Saturday, November 29, 2014

3 (son nefes 4)

+ What's on: Goodnight Kiss, by Randy Houser

#3 (Andrew) and #2 (Kevin) are entering our countdown via the last two parts of Son Nefes.

November 4, Scorpio

Timeline: One year before the events of The Foxhole Court. Part one -- part two -- part three

Renee kept her knives in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet, behind the empty boxes she'd brought her photographs and fragile decorations to school in. A set of five, finger-length and thin, were in a folding mesh case with a protective plastic layer. The others were stored either in sheathes and heavy cloth. Renee hadn't handled her blades since she signed Wymack's contract to play for the Foxes, but she did now what she had done that night: she knelt in the middle of her bedroom and carefully unwrapped each and ever one. Dan was at Abby's again, and Allison had fallen asleep in Seth's bed last night, so there was no one to see her with her weapons and no one to make excuses for.

Renee turned her knives over in her hands one at a time, checking for blood she'd washed off years ago. She had expected to feel something—disappointment over how easily she'd been talked into this fight or a bit of sickness at how familiar the knives felt in her hands so many years later—but she felt nothing at all. She considered that for a minute, knowing she had the time to spare before she was supposed to be downstairs. Was it a good sign that her past wasn't haunting her now, or was it too soon for her to be done atoning?

It was something to think about, for sure, but her minute was up. Renee chose her weapon after a little more consideration and put the rest away. The shoebox was tucked safely out of sight again and Renee strapped her sheath to the side of her calf. She tugged the hem of her pants back down and tugged on a pair of well-worn sneakers. A glance around found her keys on her pillow. Renee collected them and took the stairs to the basement.

There were only a hundred-odd students on campus for summer school and only one other team checked into Fox Tower already, but Renee checked all of the study rooms for witnesses. She found Andrew in the last room. He'd already folded up the tables' flimsy legs and stacked the tables against the walls. The chairs were pushed to the corners, stacked upside-down on top of each other. Renee gauged the room they had to work with, judged it to be sufficient, and hesitated when she got a better look at her opponent.

Andrew had come in a short-sleeved black shirt, but his arms were still mostly covered. What the Foxes had thus far assumed was a long-sleeved undershirt were black wrist-to-elbow bands on both arms. An unsubtle attempt to hide his sheathes, perhaps, except Andrew should only have one. He'd told her Friday he had one more knife on him than she did and he'd assumed she was unarmed. His left arm was strapped; his right was likely covered to make the left less obvious.

"Oh, she came!" Andrew said. "A woman of her word, what a novelty."

"Honesty, or honest women?" Renee asked.

"Yes," Andrew said.

Renee smiled and let it slide. She'd pulled a light zippered sweatshirt on over a tank top so as not to wander the halls with her shoulders showing, but now she eased out of it and set it on the nearest chair. Andrew was rocking on the balls of his feet as she returned to him, and he spun a finger near his head when she stopped.

"How unexpected. Let us have another look."

She obediently turned her back to him. The mottled scars along the top of her shoulder blades were too faded to have caught his eye across the room, so she knew he'd spotted the edges of her tattoo. Last night's stringy shirt would have shown off more of the uneven lines, but she'd left her jacket on the whole time she'd been out with him.

Andrew hooked a finger in her sleeve hole and tugged it toward the center of her back, trying to pull it enough that he could get a better look at her. She'd have to take off her shirt for him to see the whole thing, but she thought he could see enough to understand what he was looking at. The jagged wings were more dragon than angel, consequence of being inked into her young skin by an inexperienced hand. Appropriate, she thought some days—the discrepancy between what she was and what she wanted to be was carved into her skin for all time.

"Prison ink?" Andrew asked.

"Close," Renee said. "One of the Hounds did it for me. It seemed a good idea at the time." Andrew let go of her and stepped away, so Renee turned to face him. When he said nothing else, she said, "I feel obligated to warn you that I don't fight fair. I would rather respect you by giving this my best shot than slow us both down by being a gentile opponent. You do not have any reservations about fighting a woman, I suspect?"

"Oh, no." Andrew's smile was all teeth. "Not at all."

"What a relief," Renee said, with a hint of her usual sweet smile. "This might actually be interesting, then."

Renee wasn't sure which one of them moved first, or if they both broke at the same second. She didn't think, just moved, and within a couple blows she knew which of them was going to win.

She wasn't used to fighting people who were shorter than she was, and Andrew was significantly faster than she was with those drugs in his system, but Renee could and would adapt. She didn't know if someone had taught Andrew to fight or if he'd picked it up out of necessity, but the aggression in his style said he primarily used violence to settle disputes and assert dominance.

Renee's six years with the Detroit-based Bloodhounds, on the other hand, had been an endless fight for survival. The Hounds had fought each other as stress relief and practice and the rest of the city when defending or stealing territory. She'd defended her body and her reputation with her life. She was slower because she was patient and because she knew how many punches she could take before she was in real trouble. She was willing to give ground as often as necessary if it meant making an opening.

