on advertising and specials than she’d make in a year. The town of Southlake was rather affluent, and most families had been using the community center because it was the only option. When the trampoline park opened, those that had the money to spend had pulled their kids, leaving the few kids who were already scraping by as the only customers.
“That place is just a fad,” Kenzi said with a wave of her hand. The sparkly pink of her nails caught the light and sent tiny rainbows of colors dancing across the nearby wall. Kenzi always had her nails painted and it changed with her mood or her outfit. Shelby, on the other hand, rarely painted her nails, and when she did, it was never a frivolous red or a fluffy pink color. A clear polish was much more functional.
“It won’t last,” Kenzi continued, “and when kids tire of it, they’ll come back here because you are amazing.” She flashed her famous cheerleader smile – the one that had made her one of the most popular girls in college – as she squeezed Shelby’s shoulder.
Shelby didn’t know about that. When she had begun managing the center a year ago, she felt amazing, but now she felt… behind the times. “What if they don’t? Those kids out there need us.” Her eyes found Darby, the young girl with glasses bigger than her face whose father had just been killed in the line of duty. Her mother needed this place for Darby, but she was strapped financially now that she was a single mother. And then there was Quinn. Tall and skinny, he was often picked on at school because he spent more time reading than playing sports or the newest video game. But here he was just one of the gang. His mother was battling cancer, so there was no extra money there. And there was Benji. She still wasn’t sure exactly how he had become paralyzed as he never talked about it, but his father had left when he was young, and his mother worked long hours.
There were other kids, but these three always stood out to her because they seemed to need the center the most. She scanned the gymnasium again. Once, they had watched nearly every school age kid in town for at least a few hours after school. Basketballs would echo across the floor as teams played. One corner of the gym had been staked out for reading and playing cards. Still another part had been the creative hangout for students who enjoyed theater and role play. But then the trampoline park had opened and offered its flashy new entertainment for kids, and most of the kids had left.
Now, there were only a handful. A few basketballs still thudded against the floor, but even they sounded sad as if the kids couldn’t muster the emotion of delight that had previously lived there. Now, most of the kids read or worked on homework, and the muted atmosphere broke Shelby’s heart. Quinn placed the ball back into the rack and didn’t even try another. He simply shuffled to the bleachers and sat down next to Darby.
“What if they don’t?” she asked again. “What if, come the new year, we can’t pay the rent, and we have to close the doors forever?” They had always run on a tight budget, but the drop in enrollment had quickly drained what little reserve they kept. If anything unexpected happened they would have to repair, there would be no money. Plus, Christmas was right around the corner, and there would be little cheer at the center this year. There was no money for decorations, no money for a party, no money for gifts. Shelby pushed her wire-framed glasses up her freckled nose and sighed.
Kenzi flashed a sympathetic smile as she wrapped an arm around Shelby’s shoulders. “We’ll just have to pray that doesn’t happen.”
Prayer. Shelby knew how important that was; but while she would never stop praying, she couldn’t stop the tiny voice that often whispered in her ear that she wasn’t seeing her prayers answered yet. Was God even listening to her? Did He even care? Couldn’t He send the money if He really wanted to? Drop a winning lottery ticket on the front doorstep? Or have a wealthy family leave a donation?
“I think we may need more than just prayers for help,” Shelby said with a final glance at the gym. “We might need to pray for a miracle.