The breeze ripped through Connor’s thin jacket as he walked across the College of Saint Rose’s campus. He looked around as the tour guide led them toward the gym, where all of the coaches’ offices were. He wasn’t nervous when he met the head of the Biology department, and he was glad to hear that he could easily apply for vet school with a Biology degree. He was nervous, though, about meeting the baseball coach.
Putnam had told him that Faulkner was one of the best coaches around, but that didn’t say anything about who he was.
What if he was like Coach Thatcher?
The guide, whose name was John, stopped outside of Faulkner’s office. “Here you go! And don’t be nervous, Faulkner is one of the coolest coaches you’ll ever meet,” he said.
Connor glanced down at John’s shirt. He suddenly noticed the baseball logo on the pocket. “Do you play?” he asked.
John’s grin grew. “Sure do. I’ve been the starting pitcher for two years now.”
Connor rubbed the back of his neck. He might catch this guy later at practice. “Well…I’m a catcher.”
John’s eyes widened momentarily. “You’re the catcher Faulkner heard about? He’s excited about you!” he said reassuringly.
Connor shared a look with Haytham. Haytham just shrugged as if to say ‘What were you so worried about?’
John knocked on the door.
John opened the door with a grin. “Hey coach, here’s your recruit!” he said cheerfully.
Connor studied Faulkner as he stood up to shake their hands. His short, unruly, steel gray beard gave him a grandfatherly look, but Connor could see that he was anything from being that way.
“You must be Connor. I recognize you from the videos Israel was so kind to send. And this is your dad, I assume?”
Haytham nodded and John left to leave them alone.
“Well, take a seat and let’s get down to business,” Faulkner said with a smile, sitting down behind his desk again.
Connor sat and looked around the office. Pictures with baseball quotes were everywhere. There were also a lot with Faulkner on a large sailboat.
“That’s the Aquila. I love to go out for a little sail every once in a while. I take the boys out at the end of every season too,” Faulkner said, looking at the picture with pride. He paused and leaned back in his chair. “Well, Connor, Israel has told me that you are one of the best naturally talented athletes he has ever seen. What do you think about that?”
Connor felt a blush creep by his shirt collar. He shrugged. “I still have a lot to learn…”
Faulkner quirked an eyebrow. “You’re as humble as he said you were. So, are you ready to go through a practice with me and the boys today? I do this for both me and the recruit, it gives me a chance to see what you got, right then and there, and you can see how a normal practice goes for us.”
“Yes, Coach,” Connor replied, feeling nervous. Putnam had told him to bring practice clothes with him.
Faulkner smiled. “Good! Now, before we do any of that, I’m going to wait to tell you the amount I’m willing to offer. Is that okay with you?” he asked, looking specifically at Haytham.
Haytham shrugged. “It’s fine with us,” he said.
Faulkner nodded and stood up. “Well, I’m going to let you go and get ready, practice begins in 30 minutes,” he said with a smile.
Connor nodded and stood up as well, looking at all of the pictures again. One picture in particular caused him to take a second glance. “Uh, Dad? Does that guy look familiar?” he asked, pointing to the picture.
It was a picture of Faulkner and what looked like Achilles in formal Marine attire.
Haytham looked and his eyes widened momentarily.
Faulkner looked at them in confusion. “You know Achilles Davenport?”
Connor nodded. “Yeah, he’s our neighbor.”
Faulkner let out a laugh. “And how is the old man doing? I haven’t seen him in ages. Talked to him a few times but he never invites me over.”
Connor grinned. It was a small world after all.
Connor couldn’t believe that he was actually catching for a Division II pitcher. He squatted and called a curve ball. John nodded and moved to pitch. The pitch was perfect and went to the right spot. Connor wished that Desmond and Big Dave could pitch like this; it would have made his life much easier.
“Alright boys, bring it in!” Faulkner suddenly called out.
Connor hustled in with the rest of them, fidgeting while Faulkner looked around. “Now, as you all know, Connor is here, and we have one last thing to do before he gets to leave us today.”
All of the boys nodded and looked at Faulkner expectantly.
“Get your bats. We’re going to play Hit or Get off the Pot!”
Most of the boys whooped and hollered as they ran toward the dugout.
Connor was confused. What was this game? What were the rules? Why was there a bat involved?
Faulkner clamped a hand down on his shoulder. “John will tell ya how to play. It’s really easy,” he said with a wink.
Connor quickly found John and pulled his gear off. “How do you play this?” he asked, dropping his helmet into his bag.