Renee didn't think Andrew was used to losing, but she didn't mind reminding him how it felt.

Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—Andrew didn't have the good sense to pull out when it was obvious he couldn't take her. He'd told her Minyards didn't apologize; apparently they didn't say Uncle either. The only one who could end this was Renee. She drove him back toward the wall, watching for him to draw his knife. It was inevitable when he realized he was being herded, but by the time he reached for it, it was too late.

Renee had pushed him for a reason, and the chairs were now within her reach. She smashed one into Andrew's side, hooking the legs around his arm and forcing the blade away from her unprotected skin. An elbow to the chin slammed his head back into the wall and Renee gave the chair a brutal twist that threatened to dislocate his shoulder. He moved with it instinctively, and a second later Renee had him flat on his back with one knee on his throat and the other shoe pinning his wrist to the carpet. Renee slipped her own knife free and put the tip to his groin.

"Enough," Renee said.

She gave him a moment to respond or react. He said nothing: neither accepting his defeat nor foolishly challenging her win, but Renee nodded anyway and eased off of him. As soon as Andrew could breathe easier he started laughing. Renee put the knife away before settling to sit cross-legged beside him. Andrew pushed himself up and looked at the knife in his hand. He seemed mildly surprised—amused?—to find his weapon drawn.

"Your fundamentals are sound," Renee said, "but you might want to draw that sooner."

"Against someone else, perhaps!" Andrew waggled the knife at her and tossed it off to one side. "Against you, perhaps it would not have made a difference, hm?" He smiled, but Renee saw the menace in his bared teeth. She was a threat to him, and he didn't like it. "As you have already said, it is a bauble for back-up only."

"You could have chosen a weapon you were more comfortable with," Renee said.

"It made sense at the time to pick it up," Andrew said with an expansive shrug. "He liked knives, and I like beating people at their own game."

Renee stopped breathing. It took her several heartbeats to get her lungs working again, but even then she didn't trust her voice. She almost asked who "he" was, but it wasn't her business. Besides, the who didn't matter so much as the rest of it did. Andrew tipped his head to one side and quirked an eyebrow at her, which meant something in her expression gave her away.

"What's that about, one wonders?" Andrew asked.

Renee weighed her options. She knew which path she should take—and she knew which one she needed to. "You won't get any better without proper practice. Spar with me again? Not today, of course, but later on. Even if it's just once a week, it'd be better than fighting shadows."

"Give us a reason for the change of heart!" Andrew said.

"Do you know why I learned to fight with knives?" Renee asked. He only shrugged at her and twisted in search of his knife. She assumed he was still listening to her, though, and she was right—the next words out of her mouth had him go still as stone with his hand halfway to his blade.

"On initiation night to the Bloodhounds, I was raped by its eight officers. Tradition," she said, with a casualness she wasn't feeling. "After that, most of them left me alone, but one took a special interest in me. He was older than me, and bigger than me, and stronger than me, so I had to find a way to fight him. He liked knives," she said, and Andrew flicked her a quick look she couldn't decipher, "so I decided to use them against him. I wanted to beat him at his own game, too."

Andrew rocked onto his knees to get in her face. He was so close his knuckles scraped her collarbone when he motioned to her. "But there is a flaw in your story, don't you see? Friday you said you spent six years with the Hounds. But you were in North Dakota for two and a half years, yes? Either you are very old, or you were very young. Maybe both?"

"I am twenty-two," Renee said. "I'll be twenty-three in September."

Andrew did the math faster than she expected—she hadn't expected him to remember all the finer details of the story she'd told him on Friday, but he pulled the numbers together now and ticked them off on his fingers. "Twenty-one your freshman year. Nineteen when you started your junior year at West Jackson, eighteen when you moved to North Dakota. Two years in the foster system. So you became a Hound at ten years old, Natalie Renee Shields Walker."

"Yes," Renee said quietly.

"Spoil the end of this story for me," Andrew said. "Did you kill him?"

He wasn't smiling anymore. Renee had the distinct feeling her answer was important to him, but she wasn't sure why. His odd comments here and there had her thinking he was more than a little misogynistic, but the intense look in his eyes upended those suspicions. It was maybe too soon to put her faith in him, but in that moment Renee was willing to believe. He wasn't a good person—probably never had been, never would be—but he was not the soulless, crazy monster the rumors made him out to be.

"Eventually," Renee said. "I knew he'd kill me if I lost, so I waited until I was sure I could take him. But yes. When the time came I won and he died." She reached for her cross necklace and hooked her finger around the thin chain. "I'm waiting to feel sorry for it, but all these years later I still can't repent. So instead I keep the knives I killed him with, to remember what I let myself become. I am out of practice, for sure, but I remember enough. Do you want to spar with me?"

