by Sly Squirrel
©2002 Sly Squirrel -- all rights reserved
It was sunny outside on that Saturday afternoon. My friends came over eight to watch the cartoon fare on television -- back when Saturday morning television was king. We were munching on my mom's never-ending supply of candy, sprawled out on the couch in our play clothing, talking about how much we hated the girly girls at their school. And we really hated them; their cooties were over everything, we were convinced. They weren't as cool to be around as the guys.
I mean, they didn't even play baseball!
As soon as X-Men ended and the first talk show hit the airwaves we sprinted out to our bikes and started pedaling. Joey always got stuck with the wagon to tote; without a bike he was picked by default. But he played permanent pitcher; that was all he really cared about. No one else could really throw a curve that well, so we let him have his way.
Baseball was always better in that old sandlot. We didn't really know who it belonged to; it was just a tiny field -- a little bigger than the little league field at school, but for baseball there was no need to be picky. Houses and privacy fences walled the place in just before the foul lines; through repeated play we had worn a dirt infield into the crabgrass.
Our home run line was made up by a 10-feet-tall brick wall, that straddled the far two sides of our lot. Beyond it was Rivendale: the ultimate enigma of our childhood lives. No one knew what lied beyond that monster of scarlet clay pavers and mortar; rumors about the place abounded, that ice cream came out of the pools, or that the toy store always had free toys to pick from -- The Glove even told a long one about an old couple at the very end of the row that turned their front porch into video gamers' heaven, with enough free arcade games to keep any kid in bliss for years on end.
Not that it mattered, anyway. We never hit one over the fence, so we never ventured past the gate.
The only thing that was real about our sandlot was the bags. We were oh-so-very proud of the bags. It took a whole month of pooled allowance to buy those things. The Saturday we put them in we played right through dusk and into the full-moon night. Our parents had to come out and drag our bodies home -- not before playing a little catch, of course. Great day for baseball, too: sun shining, a cool breeze that ran right into the first baseman's face, not a cloud in the sky...
Every day's a good baseball day. Some days are just better than others, that's all.
The teams were always the same: it was an accepted fact of life that The Glove and Marty 'owned' the two teams, and traded as they saw fit. The Glove started the whole 'sandlot league' when we bought our new bases; once we moved up to that luxury he decreed that it was necessary that the league became a reality. The Glove started picking his guys right then and there; Marty was the first guy to speak up, and suddenly he became the manager of the other team.
Don't ask me why -- The Glove had his own ways. His mother called him Nick -- what an idiot she was -- Harry is no name for a man of mystique, full of information we could never amass on our own. Any time we had a question, he had the answer. Did you know that dogs slobber with the express purpose of getting a person's attention? It's a form of play; they start sliming and try to get the person covered in it. The Glove told me so.
That morning I had been traded to Harry's Harpies (we asked about the name, once; he spat that it was a college team his dad always talked about) for three packs of bubblegum and a mint condition Barry Bonds. Mint condition! No one ever had such high trade value. It made me feel really special, when I called first at-bat and stepped up to the plate.
Our batter's box was steeped in tradition. The last batter in line would always bring as many bats as he could carry to plate, where the batter would carefully make his selection. The outfield started their chants early, here; in reality no time was too early for a little intimidation. The Glove tried to stay out of the chat (he was a manager, and in charge of image, after all); he raved about the morning's episode of Power Rangers to Joey from his shortstop position.
I picked the reliable pound bat -- wooden Louisville Slugger, of course -- and stepped into the batter's box, swinging my big stick around. We made a point to look just like the major leaguers: spitting, squinting from under the brim of our baseball cap (helmets were too expensive), wriggling down to stance slowly, never letting our eyes off the pitcher.
For some reason I felt good that day; maybe it was the air, or the fact that everyone finally agreed that Sonic the Hedgehog was better than Power Rangers, or maybe that extra bowl of Sugar Smacks I had that morning. Something about that bat tingled in my hands, crackling with energy.
Everyone laughed when I stepped back and pointed to the wall. The banter from the outfield doubled. Joey leaned over his mitt and grinned. "Wanna easy one, slugger?" he crooned.
"Gimme the works," I replied, leaning my head forward so I could look at him from under the brim of my cap. That made me feel special. Still not sure why.
The ball moved through Jell-O all the way to the plate. I watched the stitches as the turned over and over again. It was coming right where I wanted it to be; right in that pocket where you can get the most leverage, and really let it sail.
Wood sings when it hits true; like a sharp stinger on the end of a beautiful song. Everyone stared in awe as the ball went up, and up, and up, and up...
...And over the fence. For a moment the entire field stood in disbelief; no one had ever come close to knocking one over that fence. Just on the other side of that wall there was an audible splash; I had knocked it into an ice cream fountain! The visual of my ball floating in chocolate chips and syrup danced in my head.
The Glove sobered at the sound, and stated the ultimate rule of baseball: "You hit it, you get it." It was the only rule we lived by; like a samurai warrior's code of honor. Kids would dive into thorn bushes if that's where the ball went, the decree was so binding.
But to Rivendale? No way I was going to go in there. I even went as far as to use The Glove's real name: a sure sign that I was desperate. "Come on, Nickie! You know as well as I do that the attack dogs will kill me! I'll just go buy another one at the CVS. Give me five minutes!" We had all heard those dogs before; legend had it that the largest one was bigger than Bobby. And Bobby was no small guy, let me tell you.
"Five minutes? That's forever. We'll help you up..." The Glove smirked and added, "That is, unless you're chicken!" With that a chorus of clucks came from the outfield, and everyone started to scratch at the ground.
Now to any little boy -- or man, for that matter -- the word 'chicken' is like throwing down the gauntlet. You can't just turn away from The Call. It's the equivalent of throwing a choker chain around your neck and giving a jerk; you just have to go along with it.
I heard them whispering about what I'd see on the Other Side; everything from quicksand to the world's largest depository of school lunch food was offered up for discussion. There was even talk that The Cat Man himself would be on the other side -- talk about crazy ideas. Anyone with that much morphing would probably be making big bucks in California or something.
Trying not to listen, I clambered up onto The Glove's shoulders, reached for a branch on a large tree, and pulled myself up. From there I clambered up a few levels, and walked out onto a branch until I could drop onto the top of the brick wall. There were these black iron spikes coming out of the concrete cap; I had to step over them while setting up to let myself down on the other side of the wall.
There was a small line of shrubbery to drop behind when I came off the wall; when I ducked down behind them there was a strong smell of wintergreen. Recently cut. Reminded me of my dad, who bordered on anal when it came to landscaping. With that thought on my mind I started crawling in the tiny space on my hands and knees.
There was a small path made by two lines of parallel shrubs. I kept to the tiny path, hoping that the attack dogs wouldn't catch me in the act. The baseball landed right beside the shrubbery, near the end of the line. It was my lucky day! Smiling, I started crawling towards it, ready to reach out of the bushes and snatch the ball up.
I felt like GI Joe, crawling through the bushes. Suddenly I was behind enemy lines, retrieving secret launch codes to save the world for democracy. Daydreaming for a kid is like crack for an addict, you know. Ten feet, five feet, two feet. I reached out from a thinned point on the bush, touched the ball with a single finger...
...until a furry foot landed beside the ball! I yelped and pulled back into the bush. From what little I could see, it was definitely not from a dog -- at least I wasn't gonna be ripped to shreds, I thought -- but the thing looked disgustingly human. Like someone dressed up in orange fur slippers.
I screamed like a little girl. What would any kid do in that situation? The feet jumped back for a moment, and for a split second I saw the white tip of a tail drop to the ground. I started crawling like a madman down the line, tearing clods of soft peat moss from the ground as I went. The furry feet followed along slowly, without a care in the world.
There wasn't much room to run with. From outside the wall I could hear my friends screaming out to me, begging me to save myself. It was like a bad horror film or something; the monster inched ever closer on the poor victim, moseying along while the horror-struck girl (or boy -- whatever) clawed at every door.
