Uncle Roy’s always been her hero.
Every time it’s come up in school, she’s said so. She’s drawn pictures of him and written essays about him and made presentations about him. Ms. Bowen asked her once if she could think of anyone else she wanted to write about and she said her mum and she thinks that made Ms. Bowen happy. But she ended up writing about both of them, her mum and Uncle Roy, because she couldn’t choose. Ms. Bowen said that was fine but told her not to write swear words in her essay next time.
Her classmate Meg asked her once if it was strange to have a famous uncle, who had posters of him and advertisements of him and stand-ups of him all over London. Phoebe asked Meg if it was strange to have an uncle who wasn’t famous, who didn’t have posters of him and advertisements of him and stand-ups of him all over London. Meg gave her a funny look and didn’t ask that question again. And anyways Phoebe doesn’t spend too much time looking at those posters and advertisements and stand-ups, because she doesn’t have to, because she has the real Uncle Roy around most of the time.
Meg’s mum says things too, like Uncle Roy swears too much and has dated too many floozies and got paid too much money to play a game and isn’t setting a positive example and he could never make it out in the real world. And if that one time at a match Phoebe’s header went right into the coffee cup Meg’s mum was clutching and sent it all over her white sweater, well no one thinks she did it on purpose.
She’s always excited to spend time with Uncle Roy, even if it is just riding in the car with him and going with him to all the places he has to go. Like today, when they stop at some office to do something and some other tall building to do something else and the stadium to do still something else. Meg asked her what the stadium was like too, and Phoebe told her it was either really loud and smelly and exciting, or really quiet and smelly and boring.
Today is a boring day, one where Uncle Roy brings her in the door to the stadium and asks her to wait there because he has things he has to do, but he’ll do them as quick as he can, and they’ll get ice cream after because anytime he makes her go somewhere or wait for something they get ice cream after. Usually he lets her go with him, but he said he had boring adult stuff to do today so she has to wait here.
She rocks on her feet inside that door, eyes wandering down the hallway and nose sniffing at the just-rained air seeping in through the cracks around the metal. Of course, Uncle Roy didn’t really say where the here that she needs to wait at is, and she’s been to the stadium a bunch of times before, so she thinks it’s okay if she goes down the hallway to look at the pictures and the trophies and the jerseys.
There’s one jersey out of a case, and it’s on this mannequin that’s leaning the wrong way and dented in a few places like someone’s been kicking a ball at it, but every time one of the adults walks by it they laugh so she supposes that’s why they leave it there. And maybe there aren’t very many trophies in those cases, but Uncle Roy told her once you don’t play for trophies, you play for the game, and for your team, and she’s not sure exactly what that means but Uncle Roy said it so it must be right.
She’s peering through one of the cases, breath fogging the glass, when she hears a clickity-clackity echoing down the hallway. She rubs at the glass with a sleeve of her favorite purple sweater, the one Keeley gave her for her birthday, before she turns around with a smile. It’s Ms. Welton, and she’s wearing that green dress that always makes Phoebe want to laugh because Ms. Welton’s giant and green but then it would sound like she was laughing at Ms. Welton and that’s not what she means. Ms. Welton has something tucked under one arm, her phone in her other hand. She’s looking at the screen, tapping at it, like she’s done every time Phoebe’s seen her. Phoebe smiles wider, waiting to be noticed.
Ms. Welton keeps looking at her phone though, click-clacking right past Phoebe. She’s a few feet gone when Phoebe finally calls out “Hello Ms. Welton.” Her mum told her it’s important to be polite.
Though maybe she shouldn’t have said anything because Ms. Welton lets out a gasp while she spins. It’s funny to scare the boys at school, and even her mum and her uncle sometimes, but it’s not funny if someone gets hurt, and Phoebe’s not sure how Ms. Welton doesn’t topple over on those towering shoes of hers.
“Phoebe?” Ms. Welton asks, clutching her phone to her chest.
She waves. “Hello Ms. Welton.”
“Hi.” Ms. Welton smiles and looks down one side of the hallway, then the other. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking at the trophies,” she answers. “But there aren’t very many of them.”
Ms. Welton’s lips twitch. “Yes. I see that.” Another glance down the hallway. “Where’s your uncle?”
Phoebe shrugs. “Said he had to do something.”
“Did he say what that something was?”
Phoebe shrugs again. “Maybe. I wasn’t really listening.”
Ms. Welton’s eyes twinkle before her phone pings again. She glances down at it and sighs, muttering “Misogynistic prick,” under her breath.
“What’s a misogynistic prick?” Phoebe asks.
Ms. Welton makes a face. “It’s…pretend I didn’t say that.” She frowns at the phone and then looks back at Phoebe. “No. It means a man who thinks he deserves credit for everything, even the things he hasn’t done, and thinks because he’s a man he can let everyone around him do all the work and get all the glory. And don’t you ever think you have to put up with that sort of behavior, Phoebe, because that’s not the world we live in. Anymore.”
“Okay,” Phoebe says brightly.
Ms. Welton groans. “And it means I really, really need to get to this meeting. Do you…” A look down the hallway again, and a tap of her toe on the tile. “Really, where is Roy? I can’t just leave you here.”
“But he did,” Phoebe reminds her.
Ms. Welton tilts her head. “Well. Yes. He did. Though I do wonder…oh!” Ms. Welton stares at something behind Phoebe and starts waving her hand over her head. “Jamie. Jamie!”
Phoebe turns around, and there’s Jamie, coming around the corner. He looks around when Ms. Welton calls, like there might be another Jamie over there somewhere, or maybe he’s looking for something else. Whatever it is, he doesn’t see it, so he makes his way towards them, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket, this black pattern that reminds her of the zebras they watched that video on in school. Not something Uncle Roy would wear, but she still likes it.
He shuffles towards them, stopping beside Phoebe. “Ma’am,” he nods at Ms. Welton. Then he turns to Phoebe with half a smile. “Phoebe?”
She beams. “You remembered my name?”
“Yeah,” the other half of that smile appears, “course I did.”
“Jamie, have you seen Roy?” Ms. Welton says before Phoebe can ask another question, or tell Jamie she likes his jacket, or bop up and down because Jamie with the neat jacket remembered her name.
Jamie scans behind him and when he turns back his smile is gone. “Uh. No.”
“Yes, well,” Ms. Welton mutters. “I really must run to this meeting. I trust you can help Phoebe find him?”
Jamie points at himself, face scrunched up.
“Yes, you,” Ms. Welton answers. “Maybe try Higgins’s office. I believe they wanted to discuss…” Ms. Welton stops talking and shifts on her feet, leaning her weight on one pointy shoe then the other. Jamie doesn’t say anything but he does that shuffle too, the one Phoebe sees adults do when they’re talking about something they shouldn’t be talking about around her.
“Yeah,” Jamie says at last, and its one of those heavy words, those words that mean a lot more than what it says, those words her mum and her Uncle and Keeley use sometimes like they think Phoebe can’t hear what they’re really saying.
“Yes,” Ms. Welton agrees. She twists her lips and taps her painted nails on her phone case. She opens her mouth, only to be interrupted by another ping. She scowls down at the phone again. “I’m sorry, I really have to get to this meeting. Thank you, Jamie.” She smiles at Phoebe. “Nice to see you, Phoebe.”
Phoebe smiles back and watches her click-clack away. Phoebe tried on shoes like that once, a pair she found in her mum’s closet, before her mum threw them out, calling them an archaic vestige of sexist drivel, whatever that means. Keeley still has lots of those shoes, and all sorts of fun clothes, but Phoebe isn’t supposed to go in her closet anymore for some reason.
Jamie watches Ms. Welton click-clack away too for a moment before he crouches in front of Phoebe. “Right then. Don’t suppose your Uncle Roy told you where he was going, did he?”
Phoebe shakes her head. “He said he had boring adult sh…stuff to do.”
