The sweetest devotion
Hit me like an explosion
All of my life I've been frozen
The sweetest devotion I know
I'll forever be whatever
You want me to be
I'd go under and all over
For your clarity
When you wonder
If I'm gonna lose my way home just remember
That come whatever I'll be yours all along
I wasn't ready then
I'm ready now
I'm heading straight for you
You will only be eternally
The one that I belong to
(Tobin - “Sweetest Devotion” by Adele)
My past has tasted bitter for years now
So I weild an iron fist
Grace is just weakness
Or so I've been told
I've been cold, I've been merciless
But the blood on my hands scares me to death
Maybe I'm waking up today
I'll be good, I'll be good
And I'll love the world, like I should
I'll be good, I'll be good
(I'll be good, I'll be good)
For all of the light that I've shout out
For all of the innocent things that I've doubt
For all of the bruises that I've caused in the tears
For all of the things that I've done all these years, for all
Yeah, for all the sparks that I've stomped out
For all of the perfect things that I've doubt
(Christen - “I’ll Be Good” by Jaymes Young)
“Hey, that’s a pretty sick jersey you got there, sport!” Kelley grinned, beckoning Tobin and Scottie over to the check-in table where she was sitting.
“Thanks! It’s Mommy’s,” Scottie said, keeping her arms around Tobin’s waist and her cheek pressed against Tobin’s side.
“You played for the Tar Heels?” Kelley asked, her eyebrows rising as she looked up at Tobin.
“Yeah, a long time ago,” Tobin nodded, taking a clipboard of paperwork from Kelley and filling it out with Scottie’s emergency contact information and a signed consent form.
“I played at Stanford, we might have met on the field many moons ago,” Kelley laughed. She grabbed two jerseys from the box next to her. “Okay, Scottie - number 17 or number 23? Your choice.”
“17!” Scottie cheered.
“Let me guess, Mommy’s number?” Kelley arched a brow at Tobin, handing the #17 Gotham FC Academy jersey over to Tobin in exchange for the clipboard and paperwork.
Scottie turned around to show Kelley the back of the UNC jersey and the big number 17.
“Way to stick to a brand, sport,” Kelley said, winking at Scottie and earning herself a giggle. “Do you guys have any questions or anything?
“Do we get a snack?” Scottie asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Kelley sat back in her chair, mock-offended by the question. “Do we- pfft, of course! Orange slices and pretzels halfway through!”
“Am I allowed to leave and come back?” Tobin asked. “Normally I’d watch, but I have a meeting in Manhattan.”
“Sure thing…” Kelley checked the clipboard, “Tobin. Normally parents don’t really stick around anyway, but you’re welcome to watch if you make it back from your meeting in time.”
“Mommy likes to watch,” Scottie grinned, wrinkling her nose at Tobin.
“It’s probably because you’re so talented,” Kelley replied, tapping her temple. “I’ve got an eye for talent and you, sport, are definitely a killer on the field.”
Tobin rolled her eyes at Kelley, knowing she’d likely said that to every hover-parent and soccer kid that day.
“No, silly! She just likes to watch me have fun,” Scottie laughed, trying to jump up and get her soccer ball out of the bag Tobin was holding.
Kelley melted, a genuine smile making its way onto her face. “Well fun is the most important thing. You ready to go have some fun, Mini Tar Heel?”
“Yes, Coach Kelley!” Scottie cheered.
“Head on over to Coach Becky, we’re going to start once our third coach gets here.”
Tobin thanked Kelley and stepped aside for the next parent to get their kid signed in, handing the soccer bag to Scottie.
“Have so much fun, little bit,” Tobin said, squatting down to wrap her arms around Scottie.
Scottie hugged Tobin tightly back and then pulled away, her hand held over her heart. “Bye, Mommy. I’ll miss you. My heartstring is gonna stretch so far,” she said, moving her hand from her heart to Tobin’s chest, right where her heart was too.
Tobin’s heart grew five sizes every time Scottie mentioned their heartstrings. Her mom, Cindy, had given Tobin a children’s book all about secure attachment, and the book had described healthy attachment as heartstrings that connect kids and parents, no matter where they were in the world.
“My heartstring is gonna be stretching too,” Tobin nodded, moving her own hand between her heart and Scottie’s. “I can’t wait to come back here and watch.”
“Have a good meeting!” Scottie replied, kissing Tobin’s cheek messily and then rushing off, her soccer bag bouncing around on her back as she ran over to join the other kids sitting in the grass.
Tobin waited for a second, watching Becky greet Scottie with a smile and a few words that Tobin couldn’t hear. Tobin checked her watch and turned around quickly, hoping that traffic wouldn’t be too bad on the way back to the city but bracing herself for the worst. In her haste to get to her car, Tobin had spun directly into someone, dark hair from a swinging ponytail obscuring her vision for a second before they both stepped back.
“Fuck- I mean, shit. I mean- watch it,” Christen grumbled, wiping the coffee that had sloshed out of her travel mug onto her Gotham FC shorts. She didn’t even look up at the woman who’d run into her. She didn’t have the time. She was a minute from being late to her first Academy training and the last thing she needed was for Becky or Kelley to report back that she hadn’t shown up on time.
“Uh...sorry?” Tobin said, completely confused about how this profanity-spewing woman had become a children’s coach.
“Apology accepted,” Christen replied tersely, finally looking up at whoever had run into her. She ignored the way her heart seemed to jump into her throat at the beauty of the woman, instead choosing to let out a soft snort at the sight of the impeccably tailored suit and expensive watch. Of course, she’d run into one of those moms, if her outfit was anything to go by. The ones with a brownstone on the Upper West Side and a nanny who did all the dirty work. Just her luck.
