cover

 

 

The Farewell Season

 

By Ann Herrick

 

Digital ISBNs

EPUB 978-1-77362-508-9

Kindle 978-1-77145-327-1

WEB 978-1-77362-509-6

 

Amazon Print 978-1-77362-510-2

 

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Copyright 2014 by Ann Herrick

Cover art by Michelle Lee

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book

 

* * *

 

Dedication

 

In Memory of Daddy, Eddie, and Puff

Chapter One

 

 

I slid the DVD into the player and wondered if I had the nerve to watch.

My finger rested on the remote. Usually, I would have watched this thing fifty times in the past couple of weeks.

“Crap, just do it.” I pressed the play button. Suddenly, there I was, watching myself playing football. It was just last fall, but it seemed like a million years ago. In a way, it kind of was.

I couldn’t believe how skinny I looked. Not that being six-two and one-hundred-eighty pounds is usually considered all that puny, but for an inside linebacker who wants to play college football, it is.

I watched our game against the Agates. We beat them ten-zip. Coach Pickett said our defense was the best he’d seen all season. We overplayed the pass a couple times and got burned on the run once for forty yards, but we hung on and held them scoreless.

I watched myself run around the field and wondered if I could ever get so fired up again. Was that really me charging the running back, about to tackle him and make him fumble the ball?

Then it happened. The ball popped out of the back’s hands, the crowd roared—and I heard it. My father’s voice.

My breath froze in my throat.

I always heard my Dad yell when I made a big play. He’d let out a scream as loud as thunder. But I forgot I’d hear his voice now. I hadn’t heard it in four months.

Not since Dad died.

I coughed to get rid of the icy lump in my throat and hit the pause button.

“Oooh!” My sister, Kirstin, bounced into the room and eyed the still picture. She had to know what I was watching, and why, and the significance of it, but all she said was, “Reliving your glory days, Eric?”

“Just shut up!” I lunged for her as she made a run for it. I almost grabbed her long braid of silvery-blond hair, thick as the climbing rope in P.E., but I tripped over the cat. Before I knew it, Kirstin flew out the door.

Pissed as I was, I wasn’t about to go chasing her down the street.

I zeroed in on Starburst. Suddenly, she was just one more female in a whole houseful that I had to put up with. “Dumb cat! Get outta here.” I swung my foot in her direction. She flew up the stairs.

I let out a long, loud sigh. Why take it out on Starburst? So what if Kirstin was brattier than usual lately? I didn’t have to lose the cool I’d so carefully cultivated over the years. I sat down on the couch and picked up the remote. When I looked at the TV screen I saw myself frozen in mid-air, fist raised over my head in celebration.

I hesitated, then restarted the DVD and watched as I flung myself on top of Jamar Pickett, who’d recovered the fumble I caused. Dad’s voice still mingled with the noise of the crowd. I tried to swallow the cold lump in my throat.

I started getting some interest—not a lot, but some—from college coaches when I was a sophomore. The whole process has been amazing, talking with coaches, getting my film out there, checking out schools I was interested in. Last year tapes, packets, brochures, and other various flattering materials from recruiters started arriving, some addressed to me, some to Mom and Dad. The occasional phone calls were part of the deal, too.

Though I haven’t exactly been highly recruited, I have shown up on some websites and in some rankings. I used to picture it, developing into a great college player and then by some miracle playing in the NFL. Okay, that’s every football player’s fantasy, but, hey, why not dream big once in a while? I thought Dad would be advising me about where to go for official visits once I started my senior year, but now ….

“I finally sold Mrs. Carlson that whale-oil lamp.” Mom trudged in from her antique store built onto the side of our house. Mom’s always been a bit of a worrier, but ever since Dad died she’s been tighter than a guitar string when it comes to profits.

I punched the stop button, ejected the DVD, and carefully placed it in its case. It’s supposed to last forever, but what if it gets scratched or broken? Or it could get lost. Maybe I should make a copy of it.

“I wondered if she’d ever get around to actually buying that lamp!”

“Mmm.” I knew we were okay financially for a while, because Mr. Lindquist had bought out Dad’s half of their insurance agency. I also knew Mom was nervous about the long haul. But, still, it bugged me when she wanted to “talk shop.” She never used to discuss business very much with me, but now that she was obsessed with her profits she told me about every sale in never-ending detail.