Suddenly my head met the rough brick wall. Trapped! In an instant my back was to the wall: hands looking for some sort of support, heart beating out of my chest, adrenaline pumping in my veins, muscles stiff with terror. It was over! Why didn't they let me go buy another ball?
The bushes shook, and started to part. Instinctively I put my arms up and shrank into the fetal position. The monster's presence heated my skin; within moments he would descend onto me, and God help me at that point. I imagined him as a squid man covered in slime; his gigantic beak could crack my skull in an instant.
But before he laid one of his nasty, furry tentacles on my shoulder he spoke with a kid's voice: "Who are you? Do you want to play with me?" I shook for a moment more, and he touched me on the shoulder. A paw, I noticed: soft, but leathery at the same time. Most importantly it wasn't slimy.
When I let my arms drop and opened my eyes the fox-boy grinned at me. He was no bigger than I was, with the same toothpick limbs and oversized head. Just that his features looked more like something out of a Disney movie. Dark, thick orange fur covered his entire body, except for a single patch of white fur that peeked out from the neck of his T-shirt. A bushy tail followed his every move, the motions hypnotizing.
"Are you okay?" the fox boy asked after what felt like an eternity, "I didn't mean to scare you. There aren't many kids around here. You want to play with me? My name's Jimmy. What's yours?"
"Oliver," I managed. It's amazing; you could put a kid with a three-headed Martian, and when the alien said "let's play" the kid would already have his glove ready for some catch. Of course, when you're faced with a strange fox-boy, it's a good idea to be a nice as possible.
"You play catch?" I said simply, the fear melting away slowly. The fox reminded me of my friend Frank: a little strange on the outside, but once you got to know him he was an awesome guy.
"Sure thing! Just let me get my glove." He ran off, a gigantic bounce in his step. While he was out I turned to the wall and gave my friends the latest news.
The Glove talked to me before I could say a thing, though. "Is there ice cream over there? Did the attack dog get you? We heard you scream; we want to know!" I could hear the boy bounding back at that point; there wasn't much time to waste.
"Throw me my glove," I screamed over the top.
"Your glove? Why? Won't the attack dog chew it up?"
I snapped at him. "Just throw me my glove!" Sure enough, the thing flopped down on a shrub beside me. Just in time to catch the fox's first toss.
Until my dying day I will not know what possessed me to play with Jimmy the fox-boy. By all accounts I should have sprinted to the only gate in the fenced-in yard, but something about the kid rubbed me the right way. I guess it's like those mud cakes my mom puts on her face; when someone else does it she screams her head off, but when it's of her own decision it's heaven.
What can you do, what can you do.
Jimmy, I found out, begged his parents to let him be a fox. I knew they could do it, of course; genetics allowed anyone to become anything, as educational weekday afternoon cartoons taught me. But the treatment was so expensive...
And his parents were loaded. Go figure.
He was the kind of boy you see pouting in a corner because he doesn't get his way. Only his parents don't let him touch the corner. Or cry. Why should they, when they have the money to keep him happy all the time? Whenever he wanted something, all he had to do was ask. Lucky bastard.
We played catch for what felt like an eternity, until his mother happened to walk out on the patio. When she saw me, muddy pants and baseball jersey, their eyes took on an aggressive sheen. The well-dressed woman started walking, and I knew my goose was cooked.
You all know that metallic taste you get in the back of your mouth when you're in trouble? My body poured buckets of the stuff into my mouth, I was so scared. There was only one chance for me, and that was to apologize. Rapidly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to trespass. I just wanted to get my ball and Jimmy wanted to play and..."
"Can it," the mother said suddenly. I followed orders very well, for a 8-year-old. "What are you doing with my baby? Jimmy don't play with the likes of you. He's my little baby! Why are you forcing him to play with you..?"
"Mom, I invited him over," the fox swished his tail and winked at me. I was still swallowing bile from the woman possessed. "He's playing catch with me."
"And what school does he go to?"
"He goes to..." instead of looking at me for the answer, he blurted, "Saint Carmichael's." That was a flat-out lie! The only public school in the area was Brandywine! I opened my mouth to protest, but he stopped me by waving a soft, orange-colored paw.
"Oh! That was the one with the $15,000 tuition. I got it. And you came all the way here? For Jimmy?"
"I met him when we took the tour." There was a calmness to Jimmy's demeanor, like Bugs Bunny sending Elmer Fudd for a loop. I never thought I'd say this about an animal, but Jimmy looked really cool standing in his foxy glory. His fur was smooth, short, and moved with his body. And the tail! Every time I looked at it the motion hypnotized me.
"Is that so."
"He needs to come over more!" Jimmy belted. I beamed with pride; any new friend is a friend well-earned.
The mother mumbled to herself, "How much should we pay him?" My jaw dropped. I clambered over the wall expecting to be shredded to bits by an attack dog, and here this woman was ready to pay me!
Sure, she looked like a devil in her snappy blouse and bold makeup that looked like it was taped onto her face, but money was money. Cash. Dinero. The Fruit of Life Itself. It was hard to come by; dad only paid me a fiver for cutting the grass, and that was barely enough for a day at the arcade. Money bought more baseballs, more Nintendo games, more trips to Frosty Boy. That was the real clincher: what kid could resist having a hot fudge shake from Frosty Boy?
All I had to do was be this fox's friend. He seemed harmless enough, and he could work a glove... I shrugged and watched the woman pull a monstrous money clip from her pocket. She carried more money than the low-down gangsters in moves, I swear!
Nonchalantly the woman flipped through the money with a fingernail and pulled a twenty from the wad. "This should do. Have fun, boys!" And with that she turned to walk back in the house, leaving me a twenty between my fingers, a fox looking over my shoulder, and a mind trying to comprehend what just happened.
"So..." Jimmy started, "What do you want to do now?"
"I... I..." The crack of a bat broke my trance; The Glove probably started the game again, I realized. Turning away from Jimmy I screamed over the wall. "Hey guys! Hold my spot in the batting order!"
"Ollie!" The Glove screamed back, "We thought you were a goner! How'd you beat down the attack dog? Did you outrun it? Come on; give us the scoop!" Jimmy looked at me cock-eyed, but I ignored it.
I whipped up the first excuse I could think of -- a weak one, at that. "Tell you later. Just hold on, willya? And I'm bringing someone along." The fox's jaw dropped at that one; I turned and whispered, "Come on! Who wants to play catch when you can jump into the game?"
Jimmy twisted the front of his shirt, dragged a foreclaw in the ground, looked into my eyes, and chuckled. "I've never... played a real game... of baseball."
"What?" I couldn't believe it! No baseball? It was like a cardinal sin! Everyone played baseball, even if only at recess. "What are you, crazy?" I snatched him by the arm, gave a tug, and through my grip I could feel his entire body lurch, head to tail. Something in my soul just yearned to introduce this guy to the most perfect game in the world.
We ran out the front gate of his house. Now that I've had time to think about it the buildings in there were more like castles, but at the time I found myself obsessing over the need to teach the fox-boy The Game. My first experience with the upper crust of society, and all I could think of was baseball. There I was, in a place where hot chocolate served by less than four waiters was a darned shame, and all I wanted to think about was how the vulpine would hit. Go figure.
We passed through the gates after Jimmy punched numbers on the security keypad. The wrought iron monstrosities creaked as they came open. "Just over there, on the other side of your wall," I instructed.
Just outside was a tree, butchered by one of the power companies to let a line come through. Jimmy's face turned to disgust. "God, I hate it when they do that. Why can't they just leave things alone?" I gave him a quizzical look and he continued, "They don't have to change anything. Remember Discovery Zone?"
Sudden, yes, but I played along. "Yeah. Didn't that place close down a year ago?" I had to admit: DZ was really the place to be. Where else could you crawl around in tubes, ride a zip line, jump on a waterbed, and play in ball pens armed with pneumatic launchers? It was like a kid's dreamland; my friends and I went there once a week, playing in the gigantic jungle gym, plastered in boldly colored foam pens and playing tag in the tubes.