“You should probably watch the language with all the kids,” Tobin suggested, now slightly worried about leaving Scottie with a coach who seemed to have the biggest chip on her shoulder.
“Don’t see any kids around right now,” Christen said with a shrug. “And you should probably watch where you're going. Excuse me,” she added, moving by the other woman and walking toward the field. She also decided to ignore the scents of sandalwood and something kind of floral that she caught as she passed the brunette. She chose not to dwell on the way they seemed to invade her senses and begged her to rush back and apologize. She simply hurried out onto the field.
Tobin let the interaction roll off of her back and looked back at the field one more time, catching Scottie’s eye. She waved and blew a kiss to her, which Scottie quickly returned. Tobin then jogged over to her car and tried to mentally prepare herself for the meeting she was about to have.
Becky clapped her hands together and faced the group of about 40 or so girls all under the age of ten. “Welcome to Gotham FC’s Development Academy Summer Session! I’m Coach Becky, over here on my left is Coach Kelley-”
“Sup, sports!” Kelley greeted with a smile.
Becky shook her head in amusement and then continued. “-and on my right is Coach Christen.”
“Whoa, are you Christen Press?” a curly-haired girl sitting in the front of the group asked, her wide eyes trained on Christen.
Christen gulped and offered the girl a weak smile. “Last time I checked,” she quipped, earning her a long-suffering sigh from Kelley and a slight chuckle from Becky.
A blonde-haired, stormy gray-eyed little girl near the back of the group sat up on her knees, her eyes fixed on Christen and her lips sitting in an easy smile. Christen nodded slightly at the girl who wouldn’t stop smiling at her and then dropped her attention back to her coffee.
“Today we’re going to be separating you into groups and evaluating your skills. How does that sound?” Becky asked, grinning at the girls.
“Awesome,” one of the older, more confident girls said from the front row.
“Okay if your last name is between letters A and H, go with Coach Christen. I through R, go with Coach Kelley, and I’ll take the rest!”
Christen shot Kelley and Becky one last, long ‘I hate it here’ look before shuffling over a few feet and waiting for her group of girls to join her. She ended up with about 12 of them, all of them looking far too eager and energetic for her liking. The smallest girl in the group, the same girl with the gray eyes who’d smiled at her, stood close by her side.
“So, um, hi,” Christen greeted, looking around the semi-circle of girls. “I’m Christen, or Coach Christen, or whatever.”
“Hey, Whatever,” one of the snarky ten-year-olds snorted from across the circle.
Christen arched a brow in this girl’s direction. “And what should I call you?”
“Joni,” she said, looking a little less cocky now that Christen’s eyes were on her.
“All right, Joni. Give me ten push-ups for the sass you just showed. Anyone else want to join her?” Christen asked, looking around at the girls. Everyone else stood silent, most of them glancing down at their soccer cleats.
“Good. Now when I was your age I started every practice with 100 juggles. So that’s what we’re going to do. Everyone got a ball?” Christen said, sipping her coffee and feeling an intense desire to just leave and not look back.
“Shouldn’t we- uhh… Shouldn’t we learn names first?”
Christen looked down at the gray-eyed girl still standing super close to her, the one who’d asked the question.
“Huh. Sure, fine. Go around the circle and introduce yourself. Say your name and...your favorite pizza topping or something,” Christen sighed, already mentally tuning out. She didn’t do well with names, and had little hope of remembering these girls’ names. “You first,” she nodded at the girl who’d asked her the question.
“Oh…” the girl blushed a little. “I’m Scottie.”
“Scottie’s a boy’s name,” Joni replied, earning her a few laughs from the group.
Christen caught the way Scottie’s face fell at the comment and narrowed her eyes in Joni’s direction. “Ten more push-ups, Joni,” she instructed, turning back to Scottie and offering her a small half-smile.
“And I like pineapple on my pizza,” Scottie mumbled.
“Gross, kid. Next,” Christen said, looking to the next girl in the group. Everyone introduced themselves and every name flew right over Christen’s head except for Scottie’s. There was just something about the girl that stuck with her.
Once they were done, Christen sent them out to start on their 100 juggles. She walked around, watching some of the girls struggle to get above fifteen. She brusquely corrected their form and moved on. When she reached Scottie, she felt her brows lift high on her forehead at the way the smallest girl on the field managed to deftly juggle the ball with both feet.
“What are you at, Scottie?” Christen called out.
“I accidentally lost count after 60,” Scottie shrugged with a smile.
“Did you accidentally misplace your Gotham Academy jersey too?” Christen asked, noting the UNC jersey the girl still wore.
“No,” Scottie shook her head, trying to talk and keep the ball up at the same time. “It’s in my bag. This is Mommy’s jersey.”
Christen walked around and looked at the back of the jersey, taking in the name “HEATH” stitched on the back.
“Well Scottie Heath, you can’t wear that anymore. Change after you hit 100,” Christen replied.
“Coach Kelley thought it was cool,” Scottie said, her eyebrows furrowing a little.
“I’m not Coach Kelley,” Christen huffed, moving away from Scottie to pay attention to the rest of her group.
Thankfully, Becky and Kelley brought all the groups together shortly thereafter for some passing drills. Time seemed to fly by, which surprised Christen since she had thought this would be like slow torture. The girls caught onto the drills quickly and were actually pretty good, especially Scottie. Even if she was the smallest, she had a deft touch on the ball and a zeal for the game that was plain as day.
