The first two chapters from my novel To Have Loved & Lost, for your reading pleasure.

1

She stands just inside the short hallway that leads from the locker rooms to the shining wood of the court’s floor, waiting for her name.  She’s the last of the starting line-up to be called — it’s always like that.  Build up the anticipation, save the crowd-pleaser for last to ensure the stadium fills with the maximum amount of noise possible.  Despite the fact that they always do this to her — make her run in like some sort of prize thoroughbred, like some kind of friggin’ mascot instead of a person — and despite the fact that she rolls her eyes to herself and her teammates and her fans and swears the attention doesn’t get to her, doesn’t eat at her, especially after what happened that night, despite all that, her palms sweat.

She wipes them on her shorts.

She kicks up a heel behind her and runs a hand across the bottom of one high-top sneaker, then kicks up the other heel and does the same.  It’s an old habit, a nervous tick that started in high school, one that a lot of the other girls have, too — basketball courts get dusty, no matter how well they’re wiped down, and even a thin sheen of dust on the bottom of a shoe can compromise traction at a crucial moment.

Crucial moments like running out onto the court with two-thousand people in the stands cheering and chanting your name, while spotlights and strobes flash and dance around you.  Falling on your ass at a moment like that because your shoes are slippery would suck.

And she’s convinced that’s the only way she could ever fall.  Because she’s still got things under control.

Speaking of which.

“Number seventeen,” booms a voice through the speakers, “at point guard for Rosemont… a five-foot nine junior hailing from Annapolis, Maryland…”  The announcer draws it out, letting the crowd get antsy, letting the tension build.  She rolls her eyes like she usually does, but her palms still sweat.  “…Alexxxxxisssss Woooooods!”

That’s her cue.  The crowd goes apeshit; the spotlights swirl all over the dark floor like they’re trying to trigger a seizure; the hardcore bass line of whatever EDM song they picked for her entrance comes on so loud that Alex can feel the music vibrating against her skin.

She gives the people what they want, runs out with a grin, adds in a little twirl move before she gets to corridor formed by her teammates.  She crouches low as she runs between them, slaps their hands, hollers a war cry once for good measure, and when she gets to the end of row of the rest of the Lady Raiders, she hops up like she always does to bang chests with Anika Singh, the other crowd favorite.

Except she misses.

Well, Alex doesn’t miss exactly, she just kind of ends up ramming into Anika’s shoulder instead of her chest.  And when she lands, she stumbles to the side.  The stumble is so subtle, so nearly unnoticeable in the darkened stadium, that probably almost nobody sees it.  Anika notices, though.  And when Anika’s dark eyes flit over to Iris, Alex realizes Iris must’ve noticed, too.

Alex glances behind her as discreetly as she can to see if anyone else noticed.  Because if Anika noticed her stumble, whatever; Anika’s got her back.  If Iris noticed, yeah, she’ll give Alex some flak, but she’ll get over it.  But if Coach noticed that Alex totally missed Anika’s chest and then staggered a couple steps to the side on the landing… that could spell trouble.

And Alex doesn’t need more trouble this year.  In fact, after what happened on that night six months ago, she’s pretty sure she’s had enough trouble to last her for the rest of her college career.  Or the rest of her life, maybe.

But it looks like Lady Luck is smiling on this particular Lady Raider at the moment, because Coach Tynan wasn’t looking at Alex when the best athlete at Rosemont University, male or female, inexplicably missed Anika’s chest and then stumbled the landing.  No, Coach hadn’t been looking at the real Alex; he’s gazing up at the scoreboard cube that hangs from the stadium rafters, watching the Alexis Woods of the highlight reel and the Alexis Woods made of numbers and percentages instead of the actual Alex in front of him.

Some people look up to the heavens and pray to God or somebody else up there — if there’s anybody else up there, which Alex isn’t so sure about anymore — but Coach Tynan, all he looks up at is the scoreboard, and she figures that on some level, he’s praying to her.  To Alex.  Praying to her highlight reel and stats and perfect free throw percentage as if she’s going to be the one to deliver him from evil.  That, or at least help him keep his job for a couple more years.  And she resents it.  She never asked to be anybody’s savior, let alone their meal ticket.

