UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Wolverines meet the Fighting Mustangs on the gridiron. The Wolverines stand in shotgun formation. Blurry halos hang around the stadium lights. Ace Hardwell, the quarterback, has worked hard to get here: eating ten eggs a day to bulk up, the Coach always making him do ten more push-ups—and then ten more.
The Mustang defensive line hits the Wolverines, and continues. Ace Hardwell scrambles. The Mustang defensive line churns earth in pursuit. Ace backpeddles. He searches the stands. He sees the face of the Homecoming Queen. Her eyes are shielded. Thud. Ace’s body pinwheels. He fumbles. A Fighting Mustang grabs the ball and sprints to the end zone. Game Over.
The defensive line weighs heavy on Ace Hardwell. Ace Hardwell is the quarterback. He groans. He wonders if the scouts have come tonight and if a scholarship to State U. is even possible, if a picture of this scene will grace the school newspaper. His stomach hurts.
The Fighting Mustangs cheer wildly, led by Class President Dirk Steele. Dirk is a senior, Harvard-bound, but he has vowed to stay forever true to his school. Dirk is an Eagle Scout, a Junior Statesman, a third-degree black belt in extemporaneous speaking. Dirk waves his Mustang spirit card: Mustang Power! He catches Ace’s eye, unwinds a middle finger. Ace’s cheeks burn. But then Dirk drops the card. He looks up. Then Ace looks up.
Gunfire pockmarks the field.
The Mustang marching band scatters. A bullet has felled the Mustang mascot as he pranced across the field. He is dead, his red Mustang emblem hiding the blood.
People search for a gunman. Some flee to their cars. Others call for calm. Security guards hold up their hands like magicians proving they’ve got nothing up their sleeves. The crowd fumes. Someone withdraws a rocket launcher (semi-legal in four states and Guam). The Wolverines’ football team, save their quarterback, disappears. Much screaming ensues. More guns are withdrawn.
Order is restored, slowly.
* * * *
The next week at Thomas Jefferson High School, home of the Wolverines, things are different. (The Wolverines have lost homecoming. Many have died.) The teachers huddle in their lounges, stale cigarette smoke drifting up from locked doors. The Principal cries nonstop at her desk. Her PhD in Adolescent Education is not equal to this situation. At noon she is taken away by smiling men in white coats. The students mill about the school, shaking their fists at the sky. Ace Hardwell waits in fifth period Geometry for a teacher who does not arrive. Ace is concerned. The Homecoming Queen has not returned his calls. He hops in his hatchback and drives. Two Fighting Mustangs in an SUV sideswipe him. The hatchback’s driver’s side wilts. Glass shatters. Hardwell’s face is bloodied. The large Mustang drags Ace from the car, tears his blue letterman jacket. The larger Mustang’s arm sags from the heft of a Louisville slugger. Ace shields his face. Thump.
Hardwell is hurt, but Hardwell is the quarterback. Pain is the quarterback’s friend. Hardwell rolls off the car. His teeth sink into the large Mustang's thigh. He dodges the Slugger's next blow, then squeezes the larger Mustang's sack until the Mustang yelps. Ace yanks away the bat. The Mustangs freeze. Ace Hardwell completes the job.
News of this deed spreads like a plague. Ace is the Mustangs’ nemesis. He is the savior of the Wolverines. The Homecoming Queen will again wear his pin.
The Principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, home of the Fighting Mustangs, calls an emergency meeting at Gettysburg Auditorium. The Principal is a reasonable man. The auditorium is newly built, a great brick building with vaulted ceilings and uncomfortable chairs. He invites the parents, the fire department, others who have not yet left the town.
At 8:00 p.m. the parents arrive. They wear fine black suits and smart skirts made of silk. They wear expressions of grief and horror like characters drawn from Dante’s Inferno. And then come the police, the fire department, members of clergy. The university professors bring notebooks, calculators, and a cache of freshly sharpened #2 pencils.
A gangly Wolverine with a screwdriver hides in the bushes outside, his Tetrahedral Dice Live! T-shirt damp with sweat. His black-rimmed glasses mist over.
Gettysburg Auditorium is full, near to bursting. The Principal addresses the audience: Friends, citizens, members of the PTA, please give me your attention.
The University professors agree that there is a problem. A thin professor explains that the problem exists because of the popularity of sport-scented deodorant. A fat professor explains that over the course of human history this problem has always been present. Sometimes it gets better. Mostly it gets worse. People should just pay their taxes, and ignore it. The professors come to blows. While the professors trade punches, the clergy section casually point up. The parents look at their watches.
Order, the Principal calls. Order.
An explosion rocks Gettysburg Auditorium. Bricks tumble down, the ceiling falls like a stone, creating a great cloud of dust. Those not killed, flee. The high schoolers remain. These are the best years of their lives.
