Sophie’s eyes widen. “I can’t believe you just said that. You know how much he means to me. This is small change to your dad. Zack is priceless to me.”
Paul sighs, putting his hand on her knee. “I’m sorry, babe. Look, I’ll help you search for him after the game is over, okay? We’ll scour every inch of the stadium. We won’t leave until we find him.”
But Sophie is already standing up. She shakes her knee free and starts to push past the other people in their row. Suddenly the lights go off and everything is in darkness. Cheering erupts across the stadium. As she runs down the stairs back inside the stadium, she hears Snoop Dogg’s voice. She’s always hated Snoop Dogg.
“Excuse me.” She stops a guy walking past with a beer in each hand. “Have you seen a soft toy zebra anywhere? He’s like, this big.” She cups her hands.
The next person she asks sniggers at her. Others are more polite. But no one seems to have seen Zack. She heads to the restroom she was in a few minutes ago. She has to wait in another queue, but it moves quickly. When she gets to the front, she lets the person behind her go ahead. Eventually the cubicle she was in becomes available, and she dives into it. Zack isn’t in there. Dread settles in her stomach and she has to sit on the toilet seat for a few minutes to slow her breathing down. She feels like she’s hyperventilating.
As her phone vibrates, Sophie pulls it out of her pocket. It’s Paul. ‘Hope you find the toy. Could you bring me another Coke on your way back? Love you x.’
She huffs, putting the phone back without replying to the text. Paul will never understand.
When she leaves the cubicle, she scours the sinks for Zack. Maybe the next occupant of the cubicle had taken him out, left him propped up waiting for his owner. But there’s no sign of him there either. She leaves the restroom, tears openly falling from her eyes now as Mary J Blige’s voice blasts out from the stage.
* * *
Jasmine has just left the restroom when she sees another girl sitting on the floor, back against the wall, head on her knees, sobbing. She’s wearing a Rams jacket.
Kneeling down, Jasmine smiles at her, asks, “Hey, are you okay?”
The other girl jumps and raises her head. Sniffs, wipes her nose, and makes an effort to get herself under control.
“I’m Jasmine,” the girl offers.
Jasmine is immediately struck by how cute Sophie is. Even though her face is all blotchy from the tears, and despite the fact that she’s wearing a Rams jacket. She has a pretty face, and long, dark hair.
Jasmine sits down on the floor next to Sophie. “Exciting game, hey?”
In all the panic, Sophie had almost forgotten they were in the middle of the most important football game of the season. “Yeah.” She takes a deep breath, noticing how her heart flutters for a moment when she focuses on Jasmine’s face and blonde hair.
“My friends will kill me if they see me talking to a Rams fan,” Jasmine jokes.
Sophie realises, for the first time, that Jasmine is wearing a Bengals top with a ‘9’ on the front. She remembers that it’s Joe Burrow’s number, and forces herself to smile. “This is my boyfriend’s jacket. I’m not like a big Rams fan or anything.”
Jasmine’s smile drops for a moment when Sophie refers to her boyfriend, but it’s soon back. “That explains why it’s a bit too big for you.” The sleeves are hanging over her hands. “So did you two have an argument, or something?”
Sophie sighs, runs her fingers through her hair. “Kind of. But that’s not why I’m crying. I lost something important, and I can’t find it.”
“Oh?” Jasmine looks at her. “What did you lose? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“It’s a soft toy zebra.” Sophie looks down at the floor, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “I know it sounds stupid. But it was my brother’s. And he…” She has to concentrate hard to stop the tears falling again. “He passed away last year. Leukaemia. He was only seven. The zebra was his favourite toy. He named it after himself- Zack.” Her voice wavers. “He was with him at the end, right by his side.”
Sophie is surprised when Jasmine takes her hand, but it feels nice, and she makes no attempt to pull away.
“I’m so sorry.” There is compassion in Jasmine’s eyes. “That’s really sad. I can understand why the toy means so much to you. Has your boyfriend helped you look for it?”
“He didn’t want to miss the halftime show,” Sophie says, in a quiet voice.
“I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit.” Jasmine can’t keep the anger out of her voice. “If you were my girlfriend, I’d drop everything to help you.” A blush creeps up her cheeks. Maybe she’s coming on too strong. She doesn’t even know if Sophie is into girls.
To her relief, Sophie just smiles at her. “That’s sweet.” They look into each other’s eyes.
Jasmine forces herself to break the eye contact. Sophie has a boyfriend, she reminds herself. And right now, there are more important things than her attraction to this girl. “Come on.” She stands up, pulling Sophie with her. “Let’s go and look for Zack.”
