Coach loved Slaughter Ball. Whenever the rain came and the fields soaked up, went too muddy to hump, Coach moved it inside. He watched the sky all year like a jonesing weatherman, praying for rain the way Squint prayed for April Aker's clothes to disintegrate. Then he laid out the teams from his chair and blew his whistle.
It shook out like this:
Two teams lined up on either side of the gym, an arsenal of half-inflated volleyballs and soccer balls marshaled down the center of the court. Out there was where you lived and where you died. The no-man's land. If you went out there, you'd better be fast. Pick it up and let it fly. Rock and roll. You didn't and you were monkey chow, your ass hanging out there waving in the breeze like a down-going gladiator in the Coliseum. The Coach riding over you from on high with his thumbs just itching to turn down.
So nobody went out there, not until you had no choice. Except, of course, for Charlie Little. Charlie Little—even his name was a cruel joke, a punch to the bridge of the nose. He was six-five, and pushing three hundred pounds. A block of wet cement ready to harden right on top of you. You heard him before you saw him, his labored breath huffing out of him, the sausage casings of his legs rubbing against each other. Shreet, shreet, like a hide being scraped with a bone knife.
Charlie sauntered out to the center circle like an APC rolling down Highway 1, slow and steady, scooped up three balls and tucked them under his left arm. Then he picked up a fourth in the ham claw of his right hand and started picking us off one by one.
Our strategy was always the same—stay in the back, let the forward lines take the first hits. Hope a hole didn't open up in front of you. The heat would get back to us eventually, but with any luck we could take a leg shot or dive into a slow looper, get pulled out with the minimal. Out of the shit and back into the waiting world.
It wasn't much of a strategy, but it was the best we had. Until Bishop turned it on its head.
"No fucking way, man." Freak backed away from the lines of advance Bishop had drawn in the dirt like they were his obituary. "That's a suicide run."
Bishop shook his head, pushed his glasses up on his nose with a crooked finger.
"Charlie's slow, man," he said. "Real slow. Right? And he'll never expect it. Us, coming at him? We'll freeze him. He'll go stone, I'm telling you. Surprise, bros, that's all we have going for us. That's the only trick left in our bag."
You go over something you think you've got figured enough times and it starts shifting, changing shape like the clouds of steam over the settling ponds out back of the school. Where did the end start? With Squint's first glimpse of April? With Charlie Little's lost future? Or before that, before any of us met, when the world was still whole and spinning right?
I put it square at the feet of the U.S. Army and their primetime draft lottery. It was a full-on special, like Miss America. A carnival. We watched the numbers pop up in little blue capsules on Squint's TV, watched the buzz-cut suits tack them up on a board. Watched people's birthdays turn from a reason to celebrate into a bad raffle.
Squint's brother Chet was watching with us. He was one of the few people Charlie Little was afraid of, a quiet guy with a hard distaste for blubber and bluster. He'd turned nineteen over the summer and so was fair game for the draft. He sat on the floor, watching his future decided like a goddamn game show. A high number was the golden ticket, what people who weren't on speaking terms with god prayed for. When Chet's birthday, July 8th, came up number thirteen, he got up and left the room. His mom followed after him. Me and Squint stayed put, and his dad stayed where he was too, tipped back in his recliner, staring at the screen. He got up once to get a drink, then sat back down again. Santa Claus coasted down a shaving cream hill on a Norelco razor and Squint's dad tipped his glass back. The ice cubes rattled like dice being shaken.
The next day Charlie Little was waiting for us on the open gravel of the faculty parking lot..
"Thirteen," he said, looking down at Squint. "My new lucky number."
Squint's eyes went cold.
Oh shit, man, I thought. Don't mess with the tiger—and here's the real lesson: absolutely never with the cub.
You could almost hear Squint plucked and pinging. I caught his eye, held my hand out flat. Ease down.
Squint took a slow breath, nodded once.
"We'll see if that shit-eating grin's still there next year," he said. "When your number's up."
"Oh it will be," Charlie said, taking an ivory envelope out of his jacket pocket. He opened the envelope and took out a typed letter. He turned it toward us so we could see the university letterhead.
"A fucking deferment?" Squint said after Charlie had glaciated off across the quad. "That moron?"
"Forget it, man," I said. "It's his world. Nothing to do about it."
"Bullshit," he said. He was running hot, ready to blow. I tried to cool him down with some poetry.
"There once was a man from Nantucket," I said.
"Shut up," he said. "Shut the fuck up."