“Tight-ass,” she mutters under her breath, the nickname she and her teammates have for their coach.  Her hand automatically flits to the long scar running up her neck and the black tribal tattoo that partially covers it.  Another nervous tick she has, but this one’s only six months old.

Somebody elbows her hard in the side, and her head snaps in the direction of the elbow only to see Iris glaring hard at her.

“What?” Alex mouths, and Iris nods towards the center of the court.

Oh, right.  The national anthem.  Alex quickly moves her hand from the side of her neck to her her heart and tries to figure out where they’re at in the song.

“…the bombs bursting in air…”

But she shouldn’t have looked over there, towards the singer standing in the center of the spotlight.  Because just beyond the spotlight, with all of them standing in a pretty row, megaphones and pom poms resting respectfully on the ground at their feet, are the cheerleaders.

And one cheerleader’s missing.  She’s been missing since that night, long before basketball season started.  Missing before football tailgating and back to school blow-outs.  Missing when the rest of the cheerleaders were doing their summer conditioning and workouts.

(Cassie.)

Alex didn’t mean to look at the cheerleaders, and she didn’t mean to think her name, but now it’s too late — the two syllables bounce around inside her skull, screaming painfully like microphone feedback nobody has the sense to turn off.

(Cassie.  Cassie.  “Cassie?… Cassie!”)

Just like that, that night is back again, and she’s reliving it like it was yesterday, cradling a broken, bloody body, not caring about the searing pain coming from her own neck, not caring about the smell of smoke and gasoline, or the —

“Lex,” a voice beside her says, snapping her out of the flashback.  It’s Iris again, and she’s still glaring at Alex, but now there’s something in her expression that might actually be concern.

Alex blinks herself back into the present.  The anthem’s over, the singer’s gone, the lights are on full-blast, the cheerleaders are… Yeah, probably best not to look at the cheerleaders.

She wobbles a little as she follows Iris over to the circle of players that’s gathered around Coach Tynan.  Alex stands to the right and slightly behind Anika, using the taller girl as a screen so that Tight-ass can’t see her directly.  Just in case her eyes are as bloodshot as they feel.

“This is it, ladies,” he says above the din of the crowd and announcers and music.  “We win this, we’re one game closer to winning the conference.  There’s already a seat for us at the tournament, we know that, but this is the game that shows them we’re a top-seed team.  Not second seed.  Not third seed.  Top seed — that’s what I want to see tonight.  Now get out there, give me a full forty minutes of hustle, a full forty minutes of heart, forty minutes of…”

Alex zones through the rest of Coach’s motivational speech, through his last minute reminders of the other team’s wing with the sweet three-point touch, through him telling Anika not to get into foul trouble, totally, completely zones until he calls “Hands in!” and Alex automatically reaches in with the rest of the team, piling her hand on top of the rest and yelling,

“GO RAIDERS!”

They leave their bench to line up for tip-off, and when Anika passes Alex, the taller girl leans over and sniffs Alex loudly.  Her whole face clouds with anger, and she directs a, “Really?  You motherfucker,” at Alex before she stalks past to face off against the other team’s tallest player.

Alex, for her part, just shrugs and falls back to her spot a few paces behind Anika.

So she downed a couple shots before game time.  Sue her.  It’s been a hard week, okay?  Maybe none of the rest of them remember, but tonight’s the six-month anniversary of that night.

Besides, it’s not like a little pre-game drinking ever hurt her performance before.  Hell, she was downright tipsy at the start of their last home game, but that turned out fine, didn’t it?  She still came away with the second highest score on the team.