Jamie chuffs out a laugh. “Didn’t tell you what that…stuff was?”
She shrugs. “Maybe. I wasn’t really paying attention. I don’t always pay attention when adults are talking.”
The corner of Jamie’s lip curls up. “Yeah. I don’t either.”
“Maybe I should have,” Phoebe says.
“Nah. Not your fault they’re so boring.”
“What happened to your face?” Phoebe asks, pointing at the white bandage pinching together a red gash across Jamie’s forehead, right above that little stripe through his eyebrow. Uncle Roy rolled his eyes when she asked about that stripe, like Uncle Roy rolls his eyes every time anyone talks about Jamie, but she still thinks it looks neat.
Jamie’s hand comes up to poke at it, just like Phoebe’s mum is always telling her not to do when she has a cut. She wonders who tells Jamie not to do that. “Eh. Manchester City happened. Game got a little rough, that’s all.”
“Sorry,” she says, biting the inside of her lip. “Does it hurt?”
“Nah, it’s fine. Got a few of those lads riled up. So maybe they went for me ‘stead of that header.” Jamie gives her a smirk that wobbles at the edges. “Don’t really blame ‘em. I still got it, though. Scored a goal. Just part of the game, Phoebe.”
“Okay,” she answers, but she’s remembering how Uncle Roy told them to go for the ball, not the other players, when he was coaching. Maybe Manchester City needs someone like Uncle Roy.
“Alright then.” Jamie pushes up to his feet and reaches a hand out. “Let’s see if we can find that grumpy old ar…athlete.”
She’s old enough now, she doesn’t need to hold someone’s hand to do things like cross the street or get to school, but she takes Jamie’s hand anyway. He’s here, and he’s always been nice to her, always says hello when Uncle Roy brings her here, and he did remember her name after all.
“You still playing football, then?” he asks while they’re walking.
She nods. “I like it, but I liked it more when Uncle Roy was coaching us. We were a better team then. At least that’s what he says. And he says he’d be better off coaching us than Richmond because we have more talent and we’re tougher and we have a better work…work aff…”
“Work ethic,” Jamie tells her. “Just cause it’s true don’t mean he has to say it.”
“Coach Nazar doesn’t swear as much as Uncle Roy did. Meg’s mum says that’s a positive development.”
“Meg’s mum sounds like a tosser,” Jamie grumbles and smiles at her giggle.
“My mum says I’m not supposed to call other people’s parents names,” she confides. They pause at the top of a set of stairs, and she looks up at Jamie. “But she says Meg’s mum is a tosser, too.”
Jamie laughs and knocks on the door they’ve come to. He opens it at a cheerful voice calling “Come in!” from beyond the threshold, like they’re entering the secret lair of a friendly troll.
She follows Jamie into Mr. Higgins’s office. It’s not a troll’s lair, or if it is it’s a very boring one, a dark desk and dull carpet and boring pictures in front of boring walls. She liked Keeley’s office, because it had animals and colorful posters and Keeley in it, but Keeley doesn’t work here anymore which makes her sad. Everyone else acted happy for Keeley, though, so Phoebe pretended she was too.
Phoebe scrunches up her nose when they reach that dark desk because it smells a little like Dauphine’s litterbox in here. She doesn’t say anything though. She remembers how bad it feels when other people tell you that you smell, and Mr. Higgins has a boring office but he also has a smile and glasses, and he told them to come in with such a friendly voice, and she doesn’t want to make him feel bad.
“Jamie!” Mr. Higgins says from where he’s sitting behind that boring dark desk. “And…”
“Phoebe,” Jamie supplies. “Roy’s niece.”
“Oh yes. Phoebe. Nice to see you again.” She waves at him with her free hand. “What can I do for the two of you?”
“Looking for Roy,” Jamie says. “Heard he were here.”
“Ah,” Mr. Higgins gives them a rueful smile. “He was here. I’m afraid you just missed him.”
“D’ya know where he went?” Jamie asks.
Mr. Higgins shakes his head. “He may have gone to his office to pick a few things up. At least I believe that is what that particular series of grunts meant. Left in a bit of a tizzy, so I’m afraid he wasn’t very specific.”
“He said he had boring adult sh…stuff to do, and that’s why I couldn’t go with him,” Phoebe repeats helpfully.
Mr. Higgins nods at her thoughtfully. “Yes. It was very boring adult stuff. I am confident you are in much better hands with Jamie.” He gives Phoebe a crooked grin. “He’s not nearly as boring as old geezers like your Uncle Roy and I.”
Phoebe giggles, and Jamie snorts. “Gonna tell him you said that,” Jamie notes.
Mr. Higgins shrugs and his smile dims. “They say the truth will make you free, don’t they?”
“If you say so,” Jamie grumbles. “Thanks anyway, though.”
“And Jamie,” Mr. Higgins says before they can leave. “About…about that other issue.”
Jamie squirms next to her, like he’s at his desk on a Friday afternoon, waiting for the teacher to give up on anything other than giving the class its assignment for the weekend. “Yeah?” he says in the tone Phoebe uses when she knows she’s done something wrong.
“I…well…” Mr. Higgins takes his glasses off to polish them on a polka-dotted kerchief that makes Phoebe smile because she wasn’t expecting Mr. Higgins, in his dull office and dull brown jacket and dull white shirt to have something like a polka-dotted kerchief. He sighs. “Never mind. We can speak about it later.”
“Yeah, sure,” Jamie says, and this time it’s like Phoebe when her mum asks if she’s going to remember to brush her teeth before bed.
“Always nice to see you, Phoebe,” Mr. Higgins says while Jamie’s tugging her away, and she waves bye over a shoulder at him.
“I like him, Mr. Higgins,” Phoebe says while they’re walking down the stairs. “Though his office smells a little.”
“Yeah, he’s alright. He’s a good…he’s good,” Jamie says. He scrunches his nose. “And his office does smell a bit, yeah? But it’s not his fault. Was dogs or summat.”
“Okay,” Phoebe agrees. “Uncle Roy called him a spineless simpering dickweed once, but I don’t think he thinks that anymore.”
Jamie pauses them on the stairs. “Uh. Yeah. I don’t…I don’t think you’re s’posed to repeat what your Uncle Roy tells you.”
“But he didn’t tell me that, he said that to Keeley. And it’s not even a swear word, and Ms. Bowen only cares about the swear words.”
“That…alright,” Jamie sighs. “S’fine. But you still shouldn’t repeat everything Roy says. He might get…”
Jamie shakes his head. “Nah. Never mind.”
“Okay!” she agrees again. “Besides, that’s not what Uncle Roy calls Mr. Higgins anymore. He says he’s a good fucking bloke now.”
“He…well…yeah. He is, s’pose. But –”
“Sorry,” she amends. “He’s a good effing bloke.”
“He…yeah. He is.”
“What did he want to talk to you about?” she asks.
Jamie shakes his head. “Just more boring adult stuff.”
Phoebe huffs. “I hate boring adult stuff.”
“You and me both, Phoebe. C’mon,” Jamie leads them down the stairs. “Let’s find your uncle.”
“There’s a boy in my class who calls people names too,” she tells Jamie while they’re walking.
“Oh yeah?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she nods. “No one likes him very much because he’s always so mean to us.”
“Hard to like someone who’s always mean,” Jamie comments, and she thinks his voice is quieter than it usually is. “He call you names then too, Phoebe?”
She shrugs. “Sometimes. I used to call him names back, but Ms. Bowen and my mum got upset when I did, so I don’t do it anymore.
“He’s just looking for a response,” Jamie sighs. “If he knows it don’t bother you, he won’t even try, will he?”
“That’s what my mum says,” she replies. “But whenever anyone calls Uncle Roy a name, he says something back and stands real close to them and looks very scary.”
