Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(8)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(8)
Kennedy Ryan

As a fan, I marvel at August’s gifts on display tonight—at the show he’s putting on for us. As a girlfriend, I wince every time Caleb misses a shot. Caleb can be a little entitled. With all the privileges he’s had, how could he not be occasionally? But he’s worked hard all season, and August’s hot hand is burning all Caleb’s work to the ground. Even as I admire August’s skill, guilt saws my insides. I should be completely rooting for Caleb, but there’s this tiny rebel corner of my heart that wants all of August’s hard work to pay off, too. Tonight, on his father’s birthday.

The buzzer sounds, and both teams exit the court for halftime.

“They’re in good shape, right?” Lo asks.

“Sure.” I keep my answer short because if I keep talking, I’ll say what I see.

We spend most of halftime at the concession stand. After we squeeze through the bleachers and back into our seats, Lo brings up the last thing, the last person, I want to discuss.

“Caleb’s gotta be worried about that August West guy.” She sips her soda. “He’s something else.”

“Yeah, he’s an All-American,” I answer evenly, keeping my eyes steady on the halftime show while my heart goes berserk. “He’ll be a first-round draft pick for sure.”

“He’s also fine as hell.” Lo cocks a skeptical brow. “Don’t tell me you were so caught up in stats you didn’t notice that dude’s ass.”

You should see his eyes. You should feel his chest.

You should hear his voice.

I futilely try to forget how being with August made me feel perfectly at ease and wholly exhilarated all at once.

“Is it hot in here?” I fan my face with one hand, trying to cool the heated skin. “And remember, I have a boyfriend. I’m in a relationship.”

“In a relationship, not dead.” She girl-grunts her appreciation. “Hmmm. And you’d have to be dead not to notice that man.”

For a second, all the details from last night collect on the tip of my tongue. It was just a few hours, but it felt then—it still feels—significant. And I’ve never kept anything significant from Lo. Since nothing happened, I should be able to tell her everything with a clear heart, but I hesitate. Something did happen. My stomach lurches with the truth. As much as I don’t want to deal with it, something shifted in me last night. I don’t completely understand it yet, but it feels seismic.

I don’t say any of that to Lo. It was one conversation. She’d think I was crazy to feel that fascinated by August already. I think I’m crazy. So instead of saying any of that, I redirect the conversation.

“Game’s starting back up.”

The score stays close throughout the second half, but ultimately the other team has something we don’t. And that something is August. With only two minutes remaining, he does what all the great ones do. He takes over, willing high-risk shots to go in, making the impossible ones look effortless. Frustration radiates from Caleb as he watches the game slipping away. The final blow comes as he’s defending August on a possession in the last few seconds. August plants himself in his sweet spot, the far-right corner, just beyond the three-point line. Caleb reaches in to block the shot, and before the whistle blows, I know it’s a foul. His last one. He’s fouled out of the game. To add insult to injury, August’s three-pointer goes in. This could be a four-point play that drills the nail into the coffin.

Shit.

Caleb slams the ball onto the court, sending it rocketing high in the air. He yells at the ref before stomping to the bench. There’s a wildness in his eyes, something I haven’t seen before. I grew up with volatility, and on occasion, saw violence. Seeing Caleb lose control stirs my instinct to run. But by the time he’s on the bench chugging Gatorade, that wildness is gone and he’s my golden boy again.

Maybe I imagined it.

August picked his game apart, and Caleb’s understandably frustrated. Most guys have those moments when they lose control. If there had been more time left on the clock, and if Caleb was anyone else, he probably would have been ejected from the game. But he’s not ejected and has to sit on the bench watching to the very end.

August assumes his place on the free-throw line, his body relaxed like this moment, as big as it is, isn’t big enough to swallow his confidence. If he makes this shot, with less than a second left on the clock, there won’t be time for us to recover. A four-point game will be out of reach.

With thousands of fans waving and screaming and booing in front of him, creating a human mass of distraction, August seems to block it all out. It’s just him and the hoop, and it would take an act of God to stop that ball from going in.

