Amber spent the entirety of the game asking Braden questions about the rules and regulations of baseball, playing the perfect example of making a guy feel useful. I spent the entirety of the game pretending to be interested in Evan giving me the play-by-play while trying to actually watch the game. Toward the end of the game, Amber asked how long one of the pitchers had been on the team. “He looks so young,” she said.
Braden leaned forward and said, “You know, I’m not sure about that, but Charlie was just telling me about him the other day. How long has he been on the team again?”
I didn’t know all the players’ entry dates, but I happened to know his and yes, he was young. They all looked at me. The announcer’s voice rang over the loudspeaker: “At the plate is Dunning and on deck is Lopez.”
“Um, yeah. He’s twenty-four. This is his second year.”
“She probably knows his stats, too,” Braden said. “She’s like a baseball encyclopedia.” He leaned back as if his job were done. And his job was done—I was mad.
“You should’ve said something,” Evan said. “I’ve probably been boring you to death.”
“No, not at all.” I gave him a weak smile. Just being here at the game was more than I could’ve hoped for. And despite the grade-school lesson on baseball, I was enjoying myself. Or was, until Braden made me feel like a jerk. I knew he did it on purpose, too. I saw the smug look in his eye as he leaned back.
“It’s pretty impressive that a girl that looks like you knows so much about baseball.”
I heard Braden laugh a little and wanted to punch him. Just because he didn’t find me attractive didn’t mean he had to make me feel stupid that someone else did. “You want to walk around before the last inning?” I asked.
“Sure,” Evan said, standing up and holding out his hand. I took it and tried to convince myself i wasn’t just to make Braden mad. Although I had no idea why it would. Except for the fact that maybe he didn’t think Evan measured up to the impossible standards he and my brothers set for my dates—he was wearing loafers, after all.
Evan made it past Braden’s legs just fine as we walked down the aisle to exit the row, but I knocked into one knee, nearly tripping, and couldn’t maneuver around his other. Evan looked back, still holding my hand. I shot Braden a look and he played innocent. I stepped hard on his foot. “Oh sorry, was that your foot?”
He sucked in air and finally pulled his legs back.
It ended up being a good thing that Braden had outed me (not that I’d thank him anytime soon) because then we talked about things besides baseball. We talked about school and how he wanted to be a financial advisor when he grew up, like his dad. Now, finances were something I knew little to nothing about, so I had all sorts of questions for him. After a while, I said, “Yeah, you lost me when you got into that short-selling-a-stock thing. No idea what you’re talking about.”
He laughed, and I noticed how amazing it made his eyes look, all lit up like that. “What’s your favorite sport?” I asked.
“To watch or play?” “Both, I guess.”
“I don’t know if this counts as a sport to you, but I love to wakeboard.” “Totally counts. That’s awesome. So you have a boat?”
“My dad does. He lets us take it out sometimes. Do you ski or wakeboard?” “I’ve been a few times, but I’m not very good.”
“We should go. I’ll give you some pointers.”
“That would be really fun. Maybe we could take my brothers. I think you’d like them.” And they’d be super impressed if he was good at wakeboarding.
“Yeah, for sure. I’ll plan it.” He hadn’t let go of my hand as we walked around the concession level of the stadium, where they sold nachos, hot dogs, Dippin’ Dots, and waffle cones. It felt nice, not even clammy or anything. “Do you want anything to eat?” he asked.
“No, I’m good.”
He sighed. “I don’t think Braden likes me very much.”
“Braden is an idiot,” I said. “And he likes you just fine. I think it was me that he was trying to prove a point to.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was jealous.
“He really looks nothing like you.”
“Oh. He’s not my brother. I’m sorry, I should’ve clarified that. He’s my neighbor. But I’ve known him for twelve years, so I claim him as a brother, and he’s just as annoying as one, so it works out well.”
“Oh.” He glanced toward where our seats were, as if he could see Braden from here. “Your neighbor.”
Evan had a weird expression on his face that I couldn’t place.
“Should we head back? The game’s almost over,” I said, squeezing his hand. “Yeah.”