John grinned and stretched. “Well, Coach is gonna toss us some balls from behind the net. If you get a good hit, you get to keep hitting. But if you hit a dribbler or a pop fly, you have to get to the back of the line. Whoever wins gets out of conditioning. We like it because it’s fun, though,” he explained, looking happy.
Connor felt a little relieved. When Putnam said they were going to play a game, it usually meant that running was involved.
He pulled off the rest of his gear and quickly grabbed his bat, following John out to home plate, where the rest of the team was already lined up.
“Senior gets to go first!” one of them crowed, pushing John toward the front.
John rolled his eyes and got in the box. Faulkner stood to the side and an assistant coach stood behind the net.
John was able to stay in for six hits; his seventh was a high pop fly to right field.
He moved to the back of the line and the next boy got in the box. The other players suddenly realized that Connor was near the back.
“The Recruit goes toward the front! He needs to go!”
“Yeah! You don’t have to wait for us, Connor. Get your butt over there,” another laughed.
Connor reluctantly moved toward the front. It was finally his turn and he took a deep breath before moving into the box. He emptied his thoughts, focusing on the ball the coach was rolling in his hands. Everything seemed to move in slow motion when the coach pitched.
Connor’s first hit thudded against the left field fence.
“How old is this kid?”
Another pitch. Connor swung. This hit was a line drive straight up the middle.
Connor didn’t keep track of how many he had, he just swung. He grunted in annoyance when he swung a little too high and drilled a ball into the ground, causing it to dribble toward shortstop.
“12! Has anyone here got 12 before?” one player hollered.
“Way to go, kid!”
“Damn, that was great!”
“Coach, I like him!”
Connor grinned bashfully at all of the comments the players were giving.
The game went on until all of the players went. Connor was the only one who got 12.
Faulkner looked at the team. “Alright, boys, you know what to do.”
They all groaned and took off toward the right field foul pole.
Faulkner stopped Connor from following them. “You don’t have to do this. Come on, let’s head on over to your dad.”
They walked over to the gate nearest to the set of bleachers Haytham was sitting in and walked off the field.
Haytham stood up and stepped off the bleachers, giving Faulkner an expectant look.
Faulkner grinned and looked at Connor. “Well, kid, I’m willing to offer you 5,000 right now. And that can only go up every year if you start, which I think you will.”
Connor looked at Haytham and Haytham quirked a brow. Connor knew what that look meant. This decision was his.
Connor turned back to Faulkner. “Okay. I’m in.”
Faulkner held out his hand. “Welcome to the team, Connor. I think I also have another kid from your school who is gonna play here next year too.”
Connor perked up at that. “Who?”
“Desmond Miles, I believe. He signed back in October.”
Connor made a note to punch Desmond the next time he saw him for not telling him this fact.
Ellie hummed a little as she scooped some peanut butter into her mixing bowl. She stirred for a bit until the dough looked creamy before dumping her chocolate chips in. Her phone suddenly vibrated from its spot on the counter.
She wiped off her hands before picking it up, smiling when she saw Connor’s name on the screen. She opened the message. “Are you free?”
Ellie texted back. “Come over. I’m baking.”
She poked her head into the living room. Peter was sitting on the couch, watching a Yankees game. “Peter?”
“It’s okay if Connor comes over, right?”
Peter arched a brow at her. “Don’t you know the answer to that?”
Ellie rolled her eyes and walked over to the front door, expecting Connor’s soft knock at any moment. Sure enough, the short three taps sounded on the door sounded throughout the foyer. She opened it and smiled at him. He walked in, beaming. He also was holding something behind him.
She put her hands on her hips. “Well, how did it go?”
His smile turned into a smirk as he held up a College of Saint Rose shirt. “I’m signing in two weeks.”
Ellie gave him a huge hug. “I told you they would want you!” she said, feeling bubbly.
She remembered how nervous he was the day before, she was glad he had nothing to be nervous about now.
“College of Saint Rose huh? Isn’t that DII?” Peter asked, slowly getting up off the coach.
Connor nodded. “Yeah.”
Peter let out a whistle of admiration. “Dang. What are you going to study while you’re there?”
Peter shook his head again. “You kids and your smart majors now,” he chuckled, moving toward the kitchen.
Ellie opened her mouth to say something but Peter’s voice from the kitchen halted the words in her throat. “Want a soda pop, Connor?”
“No thanks,” Connor replied, following Ellie toward the kitchen.
Ellie walked in and started to shoo Peter out. “I need to finish these cookies!”
Peter gave her an incredulous look, holding a Dr. Pepper in his hands. “And he gets to stay?” he teased, pointing at Connor.
Ellie crossed her arms with a grin. “He helps.”
