Story:January 10, 2020
January 10, 2020
Written by TriangleDelta
This is the story of January 10, 2020, the second time that Lauren Fash moved during her rookie year.
The Mayors were hosting the Queens Pride, and Lauren was on fire that night. In the months since the skink had joined the league, she'd learned that some nights things worked, and some nights they didn't. She couldn't just stand out as easily as she had in university, where she'd been in the spotlight during every game.
It was the tradeoff for having a team that didn't drop hints about 'accidentally' letting out a bit too much claw while practicing blocking her. Hell, it was the tradeoff for being on a team where a good chunk of the fans weren't leaving comments on anonymous message boards about what they wanted to do to her.
So it was worth it. She liked being on the Mayors. She liked having a team that, for the most part, she could trust.
Besides, every now and again, things worked for the night.
This was one of those nights.
Lauren was in just the right spot during every play. She kept back, stayed out of the way. Whenever things got heated in front of the net, she found those golden places to stand back, get the ball, angle her long tail to handle her balance, rise to the balls of her feet, and execute. It was all calm, clean. The ball swooped through the net time after time. The skink let herself feel the small spike of excitement every time she landed a shot. Then she swallowed it back down, took off down the court, and fell back into her focused state.
It was a fine line to walk. She had to lay low and stay unnoticed as much as possible to be effective. The higher her score count got during the night, the harder it was to keep people from paying attention.
She did find herself tangling with the Pride's shooting guard, Melaine Thompson, more than once during the night. The lioness was often on the perimeter with Lauren, the two of them trying to cover each other. In contrast to Lauren's cool focus, Melaine was flashy, making sure people noticed her when she made a move. As the night wound on and the two kept squaring off with each other, Lauren couldn't help but shoot a quick grin back over at the lioness whenever they had a particularly intense tangle for the ball. Melaine's big movements contrasted with her own direct jabs, and it kept things entertaining. The feline was always smiling when the two paired off, and she worked the crowd whenever she got one over on the skink.
That was fine with Lauren. As the momentum of the game swung back and forth in the Mayors' or the Pride's favour, the lioness's flashy performance gave the skink the chance to fade back out of the limelight. On those occasions, Lauren stood back and let her gaze wander over the rest of the players on the court.
She kept letting herself linger on Luther. She and the Pride's towering jackalope centre had kept in touch since the draft - mostly just texting back and forth, or occasionally meeting up after games. Whenever the momentum was turning against the Pride, she could see his eyes narrowing, his posture getting more stiff.
The ball flew through the air towards Lauren, and she leapt to catch the pass. She turned, and lowered herself down. She made a mental note to talk to the jackalope after the game. She set the ball dribbling from hand to hand, and looked for an entry, for a clearer shot.
There was a flash of tawny fur out of the corner of her vision. Lauren's eyes snapped down, and she saw the paw coming in at her side from behind. Her breath caught in her throat. The claws could slide out at any moment, she was too close to dodge, fucking fuck—
The paw hooked around the ball in Lauren's hand. The skink blinked, and remembered where she was. She was in Huntsville, not Thunder Bay, this wasn't somebody trying to claw her, and she had to stop them from—
The ball was gone.
Lauren just stood there frozen for a moment, staring straight ahead. Then she turned sharply, using her tail to keep her balance. Melaine was taking off down the court, dribbling the ball as she bolted for the Mayors' hoop. The lioness took one moment to flash a grin at Lauren over her shoulder. She had more than enough of a lead to afford the look.
The skink took a deep breath, then took off down the court after her. She knew it was already too late. Fuck. Focus. This wasn't Thunder Bay. This wasn't Thunder Bay. Despite her slow reaction time, she was the closest person to Melaine when the lioness went for her layup, totally unobstructed. The lioness gave a big, exaggerated arm-pump as the ball swooped through the net, then pivoted on her heel towards Lauren.
