A captivating new novel is out this week from Lauren Runow, and I have the first chapter for you. It’s the story of a women who returns to her hometown after twenty years, and when she sees the man she left behind, she finds herself wondering whether she made the right choice all those years ago.
I reach for my daughter Aubree’s hand before she runs out in traffic. “Hold on, sweetie. We have to wait for Daddy.”
She stops, like the little darling she is, while her brother, Tommy, who’s three years older, darts out without a care in the world.
I glare at my husband, who laughs and looks over at Tommy to make sure he’s safe and staying by our car while grabbing our stadium chairs from the back.
When our eyes meet, I know that’s his way of saying, It’s all good, Mom. He’s fine.
I sigh and turn to our teenage daughter, Mollie, who’s leaning against the car with her phone up to her face. My nerves are so shot right now that I don’t even bother telling her to live in the moment and not be glued to that device. I know I grew up in a different era, but I truly don’t think I would have been so addicted to the thing if they had existed when I was her age, mainly because my dad kept me so busy that I wouldn’t have had time.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath before I walk around the car to see it—the stadium named after my father—for the first time in twenty years.
There, above the gates, is the big letter Z, curved on the ends and stretched out so it’s in the shape of a football. Underneath that are the words Tom Zeeman Stadium, written in black and orange—the high school’s colors. I remember the day they named the stadium after him. I was in the fourth grade and thought my dad was the coolest man alive. I carried that same awe about him until the day he died.
My husband wraps his arm around me and gives me a closed-mouth grin. “You ready?”
I nod as we walk toward the gates with me still holding Aubree’s hand, my husband grabbing Tommy by his shirt to stop him from running farther, and Mollie slowly following behind us.
It’s amazing how different her life is than mine when I was her age. Athletics were my life, and I was constantly engrossed in everything high school sports. I tried to get her involved in the drill team, but it wasn’t her thing. I guess it was more me trying to grasp at straws from my past rather than letting her choose her own world of art.
As we approach the gate, I’m shocked when I see Carol—a woman who has volunteered at these games my entire life—is still here. The only different things I see about her are the wrinkles, which are more pronounced, and her hair is totally gray but kept in the same hairstyle—to her shoulders.
I smile big when she sees me standing there, and all anxiety of being back at this stadium washes away.
“Sadie?” Her face lights up as she exits the booth to give me a hug. “Is it really you?”
She wraps her arms around me, and I have to fight back tears. I knew tonight would be hard, but I thought I’d at least make it through the door before I had to worry about hiding the fact that I was crying.
“Hi, Carol.” I hug her back. “It’s so good to see you! I can’t believe you still volunteer at these things.”
“You know I’d never give this up.” She leans back to look at my face. “You’re all grown up.”
Though it’s been twenty years, I always laugh at the fact that I am pretty much the same. I still have my long dirty-blonde hair that’s straight with some body to it, thankfully. My style hasn’t changed a bit, and I actually still own some of the clothes I had in high school. Admittedly, they are a little too tight to physically wear, but I can’t bear to part with some of them just because of the memories they hold.
I grin, thankful that the sun hasn’t quite gone down yet so she can’t see just how wet my eyes really are from being here. I blink them a few times to clear my sight.
“And who are these little ones?” Carol leans down to Aubree. “Do you know I’ve known your mom since she was born?”
Aubree looks up at me, and I nod with a smile.
“She sure has.” I run my fingers down Aubree’s curls. “This is our little one, Aubree. Then, we have Tommy, and Mollie is our oldest. And you remember—”
Just then, my husband comes up behind Carol, wrapping his arm around her in a hug.
When she looks up, her face lights up. “How could I forget you?!”
He’s still the good-looking guy he was back then. Same broad shoulders, same handsome features. The only differences today are the beard he cuts short and the specks of gray he’s getting around his temples, which honestly kind of turn me on when I see them. It proves I’ve known him for long enough that he’s going gray, which makes my heart happy.
They hug, and then she turns back to me, motioning for us to follow her.
“Now, come on in. You don’t pay if your name’s on the building,” she teases.
My husband kisses my head. “You heard the woman.”
We usher our kids in front of us as we walk through the black metal gates that lead to the McLoughlin High School football field.
She gives me another hug. “I have to get back to work, but don’t you dare leave town unless you stop by and see me, you hear?”
“I will, I promise.”
“It really is good to see you.” She places her hand on my cheek, the way a loving mother would because that’s who all the school staff was to me.
I lost my mom at a young age, and even though I only really knew Carol from the school setting, she was always so kind to me.
She gives me one last grin and heads back to her post of selling tickets to get into the spectacle that is a McLoughlin High football game.
