Part II in a series. A Dangerous Game
The next morning, Cal dropped Rachel off in front of the High School building a little early. She tried to kid with him, to play their game, but the best Cal could do was smile and tell her to have a good day. She looked at him before getting out of the truck like she wanted to take his temperature. Something was obviously wrong.
“I love you sweetie.”
“I love you too, Pops. I’ll see you on the field after school.”
Mark was waiting outside his office. He looked as though he hadn’t slept. Quietly, he sat down in front of Cal’s desk and put his head on his arms. “Coach I’m so sorry, God I’ve never done anything like that. I swear it’ll never happen again. Please don’t report me. I’m begging you. You and this school and the team are all I have. You know football is my only shot at going to college. I can’t believe I’ve messed everything up like this. I’m so sorry. Please Coach, I’m begging you, don’t turn me in. I’ll do anything.”
Cal closed his eyes and nodded. Mark seemed truly sorry. He understood how bad he screwed up. “Alright, it’s between us, but you’re off the team for the rest of the year.”
Mark’s head snapped up, “What? You can’t do that. I have to play.”
“Mark, I can’t just completely close my eyes. You were selling weed and what ever that pill was to little kids. I should turn you in, that would be the right thing to do. But I know where you’re coming from and I want you to have a shot at college. We can make it all work next year.”
“No fucking way! You need me! You can’t kick me off the team, you know I’ve got scouts looking.”
Shaking his head Cal tried to control his breathing. ” It’s just for this year. I’m sorry, Mark. but that’s it. You can go out for the team again next year. The scouts will still be looking, but for now, that’s it.”
When Mark stood up, he knocked the metal chair over. “No fucking way!” He screamed, ” You can’t do that. God dammit your talking about my life, my life! I’m not gonna let you fuck me like this. And you don’t have any proof. What will you tell people. No fucking way you’re ruining my year.”
“Son, you need to calm down and sit down. My decision is final. I’m sorry but you made a mistake.”
“Fuck you!” Mark screamed.
Cal stood up. At six three he was four inches taller than Mark and 75 pounds heavier. Cal consciously tried to control the building rage, it was like a heat creeping up his body. He stepped closer and looked down at Mark. Softly he said, “You’re off the team for good, now get out of my office and stay away from my football field. It didn’t have to be like this you stupid punk.”
“Fuck you! God damn it, fuck you,” he screamed as he slammed the door. “Your going to fucking regret this James. I’m gonna fuck up your life.”
Cal stood for a full minute, then sat back down in his chair. What the hell just happened? Where did all that come from? He tried to dissect the conversation, if you could call it that. How had it gotten away from him and so out of control? Over the years he’d had to deal with a lot of really angry young men but this was something else. Cal leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes again. He hated that he’d lost control and called Mark a stupid punk. He shouldn’t have done that. Frustrated, he looked at the ceiling and said out loud, “I swear to God I was trying to do right by that kid.”
It had been a year but Cal could still hear every word that came out of Mark Greenland’s mouth that day. Opening a bottle of water Cal tried to remember when he’d last actually seen Mark. It had been at least a year. Once the season ended, last year, players and fans stopped asking about him. He just disappeared. Cal never saw him or even heard anything about him on campus, which was fine. He didn’t want to think about that situation ever again. So why, after a year was Mark back in his weight room? That smart ass grin made him want to take his head off. Obviously, Mark was trying to antagonize him. But why now?
Somebody was knocking on his office door. “Coach Cal, can I come in?”
Jose Fernandez stuck his head in the door and grinned. He was a freshman and still so excited to be on the team. “I thought you’d want to know McKenzie made a 45 yard field goal this morning, Coach D saw him.”
“That’s amazing, Jose! His longest by three yards, right?”
“Yes sir.” Jose was McKenzie’s holder.
Cal stood, slapped Jose on the back of the head and walked into the weight room. “Thanks for letting me know. I needed that.” Most of the guys were gone. He glanced at the clock. 8:05. He’d spent thirty minutes reliving the Mark Greenland nightmare and was late for his first period class. Study hall, no worries.
Classes let out at 3:15 every day and most of the White Deer Destroyers were dressed out and on the field by 3:30. Stragglers ran laps without being told.
Cal and three other coaches, all with clipboards, discussed the plan for practice while the team’s offensive and defensive captains got the team stretched out and warmed up. The team was in full uniform and lined up across the field in three rows.
Cal looked up as they did high knees and then jumping jacks. They were really good boys and he was caught in a moment of overwhelming pride. They trusted him and were willing to work so hard. They literally did everything he asked. Then he saw Rachel at the other end of the field, stretching and laughing with some other cross county runners. From that distance he couldn’t quite make out who the other kids were.
When Rachel saw Cal looking at her, she gave him a big silly wave and he involuntary waved back, with the same enthusiasm. Glancing at the other coaches, they knew better than to laugh.
Ten minutes later, as the team got ready for tackling drills, he watched Rachel and the three other runners take off. He thought he remembered her telling him they had to do one mile interval training this afternoon. They would run a mile, rest for five minutes, then run the same mile faster, then one more time after that. The goal was to run as fast or faster on every mile. It was grueling. Cal couldn’t imagine what his players would do if he made them do that.
