The bell above the door dinged as Tobin left the shop. She navigated the crowded boardwalk until there was enough space for her to put down her board and push off. She watched a dance troupe doing their opening bit as she skated by, and a little further down a man in green scrubs was advertising a dispensary. She liked Venice, but it was better in small doses. The people were relaxed and friendly, but the faint smell of stale weed seemed to permeate everything. Tobin liked that every other person had some kind of board and that she could stop to watch whatever street performance was currently on.
On the other hand, Christen thought Venice was for tourists and high school kids trying to piss off their parents and said that going there would give them a contact high that would cause them to fail their drug tests. So, when Tobin said she was going to her favorite surf shop here and asked her girlfriend if she wanted to come, she already knew the answer would be no. That gave her the perfect excuse to keep the last of Christen's Valentine's Day present a surprise. She had just finished solidifying her cover story with a replacement fin and was heading back toward her car to get the present when a small group gathered around a busker caught her attention.
Tobin could see a soccer ball periodically bouncing above the heads of the crowd gathered and could hear the familiar thumps of juggling in between the crowd's oohs and aahs. She hopped off her board and walked around the side of the group, toward the beach wall, to get a better view. She saw a small girl, who looked to be in her early teens, freestyling to music off of an iPhone with a cracked screen, an orange Nike shoe box in front of her for tips.
Tobin guessed she had arrived toward the end of the routine because the onlookers were already excited and the girl seemed to be ramping up to the finale. She pulled out her phone and started filming, just in time to catch her do an impressive combination of around the worlds, finishing by popping the ball up, catching it on the back of her neck, and giving a little curtsy. The crowd cheered and whistled, many dropping money into the box. Tobin put her phone away and fished around for cash in her pockets. She came up with a five and moved in front of the girl, who was thanking her patrons as they went about their day.
"You're pretty good. How old are you?"
The girl looked up and froze, her eyes wide. Her mouth hung half open.
Tobin backtracked. "I don't mean to be nosy or anything. Like, I know your parents probably tell you not to talk to strangers and they're right, I just—"
Something flashed across the girl's face and she closed her eyes and shook her head. "You're Tobin Heath," she blurted.
"Oh!" Tobin said. She laughed and scratched the back of her neck. "Yeah, I am. Nice to meet you!"
She stuck out her hand and smiled. The girl took it, but she still seemed a little overwhelmed.
"I'm Mattie. And twelve," she said bashfully.
"Twelve?" Tobin asked, confused.
"You asked how old I was...I'm twelve."
Now it was Tobin's turn to be surprised. "Twelve? Shi—dang! You're really good for twelve. Whose club do you play for?"
"I don't — I don't play for a club," Mattie responded, blushing.
"Oh, do you just freestyle then? Like you don't play regular football?"
Mattie looked more embarrassed at this.
"I didn't mean like freestyling was weird or anything! It's really cool!" Tobin corrected quickly.
"No!" Mattie interjected. "I do play regular socc—football. I mostly just play pickup, though."
Tobin smiled at that. "That's cool! Sometimes that's my favorite way to play. Want to go kick the ball around a little?"
Mattie balked. "With you?"
"Yeah. You can teach me that trick you did that was like a karate kick."
Mattie still looked stunned, but picked up her shoe box, iPhone, and ball and followed Tobin over the wall and onto the beach.
"It kind of looks like it's gonna rain," Tobin commented.
"Yeah," Mattie agreed. "I hate it. It's been storming a lot the past few weeks."
"Chr — I mean my —," Tobin coughed. "I heard it was because there's a really strong El Niño."
"There's a really strong 'the boy'?" Mattie questioned, confused.
Tobin laughed. "No it's like this thing with the ocean — I don't really know. It just means it rains more."
"Oh," Mattie accepted, shrugging and putting her things down in the sand. She rolled the ball onto her foot and balanced it in the crook of her ankle. "Here," she said, kicking it up to Tobin.
Tobin caught the ball and juggled from foot to foot before passing it back. "Hold up," she said, taking off her shoes and socks and rolling up her jeans. She tossed each of her sneakers into the sand a few feet apart as a makeshift goal. "Much better."
Mattie laughed. "Now you're going to have sand on your feet when you put your shoes back on!"
"Worth it," Tobin said confidently. "Let's play."
As they started to play one on one — Tobin taking it easy, but Mattie making her work a little — Mattie peppered her with questions about the national team and her own tricks. ("Favorite game?" "World cup final." "Favorite youtube video to make?" "Soccer Tennis with Yael.")
Eventually, after she had poked the ball around Tobin and between the shoes, Mattie asked about the World Cup coming up in June. "Do you guys like the group? Are you glad you'll play Sweden that early or no?"
Tobin shrugged and shagged the ball. "Most of the team from the Olympics was pretty happy about it, but I don't really care. We'll play who we play when we play 'em, y'know?" She passed the ball out to Mattie. "We'll play winners. You go again."
Mattie lined up against Tobin, positioning her hips right, then crossing over neatly to her left. Tobin read it the whole way, simulating real defense for the young player. Mattie pulled her right foot over the ball and spun her body back toward Tobin, who stayed with her for the second crossover. Except Mattie didn't crossover, instead deflecting the ball through Tobin's legs and pushing her to dart after it. Tobin tried to follow but was laughing too hard to recover.
"I can't believe you megged me!" she complained, still chuckling.
Mattie just tapped the ball between the shoes and threw her arms out in celebration. "Goooalasssoooo! And the LA Sunrise unseat defending champs, the Portland Thorns, in the NWSL final," she boomed in her best announcer voice. "How the mighty have fallen!"
Tobin laughed harder at this display. "I see how it is, then. You're a Sunrise fan?"
"Of course," Mattie retorted. "¡Soy de Los Ángeles!" she called, playing again to the non-existent crowd.
Tobin grinned. "Who's your favorite player?"
Mattie shrugged and ducked her head. "I don't know," she blushed.
"C'mon," Tobin insisted. "You know, I happen to know a few Sunrise players. I could probably get you an autograph or some tickets..."
