This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Takedown.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This is the second of my sports-related stories, both of which harken back to my teaching days in the midwest. Ah, the old days…!
Far as I was concerned, the whole tournament was a foregone conclusion.
At five minutes past eight, in a mostly deserted gym, I swatted the rear end of my one hundred and twelve pounder and pushed him into the circle. My head throbbed, my mouth was dry, and the day stretched out ahead of me like a long drive across the plains. I fell into the cold metal folding chair next to the bright red mat as the referee dropped his hand to start the match.
“Stay low,” I said, saving my voice for later in the tournament.
An icy winter draft carried the antiseptic odor of mat cleaner around the gym, mixed with the warm smell of fresh doughnuts and hot coffee from the concession stand. Ignoring the match in front of me, where my wrestler was down by two already, I searched the bleachers for Sarah.
She had to be here. Sarah never missed any of her brother Mark’s matches. But all I saw were the dull faces of Pender farmers and their families sitting next to their sons—my team—watching the match, shouting encouragement.
No Sarah. I needed to find her and straighten things out from last weekend.
Before I knew it, Urbanec, my one-twelve wrestler, was down six to nothing going into the third period. He was a pretty good wrestler, had a good shot of making it through districts to state, but I was the only person in his life who ever pushed him. After the buzzer sounded, I slapped my fist into my hand and caught his eye, then pointed at the floor.
In the middle of the mat, Urbanec got down on his hands and knees, and his opponent placed one hand on Urbanec’s elbow and curled the other around his midsection.
The final period began with another buzz, sending a fresh wave of pain through my temples. I shouldn’t have gone out drinking last night with Johnson, the new English teacher at school. But he was the only other teacher my age here, and what else was there to do in Pender on a Friday night?
“Let’s go now,” I said to Urbanec, without really looking at him.
Sarah really should’ve been here by now. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flurry of skinny white legs, followed by the thump of bodies hitting the mat. Urbanec was on his back, struggling like a caught fish.
I jumped up, knocking the folding chair over with a loud clang.
“Bridge your neck!” I said in a loud voice, trying not to yell. I always lost my voice at these tournaments. Blood rushed and pounded in my head as I stepped toward the circle, where Urbanec was thrashing around on his back, lifting first one shoulder, then the other, kicking and grunting.
“Move, Urbanec! Don’t just—”
The referee slapped the mat once, hard.
From one corner of the gym, weak applause drifted over. Urbanec rolled to his feet, and the referee raised his opponent’s hand. Urbanec walked off the mat, angling away from me, his head down and his eyes blinking fast. Bud, my assistant, handed him his warm-up and patted him on the back with a pudgy hand.
I took a deep breath and stepped close to the skinny little sophomore, ignoring Bud.
“Don’t cry. He caught you. You’ve got to keep your weight back, and fight like crazy when you’re on the bottom. And bridge when you’re on your back. I told you that a million times.” I looked up and glimpsed light blond hair in the stands. “It’s okay,” I said, squeezing his bony shoulder. “Get ’em next time.”
Stepping around the mats, warm-up clothes, medical kits, and jump ropes that littered the gym floor, I headed toward my team’s campsite in the west bleachers. Unfamiliar faces from other schools glanced at me for half a second, then looked away when they didn’t recognize me.
In our corner of the stands, four of my wrestlers leaned back onto duffel bags and pillows, half-asleep again now that the match was over. Oberg and Hentges were talking to their parents, and Mr. Hentges rubbed his son’s head and laughed his loud, braying laugh that drew rude looks from the other school’s team camped next to us. My headache intensified.
All alone, Mark sat listening to his headphones. Underneath his red warm-up hood, his face was pale and colorless from starving himself all week to make weight, which he did—barely—this morning at the seven a.m. weigh-ins. He held a bunched-up Subway wrapper in his hand that I could tell he didn’t want me to see.
His mother sat behind him, alone, and she looked away when she saw me. Sarah wasn’t there, but I knew I’d seen her. Instead of sitting down, I crossed the gym again, dodging other coaches and athletes and parents, and made my way to the concession stand. I’d kill anyone who got in the way of my cup of coffee this morning.
“Andy,” a voice said from behind me. “I really don’t want to argue with you today. I just came to watch Mark wrestle.”
“Sure. No problem.” I turned, and my headache vanished when I saw here.
Sarah wore a red Pendragons sweatshirt, the dragon mascot looking less menacing over the soft curves of her chest. A clip at the top of her head held up her light blonde hair. She wasn’t smiling, but she still looked good. I loosened my tie and waited for her to say something more.
She folded her program in half, then folded it in half again. “Come on,” she began. “I meant what I said last weekend. I just need some time for myself and school.”
“Don’t give me that tired shit again,” I said, my voice gravelly and low. She pulled her body back the tiniest bit when I swore, glancing behind her quickly. “If you don’t want to see me, tell me why. Don’t give me excuses.”
Sarah watched me with her head turned slightly while I talked, as if trying to gauge how upset I was. In the gym, a coach yelled instructions to his wrestler in a desperate voice, sounding like a frantic mother.
She dropped her eyes and turned toward the gym doors. “Let’s talk later. I need to get back and watch Mark wrestle.” She stopped and looked at me again. “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to be in there coaching your team?”
“Fuck the team,” I said, knowing she would wince. Sometimes I had the need to get the last word, whether the conversation was over or not. Her blue eyes became narrow and guarded. “Bud can handle them. You and I need to clear this up right now.”
Sarah walked off before I could finish. Her long legs carried her back into the gym, leaving me alone again. The coach continued yelling inside the gym, and I hoped someone was listening to the poor guy. I licked my dry lips and glanced at the two teenage boys who had arrived to work at the concession stand. They were watching Sarah leave, small smiles on their faces.
I slapped a dollar on the counter and squinted at them when they jumped.
“A large coffee, please.” My eyes felt dry and sore. The first boy, wearing faded jeans and his school’s football jersey, filled a Styrofoam cup from a big thermos.
“Don’t grow up, you guys,” I said. “Stay young, and stay out of trouble.”
Grinning uncomfortably, the boys didn’t say anything back.
I grabbed my coffee, listening to the desperate coach’s voice in the gym fall when a sharp whistle blew.
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