The skink forced that competitive grin back onto her face, and slowed her pace. She nodded back to Melaine, an acknowledgement. In her mind, she was still repeating her mantra. Huntsville, not Thunder Bay, Huntsville, not Thunder Bay…
It took her a little while after that to get back into her swing, but she managed it. She never quite got back into the place of calm that she'd found before, but she at least settled her nerves. In the closing moments of the game, Wendy, the sabre-toothed point guard, managed to snatch the ball back from the Pride. She sent it over to Lauren, and the skink had a more or less clear path to make a layup into the net.
The skink let herself take a quick look to the scoreboard. Only a couple seconds left, and that basket had brought the score up to 125 to 122 for the Mayors. The Pride mounted a last moment offence to try to pull things back, but the time ran out before they managed anything.
The crowd roared as the buzzer sounded. Lauren came to a stop, and paused to catch her breath. She began walking towards the bench, wanting to sit down and catch her breath. She was only dimly listening to the announcer as she walked.
"…for your Mayors, Huntsville!" There was another roar of thunderous applause. Lauren collapsed onto the bench. "Now get ready to put your hands together, Huntsville! With 27 points, two assists, three steals, and a block, your player of the game for tonight, and for the first time in her career, is… Lauren Fash, your Hunstville rookie wunderkind!"
Lauren barely even heard the end of the sentence as the crowd erupted. All she could do was stare straight forward, her body tense. Then, all at once, a hand was slapping down on her back, and the voices of her teammates were yelling around her, congratulating her. It took a few seconds for her to catch up to what was happening, and then she found herself laughing, truly laughing, for what felt like the first time in a long time. She accepted the back pats and the congratulations.
Out of the corner of her vision, she saw Jacquelynn, the team's other rookie, hanging back and glaring at her. Lauren met her gaze for one long moment, and the hyena raised an eyebrow. Then Lauren turned away, and let the rest of the team envelope her.
Shortly afterwards, the team made their way over to the locker rooms. Lauren dressed as quickly as she could, so she could make sure she wouldn't get stuck in there with Jackie. She pulled on a hoodie and a light jacket, all that she really needed in the winter in Alabama. Then she ducked out the door.
She was surprised to find Chuck Mandaville, the Mayors' general manager, waiting outside the locker room. The wolf was dressed in his normal noticeable manner, with a broad-brimmed cowboy hat tugged low on his head. He smiled as he saw her.
"Hey Fash, can't stay long, but just wanted to say: attagirl."
The skink couldn't hold back a grin at that. "Thanks, Chuck. I have to run, too." She didn't want to wait around too long, in case Jacquelynn followed her out.
"Alright. Tomorrow at practice, then?"
"See you then."
She bobbed her head, then started off down the hallways of Explorer Stadium. She tried to not look too much like she was running. The skink was just hoping to get out of there and back home before it got too late.
She stepped out of the doors of the stadium, past the security guards there, and into the section of the parking lot that was meant for the players and the away team. She was just about to head for her car when she noticed somebody leaning against the Pride's bus. She glanced over, and blinked as she recognized the tall, imposing form of Luther. The jackalope was leaning there with his arms crossed, his head slightly lowered.
Lauren hesitated, then glanced around the otherwise empty parking lot. Luther must have been really motoring to have gotten out before her. There was something about that posture, as well as the look she'd seen on his face for most of the game, that made her sigh, then walk over towards him.
The jackalope started, then looked over at her. After a moment of light glaring, he inclined his head.
She cleared her throat. "Uh. Sorry about that. You guys were great tonight."
He rolled his eyes at her, then lifted his hands and made a few signs at her. She still couldn't read sign language, but the rigid movements gave her a pretty good idea of the tone he was going for.
"Okay, okay, fine. Hey, you want to grab some dinner? My treat, unless you're planning on going out with your boyfriend and girlfriend. Oh wait." She held up a hand to her mouth in mock concern. "You haven't picked up any more, have you? Stumble across another unsuspecting life partner before the game?"