The girl looked up at this. "Are you serious?"
Tobin tried not to giggle at the hopeful look on her face. She put on a nonchalant expression and shrugged, walking over to her socks and shoes and picking them up. "I think we could probably make something work."
Mattie looked like she was scared to voice whose autograph she really wanted, so her next question came out soft and quiet. "Can you get me Christen and Mal's autographs?"
Tobin decided to mess with Mattie a little more, flopping down on the beach wall and huffing. "Oh I see — you want their autographs but not mine?"
Mattie saw right through her teasing, narrowing her eyes and smirking, lazily picking up the ball and walking to the wall to sit next to Tobin. "Well, I did just nutmeg you, so maybe you should be asking for my autograph."
Tobin scoffed humorously. "Well if that's the way it's gonna be..."
Mattie crossed her arms over her chest and tried to look tough. "Mmmhm. It is."
They continued to look at each other with narrowed eyes until Tobin broke and threw her head back laughing. Mattie lasted a half a second more in her posturing before doing the same.
"For what it's worth," Mattie conceded. "You are my little brother's favorite player. He's too young to sit through a whole match, but he makes me show him the Youtube videos over and over. He can't say your name so he just calls you 'Toes'. Like, 'Mattie, put on the Toes videos.'"
Tobin smiled as she brushed the sand off her feet as best she could. "That's cute. How old's your brother?"
Mattie grinned widely at this topic. "He's four. Or as he would tell you, four and a half."
Tobin laughed. "I have a lot of nieces and nephews that age. They say some pretty funny stuff."
"Tell me about it. You know the donut shop with the giant donut on the roof? It's on his way to preschool, and for weeks at the beginning of the year, he would ask me if I thought I could score a goal in the donut. I had no idea what he was talking about until I happened to go past it one day and realized it was on his way. I told him I don't think they let you shoot at it and he just said, 'Toes could do it.'"
"We'll definitely have to get him some swag then," Tobin laughed. "I'm not sure I can make that donut thing happen, though."
Mattie's grin grew even wider. "That would be really cool."
Tobin nodded, put her shoes on, and stood. "We'll make it happen then. Any other requests? Who're your favorite national team players?"
"Still Christen and Mal," Mattie said surely.
"Yeah," Tobin agreed. "They're pretty good, huh?"
Mattie cocked an eyebrow at her. "Thinking of joining the Sunrise?"
Tobin paused but answered confidently. "Nope — Thorns forever!"
"What about you, though?" she continued. "You're really good, but if you wanna play for them someday, you gotta start playing competitive soccer. Have you tried out for any clubs?"
It was Mattie's turn to look uncomfortable. For the first time since meeting her, Tobin actually took in her appearance. The girl had curly dark hair, bright brown eyes and tanned brown skin with small freckles across her cheeks. She was wearing a pair of black Nike soccer shorts, a ratty red t-shirt that said "St. Joseph's Youth Center" and black Adidas soccer sneakers that looked to be the same age as she was. The ball she held between her knees was similarly worse for wear.
Tobin wondered if she'd been presumptuous, so she corrected herself. "Those teams are pretty expensive, though. And the travel can really add up. You can always play for your school. There are a lot of chances to get noticed that way," she reassured.
Mattie stared out at the clouds above the water as if trying to make a decision. She readjusted her face and gave Tobin a small smile. "No, I'm going to join a club. I just have to save up for the fees, that's why I'm out here freestyling," she explained. "My parents just think I should pay some of them," she added quickly.
"Oh, that's cool I guess," Tobin accepted. She dug into her pockets and found two 20's. "Let me contribute to the fund then," she said as she grabbed the Nike box and placed the cash in.
Mattie tried to protest but Tobin cut her off. "We talk all the time about growing the future of the women's game," she explained and gave her a small smile. "That's what I'm doing here." She closed the box and handed it back to Mattie. "And do you have a cell phone? Or I should probably get your parents' number, actually, if you want those tickets and stuff?"
Mattie's eyes went wide. "No! Uhhh..no, I don't want to trouble you. Seriously, this was already so cool," she said nervously.
"Are you sure?" Tobin asked. "At least let me sign something for your little brother, then. If I can't score a goal through a donut."
Mattie relented. "Okay. I don't really have anything for you to sign, though."
"Here," Tobin pulled out a Sharpie and took off the black Thorns snapback she wore.
"You really don't need to give him your hat—"
Tobin waved her off. "They give me a bunch of these to wear around because they think it makes people buy them."
"Okay. But...what do you carry around a Sharpie for? To give autographs with?" Mattie teased.
Tobin blushed. "A girl asked me to sign something earlier and forgot to take it back." She flipped over the cap and began to write on the red underside of the brim. "What's his name?"
"It's Sam," Mattie replied, trying to see what Tobin was writing.
"Alright," Tobin said, putting the cap on the pen and the hat on Mattie's head. "I've got to run, but seriously, if you want tickets to a Sunrise game, just have your parents call the front office and tell them to say I told you to call."
"Tell the Sunrise office to say you called?" Mattie questioned, raising her eyebrows.
Tobin shrugged, grabbed her board and purchases, and stepped back over the wall. "The message will get to me," was her only explanation. "But I'd better be hearing more from you either way," she said as she turned. "I want people warning me about your nutmegging skills, alright?"
Mattie nodded in response and Tobin started to ride up the boardwalk. She looked down at the bill of the hat in her hands, which read
To Sam —
Make sure to get your sister's autograph while you still can.
"Tobin!" Mattie called. Tobin turned her head as she was gliding off. Mattie tried to think of something to say. "Thank you!" was all she could come up with. Tobin sent her a big smile and a shaka sign.
Mattie stood on the cloudy beach, holding the hat with a dazed expression on her face.
Tobin skated back to her car and sat in the front seat, typing out a tweet.
Awesome chillin w u Mattie! This kid is the real deal!!! Future star here!!
