The football game is the place to be in Huntsville on Friday night, but my sorry butt isn’t in those bleachers. Blair guilt-tripped me into babysitting Grandma instead. So here I am, stuck in a muggy warehouse on the outskirts of town, biding my time while “Gram” hangs out with her friends.
The crowd erupts in a chorus of cheers and boos. I close my eyes and rub my temples, reminding myself that I’m doing the right thing. “Your grandma isn’t as young as she thinks she is,” Blair said as she packed the minivan just a few hours earlier. “I’m counting on you to look out for her.” The kiss of death came when she gave me the look. You know, the one moms everywhere use to make you feel all crappy and selfish for wanting to do your own thing. “I’m working, Mary, or else I’d be there.” Her harp snug and secure, she closed the trunk and headed for the driver’s seat. “Besides, if you kept an open mind, I bet you’d even have a little fun.” With that, she’d blown me a kiss and pulled out of the drive.
I snort at the memory. Big. Fat. Chance. Watching a group of chicks skate around a beat-up old rink isn’t exactly my idea of a killer time. Still, I’d rather sacrifice an evening here than spend the entire weekend at a highlands festival with Blair. My bright red hair serves as a constant reminder of my heritage. I don’t need to traipse around a field in period garb, warding off a bagpipe-induced headache, to feel connected to my roots.
A huge guy with more piercings and tattoos than I can count accidentally elbows me in the face as he tries to squeeze past. “Sorry, hun!” he pats my arm apologetically as I tenderly probe my forehead. Great. I can already feel the beginnings of a goose egg.
Time to drown my sorrows in Diet Coke and sour Skittles. I clank down the bleachers and head for the concession stand. The skaters round a bend in the track, pushing and snarling at each another as they roll past. Cyndi Lauper blares from the loudspeakers, and I cut wide to avoid the team mascot, a panther attempting to pump his arms and jerk his hips in time with the music. It’s kinda funny, but I can’t afford to stick around and watch. The last time I got stuck on grandma duty, I swear the thing stalked me. Twice I turned around to find it standing right behind me, breathing all heavy and staring at me with those creepy yellow eyes.
The comforting smell of warm butter and nacho cheese sauce washes over me and I sigh in relief. I shove a crumpled $5 bill at the sleepy-eyed attendant and place my order. While he shuffles off, I drum my fingers on the countertop and look at the clock. My heart sinks. It’s not even halftime yet.
Four sharp whistle blasts pierce the air, followed by a roar from the crowd. Someone just got fowled big time. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder, but the bleachers block my view of the track.
Finally, cantina boy hands over the goods. Sugary remedy in hand, I turn around only to smack straight into a wall of fur. Soda drenches my shirt and my candy goes soaring. Thinking black thoughts, I cross my arms and wait for the jerk to apologize.
The mascot removes his feline head, and I think I might die. It’s Nick Abbot. Nick freaking Abbot! He’s a junior, the hands-down heartthrob of St. Bartholomew High. My mouth falls open, and my face burns with heat. He’s saying something, but I can’t make sense of the words. It’s like I’ve fallen into a weird, alternate reality. Beautiful Nick, with his devastatingly blue eyes and linebacker physique is the mascot? And he’s here? Talking to me?
“Mary.” He grabs my shoulders with his oversized paws and shakes. “Mary Calhoun.”
“Whaaaaa…” I croak, shocked that he actually knows my name.
He gives me a confused look.
I snap my mouth closed and curse my awkwardness.
“Sorry to scare you,” he tries again. “But you gotta come quick. Its your grandma.”
“What?” My head clears as the stars instantly fall from my eyes. “What happened?”
“One of the She Devils gave her one heck of a J-block.”
I give him a blank stare.
“Your grandma is hurt. She got body slammed by a girl from the other team.” He takes my hand in his giant paw and leads me to the rink.
I shove past the spectators and climb over the rail onto the slick banked track. My grandmother is on the ground, surrounded by her teammates. Please be okay please be okay, I chant over and over again in a silent prayer. My breath hitches in my chest, and I fall to my knees by her side, but she’s … smiling?
“Mary, darling,” she purrs and pets my arm. “I’m fine! Just took a wee tumble.” Her hair pokes out in wild bright red tufts from under her helmet, which sits askew on her dainty little head.