"You are the strangest Christian I've ever met." He retreated out of her space, grabbed his knife, and bounced to his feet. Renee watched him slide his knife out of sight under his left armband. Andrew flashed her a manic grin as he turned back on her. "Might not be the smartest choice!"

Renee shrugged. "You've told me that knife is your last line of defense and that you wouldn't draw it against someone who wasn't strong enough to deserve it. I'm trusting that means you won't take what I teach you and hurt my friends. If I am right, then spar with me again."

"You trust too easily."

"Do I?" she asked. Andrew just smiled, so Renee got to her feet. Moving reminded her how sore she was. She massaged her throbbing shoulder as carefully as she could and didn't try to hide a wince. "I think I'm going to bruise."

"A tear for her discomfort." Andrew swiped the corner of his eye with his thumb.

Renee smiled despite herself. "Will you talk to Dan and Matt?"
"I have nothing to say to them."

"Would you at least stop by and check on his progress?"

"No point! He'll get better without me as a witness."

Someone else might have given up then, but Renee was determined. She thought hard for a moment, then lighted on the story Nicky told her Friday. It was a stretch and it depended far too heavily on her new assessment of Andrew's character, but she was used to taking leaps when she had to.

"I need to see him today," she said. "I was a junkie my last years with the Bloodhounds; my addiction was what caused me to slip up and get arrested in the end. I understand what Matt's struggling with now, so I'm the best-qualified to walk him through this, but Abby and Betsy worry when I'm there. They know they need me, but they're scared he'll trigger my relapse." She brightened as if something had just occurred to her. "Let's go together. I'll go for Matt's sake, and you go for me. Surely you wouldn't leave me to face such terrible temptation alone."

Andrew mimed slashing his throat. "I am never leaving you alone with Nicky again."

"So he was telling the truth?"

"Truth is too valuable to be given away so freely," Andrew said. "Nicky will never understand, hm? He's a little stupid that way."

A second later he was gone, sailing past her out the door. Renee stared at the empty doorway a moment, then grabbed her jacket and ran after him. It was too warm outside for such things, and the sweatshirt was uncomfortable against her heated, sweaty skin, but Renee preferred not to go out in public with her tattoo showing. She had the shirt zipped up to her throat by the time Andrew pushed open the back door and led her into the parking lot.

A FOB on his keychain got the doors unlocked as soon as Andrew had line of sight of the car, and Renee eased into the passenger seat. The more she moved, the more she hurt. Andrew didn't seem to be suffering. Renee didn't know if it was a brave front or if his medication-induced mania made him unaware of how many blows she'd landed on him.

"I'm sorry about your face," she said. She'd split his lip with her elbow and the ruddy stains on his cheekbone and jaw would be awful bruises by the time he woke up.

"I'm not sorry about yours," he returned, and he cut the radio on to kill any further conversation.
The usual cars were parked at Abby's house; Abby's and Wymack's in the driveway, and Dan's in front of Randy's rental car at the curb. Andrew pulled up in front of the neighbor's house for lack of better options, and Renee led the way across the yard. Abby's door was unlocked, as usual, but Renee still knocked on it as she pushed it open.

"It's me," she called so Abby wouldn't have to get up and investigate. Andrew moved so Renee could close the door behind them, and Renee brought him down the hall to the living room.

Everyone looked up at their entrance, but any greetings they might have offered died when they saw who she'd brought with him. Renee took a careful look around, looking for trouble. Randy was the only one who didn't recognize Andrew, so she only nodded and turned back on her son. Wymack's expression was guarded; Abby's was stony. Betsy's gaze was intent, but her stance was relaxed: she was interested in this new turn of events, not worried. Dan went rigid where she was huddled against Matt's side, and her face went white with anger. The most important response was Matt's—he froze when he saw Andrew, but there was no fear or anger on his face.

Andrew propped a shoulder against the doorframe and grinned at Matt. "What a mess!"

"Hey," Renee said before Dan could open her mouth. She kept her tone as gentle as possible as she crossed the room to Matt. "We thought we'd stop by and check on you."

"And did 'we' drag each other here kicking and screaming?" Wymack asked, gesturing up at his own face.

"Did he hit you?" Dan demanded.

"I hit him first," Renee said cheerfully.

"Did not," Andrew countered, then considered it and allowed, "Maybe."

Renee knelt in front of Matt and crossed her arms across his knees. Matt didn't look it, but he was tense as stone under her touch. Renee smiled up at him, willing him to focus on her instead of Andrew, and eventually he dragged his stare down to meet hers. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," Matt said after a long pause. "I think?"

"When I was coming clean, I was angry all the time over absolutely everything," Renee said. She nodded at the twitch at the corner of his mouth and said, "That's what I thought. This house is too small for something like that. Come back to practice with us and work your aggression off on the court."

"I can't," Matt said, voice raw with something that wasn't quite shame.

"You can," she said, quiet but insistent.

