T. C. Powell is a Los Angeles native now braving the rains of the Pacific Northwest alongside his beautiful wife and daughter. He loves both reading and writing all kinds of literature, and has been fortunate enough to have short fiction published by venues like Flash Fiction Online, New Myths, and Grimdark Magazine, as well as On The Premises in our previous issue. He has also had poetry published in the Christian Science Monitor, Strong Verse, and others. His woeful web presence can be found at http://tcpowellfiction.blogspot.com.
by T. C. Powell
Marshall stretched for the football as it flew overhead, willing his feet to stay on the right side of the white out-of-bounds line. The ball was sailing. He pushed on tiptoes, straining his gloved fingers. It would be close.
He had it on his fingertips, then secure under the first knuckles. Just had to keep his toes down for a split-second, the way Dad always told him, and—
Impact. From the side. The football flew from his hands and the world spun. Something (someone) had slammed full-force into his ribcage, rocketing him into the opposing team’s bench.
At first, he was only aware of the grass lodged in his facemask. Then there were cries from the stands (Dad). Then pain. Ribs, yes. Expected. One, maybe two, broken without question. But also pain in his leg. No, not pain, pain. His leg felt as limp and unresponsive as a marionette with its strings cut. Uh-oh.
Marshall tried to get up, but hellfire surged from his left knee into his heart. The brown sod under Marshall’s helmet deepened into a moonless night sky, dancing with stars and comets. He found himself locked onto one of those comets as it grew bigger to swallow his entire field of vision. A gigantic flaming thing, pulsing red and yellow with a tail stretching forever. It became the sun, beautiful and terrifying. He felt himself fall.
The third time Marshall woke, he was still in the hospital bed. His father was there with a football in his lap, eyes closed, like he was saying grace over Thanksgiving turkey.
Marshall tried to say hello. The words came out too husky and sounded unnatural, but it was enough.
“My son, my boy,” Mr. Reed said, standing from the waiting room chair and half-hobbling to Marshall’s bedside.
It was obviously night; the room’s lights were dimmed low, and only the light from the hallway let Marshall see his father’s face. Mr. Reed’s eyes were bloodshot and his face was covered in a salt-and-pepper stubble, which meant he wasn’t going into work. The factory had a strict policy about showing up neat.
“We win?” Marshall croaked.
Mr. Reed laughed, but it was not the full, open laugh Marshall was used to. “Yeah, you won. That catch you made set your team up. Ran it in, next play.”
Marshall tried to think back; the memories were fuzzy but still there. The hit on him was brutal, but legal, and he never had complete possession of the ball… so Dad was lying. The team had been down three scores anyways with just a few minutes left.
“There’s no way we won.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t stick around to find out.” Mr. Reed was crying, looking away to hide it, but the light from the window in the door reflected off of his tears.
Marshall looked down at himself, stretched out on the bed. White bandages around his ribs glowed ghostly against the dark skin peeking out from under the hospital gown, and his left leg was elevated in a sling, sealed in a cast. “Am I gonna make the Jackson Hill game?”
That was the rivalry game, biggest game of the year unless they made playoffs. Marshall was angry at himself for extending himself like he had and getting caught in that tackle. The game was a lost cause. He should’ve just let it go. Stupid.
“Well, what then? Can I come back for the end of the season? Playoffs?”
“No playoffs, son.”
Great, the entire year shot. That only left his senior season for impressing the college scouts. Sure, a few of the small places were already interested, and they’d forgive him missing some games, but the big name schools wouldn’t like it. Tennessee wouldn’t like it.
“I guess I’ll just have to dominate next year, huh?” Marshall smiled up at his father, but Mr. Reed wasn’t smiling back. Marshall felt his chest turn to ice. “Next year’s okay, right? I mean, my leg it’s…”
Mr. Reed walked from the bed and set the football down onto the waiting chair. Then he turned back and rested his hand on Marshall’s right foot, the healthy one. “This summer, I want you come to the factory with me and check it out. See if you like the vibe.”
The factory? No, that wasn’t the plan. Marshall was going to football camp over the summer, later on the University of Tennessee. After that, who knew? But, turning pro or not, the one place that he wasn’t going to wind up was the factory.
Just thinking about it made him remember Mom in the kitchen with her arms crossed, crying about how Dad wasn’t making enough, how she needed to get a job herself. How she thought it was going to be so different, with him in the NFL and her having the time to take care of Marshall.
It made him think about the football Dad kept at home in the glass case: a ball from an honest-to-god UT game, the one against Vandy where Dad tore up the tendons in his ankle. He wasn’t supposed to keep it, but did anyways. He called it his “game ball.”
Marshall looked at the football resting in the chair.
“Where’s that from?” he asked.
“You know where.”
A few seconds of silence passed. Then Mr. Reed spoke again, wiping his tears away. “Listen, I have to get myself cleaned up a little bit. You okay?”
