Authors: Joaquin Dorfman
Also by Joaquin Dorfman
Playing It Cool
By Ariel and Joaquin Dorfman
elly held the kid’s arms fast from behind the flagpole, didn’t have to tell the rest what to do. Zack, Cody, and a few of the other players were ready with the duct tape. Starting at the shins, they made their way up past his crotch, large hands surprisingly nimble as they wove Edmund into a gray, opaque cocoon. Edmund’s piercing cries were greeted with laughter and hefty catchphrases, lifted live and direct from any given football practice:
Go, man, go!
That’s it, hustle!
Let’s move it!
Come on, one, two, you got it!
And above that, the rip of duct tape unfurling. Soulless and dry, it seemed to fill every inch of the stadium. Empty bleachers, finely shorn blades of grass, all of them echoing with that same, rasping familiarity; even as Edmund’s screams lost traction, turned to meaningless, choking pleas for mercy.
High above them, the Stars and Stripes whipped soundly along with the wind.
It was late spring, and Patrick stood to the side, laughing along. Not from any substantial delight in the situation, but
more out of an unspoken duty toward it. High school had its rules, laws, hierarchy, and food chain. Absolute, and nonnegotiable, Edmund was simply part of what was and always would be.
And Kelly was on top of it all.
It took less than a minute and a half. Kelly’s teeth bit down, severing the roll of tape from its winding tail. Edmund was now strapped, immobile against the iron pipe. Patches of rust rubbed off on his neatly ironed white button-down shirt. Tears ran down his eyes, eliciting further peals of derision.
And Patrick was more than happy to join in.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Kelly announced, arms folded across his chest. From beneath well-toned muscles, the number 13 peeked out, green numbers against the white football jersey. He tilted his head, addressing Edmund directly now. “You can cry all you want, Eddie,” Kelly informed him. A frenzy of similar statements arose from his teammates as they fed off each other. “Believe it or not, we’re about to do you a real favor.”
The sprinkler system came to life, a resonance of soprano helicopters accompanying the spray of water.
Each one of Kelly’s teammates flinched.
Patrick did his best to take it like a man, but only Kelly truly stood fast against the drizzle. Dirty blond hair catching a bit of the water, letting it fall against his lightly sunburned face; blue eyes unconcerned. Steadfast; letting the water do what it had to do, splashing both him and Edmund; it was as close as they would come to being equals.
“We know what you saw,” Kelly informed him with calm,
easy words. “In case you were wondering what this was all about.”
Edmund must have guessed as much, launching into his defense: “I didn’t see anything! Believe me, I didn’t! Nothing!”
“Well, that’s just not true.”
“It is!” Edmund’s voice wheezed out, already sensing the futility. “It’s true, Kelly, I swear.”
“Hey!” Cody barked, stepping out just a bit from the rest of the group. His body was all muscle, almost incompatible with his short stature at a mere sixteen years of age. Detonation eyes under a mop-top haircut. “You keep lying, Kelly’s going to skin you alive, got that?”
“OK, thanks, Cody,” Kelly sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes tight while shaking his head. “I’m not going to skin you alive, Edmund. And sorry to insist that we
know what you saw, though I like what you’re trying to say. It’s a good step. I also figure you haven’t told Principal Sedgwick yet—”
“I haven’t!” Edmund insisted. Grinned manically, frantic hopes surfacing. “I haven’t!”
“Because if you had, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Which is also good.” Kelly gave Edmund a strangely reassuring smile coupled with eyes that didn’t quite agree. “Still, though, I’m afraid that’s not good enough…. We could really use your help here.”
A knowing chuckle was shared by all.
Kelly didn’t have to say another word.
The rest got to work, though the next part wasn’t as easy as planned. Their tape job had been a solid one, efficiency exemplified, and getting to Edmund’s belt called for an almost brutal display of force. He was wearing shorts, and as they reached under the web of duct tape, some leg hair had to go, brutally torn from its roots. Edmund screamed as Cody and Zack reached under, crawling upward, working against the adhesive. They unbuttoned his shorts, at which point Edmund must have realized what was about to happen, as he let go of all punctuation. Each shriek became a natural extension of the one before, not a breath taken anywhere between.
Patrick was struck with a sudden awe, his first time witnessing circular breathing.
Charlie Parker in his nightmares
, his angels whispered.
Edmund’s shorts were yanked down around his ankles. The white briefs beneath would have been enough to embarrass anyone, but this situation required something beyond the whole nine yards.
They sent his underwear down to join his shorts, and Edmund’s screams cut out all at once. One last dying echo was heard by the in-zone and then the helicopter sounds took over once again. Edmund was exposed. No way around it, though the rest did all they could to make sure he knew it. Pointing and laughing, doubled over in exaggerated delight, it was open house on Edmund’s private parts.
, Edmund shut his eyes tight as the sprinklers continued to make rainbows in the afternoon sun. His breath
began to slow, jaw working, as though trying to summon an invisible, ultimately imaginary force within himself; a desperate comic-book wish gone unanswered.
Kelly extended his arm toward Patrick.
Patrick complied instantly, moved with swift motions to ensure the camera’s safety.
“We’re going to take a little picture now, Edmund.” Kelly took a few steps back, positioned himself … no chance of the camera getting wet, screwing up this priceless moment. “You don’t have to smile or anything, just be yourself.”
Edmund’s eyes snapped open, and Patrick almost took a cautious step back. The fear was still there, the terror. But upon this traumatic foundation, something unexpected had taken hold: a pitch-perfect rage that seemed to radiate from Edmund in toxic waves. It was pure hatred. A dark plague that couldn’t possibly be coming from the same pathetic creature who moments ago could barely find it in him to scream at his own captors. And now his voice barely trembled under the weight of his own fury.