When Squint announced his plan the next day to paper-frag Charlie, we all drew back instinctively.
"Whoa man," Freak said. "Too heavy for me."
"That is not a sound course," Bishop agreed. "Bad juju will surely follow."
I was with them, but Squint was set solid. If we didn't help him he'd go it alone, and I couldn't let that happen. After some prodding and threatening, the others finally saw it my way and threw in. Bishop got the keys and laid out the timing.
We had three minutes, tops.
Outside the door, Freak let us know he still didn't like it. But the only thing he was more afraid of than Charlie was being left out in the wind, so he followed along. When we went in, he was the one who found the file, crammed into the wrong cabinet under the wrong initial. We laid it out on the desk, scoped it fast. A 1.2 grade point average, three suspensions, numerous warnings. Hand-written protests from two guidance counselors. Pure gold. Pure deferment-killing gold.
Squint tucked the file under his jacket and we stepped out into the hall, locking the office door behind us.
When word came down a week later that his college admission had been revoked, Charlie knew it was Squint. Down in his gut, the way a hyena senses a lion on its range. He closed on him, on all of us. Tugged in the noose that had been tightening gradually for so long. As we sat frozen in our seats, he stood on the grass outside our English room window, sealed the envelope with its now unattainable crest, folded it carefully in half and tucked it in his back pocket.
Off to the west, faint but deliberate, a peal of thunder rumbled our way.
At lunch he was there again, looming at the edge of our field of vision like the angel of death's uglier brother. Ripples rolled across the surface of my Coke as he moved across the quad toward us. He stopped at the edge of the wooden deck where we sat, his toes on the concrete apron, his heels sinking into the grass. He let out a long gust of breath ripe with rancid meat, then leaned the oval slab of his head back and looked up into the clouding sky.
"Looks like rain."
He stuck his tongue out like he was catching snowflakes, then drew it back in. He looked at each of us in turn, filing our faces away. He made a little clicking sound before moving on to the next one. The sun broke through the clouds briefly and split in two around him. He studied his sudden shadow as if it were some stranger moving too close, flapped his arms to make sure the shadow did the same, then kicked Bishop's slurpee over and lumbered off toward the listing deck of the east hall.
That was yesterday. Today, as predicted, the rain had come.
The four of us made the long walk from the temporary trailers together, our heads bare to the rain. There wasn't any more hiding. We crossed the quad and pushed through the doors into the gym like the Earp brothers, or like someone with even worse luck.
The plan went south almost immediately. Freak went down first, hard. I don't know how they knew, if somebody ratted us out or what, but they were ready. Freak sprinted out at the whistle full tilt like we'd planned and found Steve Bradley waiting for him. He was a wide receiver, fast. Freak didn't have a chance. He tried to back-pedal, scrambled for the safety of our lines, but he was toast. I could see the realization in his eyes and it broke my heart. He'd trusted me. He'd put it all on the line for us, and it had gone to shit. I saw the "why?" forming on his lips as the ball slammed into him from behind, heard the sickening screech of floor burn as he skidded across the court.
He was a sad story told around a dying fire, but we couldn't mourn him the way we wanted to, not yet. That would have to wait. If we hesitated, it'd be our turn next sure as shit. We could still make it. I turned to Squint and Bishop, waved them back to the wall. Bishop nodded, but Squint was looking past me, off toward the main doors. The doors were open, I could feel the wind off the ponds blowing in through them, heavy with the smells of ozone and evaporating waste. I followed Squint's line of sight to where April stood just inside, her hair draped over one shoulder, her green and gold skirt rising and falling as she bounced up and down, cheering:
"Go, Charlie, go! Kill 'em all!"
Squint stared at her framed in the doorway, an aura of cloud-filtered light blurring her outline, making her amorphous and tentative. He was out in the open, an easy target, but no one threw. When he turned back toward the enemy lines, I was the only one who saw the coiled tension, the curve of his back like a cold front hunching up before it breaks open.
I tried to get to him, but he was too far away. Miles. Farther than Freak's lunchroom stare, farther than junior high, farther than the early, innocent days people who don't know any better like to remember.
He ran straight at Charlie Little, straight into the rain of shit that had had him in its sights since forever. He leaned into it, embraced it almost like a lover, welcomed its inevitable final flourish with a silence that still batters my ears.
Bishop followed on pure instinct. It was all over now, gone. His scratch marks in the dirt, his careful planning had come to nothing, less than nothing. It was all a waste, thinking was a waste. The only reservoir in the end was that clot of pure animal drive, the primitive lunge toward the cliff.