“Can you get up?” I ask apprehensively. Her thin legs are tie-dyed with bruises.
“No need.” She waves her hand dismissively. “That handsome young man will carry me,” she says, pointing at Nick.
“Sure thing, Gram Slam,” Nick replies cheerily. The rest of the team looks on with concern as he scoops her up in one swift movement.
My grandma bats her eyelashes.
I bite the inside of my cheek. Oh God. She’s hitting on him. I glare at her in silent reprimand.
She ignores me and leans against his chest, only to jerk back with a frown. “You’re all wet and sticky, dearie.”
Nick shoots me an amused look over her helmet. My face burns. I guess some of my soda hit him, too.
“Put me next to the action,” she commands, pointing a sparkly black fingernail at the base of the bleachers.
Nick hesitates. “Gram, I think —”
“I will cheer on my team.” She scowls at him, her bright red false lashes and sparkly eye shadow making her look like a crazed, elderly fairy. “The doctor can wait.” She sets her fuchsia lips in a firm line.
Nick shakes his head, his oh-so-kissable mouth splitting into a crooked smile. I watch with a mixture of horror and relief as the boy I’ve been crushing on for the past year carries my cougar of a grandmother to the sidelines.
A tap on my shoulder brings me back to my senses. I turn to face a massive woman with a wicked-looking eyebrow ring.
“Okay, Mary, you’re up,” barks Lady Harmalade, the team captain.
“What?” I ask, tilting my head to look up at her.
“You heard me. We need five gals on the track at all times. Ferocia has a bum knee, and Katie Karnage is out with a stomach bug. You’re our only back up.”
I look over her shoulder to see the two women in question leaning on each other as they hobble to the exit.
“Me?” My voice shoots up a few octaves, and my legs wobble. “Out there?” I vehemently shake my head. No. Fricking. Way.
“You’ll do fine. You’re here almost every other weekend, so I know you know the rules.”
She towers over me, hands on hips. I stare at the glittery pink team name — Belles of the Brawl — emblazoned on her skin-tight tank top. Her six-pack is visible through the thin fabric, and her biceps are big enough to crush my skull in a single curl.
“Well?” she demands, tapping the toe of her neon pink and green roller skate against the wooden floor with impatience.
“I … I’m not that coordinated,” I protest, casting my eyes about the room as I fumble for a plausible excuse. “And I haven’t skated in ages …”
Harmalade rolls her eyes at my excuses. “Go suit up.” She jerks her chin toward the locker room. “Just switch clothes with Gram … you guys are about the same size.”
I open my mouth to make a final plea, but she’s already turning away, clapping her hands to call a huddle with the other Belles.
Shell-shocked, I stand there staring at the track until a gentle voice murmurs in my ear and a big furry paw guides me toward the restroom. Nick. Sultry, unattainable Nick is actually helping me. I pinch the inside of my wrist; this has to be a dream.
“You’re gonna do great,” he gushes with excitement as he deposits me by the bathroom door. “It’s simple. Use your shoulders, butt, or hips to block. Do whatever you can to stop the girl with the star on her helmet from making it through.”
Easy for him to say. I don’t stand a chance against those raging glamazons. I blink and wipe my hands on my jeans.
“Sorry, you probably knew that already.” He shrugs, his gaze darting between my face and his feet. “I mean, you’re always here, and your grandma is just the coolest …” His voice trails off and he rubs his paws together nervously.
I nod, despite my confusion. My grandma? Cool?
“Well, better hurry,” he says in a rush. “I told Spanx I’d bring more Gatorade. Can’t keep my big sis waiting.” He runs off before my brain can signal my mouth to speak.
I take a deep breath and step into the locker room. As I don the ridiculous uniform my grandma chatters on and on, offering tips and reminding me of the rules, but I can’t focus on her advice. The words slide over me as I concentrate on keeping my fingers from shaking. Falling on my face while clad in sparkly fuchsia booty shorts would be plenty embarrassing, but with Nick there to witness my glittery demise, I could practically hear the nails being pounded into my coffin. Social. Suicide. I put on the knee-high pink socks, the black kneepads, and the neon green roller skates. Grandma tosses me her tank top, a little black thing emblazoned with rhinestones and the team name in pink cursive lettering. The back of the jersey sports her roller name, Gram Slam.
