In the sixteen (eighteen if you count Yearbook Club) years I've been a reporter, I've developed instincts for a story. You pick out the key part of it, the pitch, first. In this case: recently out gay football player's struggle to make peace with his family. Then you build out the story with the details that make it unique. You include the boyfriend, and the adorably stupid things he does to try to help. The boyfriend's family, which might maybe explain the adorably stupid things. The way the stupid things turn out, which is perhaps not such a surprise when you figure that all the people involved are supposed to love each other. And then finally you get to some conclusion, which ideally will leave the reader with a good feeling. The guy's family comes to accept him, everyone's happy. They don't come to accept him, but he's got his boyfriend and he's okay. The mom accepts him but the dad doesn't; there's hope. Something like that. Doesn't matter what happens later as long as it feels like the end of a movie.
So I've got all that down. I've got everything I need for this story. Except the most important part: the heart. Why do the people involved do all this? I could just say "love" and be done with it, and honestly that'd probably be good for most of the people who will read this. But it wouldn't be good enough for me, because I've been married. I know what you'll do for love, and what you won't.
I've taken lots of notes on the plane ride from North Hicksville to Hellentown, and I'm sitting with the boyfriend and his father (boyfriend's father, not the player's) in the owner's box at Yonder Field (It's technically called Blue Yonder Field for Blue Yonder airlines, but all the reporters love to stand outside and say "let's take in a game at Yonder Field." Reporters are weird.). The owner, Demitrios Ponaxos, is up front with a bunch of his family and business associates, lots of cougars with some weasels and a mouse mixed in, and he let us in at the request of the visiting team's owner, on condition that we stay in back and "don't root too loud."
As the teams come out onto the field, they all cheer, and we three foxes keep our cheering muted. Lee, the boyfriend, and Brenly, the dad, are red foxes. Me, I'm a swift fox. More subtle in a lot of ways, not that the reds would see that as a plus. But anyway, they're watching Devlin Miski, the Siberian tiger who's sleeping with young Lee--
Shit, that sounds bad. He's not a teenager or anything. He's like twenty-four, I think. Miski's twenty-four and they were in the same class. But at any rate, they're watching Devlin and the Chevali Firebirds take on the Hellentown Pilots. Big game. The UFL South might as well be a two-team division, and these are the two teams, coming in tied. It's only mid-season, but bragging rights and tiebreakers are at stake here.
So everyone in the box is watching warmups, and I'm kind of half-listening while I try to work my notes into a story. Like I said, I've got all the elements, and I can write this thing and sell it, no problem, but that damn heart is still bothering me.
I didn't realize I was missing anything until I was asking Lee why he went all the way up to North Bumfuck to confront his boyfriend's father, and his ears went splayed and his eyes got this kind of gleam in them and he said, "I had to."
So now I'm sneaking a glance at Lee, in his too-big Firebirds polo shirt that he changed into on the jet--the owner, Corcoran, keeps a small stack of 'em for, I guess, occasions like when one of his passengers might've spent the night in jail in a torn shirt and not had time to change. Even with the baggy shirt, which hides most of his waist, Lee's visibly in good shape, better than either me or his dad. He's probably the one with the least reason to be excited about being in an owner's box--as a recently fired pro scout, he's been on the sidelines of games more times than I have, and more times, I think, than his father's been to any games, period. But he's still on his feet, craning his neck to look down at the field, and when he spots his tiger, his tail goes thwack back and forth and he gets this huge grin on his muzzle and he nudges his father. "There he is, number 57."
"I know his number." His father's tail is wagging too, sympathetically, and he sounds amused.
So that's the thing, right? I've interviewed gay athletes before. Talked about relationships with a lacrosse player who'd had one and a basketball player who'd had a dozen, by his count. And at the time, I thought about their relationships the way I thought about mine: physical attraction supplemented just enough with mutual tolerability.
I don't get the physical attraction part, but I don't expect to. Not how I was born. I look at Lee and I think, good-looking guy. I don't picture him naked, I don't want to picture him naked. He reminds me a bit of Cimarine, but then I just picture her naked (one of the memories of her I've worked to keep), and that's it.
But the way he's acting, it's like those teenage crushes they write songs about. And I realize I never thought about gay guys having that. Hell, I never really thought most guys had that. Thought it was a girl thing, mostly. Certainly Miski didn't seem quite that affectionate, but maybe he's just restrained, maybe he was just nervous about the game.
So it nags at me. To really get across their relationship in this article, I feel like I need to understand that. When Lee talks about his boyfriend to his father, I listen.
"They're almost a top ten defense this year. He's not the biggest playmaker, but he's really making a difference."
