I didn’t see the hit. Only the body lying at an incorrect angle as other players stood up, lumbered off. Something was wrong. That was obvious. Even from the stands. Both teams stood in insecure stances. They looked like boys again, not football players. Billy didn’t move & the safety for the other team, a little guy, jumped & waved his arms. He was screaming & his screaming sounded small, like a mouse in a corner. Then the refs yelled to the sidelines & the medical staff ran in.
Someone, maybe Andre, lifted Billy’s right arm & dropped it. The arm fell to the field like a towel, his skin vivid against the white forty-yard line.
The stands were very quiet, students & parents all craning their necks. The medical teams surrounded Billy now, touching him, leaning in & whispering into one another’s ears. One of them turned away from the body & put his face in his hands.
What happened? Jenny said. Jenny is my girlfriend. Sort of. We’re something.
And then there was a wave of whispers, of questions & responses. What happened? Did you see it? Who hit him? How bad is it?
Ty had filmed the play on his phone & we circled around him with other students as he replayed it. Jared calling out the play. The hike. The toss back to Billy. The surge of linemen as Billy rushes forward. But then Billy disappears in the crush of bodies. Then one by one the limbed mass pulls away, becoming a human body again. Billy is left on the grass, his pelvis & shoulders no longer in a coherent line.
The siren was quiet, then grew louder, & then really loud as the ambulance pulled up to the gates. Jenny was crying now. Her hands were pushed down into the pockets of her hoodie & her face scrunched up, like the tears were painful. I think I was crying too, but I wasn’t sure what I was crying about. The tears were there but they held no message.
The ambulance guys ran in, guiding a rolling gurney made of white plastic & steel. The ambulance guys knelt, lifted the gurney to its full height, & trotted out with Billy.
I knew he was dead. I don’t know how I knew but I knew. I’m not just saying that because I found out later he was dead. I knew it.
The players were all back to the sidelines, as if waiting to be told the next play. But the two coaches stood in the middle of the field, standing close, their shoulders almost touching, maybe touching. The other team’s coach made a kind of shrug, but nodded. And Coach Gaffner nodded too. The men shook hands & the other coach walked back to his sideline. Coach Gaffner trotted up the stairs to the control room.
The PA system cracked once & squeaked & Coach said “Check?” & the word seemed very lonely in that big, brightly lit field.
How long had gone by? Ten minutes? I couldn’t remember the game that had occurred before the hit. I looked at the scoreboard & was surprised to see a score there. We were winning.
“There’s been a horrible accident,” Coach said. “It’s just…” he trailed off but his breathing, heavy from having jogged up the stairs, pulsed through the air loudly. “Billy, uh… William White… Jesus.” Then there was a click & the stadium was quiet again. People turned toward each other.
There was another click. “This is Principal James,” Principal James said, her voice monotone & as precise as usual. I pictured the precise, ironed collar of the white shirts she always wore, the precise, mechanical precision of the twists in her hair. I looked at Jenny. She was still crying but her face was calm now as she looked up at the control room. Her black hair had fallen loose from behind her ear & I had the urge to push it back. “Because of the injury to Billy White, we will be cancelling this game. The game will be made up another time.” She sighed, away from the microphone but still audible. “Be safe out there,” she said. And for the first time I could remember she sounded not like a principal but like someone’s mom, tired after a long day, imprecise.
At home I was walking down the stairs to the basement, texting Jenny. I had assumed, & assumed she had assumed, we were going to do something after the game. But in the confusion we got separated.
I wanted to see her because I wanted to see her. But it didn’t seem right to want to see her. It had been confirmed on dozens of texts & online that Billy was dead. I felt that maybe I wasn’t supposed to want to see Jenny, wasn’t supposed to want things I wanted. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, what I was supposed to do with my body while my mind kept replaying that arm falling to the field, the sound of dead flesh hitting well tended grass, replaying the times of Billy running through the hallways, laughing, knocking into people, their books flying, not caring, being a total dick, laughing that loud honk of a laugh.
Jenny didn’t know what to say either. We were both texting things that sounded like questions but would’ve had periods at the end of them if they were written sentences.
I feel so strange
Maybe Zach is still having his party at his dad’s place
Then I realized I’d been walking down the stairs for a long, long time. I looked back up the stairs & the beginning of the stairs was nowhere in sight. And I looked down the stairs & the basement was nowhere in sight.
I texted Jenny: My basement has disappeared
She texted back: ???
I texted: No, the stairwell is too long
I took a photo & sent it, the photo showed the stairs descending down into a tiny black point, the stripes of the wood-paneled walls getting smaller & smaller in the distance.