Before Christen knew it, they had finished their drills and their snack break, coming back together for a game of Sharks and Minnows as their first practice wound down. As Christen watched the girls run around the field, the “Sharks” trying to pull the pinnies out from where the “Minnows” tucked them into the band of their shorts, Christen felt herself smiling just a bit. If anyone asked, she wouldn’t say she was having fun, but she wasn’t actively hating it either. It was hard to hate it when Scottie easily dodged Joni’s many attempts at stealing her pinny, sending Joni tripping over herself and falling to the grass a few times.
“Yo Brunn, does that look like a smile on Pressy’s face to you?” Kelley asked, slinging an arm across Christen’s shoulders.
Christen rolled her eyes and shrugged Kelley’s arm off of her. “It’s not. I think you're losing your eyesight in your old age, Kel,” Christen quipped.
"I'm 28, same as you," Kelley scoffed.
“Well, that definitely looked like a smile to me,” Becky chuckled. “Are they worming their way into your heart?”
“Definitely not,” Christen protested.
“I don’t know…” Kelley trailed off. “Mini Tar Heel is pretty adorable over there,” she said, pointing to number 17.
“Her name’s Scottie,” Christen replied without thinking. Once she realized she had, she sighed, knowing Kelley was going to give her shit, and probably Becky too. She’d let her ‘I hate it here’ attitude slip up for just a moment and she was about to pay the price. “She needs to work on her technique. She can’t kick a driven ball for the life of her.”
“She’s seven,” Kelley deadpanned.
“And that’s what she’s here to work on,” Becky offered with a smile.
“I can’t believe you’re on a first-name basis with Mini Tar Heel. I think she has a favorite,” Kelley teased, not willing to let that go just yet.
“Whatever, let’s have the kids do some shots on goal to finish this out,” Christen said, shoving Kelley’s arm.
“Solid idea, Coach Christen,” Becky laughed, stepping away to call for all the kids’ attention.
“I think this is a great space for it,” Tobin nodded, looking at the bare room in the museum and imagining her collection on the walls. “The lighting is perfect.”
“Great,” the museum director, Kyle, beamed. He was an older gentleman with a perfectly trimmed white beard and spectacles sitting on his nose. “We’ve had some tricky artists to work with. Everyone has their own vision, and sometimes that means traveling to room after room before deciding that the first one was perfect.”
Tobin smiled softly, glad to have taken a load off of the museum staff. “I’m just really flattered that you want to hang my stuff in the museum,” she said honestly, glancing down at her watch one more time. She’d need to leave soon if she was going to get to see Scottie play at all.
“You really mean that don’t you?” Kyle replied, a soft smile on his face.
“Are you kidding me? My mom used to take me to MoMA when I was a little kid, and I fell in love,” Tobin gushed.
“And now you’ll have your art here, featured in our local artist summer exhibit. That’s quite the full-circle moment, Ms. Heath,” he chuckled.
“I’m definitely excited to bring my mom and daughter to see it,” Tobin smiled.
“I’ll set aside some tickets for you,” Kyle said, jotting a note for himself down in his notebook.
“That would be great. Can I get back to you on a specific number? I have a couple of friends who might want to come too,” Tobin asked.
“I can set aside anywhere from 5 to 50, so just let me know,” he said, holding out his hand for Tobin to shake. “It was a pleasure showing you the space, and I’m excited for your collection to grace these walls.”
“Thank you,” Tobin grinned, reaching out to shake his hand. “I’ll see you in a couple weeks for set-up. I should get going now, though. I have a soccer practice to watch.”
Tobin hurried down the hall and into the elevator, thankful that MoMA had reserved a parking spot for her so that she didn’t have to race around Midtown to find a random street corner where she’d left her car. She knew she’d make the end of practice, but she was dying to get there as soon as possible and watch Scottie have a great first day.
When she got to the soccer field in New Jersey, she had to squint through her windshield to see Scottie, since she was now in the Academy jersey. Tobin leaned against her steering wheel and watched Scottie wait in line to take a shot on goal. She laughed to herself at the way Scottie seemed jittery and excited, just dying to take a shot.
When Scottie finally stepped up to the ball, Tobin watched her plant her left foot and swing her right leg, something that Tobin had taught her a while ago. The shot was a little wonky since Scottie got a little too much of her toe on the ball, but it still swished into the back of the net. Tobin pumped her fist by her side, wishing that she could cheer for Scottie and make her laugh the way they did at home.
She watched as the angry coach from that morning pulled Scottie aside and bent down to talk to her, touching Scottie’s foot. Tobin was glad to see the coach giving Scottie some pointers and was just about to chalk the morning up to a lack of sleep or just waking up on the wrong side of the bed when Scottie’s shoulders slumped. Scottie dragged her feet as she walked to the back of the line, no longer quite so energized or excited.
Tobin immediately pulled her keys out of the ignition and stepped out of her car, leaning back against the hood. She didn’t want to be one of those hover moms who ran onto the field and fought her daughter’s battles for her, but she wasn’t about to stay in the car if the coach had hurt Scottie’s feelings or discouraged her.
She waited for the end of practice, watching other moms and dads in their giant, sparkling SUVs pull up in the parking lot around her. She always felt lost in parent groups like this. She was almost always a decade younger than the majority of them, and they definitely all took notice.
