The storm came with little warning. A flash of lightning lit up Clark’s glasses as he huddled beneath the Java Depot awning with three former football teammates, all of them watching the sudden deluge pound the streets of downtown Smallville. The whipping rain had forced them elbow to elbow, and if Clark exercised a little amnesia, it almost felt like old times, back when he and the football squad were thick as thieves.
He doubted they would ever be close like that again. Not after he had quit on them.
Clark had always marveled at the power of thunderstorms, which put even his own mysterious strength into perspective. For others, the storm was nothing more than a nuisance. An older businessman, holding a briefcase over his head, sprinted toward a silver SUV, where he beeped open his door and dove inside. A drenched calico slunk beneath an industrial trash bin, looking for a dry place to wait out the downpour.
“We can’t just stand here all day,” Paul shouted over the roar of the rain. “Come on, let’s make a run for the library.”
Kyle crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels. “Dude, this shit is, like, biblical. I’m not going any
“I guess we could just do this here.” Tommy glanced back at the closed door of the coffee shop before turning to Clark. “Cool with you, big guy?”
Clark shrugged, still wondering what “this” was. And why no one else could be within earshot.
He had been more than a little surprised when Tommy Jones, a lumbering offensive lineman, approached him at school wanting to “hang out.” He’d been equally surprised when Tommy then showed up at the coffee shop with star running back Paul Molina and fullback Kyle Turner. After all, they’d wanted nothing to do with Clark for the better part of two years—since the day he abruptly left the freshman team midseason.
Now here they all were, kicking it on Main Street again. Like nothing had ever happened.
But Clark knew there had to be a catch.
Tommy raised the brim of his baseball cap and cleared his throat. “I’m guessing you know our record this past season,” he began. “We sort of . . . underachieved.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Kyle said, and Paul shook his head in disgust.
Clark should have known. This meetup was about football. Because when it came to Tommy, Kyle, and Paul, everything
was about football.
“Anyway, us three have been talking.” Tommy slapped a big, meaty hand onto Clark’s shoulder. “We’ll all be seniors next year. And we wanna go out with a bang.”
A massive clap of thunder echoed overhead, causing the three football players to flinch. Clark had never understood that reaction. How even the bravest people he knew could get so spooked by a little thunder. It was yet another example of how different he was from his peers. The guys tried to play off their jumpiness by checking their phones and studying their drinks.
That’s when Clark noticed something odd.
About thirty yards to his right, a wire-thin man in his early twenties was standing in the middle of the road, holding out his arms and staring up into the pouring rain. He had a tight buzz cut, and he was dressed head to toe in brown. Brown long-sleeved shirt. Brown pants. Brown combat boots. Clark had an uneasy feeling about the guy.
“Look at this
freak,” Paul said, noticing him, too. “Who?” Tommy asked.
“Over there.” Paul pointed, but a slow big rig rumbled by, blocking their view. When it had passed, the man was gone.
Paul frowned, scratching the back of his shaved head and scanning the empty street. “He was standing out there a second ago. I swear.”
Clark searched for the man, too. Random strangers dressed in all brown didn’t just appear on the streets of Smallville, only to disappear seconds later. Who was
he? Clark glanced back through the Java Depot window, where a dozen or so people he recognized were sitting at little round tables, drinking coffee and talking. Doing homework. Taking refuge from the storm.
He wondered if any of them had seen the guy.
As swiftly as the storm had begun, it now slowed to a quiet sprinkle. Steam rose off a drenched Main Street. Heavy drops fell from the trees. They streaked down the windshields of parked cars and zigzagged down street signs. The road was a sea of puddles.
“Let’s walk,” Tommy said, and they set off toward the public square, Clark still looking for the man dressed in brown.
The four of them had to veer around a series of orange cones blocking off yet another construction zone. A surging local economy had led to a serious transformation of downtown Smallville over the past several years. Gone were all the boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated buildings of Clark’s youth. In their place were trendy restaurants, real estate offices, a luxury condo development, and two shiny new bank branches. Multiple construction projects seemed to always be under way now, including the future headquarters for the powerful Mankins Corporation. But there was no work being done this afternoon. The storm had turned Main Street into a ghost town.
“Look, Clark,” Tommy said, attempting to pick up where he’d left off, “we all know how much better we would be with you in the backfield. I mean, there’s a reason we were undefeated in the games you played freshman year.”
“Yeah, before he bailed on us,” Paul scoffed.
Tommy shot Paul a dirty look. “What’d we talk about earlier, man? This is about moving forward. It’s about second chances.”
Clark shrank into himself.
Two years later and he still couldn’t stomach the idea that he’d let the team down. And then lied to them. He hadn’t quit football to concentrate on school, like he told everyone at the time. He quit because he could have scored on just about every play from scrimmage. And the urge to dominate—wrong as it seemed—grew stronger with each passing game. Until one day he ran over Miles Loften during a tackling drill, sending him to the hospital with fractured ribs. And Clark had only been going about 50 percent. After practice, he’d climbed the bleachers and sat alone, long into the night, contemplating what was no longer possible for him to overlook—just how drastically different he was. And how bad it would be if anyone found out.
Copyright © 2019 by Matt de la PeÃ±a. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.