Except now there’s a grunt and a ball flying over her head, and normally Alex would leap like a gazelle and already have it in her hands by now, but this time the ball’s somehow gotten past her, it shouldn’t have, and she’s turning towards it — she’s feeling sort of off-balance — and the next thing you know —

Alex trips over her own feet.  She tries to get up, stumbles.  Trips a second time.  And by the time she’s really got her feet under her, the Lady Wolves already have the ball and are racing away towards the other end of the court.  Alex follows them in an unbalanced, mad dash, nearly bowling over Ophelia on the way.  She’s way behind the other team’s point guard, and the girl kisses in an easy lay-up for two before Alex even makes the key.

This might be a long game.

She’s waiting for Ophelia to inbound the ball to her when she hears an airhorn and feels a tap on her shoulder.  Turning — a bit unsteadily — she sees Nia smirking down at her.  Nia doesn’t say anything, just jerks her thumb towards the bench.

Confused as to why the second-string point guard is subbing in for her less than ten seconds into the game, Alex glances over towards Coach Tynan.  But old long, bald, and ugly has his jaw clenched and both fists on his hips and doesn’t so much as wave her over.  Reluctantly, Alex jogs to where Coach stands sentry on the sidelines.

“What the hell?” she asks him, both palms upturned before her in a gesture somewhere between anger and confusion.

Instead of answering right away, he leans towards her and sniffs, just like Anika had done before tip-off.  He barely opens his mouth when he hisses out, “Sit.  Down.”

Alex knows when she’s been made.  She does what she’s told, flopping onto a folding chair and reaching for a towel automatically.  She doesn’t really need the towel, though, she realizes.  She wasn’t out there long enough to break a sweat.

Hell of a way to start a game.

2

Four games.  Alex gets suspended for four freaking games.  That’s most of what’s left of the regular season.  She hasn’t missed that many games since she came down with pneumonia as a freshman in high school and missed an entire weekend tournament.

But that’s not the worst part about it.  The worst part is that she doesn’t even get to be chewed out by Coach Tynan in private.  She walks into his office the next day for her scheduled appointment and he’s there; Anika, the team’s co-captain, is there; both assistant coaches are there; and the Dean of Athletics is there.

The dean?

This isn’t an ordinary chew-out; this is a goddamned coup, Alex realizes.  She slumps into the hot seat chair in the center that’s been left open for her and crosses her arms against her chest.

Damned if she’s going to apologize for anything.

She manages to keep her face neutral, looking unimpressed as she tunes most of Coach’s little tirade out.  When the fed-up looks Anika’s throwing her way turn into straight-up daggers, she ignores her, too.

But when Coach finishes, the dean clears his throat and says, “Alex, we’re concerned about you.  Coach Tynan is concerned, your other coaches are concerned, your teammates are concerned.  I’m concerned.”

She swallows back a snort.

He’s concerned?  He doesn’t even know Alex.  She’s pretty sure this is the first time they’ve ever even spoken.

“As a condition for you finishing out the season with the team once your suspension is over, we want you to start seeing a counselor.”

“A counselor?” Alex echoes, sitting up straighter but keeping both arms folded tightly across her chest.  “What, like a shrink?”

The dean — Alex can’t even remember his name — shakes his head no.  “Not a psychiatrist, Alexis.  A counselor.  Someone you can talk to about… well, about what you’ve been through this year.  I understand you’ve lost someone important to you?  Before the school year started?”

(Cassie.  Cassie.  “Cassie?!”)

Alex’s brow furrows, and her gaze slides from the dean over to Anika.  Alex hopes her glower clearly says, “Traitor,” but Anika doesn’t look away.  She actually tilts her head to the side and quirks a brow, answering Alex’s silent accusation with a challenge of her own.

Alex clears her throat, realizing that the dean is still waiting for an answer to his question.  “Yeah,” she mumbles, “there was an… accident…”

“And according to your teammates, ever since that accident, you haven’t been yourself,” the dean says.  “They tell me, and Coach Tynan tells me, that you refuse to talk about it.  They also told me — and this is what I find really troublesome, Alexis — that this isn’t the first time you’ve showed up to a game or a practice inebriated.  According to what I’ve heard, it’s been happening on and off all year.”