This gets one of the weasels to turn around. He sizes up Lee's Firebirds shirt and sneers. "Sure, when you play bottom-ten offenses, it's easy to run up the stats."
"You guys think you're a top ten offense?" Lee jibes back.
"Ninth in passing yards, eighth in passing touchdowns."
"Sixteenth in rushing."
The weasel waves a paw. "You guys can't stop the run anyway."
"We held Bixon under a hundred yards. Only time anyone's done that all year."
"We'll take care of him, no problem."
Lee laughs. "Good luck. He's brutal. You guys need a better inside presence if you're going to have any chance."
I just grin. Football is always like this. The two teams rack up their statistics, they have good days and bad days against other teams, but until they get onto the same field, you never know how it's going to turn out. That's why they play the games, like we say in the "Cliché Tribune."
"Inside presence." The weasel's smugness flickers. "We got a lot of inside presence."
"Sure." Lee grins at his father. "Who're your starting defensive tackles?"
"Bowman," the weasel says. "And LeClair."
"Bowman," Lee says. "Second year. Drafted too high, starting because you have a lot of money tied up in him, not because he has starting talent. You're probably already talking to teams about where you could get anything back for him in the off-season. I'd try Pelagia, personally. And LeClair's okay, but he's on his ninth season and he's had four concussions. He's lost a step."
I know the stare and false bravado the weasel gets now, the feeling when someone realizes he's overmatched, that the game isn't turning out the way he'd predicted from the stats going in. "We won the division last year."
"You won a shitty division last year." Lee grins.
"We're leading it again."
"Tied. For another..." Lee checks his watch. "Hundred and ninety-one minutes. Give or take."
"Want to put a wager on that?" The weasel reaches for his wallet inside his suit jacket.
"Ah, you got me there." Lee spreads his paws. "Just got out of jail this morning. I'm broke."
He looks our way while the weasel tries not to look shocked, but his father doesn't make a move toward his wallet. What the hell, I think. I pull out a twenty, reach out and hand it to him. "Here," I say. "I owe ya. For that thing that time."
He flashes me a grin. "Sure," he says, taking the bill and holding it out to the weasel. "There. Twenty?"
The weasel looks at it like he ordered filet mignon and Lee handed him a hamburger. "Lemme see if I have anything that small," he says, and eventually fishes a twenty out of his billfold. "Hardly worth it," he mutters.
They put the twenties together up on the edge of the counter by the small sink in the back of the box. The weasel goes back to his seat to brag to his friends about how he took down that uppity Firebirds fan, with a jerk of his thumb and a sharp laugh.
Lee just sits back and stares down at the field. After we stand for the national anthem, he sidles down the side of the box, trying to get a better view of the field and the starters. This is part of it, I think, part of what holds him and his tiger together. But it's still eluding me.
I take the chance to plop myself down next to his father. Brenly's in his mid-forties, if I judge the slight grey on his muzzle and ears right. "Good kid you got there," I say.
His look is suspicious at first, but he wipes that away with a smile. "Yeah, he is. Don't know how much credit I can take for that."
"At least some."
"You have kids?"
I shake my head. "Cim always wanted to wait 'til we were stable. She's got a cub now."
"Nah, it's okay." I wave it off. "Not sure what I'd do with one anyway."
He laughs. "That's what I thought. You figure it out."
"Has he always been..." I gesture toward Lee, ears perked down even though the glass is so thick even us foxes can't hear through it.
Brenly raises his eyebrows, and twitches his ears toward me. "Interested in football? Gay?"
"Sure, either of those." I watch Lee's total absorption, one paw on the glass, his tail flicking back and forth.
"I got him into football early on. I used to watch with my father, and I thought it would be something he could enjoy that would give him something to talk to the other boys in school about."
"One of those kids."
Brenly nods. "He took to it pretty quickly."
"He's a smart kid."
"Yeah." There's pride in that one word, so I guess Brenly takes a bit of credit for his cub. "As for the other thing...I didn't introduce him to that."
I laugh. "That's good. This'd be a very different kind of story, then."
He smiles. "No, he just...he came back from college and he was very...flamboyant." He taps his muzzle. "No, that's not the right word. He was just...open. Wore pink triangles all over, dressed a little more flashily. But he didn't lisp or anything like that."
"Most gay people don't."
There's a short silence while we try to gauge which one of us won the "see, I'm not homophobic" battle. I think he has an edge on account of he's here with his gay son. "So you don't know what triggered it?"
"Never talked to him about it." Brenly flicks his ears toward Lee, then back to me. "I suppose you just know, don't you?"
"I don't," I say. "But that's how I understand it. They were really sweet on the plane, weren't they?"