“You’d do that?” Sophie’s voice breaks again. “But you don’t even know me.”
Jasmine shrugs. “I can see how much he means to you.”
Sophie hears Eminem singing the first few lines of ‘Lose Yourself’. Pictures Paul bopping in his seat, not giving a stuff about how she’s feeling right now. “This means a lot to me,” she tells Jasmine.
With another smile, Jasmine heads back into the restrooms. “I’m sorry,” she says, when she comes back out. “I looked in every single cubicle and everywhere else. He’s not in there. Someone must have taken him. Maybe they’ve handed him in? We could go to lost property.”
Sophie’s face lights up. Lost property, why hadn’t she thought of that? She hears cheering, and peers out into the stadium. “Looks like they’re kicking off for the third quarter,” she says. “I can take it from here.”
To her surprise, Jasmine shakes her head. “I’ll come with you. It’s only a football game.”
“It’s the Super Bowl. And your Bengals have a chance to take the lead. Honestly, you don’t have to stay.”
“I want to.” There’s that smile again. She has a pretty smile; it makes butterflies flutter in Sophie’s stomach. “This is more important.”
As they head off, Sophie catches sight of one of the screens. “Touchdown!” She points at the screen.
Jasmine’s eyes go wide. “Already?” She punches the air. “Go Bengals!”
Sophie feels a stab of guilt at the excitement she feels bubbling up inside her. She’s supposed to be supporting the Rams, after all. But the Rams are Paul’s team, not hers. She likes football, but she hasn’t been following it for long, and she’s yet to decide on her favourite team. They live near Los Angeles so the Rams or the Chargers are the obvious candidates, but who says she has to be traditional? It’s not like she’s been a lifelong fan, or anything. She wasn’t even really into football until she met Paul and he forced her to go to every single Rams home game.
“I’m afraid not,” the woman in lost property says, apologetically, when Jasmine asks if anyone has handed in a soft toy zebra. “But leave me your number, and I’ll be sure to let you know if he appears.”
“Well, we’d better head back.” Sophie tries to hide her disappointment. And not just at the fact that she hasn’t found Zack. “Thanks for helping me look.”
“My pleasure.” Jasmine gives a quick nod. “Enjoy the rest of the game. Good luck to the Rams.”
“Good luck to the Bengals.” Sophie doesn’t move until Jasmine is out of sight, then she reluctantly heads back to her seat.
Paul’s face is downcast when she takes her seat. “Stafford’s pass bounced right into the hands of the Bengals. They scored a field goal after the interception.”
Sophie tries to look disappointed. “Bummer.” The score is now 20-13 to the Bengals, and she suddenly finds herself rooting for them.
“Did you get my Coke?”
Shit. “Sorry, I forgot. I was kind of busy.” She feels another stab of guilt as she pictures Jasmine’s face in her mind. But they were looking for Zack. It’s not like they were snogging or anything. Maybe the problem is that she kind of wishes they had. And she’s sure she wasn’t the only one. She felt the chemistry between them.
“Guess I’ll just have to be thirsty then.” He sighs. “Did you find the toy?” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
She shakes her head. “No. I guess he’s gone for good.”
Paul leans over and kisses her on the cheek. “No offence, Soph, but maybe it’s for the best. It was kind of unhealthy anyway, the attachment you had to that thing. It’s not like it will bring your brother back.”
Sophie wants to tell him how offensive that sounds, but she bites her tongue. What’s the point?
* * *
The Rams add a field goal, but end the third quarter down 16-20.
“I can’t believe the Bengals might win the Super Bowl.” Paul’s in a really bad mood now. “Those idiot refs, they missed a face mask penalty when Higgins got that touchdown you missed. And if the Rams hadn’t fluffed that extra point earlier, they’d only be a field goal behind. Now they have to score a touchdown to have a chance of the win.”
Sophie thinks of Jasmine, her pretty face lit up with excitement as she watches her team, clearly the underdogs, inch towards a first Super Bowl victory.
At the other end of the stadium, Jasmine whoops with her friends as the third quarter comes to an end- the first one with the Bengals on top- but her thoughts are with the girl she met during the halftime show.
“Earth to Jasmine.” Her friend Sally waves her hand in front of Jasmine’s face.
Jasmine gives her an apologetic look. “Sorry, what?”
“I was saying that they might really do this, you know. But I don’t think you’re really listening. Ever since you got back from the restrooms, you’ve been acting weird. And you were late, too. What happened out there?”
Jasmine blushes. “I kind of, maybe, met a girl.”
Her other friend Michelle rolls her eyes. “We should have guessed this was about a girl. Let me guess, a pretty brunette?”
