Garrett scrawls a play in the dirt. The boys nod. He's a born leader, like Mia's dad. Mia grins. It's funny how vulnerable, how separate she felt a few minutes ago over there on the sidewalk, and how connected she feels to everyone around her now, how safe, on a team. Amazing how so many strangers just turned into pals.
She's got cover now, a big bro she can draft behind on her bike every day when they race off to play ball, one who'll choose her for his side and tout her as his "secret weapon." One she can watch and try to imitate, from his sidearm pitching motion to his shrug over everything except the important stuff—like whether that kid just stepped out of bounds...or did not! One who can fade right, looking, looking, and launch a spiral to that little mop of brown hair that no one notices, no one even sees, darting deep...touchdown, Mia!
You're still reading? Cut Mia a break. Skim this part. She's 12. Thick hair still shorn as short as a boy's. She's moved to San Antonio for three years and just moved back to Wichita Falls. She's about to walk off a soccer field where she just drilled four goals and assisted on two others, just torched a team of boys, half the spectators never realizing that the dominant player's packing a pair of X chromosomes. She's about to leave the rectangle, to cross the white stripe, the dividing line between two worlds. On this side it's O.K. to spill everything boiling inside her, O.K. to erupt, explode, dominate, celebrate, to be better than someone else. On the other....
She heads to the bathroom. She's got to be careful. She's always the new kid in the hood, always starting out in a hole, always playing so hard just to feel worthy of being one of the guys, to disappear by blending in. Playing so hard that she keeps standing out, too far out, her hunger and talent carrying her clean past her objective. Now the game's over and she must start shrinking again, fast. Now she feels the opponents' parents' eyes on her, hears them wondering why the star player's waiting in line outside the girls' restroom, and her cheeks are flushing red and her tongue's getting tied and someone's telling her, Hey, the boys' room is over there!
Dad, who has just refereed three games at the same complex, gives her a one-arm hug, hands her two bucks—50 cents a goal—and climbs in the Pumpkin, the orange camper the Hamms brought back from Italy and put a quarter-zillion miles on. He's a rare cat. A Democrat fighter pilot. A lieutenant colonel who, years later, will plant an AMERICANS FOR PEACE poster in his front yard amid the drumbeats of war on Iraq. A perfect ref because he's so stoic and rational, but put him in the stands at one of his kids' games, and look out! He rides refs and opponents so hard that he gets the heave-ho from an official in one of Mia's games and a middle finger from one of the players in another. Mia has seen the one thing that brings out the tendons in the stoic's neck. Mia knows how much winning matters.
They pull away from the soccer fields. Dad glimpses Mia's face in the rearview mirror. She sees where they're heading: the Maternity Cottage. She sees her Saturday going up in smoke. She's turning purple. Here it comes....
Fifteen minutes ago, this eruption of feeling went into a steal and a sprint and a 20-yard zzzzt that the goalie never saw—into explosions that made you hold your breath each time she touched the ball. Now there's no ball and no field. How does a dad handle a furnace with so much potential to create magic—or meltdown? Bill cringes, helpless, never quite sure. He's tried sympathy, bedroom banishment, flinging a flip-flop at her, everything except the remedy his eldest daughter, Tiffany, tried once when Mia went over the edge: lashing her to the couch with pantyhose. The family couldn't guess what might set her off. It might be a teasing remark about the hand-me-down sweater she wears on Alternate Dress Day. It could be the skirt Mom tries to funnel her into for holidays and photos, or her failed attempt to slink out of the family picture, or that damn wing of hair flapping off the left side of her head on school picture days. Or, worst of all, losing at something cataclysmic like old maid or Uno or knee football in the hallway.
She quits when she smells defeat coming, because if she waits until it arrives, she'll tear herself to shreds. Her face will contort, her eyes gush, her nose stream, and then the worst thing of all will happen: Everyone will stare at the self-conscious girl. Her one hope is to twist embarrassment into anger—to scream, punch, topple the board game or hurl her sister Lovdy's cookie batter on the floor or threaten to smash Lovdy's collection of porcelain miniature horses into a thousand pieces. To have something else disintegrate instead of her.
The Curse, she'd call her raging emotions. All the Hamm girls have it, genetic dynamite straight from Mom, but none has it more than Mia. I'm sorry, she keeps saying when the dust settles. I'm so sorry. She'll have to spend her life guarding that furnace door. God, it seems so much simpler just to be a boy on a ball field, where you can turn humiliation into a header, fury into a breakaway. Where you get a bonus, as well, a piece of what Garrett's getting so much of: Dad's attention.
The Pumpkin rumbles up in front of the Maternity Cottage. Mia stops heaving, rubs away her tears, hangs her head and resigns herself to whiplash, this wrenching between worlds with such different rules, values...and equipment.