The gangly boy with the screwdriver explains that it was an accident, a practical joke that went too far. Ace Hardwell does not believe the Nerd, but he understands that the Nerd possesses valuable knowledge about computer games and explosives.
The Wolverines strip XXX-L Video. They raze S-A-T Spells Success. The words Permanent Record cease to have significance. The drama club disappears. They leave a pile of sweatpants and moth-eaten flannels. They take a Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook. A few thespians are last seen wandering over to Wong Fat’s Martial Arts Supplies.
One night the Wolverines are dancing around the final keg of True Milwaukee taken from Quicker Liquor. They frolic on the baseball diamond. They twist, grind, and slither to the beat of electronic, syncopated drums. Ace Hardwell lazes in the Principal’s Office, the Homecoming Queen by his side. He glances out the window. A phalanx of Fighting Mustangs is attacking the school. They wield crossbows and maces from the Medieval Means Fun club. Dirk Steele waves a spirit card: Wolverines, Die!
Overwhelmed, the Wolverines run, try at least to put the few remaining beers in their pockets. They take what they can while the Mustangs take their lives. The surviving Wolverines withdraw to the hills outside of town. They use spare campus newspapers as blankets. They live off powdered mashed potatoes smuggled from the cafeteria. Morale is low.
The moon casts a bleak pall over the woods as Ace marches into the forest, ball in hand. He passes thick trees with leafless branches stretching upwards like nerve endings. Advancing over brambles, football tucked under his arm, he must keep moving, keep deciding. Inaction his only enemy. Woods give way to meadow. Damp grass clings to his legs.
Ace stands, lost. A dark form materializes from the shadows. He prepares to bolt into the forest, but then grips the ball. He can cover the distance. Right arm cocked, he bullets the football. The ball spirals into a ninja’s face, tears off its hood. Ace runs to inspect the fallen. A girl—acne-stained face, gold hoop through her nose.
Other ninjas appear. They chant: Beware the ides of March. O Judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts. When you’re a Jet... They kick, shake, groove, stab at the air. Snap. Snap. Snap. Their voices blend into a bolt of sound, hovering over the treetops, crackling.
Ace stands firm, remembers the day he was made team captain. But at homecoming why didn’t he simply toss the ball out of bounds?
The ninjas move closer.
Ace takes flight into the forest. The ninjas pursue, but Ace Hardwell is the quarterback. The ninjas are high school actors.
Leaned up against a tree, sucking in air, everything clears. A quarterback is the heart of the team, the one who must stare down adversity. Ace should’ve known that a man like Dirk Steele would never conscience a ruined auditorium, should’ve seen into the dark nature of the drama club that would lead them to become ninjas. Some things, though, must remain silent for the benefit of the team.
Ace returns and consults the Nerd. For many days he is busy with his screwdriver.
The Wolverines are impatient. The woods are not a place to express their newfound freedom. They lack booze. On salted snack foraging parties, a pair of Wolverines vanishes. Rumors circulate: sinister figures singing about Oklahoma. Members of the tennis team talk about transferring to a private school.
Ace gathers his flock. They ask Ace why he has betrayed them, failed to protect in their moment of need. And the dark figures? Fighting Mustang trickery, Ace says. An incarnation of their fear. He curses the Mustangs and promises revenge, and more liquor, even a cheeseburger. The Wolverines lick their lips.
Ace unveils his plan. They will mount a full frontal assault, led by the Yearbook Staff. The Yearbook Staff is unsure. Who will record the deeds of the Yearbook Staff if the Yearbook Staff should fall? Ace Hardwell tells them that history will remember. History. They will collect the remaining liquor, mostly peppermint-flavored mouthwash, and place it at the front of the school. Then they can run.
The next day, sun at their backs, the Yearbook Staff storm Thomas Jefferson High School. Cameras bob at their neck as they chant, Wolverines, ho! A crossbow bolt strikes the kid voted most likely to be on the Yearbook Staff. Molten lead scorches the girl who wrote witty photo captions: Is it hot in here? A husky girl who also played water polo drags the liquor to the row of doors. She, too, falls.
But while the Fighting Mustangs have engaged the Yearbook Staff, the Nerd has performed technical operations. Ace Hardwell waits in the bushes, hoping to have calculated correctly. Within minutes the first Mustang arrives, ducking out of the Attendance Office.
The Mustang looks both ways, slides on his belly, then stands once again. He is upon the pile. He claws open a bottle of the blue, minty liquid. He guzzles it. The Fighting Mustangs stampede the liquor. Within minutes they’re singing: Mustangs, Mustangs, Wild and Free! They join arms, their eyes glassy, their sinewy frames gone slack.
