Short fiction (Guest Author Series)
Today, D. Mann gives us a gripping short story that delves into the unsettling dynamics of a family invited to a friend’s house for a barbecue.
The first sign of trouble was when David picked up the football and asked if anyone wanted to play a game of touch. The afternoon of drinking in the hot sun at the neighborhood barbecue had left him light-headed, edgy, somewhat uninhibited.
Even sober he was direct and aggressive, and often perceived as intimidating given his size and military bearing. Honed through years as an Army drill instructor, he found that this approach to dealing with people was not only effective, but the visible fear that it inspired—which he often confused with respect—also gave him a rush and a sense of superiority.
The potent mixture of booze and athletic competition were always enough to accentuate these sadistic tendencies in David, which often left his wife and stepson feeling anxious about what was to come next whenever such occasions arose.
“Go deep, Ricky,” David commanded to his stepson, who dutifully started running in a straight line to the deepest part of the yard. He fantasized about snagging the aerial with a fancy one-handed catch, but he turned too late, and the ball sailed past him before he could even extend his arms.
“Am I supposed to catch the ball for you, too, Ricky? It’s not enough that I throw it?” chided David with a look of mild disgust on his face. This prompted some of the adults and children to snicker nervously.
This was just the latest in a string of insults that David had lobbed at Ricky over the course of the afternoon. Other targets included Ricky’s rail-thin physique, his black plastic eyeglasses with their thick lenses, and his awkwardness around girls. “Just playful teasing,” David would say. But to Ricky, a self-conscious pre-teen, they struck at deep insecurities and fueled fantasies of revenge.
Ricky, red with embarrassment, head held low, muttered something unintelligible under his breath before retrieving the ball and throwing it back to David, giving it all that a skinny 11-year old could muster. But the ball merely fluttered before landing weakly about 20 feet in front of David.
“I guess the NFL will have to wait,” David said, drawing more uncomfortable laughter from the guests and deepening Ricky’s embarrassment.
“Leave him alone, David,” his wife, Eve, cried plaintively. “You can’t expect him to throw as far as you can at his age.”
This didn’t phase David, who was not through with his campaign to publicly humiliate his stepson. “Ricky, even if you can’t play, I know how you can contribute on the football field,” David said.
David then pointed to a swing set about 25 yards away and said, “See that?”.
Looking puzzled, Ricky nodded and said “Yes.”
“I want to kick a field goal over the top of it.”
This didn’t solve the puzzle for Ricky. He hesitated, then, with his head cocked to one side, said, “You want me to hold the ball for you?”
“Sort of. I want you to be the field goal tee.”
The angle of Ricky’s head deepened. When it dawned on him that David was serious, he was overcome by a mix of fear, dread, shame, and disbelief. He suddenly felt woozy. “You want me to be the tee?”
“Yeah, lay down on the ground over there and hold the ball on your nose so I can kick it.”
Ricky, paused, then, with resignation and faith, he walked to the football, picked it up, walked over to the indicated spot on the ground, and, finally, got down on his haunches. Praying silently for an intervention, he thought that an earthquake would be nice right about now.
The assembled guests and even the homeowners were stunned and did nothing but gawk at David. Some were fearful, others simply couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Eve had seen enough. She walked up to David purposefully and said, with as much composure as she could manage, “Stop this right now, David. You’re embarrassing us and frightening Ricky.”
“Maybe Ricky needs some toughening up,” David said.
“You’re being a jerk, David. Now stop it,” Eve replied.
David then grabbed Eve rudely by the upper arm and said through clenched teeth, “Don’t you ever talk back to me, woman.”
Seeing his mother in danger and fueled by a reservoir of hatred that had built up over the years, Ricky overcame his fear and charged at David, his fists circling almost comically in a windmill motion.
David laughed at the sight of this, then thrust Eve aside, forcing her to the ground. He grabbed Ricky in a bear hug then tossed him on his back.
Among the guests, the men just continued to stare, their mouths open in disbelief.
Finally, Jennifer, who, with her husband, was hosting the gathering, strode angrily toward David. Then, from inside David’s personal space, close enough to smell the booze on his breath, she stuck her finger in his face and screamed, “You’re a complete prick and an asshole. Why are you picking on your son?”
David seemed nonplussed but also mildly amused.
Several others now joined in the admonishment, with several other women backing up Jennifer in a show of solidarity. Then Calvin, Jennifer’s husband, finally said, “David, you need to leave now. Eve and Ricky are always welcome here, but you shouldn’t come back.”
Jennifer followed with, “We’re calling the police.”
David said nothing, and his face betrayed no emotion. He began to walk toward his 1968 green Camaro. He walked slowly, as if to make it clear that he was leaving because he wanted to and not because of fear of a confrontation. About halfway to his car he looked back at the guests and said, “You’re all a bunch of candy asses,” before returning to his trip to his vehicle.
Now that the threat had passed, the men joined the women in administering aid and comfort to Eve and Ricky.
David got into his car, slammed the door shut, turned the key in the ignition, then revved the engine several times. He stuck his arm out the window and flipped the bird at the guests. Sirens could be heard in the background as he drove away.
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