When practice ended, Scottie ran straight toward Tobin without saying any goodbyes. Tobin could see the tears on her cheeks as Scottie got closer, and Tobin’s heart clenched tightly in her chest when Scottie threw herself against her stomach, taking deep, shaky breaths.
“Hey, whoa, what’s wrong, little bit?” Tobin asked, bending down to be eye-to-eye with Scottie.
“Can we go?” Scottie sniffled, her chin tucked to her chest.
“As soon as you tell me what’s wrong,” Tobin said.
Scottie shook her head once, a quick, sharp movement. Tobin sighed, led Scottie to the car, and opened the back door for her, lifting her into her booster seat. “What’s going on, buddy?” Tobin asked, her voice soft and her hands softer against Scottie’s forehead.
“Coach Christen,” Scottie choked out, a fresh wave of tears overcoming her.
“What did she do?” Tobin asked, reaching into her pants pocket for a handkerchief and offering it to Scottie.
Scottie started to cry harder, throwing her arms around Tobin’s neck, her hot tears soaking into the material of Tobin’s button-up.
“She- she- she said-” Scottie hiccuped, unable to finish the sentence.
Tobin’s jaw clenched. She should have stayed. She’d seen the coach that morning, had seen the chip on her shoulder and her grumpy attitude. She should have stayed.
“Can you practice your juggling on the field while I go talk to her?” Tobin asked, glancing over her shoulder to see Becky and Kelley talking to parents and this Coach Christen person stacking up cones on the field.
Scottie nodded softly and wiped at her face with Tobin’s handkerchief. Tobin picked Scottie up and placed her on her feet on the grass. She tossed her the soccer ball, and together they walked down, Tobin getting angrier and angrier with each step and each sniffle from Scottie.
Christen caught sight of that same mom from this morning approaching her, the one who still looked far too overdressed to be walking on the field. With a sigh, Christen dropped the stack of cones to the grass and stood up. “If you want to run into me again, I should go find some coffee for you to spill,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“What is your problem?” Tobin seethed, staring directly into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.
Christen recoiled slightly, the hardness in the words catching her off guard. This morning, the woman had been soft-spoken, her voice a little rough yet sweet. But now...now her voice was cold and biting.
“I beg your pardon?” Christen retorted, her defenses going up at the sight of the angry expression on this woman’s face.
“This is a kids’ team. It isn’t the National Team. There’s absolutely no reason to say something that’ll make a kid cry,” Tobin huffed.
“I didn’t,” Christen defended, her brow furrowing in confusion. “And who the hell do you think you are? Coming out here, telling me how to coach?”
“The mother of the kid you made cry,” Tobin said, pointing over at where Scottie was sitting on the field, still holding Tobin’s handkerchief and trying to juggle the ball.
Christen looked over to where the woman was pointing and saw Scottie. Her brow further furrowed as her stomach dropped. “I didn’t- I mean, I don’t- wait, you’re Scottie’s mom?” Christen asked, her eyes jumping back to the brunette.
“Yes,” Tobin grumbled, hating the way everyone was surprised that she was her mom. It was either her age or the fact that Scottie didn’t look a ton like her, but something always made people question their relationship.
“Huh, I can see that,” Christen replied distractedly, her eyes moving back to Scottie. “Look, I have no idea what I could have said-”
“Yeah, I’m sure," Tobin snapped. "You dropped two curse words this morning without realizing it,” she added, ready to take Scottie home and leave this conversation.
“I didn’t swear at your kid,” Christen retorted.
“All I’m saying is clearly you don’t think before speaking,” Tobin said, clenching her jaw tighter.
Christen felt anger claw its way up her chest, making her face harden and her green eyes darken. “And you clearly don’t think before you blindly accuse,” Christen growled.
Before Tobin could respond, she felt Scottie’s small body, bump into hers. She swallowed the angry retort that had been sitting on her tongue, instead, glancing down at Scottie’s wide eyes.
“Ready to go home, buddy?” Tobin asked, trying to keep her voice calm and neutral.
Scottie nodded, tucking herself into Tobin’s side and tactfully avoiding looking over at Christen at all. Christen felt her anger seep out of her at the sight of the girl who hadn’t stopped smiling all day looking so down and dejected, all because of something she’d apparently done.
“Wait, I-” Christen tried to say, but whatever else she was going to say died on her lips at the glare she received.
Tobin spun on her heel and led Scottie to the car, only stopping to retrieve her soccer ball. She loaded her into her booster seat and pulled away from the parking lot as quickly as she could.
Christen threw the last bag of balls into the equipment shed, feeling a tiredness settle behind her eyes.
“That it?” she asked, looking over at Becky and Kelley.
“Yeah. You want to get dinner?” Kelley asked, looking between both of her co-coaches.
“I’m going to work out,” Christen replied with a shake of her head. She was still wrestling with those feelings of guilt and anger and something else she hadn’t been able to untangle, something that was there because of that woman. She needed to work through them, and the best way she knew how was a nice, long run.
“Ooookay,” Kelley said, locking the equipment shed and putting her arm around Becky. “I guess it’s just you and me.”
“Sweet,” Becky hummed. “Let us know if you get done early and want to join. We’ll see you at training tomorrow morning.”
Christen nodded at Becky and Kelley and then trudged away from the fields, across the large parking lot, and into the stadium. She let herself into the locker room, changing into one of the many clean training outfits she kept in her locker. She then grabbed her cleats from the shoe wall and headed back out to the fields.