Too bad health concerns had to shut the place down for good. My heart bled for him.
"Why do they have to go and change things like that?" the fox boy looked down at the ground, frowning, "Grown-ups ruin everything good."
"You'll feel better after playing a little baseball," I said with a smile, "Trust me." And I meant it. Baseball is the psychological equivalent of duct tape: one good game will cure pretty much anything that ails you. That and Nintendo: the recipe for good mental health.
There was a chorus of blank stares on the Sandlot. I felt like I was in a bad comedian's joke -- probably the infamous "I just flew in and boy are my arms tired!" adage -- standing there with Jimmy. Looking back I could see that his tail was picking up grass clippings from the ground, it was dragging so much. On his face was the classic 'deer in the headlights' stare.
"What, is, that." The Glove grumbled from the batting line. Everyone else slightly nodded; you didn't want to get on the bad side of The Glove. I tried to put on my most cheerful face -- I read somewhere that the best way to defuse a situation is to act like there is no situation -- and pulled Jimmy up to the first base line.
Taking a deep breath, I indicated the fox beside me and yipped, "Guys, this is Jimmy. He lives in Rivendale over there. We met when I went hunting for the ball, and... well... heh!" No one was moving a muscle, I noticed with a sinking heart. "I thought he'd like to join our game. That is, if you guys are okay with him playing..."
"Teams are even right now," The Glove spat, "No go."
My mind turned to the ten dollar bill sitting in my pocket, and realized that sacrifice would have to be the name of the game. "How about I sit out an inning and let him play? He's really good with a glove..."
"Come on," The Glove commanded, "We've got a game to play."
I wasn't going to take no for answer; not with a 20 in my pocket, that's for sure. Putting on my glove I sprinted out to the mound. "You gotta help me here. Just let this guy play, that's all I ask. I'll try to explain it later."
He gave me the Look of Death. That's right; the same bone-chilling maneuver women have had perfected for years. I had seen my father quiver and crawl away from my mother after only two seconds of it. The disgust! The anger! The disappointment! It made me want to hole up inside myself forevermore!
Don't ask me how he learned it; maybe he took lessons from his older sister. She was one to be feared, too.
"Okay, I guess he can play right field." I sneered at him. We never put anyone out in right field; there weren't enough players to cover the field anyway, and that was pretty much the most useless place on the field. You only sent the kids in big glasses to that end of the field.
Jimmy didn't mind, though. Without making a sound in the grass he padded to where The Glove was pointing and took his position. "So what do I do?" he asked. Everyone rolled their eyes in unison.
It was going to be a long day -- a 20 dollar day, but a long day nonetheless. "When the ball comes your way, just catch it and throw it to second."
"Where's second?" I slapped my face and let it drag my features down. This was like pulling teeth!
Little Mark's hand shot into the air. "I'm on second! Throw to me! I'll take care of it from there!" He was two years below the rest of us, but without the numbers we had to accept pretty much everybody. Don't get me wrong -- he played a decent second base -- it's just that we kind of liked our sandlot. Our bags. Our bats. Our game. Our own little world.
Suddenly I understood why Jimmy was playing right field.
The Glove motioned me to shortstop position; as I dug my black Cons into the turf I turned to wink at Jimmy. He waved a shaky glove back at me. The whole scene reminded me of a Looney Tunes cartoon; any minute the guy was going to lose all the color in his body and start babbling incoherently.
Once I had my glove back on the waving hand The Glove screamed "Play Ball!" Clouds gently rolled overhead. The first batter stepped into the box, tapped his shoes, and squatted down into stance. I nodded to Jimmy, then turned to see what kind of pitch Joey was gonna throw.
Randall was our heavy hitter. He could put that ball anywhere he wanted on the field, at any time he pleased. He was so good, in fact, that the middle school coaches were already grooming him for a star position on their varsity team. And he was only in third grade! Third grade and already ready for the Majors.
Toothpick legs and a barrel chest; that was Randall. If you saw him walking behind a fence you'd think he was a monster, until he walked out from behind it. Drawing from his massive pecs, he swung the four-pound bat out towards the field and pointed at the shaking fox. The coy look in his eyes made my heart skip a beat.
Jimmy was going to have a trial by fire, whether he liked it or not.
The other outfielders were starting a batter's chant, hoping to get his mind off the ball. No dice. That boy was focused on the pitch, the bat, and the shivering fox in right field. It's amazing how focused a child can be when it comes to making another kid look like an idiot.
As the ball left Joey's hand, I started inching towards Jimmy's position. I knew the guy would probably drop it; Randall was going for the kill, and would leave nothing to chance.
My suspicions were confirmed by the sharp crack of a Louisville Slugger. The ball zinged though the air toward the now trembling fox -- and let me tell you a zinging ball ain't too comfortable on the glove hand! I started planning where the ball would drop once the fox's hand gave way; it would probably bounce twice, roll a little...
But my planning came to an abrupt halt when I turned to look at Jimmy. Without so much as a yelp or start, he calmly jumped forward, caught the ball on the dive, rolled, and flung it to a dumbfounded Glove covering second. It happened so quickly that I rubbed my eyes and checked to make sure the ball hadn't rolled off onto the grass.
The Glove, in complete disregard for his reputation, dropped the ball on the ground. Randall walked to first base in a dazes stupor. "What did you just do?" The Glove finally managed.
Poor Jimmy didn't know how exactly to respond to that one, but he managed to squeak, "You told me to throw to second, right?" A little droplet of rain touched my arm; the game was going to be called off on an interesting note, at the least.
Joey went ahead and said what everyone else was thinking in the silence: "But... that... was... incredible!" Incredible wasn't the word for it. Incredible was watching Randall put a ball through the fox's glove. This was borderline unbelievable -- a true sign from the man upstairs!
The sky opened up, and suddenly it was raining pitchforks and nigger-babies. Still not sure why I use that one; I never was -- and never will be -- racist, but for some reason it just keeps coming out of my mouth. Maybe I just heard it come from my grandpa's mouth one too many times. 'Cats and dogs' just doesn't have the same texture.
With all the rain suddenly pouring down and Jimmy's little surprise, we barely noticed the poncho-wearing man walk onto the lot. He was smoking one of those gigantic stogies, the ones that smell like charcoal and tar baking in the hot sun. In his hands, one of those flimsy yard signs realtors love so much. We watched him waltz in during our stupor, stop on the third base line, and shove the sign into the moistened dirt.
Mark played third base for The Glove's team; his levelheaded personality sold the trade. In fact, while everyone else gawked at the fox's moves, he was busy sweeping off the third base plate, bored and ready to continue on with the game. This sign had him so shaken he had to sit down!
"And we start in two days," the man said with an evil grin. Mark damn near fell on his keister.
When he walked off we sprinted over to the ugly thing and read the words in horror: "Sold!" It was like a nail in our coffins. The Sandlot was going to die! But when?
It didn't take long to figure that one out. Below it was an architect's plans for a gigantic home and Monday's date. They were going to build Monday? But that was only two days away! The rain spattered the sign; if it weren't for the Plexiglas surrounding the drawing it may have melted to bits.
"Great," The Glove said. "Just great." That man knew exactly what to say, and exactly when to say it. Nothing else needed to be said; we started to split for our own houses. The game was canceled until further notice, of course; none of us were up for baseball at that time.
Before everyone could jog off and start splashing in puddles, Jimmy spoke up. "Hey guys! If you want to we hang out in my house for the day. I've got a lot of video games, and air hockey... it'll be great!"
I could tell by the look in their faces that my friends were about to give Jimmy the cold shoulder. Their eyes moved around while they formulated an excuse. It came out in strained pieces, with that greasy, smooth-like-cough-syrup tone of voice. "Oh, we'd love to go..."
