Authors: Andy Behrens
For Mary Feltes
welve-year-old Kevin Pugh stood on the pitcher’s mound. He squeezed a large red ball. Perspiration had gathered in dark semicircles on his WYCR-TV T-shirt. The June sun seemed to be cooking him, like a bratwurst. Or an Italian sausage. Or a smoked cheddarwurst—he
missed those. For reasons unknown, his mom had switched to chicken sausage, which he violently disliked. He kept telling her that all encased meat is not the same, but she …
“Pull your shorts up, honey!”
Maggie Pugh’s voice cut into the quiet of the infield.
Kevin glared at his mom, who waved from the glossy green-painted stands. Kevin tugged at his droopy cargo shorts and bounced the ball in the dirt.
The print below the manufacturer’s logo read
OFFICIAL KICKBALL OF WAKA, THE WORLD ADULT KICKBALL ASSOCIATION
“Dorks,” Kevin muttered to himself.
, Gev!” snapped the second baseman through a giant wad of radioactive-looking neon green bubble gum. “ Uhduh-booty!”
He glanced over his left shoulder. His sister, Izzy (short for Isabella, which no one called her, ever), was clapping her hands and hopping, a black ponytail bobbing behind her. Lean and wiry, Izzy had an unusually steely glare for a ten-year-old. Izzy was a local Chicago Park District soccer legend, but her awe-inducing athleticism went well beyond soccer. Other than parents and a mailing address, Izzy and Kevin didn’t have a ton in common. Kevin needed a moment to interpret her gum-impeded speech.
, Kev! Attababy!” Izzy repeated, still inexplicably clapping.
Kevin shook his sweat-soaked shirt lightly to fan himself. A goose in left field honked.
“Time!” called a booming voice behind him. “Time out!”
Kevin’s shoulders tensed.
He heard his dad’s footsteps approaching from the shortstop’s position. Howie Pugh—former Chicago Bear, beloved WYCR football analyst, and local sports
demigod—was perhaps the most competitive human to ever walk the earth. No, the most competitive creature of any kind—mammal, sea slug, potted plant, whatever—to ever walk the earth.
Kevin wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand and turned slowly.
Howie wrapped an arm around Kevin, engulfing him.
“Get your head straight, Kev,” he said gruffly. “It’s the sixth inning. Bases loaded. Two out. The go-ahead run at home plate.”
Kevin scuffed his right toe in the dirt. “Thanks for the breakdown, Dad. I was expecting a hopeful sports cliché. ‘When your back is against the wall …’—that sort of thing.”
“Not an appropriate time for the sarcasm, Kevin.” Howie spat. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Um … for one thing, it’s like a million degrees,” Kevin said, staring into his dad’s eyes. “And if you haven’t noticed, they are now intentionally kicking at me, because I
at kickball and they know I won’t catch the ball. I thought we established that during last summer’s WYCR-WFRK Charity Challenge. If you don’t remember, I think there’s a DVD in the basement that documents—”
“Okay, all right,” said Howie, pausing awkwardly. “Just try your best, Kev.”
trying, Dad,” said Kevin.
“Okay, kid.” More aggressive spitting. “Then let’s talk strategy.” Howie spun his son around to face the next WFRK kicker. “
is Bradley Ainsworth Jr., the eleven-year-old son of six-time local Emmy winner Brad Ainsworth.”
Kevin stared toward home plate. Brad Ainsworth stood behind the hitting screen. A veteran sports-caster at local TV station WFRK, Brad looked like a carved pumpkin, with his orange-ish fake tan and eye black on his cheeks. He was quietly delivering instructions to the small, angry-looking boy standing in the batter’s box (or rather, the kicker’s box). The boy also wore eye black. He kicked up a small cloud of dirt, like a bull preparing to gore someone.
The Brads both glared at the pitcher’s mound, tilting their heads at the same angle.
“Big leg on this Ainsworth kid,” continued Howie. “His dad used to punt for Northwestern. We can’t pitch to him.”
“You want me to
an eleven-year-old?” said Kevin. “With the bases loaded? Is it even possible to walk people in kickball?”
Howie gripped Kevin’s shoulders, his mustache quivering.
“No Ainsworth is gonna beat us, Kev. Brad Senior’s got the top-rated drive-time sports radio
show in Chicago.” Howie stared at Brad Junior. “Besides, we’ve got a lead, and the next two batters are ladies. Easy outs. Go get ’em, kid.”
Howie slugged Kevin’s shoulder. Kevin wobbled. Howie jogged back to his position, clapping enthusiastically as he went. Kevin bounced the ball in the dirt and looked at a smiling Brad Junior. He bounced the ball again.
“C’mon, Kev!” chirped Izzy. “Goo ohg-eez chugs.”
Kevin translated faster this time.
You own these chumps!
The chugs own me
, Kevin thought.
Kevin stepped forward, the kickball swinging back in his right hand. He released it, aiming nowhere near the strike zone.
The ball, however, did not obey Kevin.
It rolled smoothly and cleanly toward home.
From somewhere between second and third base, he heard his dad mutter, “Oh, fer cripes’ sake, Kev.”
Just as the official kickball of WAKA arrived at home plate—in the fleeting millisecond before the kicker’s right leg hammered it—Bradley flashed Kevin a vicious smile. And then Kevin heard a sound like an M80 exploding inside a coffee can. He had just enough time to emit a small, helpless gurgle as the kickball whistled through the air. Directly at his face.
Kevin flew backward limply, hitting the dirt with a thud.
Spectators gasped. The goose in left field honked again.
“Kevin! Ball! Run!” Maggie, Howie, and the Brads were all yelling at once.
