The mountains that border Kiln Valley rise high above the south side of town. The peaks are so tall that in the dead of winter there is a week where my town does not actually see the sun. The only evidence we have that daylight has come is a gentle lightening of the gloom. At noon, if you were lucky, you saw the briefest suggestion of the sun in the form of an orange glow crowning the peaks of Silver Ridge.
Growing up in the shadow of those peaks and the more modest range to the north, I always felt a sense of confinement. Going west to Coeur d’Alene for shopping trips felt like emerging the jaws of a giant beast. Escape was all I could think about as my senior year of high school was taking shape.
Most of my classmates felt this same constriction. Some kids attenuated the pressure with beer or stronger methods of self-medication. Some kids acted out and got in trouble. Others would embrace the role in which they found themselves and seemed to strive to become the embodiment of the cheerleader, the drama geek, or the grunge punk. They would don their costumes every day and surround themselves with other people dressed like them in a sort of tribal defense. They used lipstick, outgoing personalities, and pierced noses to make them stand out as individuals. The irony was, these affectations only made them blend into amorphous groups like a herd of zebras or a flock of birds.
Nicole and I always watched the kids around us and their attempts at dealing with life in a small town with a sort of detached amusement. We never felt compelled to participate in the posturing and pretending that seemed to so important to our classmates. Our aloof attitude was just another defense mechanism but it seemed to serve us a purpose. We didn’t need to find ways to deal with the small town life in Kiln Valley because we were getting out.
Between the two of us, Nicole was always the one with the ideas. She came up with the plan in middle school.
“We’re both smart,” Nicole said one afternoon. “Probably smarter than most of the people in this hellhole.”
“I guess,” I said. “I don’t really know that I’m that much smarter than the next guy.”
“Whatever,” she said. “ I wouldn’t hang out with you if you were another mouth-breathing Neanderthal like Kevin Richardson.”
I laughed but the look on her face was dead serious.
“Here’s what we need to do. We need to get the best grades we can so we can get into college.”
“There’s no way my family can pay for college.”
“Duh,” said Nicole, rolling her eyes. “That’s why we need to get good grades. Kids with good grades get scholarships. Plus, you can get student loans to cover the rest.”
An eight-grader who thought farther into the future than dinner was pretty rare. Nicole, at twelve-years-old was thinking about college. She made it sound so easy that it didn’t take much for her to convince me to play along. From that day, we both put forth our best effort in classes. We studied together, read together, and collaborated on projects whenever we could. By our sophomore year, both of us had straight A’s and had earned the respect of our favorite teachers.
Then, I started playing football. Most of the guys on the team weren’t what you would call good students. Many of them wouldn’t pass their classes if the teachers didn’t allow a certain amount of wiggle room for them. My father even made a joke one night at dinner when I told him I’d made the varsity team.
“Now you don’t have to study so hard and you can have a little fun,” he said through a mouth full of mashed potatoes.
I looked at him in confusion while my mom shot him a disappointed look. I wondered how he could think that. I imagined he thought I was only studying so hard because I didn’t have anything better to do.
I loved my father but I felt like he didn’t know me very well. He spent so much time on the road that when he was home it was like a holiday or a special occasion. There was a nice meal and he would tell us about what happened on his trip but there was never time for any serious conversation. I never went hunting or fishing with him like some kids. We didn’t have anything to connect us besides our genes. Everything I achieved at school went without his acknowledgment until I started playing football.
When I made the varsity team, my dad was suddenly very interested in my life. I was at first a little put off by his sudden involvement. I was upset that he could ignore my success in school but be so excited that I was playing some stupid game. Eventually I found myself enjoying the attention and the praise. Dad started cutting business trips short so he could see me play. He started putting money into the KVHS booster club and my parents proudly wore their red sweaters to the games. The sat on red bleacher cushions that only the booster club members could get. By my senior year, the admiration my father gave me for playing football became one of the reasons I tried so hard on the field and at practice. I got good grades for Nicole, while I played good football for my dad.
One evening after practice, coach said something that made me realize that both endeavors could play into our escape plan.
“Good practice, men,” Coach called to the assembled team. “Our homecoming game on Friday is going to be especially important. For three reasons.”
Coach held up his hand, three fingers pointing to the darkened sky.
“First, it’s homecoming,” he said putting one finger down.
A few boys whooped and most of us laughed. The coach quieted us with a stern gaze.
“Second, we’re playing Tall Timber. They are a tough team and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.”
The coach put another finger down, his index finger stabbed straight up in the air like a flag pole.
“Third, I know for a fact that there will be college scouts at Friday’s game. Some of you might use their presence as motivation to show off or do something cocky but believe you me, nothing impresses a scout like someone that plays a solid game as a member of a solid team. Do you hear me?”
The players would always respond to that question in unison, “Yes coach!”