“Well,” Jamie says. “Yeah. He does. Cause it works for him. Don’t work for everyone, though.”
“Does it work for you?”
“Nah. I ain’t that scary.”
“Uncle Roy’s yoga friends don’t think you’re scary,” she muses. “But Ms. Van Oss did say if she ever got ten minutes alone with you in a room she’d –”
“Okay, Phoebe,” Jamie declares, “don’t need to repeat that either.”
“Okay,” she concedes with a long sigh.
Jamie stops her just outside the door to the locker room for a second while he peers in. He comes back and takes her hand. “Coast is clear,” he says.
“Were you looking for monsters?” she wonders.
“Monsters? No, were just making sure no one else walked in on…” There’s that little dancing smile on his lips again, the one that makes her want to smile, and her mum says sometimes just smiling can make you feel happier so she thinks Uncle Roy should be a little like Jamie and smile more. “Yeah. Were looking for monsters, Phoebe.”
“Did you see any?” she asks breathlessly.
“Just that one,” he says, pointing at a tall figure across the room in a dark blue suit. The figure brushes one shoulder off with a hand and catches them in the corner of his eye.
Sam smiles hugely, every one of his bright teeth shining. “Phoebe!”
She beams back and waves a hand frantically. If more monsters were like Sam, she doesn’t think all those stories would need any heroes. “Hi Sam!”
“What are you doing here?” he asks as he comes closer, and those big brown eyes alight on her like she’s the only person in the room. She thinks some people can do that, make you feel like everything you think and say and do is the most important thing in the world. She likes those people. She likes Sam.
“Looking for Roy,” Jamie answers. “Higgins said he were here.”
“Ah,” Sam says. “He was a few minutes ago, but he left to speak to Coach Lasso. You just missed him.” He smiles down at Phoebe. “How are you, Phoebe? Everything going well in school, I hope.”
She shrugs. “Mr. Kulkarni says I need to work harder on my spelling. But we’re studying bugs in science class. I like bugs.”
“Oh, I do too,” Sam agrees. He crouches in front of her. “Except spiders. I think they are just so scary. Too many legs, aren’t there?” He waggles his fingers and bobs his eyebrows up and down.
She giggles. “Lots of legs. But most spiders aren’t dangerous, at least that’s what Ms. Sabah says, and she’s very smart. I like her class.”
“I am sure she is very smart. Just like you. Is that your favorite subject in school?”
She nods. “We get to keep bugs in the back of the room. I have a caterpillar. He’s very soft and friendly. I let Uncle Roy name him.”
Sam’s gaze shifts up to Jamie beside her, his eyebrows raised. He looks back at her, smile gone crooked. “And…what did your Uncle Roy name him?”
“Ted,” she answers.
Sam’s grin comes back in full force as he lets out a sigh. “Ah, yes. This is a very good name for a friendly caterpillar.”
“D’ya know where Ted is?” Jamie asks. “The real Ted.”
“Ted the caterpillar is real,” Phoebe states.
Sam nods firmly. “Of course he is.” She really likes Sam.
“Right. Sorry. D’ya know where human Ted is?” Jamie corrects himself.
“No, I do not.” Sam shakes his head. “I thought I saw him heading toward the pitch, and he mentioned something about…wanting to give the old girl another go?”
Jamie lets out a sigh of his own. “Right. Probably wanted another ride on the mower, then. Thanks anyway.”
“Of course.” Sam stands and something catches at his face, dims his bright smile. “Jamie…” he starts, eyes shifting. “I heard about…well. And…I wanted to say…”
“Yeah?” Jamie says, but it comes out all low and sharp and for a second she wonders what Uncle Roy’s voice is doing coming out of Jamie’s mouth.
“Ah…right,” Sam replies with a new hunch in his shoulder. “Just…eh,” he waves a hand. “We can talk about it later. If you like.”
Jamie shrugs and gives Sam the same “Yeah, sure,” he gave Mr. Higgins. Phoebe searches between the two of them, but Sam is looking at Jamie, and Jamie is looking at the floor. Jamie catches her eye after a moment and smiles. “C’mon then. Let’s see if Coach knows where your uncle is.” A short nod at Sam, and he turns toward the exit and tugs Phoebe along.
Sam gives Phoebe a last wave that she returns with a smile. “Good luck!”
Phoebe walks with Jamie through the still hallway, shooting a glance over her shoulder at the locker room door. “Uncle Roy used to call Sam things too,” she confides.
“He said he was a fu…an effing pushover who spent too much time looking for effing approval from effing people whose effing approval didn’t matter.”
Jamie’s hand twitches in hers. “He…yeah. Maybe. But now he’s –”
“Now Uncle Roy says he’s a good lad and a right proper footballer.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, almost too soft to hear, after a moment. “He is.”
“Does Uncle Roy ever say mean things about people to their faces?” she asks.
Jamie’s mouth twists again, and he gives her a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Sometimes. But only to people who really deserve it.” He continues, softer, “And he don’t say anything that ain’t true.”
“That boy in my class,” Phoebe notes, “he said mean things to Meg. Because she has two mums. And he called her mums mean things too.”
“He shouldn’ta done that.” Jamie grimaces. “Sorry I called Meg’s mum a tosser, then.”
Phoebe shrugs. “I don’t think he should have said the things he said about Meg’s mum. But Meg’s mum says mean things about Uncle Roy too. Doesn’t that mean we can call her names?”
“Eh.” Jamie frowns. “Don’t think that’s how it’s s’posed to work, Phoebe. Being mean to someone cause they been mean to you just makes them meaner. Don’t solve anything.”
“Oh.” She glances down at her feet while they walk, the laces on her left shoe starting to come loose. Then she steals a look at his face. He’s got that expression Uncle Roy gets sometimes when he doesn’t know what to say.
“What was your favorite subject in school?” she asks, because adults always want to talk about that.
Jamie gives her a little snort though, like Uncle Roy does whenever she asks him that question. “Didn’t have one.”
Phoebe stares. “Why not?”
“I…eh…” Jamie scrubs his free hand through his hair. “Figured it weren’t important, school. Were worried about other…didn’t think it were important. Weren’t much good at it either.”
“My mum says school is important. So does Uncle Roy.”
“It is, innit.” Jamie says. “For you, anyway,” he sighs. “Your uncle is right about some things. Occasionally.”
“He’s right about lots of things,” she insists. “He’s the best uncle there is.”
“He…right. Course he is,” Jamie concedes. “Sorry we haven’t found him yet.”
Phoebe swings her arms. “That’s alright. We will. It’s like we’re on a quest, like we play sometimes.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Uncle Roy is the princess, and I’m the dragon who has to save him.”
“Uncle Roy is the princess who gets kidnapped by an evil wizard, and I’m the dragon who has to save him.”
Jamie blinks down at her. “Shouldn’t he be the prince, then?”
She looks back. “No. Why?”
“Cause he’s…” A smile skirts around Jamie’s mouth. “Never mind. He’s the princess.”
She nods, firm. “And I’m the dragon who has to save him.”
“What does that make me, then?”
“The dragon’s personal assistant,” she declares.
“Alright then,” Jamie agrees. “Let’s see if the dragon and her personal assistant can find Princess Roy.”
The sunshine hits them as they come out of the tunnel onto the pitch and makes the drops of water on the grass sparkle. It’s a lot quieter than those times she held Uncle Roy’s hand and walked out here. No cheering crowd and bright lights, just the low drone of that lawnmower and the much louder whoops coming out of Coach Ted.
“Clown,” Jamie mutters under his breath, but Phoebe sees the smile he can’t quite hide, and she thinks it’s one of those mean words people can say in a nice way.
“I like Coach Ted,” Phoebe announces.
“I do too,” Jamie admits. “Don’t tell him I said that, yeah? Go straight to his head, it would.”
“Okay,” she agrees. The only thing better than a secret is a secret shared.
