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Out of the Blue
In January, I noticed an ad for a short story contest, the day before it was to begin. On a whim, I entered, even though short stories aren’t my thing. I was assigned a genre (mystery), subject (decoding a message) and character (a beggar) and given eight days to write a 2,500-word story. Naturally, I sat down and wrote it three hours before deadline. I found out the results this week (honorable mention) and received some nice feedback. Here’s the story, titled “The Lost Football,” partially shortened for space. I’m still doing research on answering the question I posed last week: “Are all women crazy?” Stay tuned.
The evening mists drifted in lazily, settling into the hollows of the muskeg, filtering the last rays of the dying October sunset.
“…and the crowd goes crazy. That’s six touchdowns today for the Minnesota Marksman. He can’t be stopped.”
The boy pushed up his wire-framed glasses – the battle was constant to keep them on the bridge of his narrow nose – squinting at the prone milk jug that was his target, the crowd still cheering wildly in his head. He barely felt the dampness of the brisk autumn air nor did he notice the growing layer of frost on the ground that numbed his soaked feet, pinched in the second-hand soccer cleats he had found for a quarter at a garage sale.
Running his hand through his lank blonde hair, he scanned the trees and piles of moss for his beloved football, the last gift his father had given him before he left – again. They were sending him to Af-Ghan-Is-Tan this time, to keep the peace, he said. That was two years ago.
One year ago, he was handed a folded-up flag as he stared stoically at the coffin that held the body of his real hero. He had lots of other heroes, the guys who flung around the pigskin on Saturdays and Sundays as he sat crosslegged, transfixed in front of the tiny 21-inch screen, warding off the incessant distractions of his little sister and her dolls.
He hadn’t cried that day. He had never let anyone see him cry, not even his mom. But many mornings he woke up to hot, bitter tears as he lay in his quiet bed, begging God to bring his daddy back to life.
One crept into the corner of his eye right now, and he quickly wiped it away with his sleeve. He was next the milk jug now, which he propped back up on the log. Still no sight of the football, and the trees which served as his cheering audience were silent.
“Where could it have gone?” he thought as he picked his way through the brush behind the log. The sun had slipped below the unseen horizon and the gloom deepened.
His heart nearly stopped. From behind a sparse jackpine, a wraith appeared in the fog, holding his football.
In the distance, he could hear his mom’s voice plaintively summoning him home for supper. The figure took another step toward him, a hacking guttural cough the only sound, extending the ball toward him.
The boy ran.
Four days later, the nightmares stopped, and he finally found the courage to return to his refuge, his little clearing in the midst of the swamp a quarter-mile behind their tiny house.
He found safety in his books for those days, ignoring the taunts of “four-eyes” and “where’s your baby football” and other crueler epithets from the bullies at school. He read – for probably the tenth time – a biography of the fearless Daniel Boone and his exploits in the wilderness. He read a book called “Lost Legends of the Gridiron,” which profiled would-be stars that never were after lighting up high school scoreboards.
It was a brilliant, crisp fall afternoon, the sun the only object in a pale blue sky as the boy picked his way down the narrow trail he had hacked with his machete earlier that summer. He reached the clearing in five minutes, but stayed out of sight for another five as he surveyed it. Only the chirps of birds and chattering of squirrels could be heard. A hawk circled high overhead before diving down below the tree line carrying swift, sharp death to a four-legged creature below.
The boy had decided that he had not encountered a ghost – he didn’t believe in such things – nor was it an animal. Animals don’t have opposable thumbs to hold a football, and they don’t walk upright. Could it be Bigfoot? He reasoned that any pictures he’d seen in books about Bigfoot did not show the creature wearing clothes.
Despite his panic, his memory recalled that the figure had worn a ragged long coat with a hood that along with the wild, matted brown hair nearly obscured its face. And those eyes, that’s what gave him the nightmares. Those dull gray eyes with no light behind them. He shivered involuntarily, not from the chill in the air.