His mother had made fitness and sports his best weapons against drugs, Matt had told her last year. He'd needed something healthy to get into in lieu of his father's needles and pills. He'd learned to box first since it let him vent his pain and restless rage, then worked his way back into Exy. Renee didn't know if the same trick would work twice, but she had to believe it. More than that, she needed him to believe it.

"You know it's strong enough to catch you," she said. "Now trust us to be strong enough to hold you up. You can't hurt us out there. It's the safest place for you to be right now, and it'll feel cleansing to get this out of your system."

"Hurry it up," Andrew said. "Your teammates are so loud when you're not there."

"Andrew," Abby said sharply.

His name was enough to get Randy's attention, and she shot a quick look across the room. She started to shift like she was going to get up, but Andrew wasn't sticking around. He waved off Abby's impending lecture, and spun out of the doorway. "Get your own ride back!" he called over his shoulder as he left, and he was out of the house a couple seconds later.

As soon as the front door slammed shut behind him, Dan turned on Renee. "He hit you?!"

"Once or twice," Renee said.

"Who won?" Wymack asked.

"I did," Renee said, with a touch of surprise like she couldn't believe Wymack had to ask.

It was a little rude of her, but it got the reaction she wanted: Matt laughed and scrubbed roughly at his face. "I would've liked to see that."

"I'm glad you didn't," Renee said. "I'm not a kind fighter, and no amount of faith can change that about me. Besides, I don't think Andrew would have taken well to having an audience."

"Serves him right," Dan said darkly.

Renee looked from Dan to Matt, weighing her words and wondering how to say this without making it seem like she was taking sides. "What he did was wrong," she said, "and I'm sorry you'll never hear him apologize for it. But I do believe, after talking to him and Nicky both, that he really did mean to help you. Maybe it's not the kind of consideration we want, and maybe he has a misguided way of getting results, but he wanted you sober."

She told them what Nicky had told her about Aaron, then said, "Andrew is an addict in his own right, but his drug isn't one he can give up." She tapped a finger to her temple, meaning the court-ordered medication that kept Andrew at a manic high for the better part of his waking hours. "He has no choice but to keep taking it, though he's found some avenues of controlling and easing that addiction. I don't think he enjoyed your struggle any more than Aaron did." She drew her arms back from Matt's legs and relaxed back to sit on her heels. "But that's just speculation on my part, and I don't think Andrew would ever admit it if we asked him. Point is, I'm not trying to excuse his actions. I'm just trying to make sense of them."

Dan looked like she wanted to say something, but Matt beat her to the punch. "I remember," he said slowly, then hesitated as if not trusting his memories of that night. He flexed his fingers, clenching and unclenching his fists. Renee took one of his hands and squeezed as hard as she could. It was permission to squeeze back and a silent promise that she could handle the pain. Matt took it at face value and almost crushed her hand in his. "He said—he said I could jump or fall. One last drink for the road—that's what he called it."

"Why did you take it?" Abby asked.

"I'm sorry," Matt said. "I'm—sorry. I didn't know how to say no." Dan gave him a short and fierce hug but said nothing. Matt closed his eyes and took a long, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."


Matt showed up at practice Monday morning. If Andrew hadn't shown up about the same time, the boys might have had something awful to say to Matt about his issues. As it was, Andrew was only ten seconds behind Matt, and he came in with startlingly dark bruises across his face and throat. Matt was bruised as well from struggling with the staff and Randy during his crash. Renee had more marks on her than he did, but there was no way the boys would think her capable of picking a fight with Andrew. They drew what seemed the obvious conclusion, that Matt had gotten some of his own back against Andrew, and just like that Matt was redeemed in their eyes. Renee and Dan kept a discreet eye on Matt throughout practice, but Matt held it together somehow. Dan finally started talking to the cousins again, but only when it was necessary and then only about Exy.

By the end of the week, Matt was doing well enough that Randy went home. At the end of July, Matt caught up with Seth after afternoon practice and said, "I want to come back to the dorm."

Renee could almost feel Dan holding her breath at Renee's side. Seth considered Matt for a couple seconds, then only asked, "Who's stopping you?"

That night, Matt packed his things and moved out of Abby's house. Juan had moved in with Seth and Dwayne in Matt's long absence and wasn't interested in leaving, but no one wanted to stick Matt with Reggie and Damien. Seth and his friends stuck mostly to pot, whereas Reggie and Damien had a tendency to stray toward harder drugs whenever they were available. In the end Dwayne and Juan took the third bed out of Reggie's suite and made a second loft in Seth's room.

The following week was a little tense as the upperclassmen readjusted to each other. But as August continued, the boys settled back into their usual routines. And Matt—bless his heart—was doing better than ever. Renee could see him growing into his own now that drugs weren't a barrier between him and his roommates. She caught him laughing with them more than once, and Matt stopped trying to slouch his way out of existence.

