Sunday, September 13, 2015

21: The Beautiful Game

            The psychovore hoodie lurked menacingly on the table beside his cot.  God, thought Jason, how I hate that thing.  It was the perfect combination of ugly, uncomfortable, and impractical.  It killed his peripheral vision when he was hunting, it made him sweat like a hog, it was impossible to keep clean, and it smelled like the inside of a fish.
            It’s not about me, though, he thought.  What would Will think, if you stopped wearing it?  What would―his heart skipped a beat―what would Emily think?  They’d think he regretted saving them, of course.  They’d think he didn’t care about them.  That he didn’t love them.
            Jason stooped to pull on his athletic boots, the ones with the crude metal cleats.  But I do love them, he thought.  Will, who took a spear through his heart, and then refused to do the same to me.  He’s made of mercy and miracles.  His soul flies like nothing I’ve ever seen, and he can reincarnate faster than anyone we’ve ever heard of.  It’s not even hard for him!  What sort of person must he have been?
            And her. Yes.  Her.  Beautiful.  Smart.  Fearless.  The perfect woman.  How can she not know how incredible she is?  How can she waste herself on the likes of Ammerman?  She could do anything, be anyone!  Everyone loves her!  I love-
And Jason thought of a golden ring with a blue stone in it.  And he thought of a smear of blood on that stone.  Not Emily, Jason thought, his teeth gritting.   NEVER Emily
So he made himself think about someone else.  About Will!  Today was about soccer!  Today was his little bro’s introduction to the Beautiful Game!  Today, Will would learn about the purest, truest thing Jason had given this community.  And Will would be a star!  Jason just knew it.  Will would harness the ability which had made him so unbelievably fast in soul-form, and the grandstands would cheer him, and he’d look at Jason and smile in gratitude.  And the crowd would cheer for Jason, too, remembering that when Will had come to Haven, it had been Jason who’d saved him.
Everyone will be happy.  Jason beamed as he laced up his boots.  This is gonna be a great day.