"...but Mark invited us to his house..."
"Yeah..." Mark picked it up, "My mom was making lunch for us all, and we were going to play on The Table..." I had to give them one thing: Mark's table was one of the coolest things any one of us had. With it he could play ping pong, air hockey, and even pool! Sure, the billiard set had golf ball-sized pool balls, but it sure was neat to play real pool. The puck for the air hockey table even glowed in the dark! Fisher Price was the coolest company, just for putting that thing out.
"I guess that's okay..." Jimmy admitted, but then suddenly had a streak of boldness that started with a flick of his tail and worked it's way up to his orange muzzle. "Hey! Can I come along?"
"Well..." they looked at me, and I gave them the 'sad puppy eyes' look. I thought no one could resist the sad puppy eyes! One look and the melted the coldest of hearts, the blackest of souls.
It was pure guilt, I know, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
"I guess... It wouldn't be too bad..."
Mark elbowed the second grader who opened his mouth. "Mom is making those cheese tortilla things; we don't really have enough to go around. Sorry." The fox scraped a toeclaw in the soaked grass, then looked right at me. Well, actually he looked at the twenty hanging out of my pocket, just to pour on the guilt.
"You wanna come, Oliver?" he said, a toothy smile crossing his face. That twenty suddenly felt very heavy in my pocket. The Glove gave me a 'Oh, don't tell me you're gonna go with it' glare. I just shrugged and took a step towards Jimmy, feeling like a whipped puppy. Everything felt heavy, especially my rain-soaked jeans. They were pulling on each foot as it stepped, making my moping gait even more melodramatic.
"Cool!" Jimmy yelped, "This will be awesome! Mom'll make us some sandwiches, and we'll play with my car track... it'll be awesome!" I could hear chuckling behind me; come next Monday the whole school was going to know that I was friends with a fox-boy. Heck, if that got out they might even make a point not to save my swing seat at recess! I shuddered at the thought.
But I had a twenty in my pocket, and they were scrambling for dimes. "Let's go," I mumbled to Jimmy, "I've got to stop by my house to get some clothes and an umbrella, though..."
"Don't worry about it," Jimmy said, "I can give you some of mine. We're the same size."
My eyes shot to the tail hole in the fox's pants; I would have to wear one of those? And why did he say 'give'? "Didn't you mean, borrow?"
"Nope. I have enough clothes."
"Thanks," I said humbly, "That would be cool." Sure, the thing had a mambo hole in the tail, but the pants looked pretty darned stylish. Maybe going along with this fox wouldn't be so bad, I suddenly thought.
'It wouldn't be so bad' was an understatement; much like saying that the Powerball jackpot is just 'a lot of money'. Jimmy had the room that every little boy dreams of: race car bed, TV with a CD-I -- that thing cost more than my dad's car -- and over all a gigantic slot car track. And when I say gigantic slot car track I mean awe-inspiring.
We played that thing for at least two hours. The track actually went all the way around his room, loop-the-loop, up the wall, on the ceiling, racing around banked shelves... the thing even had an upside down jump! Even better, the set had Indy cars, (he said he got them from The Race every year, along with a new piece of Indianapolis Motor Speedway decoration.)
And I thought I was hot stuff with the triple figure eight set at home, with two sportcars to play with.
Even cooler his controllers were wireless, so you could turn to watch your car and still have a finger on the trigger. We sat on his race car bed, watching the cars race around the track, listening to the characteristic electric squeal. The smell of scorched contact plates was in the air; any kid who has watched his slot car uselessly wind its motor knows what that smells like.
A foreign-looking woman came up with drinks on a platter. Jimmy took one from the tray, tail swishing, and downed it. "Thanks, Miss Pross," he said simply. I looked at the platter like someone was showing me a meal in a pill. The only thing I knew was that woman was definitely not the beast of a mom I saw earlier.
"Who is this?" I whispered.
"She's the maid." Maid? I formed the word in my mouth for a second, poured over it. Rich old guys had maids in movies, and when the killer came they were always the first to go. But they actually existed?
"Go ahead, she's got a lot of work to do. I asked her to make us some Bagel Bites while we were playing." Sure, they belonged in this house like maple syrup belongs with a ribeye steak, but I wasn't going to complain. I took the Coke, but when I went to drink it I spilled a drop on Jimmy's pristine Turtles shirt.
Before I could apologize he dove into the closet, finger still on the slot car's control. "I'll get you a new one," he said happily.
"I couldn't, really..."
"But you will." He laughed and tossed a pristine Zoobilee Zoo T-shirt onto my lap. My eyes nearly popped out of my head; I watched that show when I was three! A boy his age wouldn't be caught dead with a shirt from the show. But there it was, complete with Wazzat the Kangaroo staring back at me, covered in pink fur.
Jimmy grinned and broke my stupefied silence. "Like it? That's one of my favorite shows --"
"I watched this when I was starting preschool!" I yelped, "You telling me that you haven't outgrown it?"
He face melted into an apologetic gaze. "But things don't need to change... that show is still good!" I peeked around Jimmy's orange body and into the closet. Sure enough, the gigantic walk-in was filled to capacity with everything imaginable. Sit n' Spins. Baby T-shirts. Turtles Pajamas. Stuffed animals. Little reader books.
And in the center of it all was what looked to be a gigantic shrine to Disney's Robin Hood. The shelf held a variety of animation cels, along with a pile of plush foxes and homemade doodles. In the center of it all was a video case filled with hypodermic needles.
My jaw must have hit the floor when I laid eyes on that one. No, my jaw must have fell through the floor! Jimmy grinned and waved me in. "You like it? It's my special place. Come in!" The floor was thumping; either Miss Pross was running steel-toed combat boots through the drier, or my heart was pounding out of my chest.
"Come on! Look at this!" he pointed to the animation cels; every last one of them featured the leading fox. Fox stabbing at the evil King Richard. Fox cuddling with the foxy Maid Miriam. Fox standing with his band of merry men. Fox, fox, fox.
What did I do? "So... I guess... you like... foxes?" Stupid, Ollie! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Why don't you just ask him if the sky is blue? No, he doesn't like foxes. He just has this shrine, and he does something -- and 'something' was a bit of an understatement -- to his body to look just like his on-screen hero, and you ask if he likes foxes. Smooth like butter.
"Yeah!" he said it sarcastically, with just the right amount of 'well, duh!' factor to have a strong effect. "Ever since I saw Robin Hood, I couldn't get 'em out of my mind." I kind of stared at him for a second and grinned. Apparently so, I thought. "They're really cool creatures; always sneaky, always daring, ready to, well, out-fox anyone! As soon as I saw that movie I knew I wanted to be a fox. I mean, any time I see a human covered with fur my heart skips a beat..."
Which begged the question: why? "And so?"
"It started with drawings. I begged mom to get an artist for me." Like it took much begging, judging from the room. "The guy drew a couple portraits, with the ears and tail and such. Nice guy, and the pictures were great."
"Where are they?"
"I threw them away." My mouth dropped; even I knew artists weren't cheap. If that weren't the case, art museums wouldn't have those security guards and infrared sensors. "They just made me more jealous! I wanted to be a fox so badly!" Foxes' tails are very revealing; one look and I could just tell that he was more than a little piqued just thinking about it. That, and the fact that his paws were balled up.
P-S-Y-C-H-O, I thought to myself, this boy has to be psycho.
"I begged mommy. I pleaded for her to find a way. Then one day she got me a present. I opened it and there was another Robin Hood video. But it was in Spanish or something. I complained. She told me to open it. And here it is!" He pointed to the lineup of hypodermic needles and beamed. "Some guy named Javier did it for us; he put his name on the thing."
And I thought Mexicans were only good for tacos and refried beans. "So, what do you... do?" Those twenty bucks suddenly didn't sit right in my pocket. Sure, Jimmy was a great guy and all, and his house was awesome, and he was fun to play with... but this? This was downright spooky. Like some Outer Limits marathon or something.