She attached the video she took of Mattie's finale and sent the tweet. She swore as the 'Low Battery' pop up flashed, locking her phone and putting it in the cup holder before she pulled out of the spot to resume her original mission.
As Tobin pulled off the highway later on her way home, the skies opened up. Luckily, she was only about two turns and a half a mile from her driveway. She parked and hid the present under her jacket, grabbing the surf shop bag and racing to the door. She ducked inside, carefully taking off her socks and shoes and trying to keep the sand from the beach as contained as possible.
"Shit," she whispered after spilling a little and trying to sweep it over the door-jam, but only succeeding in pushing it into the crack underneath.
"Tobin?!" Christen called from the other room. "Come in here!"
Tobin looked up guiltily from her half-assed cleaning attempt and rushed to the hall closet to hide her present. "Hey, babe, one sec! I'm coming!" She shoved the bag in the pocket of her UNC hoody that was hanging there, one of the few pieces of clothing she was fairly sure Christen wouldn't steal.
"Seriously, Tobs, I've been calling you for almost an hour now. You need to see this!"
Tobin walked into the living room, completely confused now. "How come I didn't get your—" she started, before pulling out her dead phone. "Oops. What's going on?"
Christen was standing in front of the TV, remote in one hand and cell phone in the other, as the local news played. "Here, I'll start at the beginning." She rewinded the show a few minutes.
Runaway ward spotted in online video , the text on the screen read.
"New this hour," the anchor began. "Earlier today, soccer star Tobin Heath, of the United States Women's National Team and the Portland Thorns, tweeted a video from the Venice Boardwalk of a young girl doing some impressive tricks with a soccer ball."
Tobin's tweet, and then the video, flashed on the screen as the anchor continued, "The video was retweeted thousands of times. Soon after, a Twitter user posted a side by side photo comparison of the girl in the video with a flyer of missing foster children in the checkout of a Vons supermarket. The posters, distributed by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services, were created in an effort to reduce the number of missing and runaway foster children in LA. That number rose over 500 in 2018, the highest it has been in over a decade. The girl was identified by a number of twitter users from the LA DCFS website as Matilde García, a twelve-year-old last seen over 6 weeks ago. A DCFS spokesperson said they are glad García appears to be in good health, and have asked local area police and LAPD to be on the lookout for anyone matching her description, in hopes that they can return her to safe care. Both LAPD and DCFS urge anyone with information to come forward."
Christen paused the TV again and turned to Tobin. "You weren't even gone for three hours," she said, exasperated. "How did you manage to cause this much trouble?"
"I guess now I know why she didn't want to give me her parents' phone number," Tobin replied, still processing the new information.
"Why did you want to call her parents? Was she okay?"
"Huh? Yeah. I was just trying to get her tickets to a game," Tobin explained, as if this was obvious.
"A Thorns game?" Christen questioned. "Or, like, whenever we have a friendly here."
"No, a Sunrise game," Tobin said, pausing to exaggerate her displeasure at the next bit of information. "She's a huge Sunrise fan, and you and Mal are her favorite players."
Christen smirked at this news and Tobin's performed disdain for it. She put down the remote and walked toward the front of the house. "C'mon," she motioned to Tobin. "Get your jacket."
"Where are we going?" Tobin asked, still feeling like she had taken a ball a little too hard to the head.
"To go help look for this girl," Christen said assertively. "It's pouring rain out. We have to at least try to find her and get her inside."
Tobin smiled at Christen's explanation and followed her over to the closet. Christen grabbed her and Tobin's jackets, as well as a pile of beach towels.
"What are those for?" Tobin asked.
"In case we find her and she's drenched from the storm."
"Oh. Good call. Actually, wait," Tobin ran off up the stairs and returned 30 seconds later holding LA Sunrise rain gear. "She didn't have a jacket with her."
Christen smiled approvingly. "Good idea. I especially like the choice of team."
"Yeah, well," Tobin grumbled. "I couldn't take the chance of bringing Thorns gear and her refusing to wear it."
Christen laughed as they pulled up their hoods and walked out into the storm.
Rain beat down on the windshield as Christen pulled onto Highway 1. By some miracle (or perhaps by El Niño's divine intervention) people had decided to avoid the storm and there was little traffic.
Tobin had been quiet since getting in the car, and Christen was starting to worry. "Hey there, broody," she said, putting her hand on Tobin's leg. "What's going on?"
Tobin looked down and played with Christen's index finger. "I should've noticed that something was weird while I was talking to her. I mean — who lets their twelve-year-old go to Venice alone?" Tobin rubbed the heel of her hand into her eye. "What if Mattie's hurt or something? I could've helped her if I'd known earlier—what if she's not okay?" she asked quietly.
Christen ran her thumb across Tobin's knee. "She's been on her own for six weeks, Tobs. She's good at not getting caught, and she's made it this long on her own. She can make it a little bit longer."
"What are we going to do if we find her?" Tobin asked, still worried. "Do we bring her to the police station?"
"They were showing a hotline on TV for you to call with information," Christen answered, trying to be reassuring.
"Did you write it down?" Tobin asked.
"No, but they kept showing it on the screen so I remember it."
Tobin grinned at that, her nerves starting to abate. "Wow, you're such a nerd," she teased.
Christen rolled her eyes. "It's a phone number, Tobin. They showed it like 100 times. It's not like I was memorizing digits of pi."
"Seriously, such a nerd."
Christen went to take her hand back, but Tobin held it, bringing it up to her lips and kissing her knuckle. "You're a very, very pretty nerd," she corrected.
"Hmm," Christen replied, returning her hand to Tobin's knee.
"How'd you even know what happened?" Tobin asked. "You never watch local news."
Christen raised her eyebrows and flicked her gazed to Tobin and then back toward the road. "Tobin. It was all over Twitter. My mom called when she saw it on the news. Plus, everyone was texting you, and then when they couldn't get a hold of you, they texted me. Have you not turned your phone back on yet?"
"What? No," Tobin answered. "I left it at the house cause it was still dead."
