Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"Last Goal"

A Short Story by Conrad Mann

Our story starts in preschool. When people talk of preschools, they are happy places for young boys and girls. They merrily play with blocks and cars, games and toys and begin the first steps to school. This preschool was no exception – besides two small boys…

Rudan was a dark-brown haired boy with hazel coloured eyes. He had a fistful of marbles and was glaring at a slightly taller boy with straight black hair and cold merciless blue eyes. That boy’s name was Sinulous. Sinulous was not empty handed either. Hard wooden blocks (the kind with letters on them) were clutched in his small hands.

“Bwing it on, Sinulous!” spat Rudan with malice laden words. He raised his marble-filled hand threateningly.

Before either could attack or reply, the preschool teacher strode over after mistaking Rudan’s threat for raising his hand and boomed,
“What’s the matter, Rudan?”

Both boys chorused, “Nothing!”

These clashes were an almost daily occurrence. They were caused by a mixture of hate on first sight, a small school and pride. Both rivals were also extremely competitive. If you have ever had a rival you will know what I mean. It’s like a cold wind blowing down your neck or someone reading over your shoulder.

We pick up the story 7 or 8 years later. It was a warm summer day with the wind gently ruffling the treetops. Rudan still had brown hair and hazel coloured eyes. He was a lot taller and stronger than his preschool days. At the moment he was standing by the lockers skimming a sports magazine. He and his friends were crazy about soccer and he had saved enough of his allowance to buy two portable soccer nets. He had sighted a pricy yet promising one just as footsteps pounded down the hall toward him. He whirled around, ready for trouble. He was always alert to Sinulous’ skirmishes. He took up a fighter’s pose with his feet widespread and his rolled-up magazine raised. A breathless form raced around the corner and almost collided with the startled Rudan. This form was a he, and the he was Trevor, Rudan’s best friend. “Here, read it,” Trevor gasped, stretching out his hand. After Rudan took the paper, Trevor collapsed in a heap on the floor. Rudan was holding a newspaper clipping taken from the town’s local newspaper.

Rudan smoothed the heavily creased paper and skimmed it. He was about to say he didn’t see anything when one article caught his eye. He quickly skimmed it.

“I don’t believe it…” he murmured reverently and feverishly re-read it.

By this time Trevor was back on his feet.

Just then, a voice behind them rang out and made them jump. “Well, well… you got the news?”

Trevor and Rudan whirled around and came face to face with Sinulous, a smirk on his face as he stepped out of the shadows. Out of reflex, Trevor began to attack but Rudan held him back.

“Don’t,” he whispered into Trevor’s ear. “He’s never alone. Let’s just see what he wants.” He released his hold on his friend.

Rudan was right, Sinulous was not alone. Two thick muscled (and thick skulled) brutes took up positions on either side of Sinulous. One of them tried to smirk but it looked more like a grimace. The other just scratched his chin absently.

Seeing Rudan’s look of amusement, Sinulous curled his lip in disgust and nudged his body guards roughly.

“Let’s make a deal,” said Sinulous turning back.

Rudan knew instantly what Sinulous was going to propose. It had to do with the newspaper article. There was a big soccer game going on tomorrow. And they were in it. Rudan was not looking forward to it. Sinulous had a very good team. That is, he was on a team that he had eating out of his hand.

Rudan, on the other hand, was on a team that followed him because they liked him, whereas Sinulous’ team followed him through fear.

“Are you listening?” Sinulous’ voice broke through Rudan’s thoughts.

“Whoever loses will lose in front of Dethan Wassorth, the famous soccer player. He’s coming to town to visit his cousin and he’ll be at the game.”

“I know,” said Rudan impatiently. “It was in the newspaper,” he said holding out the article. He turned around and stormed off down the hallway, Trevor hot on his heels.

The next morning Rudan woke up after a restless sleep. He lay blinking in bed for a few minutes, and slowly remembered that today he was playing in the finals and Dethan Wassorth was going to be in the crowd. He felt like going back to sleep and promptly turned over.

Half an hour later he came back to his senses and much to his annoyance his mom was shaking him awake cheerfully saying, “Rise and shine!”

After clawing his way through schoolwork that would have been very easy without the stress of the upcoming game, Rudan met up with Trevor at lunch.

“Ready for the big game?” Trevor asked almost as cheerfully as Rudan’s Mom.
Rudan winced. “I hope so,” he said as they tucked into lunch. The day went by in a blur. It felt to Rudan as if one minute he was at lunch and the next minute he was standing in the middle of the soccer field.

In front of him were the bleachers. They were a roiling sea of a score of colors – from red to green and white to black. Most colours were there. To his right and left were large white soccer goals backed with nettings to keep the ball in play. And behind him were the school and changing rooms. He and his teammates stood dazed and Sinulous’s team didn’t look much better. After a quick survey of the stands he thought he glimpsed Dethan Wassorth eating a hot dog.

The referee walked up, his whistle blew, and they were off. Rudan, Trevor and a tall boy named Benjamin made a series of short passes. Trevor passed to Rudan, Rudan passed to Benjamin, Benjamin to Rudan… Rudan shot. The goalie jumped, but not far enough. On the scoreboard, Rudan’s team number changed from 0 to 1.