"Well, every morning I wake up in a pile of shed fur. My tail retracts almost completely, and the muzzle starts to push back in. Javier wouldn't make a permanent serum, my mom said. So every morning I take one of these needles..." he picked one up to demonstrate; I winced. "It doesn't hurt, really. The change is actually pretty cool. Wanna try?"
I felt like I was in one of those sci-fi shows; suddenly the lead finds himself stranded on an alien world, trying to make things work out for the best. Except I had twenty bucks pulling me along. "Maybe tomorrow morning. I could try it for a day."
"You really could?" Jimmy perked up, "You really want to?"
"What the hell," I said. I never used the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks word, unless I really meant it. That twenty was really pulling on my collar! "It could be fun."
"It is! I swear to you it is! Just wait until you feel what it's like to have a tail! It's so wonderful! Trust me, you won't be disappointed!" He looked like some sort of slaphappy puppy: tail wagging, head lolling, jumping around inside the tiny closet like he was looking for a dingle ball. It was hard not to laugh.
Then it sunk in. Tomorrow I was going to become a fox! The color left my face, and my hands went numb. Most kids just pretended to be their favorite heroes... It unsettled me so much that I just wanted to go home. "Listen, I think I'm going to go home. Mom's fixing dinner, and --"
"Well, you can have dinner here! Miss Pross can throw another steak on the grill."
Steak! I thought about following suit for a second, but that hypodermic needle caught my eye. "No thanks, Jimmy. My mom always makes roast turkey on Saturday. Family night and all."
"Oh." His face dropped. "But we're still on for tomorrow, right?"
"Of course!" I said nervously, while letting out a nervous chuckle and twiddling my nervous fingers, trying to convince myself that I wasn't actually nervous at all, "It'll be great."
"Yeah." I started walking out of his room, wondering where the exit could possibly be. This place was big enough to get lost in!
"Hey!" I turned to see the fox standing out in the hall, a patch of fur missing from his armpit. Must happen early, I thought. "You know, Miss Pross could take you home... we could drive. Much easier on you."
If only I could tell him I was just tired of looking at the fox memorial... "No thanks, I'll walk. The rain's letting up; it's a beautiful night."
"Yeah." My tone wavered for a moment, and before my face could show my distress I turned away.
"Okay, then... see you tomorrow! Be up early; we want to get the stuff in your system before it gets too late."
"Will do!" Each step felt like another tick on the countdown to my doom; in less than 12 hours I would lose my humanity for a day. What would it feel like? I thought, What would possibly be so good about being a fox? Do they get special perks? Can I still play a decent game of ball?
Apparently so, I thought, considering Jimmy's miracle play today. It wouldn't be so bad. And I walked out the door trying to convince myself of just that.
I didn't sleep much that night; eventually I gave up on sleep and started playing my way through the newest Megaman. There were a lot of things on my mind: the sandlot, the construction crew, and Jimmy...
I shuddered at the thought. What would being a fox feel like?
The sun was rising outside, and I had beaten Dr. Wily's last incarnation. The credits ran, and I switched off the game. Still no Jimmy.
Mom had recorded Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego for me, and I watched the tape while I waited. What a great show. And that band at the end, that sings the theme song... they're awesome. I still can't believe that that one drummer guy does it all with his mouth. I always scream "do it Rockapella" at the end! They even advertised the show in the song: Monday through Friday at five...
Yeah, so I was raving about an educational show. Anything to keep my mind off what was about to happen.
The knock on our front door sent chills down my spine; I walked to the door like a man climbing the steps of a guillotine. Mom was still asleep; I wasn't going to tell her about what I was doing. She didn't deserve the headache.
Jimmy was right there, of course: bright eyed, bushy-tailed (literally), and twenty dollar bill in hand. New day, new twenty, new pull on the reins. I was in it for the long haul, that day. For a moment I thought I could connive him into forgetting, just by keeping the conversation light and far away from foxes. Yeah, that was the ticket! "So, you wanna play a game or something? My dad bought Super Contra for me today --"
"You ready?" Rats. With that he pulled out the needle and popped the protective top, grinning a little.
I replied like a man ready for the Chair. "Whenever you are." I thrust my wrists out to him, turned away, and shut my eyes.
The prick almost made me feint, I was so nervous. "This is so exciting! I've always wanted to play with another fox!" There was a tingle that went along with the chilly liquid, something like goose bumps the size of dimes.
"So... what happens... now?" Already the cold chill was spreading across my entire body, coming to the skin as a cold sweat.
"It's very fast... and pretty painless. You'll feel a little strange when your face rearranges, and the tail is a little disorienting, but otherwise just sit back and enjoy the ride." How comforting!
But I didn't have time to comment, my mouth went numb for a moment, while I listened to facial bones pop and crackle. A muzzle exploded from my face, complete with orange fuzz of fur and a cute, wet black nose. I sniffed the dewy morning air with it while I felt my ears shift to the top of my head, harden, and form points on my crown.
And this entire time Jimmy kept this 'Waddaya think?' look you expect to see on an auto salesman. Any time I was expecting him to hand over the keys to my body and let me 'take a test drive'.
The thought didn't last long. Ripping denim echoed through the air. My long tail shot out of my pants like a bullet; once it was in place the fur started to grow in troves, leaving a bushy coat over the tail and a sleek orange covering over the rest of my body.
So what did my friend Jimmy have to say? "Well? Waddaya think?" I wanted to hit him for saying that one. Here I am: with a big, comfy tail; covered in a layer of soft, warm fur; scenting the subtle aromas of morning dew and listening to the rabbits scuttle in the brush; the kind of things that human sense organs can't even begin to grasp...
Okay, so it wasn't all bad. If I didn't know any better I'd say I liked being a fox. The fur was comfy, and the idea of having a tail was kind of exciting, and for some reason I felt full of energy... "Not bad," I reported, "not bad at all."
"I'm so glad you like it!" Jimmy yelped, "Now I know I'm not alone. And we can play together! Have you ever gone on a romp in the woods? It's lots of fun..."
Plans were already made for that day, though, so I stopped him with an outstretched hand. "Actually... we were all going to continue the War, since the sandlot's off limits." Ah yes, the War. Sure, we only fought with Nerf guns, but the action was very real. We always decked out for it: camo, plastic bandoleers, holsters, fake hand grenades... we had it all. Two tree houses were especially built for the battles; base operations were always aided with the greatest of technology, just like a real war room.
"You're... welcome to come if you want to," I offered. My tail swished behind me; I gasped at the strange feeling. Jimmy grinned.
"Sure! You have something for me to use?"
I let out a long laugh. "Do I have something for you to use!" My house even served as the Armory for the All-American GI Joe Butt-Kickers; my room had everything from Super Soakers for the Dog Day Campaigns to miniature dart guns for those Rainy Day Romps. The bulk of our lineup contained the ball blasting weapons, complete with what seemed to be a never-ending box of ammo.
We rooted through the Armory Box for a bit, and came out with a vest outfit fitting for the situation. I handed him a decent weapon -- the Ball Blaster came with a lot of power at the cost of clip size -- and a tiny dart gun for a sidearm. I opened my closet and came out with The Uniform.
I was a lieutenant in the army, after all, and when you're that high on the totem pole you get certain bonuses. The Tommygun-like Ballzooka was my weapon of choice; mom even made a holster for it on the back of my vest. Plastic bandoleers carried three full reloads -- 40 balls! -- and darts for my sidearm. An ankle band carrying my Secret Shot pistol came on last. I did try to put on the camo pants and cap, but with the new appendages it was next to impossible.
"Help me with the rest of the stuff," I said with an important tone of voice, just like a real army man. The Uniform does that to me, you see -- suddenly I'm not a kid. I'm at war. We both had an armful of guns; everyone left their weapons at the Armory, after all.