The team was healing and fracturing in the same breath. Matt and his roommates had come to some sort of truce, but that required them to draw a line in the sand and pull away from Reggie and Damien. Andrew's lot was still happily on the outskirts, disliked and antisocial, and the girls were their own separate unit. Allison flitted back and forth from her friends to Seth, but she would never be on easy terms with the rest of the boys.

When the school year started, the team was in pieces, but it was in fewer pieces than Renee had ever seen it. It wasn't until the first game of the season that Renee realized what those tenuous threads of unity were doing for them. She caught it in glimpses, when Aaron, Matt, and Nicky were on the court in some combination. Matt wasn't friends with the cousins, but he was willing to work with them. They were the unified defense Wymack had hoped for: not as strong as they needed to be yet, but at least enthusiastic and forceful. Damien was a stronger backliner than either Aaron or Nicky, but he had no interested in playing with the mouthy freshmen. Reggie, in goal for first half, only weakened the line, since he and the cousins hated each other.

The first fifteen minutes of second half showed Renee what the team stood to become, with best friends Seth and Juan on the strikers' line, Dan hard and strong in the dealer's spot, and Matt and Aaron playing defense in front of her goal. They were still split offense and defense, but when the strikers were willing to play with each other and the backliners were on the same wavelength, when Dan kept the ball moving between both groups and Renee could guide her backliners from behind, there was so much potential Renee couldn't breathe.

Oh, Coach, she thought, smiling so wide her face hurt. Give us one more year, maybe two, and you won't recognize us anymore.


By mid-September, the Foxes had problems. Damien's drug habit was steadily getting out of control, to the point that he was skipping lectures and failing his classes. If Damien's grade point average plummeted any further, he'd lose his scholarship and his spot on the team. Wymack and Abby took turns trying to talk some sense into him, but their warnings and speeches didn't make a lasting effect. Damien feigned improvement for a while, then continued his downward spiral. Reggie was in the best position to help him as both his friend and roommate, but he gave it a half-hearted effort at best. Andrew, who'd taken such drastic measures to save Matt and Aaron, had no plans to intervene.

"Might as well spit on fire," was his bright response when Renee asked him about it privately. "He doesn't want to make it."

By the end of the month, Damien was on probation and relegated to the bench.

Renee regretted his poor decisions, but nothing she said got through to him. Dan tried for a little while, then stopped trying when she saw what his absence did to her defense. Matt was the strongest backliner the Foxes had signed to date, and everyone could see the effect he had on Aaron and Nicky. The two had to fight to keep up with him. Bit by bit, game by game, they started to close the gap.


They made it as far as October before Andrew finally stepped onto the Foxes' court. They were up against Breckenridge and losing with a miserable fourteen-three score. Renee didn't know what the Jackal strikers said to Reggie, but she could imagine, since she'd endured their hateful mockery all first half. Whatever it was, it was enough to get Reggie out of his goal. He was on the nearer striker in a heartbeat, and the court erupted in a full-out brawl. It was the sixth fight this match alone, and apparently six was one too many for the referees' patience. Red cards flashed like they were going out of style.

Wymack had been gnawing on an unlit cigarette for the last few minutes, but now he broke it into as many pieces as he could and threw the mess at the wall. "Useless jackasses. All I want for Christmas is some fucking restraint on this line." He looked over his shoulder for Renee, then looked past her at the short goalkeeper half-dozing on the bench. "Wake him up."

His words were enough to get Andrew's attention. Andrew looked from him to the fight happening on the court. He looked a little sluggish, consequence of his withdrawal. Andrew was only here as backup, signed to the Foxes before he could be recruited by anyone else, but Wymack was a man of his word: he'd promised Andrew sobriety on game nights, and he wasn't going to renege just because Andrew wasn't in goal. Renee didn't see the point of going through withdrawal for nothing every single Friday, but Andrew seemed content with the deal.

"Let's go," Wymack said.

"You have Joan of Exy," Andrew said.

"I said now. Attempt to earn your keep."

Andrew eased off the bench. He came to the games in full gear even though he and Wymack didn't expect him to play, but he'd dropped his helmet and gloves under the bench as soon as he'd gotten comfortable. Now he pulled them on and went to get his massive racquet from the stick rack. The referees were almost done restoring order to the court by the time he was ready, and Wymack walked Andrew to the court door. With the fight over, the crowd noticed who was going on for Reggie, and the reaction was startled and loud.

Reggie stomped off the court ahead of three of the referees. He didn't spare a glance for his short replacement but peeled his helmet off and threw it. Wymack and the referees went after him, scolding him for his terrible behavior, and Andrew let himself onto the court. Renee stood as close to the court wall as she could. Wymack had shown the Foxes one of Andrew's high school games in an attempt to win them over, but she'd never seen him play a live game.

The last of the referees left the court at last, and the doors were bolted closed. The teams lined up for a penalty shot on the Foxes' goal. Andrew gave his racquet an experimental twirl as the buzzer rang. The Jackal striker wasn't waiting for Andrew to be ready—as soon as the bell said he could swing, he did, and he heaved the ball at the goal like he wanted to bust a hole through it.

