Quarterback's Secret Baby

By: Imani King

Chapter 4: Tasha

I knew Kaden Barlow was a big deal. I didn't need to be a football fan to know that. He was the king of the school, respected and adored by everyone, students and teachers alike. But I don't think I realized just how big of a deal he was until I watched him play that night, under the floodlights and cheered on by a stadium full of borderline-rabid fans chanting his name whenever he so much as touched the ball, let alone threw it. Getting caught up in it was easy.

"Are you here with Kaden?" A middle-aged woman sitting behind me asked during a break in play.

"Um, yes," I answered, not sure if I was being asked whether or not I was dating Kaden. Which I wasn't. "We're friends."

The woman smiled. "Well, that's nice. My son is on the team and he's a good player but let me tell you, no one is under any illusions in Little Falls - if anyone is going to the NFL it's Kaden Barlow."

Surely the woman was exaggerating. When she caught my raised eyebrows she shook her head. "Are you new to Little Falls, dear?"

"No," I told her. "I grew up here."

"Well you must be new to football, although I don't really see how that's possible, but I'm not saying anything anybody else doesn't already think. Mark my words, Barlow is destined for greatness."

There was another woman next to her, around the same age and probably another parent. She was listening to the conversation and jumped in when she had the chance. "You don't believe us? There are NFL scouts at almost every one of Barlow's games. There, look down behind where Coach Graham is standing - do you see those two men with jackets on? The shorter one has white hair?"

I peered down to where she was pointing and did see the two men. I wanted to ask how she knew they were NFL scouts but I didn't want to appear too eager for information. Was Kaden destined for the NFL? Or was I just talking to two over-excited football moms? I kept glancing towards the supposed scouts as the game went on - they certainly seemed interested, and I noticed them leaning in and talking to each other while gesturing to certain players - but wasn't everyone else in the audience doing that, too?

Still. The NFL. Damn. If I hadn't already had my guard up around Kaden, that would have done it. Going pro would mean many things. Fame. Money. It would also mean leaving Little Falls and moving in a very different circle of people.

Trusting men has never been something that comes easily and I have my father to thank for that. After he left there was a period of about three or four years where he would call and arrange an outing with us kids. I can still remember the first time, crying when I couldn't find the powder blue dress I loved, the one I wanted to wear for him. And then the slow, horrible realization, as the afternoon and then the evening wore on, that he wasn't coming. The second time I went through exactly the same process. But the third time, I didn't bother getting dressed up. I didn't join Ray and CeeCee on the couch to watch out the window for my dad's car. He showed up a few times, sure, but I was done. Even at six years old something had hardened in my heart. I refused to speak to him and stood stiff and unmoving when he hugged me awkwardly. Ray and CeeCee went nuts the few times my dad managed to show up but I never went out with them, not once. You don't get to toy with my emotions like that and expect everything to be fine when it finally suits you to do the thing you've already promised - and failed - to do multiple times.

The intermittent visits became further and further apart as we got older and eventually petered out entirely. Not one of us knew where my father was, or even if he was still alive. We didn't talk about it much, especially around my mother, but I could tell that both of my siblings were harboring not-so-secret wishes that one day he was going to come back and be the dad he never was. Not me. He could have shown up with a mouthful of apologies and an entire truck's worth of gifts and it wouldn't have mattered.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that suspicion and basic lack of trust bled into other areas of my life. It might even have been the reason why Kaden Barlow used the word 'standoffish' to describe me. It was definitely why the alarm bells that had been ringing in my head since I agreed to go to the game started blaring even louder at the news he might be going off to the NFL. Don't get close, they warned me. Don't even think about getting close. Keep your distance. Keep your walls up. Because he's a man and what do men do? They leave.

The Tigers won the game. By the end of it, I was even enjoying myself and, helped along by the two friendly moms, figuring out some of the rules. After one particularly long throw one of them leapt to her feet and screamed: "WILLYA LOOK AT THAT ARM!?" and I couldn't help but smile. I also couldn't help a tiny little smidge of pride creeping in. I wasn't just at the game. I was at the as a guest of Kaden Barlow. The star of the show.

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