A flicker of a smile, a short nod. He waits until he realizes that I'm expecting him to say something, either in agreement or disagreement or just acknowledgment. So he says, "I'm glad to see him happy."
"Is he a happy kind of guy?" I flick my own ears toward Lee, at the glass. He's keeping still, but...I guess "quivering" is the right word. Tail twitching, ears flicking, barely restraining himself from jumping up and down. "In general, I mean."
Brenly follows my gaze and watches his son thoughtfully. "I don't know that I would say that. He was angry a lot of the time. But, well." He taps the armrest between us. "He's a fox. He turned that anger into action and he has ways of getting what he wants."
"Now that he knows what he wants."
On the TVs around the box, we see the coin flip. Hellentown wins, and Lee cheers with the rest of the box. "We get the ball first," one of the cougars says, and of course Lee's happy. His tiger will be on the field first with the defense. Brenly and I stand to get a better view of the first few plays rather than watching the screen.
I admit I haven't been keeping up with the whole league like I did when I was full-time. But the Pilots haven't changed much. Still got a top-five QB, a lion who can create plays when he needs to. Still got an effective running game, splitting time between a power back and a finesse back (elk and deer). And they've got a new tight end, a young rabbit, first time I've seen a rabbit play that position.
The Firebirds' defense has stepped it up this season, though. I'm not ready to give Miski all the credit for it, whether or not he is the main difference between this year and last. The rookies on the D-line miss their assignments sometimes, but they make up for it with energy and enthusiasm, and if you ask any coach in the league, they'll say they'd rather have that problem.
Not to downplay what Miski's done. Since replacing Mitchell after that leg injury, he's really grown into the starting linebacker role, to the point that some people say he's one of the better outside linebackers in the league. Others want to wait and see. Pretty much everyone agrees that if he keeps up this level of play all year, he's going to have some big contract negotiating to do in the off-season.
I watch him on the first two plays, where the Pilots try to establish the run; he joins the Firebirds' star linebacker Gerrard Marvell in the pile that limits the running backs to two and three yards. Third down, the lion drops back to throw and lofts the ball halfway down the field. The Firebirds' corner swats the ball away from the receiver, and the Pilots punt.
Chevali's quarterback--Aston, the wolf--is not top-five. But he doesn't turn the ball over a lot and he's got a good arm. He's not accurate, but his misses are usually low or out of bounds, not the kind of misses that turn into picks. The wolverine at running back gets compared unfairly to Gateway's wolverine (Bixon, the one Lee was talking about), which is kind of like comparing me to the star of that new vampire movie because we're both swift foxes. But Jaws is better than average, and when you factor in his durability, he's probably top-five in the league. Maybe number six, depending on if you count Yerba's tandem as one.
Aston marches them down the field and then the drive stalls. But they punt with good field position and pin the Pilots back inside their ten, and it's on that series that Miski gets to make a play.
It's second and four, and the quarterback zips the ball to the tight end. The rabbit grabs it cleanly and turns to run upfield--
--and Miski is right there, wraps him up and drives him down to the ground. There's a hiss from near the front; I look up and see Lee at the end of a fist-pump, and realize that the hiss was the end of him saying "Yes!"
He catches my eye and grins, and I can't help but grin back. His eyes sparkle and he walks over. "If you want to make another easy twenty," he says in a fox-whisper, "go lay some more money on the Firebirds. We're gonna win."
And I remember the fierceness with which the tiger said good-bye to Lee, the hug, the touch of the muzzles that was more intimate than a kiss. I heard Lee tell him, "Win that game," and Miski's determined smile in return.
"Thanks," I think about the two twenties left in my wallet. Wouldn't mind leaving here with four. And hey, I've still got eighteen bucks if I lose the bet.
So I walk up behind that weasel and I say, "Hey, if twenty's not rich enough, you want to lay another forty on your losing team down there?"
He bristles and then laughs, puffing himself up for the guys around him who look his way. "Hate to take your money," he says. "Looks like you need it."
"Hey," I say, standing up, "I don't blame you. I wouldn't put a dime on those bums. They can't do shit."
"They're feeling each other out," he says.
"Whatever." I start to back away.
He bites. "I didn't say I wouldn't take your money. Just said I hate to." He fishes around in his billfold and takes out two twenties, hands them out to me.
The owner turns around as I'm getting my own wallet out. "Boys, no betting in my box, right?"
The weasel's already shoved his bills in his pocket. I do the same. We look at each other, and then he sticks out his paw. I shake it. "Pleasure doing business," he says, and goes back to his friends. They all laugh and look at me over their shoulder. I smile amiably and sit back next to Brenly, following the game on the screen.
