Contact that he can only hope is just enough to get it to the next guy.
Seconds after the ball leaves his foot, he hits the mud full force and wonders why the hell they’re playing this field. It’s been two days since it last rained, but it’s stuck in a perpetual mud slide. He scrambles up, trying to regain balance even though his cleats are doing shit and he’s probably going to get slammed to the ground again as another player runs by.
With his feet under him, he runs to the deadlock of other players–the offenses for both teams are desperately scrambling for the ball. Number Eight finally gets his foot on it and hits it to the right, straight towards him.
He takes it and passes to Number Three—trying to get closer will just result in another mess, like the one they just got out of. Number Three takes it, the whole exchange just fast enough that Three has time to take and shoot it before the pile up makes it impossible to do anything other than guard.
The world slows down for a second, the goalie leaping and players readjusting themselves. It might miss, the goalie might throw it out; they need to be ready.
There’s no need for the opposing team to have moved. It lands in the net, the goalie missing the ball by inches. The ref blows his whistle and he sighs in relief. It was a close game, and at least now they have a tie.
He trips again, but this time it’s not on the field.
The school halls are crowded and the middle school students are shoving him from side to side, but he can see John’s face in the classroom doorway, grinning like a monkey.
It’s not even real bullying, just immaturity and compulsive behavior combined together. He regains his balance and continues to his locker. He tries to convince himself that it doesn’t matter, pushing the tears back out of sheer force of will.
He sits down in math thirty seconds before the bell rings. John is laughing and joking, and he’d join it, but he doesn’t want his voice to crack. He tries not to think about the perpetual teasing that came with the first onslaught puberty.
The teacher starts talking and he begins taking notes. The only upside of math coming easily is that on days like this he can usually recover without looking too stupid. Good days, he might even be able to look smart.
It’s not a good day. The teacher calls on him, and he panics. The answers there on the tip of his tongue, he had done it—
The second he says the words, he knows he said the wrong thing, and the teacher gives him a look of what-the-fuck. He tries to correct himself, but John beats him to the punch. He still follows, weakly, not even trying to offer an explanation. One of the boys in the row behind him taunts him.
He can’t wait until the period is over.
Coach Henderson screams about the game, and has been for the last five minutes. Mostly about how Number Ten had absolutely fucked up the pass, and if they expect to go on to the districts, he’d better get his life—and kicks—together. How he’s clumsy, falls down every damn game, how he’s not ever going to get a scholarship with a record like his. Coach tells him that club soccer is for the talented players, and if he doesn’t want to get kicked off the team, he’d better step up.
He manages to keep a straight face, nod at the right times, try not to turn bright red. He knows what the rest of the team is thinking—what a failure this kid was. How he fucked it up for the rest of the team.
Coach finishes, and tells the team to get on the field, but holds him back. Tells him start running laps, and then throws him the ball. Hard. It hits him in the stomach and he tries not to double over, but sort of does anyway. Coach tells him to man up, and that he’d better be done with three laps by the end of warm ups.
So he does it.
The second he gets into his car after practice, he bursts in tears. Coach kept him late, so at least there’s nobody to see his humiliation, but he can’t stop and hiccups more than he actually breathes.
Is he really that much of a failure?
Yes, he thinks. I really am that much of a failure.
The funny thing is, he can’t find a single solution to the problem. He’s got the best grades he can, he’s friendly, he’s practiced soccer for as long as he can remember. He does more work than most of his teammates. He doesn’t complain. But coach still hates him, the kids still hate him, and his teachers have only jacked their expectations up further.
He can’t handle it anymore.
He was pretty sure he was going to get pulled over the whole drive. He had to take his contacts out and put on his glasses, but it didn’t help his vision and he couldn’t stop crying.
He knew the way to the trail like the back of his hand, but cars are still unpredictable. Like his father had screamed every time he screwed something up while driving.
He had rattled off a quick text to his mom about having a late practice and catching dinner with some teammates. She still thought he had friends.
That’s how he found himself standing at the bike trail, lacing up his running shoes and cursing himself for being such a fuck up. Who would care about such a big failure getting murdered on a trail in the middle of the night? Nobody would.
So he starts running. No point in warming up, he’s still sweaty from practice. It’s the same thing he’s done every time he has a really bad day—run until he pukes and pretend it makes him feel better. Then down ten mints trying to make the smell of vomit and stomach acid and sweat a little less obvious and drive home, saying the team stopped by somebody’s house for a little extra scrimmage.
He’s only gone two miles, and he feels sort of sick, but he forces himself to keep going. He’ll turn around at the three mile marker. Five miles is usually enough to throw up, but after coach, six miles doesn’t feel like enough.
The only thing he can run through his head is failure. Failure. Big fucking fat failure. Failure. Stupid idiotic shitty failure.
He only makes it to the third mile. Not like there was much in his stomach, anyway. He gives himself a minute to try and tell the fog clear away from his head, regain his breath, stop dry heaving. He can’t stop the tears, so he doesn’t. Not like there’s anybody who will see him.
He stands up on shaking legs and starts again. He can’t force himself much faster than a jog, no matter how much he tries. He’s too tired, his body screaming at him to stop. To walk. To eat something and go to sleep and wake up later and pretend it was okay. He doesn’t.
On the fourth mile, he trips and falls on a root in the path. He’s shaking, and can barely come up with the energy to push himself off the ground. He lays there for a minute, forehead pressed into the dirt, sobbing, unable to think of anything except his failure and the pain. Eventually, he pushes himself off the ground, leaning on a tree. He can barely stand, even his hands are shaking, and he’s cut a huge gash right above his knee. His palms and for arms are cut up, too. How can he pass that off as a practice accident?
He doesn’t know, but he continues to head towards the car at a limping jog. He can barely force himself to pick up his feet and his muscles are screaming, but the pain in his arms and knee is just enough that he can force himself to focus on something other than the pain.
It’s an hour and a half after he left the field—almost ten o’clock—when he gets back to the car. He know he shouldn’t be driving, and forces himself to eat the other half of a granola bar he had for breakfast. He checks his phone, but there’s only one text, and it’s from the cell company. He texts his mother that he’s headed home from the diner. He finishes the granola bar and takes a half dose of Advil with some water, in the hopes of being able to get up in the morning.
Then he starts the car, tosses his cell to the back seat, and drives home.