God does not intervene.

A nothing-but-net swoosh puts this game in the books. A second later the buzzer goes off, the building erupts, and August’s team scatters all over the court in a chest-pounding, body-slamming celebration. August stands in the middle of the floor, absolutely still, the game ball cradled in the definition of his arms against his chest. His head hangs forward, and emotion emanates from him so thickly it reaches me. It touches me.

I tip my head down to hide my face, to hide my smile. I hurt for Caleb, of course, but I know what this means to August—that as he stands in the center, a vein of sobriety running through the jubilation, he’s thinking of his father. Wondering if his dad sees him. Wondering if today, on his birthday, he’s proud. I have no way of knowing, but somehow, I’m sure he is.

3

August

In one of the earliest photos my mother has of me, my father’s autographed basketball rests beside me in my crib. Though shadowy, I know the memories of summer afternoons behind our house, of him lifting me on his shoulders to dunk the ball with my childish hands, are real. I could barely walk when I started dribbling a ball. You could say my entire life has been leading up to this moment.

The fall of confetti, the thunder of the crowd, the lights ricocheting off a thousand camera lenses—it’s a prism of sight and sound that doesn’t penetrate my private celebration. I’ve come so far and grabbed the prize, and I want to enjoy this for a moment. Maybe later in life I’ll figure out how to turn off the drive that churns like a locomotive inside me, but I haven’t yet. And tomorrow it will demand of me what it always does—more. I’m allowing myself a moment to savor.

A microphone thrust in my face shatters that nanosecond of contemplation. Questions pellet me like a hail of bullets. Dazedly, I field each question, squinting against the glare of a dozen cameras connected to millions of viewers at home. Coach is probably watching from Delores’s hospital room, exactly where he should be. But my mom and my stepfather, Matt, are here somewhere, and I’m consumed by an urgency to share this with the only people who understand all it has required.

As my ecstatic teammates and I finish shaking hands with the other team, my mother reaches me, grabs my arm, and pulls me into a hug that smells and feels like every comfort and encouragement it’s taken to get me here. I sink into it, burying my face in her thick, red curls that always smell like strawberries. When my dad died and my world upended, my mother was my constant. When she married Matt and moved us to the suburbs outside of Baltimore, she was my rock. When I got the scholarship to play basketball at St. Joseph’s Prep and had to leave my friends and all that was familiar, she anchored me. At every turn, when things have spiraled or changed, she’s been the same source of support.

She pulls back far enough to peer up at me, framing my face with her hands. If her watery blue eyes didn’t reflect the pride they do, tonight wouldn’t mean nearly as much.

“You did it,” she says, running her fingers over the sweaty mess of my hair. “Your father would be so proud.”

Her words, barely audible over all the raucous celebrating, slip right under the guard I have over my heart and prick me. Before I know it, I’m blinking back fucking tears.

“And on his birthday,” she whispers, sadness and joy mingling on her face.

“You remembered?” A laugh trips over the sob in my throat.

“Of course, I remembered.” She shakes her head and pats my face. “You’re so much like him, you know? But you’re even better than he was at your age.”

Before I can respond, a hand on my shoulder turns me around. Matt draws me close, pride in his eyes, too. He’s not my biological father, but he’s the man who taught me so much about discipline and respect. This moment belongs to him, too.

“Hey, West.” Coach Mannard approaches, grinning more broadly than I’ve seen him do in four years playing for him. “You saved us tonight more than once. It’s been an honor to coach you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

I shake the hand he extends to me, and we both laugh and end with a hug. Coach Mannard and I have butted heads several times. Fortunately, last night’s curfew violation wasn’t one of them—I slipped in unnoticed. Even when we haven’t seen eye to eye, we’ve had one thing in common: we both want to win. And tonight, as our road together ends, we have.

“The boosters have a celebration reception for us in one of those fancy boxes upstairs.” Coach Mannard addresses me but raises his voice and then looks around to my teammates who have gathered around. “I’m sure all of you have your own plans to celebrate.”

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