Whether it's Miski or just the whole improved defense, the Firebirds are letting nothing through. They get the ball with good field position on their first three drives; on the third, Coach Samuelson realizes that the Pilots don't have a great run defense and calls five rushing plays in a row. On the fifth, Jaws breaks through the line and makes it down to the four. Two plays later, he walks pretty much untouched into the end zone.
Lee pumps his fist again. Brenly and I fistbump. Quietly, of course. The weasel doesn't look too worried about his money.
I figure Lee will sit down now, but he stays next to the glass, staring down. During a commercial for Cialis, I talk to Brenly again. The couple times I mentioned his wife on the trip down, he got pretty tense. I don't know if Lee noticed, but I did. So I'm thinking that Lee didn't learn about healthy, happy relationships from his folks. But I'm also curious, because Brenly seems like a pretty good guy. So I say, "Lee's lucky to have supportive parents."
The tension comes back, just for a moment. He forces himself to relax and says, "We do what we can."
"Flying to Hellentown on a moment's notice is pretty supportive. Your wife doesn't mind you being gone? I know when I went on trips, Cim had to know where I would be, when I'd be there, when I'd be back." I laugh. "She used to call me to make sure I was on schedule. I told her, 'Nobody worth cheating on you with would look twice at me.' But she had that bug in her head."
Brenly doesn't laugh with me. "Eileen's fine with me traveling. She just wants to know whether she can go out to dinner or if she's staying home."
"That's great, that kind of trust." Maybe I'm laying it on a little thick. "See, I never really had that. I can see where Lee gets his ideas of a relationship from."
Brenly watches his son, rubbing his chin with his paw. But the game's back on by then and the Pilots are driving, so the box gets a little loud and we get distracted and he never does respond.
Hellentown gets close enough for a field goal, after two incomplete passes. "Hey," I say, loudly enough for the weasel to hear, "you guys really miss that cheetah at wideout, huh?"
"Fuck that guy," the weasel mutters.
I grin and sit back. Brenly raises an eyebrow. "You just like to rile people," he says in what is almost a fox-whisper, soft enough for only sensitive ears to catch.
"I'm a reporter," I say. "You get the truth when people are upset and don't have time to think."
He leans back. "You picked the right topic. I'm glad that guy didn't play for the Dragons."
"Strike? He's on the Devils now. Almost as bad."
Brenly shakes his head. "Nothing's as bad."
I chuckle and wave down to the field. "C'mon," I say. "If you'd told me last season that the Firebirds would be playing for the division lead a week before Thanksgiving, I'd have told you to take your Prozac and call me in the morning. A club can turn around just like that."
Brenly smiles and looks up at the screen. The Firebirds are on defense again. "We had Miski," he says, and then, changing the subject, "They play the Devils next week."
"Yeah, but Miski won't have to cover Strike. They'll put one of the corners on him."
"Wonder what color he'll dye his fur for that game. What is it this week?"
"Dunno, I haven't seen."
The weasel cranes his head back. "Silver," he says.
"Aw, that's what it was last week," I say. "He's getting stale."
"Not scoring as much, either," one of the weasel's friends says, laughing. "Serves him right. Hope he's throwing lots of boat parties up there in last place."
"That whole club's a mess." The weasel isn't too upset about that, and can't say as I am either. Devils fans are insufferable when they win, about as bad as the baseball fans up there when the Demons win, which thank God they haven't for almost a decade now.
"Yeah, but--" My commentary that Strike isn't helping by loudly pointing out the club's problems in the media is interrupted by a yelp from Lee and a smack as his paw pads hit the glass. A moment later, one of the cougars yells, "Get him! No! God damn it!"
I snap my attention to the screen, where a tiger in Firebirds red and gold-trimmed white shirt is falling to the ground amid a pile of bodies in brown and gold. When you've seen more than a half-dozen football games, you recognize the signs of a fumble or interception, and in this case, watching Lee's tail sweep from side to side, his body bounce on his feet, I don't have to ask who made the play.
Brenly and I watch the offense take advantage of the turnover. On the first play, Aston fires a pass to the corner of the end zone. It sails inches past the paws of Ford, the fox who wears number 81.
"Nice throw," Brenly says.
"Okay throw." I shrug. "They should've run it."
On the next play, they do, and they make me look smart when Jaws bulls through the Pilots defense for twenty-three yards. They stall him at the five, but on second down, the tight end runs a nice crossing pattern to the back of the end zone, and Aston finds him for an easy six. They get aggressive on the extra point, tipping it just enough to knock it to the side, and it stays 13-3.