I texted: WTFWTFWTF
I sent another photo of the stairwell ascending into darkness. There are no lighting fixtures in the stairs, but where I stood was lit & the way down was lit. I stood for a while. I stared at my phone. The text said delivered. I waited for it to say read. But it didn’t. And Jenny did not text back.
I walked down the stairs. I walked slowly at first, hesitant, as if this might all be some kind of mirage & I would hit the cement floor of the basement at any moment.
Then I started running, taking two, three stairs at a time, reckless, panicking. My foot caught on the edge of a stair & my ankle rolled. I slammed against the wall, feeling a strangely serene click in my left shoulder followed by a great pain. I fell to the stairs.
I was panting & the pain in my left shoulder was both intense & hot & also distant, theoretical. I touched my shoulder & the pain got focused & sharp & my breath went funny. Pain shot through my chest & down the bone.
Crawling down the stairs I reached a landing. It was wide & long, not the thin carpeting of the stairs but hardwood flooring, old & scarred & polished by long use. After a slow & careful extraction of my arm from the strap, I put my backpack under my head & lay on it. I let my mind be overcome with the throbbing pain, timed to my heartbeat, growing slower in the stillness.
I checked my phone to see if Jenny had texted. I still had service but there were no new messages. I called 911. The phone rang & I felt an immediate surge of relief. Someone would come get me. Someone will fix me & take care of me. That’s how it works. But it just rang & rang. I turned on the speaker & put the phone down on the floor, ringing & ringing. My breath caught in my throat & I was really crying now, the burning in my eyes & my face & my neck.
It was dark when I woke up. I hadn’t remembered falling asleep but in sleep I’d dreamed confusing dreams of dark spaces filled with alarms, but in the background rustling in the corners, whispers responded with whispers. I was confused about where I was but when I moved the pain jolted me awake fully & I remembered the eternal descent & ascent of the stairs. My phone was almost dead but still ringing. The call had been active for more than three hours.
Incrementally the space grew more lit, a mechanical, florescent light that seemed to have no origin. I stood up, holding my left arm close to my body with my right arm. Each step jarred the shoulder slightly but I fell into a rhythm of blots & flares of pain.
The rhythm of pain lulled me into something like a fugue state. I stepped carefully with bent knees to reduce any impact. It took a while to notice the noise. A chunking, mechanical sound, metal clanging against metal. I thought it might be my imagination but it grew louder as I progressed down the stairs. Smells of ozone & machine oil filled the air.
When the stairs ended they opened up into a well-lit workroom. It looked like my basement if all the walls had been knocked out & the ceiling raised about twenty feet, held up by thick metal rafters. But there was something still of my basement to it. I wondered if I was in a dream, but I don’t think people feel so much pain in dreams. Do they?
Four huge machines sat against the far wall, whirling steel drums, metal arms slamming down & rising up, paper emerging & being cut into smaller sheets. The sound of the machines was so loud that when I yelled out Hello I doubted anyone would be able to hear me. I didn’t see anyone.
I approached the nearest machine & examined the freshly printed papers. They were all school assignments with my name in the upper left hand corners, but not any essays I had ever written. They seemed to be on topics ranging from the electoral college to Beowulf to why racism is bad. Thousands of essays, & the machine didn’t stop, piling up more & more of them. I ran my finger across the face of one & the ink slurred across the paper. I wiped my finger on my jeans but the ink would not wipe off.
The next machine was printing photographs of me. Posing in ridiculous, hyper, hugging poses with people I’d never seen before. Selfies in front of cathedrals & temples I’d never seen before. School pictures in sweaters I’d never seen before.
The next machine printed documents about me, birth certificates, medical records, bills to credit cards I’d never had.
The last machine printed stacks & stacks of fifty-dollar bills. There must have been millions of dollars there, piling up. All the machines whirled & chunked away, piling up more & more.
I tried to remember where the stairs were. But they were nowhere to be seen. In fact, the whole basement was difficult to see. It was as if the noise made the room go out of focus, like even the air was shaking. Things in the distance were blurry & I couldn’t tell how far off the corners of the basement even were. I tried to think of what my bedroom looked like & instead I kept picturing a thousand bedrooms, a thousand beds of various sizes & styles. When I thought about my mom her face looked like it was falling down the stairs.
My phone buzzed & then buzzed again & again & again. I looked at the screen: 673 messages. I scrolled down. None of them were from contacts in my phone, I scrolled faster & faster, past unknown number after unknown number, area codes I did not recognize, each message short & anxious “Where are you?” “RU OK?” “yo hmu asap” “Call me back, pleeeeease!!!!”