Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(7)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(7)
Author: Kennedy Ryan

He looks up into the stands in our direction, and my heart pauses for the space of a beat. I tense, as much from the memory of those eyes fixed on me as from the fear that he’ll see me now.

His coach yells, waving the team over to the bench. I should be relieved he didn’t see me, but some perverse, masochistic part of me wishes he knew I was here.

My eyes seek Caleb on court, and I wait to feel anything as visceral as what I felt last night with August. I’m glad to see Caleb. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him, but it doesn’t feel like my heart is pinned to a soaring kite. My feet are firmly planted on the ground. My body doesn’t go haywire. When was the last time Caleb left me breathless with little more than a look, a touch? For that matter, when was the last time I wanted to tell him so many things there wasn’t time for it all?

I have a year invested with Caleb, and we’ve been happy. After meeting August West once, I’m questioning it?

“So what are you gonna do?” Lo asks softly, breaking into my thoughts. “About this Caleb situation, I mean. If he wants more and you want . . .what you want?”

I turn my head to study my cousin’s face.

“Why do I have to know right now?” I answer Lo without actually answering. “I’m about to graduate from college. This should be a time when it’s safe to explore, when there’s space to figure out what life is on my own. Can’t we just be dating? I’m not sure what I know for sure yet, and that should be okay.”

The closer we get to the future, the more I feel the weight of Caleb’s expectations, spoken and unspoken. I just hope it’s not so heavy that it crushes us, crushes what we have completely.

“Don’t let him rush you, girl,” Lo says. “Better no man than the wrong man. We saw that firsthand.”

What would our lives have been like if my mom had married one of the creeps who paid our rent? Except for Telly, I was usually glad to see them go. If she’d married one of those men, I know instead of the security she envisioned, it would have been a trap.

Once the game is underway and halftime approaches, I know Caleb’s team is in trouble. It’s not in the score, because they’re only down by five, still easily within striking distance. And Caleb’s performance shouldn’t give me pause. He’s nearly at a triple-double already. My reservations actually have nothing to do with Caleb and his team, and everything to do with August and his. There’s an X factor in sports, probably in life, that doesn’t show up in stats sheets or on scoreboards. Jordan had it. Kobe had it. It’s that “I will not be stopped” killer instinct. When a player has that, he’ll strap the whole team to his back if that’s what it takes to win.

That killer instinct blares from every pore of August West.

I’ve never seen him play live, or I would have known this already. It’s in his eyes every time he faces Caleb one-on-one, the crooked grin that says August relishes toying with him. Each time he stops on the dime and spins beyond Caleb’s reach to score, he insinuates himself deeper into Caleb’s head. And that’s where the game will ultimately be lost if something doesn’t change in the second half. If I were the coach, I’d assign someone else to guard August because Caleb can’t. I suspect Caleb asked to do it, feeling like he had something to prove.

He’s not proving it.

If I could have five minutes alone with Caleb, maybe I could help. He’s told me before that he thinks about me when the game isn’t going his way. Even if I could get to him, I’m not sure I could face him right now. I’d probably just blurt an apology for all the things I didn’t do last night with August but can’t stop thinking about.

Not helpful.

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.

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