Hellentown adds another field goal before the half, but the owner's box is quiet all through halftime. The owner and his family leave, probably off to some place with nicer food or to meet up with friends. The weasel and his friends stick together, and Lee finally comes back from the glass to sit with his dad and me.
"It's going great." His tail is still wagging, and he can barely sit still. His eyes--and keep in mind, I'm straight--sparkle. I feel the need to play devil's advocate.
"Coach Morales is great at halftime adjustments."
He waves that off. "Dev's hitting all his assignments. Gerrard's playing like his tail's on fire. Carson's got two sacks. And the line is holding up great. We might end up giving up a passing score, but I'd bet they end with sixteen, and we'll definitely get at least one more field goal." He pumps his fist. "Seven and three, all alone on top of the division."
I have to laugh. "You're so young. You still don't believe anything can go wrong."
He holds up his left paw, the one that was in a cast until a few days ago. "Don't I?"
His father shakes his head. "Just don't go down to the sidelines and insult the Pilots. Or stay up here and insult the owner, for that matter."
Lee scoffs, without losing his wide grin. "I'd put money on them not going over...well, let's say twenty to be safe. You want to bet?"
He asks me, not his dad. I shake my head. "One of the first things they teach you in journalism is never wager with the people you're writing about. Because they probably know more than you, or else you wouldn't be writing about them."
Not strictly true; the first thing they taught you in journalism school was "always double-check the things you write." They didn't really cover betting. But it sounds good, and anyway, I would never bet against this kid where football is concerned. I know he won't be right all the time, but he lives the game as much as you can without playing it.
He grins at me and then turns to his father. "Are you staying for dinner? Can you?"
Brenly looks my way. "I haven't figured out how I'm getting back yet. But I'll stay for a while if I can."
Lee's grin just gets wider. "Did you think when you woke up yesterday that you'd be in the owner's box in Hellentown?"
His father flicks his ears around. "When I woke up yesterday, there were a whole lot of things I wasn't thinking."
Because I'm watching Lee, I see the twitch of his whiskers, but he keeps the smile. "Glad I could help broaden your horizons."
I excuse myself to find a bathroom and leave the two of them to their conversation and go out into the hall. After finding the restroom, I slouch against the wall nearby and call up the Firebirds' owner, Corcoran. Yeah, I have his number in my phone. I never get rid of a number, because, well, you never know.
It goes to voicemail, of course; he probably doesn't recognize my number, and he's watching the game with family. So I just say, "Hi, John, it's Hal. Just wanted to let you know that your rising star tiger is doing great, which you know," stupid, of course he knows that, "and his boyfriend and father are here with me in Hellentown watching the game. Thanks for calling Ponaxos and getting us into his box, by the way. The reason I called is I almost got this story ready on Miski and just wanted to know if I can mention that you flew the boyfriend and father to this game. Thanks."
No matter how well you plan out what you're going to say, you always end up going off on some stupid tangent. At least, I do. The offer I made to Corky isn't ethical by any means I stare at my phone and then put it back in my pocket. Lee and Brenly can use a couple more minutes alone to chat, so I wander around the hallway. Nice soft carpeting in the Pilots brown and gold colors, abstract triangle patterns that catch my eyes, losing me in the pattern for a moment. A gold stripe runs along the white walls, with the Pilots logo every couple yards or so. The whole corridor smells of cougar, with a flair of sterilizer, as though it was brushed casually but isn't so important in this part of the stadium as it is down where thousands of people walk around every week. That's what it means to be rich: you don't have to clean up after yourself.
I think about that for a while, about all those kids down on the field, most of them making more in a year than I made in the last ten. But when you cover sports, you can't dwell on that because it'll get into everything you do, everything you write. You'll find bitterness tinging your articles about athletes' lives, you'll snap when talking to them. It's just a bad idea.
My phone rings. I pull it up and it's Corcoran. Well, I'll be.
Over voices and party noise in the background, he tells me he appreciates the thought, but he doesn't want people to think he traded the use of his private jet for control of the story. Which is what I knew he'd do, but I had to ask. I thank him and let him go. Nice, I think, putting the phone away. Made time for a two-bit reporter and a player's extended family. But Corky's always been like that, even as he was building up his empire of furniture stores: family first. He grew up poor and never believes he has enough to provide for his kids: that's what drives him.
And those kids down there are pushed by something too. It's easy to dismiss them, to say that they were just born with speed, with strength, with hand-eye coordination, but the country's full of people as strong as these kids, as fast as these kids, who flame out of sports if they ever pick it up. The country's full of businessfolk who started in the same or better circumstances as Ponaxos in there, who never made enough to buy this box, let alone a football team.