Christen sighed and exaggerated an eye roll, but squeezed her hand. "And to think, all of this excitement because you waited until the last day to buy my Valentine's Day gift."
Tobin whipped her head to face her girlfriend, a defensive expression on her face. "What? What do you mean? I went to the surf shop!"
Christen laughed. "Literally every time you go to that surf shop, it's almost Christmas or almost my birthday or almost our anniversary, or I get some random present from you a few days later. You always make a big deal about how you're going to the surf shop in Venice , and then I pretend to hate Venice so you can pretend to be sneaky."
Tobin looked shocked by this information. She released Christen's hand and turned back in her seat, crossing her arms and frowning out the window.
"No, honey," Christen bargained. "Don't pout. I think it's really cute!"
Tobin pouted more. "I can't believe you knew this whole time," she complained but laid her hand back on top of Christen's.
"It's only because I know you so well," Christen answered.
"Does this mean you're gonna come with me now when I go to Venice?" she asked hopefully.
Christen wrinkled her nose. "I didn't say I liked Venice. I may have just...exaggerated my distaste so you could think you were smooth."
"Well, then. I'm just gonna keep using it. But I'll go to more often, so you won't know if you're getting a present or not," Tobin reasoned.
"Or you could just buy me presents every time anyway."
"Maybe I will. Also, I am smooth."
Christen decided to let her have it, squeezing Tobin's hand before returning hers to the wheel. "We're a few blocks from the beach, we should start keeping an eye out now."
"How are we going to find her?" Tobin asked.
"Let's just check out where you met her, and see if we see any places she could go to get dry."
Tobin and Christen both got out when they got to the beach, Tobin showing Christen where she met Mattie and the two of them searching up the boardwalk in opposite directions. Once they found nothing, they moved a block in from the shore, before returning to the car and crawling through the parallel streets, slowly moving inland.
"She may not stick around here," Christen suggested. "Maybe she just took a bus to Venice for the day?"
"I don't know," Tobin thought. "It kind of seemed like she performed there a lot. Maybe you're right, though. I don't really remember her mentioning anything about how she got around. I don't think she had a bike or whatever."
"Maybe she's staying with a friend," Christen posited. "Did she mention anyone she hangs out with or anything?"
"Actually, yeah. Well—not a friend. She has a little brother, Sam. It seemed like they were pretty close," Tobin answered. "It’s not like she could stay with him, though. He's four and a half."
"Did she say where he lived? Maybe she's nearby."
"Well, he passes the donut on the way to school," Tobin offered.
Christen looked at Tobin out of the corner of her eye to see if she was joking. "He passes the donut?"
"Apparently, there's like a donut shop with the giant donut on the roof? He asked her if she could kick a ball through it..."
"Ohhhh..." Christen laughed. "Randy's, yeah. Okay, let's head up that way then." She switched on her blinker at the next intersection and turned left. The rain was still beating down on the windshield, the wipers going full speed, but the sky had cleared near the horizon to the east, and it was lit up pink and gold. "Why does he want her to shoot a ball through it?"
"I don't know," Tobin shrugged. "He's four. He said I could do it, though."
"You?" Christen asked.
"Yep. I'm his favorite player," she said proudly. "He calls me 'Toes' because he can't say 'Tobin'."
Christen laughed hard at that answer. "Well, that one is definitely going to stick—"
"—Chris, no—" Tobin interjected.
"—especially when you refuse to put on shoes," Christen finished.
Tobin looked annoyed that her bragging had backfired. "How much longer?" she asked from her position pouting out the window. They were passing back by the airport and a plane coming in from the opposite direction flew over their heads.
"It's a little further up this way. We don't know where she might be staying dry, though, so keep an eye out."
Tobin continued to look out the window as they passed houses and apartment buildings. "Wait," she said, pointing out the window. "Turn down here."
She turned off the main drag and slowly drove along the fence of a large park, where she could see a baseball field and a few soccer fields. "You think she stopped for some footy?" Christen asked with a combination of humor and disbelief.
"That's where I'd go," Tobin answered. Christen brought the car to a stop and Tobin pulled up her hood and opened the door. She turned back inside the car. "Wait here—let me just see if there's somewhere she could be hanging out and then we can head back up toward the donut shop."
Christen nodded as Tobin closed the door and ran to jump over the fence. Christen winced as she caught herself on the top and landed less than gracefully, before pulling into a parking spot and trying to illuminate as much of the park as she could with her high beams.
Tobin looked around in the fading light for a place Mattie might be. The muddy pitch slipped under her shoes, and she wished she were wearing boots. She spotted what looked to be a building on the opposite side of the field and squished her way over. As she approached, she could see it was a small equipment shed, with a door and one small square window. Through the panes, she could make out a bag of soccer balls, some baseball equipment, and what looked like a large tarp piled on the floor. Upon further inspection, Tobin saw a light flashing from one end of the tarp and heard faint voices. She spotted a head of dark hair resting on a beat-up soccer ball and a charging cord that dangled from the shed's utility box before disappearing under the tarp. Tobin tried to damp the hope that crept up from her stomach at the thought of finding Mattie, as well as the fear that some other, possibly dangerous, stranger was hiding under there. There was a broken padlock at the foot of the door, so she only had to pull back the latch to open it.
A figure rushed her wielding an aluminum baseball bat. She covered her head and cursed her stupidity at blindly opening the door.
"Tobin?" she heard Mattie's voice ask confusedly as the figure in front of her lowered its weapon.
Tobin removed her hands from her face to confirm that her ears weren't playing tricks on her. When she saw the girl she had been looking for, she let out a sigh of relief. "Shit—I mean, shoot," she cursed. "Thank God, I thought you were a crazy person."
"You're the one breaking into my shed!" Maddie protested.
"Your shed?" Tobin asked. "I think someone had already broken in here."
"That lock was like that before I ever came here," Mattie explained. "I wouldn't leave such an obvious sign that I was squatting. Speaking of which, how did you find me? Why are you even here?"
Tobin didn't know where to begin. "Do have Twitter?" she offered.