He puts a hand on Alex’s knee, and Alex supposes it’s meant to be a caring, grandfatherly gesture, but frankly it creeps her out for some old guy she doesn’t know to be touching her, so she shifts her leg away.

“You shouldn’t have to deal with this alone,” the dean says, full to the brim of condescending sympathy.  “But if you won’t talk to your friends, you need to talk to someone.

#

Covering their asses.

That’s what Rosemont University is doing.  They’re sending her to a goddamned counselor so that they can say they did everything they could for Alex.  And if she screws up worse next time — if she gets arrested for a drunk and disorderly, if she starts a bar fight, if she gets pulled over while high or drunk, if she whatevers, well, the school can say “we tried.”  They can point to the suspension, to the counseling sessions, and they can shrug and say, “We did what we could, but Alexis Woods, despite being a gifted athlete, is a troubled young woman.”

This is what runs through Alex’s head at her first counseling session, as she sits in the cushy armchair across from the late-thirties-early-forties guy with the bald head and trim brown beard.  He’s got kind eyes and a kind, warm-hearted smile, and this way of not judging her that almost makes her feel comfortable with him, but she sits in nearly complete silence for that first session anyway, answering in monosyllables when she answers at all.

The second session goes the same way, and the third session starts out like the other two, but two-thirds of the way through, he puts the tablet he’s been taking notes in down and tells Alex, “Please don’t put me in a position of having to tell the athletic department that you haven’t been cooperating with our sessions.”

This gets Alex’s attention.  She tries to stare the man down, but he won’t blink.  After a few seconds, she says, “My suspension’s halfway over already.”

“Yes, but the dean made it clear to me that you’re to attend counseling sessions with me for the rest of the school year if you want to keep your place on the team.  Along with your scholarship.”

Alex narrows her eyes, and when she speaks again, she uses the cold, deathly calm voice that’s intimidated both men and women her whole life.

“Did you just threaten my scholarship?”

“No,” he says, answering her fierce gaze without a flinch.  “You’re doing that without my help.  Given that you’ve shown up to two games drunk and at least as many practices — that we know of — your scholarship has been under threat for a while now.”  The kind eyes take on a hard glint that matches Alex’s own expression.  “You might be the biggest player the Lady Raiders have had in decades, Alexis, but don’t think for a moment this school is going to let you endanger its reputation.  They’ll drop you before they let you do that.”

Alex considers this for a moment.  His words are honest, she realizes.  “I can’t lose my scholarship.  There’s no way my grandfather and I can afford this school without it.”

He nods.  “Then take what we’re doing here seriously.  I know you’re hurting.  People who aren’t hurting — ”

“I’m not hurting.”

He closes his eyes momentarily, and Alex knows she’s trying his patience.  “I was going to say, ‘People who aren’t hurting don’t show up drunk to basketball games.’”

“Really?” Alex asks wryly.  “Because I’m pretty sure half the stadium is drunk or getting that way at every game.  At least in the student section.”

“They’re spectators.  Not the starting point guard.”

Alex picks at a frayed patch on the armchair but doesn’t say anything.

Tom — that’s her new counselor — leans forward, resting his forearms on his knees.  “You don’t have to talk about the accident that took your girlfriend’s life — not today.  And you don’t have to tell me about her.  But start by admitting that you miss her, Alexis.”

Unexpectedly, Alex’s eyes brim with tears.  She doesn’t let any of them fall; they disappear again almost as quickly as they came.  She’s always been uniquely talented in that department, the holding back emotion department.  It’s something Cassie used to complain about all the —

“I miss her,” Alex squeaks out before she can stop the words from escaping her throat.

