Johnston Green always looked forward to the football game.
So much so that he tore down the street as fast as his legs would carry him.
He could hear Andrew's footsteps close behind him. Being a year younger, his cousin had always been trailing behind him, and he was glad that still hadn't changed. Ben Richmond, and even worse, Tessa, may have shot past him this year, but he and Andrew were still the same height difference. Not that he ever saw Andrew as competition, but it was some comfort to him that although that growth spurt his mother promised was coming hadn't arrived yet, neither had his younger cousin's.
He turned the corner. Only a few blocks left to his grandmother's house. When they had been younger, they'd run around and around the yard before the football game. They were, technically, supposed to be helping with the family dinner preparations, but they would always reach a point where they'd be so anxious, so excited as they dashed around the house, that his uncle would throw them out in the backyard to run it off. That had worked when they were little. They'd gotten bigger, and they'd started playing other games outside. He and Fiona would hide and jump out at each other, or on rare occasions, team up to jump out and scare the adults. Each of them would try to enlist Andrew to gang up on the other, throwing squishy crab apples from the ground. They'd climb the tree, have acrobatic contests, and try to see who could throw the most acorns at the neighbour's fence posts. They'd race to see who could run the fastest carrying his youngest cousin on their back. Generally, any adult who came outside, besides Grandma, was fair game to scare or enlist in a new activity.
After many incidents of bruises, scraped knees, and screaming matches over the finer points of a newly invented contest, the adults had decided that running around the yard wasn't enough to satisfy their need for pre-game exertion, so they'd been sent running through the neighbourhood. Johnny's father called this 'a pre-game warmup'.
Johnny didn't mind. He loved the feeling of the wind rushing by as he moved his arms and legs faster than he'd ever imagined they could go. He loved the hard pounding of his feet on the sidewalk, how it seemed to echo through every breath he took. And now, he laughed to himself because he was in the lead. Fiona had dropped back a while ago, when Shelby had tripped over her shoelaces. Knowing Shelby, she'd guilted Fiona into running behind with her, instead of trying to overtake the others.
He was closer to house now. Almost the winner. Usually he and Fiona were at the front of the race, and they would call something to tag as they got close to the finish line. It didn't seem like it would be close this time. Andrew kept a steady pace behind him, but he wouldn't try to push ahead.
Johnny felt jubilant as he crossed the last street. He had reached his grandmother's block. He laughed, in a gasping breath. He could see the house getting closer. He began sprinting faster. Behind him, Andrew's footsteps got father away. Then he heard it. Another set of footsteps, faster than Andrew's. He turned quickly, and saw Fiona racing towards him.
He didn't know how she had caught up so suddenly, and he pushed himself farther. Fiona was pushing hard too. In no time at all, she was nearly beside him.
“No!” he grunted between breaths.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her smiling. They would be calling the finish line together after all.
The two of them raced around the side of the house, close enough to elbow each other out of the way if need be, looking around wildly for a tie-breaking target. Last time, they'd used the shed.
As luck would be, Johnny's uncle was crossing the yard. “Dad!” shouted Fiona.
Jake had seconds to react as both cousins came barreling towards him. He held out his hands, each kid tagging his hand with their own. As they stopped running, they nearly pulled Jake over with them.
“Whoa, that's a tie, I'd say,” he said, chuckling at their overdramatic displays of disappointment. “Hey, save it for the real competition,” he added.
Andrew had run up behind them, and stood catching his breath. Before Jake could ask why they hadn't kept an eye on their sister, Shelby tore around the corner, running up to Jake and running right into him. “Finished!” she announced, hugging Jake tightly around the waist. “And my knee doesn't even hurt anymore!”
“What happened to your knee?” asked Jake, letting go of his youngest child's shoulders so he could see her knee.
“I tripped,” she said brightly.
“You're okay, right?” asked Jake, somewhat amazed she wasn't making a show of it.
“I'm ready to get ready!” she declared.
Johnny was still catching his breath as his aunt stepped onto the porch. “Who's ready to get their green on?” called Heather. Fiona, Andrew, and Shelby dashed up the steps. “Jake?” asked Heather.
“Yeah, I guess I better suit up. Coming, buddy?” he asked Johnny.
Johnny had arrived a few hours earlier sporting his green hockey jersey, but he followed his uncle up the steps. For a moment, he considered sitting on the porch steps to wait, but he could smell something cooking in the house. He trailed in after Jake, and followed the smell into the kitchen.
His mother stood at the counter, her back to him, talking about something boring as his grandmother stirred something at the stove. On the table, though, he eyed the pie he and his cousins had seen Grandma putting in the oven earlier. He stepped towards it and leaned in to smell it.