He eyed her for a very long moment, squinting. Finally, he pulled out his phone, and tapped at it. A voice began reading off his words. "I've told you before, my love is more pure than that. And fine, we can get dinner. I'm paying for my own, though. I won't take your pity."
"Of course not. However would you cover up the massive bruise on that pride of yours?"
"Better than having none."
She grinned at him. She watched the corners of his lips twitch up, and decided to count that as a victory. She wouldn't tell him, though.
The two of them were able to call in an Uber. Lauren would just leave her car at the stadium for the night, then pick it up after practice the next day.
Soon enough, the two of them were sitting in a smallish, quiet noodle restaurant that wasn't too far from the stadium. They traded a few words back and forth while they waited for the food to arrive. After the game, they were both a bit tired and sore, so conversation was sparse.
Once their orders had shown up, and they'd both had a chance to start into their meals, Luther's fingers wandered over to his phone. He started typing out words, and soon the phone spoke them for him.
"That was your first player of the game, wasn't it?"
Lauren finished slurping up her current mouthful of noodles, and swallowed them down. "Yeah. Why?"
His fingers tapped along the screen. He somehow managed to do it while manipulating the chopsticks, and Lauren tried not to resent him for it. "Do you feel infused with great power and responsibility now?"
The skink actually snorted at that, and almost choked on her noodles. "I feel tired and hungry. Is that the same thing?"
"If those are the same thing, then I must be the most powerful and responsible man alive."
"Oh good, so it's not just me."
The jackalope shrugged, and ate a few more mouthfuls. "So. Thoughts about All Star Weekend?"
"My thoughts are that I'd like to stay home and sleep."
"Ha. Ha. Ha." She watched him type out and press 'Voice' on each one, never breaking eye contact with her. "No, but seriously. Are you thinking about going for the 3 point contest, too?"
"No." Lauren groaned. "Honestly… I don't know. I'm just not into attracting that kind of attention. How about you?"
"I plan to be at both the dunk contest and the rookie all-star game. Any less would be unacceptable."
"You just have zero chill, do you?"
"Chill is boring. Chill is death."
She eyed him for a long moment after that, debating whether or not to question that. Then he flashed her the tiniest bit of a smirk, and she knew he was joking.
"You fucking dork."
There was a noise by the door. Lauren glanced away from Luther and over in the direction of the sound, and blinked. There was a stoat, in his full white winter coat, struggling to open the door with one hand while the other balanced a wide, short white box.
When he finally managed to get in, he took a moment to glance at a paper that was stuck to the top of the box. He cast a glance around the restaurant, and his eyes lit up as they landed on Lauren. He made his way over, all casual confidence now, and proudly presented the box. "Pupcake-Gram for a Miss Fash?"
Lauren blinked once, and Luther paused mid-type. She glanced from the stoat, over to Luther, and then back to the stoat again. "Excuse me?"
The jackalope waved a hand in the air, motioning at the stoat, then typed away and pressed 'voice'.
The stoat faltered at the pair's bemusement. He glanced back and forth between them, and then said, "You know. The ads on the radio? Uh..." He forced his voice into a singsong tone, "'There's no better way to make their day, than a Pupcake-Gram!'" He twisted his face into a broad smile. It was clearly strained. As the two kept staring at him, he inclined his head. "Uh... I mean, it probably would've made more sense if one of the other delivery guys handled this... y'know, canines and all. But it's a job, and it's flexible with school, and, uh..."
"What's a pupcake gram?" Lauren finally asked. It was partly to save him from his own babbling at this point.
"Oh, uh. Cupcakes. You order cupcakes, and we deliver them. Normally it's a canine who delivers, which makes it, uh… pupcakes. So, uh... here you go!"
"Did you order these?" The phone spoke out as Luther glanced between the box and Lauren.
"No," Lauren muttered, eying the box.
