Continued from: Earworm: Part 17 — The Girl Next Door
Joel positioned the football’s laces between his fingertips as he dropped back. He focused beyond the flailing arms, rushing bodies, the colliding plastic and grueling grunts, trying to find Lawrence Mayes, who was supposed to be cutting across mid-field in a set pattern. But Mayes wasn’t there. Joel did see Sean Collins running up the sideline, waving like a drowning victim. But Collins couldn’t hold onto the ball even if you handed the thing to him. Wait, there was Mayes trying to extricate from double coverage. Joel’s fingertips tightened on the ball, he pump-faked, but didn’t throw. He spotted Tommy Wilkes spinning a feint on his defender and streaking up the sideline. Joel ducked a rusher, darted to his right, set his feet, and let the ball fly. Tommy Wilkes received the pass and trotted into the end zone.
The crowd cheered.
The cheerleaders squealed.
Joel glanced over to see Hope Ferretti jumping and clapping.
That was the only touchdown for the Wolves, and when the final whistle blew, Joel felt relief having survived another contest unscathed—although, late in the game, there was one blindsided hit that felt as if he’d been decapitated, but he managed to hop up from the ground with only a little less wind in his lungs.
After the game, Joel strolled to the chain link fence bordering the field. Hope waited for him. Fans filed from the stands and as they passed, especially the vicarious fathers and star-struck sycophants, they called:
“Nice game, Joel.”
“Great pass, Joel.”
“Awesome touchdown, Joel.”
“Nice ass, Joel,” someone called in a high-pitched voice.
Joel turned to see Guard trotting off for the locker room, laughing.
Joel turned to Hope with an embarrassed smile, “He can be such a dick.”
“Gee, great game, Joel,” Hope said.
“Oh, Christ, you too?”
“I think you have a nice ass, too,” she said.
“Whatever,” Joel said. “Hey, I didn’t think you were going to make it here today. Why were you so late?”
“Great job, Joel,” the principal said, passing by them.
“You should run for mayor,” Hope said.
“Yeah, well, my fifteen minutes are ticking.”
“Does being quarterback for the Mystic Wolves really count against your allotted time of fame?”
“I don’t know,” Joel said. “How about being star cheerleader?”
“That’s fifteen minutes of hell,” Hope said.
“So, why were you late?” Joel said, digressing. He recognized a bitterness in Hope’s voice. He was unsure why she considered cheerleading hell, although watching her in that skirt certainly gave Joel ideas that might just land him there.
“I couldn’t get out of bed,” Hope said. “I had the craziest dream last night.”
“Hey,” Joel said, switching subjects so quickly that it looked as if a light bulb should have gone off above his head, “you wanna go to Katie Adams’s party tonight?”
“Sure. But I’m pretty tired, maybe we can just go for a little while.”
“We don’t have to go there. I mean, we could just go to a movie or something.”
“A movie or somethin?” Hope mocked in a dimwitted voice.
Joel raised his eyebrows. “What was that for?”
“Movies are something couples do when they can’t think of anything else to do.”
“You’re pardoned for now. Katie’s sounds good.”
“All right. So I’ll call you later?”
“Sure,” Hope said, looking at him with scantly veiled affection.
“And we’ll go to the movies,” Joel said in a dimwitted voice.
“Yeah, right,” Hope said.
“Hey,” another light bulb sprung over Joel’s head, “I saw your boyfriend here.”
The smile dropped from Hope’s face. She craned her neck, searching the thinning crowd like a federal marshal for a fugitive. “Where?” Her voice was charged with a strange interest. Almost like panic, almost like longing.
“Over there.” Joel pointed to the far end of the bleachers. “He’s not there now. He must’ve left.”
“And why is he my boyfriend?” Hope said in a tone that, Joel wasn’t quite sure why, made him uneasy.
“I don’t know,” Joel said, not masking his confusion. “You were asking about him the other day. I was just teasing you.”
“Sorry,” Hope said, “But he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Really? Who is?”
“No one, yet.”
“Yet, huh? So you want me to call you later?”
“If you want to go out tonight, you should.”
“Yeah, all right,” Joel said, “I’ll call you later.” He trotted across the field to meet his team in the locker room.
“See ya,” Hope called after him.
“Bye,” he called, waving.
“Hasta la vista,” he called, but before Hope could respond, his toe hit a divot, almost toppling him. He caught his balance with more effort than he let on, trying to pass it off as all part of the plan.
“I saw that,” Hope called.
Joel trotted away, grinning and shaking his head.
Joel was right about William having been there, but he was gone now, wandering off with the rest of the crowd. Earlier, as William approached Price Field, the thought turning over in his mind was: I shouldn’t have come. And the stares from other students only reinforced this realization. Kids like William didn’t go to football games. Going to “the game” was for socializing, to cheer and high-five, to gawk at the opposite sex. The attendees of “the game” came in carloads of friends. They certainly were not dropped off alone by their mothers.
“You want a ride to the football game?” Greta had responded to his request like a soldier questioning a commanding officer’s orders.
“Yeah, Mom, you know, just goin to meet the guys,” William had told her.
And now that she’d dropped him off, and he’d watched his only security drive off, he felt like a pilot downed behind enemy lines.
Up ahead, lingering around the main entrance to the field, William spotted some of the hallway scavengers that he sometimes ran across in school. He figured he’d be fine once he got into the game, but out here, he was an open target for them. His pace quickened and he was almost to the entrance when he bumped into something.
