The stands in the high school gym vibrated with energy from the crowd. On the left side, it was a sea of red and white. Some high school students wore wigs while others used colored hairspray to show their school pride. With every basket scored by the Ashbrook Eagles the frenzy grew. Men hooted and hollered, and women cheered. “Get that basket, Nickerson!” or “Way to go Eagles!”
A mixture of pride and concern filled Annie. J.R. had been in the game for most of the first and second quarter. He was a good athlete and handled the pressure from the crowd well. However, the momentum could change with one timeout session. The other team could go back on the court with a new game plan. Then, cheers of adoration would take the form of harsh rebukes, “Go for the rebound,” or “Block your man.” J.R. said the criticism didn’t bother him, but he always stayed after and threw one hundred free throws for every one he missed when the team lost a game.
When Noah arrived, he headed straight to the scoring stand and took a seat beside the coach’s wife. He didn’t acknowledge Annie at all. No wave, or head tilt of hello. It was as if she wasn’t in the building. She sank. Perhaps she thought more of the two dinners they had shared. Maybe he was just being friendly. Annie shrugged away the rebuff, concluding that her loneliness clouded her interpretation of the situation.
After she and Jesse married, things changed. The best friends whittled down from three to two when Jesse and Noah pushed her out of the triangular relationship. She reminded herself that Noah was Jesse’s best friend and was probably making sure the absence of a father didn’t hamper J.R.’s progress.
Annie forced herself to adjust her thinking. Was she attracted to Noah? Of course. Only someone who suffered from blindness or oblivion would fail to notice how handsome he was. Annie overheard Lisa from the donut shop joke about adding some extra sprinkles to Noah’s pastry. The women who sat beside her snickered while agreeing with her.
A woman that had to be at least ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter than Annie sidled up to Noah and confirmed Annie’s conclusion. The smile he offered the young tart, filled Annie with an anger she didn’t know existed. She tasked Noah for being too familiar with someone much younger than him. It should have been obvious that the time they spent together was for J.R.’s benefit. How could she have thought he had any interest in a single mother who had a pie addiction?
Hallmark Channel stories about high school friends reconnecting in their later years happened to other people. Annie stood to go visit the concession stands. Surely, they had something to help her take her mind off the relationship that never was. The quarter was almost over, and if she left now, she’d beat the rush.
The buzzer rang just as Annie reached the counter. Allowing the foul mood she developed to guide her decision, she ordered what she wanted. “I’ll have a Pepsi, a Snickers bar, some popcorn and…” she paused and added, “I should get something healthy to go with this. I’ll also take some nachos in a bag.” Normally, a concoction of Doritos topped with taco meat, nacho cheese, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream would have given her the worst case of the day after consumption regrets. Annie didn’t care. It was her body and her life.
Carly, the cashier, peered around Annie. “Is anyone here to help you carry all this stuff?”
“I’ll shove the candy in my pockets, and it’ll be fine.” Annie’s voice gave off more confidence than she felt. As she paid the $9.50 for the armful of food to drown her sorrows, impulse eater’s remorse struck her. She grinned at Carly, “I’m sharing the popcorn with some friends.”
“Do you want me to help you carry some of that?” Darryl the auto shop teacher offered.
Annie took one look at the grease under his fingernails and thought better of accepting his help.
She placed the nachos in a bag in his hands. “I bought these for you.”
Darryl’s face brightened. “You didn’t have to do that?”
“It’s the least I could do for your kindness.”
“Why, thank you.” Darryl took his reward and stepped forward in the line. “Can I get a Pepsi to go with this.” He waved the bag in Annie’s direction and nodded a last thank you.
Annie rushed to get into the gymnasium before the second half of the game started. If she hadn’t tried to rush, she might have missed bumping into Noah. This time he stepped back and held his hands in the air to avoid the collision. “You have an interesting way of getting close to people.”
“Sorry about that. I was trying to get back to my seat.”
Noah’s eyes searched the basketball court where the team was taking practice shots. Annie knew when he found J.R. because Noah’s eyes targeted in on him. His face changed to show his appreciation. “My memory may have distorted facts, but from what I remember about Jesse, I think J.R. plays better than his father.” He turned back to focus on Annie. “And Jesse was one helluva player.”
Smiling at the shared memory, Annie said, “I’ll tell him you said so.”
“Make sure you do. I want him to know he has the potential to play in college if he wanted.” Something behind Annie caught Noah’s eye, and he moved in the direction.
She walked back into the gym and stopped before climbing the stairs to her seat in the bleachers.
The logical conclusion came to her. Noah and J.R. had formed a friendship. She was just a conduit. A pinch of sadness touched the edge of her conscience. The last thing she expected when they reconnected was the distance between them would remain. With the mystery of Noah’s intention being solved, she went back to her place in the stands and waited for the next half of the game to begin.