Coach Ted sees them from halfway down the pitch and starts waving. Phoebe waves back. Jamie shakes his head. “Howdy, you two,” Coach Ted calls out as he hops off the mower. “Appreciate ya’ Derek,” he shouts over one shoulder. “You handle that puppy like Mario Andretti at the Brickyard, I tell ya what.” He tips his visor at them. “Phoebe! How are you?”
She tells him she’s well and asks how he is. Her mum says that’s the polite thing to do. Coach Ted asks how school is going too, and she tells him it’s fine, and tells him Uncle Roy named her caterpillar after him, and she thinks that’s great because Ted the caterpillar is the best bug in the class, no contest. Coach Ted thinks that’s great too, says he’s real honored she named her caterpillar after him. He asks her about her team, too, and how her mum is doing, and if she likes that book he got her for her birthday a few months ago. It’s the same questions adults always ask, but most adults don’t ask questions like Coach Ted does and Phoebe thinks that’s a real shame. She likes answering questions when adults ask them like Coach Ted.
Coach Ted shoots these little glances at Jamie while he talks, like he’s waiting for Jamie to say something, but Jamie’s eyes skip from Phoebe, to his trainers, to Derek on the mower at the other end of the pitch, and he keeps his mouth shut.
“And how are you doing, Jamie?” Coach Ted asks once Phoebe’s answered all his questions.
“Fine, yeah,” Jamie answers, or at least that’s what Phoebe thinks he says, but it’s hard to hear him over the distant mower.
“Yeah?” Coach Ted asks without really moving his lips which is strange, because Coach Ted is always so animated, like those people on the telly her mum watches when she gets home from work, and he’s squinting at Jamie even though his visor is blocking out the sun.
Jamie bobs his head a little. Coach Ted turns back to her, and his lips part in a smile again. “Now, pleased as I am to see the two of you, I am guessing you didn’t come all the way out here to tell me about Ted the caterpillar. Not that he isn’t worth coming all the way out here to talk about, mind you.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, and Coach Ted looks at him with that open face, eyes wide and lips turned up. “We’re, ah…”
“We’re on a quest!” she interrupts.
Coach Ted raises his eyebrows before nodding knowingly. “Oh, I see. A very important quest, I take it.”
“A very important quest,” Phoebe agrees sagely, puffing up her chest and lifting her chin like Uncle Roy always does. “We’re on a very important quest to rescue Princess Roy from…from…boring adult stuff.”
“Princess Roy?” Coach Ted asks.
“Princess Roy,” Jamie confirms. “Take it he’s not here.”
Coach Ted shakes his head. “Afraid your princess is in another castle.” He looks between both of them expectantly. Jamie meets Phoebe’s eyes and shares her shrug. “A classic,” Coach Ted sighs, “that the two of you are sadly missing out on.”
“Princesses don’t have to live in castles anymore,” she points out. “Some of them just live in houses. Or flats.”
Coach Ted nods again. “Very true, Phoebe. Very true. Well castle, house, or otherwise, you just missed Roy.”
“We keep missing him,” Phoebe announces. “First Ms. Welton said she just saw him, then Mr. Higgins did, then Sam did, and now you did too.”
Coach Ted tugs at his visor. “Wow. You really have been on a quest, huh? Guess Roy’s been making the rounds.”
“Something like that,” Jamie huffs under his breath.
Coach Ted looks at Jamie, and his mouth flattens into a straight line again. “Well, I think he had a lot to say to people today.”
Jamie’s gaze shifts to the seats behind Coach Ted. Phoebe follows his stare, but it doesn’t look like Uncle Roy is up there either.
“What was he saying to people today?” Phoebe asks. Jamie and Coach Ted both give her one of those looks she doesn’t quite understand.
“Oh,” Coach Ted volunteers, “He wanted to talk about running a false nine on Saturday. Why most people don’t appreciate the difference between midnight and obsidian. If we should sign that full-back from Brazil.” He looks at Jamie and his smile settles into something else. “Speaking of full-backs, he wanted to talk about why it was you decided to go toe-to-toe with City’s largest.” He sneaks a glance at Phoebe before he turns back to Jamie. “Among others.”
Jamie’s free hand comes up to poke at it the bandage again, and Coach Ted has that look like Phoebe’s mum does when she’s going to tell her not to do that, but Coach Ted doesn’t say anything, just flutters his own fingers. “Worked, didn’t it?” Jamie grumbles.
“Jamie says it’s okay, because his head doesn’t hurt, and he got the ball, but my mum always yells at the telly when people go in for headers and we’re not supposed to do that anymore.” Phoebe tugs at the hem of her shirt. “But Uncle Roy says it’s okay if we do, once in a while, if it’s really important.”
Coach Ted stares at her for a long moment. “Yeah,” he drawls, the word sticking to his mouth like peanut butter, and his eyes shift to Jamie. “Those headers,” he says, and he sounds sad, like her mum does sometimes after work, sighs lost someone today when she’s on the phone with a friend. “Gotta be real careful.” Coach Ted scratches the back of his own head. “Still can’t figure how it is you boys don’t have to wear helmets. Might keep you a little safer.”
Jamie has a look on his face, the one Phoebe thinks she gets before she says something she shouldn’t. “But I thought American football had all kinds of head injuries?” she asks even though it’s rude to interrupt, but Uncle Roy told her after he growled at Bernard that it’s okay to do rude things sometimes if you’re doing them to help someone else. “And Uncle Roy said that you used to play it and he wondered if you’d taken a few blows to the head.”
Coach raises his eyebrows. “Well yes, Phoebe, it does. They’re trying to change that though.” He grimaces. “Sort of. And I didn’t play for very long, so I didn’t get hit too many times.”
“That’s good,” she declares. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Coach Ted hums at her. “That’s right, Phoebe. We don’t like it when the people we care about get hurt, do we?”
She nods back, but Jamie just lets out this little Uncle Roy grunt. “Right, then. The match all Roy came to talk to you about?” he asks, and there’s something sharp in his voice, like a broken glass bottle on smooth pavement.
Coach Ted’s expression doesn’t change. “No, Jamie, it was not. Shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you.”
Jamie snorts. “And what’d he say, then?”
“Oh, just what we’re all thinking, about what happened up in Manchester. He’s kinda got a knack for that. Though I think if you want to know what’s on his mind, you’d be better off getting it from the horse’s mouth.”
“Uncle Roy’s not a horse,” Phoebe protests. “He called you a pigeon-brained Yankee doodle dipshit once, though, and he said everyone agreed with him,” she adds.
Coach Ted leans back. “Phoebe,” Jamie sighs.
“But he doesn’t call you that anymore. Well, he does still say you’re a pigeon-brained Yankee doodle, but I think he means it in a nice way now.”
Coach Ted blinks. “Okay. Sometimes forget that you all are just living, breathing sponges. Well, that’s very sweet of him. I think he’s a swell guy, and you can tell him I said so.”
“I will,” she promises.
“D’ya know where he went?” Jamie asks, like they’re in some hurry. “Or what he’s doing, running all around here? Why he…” He glances down at Phoebe and works his mouth.
“Well, I suppose that is his business, and you know how Roy gets when other people get in his business. And I am afraid I do not know where he was heading, though I suspect he isn’t planning to leave here without his favorite niece,” Coach Ted says.
“I’m his only niece,” Phoebe notes.
“Then I am even more positive he isn’t going to leave you here. Only nieces don’t come around every day, you know,” Coach Ted comments with a bob of his head.
“I know,” she agrees.
“Right, then,” Jamie interjects. “Let’s go see if we can find him.”
Phoebe plants her feet when he tugs at her hand. “But I like it out here. Why can’t we wait for him here?” She can tell Coach Ted agrees with her by the look he gives Jamie.