There’s Friday night lights, and then there’s McLoughlin High. My dad started this program with literally nothing and turned it into the most popular thing in town. They even had to install new bleachers after the mayor of the town was denied entrance one year because they were at capacity.
I watch as all the high school kids hang around, waiting for the game to start. Memories of being their age flood my mind so wildly that I can’t help but smile. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to be them. Then, when I was them, I loved every minute.
Being the head football coach’s daughter definitely had its perks of getting to be around most of the guys at the school anytime I wanted. Except for the fact that every guy was afraid of him, knowing if they broke my heart, he’d cut them from the team. He was serious about his football players but even more serious about his daughter, and he made it very clear that I was off-limits—to everyone. What he didn’t realize was that I got to hang out with all of them anyway since they were always at my house for him.
It was all fun, growing up, and to say I had an awesome childhood would be an understatement even though I basically grew up without a mom. It was my dad and me against the world back then, and I was lucky to call him my dad.
My family and I walk toward the metal bleachers and head up the long ramp to where the seats are. The JV game doesn’t start for another twenty minutes, but already, the stands are packed.
We make our way to the special spot they have reserved for our family. Since my husband’s mom still lives in town, she’ll be joining us here, too, closer to the start of the varsity game.
Since it’s just her, she’s always come to visit us. At first, she used it as an excuse to go somewhere, but then, when we had kids, it was just easier for her to join us. I thought we’d get away with never having to come back, but here we are.
Tonight, we’re the guests of honor as the school commemorates twenty years since we lost my father. Though I lost my dad, the community lost an icon, and it truly is a blessing that, all these years later, they still want to honor his memory.
When I got the call from the principal of the school, asking us to come, I knew there was no way we could miss it even though we haven’t been back to our hometown since the day we decided to leave everything behind and start a new life together.
Everything had felt so devastating when my father passed unexpectedly, but one night, one massive blowup, was all I needed to walk away for good.
And we did.
My husband promised he’d take care of me if I left with him. I’ve never regretted my decision of choosing him over the other guy in my life—especially as I look at my three beautiful kids—but there’s always been a part of me, tucked deep in the back of my mind that wonders …
What if …
What if I had chosen that other life?
What if I hadn’t taken his hand that day and said fuck it to everything happening around me?
I inhale a long, deep breath and take my seat in the stadium chair my husband set up for me. He reaches for my hand, and I glance his way, grinning before turning my attention to the field.
The emotions that race through my body almost take my breath away.
Though the beat-up grass is now covered with shiny, brand-new turf, still, all I see is my dad out there.
We’d be out here every Wednesday night while he mowed the grass himself. He had this little riding mower that he used to slowly make his way up and down the grass while I sat in the press box, doing homework.
I turn around to see if the handprints we put there years ago, when I was a little girl, are still there from after we painted the box bright orange. Lo and behold, on the corner of the box is one big handprint from my dad and one tiny handprint from me next to it.
I lean down to my kids sitting in front of us. “Turn around.” I point to the box. “You see those handprints up there? Those are mine and Grandpa’s from when we painted it years ago.”
Mollie shrugs and goes back to her phone while Aubree and Tommy smile, then turn around quickly to enjoy the excitement of the stadium.
My husband wraps his arm around me and brings me toward him. He kisses my forehead and whispers, “I think it’s cool they are still there.”
I smile at him, and then he removes his arm and claps his hands together with a burst of excitement. “Who wants popcorn?”
Aubree and Tommy jump up and down. “Me, me, me!”
He goes to leave, and Tommy follows him, of course. Anywhere Dad goes, Tommy goes. Their connection is so special; it melts my heart.
I sit back in my stadium chair and pause for a moment to really take everything in. Being back feels so weird. As I look around, I hardly recognize anyone. I guess being gone for twenty years means the people around here have changed. I laugh when I realize, when I was last here, every student currently enrolled wasn’t even a thought in their parents’ minds.
That fact alone makes me feel very old.
I sigh, only to look back to the field, and have my entire body cover in chills as he comes into view.
Of course, I knew he’d be here. He runs the football program after all. I just didn’t know how I would react to actually seeing him.
He’s two hundred yards away, yet my chest becomes so tight that I can hardly breathe. I want so bad for him to turn around and see me, yet I’m terrified if he does. Twenty years is a long time to go by, especially when we left the way we did.
I know he knows I’m here—hell, there’s an actual section saved for me to sit in. On the field, he’s exactly like my father was, and there isn’t one part of tonight that he didn’t have a hand in.
I’m staring at him, not able to move my sight, when he finally turns and our eyes meet.
Nothing but all the love and heartache we both experienced flies through my mind as I suck in a quick breath and close my eyes.