I pace up and down outside the corridor, thinking back to something Cim used to say, about how I wasn't gonna go anywhere because I didn't have that fire in me. I told her I didn't need her making excuses for me, but maybe it isn't about that; maybe it was never about that. Maybe she was right. I said it was ethics holding me back; she said it was lack of passion. She cited other cases of lack of passion too.
The crowd roars, and the door of the owner's box opens again. Brenly pokes his narrow red muzzle out, scans the corridor until he finds me. "Hal," he says. "Coming?"
"Yeah." I scuff at the carpet and join them back in the box.
Lee's already back up at the glass. The third quarter gets under way with the Firebirds on a good offensive drive. The box stays quiet as they get into the red zone, and then Aston tosses a screen pass to the cheetah wideout, Zaïd, number 83. He turns upfield and is drilled by one of the safeties, a grey fox, immediately.
And the ball comes loose. Hellentown recovers.
The box goes nuts. The weasel and his friends jump around, the owner's family are standing, pumping their fists. Lee stands dejected by the window. Hell, I'm not feeling too good myself.
It gets worse on the first play from scrimmage. Everybody knows the offense goes for a big play after a turnover. But how the hell do you guard against that? The Pilots QB drops back and launches a ball fifty yards out of his own end zone. It drops perfectly into the arms of a mule deer two steps ahead of the fox in the Firebirds uniform, and there's nobody else between him and the end zone. It's tied, and now most of the box is standing and cheering, high-fiving.
I know that feeling, though can't say as I've ever felt it at a football game. It's the feeling of the favorite, in the middle of what looks like an upset, as order appears to be restored. It's the windstorm dying down and the rattling of the barn door quieting down, the car coming off the patch of ice, out of the skid. It's the feeling of regaining control, even if you never had it to begin with.
And we lifelong Firebirds fans, we never had any kind of control. Our feeling is more the feeling you get after four matches when the fifth and sixth lottery numbers come up wrong, the feeling when the bank error isn't really in your favor, the feeling when the guy who jumped you to the front of the line at the DMV says he made a mistake. It's the feeling of the natural order reasserting itself and you finding yourself back where you belong: on bottom.
I don't say anything, of course, but a look at Brenly confirms that he's got that same feeling. Dragons fans this last decade, yeah, we're partners in misery. At least they've got the glory days of the fifties and seventies to look back on. The Firebirds have been to the playoffs exactly four times since I've been a fan, only once to the championship. They got trounced by the Devils, 48-12.
But Lee, Lee doesn't leave the glass. He turns around when the weasel says to one of his friends, "Been a while since I bet less'n a hundred on a game, but you know, I don't mind winning pizza money, too."
And Lee just grins at him, a long fox grin, and he says, "Did you lose when you bet more than a hundred, too?"
The weasel kinda scoffs, but you can tell he doesn't know what to do with that. Lee's the one who should be cringing, who should be dreading the next twenty-five minutes of game time, and instead this young fox is acting like his team's favored by ten. So the weasel just turns to his friends and says, kinda loud, "Twenty-three or twenty-two to sixteen, that's what we're looking at."
"You want to add a bit to that sixty?" Lee asks, low so Ponaxos doesn't hear.
The weasel has to look at him then, because all his friends do. He laughs and turns to his friends. "You believe this guy? Nah, I don't want to take your bail money," he says.
"You wouldn't be." Brenly fishes in his pocket. He pulls out his wallet and hands two twenties to the weasel.
Lee lights up. Well, he was already pretty lit up, but his smile gets wider and his tail thwacks the wall below the window.
The weasel just shakes his head. Then one of his friends says, "I'll take that bet," and the weasel says, "Hang on, hang on, he asked me."
He glances at the front of the box, waves Brenly's money back, and they settle the bet with a shake of the paws just as the crowd cheers: Aston's thrown incomplete on third and five, and the Firebirds have to punt.
But Hellentown, even though they stage a pretty five-minute drive, stall at midfield when Marvell charges through the line and drops the running back (the elk) for a loss on third down. They punt with three minutes left in the quarter and the Firebirds take over again from deep in their own territory.
Jaws runs it forward on the first couple plays for about six, and on third and four, Aston drops back to throw. He tosses it to the cheetah again, but the cheetah fumbles it into the air, directly into the waiting paws of a Pilot cornerback, a rangy coyote who speeds twenty yards down the sideline, dodges Aston's game attempt to tackle him, and dances into the end zone. Nineteen-thirteen, Pilots, and this time, it's the Firebirds getting a good jump to keep the extra point out of the uprights. Still only down six.
"How you like your boys now?" the weasel cackles, his friends joining in. Ponaxos and his family, more restrained, still slap paws and relax, their ropy tails unclenching to relax behind them. All I can see is the black and white tips, suddenly gliding back and forth under the chairs where they'd been tight and immobile for most of the rest of the game.
