Continued from: Earworm: Part 46 — The Handoff
Night hung like draped, black velvet in the trees of the woods. Joel stood with his buddies, drinking beers in the wooded area behind the high school, Price Field in the distance. He sensed the field more than saw it in the dark, but still, he knew it was there. And he knew he made a complete fool of himself on it that morning. Now, in the darkness of the woods, his friends bantered about girls and football and school and sports and sex. But Joel just sipped his beer, letting the beer soothe, like balm on a burn, his ego’s injury. There was no physical affliction to soothe. After all, throughout the day’s game, Joel ran for cover like a deserting soldier in a firefight. He handed the ball off too quickly. He blindly tossed passes nowhere near receivers. He did everything short of dropping to his knees and begging the other team to please not hit him. And after the game, his teammates, including the three now standing with him in the wooded darkness, possessed an underlying tone in every word they uttered, a tone screaming loud and clear: You pussy. Joel’s coach even pulled Joel aside at halftime, his arm around Joel’s neck, asking, “What’s wrong, Fitchy?” Even his coach’s tone accusing: You pussy. And what was Joel supposed to say? I had a nightmare last night, coach?
“I heard about you bustin Willy Knightmare’s nose,” Jay Simms said. “Joel?”
“Huh?” Joel said. “Oh, yeah. No, I didn’t break it.”
“Too bad. Don’t know why, but I don’t like that kid,” Jay said. Joel chuckled. You’re telling me. The mentioning of William Knight’s name unearthed memories—more like images, perhaps feelings was the best word for it—something answered for a fleeting moment, but then reburied. Like trying to excavate an artifact in a sandstorm. Was William Knight in his dream last night? Joel wasn’t sure. But it did seem William’s name was nagging him throughout the day, popping up tandem with his memories. Memories of what? Of that dream?
“Where was Hope today?” Tommy Wilkes said. “Joel?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, she’s sick.”
“Sick of you?” Jay said. The others laughed. Joel grinned and sipped his beer. He had mixed feelings about Hope’s absence from the game. He was relieved she didn’t have to witness his pathetic display. He could only imagine her cheers taking on that same underlying tone of: you pussy. However, Joel was becoming concerned about his new girlfriend. She was acting so… bizarre. Had she always been that way and he just never noticed before—blinded as he was by the desire for copulation—or was something really wrong with her mind? He had talked to her on the phone after the game:
“How was the game?” she said.
“Sucked. I played like… I sucked.”
“Yeah. How’re you feeling?” he said, wanting to get off the subject of the game—although she’d hear about it Monday as the school buzzed about his humiliation.
“You sleep all right last night?”
“Actually,” she said, her voice more cheerful than it had been for days, “I did sleep pretty well last night.”
“That’s good,” Joel said. “Wanna go out tonight?”
“Nah, I’m still pretty tired. Think I’ll take it easy again tonight. Is that all right?”
“Yeah,” he said with feigned casualness.
“Okay, well, bye then,” she said.
When Hope had mentioned she had a good night’s sleep, Joel was tempted to mention his own bad dream. But he never wanted to relive that moment of helpless panic again. Not to mention, she didn’t sound interested in anything he had to say anyway. Her uninviting intonation having all the cadence of television static. As if saying, I’m finished with this conversation. Was she finished with Joel too? Jay tossed his beer can into the woods. “Anyone for another one?” he said, reaching into a case of beer.
The others grunted affirmations in unison. Joel drained the last of his beer can and tossed it aside. As soothing as that liquid was to his ego, the alcohol also cultivated a numb anger that inflated in his head like a balloon in a shell, his thoughts smearing with the first touches of intoxication. “Yeah, I’ll take another one,” he said, as if to himself. He took a can from Jay, and the four of them drank a few more “another ones,” talking about girls, school, sports and sex, until the clouds that had been blotting out the stars and moon began spitting drops of rain. The rain slapping and tapping the leaves of the trees and flicking the four boys’ faces.
“Ah, crud,” Guard said.
“Where to now?” Tommy said.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” Jay said.
“Where?” Tommy said.
“How about Island Pizza?” Jay said.
“Yeah, that’s cool. Guard, you guys coming?” Tommy said, nodding to Guard and Joel, who arrived together in Guard’s car.
Guard looked at Joel. “You wanna?”
Joel shrugged. “I don’t care.” Guard mirrored Joel’s shrug. Joel saying, “Let’s just finish playing that football game on your X-Box.”
“Okay,” Guard said. He turned to the others. “Hey, we’ll catch up with you guys later. I’ve got to go kick Joel’s ass at football.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to do today,” Jay said.
“You got a problem, Jay?” Joel said, squaring his shoulders and snarling his lip.
“Huh?” Jay reeling slightly. “No, man, I was just kidding around.”
Joel let out a stream of breath. “Look, I’m just pissed off about the game today.”
“All right,” Jay said. “Like I said, I was just kidding.”
“Whatever. Let’s just get out of here,” Joel said to Guard. He walked off through the rain with his head hung low.
“I guess I’ll see you guys later,” Guard said in an unsure tone. He followed Joel. The rain coming down harder. The balloon in Joel’s head swelling.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 48 — The Crypt
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