Peter shook his head. “With what? Eating them?”
Ellie and Connor both laughed. “Your Yankees game is still on,” Ellie said, hoping that would do the trick.
Peter hustled as fast as he could back into the living room. “Shoot!” he exclaimed.
Ellie’s grin grew as she turned back to the mixing bowl. “So, you’ll only be forty minutes away next year?” she asked as she started stirring.
Connor nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be a little farther from the reservation, but I can get almost all of my tuition paid for at this school just because I’m part Mohawk.”
Ellie looked up in thought for a moment. “How much are you getting for that anyway?”
Connor looked down at his feet. “Let’s just say a lot.”
Ellie shook her head with a grin. There he goes being embarrassed again.
“Will you visit much?” she asked, glancing at him. Her heart started to race a little as she waited for his response.
Connor looked confused for a moment. “Uh…yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”
Ellie bit her lip, shrugging and trying for indifference. She was actually worried about when that time would come. Would they do what a lot of couples do and break up when one of them went to college? Or would they come to a mutual agreement that they were entering a new part of their lives and break up? Or would they try the whole dating while someone is in college thing and would that fall apart? Ellie didn’t like the situation in any of those questions.
Or none of those will happen and everything will be fine, a chiding, little voice said in her head.
Luckily, he dropped it. She gestured to him and he grabbed a spoon for her out of the drawer. She got to work putting the dough on the sheet.
“So, what are these for?” he asked, eying the cookie dough.
Ellie grinned. “Peter and Eliza are hosting a bingo party tomorrow. I’m baking for them.”
Connor scooted closer. “Can I have a bite?”
She held out a clump of dough and he plucked it out of her hand, tossing it into his mouth. “So, did you like the dorms?” she asked, hoping he would forget her asking if he would visit. That was a dumb question.
“They’re like all of the other dorms I saw. By the way, did you know that Des is going to play baseball there next year?”
Ellie looked at him in surprise. “What? When?”
Connor shrugged. “Apparently he signed back in October. I even told him I was visiting there!”
Thumping him on the shoulder, she laughed little. “He probably wants to see how you would react. I dare you to act like you don’t care and see how mad he’ll get.”
Connor thought about it. “He would do that.”
Ellie nodded in agreement and stuck the cookie sheet in the oven. She listened as Connor told her more about Saint Rose as she put the dough on the sheet. She finished off the dough right as her timer went off for the first sheet. “Connor, can you pull that out ple-“
Ellie paused in surprise to see him already pulling on an oven mitt and pulling the cookies out. She shook her head, wondering how many times she had baked around him.
She set the second cookie sheet in the oven and turned to clean up. Her eyes widened in shock to see Connor already setting the mixing bowl and spoon in the sink. She quickly grabbed a rag, wiping off the counter before he could.
She helped him clean the bowl and spoon by rinsing and drying them. “How’d you know what I was going to ask you before I even-”
“Because this is the umpteenth batch of cookies or something that I’ve seen you bake.”
She laughed and nudged him with her shoulder. She put the dishes away and heard the crinkle of the parchment paper as she closed the cabinet. She looked over her shoulder and arched a brow. Connor was holding half of a cookie, looking sheepish while he chewed.
“Couldn’t resist,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
Ellie rolled her eyes. “You’re forgiven if you don’t talk with your mouth full next time.”
She pulled out the second tray of cookies and set the sheet beside the other one to cool off. She gestured to the door. “Wanna hangout on the porch?”
Connor nodded and followed her out. She plopped down on the porch swing, looking down at the recently filled pool. Peter had decided that it was finally warm enough to fill it up again a week ago.
Connor sat down beside her and rested his arm on the back of the swing behind her. Ellie fidgeted and finally decided to ask the question that was on her mind. “How often are you going to visit next year?”
Connor stayed silent and her heart started to race.
“I see what’s going on,” he suddenly said.
She looked at him, cocking her head as she narrowed her eyes playfully. “And what’s that?” she asked. She really hoped she looked like she was teasing. She didn’t want to bother Connor with that stuff she was worrying about earlier. He probably wasn’t even considering what she was worried about.
“You’re worried about something.”
Ellie arched a brow. “And what am I worried about?”
Connor shifted so he was facing her more, resting his elbow on the back of the swing now. “You’re worried about us when I go to college.”
Ellie shook her head and looked at him. “And you say you can’t read minds,” she said, looking back down at her hands. She bit her lip again as she felt her throat close up a little. So he had been thinking about that.
“Hey, look at me,” he said softly.
She finally turned to look at him and almost grinned at the blush rising on his cheeks as he fidgeted a little. He really was so adorably awkward sometimes. The thought almost made her forget why she couldn’t meet his gaze for a moment.