“A hundred forty bucks. And about time!” Mom shook her short, dark-gold curls in that anxious, worried way she’d developed lately. “She’s been in at least three times to look at it.”

I stared at the wall, trying to play possum.

Mom plopped down next to me. She took a deep breath, as if she was going to relax a little.

I jumped up and headed for the kitchen.

Mom got up and followed me.

I stuck my head in the refrigerator and focused on the light, hoping she’d go away. She was a real Helicopter Mother, always hovering. There are even home videos of me around one-year old, just after I learned to walk, careening around the back yard. In every shot, there’s Mom, right behind me, hands out, waiting to catch me in case I fell, as if I’d suffer great bodily harm landing on the grass.

“What are you looking for?” Mom ran her hand across my hair. “Can I get you something? Fix you a snack?”

I slammed the refrigerator door and squirmed to get away from her. “No. I’m fine. If I want something, I can get it myself.”

“You sure? I could ….”

“Yes! I’m sure!” I brushed past her. I wanted to evaporate, so she couldn’t keep after me.

I yanked open a cabinet door and found myself staring at a bag of corn chips. I snatched that, and shoved a fistful of the chips in my mouth. I couldn’t explain it, but I just got totally tense around Mom. Especially when she ruffled my hair.

Mom sat down at the kitchen table. She had that intense, probing look in her eyes, the one where it seemed as if she wanted to read my mind. “So … how’s your day been going?”

I felt my skin tighten. “I’m going to my room.”

“Can’t you sit down with me for five minutes and talk about your day?” Mom called after me.

I ran up the stairs. On the way to my room I caught a glimpse of Mom’s room with the door open. Though she didn’t talk about Dad, not his death or our memories of him, it was like a shrine in there. Her own private shrine. Dad’s picture was everywhere. His watch, comb, and loose change were still laid out on his dresser. They’d been college sweethearts, as Mom put it, and had gotten married the week after they graduated.

I quickly turned away and hurried to my room, where I flopped down on the big old brass bed. A brass bed. Cripes, Mom and her antiques even invaded my room. I pushed aside some dirty underwear, and found my CD player. I wanted an iPod, but with money being so tight …. I blasted the music, loud enough so Mom wouldn’t even try to talk to me. All I wanted was to be alone and feel that everything was back to normal.

I stared at the posters I’d tacked up on the walls of the pitched-roof alcove. One was a football poster I’d bought at the university bookstore in Eugene.

The other was a blow-up of one of the cartoons I’d submitted to the school newspaper. It’d sort of slipped past Mr. Remail, the faculty advisor, and caused a mild uproar. Principal Lewis had decided there was “too much display of affection” at school, so she declared a No-Kissing rule.

I’d drawn a cartoon of Mr. Tosh, our Vice-Principal, arresting Ms. Lewis as she more-than-passionately kissed her husband goodbye when he dropped her off in front of the school. Not exactly subversive, but I got a major lecture and a First Warning for it.

Dad laughed when he saw the drawing, and said I could have a good future as a political cartoonist. I thought of my drawing as just a hobby, but it was cool to see Dad beam with pride the way he did. I had to shake off that prickly feeling in the back of my eyes. Thinking about Dad should make me feel good, not bad.

It was probably because being the only guy in the house with two hormonal females totally drove me crazy. Thank God football practice started tomorrow. I’d be with the guys, sharing some laughs, and away from all the estrogen at home. I’d put on the pads, deliver some hits, and then things would be back to normal.

Yeah, it would feel good to bury myself in football.

The phone rang. I didn’t bother to answer it. It was probably for Kirstin. Ever since she hit high school last year, she managed to grab the phone no later than the second ring. She was always yakking with her girlfriends or the love-sick goofs who called just to hear the sound of her voice. She’s been griping for ages about how she isn’t allowed to date until next month, when she turns sixteen. She’s lucky I’m not in charge of her love life. I’d ground her until she was at least twenty-six.

A few minutes later there was a knock at my door. “Eric, it’s for you!” Kirstin shouted.

I turned off the music. “What’s for me?”

“The phone,” she said, as if it should’ve been obvious.