It wasn't a long haul, going to the meeting-place. Actually, everyone met in front of my house. We dumped the pile down, and I went about loading my weapon. It was oddly silent; usually they started chit-chatting about who was gonna kill who, or what strategy was going to be the winner. I looked up...
No one had touched the guns. They were too busy staring at me. I tried ignoring their stares. Nothing changed. I test fired my gun. Nobody moved. Finally, I turned to them and just asked, "Well? We just gonna stand here all day?"
"He got you, didn't he?" Joey barked suddenly, "That fox-boy caught you with your back turned and did this to you! He turned you into a fox!"
Funny you should mention that! "Well... it wasn't exactly like that. I kind of... well... volunteered for the body for a day. You know, try it out."
"So you've jumped the fence?" The Glove jumped in. "You've gone and joined the evil Iraqis. Gonna go work for Saddam now!" There was a manic gleam in their eyes, like someone was waving a twenty-dollar bill in front of their faces. Slowly the entire group reached for their guns.
I elbowed Jimmy, nodded to the street, and took off like a bolt. Sure, we could have taken off into the forest, but that was out of bounds. And a lieutenant in the All-American GI Joe Butt-Kickers never goes out of bounds. Balls, arrows, discs, and even a few stones bounded on the ground behind us. Subconsciously I reached for my weapon, pointed it back at the crowd, and squeezed off a few rounds.
No dice. No one dropped out of the chase. Sure, we all cheated when it came to being dead, but in a two-on-many situation they could at least be that polite.
We ran to a small yard, with lots of trees to use for cover. "Don't move until I say so," I whispered to Jimmy. He had taken cover behind a small pile of firewood. I could hear his heart pounding excitedly, smell the sweat covering anything his paw touched. I knew my weapon was soaked, anyhow.
I could hear them sneak into the yard, the whole lot of them. For some reason they insisted on staying in one big, clump. I grinned to Jimmy, waiting for just the right moment to jump out.
There was a strange metallic cocking noise that pierced the tense silence. I didn't know exactly what it was, but it wasn't going to stop me. I had a game to win! With a deep breath, I screamed "Now!" and turned out from behind my tiny tree, foam balls flying everywhere.
A dull clang rang out, and suddenly my left leg felt like it was on fire! Looking down I could see an oil seeping from the point of contact, surrounded by cracked parts of a shell...
"Who has the paintball gun?" I screamed, and another ball hit on my side. Then another. And another. Everyone else was too busy laughing to answer me.
"Lookit the fox!" They screamed over the paintball gun's rat-tat-tat roar, "Stupid fox! Stupid, gay fox! Stupid, gay, Iraqi fox! You lose!" I was too busy protecting myself to let the words sink in.
About ten balls dug into my fluffy chest fur before a concerned mother screamed out her window. And they dispersed just like that. I laid there for what felt like an eternity; it hurt to move, hurt to breathe, hurt my heart to beat. It just hurt.
"Jimmy!" I screamed out, instantly regretting it. Pain shot through my ribs while I awaited the answer.
Silence. The stupid fox left me!
"You okay, Oliver?" I heard him whisper from behind the woodpile. The fox came into plain sight without making a sound, looked at my state, and gasped. "I heard the shots from where I was. They sounded bad."
"Where were you?" I was ready to wring this kid's neck; first I take twenty bucks to lose my humanity for a day, then when the going gets rough he splits.
"I... I went to get help. You know I couldn't have done a thing! We were losing the War."
"So that woman..."
"Was that nice woman two houses down. Didn't get her name, though." My jaw would have dropped if it didn't hurt to do so. I had expected the worst, and instead he came through like few people do.
He came through like a true friend.
There had to be something I could do to repay him! Anything! "Thanks," was all I could think of.
"No problem," he said with a chuckle, "Let's go get you cleaned up; if there's anything worse than a dirty fur coat I don't want to know what it is." There was a soft tone to his voice, something very friendly about it. Caring. Understanding.
I opened my mouth almost out of reflex; there was something sitting on the very tip of my tongue, and I wanted Jimmy to come along... "Hey!"
"Grass is cheaper, straw is free; buy a farm and get all three." I gave him a quizzical look, and he added "It's one of my mom's favorite lines."
"Okay. So the guys and I were thinking about going to the Roller Cave tonight. You wanna come along?"
He raised a single eyebrow, though the effect was lost with all the fur. "Those guys? The ones that just pelted you with paintballs? Why?"
"Oh, that was just war! Of course the weapons are going to get better." I shrugged, let out a strained chuckle. "Trust me, it'll be fun."
"I don't know how to skate."
Paydirt! I'd pay him back yet! "Well, I'll teach you when we get there. Trust me; it'll be great."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely." He didn't say anything, which I took for a yes. "So, can you be ready to roll at six?"
"Just after my midday booster --"
"Wait a second," I interrupted, "Didn't you say this fox was an all day thing?"
"Well, not exactly. If you don't take a booster it fades away midday." He sighed. "So I guess that means you're not gonna be a fox when we go to this Roller Cave."
"Sorry, I'm just not comfortable walking around in public like that. Maybe in the future." I grinned, the gesture happening more in my ears and my tail than anything.
He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. "No problem. Six then?"
"Six it is."
"See you then!" and with that the fox hopped the backyard fence and disappeared into the woods. I went home to search for an ice pack.
They all covered for the paintball sniper, of course; I didn't even get to see his face. That's how boys are; we'll cover for each other whenever someone's in need. Sure, they'd beat the crap out of a strange little kid, as long as the parents just thought he fell down a steep hill in the woods.
The bottom line: any parent that thinks their little boy is a darling angel is dead wrong.
Jimmy and I drove separate from the rest of the crowd to the Roller Cave; the last bits of my fur were still falling out, and I didn't really want to show up in front of my friends still part fox. I just said that I had the last bits of a project to finish when they called -- though it was hard to sell that when I was struggling not to gasp at the sensation of a tail sinking back into my butt.
But hey, for twenty bucks it was worth every minute.
I don't know how he did it, but the fox still kept a very positive impression of my friends. "This is gonna be great! You, me, your friends... hanging out and doing this..." he paused, formed the word in his mouth for a moment. "Skating thing together! So..."
"So what?" I said. We were pulling into the Roller Cave parking lot; the place looked worse for the wear. Rust streaked down the industrial-looking walls. It was painted in a mustard yellow, with the words 'Roller Cave' printed in simple block letters on the side. The entrance had plastic rock molding around the posts. But we were kids, and didn't really pay attention to how cheap it was.
"So what is skating, anyway?" I slapped my forehead and reminded myself that this was a very profitable guy to help out.
"Well... it's like this. You buy shoes with wheels on the bottom, and then you... Well, it's like... then you..." I blushed and ended the conversation with "You'll figure it out." Miss Pross found a parking space, dropped us off, and left.
The Glove and company were waiting in the tiny lobby. They stood in line with me while I bought tickets. Jimmy... well, they pushed Jimmy to one side. "How'd the project go?" one of them asked.
"The project?" I thought about it for a second, "Oh yes! The project! No problem. I finished it just before I came."
"And your... body? How's that doing?"
"I don't know," I mumbled. "It's very strange, when you get rid of a tail and all the extra senses that came with it." And at that point I thought the fox form was much better. Better safe than sorry, though, when dealing with friends.
Joey elbowed me and whispered, "We know he made you do it. He's just that type." Then, on the sly, "Why do you hang out with him, anyhow?"
"He's a nice guy," I replied simply, "Fun to be around, lots of toys at his house, good baseball player..."
"Come on," The Glove jumped in. I tried to keep a straight face, but broke down with the stare.
"Okay! Twenty bucks a day, every day. Just have to be friendly."
"With a fox?" Joey yelped. I hushed him with my hand.
"Yes, with a fox. If that's what gets me twenty bucks, that's what I'm going to do."
"So you were paid to go along with the fox thing." The Glove threw me just the line I needed to pull myself out of the hole!