Andrew didn't even slow. The twirl became a smooth, wide swing, and Andrew slammed the ball right back the way it'd come. It was the last thing the striker expected, and the ball caught him full in his helmet. He stumbled back, startled and dazed, and tripped over his own feet. Aaron was already there to steal the ball from him, and he popped it right back at his brother. Andrew smashed it all the way up-court.

Aaron and Nicky knew what to expect and were running before the ball even connected with Andrew's racquet. The rest of the Jackals and Foxes were a second slower to respond, but the cousins helped pull the teams up the court away from Andrew's goal. Andrew's ball hit the far wall, six feet over the Jackal goalkeeper's head, and rebounded with a hearty thump. The teams caught up with it as it bounced back to mid-court, and the fight to the last bell began.

Aaron and Nicky were too young and inexperienced to take on Breckenridge's offense line, but the Foxes were out of substitutions. They fought tooth and nail to hold the line, and Andrew sort-of tried somewhere behind them. Sort-of was still good enough, because Andrew's lazy attempt to guard the goal slowed the Foxes' plummet to a leisurely crawl. Reggie and Renee had given up fourteen goals in their sixty-five minutes on the court. In the last quarter of the game Andrew only lost four.

"He really doesn't care, does he?" Matt asked at Renee's side.

"No," Renee said. "I don't think he does."

He'd said it, and Wymack had said it, and everyone had warned them, but it was still jarring to watch him and realize he didn't honestly care which way the score went. He swung at the ball because he wasn't the sort to get stepped on, but he didn't care enough to really try. Renee was torn between amazement and frustration.

"That's obnoxious," Matt said at length.

"It's sad," Renee said. "I can't imagine being so apathetic about life. To never be excited, or happy, or willing to risk it all—what a gray existence. How do you wake up and keep moving every day if you don't get anything out of being alive?"

Matt sent her a startled look for that interpretation, but Renee couldn't look away from Andrew to return his stare. At length Matt turned his attention back to the court.

"It's still aggravating," he said at length.

Renee wisely said nothing.


The following Friday morning, the Foxes met up at the stadium at nine-thirty. They had an away game in Virginia that night, which meant they needed to get on the road as close to ten as possible. Instead of letting them gather their gear, Wymack sat his team down in the locker room. Abby, standing at his side, had a brave face on that had never fooled any of them. Renee looked from her to Wymack and back again, wondering what could sour their moods so early in the day. She didn't have to wait long for an answer.

"Palmetto State is a Class I school on a technicality," Wymack said when they were all seated and still. "We earned the rank on my say-so, because I learned Exy from Kayleigh Day and the ERC thought that stood for something." He drummed his fingers on the side of his coffee mug and stared past them at the far wall. "As you know, we're halfway through our fourth season as a team. So far we've only won ten games."

He paused there, letting that dire statistic sink in, and Renee knew where this conversation was going.
"We are getting better, yes, but the higher-ups are losing patience. I received a call from the ERC this morning. They are considering dropping our status in December. Let me tell you now: if we get demoted to Class II, we will never be Class I again. We would need near-perfect scores for five years straight before we'd earn a reconsideration, and even then there'd be no guarantee of winning an appeal. It'd be easier to leave us as the best of the second-best than give us another chance.

"I'm going out on a limb here," Wymack said, and finally swept them with an intent look. "I'd like to think I don't ask a lot of you, but I'm asking you now: help me. The last thing I want is for us to lose our Class I title, but there's nothing else I can do. The fight is yours, so start fighting. You need to do more than just show up and play. You need to start believing in yourselves and each other. You need to win, and you need to keep winning."

The seniors exchanged sidelong looks, as if they found such a prospect ridiculous, but for once they were smart enough not to say anything.

"Yes, Coach," Dan said when no one else spoke.

"Good," Wymack said. "Now get your stuff. If you're not on the bus in five minutes I'll leave you here."

They were carrying his dreams and his career on their shoulders, to an extent few of them had previously realized. Renee's heart twisted in sad sympathy as she got to her feet, and she glanced at Allison to see what she thought. Allison didn't return it, more interested in staring Seth down across the room.

Renee looked at Andrew next, but Andrew was fast asleep. On Fridays he realigned his medication schedule to match up with whenever first serve was. Renee didn't completely understand the intricacies of the timing, but she knew he was supposed to take a pill during first half. He started crashing near halftime and spent second half a hazy mess. Renee supposed it best that he was sleeping now, because she doubted Wymack's plea would mean a thing to him.

The only thing Renee could do was pray, so she did, for most of the ride to Virginia.
Virginia's crowd was a rowdy lot, with barely a friendly face in sight. Few Palmetto State students bothered to come to away games anymore, especially out-of-state ones, since they already knew how the game would end. Renee avoided looking at the packed rafters, but the shouted, derisive remarks were harder to ignore. Running warm-up laps was a good enough distraction, and the referees ushered the Foxes on the court for drills shortly after.