Mattie furrowed her brow at Tobin's explanation. "Yes...but I don't have wifi out here."
"Well, I took a video of the end of your performance, and then I tweeted it, cause it was sick—"
"Shit," Mattie swore under her breath.
"—and then it kind of went viral, and somebody saw your picture at a Vons, and we were on the news—"
"Fuck," Mattie said, louder this time, as she began packing up her small pile of possessions and folding the tarp she had been hiding under.
"Hey!" Tobin scolded. "What are you doing using that word? Also...what are you doing?"
Mattie ignored her and continued to gather her things.
"Mattie, stop!" Tobin interjected, grabbing her elbow. "What are you doing?"
"I can't stay here, it's too close to the beach," she explained, shaking Tobin off. "How long did it even take for you to find me?"
"An hour or two," Tobin answered. "But we were actually on the way to Sam's donut, and I saw the field. We got pretty lucky."
Mattie frowned. "I shouldn't have told you that story."
"Why not? Where are you going, Mattie? What are you planning on doing? You can't just live in equipment sheds and freestyle for spare change."
"I don't see why not. It's worked pretty well so far," Mattie said defiantly.
"Yeah? What about school? You need to get an education. The Sunrise aren't going to be able to scout you if you don't go to college, and neither will US Soccer," Tobin argued.
Mattie wasn't having it. "Lindsey Horan didn't go to college. And Mal could've gone pro right out of high school."
"Yes, but they both went to high school!" Tobin said, not sure why she was getting this frustrated. "They both could've played for any school in the country, and they both started playing club in middle school."
Mattie continued to protest. "The Sunrise have open tryouts every spring. And more and more players are getting called into the Senior team from the NWSL now."
Tobin was reluctantly impressed by the young girl's knowledge of the landscape. "If you know that, you must know how hard it'll be for either of those things to happen. I'm not saying they're impossible, but you'd need to be coached by the best coaches, playing against the best competition, to get that good."
Mattie didn't appear to have a counterargument to that, and Tobin thought she had finally convinced her. "I have six years to figure that out," she finished weakly.
"Well, it'll be much easier to figure out if you're not on the lam," Tobin offered hopefully.
Mattie rolled her eyes. "On the lam? What are you, like, a cowboy?"
Tobin put her hands on her hips and affected her best Texas accent. "I'm the sheriff, missy. And I'm bringing you in."
This time, Mattie's eye roll somehow involved her entire body, with the kind of exaggerated disdain that only a preteen could really pull off. "You're so lame. I'm not coming with you."
Tobin changed tactics. "C'mon...I've got a surprise for you in the car."
Mattie burst out laughing. "Are you trying to sound like a stranger danger video?" she managed to get out. "What did you drive here in? A van with 'Free Candy' painted on the side?"
Tobin huffed. "Okay, that wasn't the best way to phrase that. But you really should come to the car, you won't be sorry." Mattie continued to laugh, and Tobin threw up her hands. "There's no non-creepy way to say that you should get in my car."
Mattie scrunched up her nose, but her eyes were soft. "That's because I'm pretty sure it's legally kidnapping," she teased.
"Kidnapping?!" Tobin protested. "I'm out here trying to return you to safety!"
Mattie laughed, and Tobin frowned at her lack of cooperation. "How about this, then: have you eaten dinner?"
Mattie tilted her head and squinted one eye. "I had a pop tart?"
Tobin frowned further at that. "Okay. Well, we passed a diner on the way here. How about I get you some dinner, and you let me try to convince you that running away is a bad idea?"
Mattie thought about it, seeming to weigh her options. "Okay, then. But only if I can get french fries."
Tobin couldn't believe that worked. "I would be offended if you didn't," she replied. "Here," she took off her jacket and handed it to Mattie. "It's still pretty gross out."
Mattie started to protest, but Tobin just shoved the jacket toward her. "Do you have all your stuff?" Tobin asked.
"Yep," Mattie answered, holding open her Nike box, which now contained a few more clothes and her phone charger. She kicked the ball she had been using as a pillow, the one she and Tobin had played with earlier, up into Tobin's hands. "You carry that."
Tobin held back her concerned comment about this being everything Mattie owned, happy that she convinced the girl to at least come to get food.
Mattie put the shoe box inside Tobin's jacket and zipped it up over her only possessions. Tobin opened the door to the shed and they squelched out onto the muddy grass again. Tobin led Mattie toward the running SUV in the parking lot with the high beams on.
"Who's we?" Mattie asked as they got closer.
"Huh?" Tobin replied.
"You said 'we were on the way to Sam's donut.' Who's in the car?"
Tobin grinned. "That's your surprise!"
Tobin went over the fence first, more gracefully this time, and helped Mattie down. Once they got onto the asphalt, Tobin stomped the mud off her shoes and Mattie copied her. They walked up to the car and Tobin opened the back passenger side door for Mattie. She grabbed one of the towels on the back bench for herself and laid another out for Mattie on the seat.
"Here you go," she offered. "Oh and give me my jacket once you get in, I have a better one for you."
Mattie climbed into the car, unzipping Tobin's coat and placing her Nike box on the seat. Tobin closed the door and got in on the passenger side. As Tobin watched from the front, Mattie shed the jacket and looked up at the woman turned backward in the driver's seat, offering her a small smile. Her eyes went wide with recognition and her mouth fell open.
Her expression didn't change as the woman offered her hand.
"Hi, I'm Christen."
"Hi, I'm Christen."
At first, Christen thought the girl might not take her hand, but she slowly reached out, a nervous expression on her face. That expression changed to annoyance when Tobin let out a gleeful laugh from the passenger side. Mattie shook Christen's hand and smiled at her before kicking the back of Tobin's seat.
"I told you it was a good surprise!" Tobin continued laughing.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me!" Mattie pouted. "You should have just said 'Christen Press is in the car.' It would've been way faster than arguing with me."
"I'll remember that the next time I need to kidnap you," Tobin retorted.
Christen gasped and hit Tobin's shoulder. "Tobin! You can't say that!"
