Later, in the week that followed, Zeb Holloway watched the injury form again and again. T. T. Monroe, the finest quarterback ever to play for Rumney High School in Grafton County, New Hampshire, turned the corner on an option play in the last minutes of their win over Hampton, and Zeb knew something had to give.
It was exactly like sensing a wave about to break, and Zeb had turned halfway to check the college scouts in the stands, the men with college baseball hats perched on their heads and slim binocular cords looped around their necks, the ones who came to watch T.T. and time him and smile when they saw him pull off yet another spectacular run or pass—?he was a highlight reel, everyone said, and it was true—?and by the time Zeb pulled his eyes back, he caught merely the end of T.T.’s leg buckling under him, heard the bone snap, heard T.T. scream like a fox Zeb had once heard scream when his uncle George Pushee had darted an arrow through the animal’s cheek.
“No, no, no, no, no,” T.T. shouted as soon as the action stopped.
He rolled on the field and grabbed handfuls of grass. Zeb heard the grass rip free of the earth.
“Holloway, warm up!” came the shout.
It was Coach Hoch. Backs coach.
Zeb heard the call far away and did not at first realize it signaled for him to warm up. Then Hawny Spader, his best friend, a third-string defensive back who never played, suddenly appeared with a ball hatched under his arm and his eyes scrambled wide.
“You’re going in, man!” Hawny said as if he couldn’t believe it even as he gathered the substance of the situation.
Zeb regarded him, trying to pull himself together.
“Holloway! Holloway, get your butt going. Get warmed up!”
Coach Hoch came through the team like a man spreading a shower curtain. Kids jostled away, most of them riveted by the spectacle of T.T. slowly being attended to by the EMTs who now ringed his body. The stadium had gone quiet. Seven thousand people—?maybe more, hard to count them, Zeb thought—?had turned to stone in an instant. Zeb knew everyone was stunned and he understood the calculation: not only had T.T.’s varsity career suddenly come to a horrible conclusion, but the state championship, the championship that T.T. had promised to bring to the high school on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day the following week, had now become a long shot. The fans had a difficult time absorbing it all so quickly, Zeb reflected, and the bright flashes of understanding they experienced felt halved and sliced by newer disappointment as the reality of the situation became clearer in each moment that passed.
Before Coach Hoch reached him, Zeb glanced over at the cheerleaders—?he looked mostly for Stella, but his eyes couldn’t pick her out of the line of pompoms and white sweaters with blue piping that marked the girls’ formation. Several of them held their hands to their lips, and then, as if understanding her place in the mourning process was greater than the others’, Stella, T.T.’s girlfriend, stepped forward, a bit showy even in this moment of small tragedy, and Zeb saw tears filling her eyes, while two other girls—?not ones he knew well—?put their arms around her and tried to comfort her. It pained Zeb to admit it, but he could spot the evaluation forming in Stella’s movement, her neediness for attention. T.T. was injured, and Stella had become mourner in chief, the girlfriend whose sadness could give her a first starring role. Sad, noble girlfriend. Tragic girlfriend. Zeb knew she would be aware of the new eyes that found her. That was catnip to Stella. She couldn’t resist it.
“Forget him now!” Coach Hoch half shouted while he was still yards away. “Forget T.T. We all want him to be okay, that’s fine, you can want it to be any which way, but you’re the next man up. You hear me? You’re the next man up! What do we always say? You’re the next man up, that’s what we say.”
It still hadn’t sunk in that he was now to get ready, now to go into the game as T.T.’s replacement.
“I’ll warm him up, Coach,” Hawny said. “I got him.”
“Start throwing,” Coach Hoch said. “There you go. Hawny, good man. You get him limbered up, you hear? Now quit looking at T.T. There’s not a thing in the world you can do for him. No, I take that back. What you can do for him, Zeb, what you can do is step in and finish the game the way it’s supposed to be finished. You hear? Zeb, you tracking with me?”
Zeb nodded, his stomach buzzing with butterflies. He had been in a game only once the entire season, in a mop-up victory over Campton when the score had been so lopsided the game had taken on a festive air for the Rumney team. His role had been meaningless, a mere comic piece of punctuation because the game had been so securely put on ice by T.T. Even this game against Hampton, halfway through the fourth quarter, was iced. By rights, T.T. should have come out before, and he probably would have after the final series, but Zeb knew some of it had been to parade for the college scouts what T.T. could do. It had been showing off, honestly, and Zeb didn’t like thinking it, but he knew his grandmother in Maine would say something about the Lord and pride going before a fall.
Still dazed, he stepped back and grabbed the ball when Hawny underhanded it to him. He tossed it to Hawny, putting some air underneath it. Hawny caught it, tucked it close to his body as receivers were trained to do, and lofted it back.
“Okay, now, nothing fancy,” Coach Hoch said, finding his calmer voice, his sincere voice. Coach Hoch stood next to Zeb, sideways. He was a solid, thick man, with lips turned too wide up and down, a fish with its lips pressed against the side of an aquarium. “We’re golden in this game. We’ll be running the ball and taking it slow. Grind out the clock, that’s all we have to do. We’ll hand the game to our defense . . . that’s it. Not a thing to worry about. What does Coach K say? It’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Isn’t that what he says?”
Zed nodded. That was, indeed, what Coach K said.
For a moment, Zeb concentrated on throwing. He could always throw. In fact, although he was not as explosive as T.T., not nearly as fast or elusive, he sometimes felt that as a thrower, a pure passer measured by that standard alone, he could hold his own with T.T. Zeb lived to throw, whereas T.T. passed merely as a part of his arsenal. For Zeb, passing constituted his only football gift. Even now, lobbing the ball to Hawny and catching it when it came back, Zeb took satisfaction in the motion, in the quiet tick of the laces as they left his right hand. He threw a good, tight spiral. Hawny, on receiving the ball, nodded and tossed the ball back. They had played catch a thousand times, but never quite like this, never with the game open and waiti...