“Hey, I see you, Johnston Green,” came his grandmother's voice.
His mother's head whipped around. “Aw, Johnny. Could you not?”
“I didn't do anything,” he said. “It's just Grandma's pie, it's just hard to resist, you know.”
“Uh huh,” said Mary with a sarcastic smile. Gail had come over to rescue the pie. “You don't have to do that,” he said.
“Sorry, hon, but I think your track record is against you here,” said Mary.
“I only did it once!” he protested.
“Are you talking about the time the pie had fingerprints in it?” Fiona chirped as she came into the kitchen, now sporting a green zippered hoodie at least two sizes too big for her.
“How do you even remember that?” asked Johnny in exasperation.
“It was gross! It was like a big bug or something had dug tunnels all through the pie.”
As his cousin, mother, and grandmother laughed, Johnny fixed them all with his most pained expression.
“Ah, the great pie disaster of 2016.” Johnny turned to see his father walking into the kitchen. “Table's all set. And something smells good in here.” Eric eyed the pie for a second, and everyone in the room glanced at him quickly. “That looks delicious Mom. For later, I mean. Later, Johnny.”
Johnny rolled his eyes as more people came into the room. “Johnny's having trouble waiting for the pie? I know how you feel, it smells amazing, doesn't it?” asked his aunt, giving him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as she went by. Andrew had followed her in, and they were both decked out in their green shirts.
“I can wait for the pie, when are we going out for football?” asked Johnny.
“The Richmonds aren't here yet, or the Hawkinses,” said Gail. “But I imagine that won't be keeping you all in here much longer.” She suppressed a grin.
“Is everyone ready?” asked Eric.
“Jake's still convincing Shelby to put on her football uniform,” said Heather in a conspiratorial whisper.
Though she seemed slightly amused, the rest of the room winced. Johnny groaned. “How hard is it to put on something green? That's the only thing you need, something green.”
“Not if it's a stupid, stupid shirt.” Shelby stood in the doorway, a scowl on her face. Jake appeared behind her, holding out the offending article, and Shelby dashed across the room, standing behind Eric's chair.
“Look, Shelby, everyone else is wearing green,” said Fiona.
“No one else has to wear a yucky, glow-wormy green shirt,” protested Shelby.
Noticing Jake's expression, everyone else awkwardly tried to busy themselves doing something else. Fiona and Johnny convened around Shelby as Jake crossed the room and held out the t-shirt again, an annoyed expression on his face. “You don't have any green shirts, and this one is Grandma's. You're going to make her feel bad,” he said through clenched teeth.
“It's not Grandma's fault it's a stupid shirt. She probably got it at the swap.”
“Well, if it's good enough for Grandma, it's good enough for you,” said Jake, struggling to remain patient.
“Hey, Shelby, it's football, we all look kind of yucky,” chimed in Mary as she passed by the table with a stack of plates.
“You don't,” said Shelby, eyeing Mary's green sweater.
Mary chuckled. “This thing is twenty years old.”
“This shirt is probably older than that, and it's probably even too big for Grandma. It makes me look stupid,” said Shelby mournfully.
“We're never going to get outside!” exclaimed Johnny.
Mary laughed, and reached a hand to Johnny's curls. He winced as his mother ruffled his hair. “Don't be in such a hurry, little man.” He groaned. He was still waiting for the day his mother would realize he was thirteen. “You've got lots of time.” She put a hand on Shelby's shoulder. “Come with me, Shelby. I think there's something in the basement that might interest you.”
Johnny folded his arms as his mother and cousin left the kitchen. “Is anyone ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think I am,” said his father, jumping up from his seat at the table. “How about we practice for a bit while we wait?”
“Yeah!” said Johnny, with just a little surprise.
He and his cousins followed Eric outside. Johnny couldn't remember the last time his father had been the first adult outside to play. Eric had grabbed the football on his way out, and started tossing it to his son, niece, and nephew.
“Nice, Johnny!” he called as his son caught a pass. “I think we'll have to play you as a receiver this year.”
“I don't know, Uncle Eric. What if they get Tessa to cover him?” said Fiona slyly.
“She's taller than you too!” he called back.
“Hey, watch it you two, or Grandma will start calling penalties before the game even starts again.”
“Who do you think'll get the record this year?” asked Andrew, throwing the football.
“Let's hope it's someone from the other team this year,” said Eric. “So, let's hope Jake controls himself.”
“Hey, let's hope Stanley controls himself,” came Jake's voice as he stepped out the door. “Or Mimi. You know, all those Richmonds play dirty. And Mom just doesn't watch them as closely as she does us. Unfair advantage.”
He motioned, and Eric tossed him the football. “But this is our year, I just know it.”