When we were almost home, Braden said, “So, Evan, what are you doing in the morning?” “Uh . . . nothing.”
“Do you like to play football? It’s just a pickup game. We play at nine at the park up the street from our houses.”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Ohhh!” Amber squealed. “Do you go, Charlie?” I nodded, silently seething over the invite.
She grabbed hold of Braden’s arm. “Can I come too?” “Yeah, sure,” Braden said. “It’s tackle.”
I rolled my eyes. Amber wasn’t asking to play. She was asking to watch.
Evan hugged me good-bye, and then I watched as he drove away, followed shortly by Amber in her car. Braden and I stood side by side as her taillights disappeared around the corner.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
I took a deliberate step away from him. “What?”
“You pretending like you knew nothing about baseball?” “That was me being a good date.”
He grunted and got that typical look he got when someone said something stupid—chin drawn down, eyes on the verge of rolling. “Really? Because it seemed like that was you playing dumb.”
“Whatever. That didn’t mean you had to go and do that.” “Do what?”
“Invite him tomorrow.”
“Your brothers wanted to meet him. They texted me.” He held up his phone, as if that should make me feel better.
I tried to calm down by drawing a deep breath.
“Why are you so mad?” I wasn’t a fan of the fact that he could read me so well in that moment. “Because you just took one of my favorite things away from me.”
“I haven’t taken anything away from you.”
My chest was tight and I had an overwhelming desire to punch him. “I can’t play tomorrow. I’ll have to sit on the sidelines, cheering you on.”
“Why would you have to do that? You’re an awesome football player.” “Because, Braden. Evan will be there.”
He put on a rare angry face. “If you can’t be yourself around him, then you shouldn’t be dating him.”
I laughed a low mocking laugh. “Oh, yeah, be myself. Tackle guys, fall in the mud, score touchdowns, that’s real appealing to guys.”
“It is to some guys.”
“Really, Braden? Who? Tell me! Because I’ve been playing sports with the same ten guys for the last five years of my life and never has one of them hit on me, let alone asked me out. Not one! Do you think any of them see me as someone they would date? Of course they don’t. They see me as—let me see, what were the terms you guys used at disc golf the other day? Oh, that’s right. A big, burly girl. If they want someone to date, they go to the mall or the club and find a girl who wears tight clothes and does her nails and giggles at their jokes.
“I see the way guys look at Amber. I saw the way you looked at Amber. Guys don’t want a competitor, they want a cheerleader. So excuse me if I feel like I have to compromise a little of who I am to make a guy”—I pointed up the road—“a cute, nice guy, actually look at me like I’m not his teammate.” My eyes stung with anger.
Braden took a step back this time. Then he squeezed his eyes shut before opening them again. “You are so clueless. I don’t believe you, the most stubborn girl in the world, would be willing to do that for a guy who’s not even worth the time or effort. You don’t have to pretend to be anyone else. Your brothers are going to die.”
The tension in my chest had built to beyond bearable. I needed to run or this tension would keep me up all night. That or push him to the ground, which actually sounded fun in that moment. “He’s worth my time and effort. Good night, Braden,” I said, then I ran. Jeans were not fun to run in, but th breathable jersey and the sneakers I always wore made up for it.
I knew Braden had followed me. It was the middle of the night, after all, and he knew my dad would kill him if he let me go alone. I could hear him keeping pace about twenty feet behind me. I hoped he was dying in his jeans and polo shirt. I hoped his Chucks were making the arches of his feet hurt.
The big hill marked the beginning of mile three, and I glanced over my shoulder to see how Braden
was holding up. He had slipped another five feet behind. I knew I could lose him over this hill if wanted to. I could power up the hill and take a different route. But I didn’t. By this time my adrenaline had kicked in, easing my tension and making it hard to stay angry. So I slowed down a bit and let him stay within twenty feet, taking a shortcut through the park to make my normally seven-mile run closer to five.
When we got home, Braden, sweat ringing his collar and underarms, just walked into his house without saying a word.