"Yeah, basically. You'd do the same, for the money I get." It wasn't a bold-faced lie, but it sure beat 'I was guilted into it, and kind of liked what came out'. My turn in the ticket line finally came, and I bought a pair with skate rental.
We walked through the doors to pounding hip-hop music and flashy lights. Roller Cave always put on a good show for our school's skate parties. The overhead lights were turned down low, and flashy dance bulbs thrown into the mix. At the time they had the disco ball running; most of the kids were dodging the points of light on the dull orange skating floor. Inside the dull orange skating ring was the dance floor; it lit up like a discotech while little girls in stocking feet gyrated like idiots.
Above, a DJ watched everything. To the left of him, the redemption counter and arcade. Over in a small cul-de-sac, a concession stand and skee-ball. (Don't ask me why they kept the skee-ball separate from the arcade; it was how they always did it.) To the left of the skee-ball was the skate rental. There were no windows in the place; every wall had the same dull molded stone covering, just like a real cave.
We walked over to the rental line, amongst stares from the crowd. Someone tried to skate over Jimmy's tail while we waited; from then on he hugged it to his chest. We had a time approximating a shoe size for the fox -- with leathery pads and claws on one's feet one doesn't usually wear shoes -- but we finally found a shoe that didn't tear into him too badly. After he was done I gave both my shoes as collateral to the rental man and took out a dull, leathery pair for myself.
The fox took forever to get his skates on -- I even had to tie his shoes -- but once they were on I pulled him to his feet. Immediately he fell back down again. Holding back a chuckle, I gently grasped an arm and pulled him back up again. "Takes a little time," I commented, "but once you learn you'll never forget it. Just like riding a bike."
He nodded. I looked over at The Glove and company, who were playing pool with the fifth graders. Fifth graders! They were really moving up the social ladder, I thought. Joey already had three sticky fingers from the redemption counter. He was attacking the Tron cabinet with them, and suddenly I had the yearn to go play enough skee-ball to get a few of my own...
No, Jimmy came first. Twenty bucks said he had to learn to skate.
At one end of the skating rink was a small walled off area where beginners of all shapes and sizes learned to skate. Fittingly enough, this area bordered the skate jail. I wheeled Jimmy out to the area, and started my attempt to describe how it worked. "Okay. All you do is stand on your skates, and push one foot out to one side. That's it!"
He did just that, and fell flat on his tail. The inhuman yip made me shudder. "Let's try again," I said with a tired tone of voice. This time he made it a few feet before losing his balance and going down to his knees. Looking over, I saw my friends laughing at me. Probably following the fifth graders' lead.
We worked hard to get the basics down, and once we did I turned him loose on the real ring while I went to chat with The Glove. When I skated up to the pool table I saw there were three fifth grade boys; two were playing pool, and one had his face buried in the Tron game. "What's up?" I asked everyone, smiling widely.
"We were looking at that fox guy," one of the older guys butted in, "Does he wear that costume all the time?" He was pretty muscular for an elementary student -- which to me said "Don't even try something stupid."
"Well... it's not exactly a costume."
"Then what is it?" the Tron player said acidly.
"He's a..." I searched for a word, "mixture. Yeah, a mixture. Part fox, part human."
The fifth grader leaning over the cue ball added, "Part dork, too." My crowd reluctantly laughed at the joke. "He really needs a pounding."
"Yeah," the Tron player said. Strong words, I knew. Especially coming from a Fifth Grader.
One of the guys standing at the pool table looked right at The Glove. He shrank at the glare. "So, you runts want to prove yourself worthy of hanging out with us?" Nickie nodded -- coolness was everything, and fifth graders were definitely cool -- "Then here's what you do. You get your little friend here to lure that fox to the bathroom, and we'll make mincemeat out of him. Got that?"
"Sure thing!" Joey interjected, pulling his sticky fingers from the machine. My jaw dropped, and I quickly tried to pull it back up again...
But the gesture didn't go unnoticed. "Got a problem with that, shrimp?"
Yes, I do have a problem with that. Jimmy's my friend, even if he pays me twenty dollars a day. I've been in his shoes, and I know why he likes being a fox. If I didn't know you guys would be jerks about it, I may have been a fox also. And you want to beat him just because his life is such a drastic change from your own?
"No. No problem at all!" Darn. Amazing what peer pressure can do.
"Well, you know what to do! Go get him!" A cold lump formed in my throat; I didn't even listen to the skate guard when he told me I was going the wrong way. I just wanted to get it over with.
Jimmy was all smiles when we met on the track. "This is awesome! I never thought skating could be this much fun! You having a good time?"
No. Someone connived me into luring you to the bathroom for a beating. Stay out here in the open. I don't want you to get hurt. I wouldn't want that to happen to any of my friends. "I'm having a great time." Why couldn't I say what I needed to say?
"Yeah! We should play that Mercs game in a while; I've seen the game before, but never quite got to play it. Sound good to you?"
"Of course." I gave him one of those cheesy grins you either love or hate to see.
He gave me a weird look for a moment. "Hey, I really need to go to the bathroom. Where do I need to go?"
Hold it! Whatever you do don't go in there! It's suicide! They're gonna pound you! "Right over there. Door on the right hand side." What was I doing? He was going to get pounded, and I was going to sit idly by while they did it!
"Right. See you in a bit!" And with that he skated towards the bathroom door, with the fifth graders' mob in tow.
My heart suddenly felt cold. Just yesterday I was in the same position, being pelted by paintballs. It only took a day to turn the situation 180 degrees! Why couldn't I just give up that social status and save a good friend? Sure, he was a little on the strange side, but at least he was honest!
Too disgusted to skate I skated over to the arcade and went up to the baseball machine. I put my quarter in and started pounding the pitch and hit buttons. All I wanted to do was hit for the fences, suddenly.
Jimmy came out pretty well, actually. Most of the mobsters left with scratches in one place or another. Other than a little kink in his tail and a hunk of missing fur, there was nothing outwardly wrong with him. Not enough to dull the guilt in the back of my mind, unfortunately.
The rest of the night was uneventful; it followed traditional skate party scheduling, with corny songs like the Hokey Pokey to make everyone moan. Most of the night I spent in the arcade, pouring money into Tron and Mercs. I only skated one time, and that was the last skate of the night.
Walking outside, I saw Jimmy standing with a gigantic cell phone. It looked like a field radio from one of those war movies. While everyone else ran to their car, the fox flagged me down. "Yes... so you mean they're... and that means forever..." I heard a low mumble from the other end; presumably his dad.
"That's wonderful!" he cheered, "I can't wait to move out!" And with that he handed the phone to Miss Pross. Before I could say anything he was hugging me.
"You're not gonna believe it!" he said to me, "They've made the permanent cure! I can be a fox forever! Isn't that awesome!"
I thought about the paintballs, the beating he received in the bathroom, and wondered how he could still think it was a great thing to have on his side. "That's great, I guess..."
"And daddy said I could take you along!" My blood ran cold. I could feel the feeling gradually going out of my hands and feet.
"He said he'd pay you a lot of money to take the transformation with me. Doesn't that sound good? You and me; we could be friends forever! Foxes to the end! Doesn't that sound like fun to you?"
"Well, I... well... uh... I mean, it sounds good and all..."
"We'll have to go to New Mexico to get the procedure done," he interjected, "It'll be a great vacation."
I sighed deeply and looked down to the ground. His dad was going to pay me a lot of money -- more than twenty bucks, I was sure -- just to wear a fur coat and tail. I loved the feel of it -- still not sure why -- but for some reason it just seems to attract trouble.
And it wasn't like Jimmy was a bad kid. Over the past few days I had even learned to like him. There was nothing bad to being around him; in fact, I was starting to like him more than any of my friends. Always there with a new surprise, or a great adventure, or that awesome slot car track...
But to be a fox for the rest of my life? What would happen to my social status? Not even the first graders would associate with me, if I went through with it.
And that's what won out in the end. "Listen; I like the offer, and you're a great friend and all..."