Tom sits back up.  Picks up the tablet again.  “Good,” he says.  “That’s progress.”  He glances over Alex’s shoulder at the clock ticking on the wall behind her.  “We’ll finish a few minutes early today, alright?  Call it tit for tat.  But listen,” he adds, and he reaches behind him, fumbling around for something on his heavy oak desk.  His hand comes back with a business card in it, which he extends to Alex.  “I have a friend, another therapist, who runs a group therapy session for Rosemont kids who’ve lost someone every Thursday evening.  I’d like you to attend a couple sessions.”

Alex doesn’t take the card, just stares at it.

“When we’re in pain,” Tom goes on, still holding the card in front of him, “any kind of pain, really, one thing that makes it worse is when we feel like we’re all alone in what we’re going through.  That feeling of isolation, that feeling that the people around you don’t understand… group therapy is a way to connect to other people going through the same things you’re going through.”

He’s waiting for her to say something.  She doesn’t.

Tom pulls a pen from his breast pocket and writes a time and a room number on the business card.  “Five PM on Thursdays.  This same building we’re in now, but one floor down.  Room 201.  You don’t even have to call my friend, okay?  Just show up.”

“I can’t.”

“I know it feels that way now, but — ”

“No, I mean I can’t go.  Five PM on Thursdays, I have practice.”

“I think Coach Tynan will understand if you have to — ”

Alex scoffs.  “You don’t miss practice with Tynan.  Practice is not optional.  Ever.  For anything.”

“But this is — ”

“Look, Tom.  Coach is not going to let me miss practice in order to go to group therapy.  Regardless of any arrangement he made with the dean.  I can’t go.”

And she surprises herself at being disappointed by that fact.  Or almost disappointed, at least.  Not that she’s ready to talk about Cassie with a group of complete strangers, but the idea that she could at least be around other people going through the same stuff she’s going through… well, it sounds better than sitting in a room alone with Tom and trying her best to ignore him two mornings per week.

Tom sighs and stands up from his seat.  He walks around to other side of the desk, leaning over his keyboard.  “Okay,” he says, typing something in.  “I can’t say I particularly appreciate your coach putting basketball practice ahead of your mental health, but okay.”

That’s the moment Alex decides that Tom isn’t so bad.  For a fleeting second, she even thinks that if she’d met him sooner, maybe she wouldn’t be in this position now.  Maybe she wouldn’t be sitting the bench, with everyone from the kids in the campus dining hall to the reporters on ESPN speculating about which “team rule” she broke to get herself suspended for four games.

Tom scribbles something on a Post-It note and hands it to her.  “Here.  This is a different group.  They meet Sunday afternoons at a church off-campus.  I’m assuming that won’t interfere with practice.  You have a way to get off-campus?”

Alex nods, swallows a lump in her throat.  The motorcycle’s long gone, but her grandfather gave her his old truck.

“Okay, good.  This one’s a little different.  It’s a grief group for people who’ve lost partners or spouses, so on one level it matches what you’re going through a little better, but since it’s not a campus group, be prepared that you might be one of the younger people there.”

Alex folds the Post-It note in half and sticks it in the breast pocket of her black leather jacket.

“One more thing,” Tom says, reaching into a desk drawer.  He pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to Alex.  “The therapist who leads this group, her name is Mary.  Get her to sign this for you, and bring it back to me on Tuesday.”

Alex scowls at this, in part because she was just starting to like Tom, and now he’s treating her like a child who can’t be trusted.  She’s also scowling because she was already thinking that maybe she could blow the group off and just claim she’d been there.  Now she has no choice but to go.

“Fine,” she grumps when she takes the paper.  She folds it a few times and it disappears into the same pocket as the Post-It note.  “Can I go now?”

“Yeah,” Tom nods, waving her to the door.  Her hand’s already on the door handle when he calls at her back, “I know it doesn’t feel like it yet, but you made progress today, Alexis.  You did.”

She pauses for a moment, hand on the door handle.  “It’s Alex.”

“What?”

“Nobody calls me Alexis but my family.  Call me Alex.”

“Thank you for telling me.”

She shrugs, then leaves the cozy office, not caring that she slams the door a little too hard behind her.