“I know, I’m so predictable.” She’s heard it all before. “Her name was Sophie. She’d lost something and I was helping her look for it.”
“Her virginity?” Sally suggests playfully, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Jasmine whacks her on the arm with her hand. “Her dead brother’s toy zebra, actually.”
“Oh.” Sally looks embarrassed. “Way to make me feel bad.”
“A zebra?” Michelle is rooting round under her seat. “Like this one?” She pulls out a toy zebra.
Jasmine gawps at her. “Where did you get that?”
She shrugs. “Some kids were throwing it around during the halftime show. It landed near me, and I just put it under my seat.”
Sally smirks. “You know what this means. This is fate. You need to go and find her.”
Jasmine sighs. “I can’t. I don’t have her number or anything. I’ll just hand it in at lost property and they can contact her.”
“Don’t do that.” Sally’s voice speeds up. She’s always been a hopeless romantic. “Ask them to call her and tell her to go there after the game. You can go and meet her. Then, bam! Swoop in and kiss her. Hopefully the Bengals win the Super Bowl, and you get the girl. Perfect.”
Jasmine shakes her head. “She’s with her boyfriend. He’s a Rams fan. She was wearing his jacket. He’d probably punch me, or something.”
“I don’t know what’s worse,” Michelle groans. “The fact that she has a boyfriend, or the fact that she’s a Rams fan.”
“She said she wasn’t a big Rams fan,” Jasmine says, as she watches Stafford hand the ball off to Akers to start the fourth quarter. “She just had his jacket on. He’s probably forced her to support his team.”
“Okay, but even so.” Michelle’s eyes watch the field. “She won’t be supporting the Bengals. You’re probably better off without her, mate.”
“Don’t say that. This could be a real love story.” Sally’s eyes go all googly. “Come on, when was the last time that Jas had a chance like this?”
“She doesn’t have a chance, though.” Michelle claps as the Rams are forced to punt the ball. “The girl has a boyfriend. She said so herself.”
“There was something between us, though.” Jasmine purses her lips as she thinks back to their encounter. “I felt, like, a spark, or something. I think maybe she could be bi. My gaydar was definitely giving me signals. And her boyfriend sounds like a right dick. He wouldn’t even leave the game to help her look for the zebra.”
Michelle turns around and looks Jasmine right in the eye. “No offence, but I’m not sure I’d leave the game to look for a toy either. I mean, hello! This is the Super Bowl.”
Jasmine slurps from her bottle. “You didn’t see her. She was really upset. Don’t forget this was her dead brother’s toy. And he was only young. If that was my girlfriend-”
Sally interrupts her immediately. “Girl, you’ve got it bad. That much is obvious. Now go to lost property and ask them to leave a message for her.”
“Are you crazy?!” Michelle shakes her head. “The Bengals are about to win the Super Bowl, and you’re telling Jas to miss it?”
“She’ll be back before the end. And some things are more important than football.” Sally winks.
* * *
“Did I miss anything?” Jasmine asks, as she slides back into her seat about 10 minutes later.
“Nope. It’s been one punt after another. Now, did you ask them to call this girl for you?”
Jasmine shakes her head. “Better than that. You’ll see.” She tries to concentrate on the game for the rest of the quarter.
When the two-minute warning sounds, Michelle grabs onto Jasmine’s arm. “Can you believe the Bengals are two minutes away from winning the Super Bowl?”
As the teams huddle, an announcement rings out across the stadium. “This is a message to the girl who lost the zebra. If you fancy switching allegiances, meet Jasmine outside the lost property room after the game.”
Sally whirls around. “You didn’t!”
Jasmine just shrugs, a smile upon her face.
* * *
Paul glares at Sophie. “What was that?”
Sophie can’t help a stupid smile from breaking out on her face. “I think you’ve got competition.” She knows she’s being deliberately provocative, but Paul has annoyed her the whole day, and ever since half time she’s not been able to stop thinking about the girl she met earlier. Now it seems like Jasmine feels the same.
Paul’s face has gone so red that it looks like he might explode. “My team are losing the Super Bowl, and my girlfriend’s been off flirting with a girl when she was supposed to be distraught over her brother’s toy. Fucking great day this has turned out to be.”
“She was helping me look for Zack.” Sophie crosses her arms. “Which is a hell of a lot more than you were doing.”
He clenches his teeth. “I said I’d help you look after the game. Anyway, what does she mean about switching allegiances?”
Sophie raises her eyebrows. “She’s a Bengals fan.” She knows this will be the final nail in the coffin for her and Paul, but she doesn’t care. For those brief few moments earlier, Jasmine had made her feel more special than Paul had for the past several hours. She actually realises that she can’t remember the last time that Paul did anything just for her.