            This is gonna suck, Will thought.
In the week since his second incarnation, Jason had been overcompensating.  He had turned his desire to make up for killing Will into something of an obsession.  In truth, Will didn’t hold the incident against him―at least, no more than would have been the case for the victim of any accidental homicide.  If you really looked at it, Will figured, the whole incident had been mostly his own fault.  But Jason doesn’t see it that way, thought Will, ruefully.  Jason feels guilty.  And when Jason feels something, he doesn’t feel it halfway.  He’s going to make it up to me if it kills him.  And me.  Again.
Jason had decided, in the days since the town meeting, that Will was his “little bro.”  Hence, it was important that all Jason’s friends be Will’s friends as well.  And Jason being Jason, his friends were everybody, whether they liked it or not.  Jason hadn’t so much introduced Will around town as rammed him down the throat of everyone they came across.  It had become kind of terrifying.   People Will hadn’t met yet would see the two of them coming down the street and flee, as if they were an inbound natural disaster.  Every night, Will went to bed sore from all the backslapping, noogies, and other borderline-fatal gestures of brotherly affection. 
Today’s episode of the Jason Redemption Tour promised to be a doozy.  Jason was, of course, a ridiculous athlete.  The only thing that makes him happier than sports, Will had thought, is killing things.  Well, things other than me.  And it so happened that the single thing that Jason remembered from his terrestrial life, the single precious memory that had etched itself upon his soul, was soccer.  He was the only person in Haven who remembered the laws of the game in their entirety.  Within weeks of his arrival, he had trained a compliment of referees in the game’s rules, and had introduced the community’s better athletes to its finer points.  Will gathered that the players themselves were quite fond of the game; the reaction from the community as a whole was less unanimous.  In any event, today, at Jason’s insistence, Haven would celebrate Will’s incarnation with a soccer match, and Will and Jason were to serve as co-captains of the Blue team.
Looking out at the players warming up on the field, Will’s doubts about the wisdom of the scheme were beginning to grow.  There weren’t many residents of Haven who rivaled Jason in stature, athleticism, or sheer bloody-minded aggressiveness.  Those people, however, had all showed up to play.  There were Corey and Dave, for instance, recent arrivals, a pair of big, loveable long-haired galoots who had arrived in Haven remembering nothing except how to play electrically amplified musical instruments.  Finding those in short supply, they had taken up killing things as an alternative, and had picked up the skill with astonishing speed; it was as if they’d been doing it all their lives. There was Antonia, and Orson with his horrible teeth.  Buck was there, smiling broadly as always, as was the recently resurrected Yvette.   There were Big Nancy and Big Jeff and Really Big Angus, Red Dan the Poet and Ed Moriarity, Savage Randall and Hideshi, One-Eyed Dick and Blond Tanya and Black Joe.  Even Mean Drunk Ed, who lacked even the most basic social graces, but who was celebrated for his ability to hit things with a stick, had put in an appearance.   Will wasn’t the smallest guy on the pitch, but he wasn’t far from it, and he certainly wouldn’t have cared to take on any other participant in a bar fight.
Seeing Will standing on the sideline with a concerned expression on his face, Jason came jogging over to reassure him, and gave his little bro a pat on the back that sent him sprawling.  “You’re gonna LOVE this, man!  There’s nothing in the world like sports.  You never actually know what you’re capable of until somebody else brings it out of you.  And only the best opposition can make you YOUR best.  I mean, look at those guys over there!”  He gestured to the team in dyed red wool on the opposite side of the pitch; together, the two of them watched Antonia launch a split-kick that could have decapitated a horse.  “Aren’t they AWESOME?  I gave them all of the best players just to make it more fun for you!”
The referee signaled the twenty-four players to their places, sparking a wild round of apathy from the twenty-three people in the grandstand.  A little bald fellow with a Swiss accent had made an attempt to collect money for admission; the latest update from the doctors suggested that his prospects for recovery were excellent.  Looking at his teammates, Will reflected that even their uniforms hadn’t worked out according to plan; the dye had run badly, creating a sort of two-toned effect with a navy swatch to the left, a pale blue swatch on the right, and a crooked line dividing them.  The players took their positions, the referee blew his kazoo and dropped the inflated pig bladder, and Jason skillfully volleyed it back to Manuel, starting the match.
The plan, as Will understood it, was to maintain possession in their own half to start things, which proved successful right up until someone made the fatal mistake of kicking the ball to him.   He bent over to pick it up; Jason’s shouts of “No!  No!” reminded Will of his rules transgression, but his desperate, clumsy kick downfield was intercepted by an onrushing Orson, playing for the red team.  He volleyed to the other side of the field, where Dion from Ammerman’s workshop was making a run.  Dion was speed personified, possibly as fast on his feet as Will was in soul form.  He was almost all the way to the corner flag before Corey, playing defender for the blue team, wandered over and sort of randomly hip-checked him into a drainage ditch.
Corey kicked the ball long, and now the counterattack was on.  Moving swiftly into the path of the ball, Jason deftly touched it sideways to Manuel, the feebleminded drunkard from Luther’s, who had suddenly and inexplicably morphed into a slender young athlete of almost poetic skill.  He fielded the ball off of his chest, evaded a clumsy tackle from Antonia, let it drop to his foot, and went on a mazy, zig-zagging run through two sprawling defenders, then booted the ball skywards.  Darrell was moving underneath it; he crossed the halfway line just in time to drop into his crouch and catch the ball with both hands.
Popping out of his crouch, he fired the ball on a line to Buck.  The throw was low, but the big man gracefully scooped it from the dirt, faked a throw downfield, then lateralled it to Red Dan.  Mustachios bristling fiercely, Dan spotted Jason making a run down the middle, marked by Moriarity; he wound up and fired the ball sidearm.  It took a funny dip at the last minute, evading Moriarity’s diving attempt to deflect it; Jason caught it in the clear, raced in on goal, stiff-armed one goalkeeper, dodged the other, and ran straight between the posts, where he touched the ball to the ground, then raised both arms in triumph.  The referee twirled both white flags, signaling a goal, and Black Joe immediately took off from the corner flag towards first base.
Joe may not have been the biggest man in Haven, or the fastest man in Haven, but he was definitely the fastest big man in Haven.  As he rounded second base like a runaway freight train, Will was sure that his team was on its way to a second goal.  But Hideshi was quicker than he had any right to be; he plucked the ball off the ground where Jason had laid it and fired it over to the infield.  By the time Joe rounded fifth base and headed for home, Mean Drunk Ed was waiting for him at the plate with the ball in hand.  He fired it directly into Joes legs, sending him to the box for two minutes, caught the ball as it caromed back at him, and flung it ahead to Moriarity, who was already making a run at the basket attached to the right goalpost.
Will was running hard to intercept Moriarity―not that he’d have had any idea what to do with him had he caught him―when he saw Orson in his peripheral vision, making a blocking run at him.  Jason, seeing his little bro in peril, immediately abandoned his defense of the basket, shouting, “OH NO YOU DON’T!”; as Moriarity streaked to the hoop and dunked the ball through it for two goals, Jason went careening into Orson, both of them going down in a tangle of arms and legs.
By the time Will had recovered from his near-death experience and looked up, it was clear that the blue team’s carefully composed game plan had degenerated into chaos.  Leroy had gone running in way too quickly, as always; Gerard wasn’t making any attempt at all to defend the keystone against the other team’s racquetmen; Really Big Angus had abandoned the field entirely, and was eating a chicken leg on the sideline and chatting up a spectator.  Even as a newcomer to soccer, even as an inferior athlete, Will was appalled.  What about tactics?  What about subtlety?  People have no appreciation for the cerebral side of this game.
Suddenly there was a roar from the crowd, or at least a vague murmur of interest.  A terrified-looking young man in yellow had come running onto the field, a strip of yellow leather dangling out of the back of his pants.  The snitch was loose!  Moreover, he was angling away from the players pursuing him towards the opposite side of the field, where there was no meaningful threat to him, which was to say, where Will was standing.  Will gritted his teeth, lowered his head, and charged in recklessly; he reached out his hand towards the flag in the back of the kid’s pants, and made contact just as the pursuit caught up to the runner from the other side.  Will felt a shuddering impact and everything went black.
When Will regained consciousness, the referees were still in the process of untangling the pile of bodies, which were infinite in number and all directly on top of him.  Slowly, gradually, the pressure eased, the light increased.  Finally, there was only Will, flat on his back on the ground.  A massive cheer erupted from his teammates as they spotted the yellow flag, still clutched in Will’s grimy and possibly broken hand.

“Snitch catch!  We win!” roared Jason.  He hoisted Will up onto his shoulders, where he flopped around limply, emitting an occasional gasping squawk of triumph.  At length, as the two teams celebrated together and the spectators wandered off in search of something more interesting to do, Will was returned to the ground.  Jason grabbed him in a bear hug and shook him vigorously, intensifying the concussion which would leave Will in an infirmary bed for the next two days, and shouted, “What did I tell you, little bro?  Isn’t soccer GREAT?  I swear, there’s no sport like it anywhere.”

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