Author: Guede Mazaka
It’s the tail end of a hard game, a match against a team they thought would be a snow-in but who turned out to have grit and snap in them. Tooth-and-nail fighting for every point, and every point matched by another one going up on the wrong side of the board.
First they’d been taken by surprise, and then they’d been taken by the grind, the slow relentless pressure that hadn’t ever let up. At breaks, they’d just hung their heads nearly to their knees and breathed hard, breathed deep and rasping. Their voices had been low gravelly things, crawling about for an edge-hold on any glimmer of hope, and their eyes as they’d hacked together a last strategy had been dull, wrung-out pieces of lead.
Jess remembers Jules had tried to smile and instead had ended up grimacing. The other girl had leaned down and pressed the heel of her hand into the back of her thigh, massaging and grunting and still stretching her mouth into a pained soundless whine. But when Jess had asked, she’d gotten the brush-off and the smile that, somehow, had been genuine enough to break through the exhaustion and the sour creep of impending defeat. So Jess had let it go. Now she wishes she’d stayed, she’d pushed Jules, she’d checked herself. She should’ve known better, after all. Between her and Joe—
--but it had been the last seconds of the game and Jules was sprinting up the field, dribbling and weaving, driving forward like a bullet and dodging like Beckham himself. She’d made a beautiful, impossible steal and then she’d side-swiped to come rushing towards Jess, lurking at the far end. Her hair whipped in her face and her face was nothing but a red howling mouth, but she still looked like glory and like a win and Jess had been deafened by the rising cheers. They’d pumped her blood till her vision had gone blurry and she had had to blink like crazy, trying to clear it and squinting for the ball.
It was Jules, she remembered telling herself, and that’d calmed herself enough for the ball to shoot to the cradle of her instep. The impact stung even through Jess’ sneaker, but she barely felt it because suddenly they had a shot, she had a shot and she took it, and it was a gorgeous swooping bend that just crashed past the goalie’s outstretched hands. Jess had thrown up her arms and screamed.
Then the silence had smashed down, worse rebuke than even her mother’s speechless tears.
She’d turned. Maybe because of a whisper, maybe because of the sudden cold in her stomach, but either way she’d turned and there was Jules lying on the ground. Kelly screaming in one of her opponents’ faces, nails raking the air inches from the girl’s cheeks. Stretchermen streaking from the far end of the field.
Jess doesn’t remember how she got to Jules’ side, but her knees are burning and they slide when she shifts her weight, sliding on something wet that easily scrapes off to let the grass-juice sting, so she must have skidded at some point. She’s got something in her hand and she realizes what it is only after someone tells her to not hold Jules’ hand so hard. Her throat hurts and it’s words, she suddenly thinks. Words that cut and rake because she’s babbling them haphazardly, not taking the time to organize them, but Jules’ face is so pale.
Jules isn’t moving. Her eyelashes are black against white and her mouth is parted just enough for Jess to see the edge of teeth. But that’s when the trainers rush in, blocking her from view and all Jess has, all Jess can see is the hand she won’t let go. She squeezes it and she clumsily, frantically feels for the pulse. When someone barks at her to let go, her hair slaps her face as she shakes her head and something in her eyes tells them to back off.
It’s just the hand Jess sees. Nothing but that. Long-fingered, scabby-knuckled, ragged in the nail. Just the hand, just the hand, just the hand.
There’s a long sigh. The fingers flex. From somewhere deep in Jess’ throat comes a precipitate sound of joy, too early for her muscles to have relaxed so it’s strangled and emerges a whine. But who cares?
Jules is awake. Jules is laughing weakly, and ignoring all questions to ask: “Did you get it in?”
Jess laughs, too, though it hurts. Presses the hand she’s got to her forehead. “Yeah. Yeah, we got it.”
And when Jules lets out a weak cheer, Jess sees shoe-switching and German nightclubs. Sees an airplane ride where they were terrified and grabbed at each other to so they’d know it was okay, cracked jokes to break the fear. Sees long summer days on the pitch, long winter nights curling together in one bed and beating their brains over classwork.
Jess sees what she could’ve lost. It makes her heart catch.
She looks up. Five minutes on the clock, and her whole world’s bent.