"I—she—-" Tobin sputtered, and put up her hands in clueless defense. Out of the corner of her eye, Christen saw Mattie stick out her tongue at Tobin in the mirror.
"Don't think I didn't see that," she warned.
Tobin grinned smugly back in the mirror before turning to face Christen. "I told Mattie we could go to that diner we passed around the corner," she explained, giving Christen her best puppy dog eyes. Christen looked back questioningly at Mattie, who was bashful again.
"We don't have to if you don't want to," Mattie said, looking at her hands in her lap.
Christen smiled. "Of course I want to go to the diner. Who else is going to steal all of Tobin's french fries?"
Mattie looked up, smiling so wide her grin displayed a gap in her molars where her adult tooth hadn't grown in yet.
Christen felt herself mirroring the expression as she turned to put the car in reverse. She pulled back onto the street, and after Tobin and Mattie began debating what kind of milkshakes they should get, she snuck another glance at the young girl in the back seat. She looked different than the picture they showed on the news, leaner and more tired (too tired for a 12-year-old, Christen thought). She hadn't failed to notice how Mattie guarded the shoe box next to her as if it contained all of her worldly possessions, and Christen took a deep breath when she realized that it probably did.
It only took a minute to get to the diner, a short building with shiny silver accents, on the corner of the main road. The car splashed through a large puddle in the parking lot, which was bathed in the neon blue and pink of the restaurant's lighting. Christen parked the car, and as she and Tobin pulled up their hoods to get out, and Tobin turned around to face Mattie. "Here, I almost forgot," she said, handing back the Sunrise jacket she had grabbed at the house, "we brought you this."
Mattie took the shell, noticing the logo and holding it with reverence. Her eyes scanned over the material until she looked up with a furrowed brow. "Is this Mal's?" she asked, pointing to the number 9 stitched on the arm.
"Yeah," Tobin answered, shrugging. "I figured since she's shorter than Chris, it would fit you better."
Mattie was speechless, but put the coat on and pulled up the hood.
"Ready?" Christen asked, trying to give Mattie a reassuring smile.
"Last one inside is a rotten egg!" Tobin yelled, opening her door and running into the rain. Christen shook her head and rolled her eyes, which made Mattie giggle before they both chased after Tobin toward the entrance.
Per the letterboard at the door, they seated themselves in a booth against the window; the only other patrons were an older couple sitting at the counter. "I'll be right with you," the waitress called from the table she was cleaning.
"No rush," Christen answered. She slid into the bench opposite Mattie, while Tobin sat next to the girl and spread out, putting her feet up next to Christen on the opposite seat. Mattie shot her an incredulous look.
"What?" Tobin asked. "You said you'd hear me out over dinner, I'm getting comfy. I have a lot of arguments to make."
Mattie rolled her eyes and looked grumpy. "Arguments about what?" Christen asked.
" Mattie wants to stay on the run. She's going to juggle for money until she's old enough to go the Sunrise open tryouts," Tobin answered summarily.
Christen turned a concerned gaze on Mattie. "What are you going to do about school?"
Tobin smirked, smug that she was able to hand this argument off to a responsible voice of reason. Mattie at least had the decency to look bashful as she answered, "I don't need to go to school—I'm going to be a professional soccer player."
Christen looked at Mattie sternly. She could see Tobin fidgeting in the corner of her eye, knowing Mattie had given the exact wrong answer to Christen's question.
"I think you know that's not the right answer," Christen started, "but how about you tell us why you think that's the only option?" She looked softly at Mattie, who was now staring at the table with a conflicted expression on her face.
"How about we start with why you ran away?"
At they waited for Mattie to respond, the waitress walked over and handed them menus. Christen waited until she walked away before prompting Mattie again. "Mattie?"
Mattie finally met her eyes, and Christen could see the fear in them. She felt her chest tighten and she reached out to cover one of Mattie's hands with her own. "Let's order first. Have you eaten dinner?"
"She had a poptart," Tobin answered for her.
Christen frowned at this information. "You must be hungry then," she said, opening her menu. Tobin and Mattie copied her, but not without Tobin grumbling, "Sure, but when I eat poptarts for dinner, it's all 'You're 30 years old!' and 'What would Dawn say?'."
Christen wanted to scold Tobin for not helping, but as Mattie giggled at her goofiness, she realized the jokes were loosening Mattie up.
"Eating a poptart is okay, Tobs," she responded. "Eating a whole box for dinner is concerning."
"That was one time!" Tobin protested. "And I was really hungry!"
Mattie laughed at their banter, and Christen smiled now that she seemed relaxed again. They all ordered burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Mattie and Tobin bickered over the merits of vanilla milkshakes, which Tobin thought were classic and Mattie thought were " literally the most boring thing ever ." After the waitress had taken their orders, Christen put her hand on Tobin's leg next to her and shot her a look that said try to get her talking. Tobin nodded and winked in understanding.
"So, Mattie, why are you in foster care?" she asked.
Mattie tensed again and looked up in surprise. Christen stopped her thumb, which had been rubbing circles on Tobin's ankle, and pinched her calf. Tobin's knee jerked up and hit the underside of the table, causing the silverware to jump and clang. Mattie raised her eyebrows and looked between Christen, who was frowning at Tobin, and Tobin, who was rubbing her knee and wincing.
"What was that for?" Tobin asked her girlfriend.
"I wanted you to ease into the topic!" Christen complained, exasperated. "You can't just ask someone something like that outright."
Mattie giggled again at the bickering. The women both turned to face her, surprised. "She's right, you know. You're not supposed to ask people how they got orphaned."
"You're an orphan?" Christen asked.
Mattie looked as if she regretted revealing that information.
"Look, Mattie," Christen said cautiously. "You can talk to us, alright? We just want to help."
Mattie looked at Christen, then at Tobin, who nodded in agreement. The girl sighed. "I know you are, I just...hanging out with Tobin earlier, and both of you now...it's, like, really cool. And I don't want to ruin that," she looked down. "I don't want you looking at me like 'poor orphan Mattie.'"