He couldn’t see his target, the log and the milk jug, from where his trail emerged, and he reassured himself as he crouched by touching the handle of the machete in his belt. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the open.
Eighty feet away to his right, he could see the top of the milk jug. Looking around, he stealthily made his way towards it. As he neared it, he could see his football teed up in the crook of two dead branches. He picked up his ball and tucked it under his arm, and started to back away slowly. His heartbeat sounded in his head as he half-expected the figure to pop out of the trees at any moment. All he could think of is leaving this place forever, the place where he had found so much peace away from the neighborhood bullies and his mom’s melancholy and his sister’s steady insistence on playing with him.
Conflicting feelings of sadness, anger and fear collided as he fought the urge to run back through the woods as he had four days ago. He had burst through the front door, welts and scratches on his ruddy cheeks from his headlong plunge through the woods. He was silent when his mom demanded to know what happened; mute when she asked him where his football was.
Well, he had it back now. It was time to go. Yet he lingered.
Who was that man? Where did he come from?
He set the ball down in the crook of the branches and pulled out his machete. Daniel Boone wasn’t scared.
Three blue plastic tarps hung over a makeshift frame of branches. The boy had lost track of how far he had trekked through the morass of moss and broken trees before he came across the crude campsite. The blackened remains of a campfire surrounded by a jagged semicircle of rocks were a few feet from the flap that served as the door to the lean-to. There was a rabbit pelt stretched out on a particularly large stone and a couple of bones near what looked like a spit.
The boy called out. “Hello, mister. Are you here?”
A squirrel darted up a nearby tree and scolded him from his perch. Otherwise, there was no answer.
Pushing up his glasses with his forefinger, the boy pulled back the flap. On the ground, there was another tarp covered by a layer of hay. A soiled sleeping bag was rolled up in a corner with two blankets folded neatly on top of a three-foot square piece of card board. An old oil lantern was in another corner next to a black garbage bag.
The boy knelt next to the bag and opened it. There was a stack of books inside, all wellthumbed. He recognized a Bible and read the other names on the worn bindings: Hawthorne, Poe, Dickens, Cooper. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of some writing on the cardboard. Carefully moving the blankets, he read the black block letters: “WILL WORK 4 FOOD.”
He stood bolt upright when a branch snapped some yards away, frozen with fear. It clutched at his throat. His heart was a jackhammer. He couldn’t breathe.
“You’re white as a ghost,” his mom said as she spooned beef stew into his bowl on their small round dining table.
“You feeling alright?”
“Booooo!” his sister giggled hysterically, disappearing from the room.
“Yeah, mom. I’m just tired is all,” he mumbled as he shoved a spoonful into his mouth.
“You haven’t seemed yourself lately,” she said. “Ever since you came home that night with those scratches on your face…”
He pushed himself away from the table, his nonexistent appetite and her nosiness impelling him to his bedroom. He nearly tripped over his sister as she came back into the room with a pillowcase draped over her head.
“Guess what I am?” she said as she nearly ran into the stove.
He tried to laugh at her ridiculousness as he escaped, his mom’s voice trailing after him to finish his dinner. He threw himself on his bed, trying to calm his thoughts.
Who was the man staying a mile back in the swamp?
When he had finally unfrozen himself enough to creep out of the tent, he had found himself alone: no sign whatsoever of whatever it was that had snapped the branch. He had found his way back home in time for the supper he wasn’t interested in.
His fingers felt the corners of the pin he had found in the tarp. It said State Champions, the “o” a football. He knew he shouldn’t have taken it and guilt clawed at him until he finally drifted off to sleep, his dreams infested with a hooded, bearded man doing touchdown dances before an adulating crowd of hovering trees.
He got up early the next morning and rummaged through the barren fridge. He made two lunchmeat and mustard sandwiches and put them with an apple, two carrots and three homemade chocolate chip cookies in a paper lunch sack. He wrote a note saying, “I’m sorry I took this” and put it with the pin in the bag.