The stoat cleared his throat. "Uh, I mean... normally the thing is that somebody orders them for you? As a gift? You know, to do something nice?" He stood there for another long few seconds, and then finally sighed and put the box down on the table. "Well, um. Enjoy your meal!"
He turned and hurried back out of the restaurant. Lauren shot Luther a look, then shrugged. She lifted up the lid, and glanced into the box.
"Ah," she muttered drily. A bunch of plain vanilla cupcakes sat in the box. Spelled out in red icing along their tops, it said, '1 HIT WONDER.' "How sweet."
Luther's brows furrowed at the cupcakes. Lauren could see his mind turning, could see the questions starting.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Lauren let her eyes linger on the cupcakes while she considered her answer. "Oh, probably just an overeager basketball nut. Who knows, might even be a Pride fan." She said the last bit teasingly. She was trying to move along, to keep Luther from asking more questions. "At least we've got dessert now, right?"
She thought back to the looks that Jackie had given her after the game. Yeah, she had a pretty good idea who'd sent them.
His eye roll at that comment was more than exaggerated.
"A Pride fan would never."
He almost scoffed at the thought.
"You aren't some big name threat to us. I can't imagine anyone would go this far for a rookie."
He pulled the box of cupcakes closer to stare at them.
His fingers typed away.
"They could have at least paid extra for something other than plain vanilla." Luther scooped up a cupcake, eying it.
Lauren snorted, and was about to reply when the door banged open again. The stoat from before backed into the restaurant this time, holding another, slightly smaller box. He turned, and then walked right over to the pair's table. Lauren just stared at him, an eyebrow raised, while Luther outright glared at the stoat. He was blushing pink through the white fur on his cheeks.
"Sorry, sorry! Uh, turned out there was another box in the back for you. Probably the same person, sometimes they break the orders up and stuff and, uh..." The stoat shrugged, then placed the box down on the table. He hesitated a moment, and glanced at the quiet, staring pair again. Both of their expressions had softened, but neither said a word. He cleared his throat, then threw a quick salute. "Well, uh... be off!"
He turned and headed out the door again. Lauren sighed, and muttered, "Well, maybe these ones will be a bit nicer..." Her voice trailed off as she lifted the lid. There were five cupcakes in this box, much larger than the others. Each one was a different colour, and fancily decorated with all sorts of icing and sprinkles.
Spelled out along the top of these, though, in different fonts and colours, was one word. 'BITCH.'
Lauren tried to pull the lid back closed, but Luther had already seen.
His hand came down, and the cupcake he'd been holding smashed against the table with a thud that made their dishes rattle and the few other patrons stare at him.
With his one free hand, he began to type, slowly gritting his teeth.
"What is this? Who sent this?"
Lauren blinked in surprise at the jackalope's violent reaction. She very, very carefully finished closing the box back up. She forced herself to take a deep breath, and then raised an eyebrow at Luther. "Oh come on. Dude, this is... nothing. It's some stupid prank from a fan who's butthurt that I did well tonight. Really, this is nothing to worry about."
Luther swiped the napkin from his lap and wiped off the cupcake, putting its contents on his plate.
"What kind of fan would send this? This is the work of someone who knows you." He motioned around the place and then reached forward to grab the new box with one hand. "How would they know how to send it here? How?"
"I don't know! I eat here all the time, alright? Maybe they heard me mention it in an interview, or somebody said online that they'd seen me eating here, or maybe that Uber driver was bragging about driving two FBA players, or..." She trailed off, still looking at him. He was worried. He was really worried about her.
For a brief moment she wondered how this felt so... tame for her, when he was reacting so strongly.
She considered for a long few seconds how much to let him know. Jackie's warning had been clear. This had been a pretty childish prank, but Lauren still didn't want to push the hyena.
So... tell him the truth. Or part of it.
She leaned forward, and raised her eyebrows at him. "Luther. Please. Let's not worry about this. Seriously. I used to get worse than this all the time back in school. It's a dumb prank with cupcakes. That's all."
