The start of the third quarter went off with an intensity that made Annie glad she gave the taco in a bag to Darry. Her gut clenched with the tension. The Paradise Hills Panthers must have had an interesting pep talk from their coach. They executed more physical plays. From her seat in the middle of the stands, Annie saw elbows jut out a little further. One player backed up and poked out his butt with such an intensity it tripped Andy mid layup. The six-foot four center recovered, but it was too late. He missed the shot.
If the strategy was an attempt to intimidate the Ashbrook Eagles into submission, it didn’t work. The players took the negative energy and used it to their advantage. After every free throw they made, they threw out a little fist bump and nodded in determination. They intended to beat their rival.
Annie wanted to look away but kept her eyes glued on her son. She watched the Panthers player throw a shoulder into J.R. Both boys were running at full speed, and the action caught J.R. off guard. His arms flailed as he adjusted his body to recover from the shift in momentum. It didn’t work. J.R. fell to the ground like a building that crumbled in a detonation. The hush of silence in the stand was almost deafening.
One dad who sat in the left row of the bleachers called out, “Shake it off J.R.”
J.R. sat up, and the crowd gasped a collective sigh.
“I think he can’t get up.” Annie heard the concern in Hazel’s voice. When Hazel wasn’t baking pies at the Elderberry Cafe, she sat in the same place in the stands and cheered on her favorite team. Rather than turn around and make sure, Annie devoted all her senses to her son as though wishing him better would make it happen. Through her hand that covered her mouth, she whispered, “Get up son. Please.”
J.R. writhed in pain, and her heart sank to her stomach. Instinct kicked in, and Annie pushed her way through the people between her and the aisle. She ignored the whispers of, “I hope he’s okay,” and “That does not look good.”
Annie hustled down the stairs. Hoping against hope that J.R. would be fine, she stopped at the boundary line of the basketball court. The last thing her son would want was for the team to get a technical foul because his mother coddled him. She craned her neck to get a better view of her son. Officials and his teammates surrounded him and blocked Annie’s view. Under her breath, she muttered, “This is not supposed to happen.” But she knew injury came with playing athletics.
Noah wrapped his arm around her shoulder to offer a side hug. “I’ll take care of this.”
Annie had never been so thankful to have a friend as a doctor. She nodded her assurance in him. As much as things changed, they remained the same. Twenty years ago, Noah was on the court with Jesse. Now he was there in proxy offering support to Jesse’s son. Noah marched to the circle the team of boys formed around J.R. They separated to make room for him and reconverged when he bent down to assess the situation.
Murmurs of speculation drifted from the stands. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks it’s broken,” was followed by, “I’m not stupid enough to take that bet. That family has had nothing but bad luck.”
Although their comments weren’t anything Annie wanted or needed to hear, it was her truth. It began when the doctor diagnosed Jesse with prostate cancer at nineteen. From there, she and J.R. worked through an unfair share of hardship. They didn’t have time to complain. As soon as they recovered from one situation, another one they never saw coming presented itself.
Lennie Archer, her neighbor from down the street, approached Annie. The man wore a maroonish red, long sleeve t-shirt with “will work for beer” written in black letters across his chest. Annie noted that at least Lennie had the decency to wear a shirt that coordinated with the school colors. He looked Annie in the eye and offered a hopeful smile. “If it’ll make you feel better, I can hold your hand.”
Annie blinked in shock. “Um, I think I’ll be fine.” She inched away from Lennie and shoved her hands behind her back just in case he didn’t believe her. “Thank you for your support.”
“I’ll be right over there.” Lennie pointed to an empty spot in the middle of the front row. “If you need anything just holler.”
She had to give the man credit; he tried to be nice. It wasn’t his fault that the thought of holding hands with him made her want to hurl. Annie forced a grin and said, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” and turned to face the middle of the basketball court. Two boys had their hands on their chin as they spoke to each other. Their postures confirmed what Annie feared. She would not like what they saw.
Darryl came up alongside Annie and stood with her in silence. The two of them had been a part of each other’s lives since elementary school and fluently spoke the silent language of close friendship. He didn’t need to say a word for Annie to understand that he worried alongside and for her.
Lisa joined them and stood on the left side of Annie. “Noah’s out there taking care of him. Everything will be fine. Just watch.”
Just then, Andy’s twin brother Rodney trotted to where Annie stood. “The trainer wants to talk to you.”
Lisa, Darryl, and Annie exchanged glances of concern. Annie’s heart raced faster with each step she took alongside Rodney. Her pulse stopped, and the world spun when Annie saw the lump in the middle of J.R.’s leg.
Nobody had to say anything. Annie knelt on the ground beside J.R. who was laid out flat on the ground. His eyes dilated, and his bangs clung to the sweat on his forehead. His voice croaked, “I don’t think I’ll be able to take out the trash when I get home.” Annie choked back the cry that came with her son’s attempt at humor. She took J.R.’s hand in hers and said, “We’ll get you fixed up son.”
He groaned, “I know Mom. Noah’s a doctor.”
There was the teenage son she remembered. He had to let her know she missed the obvious. In the midst of her eye roll to hide her relief, Annie’s esteem of Noah changed. She apologized for getting jealous when he flirted with the younger woman. Her interpretation of the relationship shifted, and she thanked God for bringing a man into her son’s life to help him through this difficult period.