“I’ll kill you,” Edmund told them, Adam’s apple working. Grinding out the threat with little compunction. “I swear to God, I’ll kill you all.”
All at once, Patrick felt his resolve weaken. And, somehow, he could sense this same uneasy relapse poisoning the rest.
All except Kelly, of course.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” Kelly replied, improvising gracefully through this unscripted moment. “Do what you’re told, Edmund, and none of us has to die.”
He held the LCD screen up to his eye, and the deal was sealed with a click.
Edmund’s face regressed into its previous incarnation as the others returned to the fundamentals. Cocky smirks, unchecked swagger. Hyperactive taunts bringing comatose tears to Edmund’s eyes, allowing Patrick’s angels to bless him with their reassurance:
Everything as it always was and should always be.
“Cody!” Kelly called over his shoulder.
Cody ran over, grin painted with a fresh coat of excitement. He watched with wet lips as Kelly removed the memory card from the camera and handed it to him.
“Keep it secret, keep it safe,” Kelly ordered. “Like we discussed. No uploading, no test runs, even between us.”
Cody’s eyes narrowed. “Kelly, this is the only copy we have.”
“That’s just the point,” Kelly said, half turning to address Edmund, encapsulating all of them into the pact he’d forged. “It’s a matter of good faith.”
“He has to
us, Junior,” Kelly insisted.
A sour expression flickered across Cody’s eyes at the word
Kelly gave him an apologetic look, a compensatory slug on the shoulder. “Run home now, Mad Dog.”
A spoonful of sugar, and once the medicine went down, Cody did as he was told. Ran across the field, did a few rapid
hops, spins, all the while clutching at an imaginary football. He charged past the in-zone, bleachers, and over the chain-link fence, taking a shortcut to the parking lot.
Kelly turned back to Edmund.
He extended his hand toward Patrick, who quickly reclaimed his camera.
“There you have it,” Kelly said. “Cody’s gone. That picture belongs to him now; you’re never going to see it again. And neither will anyone else….”
Edmund began to struggle madly against his bonds. From fear to anger to pure, unhinged denial. With each fresh turn, the sprinklers offered just enough lubrication to aid in his final struggle. A few of the others allowed for worry, but as far as Kelly was concerned, it was all over.
“Tell Sedgwick what you saw, Edmund”—Kelly spelled it out with terrifying ease—“and that picture gets posted online faster than you can blink. We find out you told anyone else … you even tell
what you saw, and it turns up in everybody’s mailbox
Kelly didn’t wait for the OK.
Edmund’s thrashing had done its job. The water had sufficiently weakened the adhesive, and he broke free with a pathetic sob. Ripped through the duct tape and ran across the field, barely managing to hold up his shorts and white cotton briefs.
“Leave it,” Kelly said, raising his arm in response to his followers, assuring them there was no need to give chase. He
watched as Edmund stumbled his way toward a caged freedom, strands of duct tape streaming from him like an unraveling matinee mummy. “It’s all right … now he knows it.”
High fives and congratulations all around.
Kelly turned to Patrick and gave him an approving smile.
Patrick grinned in return, everybody’s watches set to the afternoon sunlight.
Kelly slipped out his fifty cents.
One quarter, then another, a ceremonious moment amid the swath of afternoon shoppers. Patrick stood to the side, watching with parallel reverence. Taking care not to stand too close, to give Kelly his moment with the fountain.
Kelly’s eyes narrowed, stared across the wet expanse dotted by jets of cascading water. Alongside the miniature geysers stood statues of frolicking children: pure bronze, elated expressions frozen in time. Scores of submerged wishes, quarters, nickels, dimes, surrounded their russet brown sneakers. Arms extended; chasing after each other, or perhaps an unseen bronze puppy that lay just beyond the boundaries of their wondrous bronze world.
All along the outdoor promenade of South Point Mall, people continued to stroll by, oblivious.
A conclusion was reached, and Kelly slipped one of the quarters over his thumb with rehearsed dexterity. He flicked his thumb in an extension of that same movement. The twenty-five-cent piece was sent through the air, glinting head over tails, a perfect arc resulting in a satisfying, isolated splash.
Patrick waited for a moment, then launched into their traditional follow-up: “What’d you wish for, Kelly?”
Kelly smiled slightly. “What would you have wished for?”
“I don’t know.”
Kelly pretended to consider this, then handed Patrick his second quarter. “How about you give it a shot?”
Patrick turned the coin over in his hand, regarded Washington’s head with suspicion. “What do you think I should wish for?”
“How about getting your ass off that wait list, and
Patrick paused. He knew the drill, what was expected of him. Even in his own head, he could see it playing out: him nodding, concentrating, and casting the suggested wish onto the waters. Just as they always had, since they were young enough to sacrifice penny bubble gum for the sake of a wish.
Instead, he found the quarter glued to his palm.
“I don’t know …” Patrick coughed. “I mean, you know…”
“No, I don’t,” Kelly replied, annoyed. “You want to come with me to Ohio State or not?”
“Of course …”
“I’m just saying.” Patrick shrugged, then began to negotiate. “How about the game? State championship on Friday, we’ve been waiting all year for this moment. How about I wish for—”
“Look, maybe if the season had actually happened when it was supposed to. Back in the fall, when a loss might have
a scout or two. But the season
postponed, I got into Ohio State, and
got wait-listed. Now which one of us needs a favor from God? You or me?”
“Well …” Patrick tried to match Kelly’s irritated tone. It came out sounding meek, almost wounded: “Maybe I don’t want any divine intervention in my life.”
“You don’t really get to choose that kind of thing.”
“Then what’s the point of the wish?”
“There is no
It’s just something we
, something we’ve always