The Loners

Page 2

There was a time when David had ruled parties like this.

Back when he was team captain, when his mom was alive and Hilary was his girl. David hadn’t come to a party in nine months. In late November, his mother had been hit by a care-less driver. It felt unreal to David. She’d left for a two-day business trip to Cincinnati and then blinked out of existence.

After that, almost everything in his life seemed unimportant.

Especially parties like this. David ignored the urge to walk to his car and drive home. That would only prove Hilary right.

And she was wrong, he was no loser. Maybe he had let things slip a bit. But he was the same guy. He could face this party, no problem; he just needed a drink.

David slogged to the kitchen. It was stuffed with people and hot from all the bodies. The floor was covered in a slippery grit of beer and grime off the bottom of people’s shoes. He weaved through the mass of tipsy kids, toward the collection of open liquor bottles clustered on the kitchen counter.

David had his eye on a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka.

As he reached for it, a pudgy hand got to it first and gripped the plastic bottle with a crunch. He looked left to see who had grabbed the bottle. He locked eyes with Alan Woodward, one of his former teammates, a fat-faced kid who was built like a brick chimney. Alan’s cheeks were flushed red. They were always that way, whether he was making a tackle or sleeping in class.

“Dave-o,” he said with a raspy, halfhearted laugh. “You’re the last guy I expected to see here.”

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” David said.

“Uh . . . how’s it going?” Alan said, still holding on to the vodka bottle. He leaned on it like a crutch.

How’s it going? That was a loaded question. Where did he start? Did he go with “Hilary just dumped my ass in the bathroom”? Or did he go all the way back to when he and Alan stopped hanging out? When he stood in front of the whole team in the locker room after winning regionals and told them that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore and he couldn’t lead them to state. Alan had been the most devoted of his teammates, bringing guys by the house to try to change David’s mind, saying that they believed in him and that Coach Barter said they had a real chance of winning their first state cham-pionship. He remembered Alan telling him that focusing on the team might be just the thing David needed, and David remembered thinking that Alan didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, none of them did.

“It’s going pretty good,” David said, still eyeing the vodka.

“Yeah?” Alan said.

“Sure,” David lied. “Ready to drink you under the table.” Alan stared back at David with a smile.

“You serious?”

David grabbed two wet shot glasses from the sink and plunked them down in front of the vodka bottle.

“Let’s go shot for shot, we’ll see who’s serious,” David said.

Alan clamped down on David with a bear hug. He held it for too long, but David didn’t mind. A hug was exactly what he needed.

“You’re not gonna grab my ass, are you, buddy?” David whispered.

Alan burst out with a laugh. David smiled. Alan had a great quality of laughing at almost everything. He’d laugh so hard, it looked painful. Alan let go, still smiling.

“Man, look at ya,” Alan said. “You look great. I can’t believe you’re here!”

Alan poured out two shots in a hurry. He gave a glass to David, and David took it gladly.

The booze burned his throat, then spread warmly into his stomach. He wanted more.

“WHOO!” Alan said, and slammed his glass down on the counter at the same time as David.

“Again,” David said, giving his cheeks a shake and loosen-ing up his shoulders.

“You’re out of your mind if you think you can outdrink me,” Alan said. “This shit’s in my blood. My grandfather was Sibe-rian.”

“You know how many times I’ve heard this bullshit?” David laughed. “You’re gonna end up puking in the bushes, just like always.”

“Oh, now you’re talking war, Cappy!”

Alan poured two more shots.

David hadn’t heard anyone call him Cappy in forever. Just hearing the name brightened his mood. As he downed that vodka shot, and the next, and the next, David laughed with Alan over little things. Inside jokes he’d forgotten, awesome games they’d had, epic touchdowns he’d thrown. He’d turned his back on all of those memories when he walked away from the team. Back then he was a leader. He knew how to win.

He wasn’t a weird guy restocking yogurt with sad graveyard-shift coworkers at Safeway. He was captain of a team of guys who would fight for him. They’d been like family to him, and he’d shut them out.

Vodka soaked David’s brain. A fuzzy warmth dulled his senses. He made a grab for the vodka bottle. It bounced out of his hand and skittered across the counter. Alan brought his fist down hard and crushed the bottle.

“Killed it!” he said. “C’mon. There’s a keg outside. The rest of the team’s out there too . . . in case you’re planning on any big announcements.”

David looked at Alan, confused, “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know,” Alan said. “I just thought maybe if you’re back, like old times . . . then you’re back. You know?” Back? Like back on the team? For the first time in a long time, that sounded . . . really good. “Yeah,” David said. “What the hell. I’m back.”