She decided to just do some laps around the outside of the field, sprinting the length of the sidelines and recovering as she jogged the length of the end lines. But as she started her run, the Gotham FC crest on her chest felt a bit heavier right now than it usually did, and the feelings of guilt and anger she’d been carrying around from that interaction with Scottie’s mom only compounded the problem.
Christen was no stranger to guilt and anger, they’d been her constant companions for a while now. She used to never feel stuff like that, preferring to focus on gratitude and peace, but then life had dealt her cruel hand.
Her parents had always supported her decision to play for Gotham FC. Even if teams like Portland or Utah were closer to home, and even if ACFC was the closest to home, Christen had wanted to try someplace new after graduating from Stanford. So, she’d gone across the pond. Her six months in Sweden post-grad ended with an offer to return to the U.S. and play for the newest team in the NWSL, Gotham FC, and Christen had jumped at the opportunity.
Six years ago, she’d gotten the chance to be a part of the very first group to put on the Gotham jerseys, alongside her U.S. teammate Abby Wambach and so many others. For six years, she’d worn it with pride. For six years, she’d led the team and the league in goals. For six years, her parents never missed a single game, watching live from California or traveling to catch a game in person...until one day, they did.
Six years ago, Christen had joined Gotham FC. Six months ago, her parents were killed in a car accident. And sixty minutes ago, she’d been rude to a complete stranger, and apparently her kid, two things her parents definitely would have been disappointed about.
Letting out a groan of frustration, Christen stopped running, dropping her hands to her knees as she sucked air into her lungs. She might be broken beyond repair, a shell of her former self, but that didn’t give her an excuse to make a kid cry. Especially a kid who'd been the only good thing about her day.
This coaching gig was about more than just cleaning up the reckless, party girl image she’d carelessly crafted while trying to push down her grief and sadness. It was about being the kind of role model these girls and Scottie, deserved. She needed to do that for them, she needed to try at least.
Christen flopped down into the grass, laying down and turning her gaze to the cloudless blue sky, her mind wrestling with her thoughts as her broken heart struggled with her emotions.
While she might be irritated with this mom, she was going to make it up to Scottie. The kid had been the one bright spot of her day, running around the field with a love for the game and a lightness Christen had been missing for about six months now. With a bone-deep sigh, Christen decided that she was going to do whatever it took to bring that light back...but she was going to do everything in her power to avoid Scottie’s mom in the process.
Tobin closed the Harry Potter book she and Scottie were working on and tucked the bedsheets around Scottie’s body. She put Herbie, Scottie’s stuffed bear, right next to Scottie and leaned down to kiss her forehead.
“Um, Mommy?” Scottie whispered, her lower lip jutting out a little bit.
“What’s up?” Tobin asked, keeping her voice quiet and calm to encourage Scottie to fall asleep.
“You didn’t have to yell at Coach Christen,” Scottie replied.
“I wasn’t yelling,” Tobin sighed, wishing she could forget the encounter entirely. “I was just talking with emphasis.”
Scottie gave Tobin a look, one that effectively told Tobin that she didn’t believe her. “That was yelling,” Scottie shook her head.
“Okay, okay. Maybe I went into Mama Bear mode,” Tobin admitted, brushing the baby hairs off of Scottie’s forehead.
“You didn’t have to…” Scottie said, pulling Herbie tighter to her chest.
“What does that mean? What did Coach Christen actually say to you?” Tobin asked, her stomach growing tight in anticipation.
“She just told me that I was kicking with the wrong part of my foot, and then she showed me which part of my foot I should be kicking with,” Scottie mumbled. “And I got frustrated because I couldn’t do it.”
Tobin sighed, dropping her head in her hands for a second. She’d yelled at a coach for coaching, something she never expected to do. She’d had shitty coaches before, but she hadn’t complained. She’d just pushed through it, and now she was one of those helicopter moms who yelled at the first sign of criticism. Scottie's coach hadn't deserved that, and Tobin was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of embarrassment and guilt.
“Sounds like I have to be really nice to Coach Christen when I see her next practice,” Tobin mumbled, secretly wishing she didn’t have to be a good role model for Scottie and act like a real adult.
“You should because she’s the nicest, coolest person ever,” Scottie gushed, her typical toothy grin back on her face.
“Cooler than me?” Tobin asked, making her eyes look wide and shocked.
Scottie rolled her eyes and giggled. “Don’t be silly; nobody is cooler than you!”
“I think you’re cooler than me,” Tobin whispered.
“Cuz I am,” Scottie grinned.
“All right, cool stuff. You need good sleep if you’re gonna learn how to kick a soccer ball like Coach Christen. I love you. I’ll see you in the morning. Sweet dreams,” Tobin said, hugging Scottie tightly before she turned off the bedroom light, leaving Scottie with only her small nightlight.
“I love you, Mommy! You’re the best mommy in the whole wide world, good night!” Scottie called out, sinking back into her pillows with a sleepy smile.
“I love you! You're the best kid in the whole wide world! Good night,” Tobin called from the hall before she climbed down the stairs to the kitchen. She set about cleaning the kitchen, making sure that all of the crumbs from dinner were cleaned off the kitchen table. She put all the dishes in the dishwasher and wiped down the counters.
She hadn’t been home since the morning, so the laundry she’d planned to do over the weekend was still piled up near the washer on the opposite side of the open-concept kitchen and living room space. The refrigerator was getting a little bare, begging Tobin to go to the grocery store. She hadn’t even managed to go through the mail that morning, instead, tossing it into her bag and carrying it around with her throughout the day.