Soon I’m lining up on the track with the other girls. The Belles smile at me through their mouth guards, at once terrifying and beautiful. I accidentally make eye contact with the She Devil next to me, who grimaces and runs a finger over her throat in a cutting motion. That’s it. I’m gonna die. Or throw up.
The players around me still, their muscles tightly coiled in anticipation of the whistle.
I cast a wary glance to the sideline where Nick leans on the track’s railing, his chin atop his hairy cat arms. Gram sits beside him, legs propped up on a chair. He catches my eye and winks. My heart, already frantic with worry, skips a beat. Gram blows me a kiss and then whips her head around to flip off a passing She Devil.
The whistle sounds and my guts jump into my throat, but I somehow manage to remain upright. I make it a quarter of the way around the track before realizing I’m not half bad. I just need to take it one lap at a time. I narrow my eyes and focus on the Belle in front of me. It’s Nick’s sister, Spanx. She could level an opponent with one bump of her brutal booty, and I don’t want to be caught anywhere near that action.
Suddenly, a sharp blow to the side has me stumbling forward. Once I regain my balance, I snap my head around to find the same She Devil who threatened me. Her black lips twist into a nasty sneer, and I realize she’s snuck in an illegal hit.
But … I’m not doing too great at watching her and watching my feet at the same time. My skate catches and I trip into her, arms outstretched. I close my eyes and brace for impact, the She Devil’s crazed scream filling my ears. Another elbow pokes my side and a knee rams me in the back, but the fall isn’t as bad as I’d anticipated.
I crack one eye open to find I’ve somehow taken two She Devils down with me. Two! They lay there, pounding the floor and wailing as the pack speeds past, leaving us behind. I scramble to my feet, eager to avoid getting run over as the pack comes back around. In the next instant, however, the She Devil’s jammer makes it through to the front of the line, and the ref blows his whistle to stop the play.
We line back up again, and I lose track of time. Round and round we go, a blur of sweat and shouts and hunger. I fall again. I get up again. A She Devil makes a nasty comment about Gram, so I hip check her. This isn’t so bad. I catch myself smiling. The whistle sounds for halftime, and the Belles pull me into the hurdle. They pat my back, congratulate each other, and down thirsty mouthfuls of Gatorade between grins. My whole body tingles with the high of competition. It seems like only seconds pass before the buzzer sounds, telling us to line up for round two.
The rest of the night passes in a haze of unexpected happiness. We don’t win, but I’m too elated to care. I shake hands with the She Devils, and then turn to the sidelines to find Gram. The minute my skates touch the cracked cement of the warehouse floor, she springs up from her chair and comes flying, arms outstretched.
“That’s my girl!” she screeches, enveloping me in a hug so tight it’s hard to breathe.
I step back and give her a long look. She bounces in place, beaming from ear to ear. “How’s your leg?”
“Oh … that.” She stills and gives me a sheepish look. “Well, you never can be too careful at my age.”
“Looks to me like you could’ve skated just fine.”
“Looks like you had fun.” She glances past me, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And it looks like you have an admirer, too.” She turns on her heel and struts off to find her teammates.
I turn to find Nick, sans costume this time. My mouth goes dry.
“Hey.” He shoves his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “You were great out there, Mary.” He smiles tentatively.
“Oh, uh … thanks.” I tug at the hem of my shorts and try to come up with something else to say.
“The uni looks good on you, too.” A slow red creeps up his neck to his ears. “You’ll need a roller name though,” he babbles on, trying to cover the awkwardness between us. “For your jersey, I mean …”
At that moment, Lady Harmalade and the rest of the team roll up. “Mary, Queen of Knocks!” She bellows in an awful imitation of a Scottish accent before giving an extravagant bow. The other girls follow her lead, bowing and curtseying with mock adoration.
“That’s perfect!” Nick nods, his smile more relaxed this time.
“So?” Gram arches her eyebrow. “You Scots enough to be a Brawler?”
I throw back my head and laugh. “Only if I can tie the tartan ’round my arm.”