"But I couldn't do it. Look at what happened to us yesterday. Look what happened to you today! It's like asking for trouble. I couldn't live my life like that."
"You just have to trust me!" he said, "Things will be better, I swear! Just give it time, and people will change..."
"I don't want it to change," I spat.
"You saw it for yourself! They played with me until they found out I could possibly be better; that's when they started harping us. Just give them a little time, and they may figure it out eventually..."
"Sorry, I can't." A tear was forming in the corner of my eye; boys just weren't supposed to cry!
"Come on! You and me will be friends forever; that will never change! You have to come along."
"I'm just sorry," with that I turned and sprinted to catch up with The Glove and crew. Jimmy was left limply holding his field radio of a phone, waving goodbye.
Inside the van I found a hero's welcome. Most everyone was cheering my ability to sucker that kid in. "Telling that stupid fox off?" they asked.
"I guess so," I said solemnly, "Stupid fox'll never learn."
"Too bad we can't play on the sandlot anymore," Joey added, "We coulda heckled him from our side of the fence."
I nodded and tried to chuckle. And as The Glove's mom drove into the night, I turned to wave goodbye to the fox standing alone in the doorway, wondering if he'd still want to ride bikes the next day.
The next morning I woke up at about ten, feeling ragged and tired. Sure, it was summer, but there were usually too many things that we could do instead of sleeping in. I mean, we could have played five innings of baseball for those extra two hours of sleep...
Oh yeah. The SOLD sign. The building crew painting off utilities. Baseball was gone.
Guilt was eating at my mind, so I decided to hop on my bike and ride to Jimmy's house. Maybe he'd take my apology and go out for a ride with me before he took off for San Antonio. Sure beat wallowing in guilt; that was for sure. I hopped onto my shock-laden Huffy bike and motored out of the garage.
Rivendale was quiet yet lively, if that was even possible. From where I stood outside the gates I watched a group of young kids playing croquet -- my grandma played that stiff game, and even she was louder than these kids! A family sat on their front patio taking tea. Two dogs laid together, electric collars around their necks. So many people, and it was just so quiet...
Some kind old geezer on the border house opened the door, when he realized who I was. "Fox's friend," he explained to his wife, "you know, the freak?"
I ignored the last jab and started pedaling down the paver brick lane. Jimmy was probably waiting for me, hoping that I'll come one last time to say goodbye. Okay, so I wanted to meet with him one last time. If I didn't apologize for what I did I was going to go crazy.
Up the stairs I went, up to the gigantic house, up to where a little boy literally got whatever he wanted, up to where the leprosy of unreality took hold. (Don't ask me where that one came from; my English teacher mentioned it one time.) I held the ornate foxtail door knocker in one hand, took a deep breath, and let it strike the door.
I pulled back again, let it drop.
Getting nervous, I pressed the doorbell once. Twice. Three times. The only sound in the house was the rich tone of tubular bells. There was no way! I maniacally pounded on the button, hoping that I'd wake them all up from a sleep. That was it! They were sleeping in! All I had to do was pound and pound and pound...
"They're not home," a voice stated. I jumped a mile. "Over here."
I looked to the house across the way. An old lady lounged in a posh rocking chair on her posh patio in her posh silken robe, sipping a posh mug of hot tea. I tried not to show my disgust -- rich people had too much at their disposal, I had come to realize.
"They left last night at about midnight, told me to tell anyone that they weren't coming back. Jimmy seemed torn -- I'm no expert on freaky boys who like to grow fur and a tail -- but there was something in his eyes that screamed he heart wasn't in it."
I just stared, jaw dropping to the floor.
"You were his friend, weren't you?" I nodded. "Denise told me about you. She said you were the only person willing to look past his fur and give him a chance. I have to say you did more than you could possibly imagine for that kid." She sighed. "Poor Jimmy! If only he would just give it up and just to back to the way it was..."
My heart fell to my feet, then throbbed in my head. He was gone! One night and he just drifted away! Just like that!
And I didn't even get a chance to say I'm sorry.
With a heavy heart I slowly pedaled my bike out of Rivendale, swearing on my great-grandmother's grave never to go back there. Outside, I turned onto the bumpy grass and followed Rivendale's brick wall. Gone, I thought again. Just when I was starting to like him. And two days ago we walked this exact same route on our way to play baseball.
First baseball, now Jimmy? What was happening! Why couldn't things stay the way they were?
I always thought things wouldn't change. My friends and I would always meet on Saturday mornings to watch Sonic the Hedgehog, then always go out to play baseball, and always go outside to play Nerf war. We were going to be friends forever!
But with one needle and a new coat of fur I turned from best friend to bitter enemy. The welts remained from that paintball incident. And when they used me to get Jimmy into that ambush... I shuddered to think. Things did change; stores came into favor and faded out, cartoons were big with kids for a few months, then faded out of favor.
And we all just drift away.
The wall tried to grab my fingers while I walked my bike. It was made of rough, porous stone, the kind of stuff that just grabs onto anything and holds on forever. I hated it. If it wanted everything so badly, why couldn't it keep a hold of Jimmy?
I turned the corner to the old sandlot, ready to look at the big hole that was sure to be there. The house on that sign looked really big, the kind of place that has three basements and a bomb shelter. On the positive, I would see one of those giant CAT diggers...
And when I made the final corner, my jaw dropped. Like Paul Revere I took off on my bike, riding like the wind to warn The Glove and crew about the exciting news. "The Sandlot! The Sandlot!" I screamed.
When I had them all rounded up, I led them to the beautiful, grass-covered opening, completely re-sodden, base lines freshly painted, new fences lining the newly brushed, sandy batter's box. And a dugout! For Heaven's sake there was a dugout!
We all went google-eyed over the small concrete structure. It had everything; bat rack filled with new bats, glove hooks with new gloves, running water -- running water! -- and a huge orange water cooler on top of a box of dehydrated Gatorade. "Just like the pros," Joey blurted. A note was on top of the cooler; I pulled it off and read it to everyone:
"Hey everyone!" I started subconsciously. I didn't really have to read the note -- the pieces fit too well -- but Jimmy probably wanted it this way. "'I'm sorry I had to go on such short notice. The procedure was offered today and today only, so I had to go. I'm sorry you couldn't come, Ollie. I know you liked being a fox, but I also understand why you didn't want to be one for the rest of your life.
"'You were afraid of being different. Nothing wrong with that. I found out what different meant when all my friends left me. You were all afraid of me. I made you uneasy. I wasn't what you expected in a boy. I know that. That's why you did what you did. You didn't want to look uncool in front of those popular kids.'" And I glared at my friends when I added, "'And I understand that.'"
They all looked down at their feet.
"'Ollie, you tried. You really tried. I'm glad you were my friend. I can't blame you for not coming along. You just don't understand how I feel about foxes. You probably never will. I hope this makes up for it, though.
"'Don't ask me how I did it; when I told daddy about it he just mumbled 'Money talks' and made a few phone calls.'" I stopped reading there; it seemed like a good spot to stop on the note, and the rest I didn't want them to hear.
I'll never forget how to skate, Ollie. Now you'll never forget me. Hopefully I can come back sometime, race some slot cars, join a Nerf war, play some baseball, go to a skate party. I really want to go to another skate party. But if we never see each other again, I just hope you won't let me drift away.
Don't ever change. Love, Jimmy.
A tear welled up in my eye; for the first time I wasn't embarrassed by the gesture. Everyone stared while I swallowed the lump in my throat, but I ignored their questioning looks. Jimmy was gone, and didn't even give me a chance to say goodbye. Yet he left me with a beautiful sandlot -- no, a baseball field -- anyway! How could I repay him?
By never changing, of course. With a grin, I yelled, "What are we waiting for? Let's play ball!"
And we played. We played until the sun came down, and the new halogen lights kicked to life. And with every hit that came to my shortstop position I tried to do that same diving roll Jimmy did only three days ago. He'd never drift away from my heart.