Now though, with Scottie asleep and the dishwasher humming softly, Tobin flopped down on the couch and flipped through the mail, sorting it into two piles: one for important mail and one that was going straight to the trash. When she got to the bottom of the stack, she couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes. A postcard from Fiji stared at her, mocking her, basically picking at a wound that had long since closed up.
Tobin flipped the postcard over, scanning it for any emergency information. It was the same kind of postcard she got every month. It updated her on Roni’s life, detailing what kind of adventure she was going on and what kind of food she was eating. Only at the end of the postcard did Roni ask about Scottie and Tobin.
Tobin stood up from the couch and opened the closet door where the washing machine was hidden. She reached up to the top shelf and pulled down the old shoebox she kept there. She tossed the postcard on top of the dozens of similar cards and letters and placed the box back in its spot. A part of her hated that she kept them, but even if Scottie didn’t really know Roni, she couldn't bring herself to take away Scottie’s choice to someday know her. She couldn’t, not when Roni’s name was also on the adoption papers, sitting right next to her own.
Christen felt like she blinked and it was already Tuesday, already time for her to see Scottie and the rest of the Development Academy kids, already time for her to try to bring that light back in Scottie’s eyes. It was odd how guilty she still felt, after only meeting the kid once. But there was something about Scottie Heath that made her want to be better. Even if her mom was a piece of work, she still wanted to make the kid happy.
It had been a tough weekend of training, especially with their game against Orlando FC coming up in a week and a half. But as Christen made her way over to the training facilities from the locker room, freshly showered after their morning fitness session, she felt a small pep in her step. A pep that hadn’t been there in a while.
She was the first one to the fields, so she took it upon herself to get all of the equipment out of the shed. She had been fighting the old, rusty lock for two minutes now, and no amount of gentle pleading or not-so-gentle yanking on the lock was working.
“Coach Christen!” Scottie yelled, dropping her soccer bag and racing across the field.
Christen jerked at the sound of Scottie’s voice, her arm yanking down on the lock and somehow doing the trick to get it open. She turned to look over her shoulder as she opened up the shed.
“Scottie Heath, you’re early,” Christen replied hesitantly when she caught sight of Scottie’s mom hanging just behind the girl.
“Mommy wanted to stop for coffee,” Scottie shrugged. “Can I help?”
Christen looked inside the shed and decided the stack of cones was probably the easiest thing for the kid to carry. She grabbed it and walked it over to Scottie, avoiding the mom at all costs.
“Want to take these over for me?” Christen said, inclining her head in the direction of the fields they’d be playing on today. She smiled at the girl, happy to see that Scottie didn't turn away from her or avoid eye contact.
“Yes, please,” Scottie beamed, grabbing the cones and heading in the direction Christen had motioned toward.
Christen watched Scottie for a few seconds, making sure she wasn’t struggling with the cones before turning her attention to Scottie’s mom, which was a mistake since the woman was already looking at her...and she looked so different than she had a few days ago.
This time she sported a pair of gray joggers and Air Jordans, a plain white t-shirt and large, chunky black-framed glasses. Her hair was in loose waves around her face, tucked under a royal blue beanie that had Christen wondering what time of year it was. Nobody wore a beanie in the muggy May weather of the Tri-State area.
Christen couldn’t even fathom how this was the same woman who had yelled at her, who had looked uptight and anal and annoying in a power pantsuit the other day.
Tobin felt extremely awkward under Christen’s gaze, knowing that she was the one who needed to apologize. She’d never been rude to someone like this. She’d never really had to do awkward apologies with perfect strangers, and now that she was faced with one, she was searching for the right words to say.
Christen quickly looked away and cleared her throat, spinning on her heel to walk back to the equipment shed. She needed some kind of distraction from the tension in the air and she was hoping to find it in the soccer equipment she needed to carry.
“I’m really sorry,” Tobin finally forced herself to blurt out, deciding to just rip the Band-Aid off.
Christen tensed, her hand wrapped around the straps of the two ball bags. She swallowed thickly and threw the bags over her shoulder before turning around.
“No biggie, she seems to be doing a lot better today which is good,” Christen replied, her voice tight.
“I shouldn’t have assumed that you did something egregious. I definitely went into protective mom mode when I saw her cry, and that’s on me,” Tobin continued, knowing that Christen was just trying to get her to leave with the ‘no biggie’ response.
“It’s...fine,” Christen offered, readjusting the bags on her back.
“I didn’t know how you take your coffee, so it’s black, but I brought some creamer packets. I promise not to walk into you and spill it this time,” Tobin said, holding out one of the coffee cups.
Christen looked down at the coffee cup between them and then back up to meet the woman’s eyes. They looked different today too, warm and honeyed and soft. They were just a little mesmerizing and Christen felt them stir something deep within her she didn’t even know existed.
“I don’t accept coffee from women I don’t know the name of,” Christen found herself saying, her eyes widening just a bit at the friendly tone in her voice. It was as if one look at those warm brown eyes had erased the memories of the terse comments and the anger.
“You’re right. I have the advantage with the t-shirt,” Tobin smiled, nodding to the shirt Christen had to wear with her name on it. “That and my kid can’t stop talking about you. I’m Tobin.”
“Nice to meet you, Tobin,” Christen said, feeling a small half-smile of her own tug at her lips. The woman's name tasted sweet on her tongue and had that strange feeling inside of her multiplying. “And you really didn’t have to get me coffee," she added with a shrug.
“I didn’t want the apology to seem hollow,” Tobin shrugged.
“And coffee renders it not hollow?” Christen replied, her brow arching slightly in amusement.