“The phone rang ten minutes ago! I told you not to bug everyone when they call.”

“I wasn’t bugging him. I was talking to him!” Kirstin yelled. “I can talk to a guy if I want to!” I heard her stomp down the hall and slam the door to her room.

I picked up the phone and waited to hear Kirstin hang up. I still couldn’t believe Mom canceled my cell phone to “save money.” I almost growled into the receiver. “Hello.”

“Hey, Eric. Great party last night. You should’ve been there. Great food! I must’ve gained at least five pounds scarfing down all the berlinerkranser cookies Lars Sundstrom stole from his Mom’s stockpile for the Scandinavian Fair.”

I almost laughed as Rolf paused to breathe. Even if I hadn’t recognized his voice, I’d’ have known it was Rolf Horst by the way the torrent of words flowed through the phone.

“Too bad you weren’t there. I know you said you might not make it, but … I mean, I understand … but, well too bad you weren’t there.” All summer Rolf had tried to get me to do stuff, but I just couldn’t.

“Yeah … well.” Partying and being with the guys used to be my favorite thing to do. Not that I really got trashed or anything. Rolf either. He was always too busy fueling his six-foot, six-inch, two-hundred-eighty-pound body to ingest or inhale anything toxic. Ever since that drunk driver wiped out Dad, I’d totally lost interest in partying.

Besides, I hadn’t wanted to run into Hedy Theodore. I changed the subject. “Hey, sorry about Kirstin. I’ve told her a zillion times not to bug my buds. She seems to really be zeroing in on you lately.”

“No problem,” Rolf said. “Kirstin’s okay.” He paused for a millisecond. “Need a ride to practice tomorrow?”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll walk. I need the exercise.” I forced a small laugh. What I really needed was to be alone before I faced all the guys, but I wanted Rolf to think I was just kidding around.

I guess it worked. He laughed his big, strong laugh. “Hey, call me if you change your mind about a ride. And … and take care.”

“Yeah … sure.” I let out a shaky sigh as I hung up. Rolf was not only the kind of guy to actually say “take care” without sounding like a dweeb, he meant it too.

After a while, I got bored hiding out in my room. Besides, the aroma of butter logs, rosettes, and spritz cookies drifted up from the kitchen. During the Scandinavian Fair, business more than quadrupled at Mom’s antique shop, and to keep customers coming back she always baked up a supply of free cookies for the store.

I decided to bug her and Kirstin by grabbing a few. I went downstairs and sauntered into the kitchen. When I was so little that I could barely see over the old drop-leaf table, I still insisted on helping make cookies for the fair. Since high school and summer football practice, however, I’d slacked off on the baking.

Kirstin was up to her elbows in flour and at first so focused on a batch of butter logs that she didn’t notice I was in the room. When she did finally look up and see me, her Nordic blue eyes opened wide. “Eric Nielsen, don’t you dare touch one single cookie!”

“Who me?” I aimed my thumb toward my chest. For a second I stood there smiling innocently. Then I scooped up a half-dozen still-warm butter logs. “I’d never take just one!”

“Hey!” Kirstin snapped a towel at me.

She missed.

As I ran out to the front porch, I heard Mom pull Kirstin back into the kitchen. “Never mind about Eric,” she said. “We’ve got to finish making these cookies.”

I settled onto the porch swing with a warm butter log practically melting on my tongue, feeling smug as I listened to Kirstin’s usual protests about how I always got away with everything. It was music to my ears. I took greater pleasure than ever tormenting her.

I sat and watched cars go by. I liked living in town. It was closer to the action, or what passed for action around Crystal Lake, Oregon. The town had one lake, two covered bridges, lots of historic houses, vast fields, and plenty of fresh air. Just an ordinary small town. What used to be a main state highway ran through it, and it was still a busy road.

I didn’t know how Rolf could stand living out on the edge of town, but growing up in the middle of a garden nursery seemed to be his idea of heaven. His family had been in the seed and nursery business for three generations. Rolf was going to make it four.

It was weird to think my family was down to one generation of males. Me.

I wandered back into the kitchen and found Mom and Kirstin packing cookies into tins. Kirstin saw me eyeing the spritz cookies and slapped a lid on a tin she’d just filled. “You know, Eric, if you’re so interested in these cookies you could’ve, like, helped bake them!”