“You can both fuck right off.” He turns back to the field as the players line up. He ignores her for the rest of the game.
As the seconds tick down, Kupp catches a touchdown pass, which is then disallowed due to penalties. Sophie can hardly hide her glee, cheering with the Bengals fans. She takes the Rams jacket off and throws it at Paul. When the touchdown is caught by Kupp for real, with less than 90 seconds in the game, putting the Rams once more in front, she slumps in her seat.
When Burrow is sacked on the last play of the game, Paul turns to her and finally speaks. “I guess you’ll be wanting that jacket back again. Kupp will be the MVP for sure.”
She shakes her head as the confetti rains down and the Rams celebrate. “No thanks. I’m a Bengal now.”
He looks at her in disgust as she picks up her bag and walks away, pushing past the crowd.
* * *
“I really thought we had it.” Michelle sighs. “We were so close to the victory. I thought it was going to be a fairytale ending.”
“They played well.” Sally looks at Jasmine, who is watching the Rams celebrate, but it’s clear her mind is elsewhere. She addresses her. “You know, before today, if someone had asked me how you’d be if the Bengals lost, I’d have said you’d be really depressed. But you kind of look like the cat who got the cream.”
Jasmine grins, a blush creeping across her cheeks. “It’s like you said. I guess some things are more important than football.”
“Damn right,” Sally says. “Now, go and get the girl.”
Jasmine swallows, suddenly feeling unsure of herself. “What if she’s not interested?”
“Well, you won’t know unless you go. Good luck. And don’t forget this.” Michelle pushes the zebra into her hands.
Jasmine walks to the end of their row. Quite a lot of people have left already- all Bengals fans, no doubt. As she climbs the stairs back inside the stadium, her hands shake, and she grips tightly onto the zebra behind her back.
Sophie is already there when she arrives at the lost property room. She’s biting her lip, but when she sees Jasmine, a smile breaks out on her face.
“Hey.” She’s even more beautiful than Jasmine remembers.
“Hey yourself.” Their eyes meet, and Jasmine has to remind herself to breathe.
“Well done to the Rams for the win.” The jacket has gone, but she feels it’s only polite to offer her congratulations.
Sophie shrugs. “I was actually rooting for the Bengals in the second half. Sorry they didn’t quite make it. It was so close.”
“It’s okay. So, I’ve got three things for you.”
She looks intrigued. “What?”
Jasmine brings the zebra out from behind her back and hands it to Sophie. Her hands are sweaty with nerves; she hopes the toy isn’t too damp.
Sophie gasps. “Zack!” Tears form in her eyes. “Where did you find him? I thought he’d gone for good.”
“Can you believe it- one of my friends actually had him. Apparently some kids were throwing him around during the halftime show.”
Sophie opens her bag and drops the zebra in. “Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure. Here’s the second thing.” Jasmine pulls her Burrow top over her head and hands it to Sophie. “See how it looks on you.”
“Jasmine, are you sure? Those tops aren’t cheap.”
“I’ll get another one. You’re worth it.” The words are out of Jasmine’s mouth before she can think about them. She feels her cheeks heat up, and looks at Sophie with trepidation.
Sophie’s smiling as she pulls the top over her T-shirt. Luckily, the two girls are a similar size, and the top fits fine. “How do I look?” She twirls around.
“Beautiful.” Jasmine mentally gathers her courage for the next step.
“So, what’s the third thing? You’ve already given me so much.”
Jasmine hopes that this won’t be too much. They are in a very public place, after all. But she just has to hope Sophie will take it well. “This.” She leans her head towards Sophie’s, and as their lips brush, time stands still. To her relief, Sophie kisses her back. She tastes like lemonade and French fries.
As they pull away, Sophie is blushing. “If I’d known this was going to happen, I’d have taken a few breath mints.”
Jasmine waves the comment off. “No need.” She feels giddy with excitement, and is sure that there’s a stupid smile upon her face. The Bengals may have lost the Super Bowl, but she’s found something far more important.
They link hands as they walk out of the stadium. “So, how long have you supported the Bengals?” Sophie asks. “I…” She trails off and comes to a stop suddenly, looking over to her right.
Jasmine follows her line of sight. A boy in a Rams jacket is frowning at them. His eyes go to their clasped hands.
“Your boyfriend?” she asks.
“I’m sorry,” Jasmine says. “He must hate me.”
Sophie shrugs. “He’d have dumped me anyway, the moment he saw me in this top.” She winks at Jasmine, who laughs. “Come on, let’s go. You need to teach me all about the Bengals.”