The jackalope was quiet while Lauren spoke. He met her gaze, and she could see his rage gradually wane.
Still, it felt like forever before he typed his response.
That was all he let his phone say as he set it to the side and grabbed the box of cupcakes. With seemingly no effort, Luther placed both hands on the sides of the box -- then pushed inward, smashing the box in an explosion of cupcake and cardboard.
Luther didn't seem to care about the eyes now on them or the mess now covering their table.
Lauren flicked her eyes up and down, from the icing and cupcake innards all over the jackalope's hands to his intense eyes. At last, she let herself smile, and laughed as she spoke. "My hero."
Not long after, the two of them paid for their meals, leaving healthy tips for the disturbance, and left. They caught another Uber, and they were quiet in the backseat as they drove. Even after the meal, both were exhausted from the game that evening. They were headed to Lauren's place first, since it was closer, and then the car would bring Luther to his hotel for the night.
The car wound through the main streets of Huntsville, before pulling onto a quieter residential street. From there, it turned onto an avenue that was dead quiet at this time of night. There weren't even any streetlights lining the sides here. The car pulled up in front of a smaller house that Lauren was renting the basement of. The skink opened the door, then slid out and stretched. She turned and looked back at Luther, on the other side of the backseat.
"See you next time? Less pupcakes?"
He snorted, then raised a hand. She nodded back, then closed the door. The car pulled away, and it left her alone on the dark avenue.
The skink turned and made her way down the house's walk. It was dark enough that she could barely see, but her familiarity with the place let her follow the path. She made her way over towards the side door that led down to her basement apartment.
She spent a few moments digging in her pocket for her keys. She was just starting to fear that she'd left them in her locker at the stadium when her hand closed around the key's teeth. She let out a sigh, pulled out the key, then looked up.
Right in front of her, at eye level, there was something sticking out of the door. That was the only word for it. She raised her eyeridge. In the dark, she couldn't make out much more than some small protrusion from the surface.
She sighed, and then pulled out her phone. She flicked on the flashlight, and held it up.
It was a nail - a long, thick one. It was driven firmly into the wood of her door. Impaled on the nail was something long, thin, and black - maybe four or five inches long.
She raised a finger that was shaking. She gave the black thing a small nudge. The whole length shifted, and turned the slightest bit. It was just enough for her to pick out the five parallel blue lines running down its length and merging at its tip.
Lauren dropped her phone, and it thumped against the packed earth of the path. Even with the light no longer focused on it, she couldn't get the image out of her mind. Her own tail twitched erratically behind her, the five parallel blue lines running down its length almost invisible in the darkness.
A tail. It was a feral skink's tail. They'd nailed a feral skink's tail to her door.
Lauren stared for a very, very long few seconds. Her eyes were wide, and her entire body was locked in place. She was aware of every beat of her heart as it picked up speed and force.
She bent down and snatched her phone. She turned, and started walking away from the door. The darkness of her avenue was pressing in around her, making her aware of all the places that somebody could be standing out of her view. Her movements were rigid. Her tired muscles tensed. She kept her gaze stubbornly forward, but she was paying attention to her peripherals as she walked.
Her reflexes were kicking in - the other set of reflexes that she'd learned at Thunder Bay Pred College. These were not the ones that she'd honed on the court and that had brought her so much success since. It was the set of reflexes she'd built up while walking home from evening classes and late night practices on the dark campus - that skill for acting like everything was normal and she wasn't bothered, when in reality she was at full alert and ready to bolt.
It was the player of the game. It was the player of the fucking game, of course it was.
She considered calling Luther, to see if he could get the car to turn around and come back to pick her up. But no, she couldn't do that. What would she tell him when he arrived? How much would she have to unload to give him the full context?
Lauren reached the intersection where her avenue connected up to Haven Street. She turned onto the wider street, and felt a small bit of relief at the lights that lined it. Her shadow cut long swaths in the circles of light as she walked, her tail lashing behind her. She thought for a few more moments, before lifting her phone up and unlocking the screen. She flipped through her contacts, and found one labeled 'Susan Thorne.' She hit the call button, then waited.