“Now, Kirstin.” Mom brushed a smudge of flour off her arm. “Eric has done his share of cookie baking over the years. He had to work full time this summer, and preseason football practice starts tomorrow. He doesn’t have time.”

“Oh, stop making excuses for him.” Kirstin stared right through me. “You so always make excuses for Eric.”

“Now, Kirstin ….” Mom sighed.

I gave Kirstin a smug smile, just to bug her, even though I knew she was right. Mom always made excuses for me. But now I was almost eighteen. I didn’t need my mother defending me. Still, anything to annoy Kirstin. I increased the wattage on my mocking smile.

The buzzer sounded, indicating a customer in the antique store. Kirstin waited until Mom went through the kitchen door into the shop, then threw a sponge at me.

“Missed!” I said. “You always were a lousy shot.” I laughed as I ducked out of the kitchen.

I heard Kirstin muttering under her breath, but she didn’t come after me. She was probably figuring out a new place to hide the cookies. Even if they weren’t for the fair, she’d hide them from me. I always accused her of being stingy. She claimed she was generous, but I’d eat them all if she didn’t stash them somewhere.

I thought about trying to watch more of last year’s games. Dad always recorded them all, and I always studied them with him before practices started. I decided to mow the lawn instead.

I’d worked for Pappy Pratt six days a week since school got out. I figured we could use the money, and mowing, raking, and pruning turned out to be a good way to keep in shape. Pappy was a short, wiry, grizzly guy in his late seventies. He could go all day, his lined, leathery face sweltering in the hot sun. At the end of each afternoon he’d clap his hand on my shoulder and say, “Eric, I think we put in a good day’s labor.”

I’d go home, shower, bolt down several bunches of sweet red grapes, eat supper, and zonk out for at least an hour. Most of the time I didn’t even go out, just read or watched a little TV and fell into bed. But I knew Pappy went home, had supper with his wife, and tended to his own few acres of land.

I wondered if I’d be working that hard when I was in my seventies. I wondered if I’d even live to be in my seventies. There was a time when I felt as if I’d live forever. Not anymore.

“C’mon, dammit!” I started the ritual of pulling the starter cord on the mower. Dad had always been the one to mow the lawn. This summer I just sort of took over without being asked. I told myself that this time the mower would start right away, but it always took a couple dozen pulls before it caught. After about the tenth, I stopped to wipe the sweat off my forehead.

I saw Mom peek out of her shop window. She’d mentioned several times how long the grass was. She and Kirstin did about ninety percent of the yard work. They loved puttering around outside. I’d helped plant trees and large shrubs, and I knew the names of most of the plants, but Kirstin was the real expert. She wanted to be a Master Gardener someday. That, or a chef at some famous restaurant. She loved the Home and Garden channel, especially Landscaper’s Challenge, and watched tons of cooking shows too, from Rachel Ray to Wolfgang Puck to Amy Finely.

Even though I could cook and garden, Kirstin was much better at both. Same with the piano. We’d both had lessons, but when it was obvious how good Kirstin was, I quit and zeroed in on sports. I didn’t like to do stuff where Kirstin could outshine me. Athletically, she could walk and chew gum at the same time, but that was about it.

“Start, you stupid piece of junk!” I gave the starter cord another tug. “It’s too hot for this crap!” One more pull and—finally—the mower started. We had almost an acre of land, but fortunately, less than half was grass.

The back yard was a cool oasis that Mom and Kirstin proudly called their shade garden. Under a towering canopy of fir and oak trees they’d planted hardy shrubs, ground cover, and native woodland flowers all pulled together with winding, moss-covered paths. Way in the back was a small man-made—well, Mom-and-Kirstin-made—pond. Filled with lily pads, lotus plants, and goldfish, it was my favorite spot, though of course I’d never tell Kirstin that.

Suddenly, there was a humongous whine, and then the mower stalled. “Shee-it! Now what?” I checked around and found a piece of wire caught in the blades. I grabbed it and gave it a good yank. “Aaaaaah!” I got nothing for my effort but a thin stinging cut. I kicked the mower.

The mower sat there, silent, the wire caught in its blades as tight as ever.