However the response was broken and half-hearted. Every junior and senior on the team that dreamed of playing college football was already thinking about Friday night and how they could stand out to the scouts.
“Hit the showers,” coach said to dismiss the players. “Griffith, Kinsey, to me!”
Jerrad and I looked at each other. I shrugged and Jarred winked. We both walked over to the bench where coach was picking up his clipboard and his jacket.
Without turning around he said, “You guys have your work cut out for you on Friday.”
“What do you mean, coach,” asked Jerrad.
“I mean you have a tough team to beat and you’re surrounded by a bunch of cocksure teenagers bent on proving they’re good enough for college ball.”
Coach turned around and looked first at me and then Jerrad.
“You two are the only ones that are ready for that level of play. The other guys will never play another official game of football after this season but I see the two of you going on to play for a good school.”
Coach took off his hat, wiped the sweat off of his forehead and looked back at me.
“I understand that this might be your best shot at getting into a decent school and making a good life for yourself. Don’t fuck it up.”
As often as our coach would yell at us, throw his clipboard into the grass, and send us gasping into another round of gut drills when we disappointed him, I had never heard him swear and the word hit me in the face like a slap.
“You can go,” he said and went back to gathering his things.
All week I had been wanting to tell Nicole about the scouts. I wanted to tell her what coach said about getting into a good school. This whole time I had been busting my butt to get good grades for a scholarship, I never once though that I could actually play for a college team and possibly get a scholarship for football.
But Friday came and I had not seen Nicole once. When I got to my first period class, my head was in a fog. I had so much to tell Nicole and I never had to wait so long to talk to her. My mind drifted back to the last time I saw her. I played the evening of Jerrad’s party over and over in my head. I was certain I did something wrong but I couldn’t tell what it was.
The bell rang for the end of first period. I had been in my head the whole time and I couldn’t remember what the classroom topic was. I picked up my book, grabbed my backpack and made my way to the door. I glumly walked toward my second period classroom. A kid gave me a playful punch on the shoulder.
“You ready for Friday night,” he asked in overly-aggressive tone.
“Yeah,” I said halfheartedly. “I’m ready.”
The kid looked let down. He watched in confusion as I turned and walked away without the normal high-five. Halfway to my next class, I felt someone watching me. I looked up from the floor in time to see a girl turn her head and look away. Something about her seemed familiar but I didn’t see enough of her face to recognize her. I put my head back down and moped the rest of the way to second period.
Second period went by in a blur and I found myself trudging to third period. Normally I would cross paths with Nicole between second and third period. I looked left and right as I walked but nowhere did I see Nicole’s black jacket and tattered blue jeans. I looked for her gray hoodie. I looked for her chestnut hair banded with the yellow Walkman headphones. I stood in the middle of the intersection of the two main halls of our school. Students flowed past me on either side. Hundreds of faces went by but none of them were the one I wanted to see. I gave up and made my way to third period.
I sat in my desk and didn’t hear a word the teacher said. I resolved to find Nicole at lunch. If I didn’t see her at lunch, I would skip my afternoon classes to drive back to our cul-de-sac and knock on her door.
The bell for the end of third period rang. I went to put my book in my backpack only to find I had not even taken it out. I lugged my heavy backpack to my shoulder and walked out the door and to my locker. I usually exchanged my morning books for my afternoon books so I didn’t need to come to my locker again for the rest of the day. Instead, I put my whole backpack in my locker and shut it. I scanned the hallway for Nicole. Not seeing her, I made my way to the cafeteria. I hoped to find Nicole waiting for me outside like she often did. When I arrived to the noisy lunch room, I was focused on the doors on the other side of the sea of teenagers. I almost didn’t hear someone call my name.
The shrill voice cut through the tumult of lunch trays, silverware, and excited conversation. I turned my head to look towards the sound. At a table about twenty feet away sat four girls. I immediately recognized one of them as Jerrad’s girlfriend. She waved at me and smiled. The two girls on her left were cheerleaders who I had known since grade school but who I had never really talked to and didn’t particularly care for.
When I looked to the fourth girl, the clamor of the lunch room suddenly died down. My peripheral vision blurred and the only thing that was still in focus was this girl sitting at the table. She wore a navy blue cardigan over a powder-blue t-shirt that came down to a blue-and-white plaid mini skirt. Her legs were covered with gray tights and she wore dark blue Mary Janes with thick, chunky soles. Her hair was pulled back in a bun except two strands that framed her face. Shiny, silver hoop earrings dangled from her ears. Her neck was encircled with a choker necklace in the shape of white flowers.
The girl had been looking at the sad food on her lunch tray and raised her eyes to meet mine. My mouth fell open and I stared. The only thing about Nicole that was not changed was her piercing green-blue eyes. She looked at me, into me and I was completely stunned. Her face seemed stern and then one corner of her mouth went up in a half smile.
“Have a seat, Kinsey,” she said. “Its lunchtime.”