Slightly dazed, Kevin saw the ball spinning against the blue sky straight above him, like a red clown nose. It had ricocheted off his forehead, straight into the air. WFRK runners were circling bases. But if Kevin could simply catch the ball, the inning would end. No runs would score. Brad Junior would be out. And Howie Pugh would be very pleased.
“Get it, Kev!” yelled Iz.
Kevin stretched his arms toward the sky, his head resting in the dirt, his eyes squinting in the sun. The ball approached quickly. Kevin’s palms were up, his fingers spread. The kickball hit squarely in his hands …
… and fell right through them.
It hit Kevin in the face. Again. Then the ball skittered off toward second base.
Kevin closed his eyes. He heard the Brads snickering. People were running—some scoring, others trying to retrieve the ball. Kevin groaned.
Just stay down
, he thought.
And then he realized the worst part wasn’t the people laughing at him, or the score, or even the dull throb in his forehead.
They still only had two outs.
The inning wasn’t even over.
evin lowered a bag of ice from his forehead. He stared across the kitchen table at his father, who was noisily slurping down a diet root beer. Howie did all things noisily.
“Good game,” Howie said, smirking.
“Not an appropriate time for the sarcasm, Dad,” replied Kevin.
“Actually,” said Howie, “this is when sarcasm works
Izzy was idly juggling a balled-up sock. “It’s just too bad you didn’t stay in, Kevin. We totally coulda won.”
“I was wounded,” said Kevin. “Had to come out.”
Izzy threw her sock-ball at Kevin, who lunged out of the way.
reflexes earlier, Kev?” Howie asked.
“Not funny,” snapped Kevin, adjusting his bag of ice. “I could have been killed today. Or brain-damaged. I could be in a vegetative state right now because of kickball.”
Howie rolled his eyes. “That was pretty impressive, actually, getting hit in the face twice by the same kick. Is there somebody at
we could call?”
Izzy snorted, then attempted to stifle her laughter for Kevin’s benefit. She had retrieved the sock-ball and was propelling it toward the screen door that led to the Pughs’ backyard. It landed with a rattle against the aluminum frame.
“Anyway,” said Kevin, “I’m done with kickball.” He drummed his fingers on the textured glass of the kitchen table. “It’s dangerous.”
Howie leaned across the table. “Listen, anything’s dangerous if you’re not focused. You can hurt yourself picking your nose if you’re not paying attention, Kev.”
“This second grader Olivia got Pez stuck in her nose last year,” offered Izzy, removing her gum. “I saw her in the nurse’s office. They were totally digging in there with these giant tweezers.”
“In any case, Kev,” Howie went on, “I don’t care that we lost the game.”
Kevin rolled his eyes.
“Okay, a little. I care a little. But I was disappointed you weren’t
. You were sleepy out there.”
“I was wounded! That ball was like a meteor—it was like getting hit in the face with a flaming rock from space,” Kevin said. “After the impact, it said ‘W-A-K-A’ on my forehead.”
“No it didn’t,” said Howie. “From where I stood—running after the ball while you were just laying there—it seemed like maybe you’d given up, Kev.”
“That’s what it looks like when I play sports, Dad. It looks like defeat. I stink.”
“It kinda reminded me of when you were whacked in the face last summer,” said Izzy. “At my soccer practice.”
Kevin thought for a moment. He’d sat through many practices and had been hit by many balls.
“Oh,” he finally said. “You mean Maddie Siegel’s free kick? That was no big deal. More of a glancing blow.”
“It looked bad,” said Howie. “You seemed to suffer.”
“Still can’t believe you didn’t duck, Kev,” said Izzy. “That soccer ball was in the air a
“I do not respond well to flying objects,” he said, looking down. “Especially in sports situations.”
“So you say, Kev.” Howie stood, lifting his orange
and blue Chicago Bears T-shirt slightly to scratch the lower hemisphere of his round, hairy belly. Then he smiled. “But you’re a Pugh. We just gotta find the spark.”
?” asked Kevin.
Behind Howie, Izzy was standing on one foot, balancing the sock-ball on the other.
“Yup,” said Kevin’s dad. “The spark that ignites the fire that becomes the big screamin’ nuclear inferno of athletic dominance.” He swept behind Kevin and whacked his back. Kevin cringed in fake pain. “You’re a Pugh!” Howie stepped toward the fridge.
Kevin fussed with the ice in the bag. “I tried to catch the ball,” he mumbled.
“We shall speak no more of it,” said Howie.
Kevin reapplied the ice, eyeing an extra-large family-size bag of Blazin’ Cheese Curls on the counter-top. He was in that middle place of hunger where the desire to snack and the desire to not move are equal. He wanted the cheese curls, but not so much that he was willing to get up. If they were within reach, though …
Kevin’s mom swept into the kitchen with her BlackBerry pressed to her ear. Spotting an opportunity, Kevin muttered, “Mom, could you maybe gimme the chee—?”
Maggie casually tossed him the bag and flashed
him a quick grin. She tore through the kitchen in a blur, deftly avoiding Izzy’s whizzing sock-ball. Maggie nodded while speaking on the phone, a habit Kevin had always considered a waste of energy.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah …,” she said. “Yup … He’ll be there … Sure, he can wear a jersey. Home or away?”
She hung up and wrote
“6 p.m. @ Sports Hut, Tues”
on the dry-erase board that hung above a pile of soccer cleats and a nasty-smelling pair of Heelys (both Izzy’s). Managing schedules—mostly Howie’s—was basically a full-time job for Maggie Pugh. She examined Kevin’s forehead, smoothed his hair, said, “Poor dear,” and then left the room.
Kevin crunched his cheese curls and looked at the jam-packed board. Three of the columns—labeled
were completely full. Under his name, Kevin saw a dentist appointment and a haircut, both two weeks from now.