It took me twenty minutes of sweating and swearing to carefully work that wire loose, restart the mower, and finish mowing the lawn. Dripping with sweat, I headed for the bathroom to take a shower. There, standing in the steady stream of heat, enveloped by the steamy mist, I felt removed from myself.

For a few minutes, I just let my mind float. Then I lathered with blue Zest and tried to think about tomorrow’s practice. My thoughts drifted back to my freshman year. I didn’t worry about Life then. I was too worked up trying to get playing time, flying when I got it, soaring when I made the starting lineup.

Back then high school stretched ahead of me like an endless horizon. Now, I had one year left. Where did the time go?

I turned the water to cold, so cold my skin tightened and shriveled. I stood there until I was afraid my nuts would freeze off. Then I stepped out of the shower into the cocoon of steam filling my lungs and fogging the mirror. I felt as if I were invisible, as if my molecules were floating around the room just like the particles of steam.

“Hey, Eric!” Kirstin pounded on the door. “Quit hogging the bathroom!”

My mind snapped back into my head with a clank. Nothing like a sister to bring you back to mundane reality. I wrapped a towel around my waist, opened the door, and, on my way out, flicked water in Kirstin’s face. “It’s all yours.”

Kirstin stormed in and slammed the door behind her.

“You don’t have to get so steamed up about it,” I said, enjoying my own pun. I still had that old ability to torment Kirstin.

At least some things never changed.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

The next morning I woke up after having the same kind of fitful, dreamless sleep I’d had for the past four months. It was just barely light out. Too early to get up, too late to try to go back to sleep. I stared at the ceiling.

Although all I moved were my eyelids, Starburst knew instantly that I was awake. She trotted up my legs and onto my stomach. I’d thrown back the covers during the night, so her claws dug in as she peddled on my stomach.

“Ouch! Cut it out!” I swatted Starburst’s paws.

Undeterred, Starburst strolled across my chest and started licking my chin. Those warm, wet scrapes were just about the only physical contact I’d had with anyone since I broke up with Hedy Theodore. For a couple of seconds, I let Starburst get away with it.

Then I sat up, and Starburst rolled down my chest and onto the bed. “Pest.” I scratched her chin before opening the window. “Out ya go.”

With a quick meow, Starburst jumped onto the roof of the porch and started her morning ritual of managing her fur. Sometimes I envied her. What a life. Sleep, groom, eat, stare at a bug, chase a butterfly. Repeat. Not a care in the world.

Suddenly, my alarm went off. I jumped like a puppet on a string. I whacked the alarm button. Why did I even bother setting it? I wondered. I always woke up before it went off.

Then I remembered. It was the first day of practice. As I pulled on my green shorts and T-shirt it dawned on me that I wasn’t feeling the usual early breeze. The air was still, and there was no morning chill. Heat waves were rare in this part of Oregon, but when they did come it always seemed to be during two-a-days. It was the middle of August, three weeks before school started, a time to get back into a football mindset without the distraction of classes.

Maybe the weather was why I didn’t have that fever pitch of excitement I’d always felt on the first day of practice. Maybe after I got to school the rush would come over me. Meanwhile, maybe some food would help.

I caught a whiff of blueberry kakar. That lured me down to the kitchen where Mom was keeping vigil over her sour-cream biscuits. Except for the periodic cookie sprees and the occasional use of a few family recipes, Mom didn’t really like to cook. The blueberry kakar was something she did for special breakfasts, such as the first day of football practice.

“Smells good,” I said, only half looking at Mom.

She flashed me a big smile—too big—and said, “I’ve got to run off to an estate sale in Eugene in fifteen minutes. But I wouldn’t miss making your traditional blueberry kakar.”

I swallowed hard. Memories crashed down on me. Mom making kakar while Dad ran around the kitchen brewing coffee, pouring juice, making his always-optimistic predictions for the new football season. Sometimes, he seemed to get even more excited about it than I did, and I got pretty excited. At least I used to.

At that moment Kirstin strolled into the kitchen wearing a shorts-and-halter outfit I’d never seen before. I let out a low whistle. “Fire-engine red. Who’re you trying to impress, Kirstin? The goldfish?”

Kirstin stuck her tongue out at me.

“Oooh. A vicious retort.”

Kirstin ignored me.