“You must not like coffee as much as I do,” Tobin chuckled.
“I never said that,” Christen quipped, deciding not to turn down the free coffee and swiping the cup from Tobin’s hand. "Thanks," she said, lifting up the cup a bit in Tobin's direction.
“Creamer?” Tobin asked, reaching into her pocket and holding out a few small creamer packets.
“Uh,” Christen paused, looking between her hands full of the coffee cup and the bags of balls. “You can just set them on top of the cup, I guess.”
“I can take a bag and let you doctor the coffee if you want,” Tobin offered.
Christen hesitated for a moment and then conceded, slinging one of the bags of balls off her shoulder and dropping it onto the ground between them. Tobin leaned down and picked up the bag, putting it on her own shoulder and nodding to the field where Scottie was now spinning in small circles.
Christen nodded, accepting the packets of creamer from Tobin and then leading the way over to the field. As they approached the field, Christen caught sight of Kelley and Becky walking in from the parking lot.
“Tar Heel!” Kelley greeted with a big wave.
“Cardinal!” Tobin yelled back with a wide smile.
“You two know each other?” Christen asked, her eyes traveling between the familiar smiles on her best friend’s face and the face of a woman who she’d only just formally met a few moments ago.
“Coach Kelley signed me in!” Scottie said, dancing closer to Christen with a sweet smile on her face. “I told you she liked Mommy’s jersey.”
“Right, Mommy’s jersey,” Christen nodded, filing away that piece of information. So Tobin had played soccer in college and not just at any college, at the University of North Carolina. Christen wasn’t impressed or anything, but she was curious. Just curious. “You played?” she asked Tobin, setting the ball bag down and starting to add creamer to her coffee.
“Mommy was the best!” Scottie supplied before Tobin could even get her mouth open to answer.
“I did play,” Tobin nodded, wrapping her arms around Scottie to keep her still. She had been dancing a little too close to Christen’s coffee cup, and she really didn’t need another member of the Heath family to knock it over.
“Do you still play?” Christen wondered, unsure why she kept asking questions, unsure why she wanted to. It was those damn brown eyes and that lopsided grin. They were like a siren call she was powerless to resist.
Tobin shrugged softly. She couldn’t tell someone she just met that she gave things up for a girl who turned out to not really care about her that much.
“Nope. Injury, and then life happened,” Tobin said.
“I’m guessing she’s life?” Christen asked, nodding at the girl in Tobin’s arms.
“The best part of it,” Tobin nodded, ruffling Scottie’s hair.
Christen felt a smile make its way onto her face and she didn’t have time to hide it before Kelley and Becky finally joined them.
“I know that’s definitely a smile from Pretty Pressy. Can’t tell me otherwise!” Kelley laughed, snagging the coffee cup from Christen’s hand and taking a sip.
“Who’s Pretty Pressy?” Scottie asked, looking up at Tobin for an answer.
“No one,” Christen quickly said, narrowing her eyes at Kelley and stealing her coffee cup back.
“Pretty Pressy,” Scottie mumbled under her breath, her eyebrows scrunching together in thought.
“Uh...I should probably go and find a place to sit,” Tobin said, letting go of Scottie.
“You can chill over here if you want,” Kelley offered, checking with Becky and getting a shrug in response. “But only if you bring me coffee next time too.”
“Who says I brought anyone coffee?” Tobin teased, sending a grin in Kelley’s direction.
“But you did Mommy. Coach Christen is holding it,” Scottie replied, like it was obvious, having completely missed the joking tone in Tobin’s voice.
“Little bit, we have got to work on your sneaky skills,” Tobin laughed.
“Since the cat’s out of the bag, and the offer’s on the table, I like white chocolate mochas,” Becky winked, grabbing the cones and heading out to the field to start setting up some drills.
“Noted,” Tobin nodded, making her way over to the bench that Kelley had pointed her toward.
“I love caramel macchiatos, thanks Tar Heel!” Kelley grinned, knocking her fist into Tobin’s shoulder and following Becky out onto the field.
Christen took one more sip of her coffee and set it down on the bench next to Tobin, a faux serious expression on her face.
“Watch that like a hawk, Kel steals,” Christen said.
“You have my word,” Tobin laughed, reaching out and moving the cup closer to herself.
Christen’s lips twitched up into her fourth or fifth smile of the morning, the expression feeling a bit foreign on her face. She quickly shook herself out of it and grabbed a ball from the bag.
“Want to pass the ball, kid?” Christen asked Scottie, hoping for a distraction from the brown eyes and lopsided grin.
“With you?” Scottie asked, her voice raising an octave in excitement.
Christen looked around, pretending like she was searching for anybody else on the field with them. “If you want?” Christen replied, her chest warming at the sight of the light back in Scottie’s gray eyes.
“Yes, please!” Scottie cheered, focusing her eyes on Christen and the ball in her hands.
Christen set the ball down and juggled it, the size 4 ball feeling weird for a few moments since it was a full size smaller than the one she used. But she quickly got acquainted with it and sent a soft pass across the grass to Scottie.
“Sorry if I hurt your feelings last time,” Christen said, her hands on her hips as she watched Scottie trap the ball flawlessly.
“Sometimes I take things too seriously,” Scottie said.
“Me too, kid,” Christen chuckled, watching with surprise as Scottie sent a hard pass back to her. She trapped it with the inside of her foot and passed it back to Scottie.
“Mommy says if I get too frustrated I forget to have fun,” Scottie continued, her talkative self enjoying the way Christen had opened up the lines of communication.
