Coach Taylor has the team running drills, but he has me blowing up the soccer balls. Our mascot, a black panther dressed in the team colors is dancing around the bench. Every now and then, I catch him looking at me. When he notices me staring back, he pretends to be scared and runs away, arms flailing in the air. I can't help laughing. Whoever the dude is, I gotta give him points for doing his job perfectly.

"What are you laughing at?" Coach asks as he joins me on the bench. "I never knew blowing up balls could be so amusing."

"Nothing, Coach," I reply, wiping the stupid grin off my face.

"It was not nothing; and I have to say you seem more yourself today than you did at the game last week. I know I don't put you in the games, but you need to understand that I . . . I am saving your skills for the final game."

I stop pumping the ball I am squeezing between my knees and stare at Coach. He is watching the mascot with worry, as if he is not even paying attention to what I am saying. My attention turns to the mascot, who fakes the gasp again, running towards a different end of the field, but still staying near the benches and empty bleachers.

"Who's the mascot anyway?" I ask as I return to pumping air into the soccer ball. "I never see his face."

"You will have to ask them to take off the mask," Coach replies, chuckling. "There is no way I am getting in the middle. You are on your own with that one."

I watch Coach with puzzlement as he rises to his feet and heads to the center of the field to speak with some of the other players. On his way, he passes the mascot, patting the costume on the shoulder. I watch him say something before walking away. The mascot faces me and makes a laughing motion, throwing the panther head backwards. Again, I have to laugh. I have to know who this dude is, and why he keeps making me laugh. It is almost as if he knows I needed the smile.

Coach calls the entire team and assistant coaches to a huddle, which I am obligated to join. After a few final instructions, and the command to get plenty of rest tonight, he dismisses practice for the day. The mascot is still lingering when the team heads to the locker rooms for showers. I hang back when I notice the mascot does not follow us.

"Hey," I say, sprinting after him. "What's up?"

Instead of speaking, he raises his panther paws and shrugs.

"Are you new?" I ask, raising an eyebrow.

The panther heads moves up and down in a nod. I squint for a moment, crossing my arms.

"How did you know I needed a laugh out there?"

The panther drops his gaze to the floor and I hear a sigh from inside.

"Because you told me your secret," a voice, much too high to be a guy's, replies, reaching the paws up to remove the mask.

"Annie?" I say in surprise when she looks at me with her red hair plastered to her face with sweat.

"Go, Panthers, go," she says with a smile, pumping her fist in the air.

"That's your super power," I laugh, raising my hands to the back of my head. "No wonder! Thanks, for lifting my mood."

"My pleasure," Annie's smile grows as she wipes her forehead with her paw. "Listen, I'm gonna go get out of this dumb thing. Would you like to hang out afterwards?"

I nod, "I would like that very much," I reply.

With a small wave, Annie walks in the other direction as I head to the locker rooms.

***

I find Annie waiting for me next to the soccer field, sitting on bleachers. I watch her for a moment. A gentle breeze blows through her red curls. She closes her eyes, as if the breeze carries her away in her mind. I start to smile, but I do not know why. Annie's smile lights up her face as she opens her eyes and looks directly at me. She stands and starts walking towards me, shoving her hands into her jacket pockets.

"You brought me to meet your nephews," she says, grinning. "Now it is my turn to introduce you to mine. My sister is working an odd shift and needs a baby sitter. The older ones are going out with their dad, which leaves the toddler."

"How much older is your sister?" I ask as Annie leads the way towards the parking lot.

"Just shy of four years," she replies, shrugging. "But she married young, had her first son at sixteen. Luckily, her boyfriend, now husband, did not plan to walk out on her."

"Hmm . . . My sister was born under similar circumstances, except we have different biological fathers."

Annie glances at me, but says nothing. I do not know why I just said that. Sabrina is over it now, but she has never said that she wanted me blurting it out to the world. Nevertheless, something about Annie seems to get me talking.

"There is a possibility that I will need your help doing some lifting," Annie says, laughing as she leads the way to my car. "And I don't drive, so you don't mind, right?"

I chuckle, "Not at all," I reply, shrugging. "You know . . . you still have to keep your end of the deal. And why would you need me to do any lifting?"

"My sister always leaves me with some kind of list to do around the house. She forgets that . . . Lately, I am not allowed to do any heavy lifting. So if there is any lifting at all, I will need you."

I unlock the car, grinning as I open the door for her. Annie shoos me away, closing the door herself. I go around and get in the drivers' seat. The moment I turn on the engine, Annie makes herself comfortable, flipping through radio stations until she finds something she likes. I recognize it to be from an old band, probably one Uncle Nathan used to listen to when he was a teenager.

"Where am I going?" I ask as we drive off campus.

"It's just a ten minute drive north," Annie replies, motioning to the road with her hand. "I'll point out the house when we get there."

"You still haven't told me . . ."

"I will reveal my secret to you slowly. Piece by piece, you will learn more about me. Hopefully, you will not have to witness anything before I can explain everything to you . . . You will have to promise that you will not tell anyone, on pain of losing your legs."

I burst out laughing, not because Annie has just threatened me, but because she is perfectly serious. She smacks my arm weakly.

"I'm sorry," I say, clearing my throat though I am still smiling. "I find it better to know what it is I am promising not to say before I make any promises. What if it is a promise I cannot keep?"

"Touché," Annie says, nodding. "Even so, the things I will end up telling you must not be shared with anyone else. Turn left here, please."

I do; puzzlement fills my head as I wonder why Annie is prolonging to tell me her secret. It must have to be hard for her to talk about. Annie continues to give me directions until we arrive at our destination. Before I even have the car off, Annie's seatbelt is unbuckled and she rushes to the front door. I hesitate for a moment, but slowly smile when Annie motions for me to come. She is something else.    

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