Jimmy Ringwald, the kid that gave William a hard time in the hallway the day before, stared at him with mock anger.
William forced a smile and said, “Um, hi… Jimmy, was it?”
“Duh, ‘hi, Jimmy,’” Jimmy said in a mocking tone. And then in a tone that flashed suddenly to anger, he said, “Watch where you’re going, homo.”
William averted his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. He tried to step around Jimmy, but instead, he walked into him again.
“What’s the matter with you? Watch where you’re goin.” Jimmy flailed his arms with an expression of such over-dramatization that it was almost comical.
But William didn’t dare laugh. A group of scavengers gathered, smelling blood, watching, waiting for William’s reaction. They wanted in on this carrion.
“This kid startin with you, Jimmy?” said another kid with an expression of such utter shock, it rivaled Jimmy’s initial expression.
“I guess so.” Jimmy said, giving William a shove on his shoulder. “You startin with me?” he said like a professional wrestler confronting an opponent center ring.
William glanced at the staring faces of the gathering crowd. “No,” he said.
“Then stop walking inta me.”
“Okay.” William paused in the suffocating air. He started forward, only to step into Jimmy’s chest again. William sighed.
“Jesus. This kid just doesn’t get it.” Jimmy shoved William back a few steps. William bumped into another parasite.
“Watch it, man.” The kid shoved William toward Jimmy. William caught his balance, stopping short, and he stared into Jimmy’s eyes. Jimmy stared in to the endless black pools that were William’s pupils. Jimmy’s eyes flinched first.
“Knock it off,” Mr. Hewitt, the vice principal, hollered from the field’s entrance.
Jimmy turned to walk away, but he stopped and turned back toward William. “I’ll see-ya later, homo,” he said before dispersing with the rest of the crowd.
William continued in through the front gate, not looking up, hands buried in his pockets, feet shuffling. It occurred to him how great it would be if he was invisible and could sneak into the game unseen. Maybe he could cause havoc like the Invisible Man—wedgy a few scavengers or steal the football, causing the players to run in tail chasing confusion. And being invisible, he could whisper in Hope’s ear, Remember me, Hope? It’s me, from your dreams.
He searched for a place to sit, but the bleachers were packed—William needing to work past countless fans to arrive at any given seat. William regarded the crowd. It seemed everyone was watching him. Tier after tier of seated rows, all staring at him as if he’d wandered into the lady’s room.
He retreated to a place beside the bleachers, standing there, not daring to move, trying to blend in like a stick bug on a branch. He could only see half of the field from this vantage, but that didn’t matter, he didn’t care much for football, anyway.
A chorus of female voices blended into harmonizing chants. “We,” they shouted, and then clapped two rapid reports, “Will win.” Clap-clap. “We.” Clap-clap. “Will win.” And then they called as one voice into the stands, “Let’s go, Mystic.” And the fans echoed, “Let’s go, Mystic.” And everyone clapped in rhythmic precision. Clap-clap-clappity-clap. The oneness of the crowd, the structured routine of the chanting and clapping, to William, it was like some bizarre church service, and in the lead of all that cheering and school spirit was Hope Ferretti. Like an ancient priestess, Hope decided when to chant, when to clap, when to cheer. William was lost in every one of her hip-swinging, hand-clapping movements. The game and crashing bodies, the whistles tweeting like panicked birds, the crowd with their whoops and hollers, all faded from existence. William only watched Hope until, before he knew it, the referee blew an extra long whistle blast, and the crowd let out a final cheer.
The game was over, and the spectators spilled from the stands, but William didn’t dare move, still concentrating on blending into the side of the bleachers. Jimmy Ringwald passed him with a wax paper cup. Jimmy pulled the straw from the lid and, with one end still in his mouth, spurted soda into William’s face. “Sorry, fag” Jimmy said, his friends howling laughter.
William wiped away the sticky syrup, glaring at Jimmy walking away with his friends.
“We’ll see who’s sorry,” William muttered.
He then craned his neck, catching a glimpse of Hope. She was talking to the cheerleader beside her. The other cheerleader was in William’s psychology class. Her name was Tara something. William imagined Tara and Hope’s conversation: Tara saying, Did you see that new kid here? He’s so hot. Are you really thinking of going out with him, Hope? You should. Some might think he’s a goofball, but I think he’s just dreamy.
Yeah, William was sure Tara was saying that.
Hope, you should definitely go out with William. Hey, look, a flying pig.
As the tide of people ebbed to a few scattered bunches, William watched Joel Fitch approach Hope from inside the chain-link fence. Hope gripped the fence, offering Joel that same perfect smile she offered William when he presented her with a necklace of stars. But there was no moon in Joel’s hand. There was just a stupid, empty football helmet—that helmet being just as empty when it was on his head. And Joel’s castle? A vacant football field. And Joel spoke with the most vacuous thing of all: his words.
They’re just friends, William assured himself. The popular gravitate together. Besides, head cheerleader with the football captain? Wasn’t that a little too Barbie and Ken-ish?
But William read their body language. Joel’s arms flexed as if his helmet weighed 300 pounds, his chest inflated. And look at the way Hope angled her head, offering Joel her long neck, her eyes held on his, her hips tilted, one leg bent, subconsciously jutting out her rear in animal-like courtship.
William’s heart lay flat in his stomach. Well, he thought, we’ll just see Joel try and give her the one thing she wants more than anything else.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 19 — David