He quietly let himself out of the house, knowing his mom would be up shortly to get him and his sister up for Sunday School. He’d fidget that whole hour, anxious to get home for football, but not today. His mom would be angry, he knew, but she’d forgive him eventually just like she always forgave dad when he stayed out late.
When he arrived at the campsite, again he announced his presence. Again, he was greeted only by an overexcited squirrel. It didn’t look like anything had moved since he had been there the day before, so he left the sack on top of the sleeping bag, walked back home and plopped down in front of the TV to watch the pregame shows.
When his mom and sister got home, she squawked at him for a while. She threatened him with not being able to watch football next Sunday if “you ever pull a stunt like that again” before leaving him alone. His favorite team lost by a field goal because of a terrible call. He could imagine his dad yelling at the TV, but he took it in in silence, wishing his dad was there with him to commiserate; that they were watching it on a lot bigger TV in a lot nicer house, like they used to have.
After school the next day, the boy packed another meager lunch and hiked back to the campsite. The sack was gone, but there was a sign printed on another scrap of cardboard.
“LEAVE ME ALONE.”
Nevertheless, he left the lunch and returned home.
He did the same every day that week. The man was never there though the sign remained, but the lunch was always gone.
On Saturday morning, his mom caught him. He explained that he got hungry when he went out in the woods. He felt guilty lying to her, but felt certain if he explained himself, that she would forbid him from doing what he was doing.
“So that’s why you haven’t been hungry for supper,” she said knowingly. “You’re just like your father.”
He saw her eyes moisten as she quickly turned away.
It was snowing lightly that morning, a dusting clinging to the branches and moss as he made the now-familiar trip to the campsite.
The message on the cardboard was different this time. It wasn’t the usual block letters, but rather in shaky script. It said, “I’m fine.”
An east wind was blowing the snow sideways and it sent the sign spinning to the straw floor as he entered the shelter, leaving it words up but flipped around.
Bending over to pick it up, the boy read out loud, “save me.”
The crowd was boisterous. Less than a minute remained on the scoreboard clock. The quarterback was under center calling out signals.
The next moments played in slow motion for him. The dissipating vapor of the linemen’s breaths. The five-step drop. Number 99 coming around the backside. The receiver’s buttonhook that left him standing there on the goal line like a milk jug on a log. The delivery right before the hit. The “whoosh” as the air left his lungs. Looking sideways from the turf as the ball wobbled in the air. The catch.
“Touchdown!” screamed the public address announcer.
He was hauled to his feet as his head was pounded by his teammates.
“You did it!”
“You the man.”
He glanced at the scoreboard. Opponents 44, Home 6.
The only pass of his high school career: a touchdown. His team hadn’t won a game all season.
He looked in the stands easily picking out his mom out of the small group of maybe a hundred shivering fans. She beamed at him. Below her, his sister waved her pom-poms and skipped up and down joyously.
His gaze swept to the back corner of the end zone, where a solitary man leaned against the fence, nodding slowly.
He had brought that cardboard sign home.
He woke up early the next morning and woke up his mom and told her everything. They brought his sister to the neighbor’s house and trudged together through the six inches of accumulated snow to the campsite with a thermos of hot coffee and more food.
They found a man more dead than alive.
“Pneumonia,” the doctor said.
For days the boy sat vigil by the man’s bed, listening to him gasp, his eyes opening at times, uncomprehending. But the boy noticed that light was returning to those eyes. The boy read to him from the books from the garbage bag.
One day, the man was well enough to go home. Only he had no home, other than one of three tarps and a floor of hay, so his mom made him a room in the basement. To help him get a job, she took the man to a barber, and to the boy’s amazement, he recognized one of the “Lost Legends of the Gridiron.”
“You know,” the man told him once. “If I hadn’t met you, I’d be dead right now. And I’d have been happy about that. I wanted to die.
“I was too proud to ask anyone for help. Then you and your football came along. You got my message, even though I wasn’t trying to send it.”
Brian Miller lives in Eveleth, MN. He welcomes auspicious letters as well as scathing reviews at email@example.com.