As soon as they were sent off-court again, Reggie and Damien got comfortable on the bench. Reggie's red card meant he was out this game, and Damien was still on probation. Neither of them seemed bothered to be out tonight, so Renee looked away from them. Dan and Allison had brought Seth and Dan close to the court wall to talk. Juan and Dwayne were chatting up the Vixens, the Foxes' cheerleading squad. Nicky and Aaron were talking to Abby near the stick rack. Wymack and Andrew stood away from everyone else, out of earshot but close enough Renee could see their expressions. Judging by the serious look on Wymack's face, Wymack was talking to Andrew about their upcoming demotion.

Andrew noticed Renee's attention and motioned for her to join them. Renee set her helmet aside and went to stand at Wymack's side. Andrew grinned at her easy obedience and turned back on Wymack. He motioned as if trying to beckon Wymack closer but didn't wait before saying, "Give us a number between one and ten and a bottle of Walker Blue."

Wymack gaze at him, not understanding the game and therefore unsure if he wanted to play. At last he said, "Five."

 "Five," Andrew echoed, and pointed at Renee. "You're sitting out this game."

 Renee wasn't expecting that, and she looked from one man to the other. Before she could ask or Wymack could react, Andrew laughed at their ignorance and explained. "I'm shutting down the goal. Can't do that if you're giving points away like it's Christmas, right? Pay attention, Coach! I'm only going to do this for you once."

"Can someone who doesn't care about winning really close the goal?" Renee asked.

"So little faith." Andrew grinned and sailed away.

Renee watched him go, then said, "It's all right with me, Coach. I've always wanted to see a miracle firsthand."

"Yeah," Wymack said dryly. "Me, too."

He squeezed her shoulder, either in thanks or an apology, and went to round his Foxes up. Wymack announced that Renee was out for first half, but didn't bother to clarify that she was out for the whole game. Dan frowned a little at the last-minute switch but wouldn't question Wymack's decisions. The starting line-up was called onto the court one at a time, and Renee and Wymack took up a spot near the wall outside the half-court line so they could watch the game.

Renee tried to get Reggie to join them, but he was more interested in talking with Damien on the bench. Wymack let it slide because it sounded like they were arguing about a class they shared. Reggie should have listened, because Andrew was effortlessly showing up both of the Foxes' goalkeepers. Thirty minutes into first-half, the score was five-three, Jackdaws' favor—and then the Jackdaws stopped scoring.

They broke through the Foxes' defense again and again, but Andrew was always waiting for them. Every shot they made on goal, he deflected. He slammed ball after ball to the far end of the court, clearing the Jackdaws out of his zone with relentless energy. It didn't take long for the Jackdaws to get bored of such tricks, but the angrier they got the easier it was for Andrew to play with them. When the halftime bell rang, the Foxes had caught up, and the teams were sitting five-even.

Halftime break was where Wymack clued his team in. First half had gone so well that the upperclassmen and girls didn't think to argue with his call. Dissent came from the least expected corner: Andrew's own family. Aaron flicked Andrew a shrewd look but said nothing, but Nicky gaped and protested, "You can't do that. He can't play a full game."

"I can do what I want," Wymack said.

"But he's—" Nicky stopped, cowed by the black look Andrew sent him. Andrew's smile was long-gone, and the careful way he moved had nothing to do with first half's exertions. "Um, I mean..."

Aaron said something in German. Nicky winced and answered, but Andrew shut them both up with something that sounded vicious. Nicky made himself scarce under the pretense of getting more water, and Aaron subtly put more space between himself and his brother. Andrew noticed Renee's stare then and slid her a cold look. Renee kept her expression calm, not wanting him to mistake an encouraging smile for mockery or pity, and Andrew eventually looked away again.

Renee spent the entire second half standing at first-fourth. She pressed her hands against the wall to try and hide their excited trembling, but she could feel that quake even in her stomach as she watched Andrew fight. For forty-five minutes, the Jackdaws hurled their absolute best at Andrew, but it was clear from the start that it was a futile effort. Andrew reacted to the awful ache of withdrawal by getting angry, and he vented that rage in every swing.

It wasn't just Andrew anymore—the short goalie had inspired his team, and from the backliners forward the Foxes were moving with renewed energy and determination. The Jackdaws' confidence was shaken, and the Foxes took advantage of it as best they could.

The game ended ten-five, the best score the Foxes had ever grabbed, and the team erupted in celebration on the court. Andrew was the only one unimpressed by the victory, and instead of joining their mid-court party he cast his racquet aside and set off for the door. Matt started to go after him, caught up in the excitement of an unexpected win, but Nicky grabbed his arm to stop him.