The track was built around the football field but Cal wasn’t really watching Rachel and the runners anymore. He was focused on his boys. They were so close to the playoffs if he could just keep them focused. Forty five minutes into practice Cal looked up as Rachel and another runner, a boy, approached him. Lord, she was so graceful and long legged. She made running look easy. Normally, as she ran past him, he would have yelled something silly at her like “Too slow Chicken Butt!” But he couldn’t think of anything clever as she approached. He studied the guy running next to her. His pace was different and he was obviously trying to match her stride for stride. She looked over at the guy and smiled.
Cal realized he was holding his breath as the two runners sprinted toward him, then just as they passed, Mark Greenland looked over and grinned, not at Rachel but at Cal.
Then they were both gone, already at the far end of the track. Cal watched as the pair left the track and disappeared onto the cross country trail.
It was only six when Cal left the football field. The players were still cooling down, but Cal needed to be home. After putting the Ford into drive, he found his cell phone and called Tara.
“Hey Honey, how’s it going? Is Rachel home?” He tried to sound normal.
“No, not yet, she called an hour ago and said a friend was giving her a ride.” He could hear background noises. The news was on and something was sizzling on the stove.
“I don’t know, she said a friend from the cross country team. ”
“But who is it Tara? Did she say?”
“Cal, she’s in high school now, we have to give her a little room. She said she’d be home by 6:30. It’s all good sweetie. She’s fine. Come home. I’ve got a dinner surprise for you.”
“I’m on my way.” How was he going to explain everything. He’d never told Tara what happend with Mark. He was too ashamed, to embarrassed, to admit how it blew up in his face. The truth was, he didn’t know how to explain what happend. Then Tara got busy with a new gallery opening and the subject of Mark never came up. Nobody cared about Mark Greenland. Cal knew his wife would be furious and disappointed in him for not turning Mark in, for not doing what he should have done. For not telling her what was going on, but at the time he was just relieved it was all over. He didn’t want to bring it up again and he didn’t every want to think about Mark again if he could avoid it.
Twenty minutes after Cal got home he heard a car door slam. He was at the door before Rachel got to the porch. He studied the ratty car in the drive way. One headlight was burned out. Cal locked eyes with Mark, then that kid had the nerve to smile and wave at him, like they were buddies.
Rachel ran up the steps and gave Cal a hug. “Hey Poppa Bear.”
He hugged her back but never looked away from Mark, “Go inside Rachel, your mom needs you.” He pushed her gently toward the door and started down the steps, but Mark backed up and took off. Cal watched his tail lights disappear and wondered what the Hell he was going to do and how he was gonna stop this little shit.
Tara already had dinner on the table. The last thing he wanted to do was eat, but he knew he had to act as though nothing was wrong. He didn’t want some kind of blow up at the dinner table but once again everything was spinning out of control.
Cal put his napkin in his lap and picked up his silverware. For the second or third time today he tried to sound normal. This was new to Cal, he never pretended to be anything but honest. He cleared his throat. “So Bucket Head, who brought you home tonight?”
Rachel was glowing. She glanced at her mother and smiled. “Mark, he’s on the cross country team now. Pops he used to play for you last year but then he quit, you know him.”
Cal nodded. “Yeah, I remember Mark.”
“Yeah, he said you were awesome. But now he’s running track and he’s really good.. Fastest time after a week of practice. He cracks jokes while we run, it’s really funny And he writes songs.”
Taking his time, Cal cut I piece of his pork chop. “Isn’t he a senior?”
“So, he’s too old for you, right?”
Rachel instantly looked at her mom, for support, for reassurance? Cal didn’t know. Women were like that and it confused him. But he knew he had to move carefully or both of them would be mad at him.
“It’s not like were going out or anything. He just gave me a ride home. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Please?”
“Sure Kiddo,” Cal said, staring at his plate. He didn’t’ know which way to move, what to say. But he knew Tara was staring at him, wondering what the story was. Why was this messed up kid giving their daughter a ride home?
“I’ve got to take a shower.” Rachel kissed her mom on the cheek, but she didn’t even look at Cal, before vaulting up stairs.
Once Rachel was gone, Cal helped Tara clear the table. They were silent and Cal knew what was coming. The questions, the interrogation. Why hadn’t he turned Mark Greenland in. Why was that kid still at White Deer, giving her daughter a ride home. Cal didn’t have an explanation. He knew what he should have done but now it was too late. And he knew he should have told Tara what happened. But he didn’t. And now this. He never thought he’d have a lapse in judgment like that. But he was wrong.
Finally Tara said, “So you didn’t tell the administration?”
“No. And I don’t know how to explain what happened to you.”
Tara started putting dirty plates in the dish washer. She rinsed each one, carefully and then finally said, “So you never did what you were supposed to do, you never reported this psycho and now he’s driving my daughter home? You lied to me.”
“I never lied to you Tara and I’ll talk to her.”
“And say what? They are friends, she’s obviously got a crush on him. But you’re gonna talk to her? And what exactly are you going to say? How are you going to explain all this. Jesus Christ Cal, I trusted you to do the right thing. I can’t believe this. I trusted you. How bad is this kid Cal?”
“He’s just a stupid kid, Tara. I can handle him. I’ll fix this, I swear to God. And think about this,they just met, what a week ago? It’s nothing.” As he spoke Cal James knew he was lying, in a way he’d never lied before. And he knew he was simply saying what he desperately hoped was true.