On the fourth ring, her agent picked up. The bulldog was yawning as she spoke. "Listen, kid, I saw the scores, and I'm excited, but it's a bit late for a celebration call."
"It happened again."
There was a moment of silence. The gruff voice spoke again. "What happened again?"
"They found my address."
Just like that, the bulldog was all business. "Where are you now?"
"Walking down the street and away."
"Did you go inside? Touch anything?"
"Good. I'm getting a car to pick you up. We'll figure out accommodations after that."
There were a few breaths of silence. On the other end of the phone, Lauren could hear the bulldog typing on a computer. Her voice spoke again. "How are you feeling, kid?"
"Trying not to right now."
"Fair. Look, I know you didn't want to last time, but it might be time to let Mandaville know."
"Lauren, he can help you."
"That's what I pay you for."
"Yeah, and I'm telling you that the best way for me to help you is to bring in more people and resources on this."
"Not an option, Susan. If this proves anything, it's that the more I draw attention to myself, the more likely they are to come for me. Who knows, if they see that they're getting to me, or that I've pulled in more help and made it harder for them to get at me, they might go after my dad next." Lauren stopped in her tracks as that thought crossed her mind. She forced herself to take a deep breath, and kept careful control of her voice as she continued speaking. "I can wait on the corner of Haven and Willow for the car. Does that work for you?"
"Alright. I'm going to hang up. Talk in the morning?"
"You better believe we're talking in the morning."
Lauren hung up, and immediately started browsing through her contacts. She glanced up once or twice while she walked down the empty street. She told herself that it was just to make sure she wasn't going to trip over something or walk into a streetlight. Part of her knew that she was checking for anybody that might be standing around and waiting.
She found her contact for her uncle, and hit it. She held the phone to her ear. She counted out the time between breaths, and waited through the rings.
The other end picked up the call. "Lauren?"
"Hey Max. Sorry, I know it's late."
"It's fine, it's fine. What's up?"
"I was wondering if you would mind swinging by my dad's place and just, uh, making sure that everything's alright."
There was a long moment of silence on the other end of the line. Lauren kept walking along. She could see the intersection where Haven met Willow up ahead.
"Lauren, I've been here, just outside your dad's place, since I saw the results. He's fine. Congrats, by the way."
The skink pulled the phone away from her face to let out a very long sigh. The phone came back up, and she kept speaking. "Thanks Max."
"What's going on, Lauren? Something happen?"
"Lauren, part of my job is interrogating people. Let's rephrase. What happened?"
"They found my place again. They left a message."
Both of them were quiet for a while. Lauren reached the intersection. Willow was the busier street that Haven fed into. There were still plenty of cars going by at this time of night. Lauren leaned back against a signpost and waited.
"Your agent have a place for you to stay tonight?"
"Alright. If you ever need help covering one of those hotel stays, you let me know."
She snorted. "Max. I make enough to cover some extra nights in hotels."
"Okay, okay, that's fair. Not used to thinking about my niece making… god, I don't even want to figure out how many times more than me per year."
She couldn't help but laugh at that. The skink coiled her tail partly around the signpost behind her. She squeezed it. "Alright. I'm going to hang up now. Thanks again, Max. You don't have to do this, and it means a lot."
She heard her uncle snort. "Look, I might not like your dad, but he's family. I'll look out for him as long as this lasts. You going to call him tonight?"
"God, no. There's no way that I talk to him tonight without freaking out. I'll call him tomorrow."
"Alright. Good night, Lauren."
Lauren hung up, then put her phone into her pocket. The skink stood there leaning back against the signpost and waiting for Susan's car to show up. She tried to hide it whenever she looked around to see if anybody was watching. She tried to ignore that she was shaking.
And so on January 10, 2020, Lauren Fash moved for the second time in her rookie year.