Alan punched David, jaw agape.

“You’ll come to practice on Monday morning? For real?” Alan said.

“I’ll be there,” David said. He suddenly swelled with strength just by saying it. Why couldn’t he do it again?

Alan raised both fists in the air, “Yes!” He grabbed David by the sleeve and pulled him away from the counter. “You gotta let me break the news!”

David followed Alan through the warm forest of bodies, toward the sliding glass doors to the backyard. Alan saw someone he knew, and he stopped to lock the dude in a bear hug. David didn’t pay attention to who it was; he was looking at Sam.

Half the football team stood around the deck as Sam hazed a younger teammate, forcing the kid to chug a beer. He tripped the kid, making him flop face-first onto the ground. Some of the team laughed, and Sam’s face transformed at the sound of it. He had the delighted expression of a child receiving a surprise present. As the kid tried to get up, Sam pushed him back down again with his foot. Sam looked to the team for a bigger reaction. Fewer of them laughed this time. Sam snapped at the kid to get up as if it were the kid on the ground’s fault that the gag didn’t land a second time.

David remembered when Sam was the one being hazed.

Last year, a senior, Carson Lacy, spread IcyHot all over the inside of Sam’s jock strap. Someone had done the same to David his first year—it was standard. You ran to the showers and washed it off. Not Sam. Later that day, in the weight room, while Carson did bench presses, Sam threw a twenty-pound dumbbell down between Carson’s legs. Carson ended up losing a testicle. In the end, Coach Barter just looked the other way, because David quit soon after. The team needed a quarterback, and Sam was the only other one.

“Hey, sorry. Let’s do this,” said Alan.

Alan patted David on the shoulder and walked out to the deck. David followed slowly. The deck was as wide as the house, went back a good twenty feet, and it was thick with kids. The sky was just a touch lighter than black. The deck was lit by the low, warm light of novelty chili-pepper string lights around the perimeter of the deck. A girl on the grass fell and knocked over a copper fire pit. Flaming logs toppled onto the ground and coughed up a cloud of sparks. The drunk girl lay laughing on the damp grass, beside the fading embers.

David felt more out of control with every step toward Sam. An image flashed in his mind of Sam and Hilary in bed together. Hilary throwing her head back in ecstasy, her lips quivering, her blonde hair whipping across her wild eyes, Sam’s hands moving up her.

Sam laughed about something. David hated Sam’s fake smile. He hated his pig nose and that ridiculous dimple in the middle of his chin. The closer he got, the more he was certain that Sam was the cause of all his misery. He blamed Sam for losing Hilary; he blamed him for his mother dying, for the year of grieving that followed. He put it all on Sam. Through the haze of all those vodka shots, it was clear as day.

Sam saw David approach; his face flinched.

“Look who showed up to rage tonight!” Alan said to the guys. “He’s got some big news!”

David’s old teammates hollered back halfheartedly. A warm Hey, old friend kind of smile blossomed on Sam’s face, but David was sure there was panic in the eyes. Sam walked toward David, his arms spread out for a manly hug.

“This party just got killer,” Sam said. “What’s the big n—” David interrupted Sam by bashing his forehead into Sam’s teeth. Sam let out a grunting whimper and fell to the floor.

David kicked him, then he kicked him again. Sam spit blood onto the keg. David tried to drive his foot straight through Sam’s body, to make up for all that David had lost.

The team rushed forward and grabbed David. They wrenched his arms behind his back. Alan stood there in shock, staring at David like he was crazy. Spit was falling out of David’s mouth in ropes. It took four guys to drag him into the kitchen. He saw the crowd on the deck. They were disgusted by him, afraid of him. He saw Sam on the ground, holding his bloody mouth; and just before the people in the kitchen blocked his view of the deck, he saw Hilary’s face in the crowd outside. He swore she was smiling.



Monday’s morning light taunted him through the windows of his bedroom. He’d spent all Sunday in bed, nursing a wicked hangover and beating himself up for having drank so much that night. Why couldn’t he have just gone home after Hilary broke up with him?

Last night’s sleep had cured his hangover, but he felt even worse today. Now that his head was clear, he knew that what he had told Alan wasn’t drunken bullshit. He did want back on the team, he did want to lead them again. He also knew that he had obliterated his chances of that happening when he attacked Sam. As half the defensive line dragged him through the party, he heard whispers from the other party-goers. He’s a maniac. . . . He went crazy. . . . When his former teammates tossed him onto the brick walkway and slammed the front door in his face like he was a stranger, he knew that he had severed whatever was left of their bond.

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