“You shouldn’t forget that,” Christen agreed.
“Sorry if I got you in trouble,” Scottie said, squinting in the sunshine.
“Just with your mom, but I think she’s forgiven me,” Christen teased, kicking the ball up and juggling it a few times, showing off just a bit for Scottie. Just for Scottie, not for Tobin who was sitting a few yards away, watching them with keen interest.
“She doesn’t stay mad long. When I make big messes, she still forgives me really fast,” Scottie said, watching Christen juggle intently.
Christen sent a soft volley in Scottie’s direction, which Scottie trapped easily. “Does she clean them up for you?” Christen asked. She found it easy to talk to this kid, who was just shy of 8, she’d checked the registration papers. She wondered why it was easier to talk to Scottie than it was to talk to a lot of other people in her life. Maybe it was because Scottie didn’t expect anything from her.
“No, but she always helps,” Scottie said. “You should have seen the last time I tried to help in her studio.”
“Studio?” Christen parroted, her brow furrowing.
“I spilled paint everywhere, and Mommy wasn’t super happy, but she helped me clean it up,” Scottie said, plowing right through Christen’s confusion.
“Paint and a studio...so she’s an artist of some kind,” Christen thought, filing away that piece of information about Tobin as well. She watched Scottie try to pull a few tricks with the soccer ball, laughing a bit when they failed and letting out surprised huffs when they worked.
“Mommy!” Scottie yelled, making sure that Tobin was paying attention. “Look, Coach Christen. Mommy taught me this.” Scottie stepped forward and flicked the ball over her shoulder in a perfect rainbow.
Christen’s eyebrows shot up. She shouldn’t even let herself be shocked anymore with what that kid could do with a soccer ball. Scottie Heath was full of surprises.
“It took me five months to learn it, and I broke two of Mommy’s lamps,” Scottie grinned.
Christen laughed and looked over at Tobin who confirmed it with a nod and a smile.
“Well it’s super impressive, so I think it was worth it,” Christen replied, walking over to give Scottie a high-five.
“Mommy said they were ugly lamps anyway,” Scottie shrugged. “Are we taking shots on goal today?”
Christen scratched at her jaw. “Um, we can if you want to. But we don’t have to…”
“I promise not to cry and let you show me how,” Scottie said, looking up at Christen with wide, pleading eyes.
“Well if you promise that, then I promise to let you show me how to rainbow when training is over,” Christen said, crouching down to Scottie’s eye level.
“You’ve got yourself a deal!” Scottie said, reaching her hand out to shake Christen’s.
Christen looked over at Tobin as if to say, Is she for real with this? She just got a deep, raspy laugh in response, a laugh that hit her right in the chest. Clearing her throat, Christen turned back to Scottie and took Scottie’s hand with her own, giving it a shake.
“You gotta seal the deal with a fist bump too, it’s the rules,” Christen said, taking her hand out of the short handshake. She smiled at Scottie, holding her hand up for a fist bump.
Scottie quickly knocked her fist against Christen’s before shaking her hand in a shaka sign and dancing away from Christen. She ran over to a group of girls who had just arrived, already fast friends with many of them.
Christen chuckled and walked over to the bench, making sure to keep a good bit of space between her and Tobin as she sat down. “Thanks for protecting it,” Christen said, grabbing the coffee cup from the bench.
“Anytime,” Tobin nodded, stretching her legs out in front of her and keeping her eyes on Scottie across the field.
“You got a good kid, Tobin,” Christen commented, slyly looking down at where Tobin’s left hand was curled around the edge of the bench. She noted the bare ring finger, filing that away as well. Just because she was curious. Just curious.
“Thank you,” Tobin said, smiling at the dorky way Scottie was telling a story to one of the other girls. “She came that way.”
Christen was desperate to ask what that meant, suddenly wanting to know more, a lot more, possibly everything. It scared her, how quickly the desire to know things about this woman seated next to her came on. Especially since the last time they’d interacted, it had been clipped and tense. Especially since this mom and her kid seemed to exude light and joy, and Christen wasn’t in a light or joyful place in life. So instead of asking, she quickly got to her feet, forgetting her coffee on the bench.
“I should go get things ready,” Christen blurted, running a hand over her hair and down her ponytail.
“Have a fun practice,” Tobin said, looking directly at Christen and smiling softly. “Don’t worry, I’ll watch the coffee.”
Christen smiled weakly and quickly walked off. “What are you doing? She’s the mom of a kid you’re coaching because you almost trashed the image of your professional team. Get it together,” Christen chastised herself, hurrying over to where the girls were gathering so she could get practice started.
Tobin couldn’t help but watch Christen walk across the field to the group of kids. She was only human. For that matter, she was a gloriously gay human, and she could see that Christen was an attractive woman. No, Christen was more than that. She was a beautiful woman. A woman that made you stop in your tracks, that made your heart race, that made you want to be a little foolish.
When she’d first seen Christen, she hadn’t gotten the opportunity to really appreciate Christen’s looks, but now that they weren’t at each other’s throats, her looks and physique were captivating. There was something about the way she smiled, almost like she couldn’t help it, almost like she wasn’t used to it, that made Tobin want to make her smile as much as possible.
Tobin quickly shook the thoughts from her mind and forced herself to pull her eyes off of Christen’s retreating form. Christen was a part of Scottie’s world, and Tobin wasn’t about to complicate things, not that a woman like Christen would give her the time of day with a 7-year-old hanging on her arm.