Eric had a mocking smile. “Right, the secret weapon you kept talking about this morning.”
“Well, since the Hawkinses are coming this year, we got to pick teams. And the Richmonds will get more of them, but we only need one.” He tossed the ball to Andrew.
“Sam?” asked Fiona.
“No, he's not home, honey. Mr. Hawkins.”
Johnny grinned as Andrew passed the ball to him. “Too bad Fiona, you won't be able to ask Sam to marry you again.” Fiona went pink, but rolled her eyes.
“So I told Hawkins, he'd better count on being on our team. Richmonds won't know what hit them,” Jake said, stepping off the porch.
Johnny, Fiona, and Andrew exchanged grins.
“Oh, and of course, we're having a fun family game, and not trying to show the Richmonds up in any way,” he added, glancing over his shoulder. Again, they all exchanged smiles.
“Everyone ready in there?” asked Eric.
“Mom's on the phone, Lizzie called from Cedar Run, but she should be out soon. We'll call back later so everyone can say hi. Don't know where your wife vanished to. Mine's getting the first aid kit ready. But don't go getting any ideas,” Jake said, turning to the kids. “Really, Kenchy's not coming this year, and we want Grandma to actually enjoy this holiday, so I don't want any emergencies. Bruises are okay, no stitches.”
“We'll keep it in mind, Uncle Jake,” said Johnny.
“So who's ready for football?” asked Jake.
Within a few seconds, they had spread out on the lawn. Eric and Jake lead them in a practice, throwing the ball back and forth. In between passes, they talked excitedly about the upcoming dinner, seeing the Hawkins family, and the various weaknesses of the Richmond players. Eric and Jake argued back and forth about strategies, Johnny enthusiastically joining them in intervals.
A few minutes in, Shelby came prancing out the door, followed by Mary and Heather.
“Haven't I seen that... that before?” asked Jake, pointing at the dark green tank top his daughter was now sporting, the straps tied in bows to stay put over the bulky sweater she wore.
“It was in that box of stuff I left in the basement last year,” shrugged Mary.
“Isn't it a little...” asked Jake, not finishing the sentence, as Andrew stated much more plainly, “That's not a football shirt!”
“I like the sequins,” said Shelby, spinning to admire them in the afternoon light.
“Shelby, don't you think you should give Aunt Mary back her shirt, it'll get wrecked playing out here,” said Jake quickly.
“It's fine, I haven't worn it in maybe twenty years,” said Mary dismissively.
“Exactly,” started Jake, but Mary had already taken her place on the field. “She's not even nine,” Jake muttered at Heather as she walked over to him.
“She's wearing it over a sweater. And, she's wearing green, isn't she?” asked Heather with a smile. “Only rule, right?”
Jake sighed. “Alright, but you'll be sorry if she starts wearing Mary's other old clothes around town.”
“Alright, I'll deal with that when it happens,” chuckled Heather. “And you- no concussions this year, okay?” She poked a finger to his chest.
“I can't promise anything,” he muttered. Heather gave him a wide eyed look. “I'll try my best.”
“Everyone else too, play nicely with our friends.”
They looked around at the other family members, only some of whom appeared to have taken the news to heart.
“We're missing someone,” said Jake. “Where's Mom?”
“I'll go check on her,” said Johnny. “And I hope everybody is still out here when we get back.” He fixed his family with a look that meant business, and was dismayed that only Andrew and Shelby seemed to take the threat seriously. Fiona mock-saluted and his parents, aunt, and uncle were exchanging looks and chuckling to themselves. He ran quickly into the house.
He found her in the living room, sitting quietly in the arm chair by the phone. She was facing the back wall, so he couldn't see most of her face. “Grandma?” he asked softly.
She turned around quickly. “Johnston - Johnny. What is it sweetie?” She smiled, but her eyes seemed especially shiny.
“Everyone's finally ready to play,” he said. “At least, they'd better be by the time we get out there.”
His grandmother chuckled. There was something funny about the sound of her voice. “What is it? Are you okay, Grandma?” he asked.
“Oh, I'm fine honey. You just reminded me of someone for a second.”
“My dad?” he asked grimly.
“Well, that's not something I'd normally think of, but sometimes you do.” She stood, taking Johnny's arm in hers. “You know your dad used to get into the pie when no one was around too. Somehow Jake always got blamed, but I know for a fact he did it this one year.” She continued to tell the story as they walked to the back door.
Opening the back door, Johnny saw his family gathered on the lawn. “Johnny,” said his grandmother.
“Be nice to Stanley and Mimi and the kids.”
“But Johnny,” she whispered, leaning in to reach his ear. “Let's try to win one for the Greens this year.”
Grinning, he nodded as they stepped off the porch.