He took a deep breath. “E-Ellie, just because I’m moving 40 minutes away won’t change the fact that you’re my girlfriend. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that changing just because I’m going to school.”
Their gazes met and Ellie felt her stomach flutter and her heart melt. She leaned against him, resting her head against his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her.
“What did you think would happen anyway?” he suddenly asked.
Ellie sighed, shaking her head. “That you moving away would cause us to break up sooner or later. That was dumb.”
Connor shifted a little. “No it wasn’t. It happens to a lot of people.”
Ellie sat up straight again and started to play with the ends of her hair. “No, it was. There goes my faith in our relationship,” she said. I basically just said that a small distance can break us up. You go Ellie.
Connor looked at her for a second before shaking his head with that spine tingly breathy laugh of his. “Whatever you say. I’m still planning on being taken when I go to college next year.”
She stared at him for a moment before letting out a snicker. “So you can stutter that you have a girlfriend at all those parties Desmond is most likely going to drag you to?” she teased, arching a brow.
He threw back his head with a bark of laughter. “Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “You say that now.”
Connor shook his head and draped an arm around her shoulders again. Ellie scooted closer and snuggled into his side, all worries temporarily forgotten. She really did love how big he was.
“You two better not be snogging!”
Connor jerked away from her and glared over at his backyard.
Ellie looked and burst into laughter when she saw Mr. Kenway cheekily wave before walking back into his own house. She couldn’t stop laughing at the exasperated and embarrassed look on Connor’s face. She was clutching her sides as Connor looked at her.
Her giggle was her only answer.
Haytham glanced at Connor quickly before looking back at the road. A somber silence had filled the car as soon as they left the flower store. He saw Miss Johnston fidget in the back in his mirror. She was digging through her purse for something.
“Take a right up here,” Connor directed, pointing at the road to turn on. His voice sounded dead and flat.
Haytham turned onto the dirt road until the sign they were looking for showed up. They passed the gates into the cemetery. Haytham pulled his car to a stop for a moment, looking at Connor expectantly. Connor pointed toward the back corner of the cemetery. “She’s back there.”
Again, his voice sounded dead.
Haytham nodded and followed the road leading in that direction. He gripped the steering wheel as he got closer to their destination. He remembered receiving the phone call from Anna about Ziio. He remembered asking when the funeral was and how furious he had felt when he found out that the funeral already happened.
“Stop, we’re close,” Connor suddenly ordered, unbuckling his seat belt. He stepped out of the car before Haytham even put it into park and started to walk toward the graves near the fence.
Haytham looked back at Miss Johnston, smiling apologetically. A familiar ache came to his chest when he looked toward the grave Connor stopped in front of. He took a deep breath and finally got out of the car, opening the door for Miss Johnston.
“Thanks,” she said quietly, smoothing the skirt of her dress out.
She picked up the flowers they bought from the store and started to slowly walk toward the grave. Haytham stopped a few yards away from the grave and Miss Johnston kept walking until she stood next to Connor. She handed him some and they both put flowers into the flower holder in front of the grave.
“Ahkso was already here,” he heard Connor say quietly.
Haytham felt the ache in his chest grow more and more as he looked at the grave. Her native name was on it before her American one, which wasn’t a surprise since it was the reservation’s cemetery. He walked away and went back to the car when he felt his throat close up a little as the ache became stronger.
He leaned against the side of the car until Connor and Miss Johnston walked back. “Is it okay if I show her the older graves?” Connor asked.
Haytham acted like he didn’t notice the tears in his son’s eyes. “It’s alright; take as long as you need.”
They walked away and Haytham glanced back at the grave. He steeled himself and finally walked over to it. He stared down at the dates on the headstone, gulping down the lump that was forming in his throat.
“I wish I could see you again. Say I was a daft bastard and all,” he said, looking down at the grass. He clasped his hands behind his back, feeling foolish yet not at the same time. “You raised him well. You should be proud of him.”
He paused, not knowing what thought to say next. Bloody hell, even when she wasn’t there he had trouble talking to her. He let out a laugh. “Remember when we first met and I couldn’t say anything without sounding idiotic?”
He glanced behind him to see the kids toward the historical cemetery, where the original burial site was.
He looked back at the grave, deciding that now was the right time. He walked back to the car and popped the trunk. He pulled out a rose and one of the few cups she had left behind when she moved out. He walked back to the grave and set the rose in the tall, handmade, coffee cup.
“I’m sorry about everything, Love,” he whispered before touching the top of the stone and walking back to the car. The ache was too much to bear now.