"Hey," Tobin said, and Mattie's gaze rose to meet hers. "I promise not to look at you like poor orphan Mattie." She held out her pinkie to seal the deal. "I'll even go back to making fun of you as soon as you tell us the truth." Mattie looked doubtfully between Tobin, Christen, and Tobin's outstretched little finger.
Christen also held out her pinkie and smiled. "I probably won't make fun of you, I hope that's okay." Mattie smiled at that and accepted both of their pinkie promises.
"Okay," she said.
Gathering herself, she looked out the window and took a deep breath. "My mom was pretty young when she had me; she always said she didn't know who my dad was, but when she was 16, she ran away from home. She came back, six months pregnant, and my Abuela almost didn't let her stay. Thank God she did, because she pretty much took care of me herself."
"I guess when I was first born, my mom was better with me, or at least that's what my Abuela said, but as I got older, she wasn't around as much. I'm pretty sure there were drugs—nobody said anything, and Abuela tried to keep it from me, but I could tell that sometimes she was different, and her and my Abuela would fight and I wouldn't see her weeks at a time. When I was 7, she went missing for like a year. Normally, she would at least try to show up on my birthday, and when she didn't, I remember Abuela praying a lot. I think she thought she was dead. When she finally showed up, Abuela wouldn't let her in the house, probably 'cause she was high, but she had a newborn baby with her. Abuela put me in the car, we took Sam to the hospital and left my mom sobbing on the front porch."
Mattie turned back to the table, staring at the linoleum that covered it.
"That was the last time I saw her. The police showed up at our house a week later, and Abuela just told me Mom was 'with God now.' I think from the way my social worker asks me about it, she might have killed herself, but I really don't know. And...Abuela took really good care of us, but a lot of the time she just wanted to pretend things were better than they were, so whenever I asked about Mom she would make up some story or quote something from the Bible. I know she was just trying to protect me, but I could've handled the truth. Eventually, I just stopped asking about that stuff."
"It’s not like I wasn’t sad when my mom died, but at the same time, she wasn't around that much, so it was kind of easy to pretend she just wasn't there, y'know? I know that sounds bad, but Abuela wouldn't talk about it, and I had this new baby brother, so for the most part, I could just pretend things were better, too. I would play with Sammy, and I even started playing travel soccer with the town. I missed my mom, but everything seemed kinda good somehow."
For the first time since she began the story, Mattie looked truly distressed. Christen and Tobin had both been frozen in place, listening with bated breath from the start. They both leaned toward her at the pause. "At the beginning of the school year—last one, not this one—these guys in suits started coming around the neighborhood. Everyone got really nervous, and Abuela said never to answer the door when they were there." Tears began streaming down Mattie's cheeks at this. "One day, we had gone to the grocery store and were walking back from the bus stop. The men stopped Abuela on the front lawn and told them to show them her papers. She did, but they said she was illegal and committing a crime and they arrested her." At this, Mattie dissolved into sobs.
Tobin put an arm around her and pulled her into her shoulder. Christen could see Tobin was holding back tears as well. She wasn't sure exactly what she was feeling, the anger, sadness, and protectiveness all swirling together. Overpowering it all was a need, deep in the pit of her stomach, to do something—anything—to make Mattie stop feeling like this.
"Mattie," Christen said gently, "Where is your Abuela now? Did she get deported? Is she still in the country?"
Mattie sniffed and tried to stop crying. "No," she answered. "They took her to a detention facility. It was really crowded, and she got sick. Sam and I had been in a group home for around a month and a different social worker showed up. They told us she—" Mattie stopped and put her hands over her face before Tobin pulled her back into her shoulder. Christen's cheeks felt cold where the tear tracks were forming. Tobin was looking at the ceiling, clutching Mattie to her chest.
"Hey, sorry for the wait on these—" the waitress looked up from the tray she was balancing and almost dropped it, surprised by the distress on the faces before her. "I can come back in a few minutes..."
Christen saw Mattie's head shake and heard her mumble something into Tobin's shoulder. Tobin let out a watery chuckle. "That's alright," she said. "I think we're gonna need those milkshakes."
The waitress smiled sympathetically and placed their orders down. She mouthed "let me know if you need anything else" to Christen, who nodded as she backed away.
Mattie extracted herself from Tobin's shoulder. "Sorry about your sweatshirt," she said, nodding at the wet spot she had left.
"Whatever—it was already wet from the rain," she said, shrugging.
Christen pushed Mattie's food in front of her and mixed her shake in the steel cup before placing that in front of her too. "Eat your food while it's hot."
The table was quiet as they dug in, with only Tobin's "Mmm...these fries are good" disrupting the silence.
After most of their dinner was gone, Christen looked up. "Mattie, where's Sam now?"
Mattie swallowed the bite of her burger and gestured behind herself. "He's placed in a group home a mile or so that way."
"Is that where you ran away from?" Tobin asked cautiously.
"Kind of," Mattie said. "Technically, yes, I ran away from there, but they were gonna move me soon. The home was for kids under 12, and I was gonna be moved to this other home in Palmdale."
Christen felt confusion and anger boil up as she furrowed her brow. "Why would they move you so far away? How could they separate you from Sam? Were there no foster families nearby?" Tobin looked up at her, eyes wide at the outburst, but Mattie just swirled a fry in her ketchup and shrugged.
"There aren't a lot of openings for 12-year-old girls," she explained. "And even though my social worker tries, there's this stuff with Sam's birth certificate, 'cause my mom never signed it, and so the system doesn't process us as siblings."
Christen and Tobin both contemplated the circumstances for a moment. "That really sucks," was all Tobin offered, and Christen had nothing else to add.
"Are you able to see him?" Christen asked.
Mattie shook her head. "Not since I left. But I have some friends there, both the kids and the sort of adults who help out there, and I can normally get someone to let me talk to him on the phone every other day or so."
"When will you be able to see him again?" Tobin asked.
"I don't know," Mattie said sadly. "I'm trying to figure something out."