Jamie runs his tongue over his teeth, like Dauphine does when she and her mum are trying to get her in her carrier. “He’s probably waiting for you inside,” he says. “Don’t want to get you into any trouble.”
She could tell him she hardly ever gets in trouble with Uncle Roy, even when she does the things she’s not supposed to, and even if she does, somehow they always end up getting ice cream so it’s not so bad. But Jamie’s got this look on his face she’s never seen there before so she goes along when he pulls her hand again.
The hallway is dim when they get back inside, the colors all washed out. “Jamie?” she asks tentatively.
“Why does everyone keep talking about Manchester?”
His feet stop moving, and hers do too. “Were up there for a match, last weekend. Played City, like I told you. We beat ‘em.”
She knows that. She watched it, or at least it was on the telly, because it always is, even if she wasn’t paying attention for the whole thing because it’s not her fault the matches are always so long but she looks up anytime someone yells so she thinks she sees the important parts. “Yes, but…did you do something wrong? Everyone keeps asking you about it, and whenever adults want to talk to me about what happened like that, it usually means I did something I wasn’t supposed to and they’re mad at me.”
Jamie chews his lip for a moment. “Yeah, Phoebe. Maybe they are a bit. Mad at me, that is. Cause of what happened.”
She pouts. “But aren’t you supposed to score goals? Even if you’re not supposed to hurt your head when you do it.”
“Yeah. I am s’posed to score goals. Kind of me job, right?”
“So shouldn’t they be happy with you?”
He sighs. “Figure they should be, yeah? But they ain’t.”
“Why?” she asks, chest growing all tight. “If you did what they wanted, why are they upset with you?”
“Look, Phoebe.” Jamie frowns at the floor. “It’s a little more complicated than that. Cause of a bunch of boring adult stuff. You got better things to think about, so don’t worry.”
“But I am thinking about it,” she says, salt prickling at her eyes. “If you did what they wanted you to, and they’re mad at you, that’s not your fault, and it’s not fair.”
Jamie looks down either side of the empty hallway, eyes wide, before he drops to a crouch in front of her. “Phoebe. Phoebe. It’s alright. Look.” He takes both her hands in his big warm ones. “They ain’t mad at me cause of how I played. Well. Maybe a little. But me dad showed up, after the match. That’s what they’re all upset about.”
She blinks rapidly drying eyes. “They are? But why? Shouldn’t dads come to matches? Sometimes I wish my dad would come to mine. Like he used to. But my mum gets sad when I say that, so I don’t say it anymore.”
Her dad did come to her matches, too, though that was long before Uncle Roy started coaching them. It’s hard for her to remember back that far, but she has an image in her head of her dad running along the sidelines, cheering at the beginning of the match and the end of the match and cheering when her team scored a goal and cheering when the other team scored a goal before she realized most people don’t do that, but she always liked it.
She chews on her lip. “And Uncle Roy said if my dad did show up to one of my matches he would break my dad’s nose, but I don’t think Uncle Roy meant for me to hear that.”
Uncle Roy says lots of things about her dad, even when she’s right there, and it’s one of the few things Uncle Roy does that she doesn’t love, because maybe her dad is not around anymore, but he was once, and she wants that again, even if she can’t say it around Uncle Roy and her mum.
Her eyes have gone damp again when she wasn’t paying attention. “But Uncle Roy says its not my fault that my dad doesn’t come to my matches.”
“Yeah,” Jamie drawls in that soft voice, and if Coach Ted’s voice is peanut butter, she thinks Jamie’s must be honey. “It ain’t your fault, Phoebe. And I don’t think your Uncle Roy meant for you to hear what he said ‘bout your dad. But it’s kinda like that, see. No one wants me dad to come to our matches either.”
“But you want him to show up sometimes too?”
Jamie looks down at their clasped hands. “Sometimes. It’s complicated.”
“Why doesn’t anyone want him to come to your matches?”
“Cause he’s…” Jamie’s fingers flex against hers. “Cause he ain’t always nice.”
“My dad was always nice to me,” Phoebe notes. “But he wasn’t always there when he was supposed to be, and my mum said it wasn’t because he didn’t love me but because he couldn’t be that sort of dad. I don’t know why he couldn’t be that sort of dad, though.”
Jamie blinks a few times, like he’s got something in his eyes too. “I don’t know either, Phoebe. But I’m sure your mum loves you, and your Uncle Roy does too.”
“But it’s not your fault that he showed up.” She sniffles. “Your dad, I mean. So why is everyone mad at you?”
“Yeah. No, I mean. Well. I weren’t…it’s complicated, Phoebe.”
The next question is on her lips, why, why it’s complicated, why everything with adults is always so complicated, why Jamie’s dad isn’t nice and comes to his matches and why hers is nice but doesn’t come to hers, when a clatter down the hallway draws her attention.
It’s three of the players, and she knows she knows their names but she can’t remember them right now, not her fault there are so many of them and they wear the same clothes so much of the time. She still smiles though. That’s what you do when you see people you know even if you don’t remember their names, and these three would make her smile anyways, one tall enough she’s worried he’s going to hit his head on the ceiling, another taller than her but shorter than the others with dark hair and gentle eyes, and the third somewhere in the middle but big and wide and tough looking ‘til he returns her smile with one of his own.
“Heya, Phoebe,” he calls, and she remembers that one is Isaac, because Uncle Roy told her he was the new captain, when Uncle Roy couldn’t be one anymore, and she wasn’t entirely sure what that meant but she decided if it meant he was anything like Uncle Roy she liked Isaac too.
She can’t wave because Jamie’s still holding her hands, and when she tries to say hello back her voice catches in her throat and then the three of them aren’t smiling anymore they’re all frowning like they’re sad and that makes her sadder and her eyes grow misty again.
“The hell did you do to her?” the short one, with the curly hair and wide blue eyes, asks in a lilting voice that sounds like a song and that makes her smile a bit even though she’s still sad. And he’s wearing this fun jacket, like an army man but she doesn’t think army men usually wear those colors. It’s not as good as Jamie’s jacket, but it still makes her want to smile even more.
“I didn’t—” Jamie starts.
“D’ya make her cry, bruv?” Isaac scowls at Jamie and crosses his arms over his chest. He’s got a fun jacket too, a bright pattern most of the boys at her school wouldn’t wear and that’s too bad, because she thinks lots of boys would look nice in that pattern. Still, even though he has a fun jacket he has a scary face and Phoebe understands why Uncle Roy thought Isaac could do his job when he couldn’t anymore.
“No, look, I weren’t –”
“Who is this small child?” the tall one asks. He doesn’t have a fun jacket on, just a plain one and plain pants and a plain shirt but maybe that’s not his fault because maybe they don’t make fun jackets that big. And it’s too bad he’s not wearing green, because he and Ms. Welton would make a perfect set.
“Roy’s niece, boyo,” the one with the sing-songy voice says.
“Roy’s crying niece,” Isaac adds.
The tall one’s eyebrows lift to the ceiling. “Ah. When Roy finds out you made his niece cry what he said to you in Manchester will pale in comparison, yes?” he asks.
A silence settles over them, the kind that makes Phoebe shift on her feet even though no one is looking at her anymore, they’re all looking at the tall one with wide eyes.
“Uncle Roy was mad at you?” she asks Jamie.
“Roy is frequently angry. Particularly at Jam—oof.” The tall one stops talking when Isaac’s elbow finds his ribs.
“Why’s he mad at you?” she asks Jamie again.
Four sets of eyes find Jamie, and if he were in a chair at a desk he’d be slouching down it, trying to get his head lower, like Phoebe does when Mr. Kulkarni is looking for volunteers to come up to the board. “He ain’t mad at me, Phoebe,” Jamie finally answers.
“Oh, yes, he is,” the tall one says again and gets another elbow in the side.