The Foxes' subs were waiting for the referee to open the door and let them on, so Renee was right there when Andrew stepped off the court. The heavy grating and mask of a goalkeeper's helmet made it hard to see Andrew's face, but Renee could see enough to know Andrew was in horrible shape. He slipped past her without slowing and set off immediately for the locker room. Renee hesitated, torn, but Allison pushed Renee's shoulder in an impatient gesture to hurry up. Renee followed her teammates onto the court and ran to scoop Dan into a fierce hug.

It felt like they were the only ones celebrating in the entire stadium, but the Foxes didn't care how many people were against them. They high-fived and hugged in the middle of the Jackdaws' court, rowdy and excited, and finally traded bruising handshakes with their opponents. The Jackdaws had nothing nice to say about the game, but the Foxes were too happy to care. They booked it off the court and swarmed Wymack.

By the time they made it to the locker room, Andrew had already half-changed out. Reggie and Damien went ahead to get changed, but the others hesitated to consider the man who'd made their win possible. Andrew had shed his padding but put his dirty jersey back on. It was three sizes too big for him, since goalies had more body armor than anyone else needed. He sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, hands clenched around his ankles and eyes closed. If he'd already thrown up, it hadn't helped. He was still too white in the face to look at all okay.

"That was incredible," Dan said, the first compliment she'd given Andrew all year.

"That won't happen again anytime soon," Andrew said, voice thick with nausea. "Pull your own weight from here on out, hm?"

Dan bristled but headed to the showers without another word. Her exit signaled the others to get moving, and the Foxes split up between the changing rooms. The cousins and upperclassmen were still taking turns, so Aaron and Nicky stayed behind with Andrew.

As Renee left the room, she heard Wymack asked, "What if I'd said one?"

"What if?" Andrew returned breezily, and Renee heard the smile in his voice.


That game created a handful of unforeseen complications. The Foxes were well-known in the NCAA Exy world, mostly as the butt of jokes, but Andrew's stunt was enough to pique people's interest across the nation. Turnout at the Foxes' games started to climb, and the school board put a lot of pressure on Wymack to succeed. Wymack fended off his bosses with the grumpy confidence of a man used to getting his way and never showed signs that they were getting to him, but even Wymack knew when he had to make concessions.

Andrew was indisputably the team's best goalkeeper, and Wymack needed him in goal, but putting Andrew in the game meant taking one of his goalies out. Reggie was the obvious choice, since he had weaker stats than Renee did and his isolationist playing style hurt the defense line. Reggie was a graduating senior, though, with only seven games left to play. A smarter coach would vote in favor of his team's overall success, but Wymack couldn't look at the team and not see the damaged youths he'd handpicked to believe in. In the end he made the only call he could, and he rotated Reggie and Renee every other game.

Keeping Andrew in the goal wasn't as simple as it seemed, either, because of the secret deal between Wymack and Andrew. Withdrawal was hard enough without the added stress of a game night. The teams the Foxes faced were talented and brutal, and even when Andrew was only mostly trying he burned through his energy reserves at an alarming rate. They gave Andrew the first half to play out of necessity so he could pop his pills before second half, but it took a couple games before Andrew stopped throwing up during halftime. Andrew had juggled cracker dust and alcohol to prolong his so-called sobriety in Columbia, but those were unacceptable substitutions here. He couldn't afford a misstep with so many eyes on him.
The struggle was worth it, because the Foxes were doing what Wymack asked them to do. They won six of their remaining seven games, and the one they lost, they lost by acceptable margins. They ended the season with a nine-five record. It was the first time they'd won more games than they'd lost, and that was reason enough to celebrate.

Their victory was dampened a bit when fall semester grades were posted, because Damien had failed all of his classes. There was nothing Wymack could do but cut him from the team. Damien moved out of Fox Tower that same night and went home the next day. Renee grieved his lost chances and knew Wymack felt responsible in some inexplicable way, but Damien had made his choice.

The news they received two days later did worlds to brighten their moods: the Foxes had qualified for spring championships. Championships were decided partly by wins and partly by points, and the Foxes had collected enough points by one to grab the fourth spot for spring games. When Wymack first told them, no one believed him. He showed them the official invite, and the locker room exploded in surprised, excited chaos. Dan screamed and jumped on Matt, Nicky grabbed Aaron for a triumphant hug, and the upperclassmen finally looked happy about something.

"And our ranking?" Dan demanded when the hubbub died down a bit. "Our status?"

"We've bought ourselves some time in Class I," Wymack said with the biggest grin Renee had ever seen on him. "Foxes—have a good goddamned weekend."


Olga Katri said...

Two posts on the same day... I'm in heaven!!! I absolutely love Andrew, it was good to read about him again so extensively...

Lege Artis said...

I am doing a reread before release of book #3,s o these posts couldn't be more timely for me. ;)
Andrew is such a glorious mess. :)
Thank you for these!

Marina Elena said...

This was brilliant, even if Rene's story about her initiation ritual made me throw up a little...
I'm getting more and more exited every day!

Wren Safe said...

These little side stories are the best! I feel so hyped for the book now. These are so perfect.