Lee's got one paw on the glass, and both eyes on the field. His tail's wagging still, and a moment later, when the weasels have forgotten about the offhand comment that wasn't really a question, Lee says, "I love 'em."
Or maybe he says, "I love 'im." Hard to tell, even for a big-eared fox.
The weasels kind of stop, and the betting weasel says, "Live and die with the team, huh?" He raises his beer. "Good on ya."
Lee nods, a tight, focused nod. Everyone quiets down as the game goes on.
The Firebirds take it down the field, get some good field position, but have to punt. Hellentown has it back at the end of the quarter, and the score stays 19-13.
"Dragons always do that too," Brenly says. "Get up on a team and then give it back in the third. Like they don't believe they deserve it."
"Yeah," I watch the TV. Fourth quarter coming up. Time for the Firebirds to struggle to get a field goal, get within three, and fall short. Time for the miracle season to start its slow, inevitable descent back to earth. Once you've seen the movie a few times, it gets predictable.
Lee slaps the glass in frustration. I watch the young, passionate fox stare down through glass. And I think, talk about predictable movies. His tiger's about to hit it big, hit it huge. Whatever happens with the Firebirds, Devlin Miski is going to be in demand, and at the end of this season he's gonna have good teams sniffing around him. He's gonna sign a good mid-level contract, something like four or five years at, say five mil a year. Maybe seven if the linebacker market is thin. And he won't need the trouble this boyfriend is going to cause him.
Hell, any boyfriend would be trouble, just because of the gay thing. I noticed Miski isn't exactly embracing it. But Lee, smart kid, great kid, is double the trouble because he's outspoken, he's--not flamboyant. Like Brenly said, that has the wrong connotation. He's impossible to ignore. And that just doesn't fly, not in the football world.
That makes me sad to think about, which I don't expect. So I shove the thought away and I watch the game, which I think is just going to make me more sad. But sometimes, sometimes, the natural order laughs at you.
Hellentown's running back, the deer this time, fumbles on the drive. Marvell is there to pick it up, and somehow Miski is too. The coyote ends up with it, but Miski was instrumental in keeping the Pilots from getting it back, even though it was nowhere near his coverage assignment. Good play, good player. The box groans; Lee pumps his fist but keeps quiet.
The Firebirds, like the Pilots before them, go for the long bomb on the first play after the turnover, but with less success. Ford, the fox, can't quite catch up to Aston's throw, and they hand it to Jaws to get them a first down. They march down the field, eating clock, and get down to the twelve with six minutes left. From there, they eat up three and a half minutes with seven straight running plays, the last one a sweep right that leads Jaws right to the corner of the end zone. He skips across and plunges the stadium into dead silence as the scoreboard rolls up to 19-19.
The Pilots line up pretty determined for the extra point, but Charm is a terrific kicker and he's ready for them this time. He boots it almost straight up, over even the tallest defender. It comes down into the net on the other side of the uprights and we're ahead.
Nobody in the box is making a sound now. The Pilots start on their twenty with just under two and a half to go, and the Firebirds defense is jumping around, excited. Marvell yaps at them, calming them down, and it's the Pilots who jump. False start, five yards back.
They're just throwing, throwing, throwing now, that lion in command of the offense, and Miski's assignment is the slot receiver, a fox. They throw to him once for four yards, and Miski's got his arms around him, driving him down before he can gain any more.
"Wonder if Lee's jealous," I murmur to Brenly in a fox-whisper, just because there's nobody else to say it to.
He snorts. He's trying to act casual, but his foot taps and his tail twitches and he doesn't look away from the TV. None of us do.
The Pilots get to the twenty-eight by the two-minute warning. They probably need to get thirty-two more yards to be in field goal range. We spend the two-minute warning silent (us foxes), murmuring quietly (the cougars), or talking loudly about how much we love claw-chewing finishes (the weasel and friends). Lee stays out there by the glass, opting not to come back and talk with us, as though worried someone will steal his spot.
The Pilots hit short throws, short throws. The fox is targeted twice more, and once Miski knocks the pass away; once the fox catches it and Miski drops him right away. Great coverage. Can't ask for more outta the guy.
The only big play they get is an end-around to the rabbit tight end, a risky play with the clock winding down, because if he's tackled on the field, time keeps slipping away. But it catches the Firebirds off guard, and the rabbit skips past the sidelines at the Firebirds' thirty-nine. The crowd goes berserk, most of them on their feet now.
The Pilots are right at the edge of their field goal range. They try a run on second down and get stuffed. The crowd doesn't care. They're yelling at them to go for it. In the box, the cheers are quieter, and mixed between "we're in range" and "a few more yards to be sure."
