Continued from: Earworm: Part 42 — Hero
Joel entered the gym. Two volleyball nets were stretched across the floor. Groups of girls gathered in scattered conferences waiting for gym class to begin as boys shot the volleyballs into basketball hoops. Joel trotted up to a basketball hoop, calling “Hey,” holding out his hands to receive a pass. Bobby Milner tossed Joel a ball. Joel shot it, and it dropped through the hoop, bouncing to William Knight’s feet. “Yo, little help,” Joel called to William.
William looked down at the ball and walked away.
Bobby Milner snatched up the ball and tossed it to Joel. “What a dick,” Bobby said, cocking his head in William’s direction. Joel shrugged, shooting the ball again. Joel had to agree. But he didn’t know why. He harbored definite resentment toward that William kid, even if he had no real reason to. He couldn’t help it. After all, Joel’s girlfriend kept dreaming about the kid. Granted, she was dreaming about Joel, too. Dreaming that Joel was a psychopath. And Joel had to wonder: why did she dream Joel would try to hurt her? These questions nagged him since he hung up the phone with her last night. And new questions kept surfacing in his mind. Questions like: why was Hope absent from school today?
Probably taking out a restraining order against me, he thought.
But even if Hope was in school, what could Joel say to her? What could she say to him? What could they possibly say to each other? Could they really discuss that for some reason Joel was the boogieman in her dreams? Was Joel supposed to apologize to her? Should he say he was sorry for peeing on her old man’s grave in a dream? Did she perceive some malevolent cruelty in Joel, a cruelty only realized in her subconscious? He couldn’t think of any terrible attributes of himself that would cause such fear. And now he’ll be the first guy at Mystic High School—any high school, for that matter—dumped because his girlfriend was having bad dreams about him. He’d heard of being dumped for being too nice, too mean, too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too ugly, too dumb, even too smart, but never for being a knife wielding maniac in someone’s bad dreams.
“All right, all right,” Mr. Marnet called in a strained voice, trying to out-volume the bouncing balls. “C’mon ladies and germs, let’s get going here.” The students fell into a single line, Mr. Marnet standing before them, clipboard in hand, doing his best drill sergeant impersonation. Ms. Maybree, the girl’s gym teacher, leaned against the far wall. Ms. Maybree was a manly woman of an indiscernible age. It was rare for Ms. Maybree to make it to work all five days of the school week, and the students were known to say, Maybree she’ll be here today, Maybree she won’t. In line, Bobby Milner and Guard struggled for possession of a volleyball. “Gentlemen,” Mr. Marnet said, “and I use the term loosely, please stop.” Guard relinquished the ball as Bobby gave it a final yank. “Thank you,” Mr. Marnet said. He then took attendance, providing nicknames for some of the students, a few he personally bestowed upon them. Names like, Justin-time Philips, or Billy O-My-Malley. Names that would follow some of them for the remainder of their schooling, and maybe even beyond. When he came to Joel’s name, he called, “Fitchy,” with unmistakable admiration. Joel nodded at the teacher, and Mr. Marnet moved on. At William’s name, he called, “Little Willy Knightmare,” in his ain’t I a hoot manner. Mr. Marnet liked that one, bestowing the name during William’s very first gym class.
“Here,” William said.
Joel glanced down the line of students to William. Joel knew William couldn’t actually be responsible for Hope’s dreams, yet Joel felt anger toward him for being in those dreams, and he justified this animosity with the fact that, whether the kid knew it or not, he was causing a definite rift in Joel and his girlfriend’s relationship. And since Joel couldn’t get mad at Hope’s dreams, getting mad at the dreams’ subject seemed a reasonable alternative.
After Mr. Marnet finished taking attendance, he called, “All you guys with balls step forward.”
A spatter of giggles broke out along the line of students.
“Volleyballs,” Mr. Marnet corrected. Four boys, including Joel, stepped out of line. Mr. Marnet saying, “Okay, Fitchy, you start picking the teams.”
“Why’s he get to pick first?” Bobby whined, holding a volleyball against his hip.
“Cause I said so,” Mr. Marnet said.
“I’ll take Guard,” Joel said, nodding toward his friend. Guard trotted out and high-fived Joel. The other students waved to be chosen next. William Knight stared at Joel. Joel glanced at him. What is this kid’s problem? The pick came back to Joel. “Meyers,” Joel called. Phil Meyers joined Joel’s team. William Knight still stared at Joel. The look in William’s eyes was if he had some definite resentment toward Joel, too. Joel shifted from foot to foot and turned to regard his teammates. Could William be staring at one of them? The teams expanded, the pickings became thin. The choices whittling down to two students. One of those students being William, his gaze crawling all over Joel like squirming worms. Joel couldn’t bear to meet those eyes, so he picked skinny and frail Becky Slarns—who didn’t have the coordination to chew gum and do algebra at the same time—to join his team. William was deferred to Bobby Milner’s team. Bobby clucked his tongue in protest.