All seemed to be going well until after a short huddle. Mr. Rickson (Sinulous’s coach) hatched a plan. It was complicated and involved passing back and forth rendering the defenders of Rudan’s team totally confused. Their plan scored them two goals but on their third try the defenders had come to their senses and were prepared for retaliatory action. As Rudan was attempting another goal, an opposing defender came out of nowhere from behind and knocked him off his feet. He slid a meter or so, and then ground to a halt. The referee rushed up brandishing a red card in the air.

“Penalty,” he bellowed.

Sinulous was out of earshot but Rudan could make out a curse on his lips. “I’m fine,” he muttered to the referee and prepared for shooting a penalty. Nobody knew exactly what happened next. Rudan wound up for the shot, his foot collided with the ball at top speed and the ball sailed through the air in a blur. The crowd gasped. Some were full of glee, others excitement, and yet others disappointment.

“It must have been the wind,” he told himself later. “What else could it have been?” The ball was going for a clear top left corner goal when it suddenly curved and glanced off the post perhaps chipping off some paint and landed out of bounds.

The next two minutes were spent without much excitement. Teams exchanged turns with the ball. That small white and black checkered sphere seemed to have a mind of its own, moving back and forth over the halfway line, and out of bounds.

After five throw ins, the whistle blew for half time. Rudan’s team gathered around their coach, Mr. Johnder, a tall balding man with thick glasses, who was around 60 years old. All players immediately started drinking from their water bottles as Mr. Johnder’s strong and comforting voice washed over them in a pep-talk. Most players weren’t listening though. They were staring at the opposite team who seemed gleeful about something. Sinulous turned around from his huddle and called raucously, “Hey Rudan! After the game you’ll have to tell me how it feels to lose in front of Dethan Wassorth.” Rudan was burning with rage. Trevor glanced at him knowingly and prepared to listen because he knew that when Rudan was extremely angry, he was prone to making fabulous plans.

“Listen up. This is what we’ll do….” And he began outlining his plan.

A few minutes later, his team marched back onto the field. Already the expanse of grass was torn up by many pounding feet. At the beginning of the game it had been clear and lush.
Sinulous’ team turned out to be over-confident. Before Rudan could hatch his plan, he saw a weakness in enemy lines and dashed for it. He got through two burly mid-fielders, and then came up dead with a short long-nosed defender. Rudan feigned a left, then made a right and the defender stumbled backwards. Rudan sprang forward and shot a pass to an empty space in front of the goal. As Rudan predicted, Trevor filled up the gap and kicked hard. The goalie made it to the ball in time but was not quick enough to bring his hands up to catch it. The little spin on the ball made it bounce off his elbow and land at Trevor’s feet. Trevor kicked even harder this time. Because of being only 2 meters away from the speeding ball, the goalie, on reflex, dodged. This time the crowd went wild! The game was tied. Trevor was carried off on the shoulders of some very happy teammates.

The cheers had not yet died down before the game continued. No momentum was lost. Sinulous and his team were furious. They had their goalie replaced with a tougher-looking one and gave Rudan’s team no time to recuperate as they played with renewed vigor. They wanted to win. A tie would not satisfy them.

Rudan’s team was hard-pressed just to keep the ball away from their exhausted-looking goalie – actually the whole team was exhausted. Even Mr. Johnder – the only ones who still had energy were the crowd. They seemed to display it by ceaseless cheering and screaming. Only a few were still sitting and a couple of them were jumping. Rudan looked up at the crowd and caught another glimpse of Dethan Wassorth who was gazing thoughtfully at Rudan’s sweat-streaked face. Dethan Wassorth smiled warmly and Rudan felt a tired grin spread across his own face.

At this point, many players were beginning to notice the sun. It was beating down mercilessly. Rudan knew something had to be done – and quick. His players could not keep this up for long. He saw a break and made for it, signaling to Trevor. Trevor shouted something to Benjamin and they got in position. A defender snatched the ball from a striker of Sinulous’ team and cleared it part of the way up field. Rudan leaned forward and sprang into the air. With a “pong” sound it ricocheted off his head. Pain lanced through his scalp but he pushed it aside. While the ball was still bouncing he passed to Trevor. Trevor passed it backwards and a defender on his team smashed it hard, all the way to Benjamin who, with a gleam in his eye, let himself be tackled by the same bumbling defender that Rudan found it easy to by-pass before. The defender clumsily, with little control, took the ball and was about to boot it out of the area, when Trevor zoomed in like a 747 and knocked him off his feet. Rudan got there just in time and sprinted toward the goal.

All of a sudden Sinulous appeared in front of him. Rudan hesitated. Then he kicked the ball hard at Sinulous. It bounced off his kneecap and into the air. Rudan didn’t think. He jumped. He spun in the air 360 degrees and tilted back. The ball found his foot. Sinulous was falling down and the goalie looked surprised. The crowd didn’t dare to breathe. They were on the edge of their seats. Rudan placed a shattering kick on the ball and the next thing it touched…was the inside of the soccer net. He had won!

Ten minutes later his team was crowding around him, patting him on the back so much he was having trouble drinking from his water bottle!

Just then Dethan Wassorth was suddenly standing in front of him. He was saying something complimentary but over all the cheering, Rudan couldn’t make it out. But he didn’t care. It was the best day of his life. Even better was the fact that Sinulous was nowhere to be seen.

The thought echoed through his head again.

He had won.