He was hit three times in quick succession, the third blow knocked his glasses off. The kid beside him jumped back in panic and stomped on them, crushing both lenses. I watched and shook my head. I wouldn't make the same mistake. I'd come too far. What good would it do, me going down with them? None. It would be just another pissant waste, another body bag for the Coach. I knew better, right? Fuckin'-A.
So where was I going, why was I running out there, out into the shit behind my fallen brothers? Into the pointless grinder of it? You tell me. All I knew was my heart was finally quiet. I was in the DMZ, no-man's land, alone. Behind me, I could hear the dying shuffle of Bishop dragging Squint toward the sidelines.
I picked up two balls, my fingers gripping onto the folds of deflated leather, crouched low and sprinted into the lines. Past the double paint, the cutoff. I heard Jim Morrison singing "Break on through, break on through..." as I crossed out of the land of the barely living into the anteroom of the doomed.
Balls zipped past my ears. I lifted my arm, felt the breeze of a stinger pass underneath. All the smells and sounds and sights of my former world flooded in—overcooked beef stewing in onion broth in the cafeteria, new-cut grass entwining with Marlboro incense and sludge fog, cheerleaders kicking, their skirts flouncing, hand-painted election banners slapping against the hallway bricks, clarinets and trumpets hunting across keys for one another through the wedged-open door of the band room—and over all of it, the drumming of the rain on the gym roof, the stuttering gunfire of the weather that had brought us all together.
My arm was an extension of that vanishing world as I cocked back, zeroed in on the fat face of Charlie Little and let fly. A voice not my own poured forth, yelling at Charlie, at Coach, at Steve Bradley's moron grin, at all of them, yelling for myself and for everybody who couldn't any more:
Just before the last bell, I saw Squint moving across the front lawn toward the perimeter fence. The biology teacher watched me get up and shoulder my pack. He started to say something, but stopped himself. Ain't nothing for it, he knew. His eyes said it. When it's time to dee-dee, it's time.
I caught up with Squint a half-block short of the park. There was a little river running down the slope of lawn and across the sidewalk. We didn't bother stepping over it. We were both soaked already, water running out of our hair and down into our eyes. We didn't give a damn. Humping like that, it was nothing. We were born to it.
"Don't sweat it, man," I said, coming alongside him.
"There it is, brother. There it is."
He looked at me a little funny, turned up into the park. I started to follow him.
"I'm going home," he said.
"No shit," I said. "We're all going home, right? One-ten and a wake-up."
Fat drops splatted down around us and onto us where we stood under the big oak.
"Would you quit that shit?"
"It isn't funny anymore."
He looked past me, over my shoulder, waiting for me to say something more. Daring me. I knew why he wanted it. The same reason I wanted Charlie Little to go down—to pool all our troubles in one tidy place. To avoid acknowledging that we were puny goddamn Davids and Goliath was everywhere and despite what anybody said we didn't have a snowball's goddamn chance.
"Wasn't ever meant to be funny."
The rain passed eventually, as it always does. The permanent remains temporary, the fleeting becomes carved in stone. The building-block tattoo of a volleyball was visible on Charlie Little's face for a week, then that faded too. Squint was gone through Christmas, and when he came back all he could talk about was motorcycles and weed. He never mentioned April again.
Bishop disappeared into the cryptic runes and rituals of the Math Club, and Freak went AWOL over the levee. As for me, I guess I made it out. I'm here anyway. And, to some extent, I'm still me. I'm not as sure as I was then what war we were fighting, but it's clear we lost it. What else we lost, and how much we left behind that we might have taken with us and that might have proven useful, I can't say. All I know is people see me now and they don't know me.
Maybe they've heard stories, maybe they try to guess what it is I'm looking at out there, make a game out of it, but they won't come close. Because they can't see the mark in the shape of a five-sided star way down where it's all but invisible, distorted by time and centered with a small circle where the pump went in and life leaked out. They don't want to see it. More than anything, they don't want to be confronted with the fact that what I'm looking at is what they'll be looking at some day, from one side or the other—a tight huddle of figures moving away down a long hall, a failing constellation held together by the best and weakest of forces.
BIO: Jeff Ewing's stories and essays have appeared in Southwest Review, Crazyhorse, Utne Reader, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and elsewhere. His plays, including the award-winning Middle of Nowhere and The Road Into Town, have been staged in New York, Los Angeles, and Buffalo. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.