Christen was still outraged by this. "I can't believe they let something like this happen. My dad's friend works at city hall, and I know someone who works for the county. We'll talk to them tomorrow and get this all sorted out," she said decidedly.
"That's really nice of you," Mattie said. "But I don't know what they can do."
"For one, they can probably find you a foster family to stay with, and two, they can get Sam's paperwork fixed," she answered.
"Do you really think that'll work?" Mattie asked doubtfully, a sliver of hope barely filtering into her voice.
"You should try it either way," Tobin offered.
"And if those don't work, we'll keep trying," Christen added. "We'll keep talking to whomever we need to talk to until we figure it out, okay?"
Mattie's expression fought between distrust and gratitude. She took a deep breath.
"Okay, you'll let us help?" Tobin asked.
"Yeah," Mattie said. "Okay, I'll let you try."
"In that case," Christen said, pulling out her phone, "I'm going to call the hotline, because I'm not totally sure we aren't legally kidnapping you right now." Mattie giggled in response as Christen typed in the number.
"Don't laugh," Tobin warned as Christen held the phone to her ear. "If we're in jail, it's going to severely hurt the Sunrise's chances this season."
The line began to ring as Mattie countered Tobin. "Sure," she replied, "but it'll also hurt the Thorns' chances, and that's almost worth it."
At that point, the waitress came over with the bill, putting it face down on the table and giving Tobin a small smile and a "Take your time." The phone in Christen's ear stopped ringing, and after a click, an answering machine message played.
"Thank you for calling the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services Tip Hotline. If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911 immediately. Otherwise, please leave a message describing the incident you saw, as well as your name and contact information. A representative of DCFS will contact you during our business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 6 PM, to follow up with any questions."
The answering machine beeped and Christen frowned. "Hi, this is Christen Press. My number is 424-555-1203. I saw your number on the news and I'm calling about Mattie Garcia. I know where she is and she's safe, and if you just have someone get back to me, we can bring her wherever she's supposed to be. Thank you."
Christen hung up the phone and met Tobin's puzzled and unhappy eyes. "They didn't pick up?" she asked.
"Nope. The message said they would call back between 9 and 6, so I guess we need a plan B."
"I guess we could call the police in MB and see what they say?" Tobin suggested.
Christen shook her head. "No. I'm not taking the chance she spends the night at the police station. C'mon," she motioned, getting up and grabbing the check. She walked up to the counter to pay and Tobin followed close behind.
"Where are we going?" she asked in a low voice.
"We're going home," Christen answered assuredly. "Mattie can stay in Mal's room, the bed is already made from after your brother visited."
"Is that legal?" Tobin whispered.
"It's probably in a gray area," Christen answered as she handed the waitress her card. "Look," she turned back to Tobin. "I'm not letting Mattie stay in some random place tonight that we don't get to have a say in. If DCFS calls, I will answer and say we will meet them at their office in the morning. Either way, Mattie is coming home."
Tobin stood with her mouth agape at her girlfriend's resolution. "Okay," she said, biting her lip nervously. "I guess we're going home." Christen finished paying and they turned to find Mattie, Mal's jacket zipped to her neck, eyes wide, standing expectantly.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"We've got another surprise..." Tobin answered enticingly.
"Oh no," Mattie said cautiously, "What now?"
Tobin pretended to be offended as they exited the diner and walked toward the car; the rain had calmed to a drizzle.
"Were my last suprises not amazing?" she asked, gesturing to Christen as proof.
"You're gonna stay at our place tonight," Christen explained, opening the back door of the SUV for Mattie.
"You guys live together?" Mattie asked as Christen closed the door. Christen froze and looked at Tobin, who was trying not to laugh. Christen pursed her lips and walked around to the driver's side door. She made eye contact with Tobin again across the hood of the car. Tobin just shrugged and rolled her eyes before getting in. Christen followed suit.
"Yes, we live together," Tobin answered, turning around to face Mattie in the back. "Or, at least when we're in LA. Christen is my girlfriend. We've been dating for 3 years."
Christen squinted as spotted a smirk flicker across Mattie's face before she arranged it an innocent expression of confusion. "Your girlfriend?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
Tobin scrambled. "Yeah—I mean, we—uh—" she started, before Mattie broke out into a fit of laughter. Christen joined in when she saw the confused expression on Tobin's face.
"I already knew you two dated," Mattie giggled. "I just wanted to make you explain it."
Christen bit back more laughter at Tobin's indignant disbelief. "How did you already know we were dating?" she asked.
Mattie gave her an exasperated eye roll. "Tobin, literally everyone knows you two are dating."
Christen shook her head at the argument and turned around to start the car. " Everyone? " she heard from Tobin. " Everyone in the whole world knows we're dating?"
Mattie scoffed as Christen backed the car out into the parking lot. "Everyone who knows anything! Everyone on the internet!"
"Well," Tobin took a smug tone, "does everyone know whose room you're staying in tonight?"
Mattie frowned. "What?"
"I'll give you a hint," Tobin continued. "You're wearing her jacket."
Christen could see the realization dawn on Mattie in the rear view mirror before she pulled out onto the street.
When she spoke, her tone was confused. "Mal lives with you?" she asked.
"Only during the season," Christen answered. "She's in Colorado now. Her parents are kind of overprotective and they didn't like the idea of her living with a host family. So, I'm her host family."
Mattie laughed. "That's adorable. I'm surprised the Sunrise didn't make a YouTube video about it—I bet people would love that."
"They tried," Christen explained. "We didn't do it in the preseason because of SheBelieves, and once the season started I think they forgot. I'm sure they'll try to get us to do one this season."
Mattie was silent for a moment. "You alright back there?" Tobin asked.
"Yeah, it's just...this has definitely been the strangest day of my life. I just had milkshakes with two of the best soccer players in the world, and now I'm going to sleep over at their house in Mallory Pugh's bedroom there. If someone told me that this morning, I would've said they were crazy."
Tobin laughed. "See?" she said. "Don't I have great surprises?"