“But why?” she asks, and her eyes start prickling again because she hates when Uncle Roy is mad at her, even though he says he never is, and she likes Jamie and Jamie’s been so nice to her, holding her hand and taking her around to find her Uncle Roy. And if Uncle Roy is mad at Jamie then maybe she’s a little mad at Uncle Roy, or maybe she’s sad for Jamie. Or maybe she’s both.
“Like I said,” Jamie tells her. “It’s complicated. Let’s just find your uncle though, yeah? Sure he’s wondering where you are.” Jamie tilts his head to look at the far trio. “Any of you seen ‘em?”
The tall one opens his mouth but closes it with a leery stare at Isaac’s elbow. Isaac doesn’t say anything though, he just looks to either side and chews his lip.
“Yeah,” the short one with the curly hair and kind smile says at last.
“Just came through here,” Isaac adds.
“He was looking for you,” the tall one finishes and of course he was, because Phoebe was supposed to wait by the door before all these things started happening. But she looks up and the tall one isn’t talking to her, he’s talking to Jamie, and then she looks over at Jamie and he’s gone flat and still.
“Oh,” Jamie says. “Well. Know where he went?”
They point in unison at the other end of the hallway, leading to that door where Phoebe was supposed to wait.
“Right then,” Jamie sighs. “Thanks.” He pushes himself up to his feet, though Phoebe could swear he looks shorter than he used to. Another tug, the hand in hers warm. “S’go.”
She looks over a shoulder to wave while they walk away. She doesn’t get a wave back, though, because Isaac and the other two are huddled together, and Isaac’s pointing a finger in the tall one’s face and muttering something she can’t hear. Army jacket man sees her looking and smacks at the other two until they all glance up with smiles and wave back in unison. Well, Isaac and army jacket are smiling. The tall one isn’t, exactly, looks like he just ate something sour, but he’s waving at least.
“I don’t know why Uncle Roy is angry with you. Sometimes I think he’s angry at me too, but that’s just his face,” she confesses.
Jamie chuckles lowly. “Yeah. I know that face too.”
“Once in a while he is angry with me, though. I don’t like it when adults are angry with me.”
“Yeah,” Jamie drawls. “I’m used to it, though.”
“Oh,” she answers, and they’re back at the door to the car park, where she was supposed to wait for Uncle Roy, though he isn’t here either. “Sorry.”
Jamie doesn’t say anything, just scans the horizon like an actual zebra from that video, on the lookout for lions, and she’s about to tell Jamie she learned that zebras live in herds because they can look out for each other that way when she hears Uncle Roy. She can’t see him, but she knows that low growl saying all those words she’s not supposed to say anymore. The only reason she ever wanted to say them was because it was Uncle Roy she heard them from.
Jamie hears Uncle Roy too. At least she thinks he does. He goes still and quiet and doesn’t look down at her. He just stares at the far wall, blinking.
“Jamie?” she asks.
“Phoebe!” Uncle Roy barks.
Jamie’s hand slips from hers when he turns and she squeezes her fingers together, oddly empty. She turns too. “Uncle Roy!”
Uncle Roy is stood at the other end of the hallway, wearing another of the dark outfits Phoebe loves because it’s always so easy to find in a crowd, and she hates getting lost.
“Where the fuck you been? Told you to wait by the fucking door.”
Her smile drops when Jamie shifts beside her, like he’s the one getting yelled at. Maybe he doesn’t know that’s just how Uncle Roy talks. “We were looking for you!” she announces.
Uncle Roy prowls down the hallway like he always does. Except he’s not looking at Phoebe, he’s looking at Jamie, with this tilt to his head like he has when he’s helping Phoebe with her homework. “The fuck you doing here?” he asks.
Jamie doesn’t flinch, and Phoebe’s not sure why she expected him to. He just ducks his chin a little bit and stares back at Roy. “Helping Phoebe find you,” he says, but it’s so quiet even Phoebe can barely hear, and she’s standing right next to him.
Uncle Roy grunts. Straightens his head. Opens and shuts his mouth a few times before his eyes drop to Phoebe. “Were worried,” he says softly.
She smiles to counter his frown. “You didn’t need to worry. Jamie was helping me find you. And we saw Ms. Welton, and she said you went to talk to Mr. Higgins so we went to talk to him and he said you went to the locker room so we went there and then we saw Sam and he said you went to talk to Coach Ted so we went to talk to Coach Ted and he didn’t know where you were but then we saw Isaac…and…and…and then we saw you!” She inhales deeply, out of breath.
“Did you?” Uncle Roy asks again but he’s still looking at Jamie, not at her.
“And…and…and Jamie and I talked about all sorts of things, like what you call other people and what Meg’s mum called you and when it’s okay to call people names and why people are mean to other people when people are mean to them and what happened in Manchester but I still don’t get it and then we talked about our teams and our matches and how sometimes we wish our dads would –”
“Phoebe,” Jamie snaps, and her breath leaves her again because it almost sounds mean and Jamie’s been nice this whole time so why would he be mean now?
“Watch it,” Uncle Roy snaps back at Jamie and her throat gets a little tight because that’s Uncle Roy’s really angry tone, not just his pretending to be angry tone and she doesn’t like it.
Jamie bites his tongue before his gaze drops to meet hers. “Sorry,” he says.
“It’s okay,” she replies in a small voice. She’s not sure it is, though.
And then she knows it’s not okay because Uncle Roy’s face is all scrunched up like it was when he told her she was better than he was and that’s still not true and she just wants him to know that. Uncle Roy gives Jamie a look like he gave her in the car that day too. “Right,” Uncle Roy says. “Thanks.” She’s still waiting when Uncle Roy holds his hand out. “Let’s go.”
She shoots a last glance at Jamie before she takes it, because this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, that face means Uncle Roy wants to say something, and Jamie should know that, he should say something too. Jamie’s not looking at her, though. He’s not looking at anyone.
Uncle Roy’s hand is big and rough like it always is when she takes it, seems bigger and rougher after Jamie’s, and it must be because Jamie uses lotion like her mum does and maybe he should let Uncle Roy use some of it. Maybe she won’t tell anyone that, though it makes her want to smile at Jamie anyway. When she gazes up, he’s gone though, and she just catches the back of his zebra jacket ducking into the door to the locker room. She cranes her neck to get a better look but Uncle Roy tugs her along.
She chews on her lip while she pulls her brave face on. “Why are you mad at Jamie? He was very nice to me today.”
Uncle Roy glances down at her as they walk. “I’m…I weren’t…I’m glad he was. Nice to you. But it’s…”
“Complicated. I know. Everyone keeps saying that. I don’t get what’s complicated. His dad showed up to your match and now you’re angry at him but it’s not his fault his dad did that, and he said it’s not my fault my dad doesn’t show up to mine.”
Uncle Roy stops suddenly and pulls her around so fast it almost hurts. “What did he say to you, Phoebe?” And there’s that note in his voice, like when he used to ask what her dad said to her back when she still saw her dad.
“He said…he said…” But her throat’s shut tight, a door slammed, and her eyes are prickling again.
Uncle Roy curses, says all the words she’s not supposed to say, says he’s going to fucking kill that fucking prick and she snatches at his arm hard enough to scratch his leather jacket with her chewed nails though she doesn’t mean to.
“No!” she chokes. “He was nice to me and he helped me find you and he said it was okay if I missed my dad and that you and mum love me and Uncle Roy it’s not his fault his dad isn’t nice but still shows up to matches and mine is nice but doesn’t show up to my matches and why is everyone so mad at him for something that’s not his fault and…”
And then she’s tucked under Uncle Roy’s chin, his beard snagging at her hair, though she doesn’t really mind. He lets her sniffle there for a while ‘til he eases her back so he can wipe her cheeks with the back of his fingers. He sighs. “Phoebe, it ain’t your fault. About your dad. None of it.”
She hiccups. “I know.” She doesn’t, but maybe someday she will.