He never could forget how much he still loved her.
Connor glanced back at his mom’s grave, seeing his father walk back to the car. He saw something else sitting in front of the gravestone now.
“Does he miss her a lot?” Ellie suddenly asked.
Connor sighed, turning back to look at her. “I think he does,” he said, remembering the day Haytham had showed him the box of pictures and things his mom used to send.
Ellie smiled sadly at him before turning and moving on to the next part of the burial ground. He watched as the sunlight shined through the tree branches and fell on her. She wore a floral print sundress with white sandals and her hair was halfway pulled back, still letting some of it to flow down her back. The sunlight made her hair and skin glow as she walked along.
Connor wondered how his dad must feel. He imagined how he would feel if he had lost Ellie. His throat closed up and his heart started to race frantically at the thought. He wasn’t sure if he could bear it. He wasn’t sure if he could lose his best friend.
He remembered how sad his mom would look sometimes. He knew she thought he didn’t see her, but he did. He would see silent tears running down her face when she thought she was alone. One memory that stood out to him was when he walked outside while she was hanging up laundry once. Earlier that day, he innocently asked about her dad, asking her when he would finally meet him and things like that. He suddenly realized why she cried.
She had lost a best friend in a way, now that he thought about it and understood a little more.
Connor’s thoughts began to wander as he watched Ellie walk among the graves. Why did his mom refuse to talk to his dad? His dad obviously was sorry and admitted he didn’t know what he was doing. Was it pride? Was there something his dad and his Ahkso weren’t telling him? Was there something that only his mom knew?
He shook the thoughts out of his mind, catching up with Ellie. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing her hand.
“Kay,” she said, squeezing his hand and following him out.
They slowly walked out of the burial site and back into the cemetery.
“Are you okay?” she asked before they reached the car.
Connor squeezed her hand. “No, but I will be when we leave,” he replied, feeling his heart sink when he could clearly see his mom’s grave again.
They quickly got in the car. Connor sat in the back with Ellie this time.
May arrived faster than anyone could imagine and before everyone knew it, the end of the school year was upon them.
Ellie blew some wayward strands of hair out of her face as she walked into her bathroom. She scrunched her nose at the strange angles her hair decided to stick out in. Her constantly vibrating phone had woken her up.
She brushed her teeth, frowning at the sound of her phone as she finished her usual routine.
Woken up by Facebook on a Saturday.
Ellie quickly changed into jean shorts and an Imagine Dragons tank top before heading downstairs.
Eliza and Peter were waiting for her. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” they exclaimed, giving her a huge hug when she reached the bottom.
Ellie hugged them back, instantly forgetting her irritation about being woken up. “Thanks, guys,” she said with a smile, trying to slowly get out of their grasp.
She skipped into the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee, staring out at Connor’s house while taking a sip. She glanced at the back porch, looking for a certain someone eating Cheerios. Sure enough, he was sitting on the back steps, wolfing down cereal.
Ellie smiled and walked out the back door. He looked up at the sound and waved. She walked over to the fence and went through the gates. Why didn’t she use those more often?
“Happy Birthday,” Connor greeted around a mouthful of Cheerios.
Ellie smacked his arm as she sat down. “You can’t talk with your mouth full on my birthday,” she huffed playfully, taking a sip of her coffee.
They sat in silence for a few moments, just enjoying the morning. Connor suddenly stood up. “Hold on,” he said, walking back inside.
Ellie tilted her head in curiosity as she saw him walk out of the kitchen. Did he get something for her birthday? She blushed a little at the thought.
She wrapped her hands around her mug and tapped her fingernails on the warm ceramic. Thinking back on all that had happened this year, she couldn’t believe that she was there. If someone had asked her if she thought that she would have a boyfriend and be where she was on the track team and in school, she would have called them crazy.
The door opened again and Connor walked back out, holding something behind him. “I wanted to give you this before everyone else came over,” he explained, sitting down next to her again.
“Close your eyes.”
She grinned at him and closed her eyes.
His big, rough hand held hers and she could feel something being tied around her wrist.
“Okay, you can open them.”
She opened her eyes and she beamed at what he gave her. It was one of the bracelets she had liked at the Gift Shop at the Reservation.
“You remembered?” she asked, inspecting it. It was a beautiful, thin leather bracelet with a geometric pattern. She loved the warm colors of the strings used to tie the ends together too.
Connor rubbed the back of his head. “Y-yeah. I thought I could help you start your next collection early.”
She threw her arms around him.
“Thank you,” she said before pecking his cheek.
The blush on his cheeks only made everything better.