Mr. Marnet directed the teams to the nets. Joel’s team was to take on Bobby Milner’s team—and William Knight. “You know the rules.” Mr. Marnet’s voice rose and hung in the rafters of the ceiling. “Three hits per side, games to fifteen, you must rotate with each side out. And no spiking.” Most of the male students groaned at this.
The games started. Players knocking the balls back and forth over the nets. Joel made digs, he set teammates, he saved the ball from going out of bounds. At one point, while playing in the front row, Joel sent the ball over the net with a dramatic dig, the ball arching over the net, finding its way to William. William sent the ball climbing back over the net, floating it to Joel, and Joel found his competitive instincts overriding his control. He leapt from the floor, arm cocked like a gun’s hammer, the trigger pulling, his arm springing. Pow. With a hollow slap, the ball ricocheted off William’s face.
“Oh,” the students called as William dropped onto his rear. The class broke into nervous laughter. William held his nose. Blood sneaking from beneath his cupped hands.
“Joel,” Mr. Marnet said, “granted, it was a nice shot, but I plainly stated there was no spiking, remember?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Joel said.
Still holding his bleeding nose, William climbed unassisted from the floor. Ms. Maybree wandered over with two white towels. She tossed one to William and dropped the other on the floor, mopping up the scarlet drops with her foot.
“Little Willy Knightmare,” Mr. Marnet said, “you okay?”
William didn’t answer. He tried taking the towel from his face, but with a new spatter of blood dropping to the floor, he returned it to his nose.
“Why don’t you have the nurse look at that,” Mr. Marnet said as Ms. Maybree shuffled over with the towel, still on the bottom of her foot, and mopped up the new puddle of blood.
William walked across the gym, swimming through the deafening silence to the entrance and out the door.
By the end of Gym Class, Joel now in the locker room, William Knight’s resentful glare had buried into his mind like a harpoon. Why did this kid seem so mad at him? At least, why was he so mad before Joel clocked him in the face with a volleyball?
“Hey, man, you ready?” Guard tapped Joel on the back, breaking Joel from his thoughts.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m ready,” Joel said, shutting his gym locker’s door.
“You look out of it, man, you all right?” Guard said.
“Huh? Yeah,” Joel said, following his friend toward the locker room’s exit. “Hey,” he said, “hold up a minute. I want to talk to that William kid.”
“Please tell me you’re going over there to dope-slap him.”
“I just want to say sorry for cracking him in the nose.”
“Are you serious? You don’t owe that dickhead anything. If he had his hands up, he wouldn’ta gotten his face smacked.”
“Yeah, well, I can do without the bad karma.”
“Forget it. I just feel bad for giving him a bloody nose.”
“You gotta be kidding me. Look, you did the kid a favor. You taught him a valuable lesson.”
“What lesson is that?”
“That,” Guard said as if explaining the most fundamental of facts, “if something is flying at your face, you need to put up your hands and knock it away. It’s a lesson that will come in handy as more and more people’ll want to beat the snot out of him.”
Joel shook his head and walked off toward William. Guard followed.
In the back of the room, William slammed his locker’s door shut and turned to go. Joel’s looming form stopped him. William glanced at Guard and then glared at Joel.
“Hey,” Joel said, “sorry about…”
William cut him off, saying in a low, murmuring growl, “I’m William Knight.”
“Huh?” Joel said, stepping back and cocking his head.
“You remember that,” William said.
Joel stared at him. “Um, yeah, I know who you are.”
“And you always will,” William said.
Joel groped for a response. There was something he should say. But Guard beat him to it, saying, “What’s this freak talking about?” Guard cocked his thumb in William’s face, saying, “Get lost, before I give you another bloody nose.”
William shrugged and walked away, muttering something under his breath.
“What did he say?” Guard said to Joel. Joel shrugged, shaking his head. Guard saying, “Freak. I’ll force-feed him the whole equipment closet full of volleyballs. He’ll shit them out like a bitch havin a litter.”
But Joel wasn’t listening. He did hear the last thing William muttered as he had walked away.
“Sweet dreams, Joel.”
Continued in: Earworm: Part 44 — That’s It
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