Dirk Steele runs between them, waving his arms, shouting, To arms Mustangs, to arms!
An explosion rocks Thomas Jefferson High School. The Mustangs are dead. The Wolverines whoop and raise their arms. Ace mourns the loss of the Yearbook Staff. (The Yearbook Staff was expendable.) He compliments the Nerd. (The Nerd is not.) A Wolverines stalwart greets the Nerd without irony. Others follow. But a gnarled shape inches away from the rubble.
Ace inspects his deed. He steps over busted flashbulbs. He leans over to inspect the ruins. Rip. He groans. A dagger has pierced his right shoulder. Ace turns. It is Dirk Steele. One hand is missing. The other hand didn’t know how to use a knife.
Dirk’s eyes lock onto Ace’s. Sic Semper Tyrannus! Dirk yells.
Ace’s face remains blank. They do not teach Latin at Thomas Jefferson High School. He throws Dirk to the ground and hoists his foot above Dirk’s cowering body.
Please, Dirk begs. Please.
Dirk’s neck pops like a zit.
At Thomas Jefferson High School, the party commences. They praise the leadership of Ace Hardwell. They praise the cleverness of the Nerd. They drink a concoction of fermented canned peaches and boiled potatoes. The school is out of cheeseburgers. Hardwell is happy, but no matter how much he drinks his shoulder burns.
Ace enters the Nurse’s Office. The Homecoming Queen lies on the desk, her legs an upward pointing V. The Nerd is on top of her, his glasses fogged over.
Hardwell shakes his head. He clenches his fists. He wheels around and strides back to the hallway. The fluorescent lights crackle and buzz.
While Ace walks, head down, the Nerd runs from the office. The Nerd yells Ace’s name, brandishes a screwdriver. Does Ace know what it’s like to be the Nerd? Does Hardwell realize what it’s like to live without the respect of the school, to be looked upon as an insect?
Ace turns and raises his hands. He explains to the Nerd that sometimes life isn’t fair and people are cruel. Ace moves closer. He explains that being the quarterback is sometimes difficult; the quarterback often gets tackled, a career crushed under the bulk of a defensive lineman. Ace moves closer. He explains to the Nerd that soon, when Ace’s shoulder gets better, he’ll teach the Nerd how to toss a football. Ace peers into the Nerd’s tiny, brown eyes.
The Nerd lowers his screwdriver. He smiles.
Ace bashes the Nerd’s head against a locker. The Nerd falls. He was necessary to preserve order, until he tried to alter it. The Homecoming Queen cries out, then turns away. Cracked glasses lay over the Nerd’s T-shirt: Who Ate All the Pi?
* * * *
Without the Mustangs, without the Nerd’s audiovisual skills, the Wolverines grow restless. Apathy and detachment drift through the school like rudderless barges. Ace organizes a co-ed softball league. Nothing. A group of pre-pubescent freshmen plan a grand quest in search of “parents.” The freshmen leave.
One is found dead, a blow dart lodged in his neck, a program for “Showboat” pinned to his back by a throwing star. Another freshman returns, crazed. South Pacific, he says. South Pacific. The madness.
Ace Hardwell spends his time in the gym’s trophy room, pacing around the award-filled cases, examining the gold-plated cups. The Homecoming Queen comes to meet him. She wears no make-up and ill-fitting jeans. She talks of empty labels, the need for education and awareness, the desire to make a difference, the need to set out into the world. She says he can join her, if he wants. Ace stares at old photographs of teams gone by, their confident smiles. How differently they wore their hair. He looks back and the Homecoming Queen is gone.
The Wolverines are losing. They fall in the shadows to Shakespearean soliloquies. They fall in the light under a hail of show tunes and shuriken. Until they’re gone. Without ammunition, without liquor, without the gentle caress and symmetrical face of the Homecoming Queen, Ace Hardwell paces the halls in his ragged letterman’s jacket, alone.
Hardwell retires to the gym’s equipment room. He does ten pushups and then he stops. The pain blasts through his shoulder. He gets up and opens a locker and pulls out a football. His arm has not healed, but Ace Hardwell is the quarterback. The quarterback plays in the snow, with a twisted knee or broken arm, even when the game is lost. Ace Hardwell grips the football, runs his hand over the stitches, stroking the dimpled leather. He tucks it under his arm and leaves the school.
Ace navigates through the rubble at the entrance. Long, gray clouds swim past the moon. He stops to stare at the distant hills silhouetted in the night. The air is chill, the wind biting through holes in his jacket. With his free hand he pulls a piece of dark cloth from a pocket. He peels off the jacket, letting it fall to the ground, along with the ball. Ace Hardwell slides on the black hood, and vanishes.Ethan Bernard lives in Queens, New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from journals such as Denver Quarterly, Barrelhouse and Word Riot.
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