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Football Genius

Football Genius
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Troy White can predict any football play before it happens. And when his single mom gets a job with the Atlanta Falcons, Troy knows it's his big chance to help them out of their slump—and finally prove his football genius. But unless Troy can convince star linebacker Seth Halloway that he's telling the truth, the Falcons' championship—and Troy's mom's job—are in serious jeopardy.

HarperCollins; October 2009
262 pages; ISBN 9780061691409
Download in secure PDF format
Excerpt


Chapter One

Troy knew it was wrong. It was wrong to sneak out of the house after midnight. It was wrong to take something that wasn't yours. And, even though he wasn't that kind of kid, that night, he was doing both.

Usually, on a night like that night, the crickets' end-of-summer song and the moths bumping against the window screen would put him to sleep. Usually, he didn't hear his mom turn off the TV in the living room. And usually, if he was up that late, the water groaning through the pipes while his mom ran her bath would finish him off. But that night, worry kept him awake. Because he really wasn't the kind of kid to sneak out, and especially to take something that wasn't his.

But if he did have to quietly slide open the screen, straddle the window, and drop to the ground with a thud, this was a good night to do it. Stars swirled around the big yellow moon, casting shadows perfect for hiding. Shorts and a T-shirt were all he needed to stay warm.

He didn't plan on having to run, but he laced his sneakers tight in case he did. His feet fell without a sound over the path through the pine trees. He could smell the trees' sticky sap, still warm from the hot September day. An owl hooted somewhere close. A rabbit screamed, then went quiet. The crickets stopped, and only the buzz of mosquitoes filled the air.

Troy looked back at his house. It was nestled into the pines, with no side or backyard. In front, there was nothing more than a gritty patch of red clay. A tire hung from a limb at the edge of the patch. A target for footballs. The house was more like a cabin, a single-story box with a roof covered by fallen pine needles.

Still, the weak orange glow from the night-light in the bathroom window was like a friend, calling him back. Away from the owl and the mosquitoes.

But Troy had other friends, and he dodged through the pine trees into the darkness, finding his way to the railroad tracks almost without looking. He stood on the steel rail, balancing his sneakers and looking down the long line toward the Pine Grove apartment complex, where his friends lived. He tried to whistle, but it came out wrong. He tried again, and again, before giving up.

"Tate?" he called, first soft, then louder. "Tate."

A whistle came back at him from the woods, high and clear, the way you'd call a dog. In the light of the moon, he watched two figures climb up the stony railway bed and start walking his way on the tracks. One of the figures was as thin as the rail she balanced on. Tate McGreer, a pretty girl with dark eyes, olive skin, and silky brown hair tied into a ponytail.

The other was big and burly. A twelve-year-old in the body of a high school kid. Nathan had a buzz cut like his dad and he liked to laugh, big belly laughs. He wasn't laughing now. His eyes were wide and shifting nervously, and he was puffing. Tate was the only one who stayed calm when they heard the low, sad sound of the coming train.

"The Midnight Express," Tate said, peering down the tracks. "It wakes me up almost every night. Atlanta to Chicago.

"Like clockwork."

They all scrambled back down the bank into the rocky ditch, and Tate chewed her gum and nudged them both and asked, "You got a penny?"

"A penny?" Troy said.

Nathan dug into his pocket and came up with a nickel.

"That'll work," she said, taking it from him and scrambling back up the side of the railroad bed.

The ground underneath them was rumbling now. The train's light glimmered and shook. Troy yelled at her to come back. She set the money down on the rail, glared at the train for a moment with her hands on her skinny hips, then hopped back down into the ditch with them.

When the train went by in a rush of hot air, it roared so loud, Troy had no idea what Tate was saying, even though he could see that she was shouting at the top of her lungs. As the last car clacked away down the tracks, he asked her what.

"You see how big that thing was? It's like a warning, right? Like 'go back,' " she said.

Her dark eyes sparkled in the moonlight. Nathan had his hands deep in the pockets of his cutoff shorts, and he nodded at her words. Troy thought about the rabbit he heard screaming in the dark.

"Don't go," he said, shrugging. "I'm not making you."

"We're not going in," Tate said, snapping her gum. "I said that. But we'll wait for you on the outside. That's what friends do. Moral support."

"You shouldn't stand on the tracks when the train's coming like that," Nathan said.

"Aw," she said, swatting air, "if they see a person, they slow right down. Jam their brakes on. Sparks everywhere."

She skipped up the bank again and lifted the flattened nickel up for them to see. It shone in the moonlight.

"Cool," Nathan said, taking it from her.

Troy went up and over the rail bed, leaving them behind.

"Don't you want to see it?" Tate asked, calling after him.

But his eyes were on the wall. Already through the trees he could see it. Ten feet high. Cool gray concrete. It surrounded the Cotton Wood Country Club. Tennis, golf, and five hundred of the most expensive homes in Atlanta. He had driven down Old River Road once, past the massive front gates and guardhouses on the other side. When he asked his mom if she'd ever been inside, she glanced at him and said it wasn't a place for people like them. She said he shouldn't spend his time wondering or worrying about it.

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