“And everyone’s…” He grunts. “They ain’t mad at Jamie.”
“They aren’t?” she asks. “But…but they said you were.”
Uncle Roy closes his eyes for a second. “Yeah. I were. I am. A little.”
“But it isn’t his fault.” She stomps her foot while she says it so Uncle Roy hears her.
Uncle Roy closes his eyes for a moment before he opens them, and they’ve gone soft round the edges. “No. It ain’t. Not what his dad done, anyway. And I ain’t mad about what his dad done. I’m mad about what Jamie done. Cause he did something…he did something he weren’t supposed to. When his dad showed up.”
“It’s hard, though,” she insists. “To do what you’re supposed to do when you just want your dad to show up. It’s hard when…when your dad isn’t what he’s supposed to be.”
Uncle Roy blinks a bunch of times and swallows a few times more. “Yeah. It is hard, innit?” he asks. She nods, tugging her lips between her teeth. “Maybe I forget that, sometimes,” Uncle Roy muses.
“That’s okay,” she tells him.
He sets his big hand on her arm. “Can you stay here for a minute, Phoebe?”
She nods again as he stands up. He takes a few steps away before he turns to point at her. “And I mean fucking stay this time, Phoebe.”
She peels her lips back in a smile, because if Uncle Roy is talking like that again something must be alright. She watches him walk down the hallway, broad shoulders and back straight, like all those superheroes in all those movies always do, until he disappears into the locker room. Jamie said there weren’t any monsters in there, but Uncle Roy looks like he’s expecting one.
She shoots a glance down either end of the hallway, and figures so long as she can still see where here is, she should be alright. She tiptoes down the hall until she can ease the door to the locker room open a few more inches. She can see a pie slice of the locker room, and she doesn’t spot any monsters in here, but she sees Uncle Roy from the side, and another person from the side, in that black zebra jacket. Jamie, with his hands shoved into the pockets of that jacket, and she really wonders if Jamie knows whether they make those for kids too.
“Oi,” Uncle Roy says. “You got a minute?”
Jamie’s shoulders bob up and down. “Yeah, sure,” in that same tone he used with Mr. Higgins, and Sam, and everyone else, the tone Phoebe knows means no.
Uncle Roy knows it too, but that doesn’t stop him. Nothing stops Uncle Roy. “Wanted to talk to you about what happened in Manchester. After the match.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, and now his shoulders are up around his ears.
“Yeah. Wanted to say I’m sorry.”
Jamie’s so still for a while she wonders if she’s looking at a picture of him instead of the real thing. He lets out a breath after a bit, though. “What?” he croaks.
“Gonna make me repeat myself?” Uncle Roy grumbles, and Phoebe knows he doesn’t like repeating himself, but he will. If he needs to.
“I…” She can see Jamie’s hands shuffling in his pockets from here. “What?”
Uncle Roy works his jaw in a circle, the way he does before he tells her something important. “Look, I know I fucked up, alright? I know I fucked up because Rebecca wanted to talk about it, and Higgins wanted to talk about it, and Sam of all people told me I should not’ve done what I did, and Lasso didn’t say shit but he gave me that disappointed dad face and I fucking hate that face.”
Phoebe blinks. She can’t imagine Coach Ted being disappointed with anyone, for anything. Uncle Roy must’ve really done something bad.
“And Isaac and Colin and Jan Mass came up to me and gave me these looks too, and Jan Mass told me I should not’ve done it, and you know it’s true if Jan Mass says it, and it’s even worse when fucking Colin tells me I need to do better, ‘specially cause I know he’s fucking right,” Uncle Roy continues.
“Colin said that?” Jamie asks in a hushed voice.
“Yeah,” Uncle Roy snorts. “And Isaac said if I pulled something like that again he was gonna have words with me. Fucking Isaac. He don’t even know that many words.”
“Oh,” Jamie breathes, staring at his shoes. “They…didn’t say nothing. To me.”
“And I…I know I should not’ve said what I did.” Uncle Roy mutters.
Jamie’s head tilts. “Weren’t saying anything that ain’t true.”
“Maybe.” Uncle Roy stares at his feet too. Then he lets out that little huff and looks up. “I don’t…I don’t understand. We all…I…did all that, so’s you would not have to see ‘em again, and we can’t keep him outta every stadium, but we made sure he’d never even get close to our locker room again.”
Jamie hunches further in on himself. “I know.”
“And we do all that to keep him away from you.” Uncle Roy's fingers flex at his sides. “And you go and find him outside, soon as the match is over.”
“Yeah,” Jamie chuckles, though it doesn’t really sound like a laugh. “Good at doing things I shouldn’t.”
“But why?” It’s strange to hear something that sounds like her come out of Uncle Roy’s mouth. “Why’d you go see him?”
Jamie rubs at his forehead one more time, traces a finger over the bandage above his eyebrow. He drops it when Uncle Roy tells him, “Leave it, Jamie,” and it’s not quite her mum’s voice, but it sure is close.
“Cause he were there,” Jamie sighs. Uncle Roy’s eyebrows crinkle together but he doesn’t say anything. “And I…” Jamie shoves his hand back in his pocket. “It ain’t like a switch, you know,” he says to the floor. “Can’t just turn it off and be done with it.”
It’s hard, Phoebe thinks, when your dad isn’t what he’s supposed to be.
“I…yeah. Suppose so. I know so.” Uncle Roy blinks up at the ceiling. “Which is why I should not’ve said the things I did. Didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, you did,” Jamie counters. “Some of it, at least.”
Uncle Roy shrugs. “Yeah. I did. Don’t mean I shoulda’ said it like I did, though. So, I’m sorry. About that. And about…” He gestures at Jamie. “Everything he…everything.”
Jamie doesn’t say anything for a minute, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do when someone apologizes to you, at least if they mean it, and she can tell Uncle Roy really means it because his eyes are bouncing around Jamie’s face and the corners of his mouth are pulled tight and his eyebrows are creased together.
“Thanks,” Jamie whispers at last.
Uncle Roy grunts and nods. He studies Jamie for another few seconds before he starts to leave. He freezes halfway though, a foot facing the door, a foot facing Jamie, and Phoebe holds in her gasp, because maybe he’s seen her. But Uncle Roy turns back to Jamie without a word.
He still doesn’t say anything, but he takes a few steps towards Jamie and latches his arms around him, hands coming together on the back of Jamie’s zebra jacket. Jamie hangs there for a moment, shoulders stiff and hands still jammed in his pockets. Uncle Roy squeezes him tighter though, like he squeezed Phoebe that one time she got lost at the park and spent what seemed like hours looking for him and he held her so tight when she finally found him she figured he’d never let go.
And eventually Jamie does what Phoebe did then, brings his own hands up to clutch at Uncle Roy’s jacket. And he presses his face into Uncle Roy’s shoulder like she did too, scrunches his eyes closed hard enough that the white bandage above his eyebrow scrunches too. Uncle Roy doesn’t push him back after a second, grab his shoulders and demand to know where he was with a trembling voice. Instead he stands there, tall and quiet and strong like he always is when she needs him to be.
She’d stay there for a bit, because watching Uncle Roy give someone a good hug is almost as nice as getting a good Uncle Roy hug, but as soon as one of them turns around they’re going to see her. And it shouldn’t matter if someone else sees you getting an Uncle Roy hug, but she thinks maybe Jamie and Uncle Roy would think differently. Adults are so strange, sometimes.
She creeps back to the door to the car park and stands by it, twisting her fingers around each other. Maybe she should have brought her homework in, because there’s no telling how long an Uncle Roy hug will last, though usually she thinks they aren’t long enough.
She looks up when she hears someone walking towards her. It’s not Uncle Roy, though, because Uncle Roy would never wear a visor like that, though Phoebe thinks he would look neat if he did. Coach Ted gives her a big grin when he sees her and crosses the hallway, thumbs tucked into the straps of his backpack. Maybe Coach Ted has homework too.