On third, Marvell leans in to Miski as the offense is setting up and yells something. Miski listens, nods, sets. The linebackers and safeties get into their set, and when the ball is snapped, that fox receiver comes across again. And this time, Miski lets him go. The big tiger charges straight through the line.
The Pilots got so used to him covering the fox that this catches them off guard. Their quarterback is good, though; he realizes right away that this means the fox is uncovered and cocks to throw in that direction.
And Marvell is right there, pacing the fox stride for stride. The quarterback hesitates, moves to his second read, and then he has to dodge out of the way of Miski to avoid being sacked.
He doesn't quite make it.
The crowd goes as still as their quarterback, and then, like him, they get up again, cheering their team on as they line up for fourth down. There's no question of a field goal now; they need to get a first down. The quarterback lines up in the shotgun, takes the snap, drops back to pass. And the Firebirds are blanketing all his receivers, all of them. Miski sticks to the fox like glue. The corners and safeties jostle with the wideouts. And here comes the leopard, Carson Omba, the other outside linebacker, escaping his blocker and charging the quarterback.
Gamely, the lion tucks the ball down and tries to run, but he has nowhere to go. He runs into his own line and the leopard grabs him and he falls and he's on the forty-four of Chevali and it's Firebirds ball and that's it, that's the ballgame. The Pilots don't have enough timeouts to stop Aston from kneeling and running out the clock, and the final score stays up there on the scoreboard no matter how much we rub our eyes: 20-19. Firebirds win.
I can't believe it. This kind of thing just doesn't happen.
Lee runs past me, out of the box. I get up just as the door swings shut behind him, but I resist the urge to follow him. Instead, I just put my ear to the door and listen. Brenly gives me a disapproving look, so I smile back.
All I hear at first is gasping, and then there's laughing and then, finally, a long, sustained cry of "YEEEEEESSS!" A thump, like a body slumped against a wall in relief, and a high-pitched sound like tension being vented through a steam whistle.
I chuckle to myself and leave the kid to celebrate. "I'm curious," I say to Brenly as I sit down. "It's why I'm a reporter."
"You've certainly got a passion for it," he grumbles.
The weasel and his friends stand, packing up their stuff. They thank Ponaxos for the seats, talk about when they'll see him again, and file past us without saying anything. As the weasel passes us, he drops a clump of bills into my lap.
"Thanks," I say, but he doesn't even turn.
I give Brenly his forty just as Lee comes in from the outside, his smile as big as I've seen it. "Perfect end to a perfect weekend," he says.
He's been in the hospital, in jail, and this is a perfect weekend? Brenly's last comment to me echoes in my head, and it clicks, then, the heart of my story. It's the passion--not just the attraction to each other, but Lee's passion for life, Miski's passion for football. That's what binds them together. That's what Cim and I never had, that's what got Miski to come out on TV and Lee to drive five hours to pick a fight with a tiger twice his size and Miski to fly up there to get him and Lee to stand here pressed against glass for three hours devouring every scrap of action that happens on the field. It's a passion for life, when you get right down to it.
With that realization comes jealousy. I'm older and wiser, I tell myself. That makes up for it. But there's no getting around the fact that this kid feels something I've never felt before, akin to what the kids down on that field feel every week, or what the cougar walking past us out of the box feels with his business.
But just because I haven't felt it doesn't mean I can't write about it. I've got my story now, and I'm already composing the end of it in my head as I stand with Brenly.
"Lee," Brenly says. "Coming?"
The kid puts his paw up and exhales, fogging the glass around it. He turns before it dissipates, leaving an outline of five fingers, slowly fading. "I can't imagine a better game to watch from the owner's box," he says. He bounces across the room to join us, stopping to get his money behind the ice bucket on the way. "God, I want to write about it right now."
His tail's wagging up a storm, and sympathetically, mine starts going too. It was a hell of a game, and as a reporter I'm pretty excited about seeing the changing of the guard.
Maybe that's another angle for the story. New ways, new thoughts, new traditions. The team accepting the gay teammate beating the team that, well, it's not really fair to cast the Pilots as standing in the way of progress or anything. They were all professionals there. None of them spit on him or anything, not that we could see.
Times are changing, that's the angle. And changing for Lee, too, I think as I follow father and son down the hall. He's going to be moving in with Miski, and that'll be--well, I don't know how that'll be. Can't ever predict those kind of things 'til they happen.
I hope it goes well for them, I really do. The odds are stacked against 'em, but I hope they beat the natural order. Hell, if the Firebirds can be leading the division in the middle of November, anything's possible.