“I’m not keeping it,” Marshall said. The football looked black in the shadows of the room and he could barely make out the stitching. at the edge of his mind, it reminded him of something (the comet), but he couldn’t bring it to mind. “I don’t want it.”
Mr. Reed hesitated in front of the restroom door. “Maybe not now, but we’ll hold onto it for a little while and see what you think in a year or two.”
“Why? What’s the point?”
Mr. Reed looked Marshall in the eyes. “Ten, twenty years from now, out of all those other kids on the field tonight… one, maybe two, will still think about this game from time to time. The rest will have moved on to their families and careers. But you? You’ll be going up for that damn catch every single night. This game was your game. It always will be. That ball belongs to you.”
With that, Mr. Reed stepped into the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind him.
Marshall lay in bed, the room dark and still around him, and concentrated on the black shape on the chair. The football. His game ball.
“Whatever,” Marshall said, and closed his eyes.
Marshall came home two hours late from his normal shift at the factory; they needed the overtime. Dinner was put away, but there would be a plate waiting for him in the fridge. His wife always made sure of it.
He took out the plastic-wrapped dish—pork chops, mashed potatoes and Gracelyn’s famous green beans—and a small tureen of gravy, and turned to the microwave on the counter, kicking shut the refrigerator door.
As the door closed, a shape standing behind it startled Marshall, and he almost dropped the gravy.
It was Devon, his eldest child, and only son. Devon had on his Titans jersey (Grandpa Reed’s Christmas gift). Already the boy threatened to outgrow it.
“Hey Dad,” Devon said. “You ready?”
Ready for…? Suddenly Marshall remembered that Devon had asked that morning if they could play some catch after Marshall got home. Marshall was tired, but he was always tired, what with the new baby girl and the extra shifts he was picking up at work. Also, even though it was eight, there would still be at least another half-hour of daylight. Marshall realized there were no excuses. No good ones anyways.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ready. I’m gonna put this stuff away. You meet me out there.”
“All right!” Devon said, suddenly enthused. He shot out of the kitchen, leaving Marshall standing there with his leftovers.
Marshall laughed to himself and put the food back. It would still be there later, after all. Then he gathered a couple of battered gloves and a baseball from the front closet and went out to the backyard.
Devon was waiting at the far end of the grass. He held a football.
“No,” Marshall said. Dropping the ball and gloves, he turned to go back into the house. “I’ve told you, Devon—”
“But, Dad, I want to learn how to play. Grandpa said you could teach me, that you were really good.”
Dad. How could he? “I don’t play football, son. Neither do you. Now do you want to throw the baseball around, or should I go have dinner?”
“Fine. Go ahead. But next year is middle school and there’s a team. I’m gonna try out.”
Marshall hovered in the doorway, staring at Devon in the yard. The boy looked so pure holding that ball. So natural. Even at eleven years old, the fading summer light made him out to be some kind of a colossus, his shadow almost stretching all the way back to the doorstep.
In the sky above, the first star had just appeared. So many people in so many places would look up to that star and put their wishes on it, their hopes and their dreams. Marshall looked from it back down to his son, a reckless would-be hero ready to take on the world, not knowing how impossibly big the world really is, how unforgiving. Icarus came again and again, it was the way of things. But did it have to be his son, too? Did it have to be Devon?
Even across the yard, he could meet his boy’s eyes. And, once he did, Marshall knew.
“Wait here,” he said.
Marshall scooped the gloves and ball from the ground and ran them inside the house. A few minutes later he returned, carrying a football still covered in dust from the recesses of his closet. For years it hid in the darkness, only occasionally catching the corner of his eye, lurking like an enormous spider. In the twilight, it regained some of its natural color. It came back to life.
“You mean you have your own ball?” Devon asked. “You won’t let me play, but you have your own ball? That’s not fair.”
No, it wasn’t, Marshall realized. Better, perhaps. Safer, for sure. But not fair. Come what may, every child of the earth deserved to fly as high as his wings would carry him. “Put that thing down,” he said. “We’re gonna play with this one. This here’s my game ball. It’s from the most important game of my life.”
Clearly impressed, Devon didn’t say anything, but knelt down and set his own football onto the grass.
“Now the first thing I want you to do is to cup your hands in front of your chest, like this.” Marshall tucked the football under his arm and made an ‘o’ shape with his hands, to demonstrate.
Devon duplicated the position. Marshall nodded, then raised his arm as if to pass, holding the football above him like a sword. “You catch with your fingers, got it? Not your hands, your fingers. And no matter where the ball goes, keep your toes on the grass, one foot at least, two if you can. You ready?”
Devon said that he was. Marshall knew that he wasn’t.
Marshall threw the ball.
Copyright 2016 by T. C. Powell