“Don’t tell me you lost Jamie, now,” he says.
She shakes her head. “I didn’t lose him. Or Uncle Roy.”
“Oh yeah?” Coach Ted shoots a glance around them. “You sure about that?”
“Yes,” she nods her head emphatically. “I know where they both are.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” Coach Ted says. At her blink he adds, “That means I sure would appreciate you telling me where they are, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t,” she says. “They’re both in the locker room.”
“Oh.” Coach Ted’s lips pucker together. “Okay.”
“Uncle Roy wanted to talk to Jamie,” she confides.
Coach Ted glances down the hallway. “That all they’re doing?”
She shakes her head and leans closer, tugging at Coach Ted’s wrist until he ducks down and she can whisper in his ear. “Uncle Roy is giving Jamie a hug. Uncle Roy gives the best hugs.”
Uncle Roy may give the best hugs, but she thinks Coach Ted gives the best smiles. “Know what Phoebe, I think you’re right about that. I’ve seen it myself. Excellent hugger, your uncle.”
She beams back. “I’m lucky.”
He nods. “You are. We all are. And he’s lucky to have you, too.”
She ducks her head and mumbles a “Thank you.”
“Now, hope you don’t mind if I wait here with you ‘til your Uncle Roy comes back.”
“I don’t mind.” She doesn’t, because Coach Ted tells her a story, about how when he was close to her age he was playing on his first American football team, and he was the smallest kid on the team but that was fine, just meant less of him for the other team to try to tackle. And he tells her they couldn’t find a helmet small enough for him and one time it got stuck over his eyes but he kept running with the ball anyway, until he finally got where he was going and shoved the helmet off only to realize he’d run the whole length of the field in the wrong direction. She tells him maybe it’s a good thing they don’t wear helmets in real football and he laughs.
He’s still laughing when Uncle Roy comes down the hallway. Except it’s not just Uncle Roy. It’s Jamie too. And he’s still wearing his coat, but she thinks he looks like he shrugged something else, something heavier, off his shoulders. His step stutters when he sees Coach Ted stood next to her, but he keeps coming down the hall.
“Howdy, fellas,” Coach Ted says with a smile. “Everything alright?” Uncle Roy responds with a grunt, and Jamie just nods. “Well, glad to hear it.” Coach Ted glances between the two of them before his eyes settle on Roy. “You heading out?” Roy nods. “Alright then. You got a minute, Jamie?”
Jamie goes a little still, but Coach Ted just keeps smiling at him and his shoulders lower. “Yeah, sure,” he says, but it’s not like the other ones, it sounds like he means this one.
Uncle Roy and Coach Ted exchange those strange nods adults do sometimes, when they’ve said something without saying it, and Uncle Roy looks at her. “Oi. Time to go.”
“Are you done with all your boring adult sh…stuff?” she asks.
Uncle Roy glares at the suggestion of a smile on Jamie’s face. “Yeah. Let’s go. Fuck only knows what kind of shit you’ve been learning around these two idiots.”
Coach Ted ignores Uncle Roy’s glower to smile at her. “Well, it was very nice seeing you Phoebe. And you send me that picture of Ted the caterpillar, like you promised.”
She smiles back at him. “I will.”
“Bye Phoebe,” Jamie says. “See you around.”
“Like fuck,” Uncle Roy grumbles, but he rolls his eyes when he says it, so she knows he doesn’t mean it.
She waves vigorously at both of them as Uncle Roy tugs her out the door. She sneaks one last peek over her shoulder as she walks out into the sunshine, and she sees Coach Ted and Jamie walking away, and Coach Ted has his hand on the back of Jamie’s zebra jacket, and he turns his head a little to look at Jamie and she can see this smile tugging the corners of his mouth up, and she thinks again that Coach Ted has the best smiles. Or maybe Jamie does. It’s very close.
Uncle Roy doesn’t start the car straight away once they’re in it. He turns in his seat to look at her instead. “Sorry I had to leave you there, Phoebe.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “You were on a very important quest too.”
“I…yeah. Suppose I was.”
“And Jamie was very nice to me and he took me around and he helped me find you.”
“Yeah. He did.”
She looks down at her shoelaces again and sees the left one’s come untied. “You used to call Jamie names too.”
“Yeah. I did.”
“Like prince prick of all pricks,” she says.
Uncle Roy sighs. “Yeah.”
“Like selfish arrogant little piece of shit,” she adds.
“Yeah,” Uncle Roy concedes.
“Like fuck-faced small-dicked brainless talentless lizard-lipped muppet.”
Uncle Roy clenches his jaw. “Yeah.”
“But you don’t call him those things anymore,” she points out.
“Yeah,” Uncle Roy admits.
“Now you just call him Jamie.”
Uncle Roy works his jaw back and forth while he looks at her. “Yeah. Guess I do.” He turns to the steering wheel. “He is still a muppet, though. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t.” Her smile falters. “I called that boy names. The one in my class, the one who’s a bully and calls everyone names. And when I called him a name, Ms. Bowen said she was disappointed in me.”
“Shouldn’t call people names, Phoebe. Even if they deserve it. A little.”
“I know,” she sighs. “And Jamie told me that being mean to someone just makes them meaner. Do you think I should stop being mean to him? That boy in my class?”
Uncle Roy grunts. “Maybe.”
She nibbles on her lip. “Uncle Roy. Do you think someone else is being mean to that boy?”
Uncle Roy doesn’t say anything for a while, he just looks through the window past Phoebe at the doors to the stadium. “Could be.”
She frowns down at that silly shoelace that never stays tied. “Then I wish I hadn’t been mean to him too.”
“I…yeah.” Uncle Roy’s voice wavers. “They make it easy sometimes, don’t they?”
She nods. “Can we get ice cream now?”
Uncle Roy snorts as he starts his car and it roars like a lion. “Yeah. Ice cream.”
“Uncle Roy?” she asks.
“Yeah?” he lifts his eyebrows at her.
“Next time we get ice cream can we invite Jamie?”
Uncle Roy bounces the back of his head off the seat. “Fuck no.” He shoots her a sideways glare. “Maybe.” She smiles. “Fine. But you’re buying.”
“Thanks,” she says as Uncle Roy starts driving away from the stadium. She twists in her seat to get a last look at the bright blue doors, and the whole strange world beyond them. It’s not a troll’s lair, or a monster’s cave, but she thinks there might still be dangerous things there. She sits back in her seat. It’s fine, though, as long as there are people like Uncle Roy, and Coach Ted, and Jamie to fight them off.
And the next time at school that boy calls her a name, and calls Meg a name, and calls Meg’s mums names, Phoebe just turns to him with a smile and asks if he wants to sit and draw with them. He does, and she tells him after that he’s very good at drawing, because he is. He teaches her to draw these tall towers and arched doorways and patterns like blooming flowers carved into stone that he says remind him of where he used to live, before his family had to leave. He says his dad gets angry whenever he asks about where he used to live, but he hopes everyone who’s still there is okay. Phoebe hopes that too.
And the next time Meg’s mum says something about Uncle Roy, Phoebe turns to her with a smile and says Uncle Roy is the best person she knows, because he’s always there when she needs him, or when her mum needs him, or when his team needs him, and he’d do anything for anyone, probably even Meg’s mum, if she ever needed anything, because that’s just who he is. Meg’s mum blinks for a while before she gives Phoebe a squishy smile and nods.
And the next time they go for ice cream Jamie goes too, and she comes down the stairs with her pink piggy bank clutched in both hands because a deal is a deal, after all. Uncle Roy grunts and tells her to put that effing thing away. He’ll buy. Just the one time.
Uncle Roy buys every time. He’s kind of her hero like that, Uncle Roy. Maybe not just hers. That’s fine. She’s good at sharing.