T/W: violence, bullying
Levi's mouth literally hangs open as the ball falls to the ground. The guy from the other team actually dunked!
"That’s crazy! How did he-"
Before he can finish, he is interrupted by a barely noticeable chuckle. When he turns, the laughing stops, and he sees Connor standing there with a very tiny smile. A grin so slight that only someone who observes Connor very closely would notice.
That's the first time I have ever heard Connor laugh.
Levi asks, "What’s so funny?"
Connor shrugs, "Win or lose, I think we're going to have a very good game with this team."
"Hmm," Levi says, "Normally, you'd say something like 'This team will surely be crushed."
Connor smiles again, "I didn't say they wouldn't."
. . .
With impeccable timing, the third quarter ends, and everyone walks back to their respective benches. When Spencer sits down and begins to sip his water, no one says a word.
After a very long pause, Coach Miller finally says, "You really hit that one hard, didn’t you, Spencer?"
The entire team laughs, and Alex can’t help but laugh, too. That’s a great turning point for the game. I think we can ride the momentum of this dunk to victory, thinks Alex, finally starting to see some kind of hope.
Additionally, Connor never came into the game, and the score is starting to look pretty good. Now, at only a five-point difference of 45-40, Alex knows that the game can go either way.
"Make sure to use the momentum that Spencer gave us to bring this game back in our favor!" Alex shouts. He puts his hands in the middle of everyone.
"Marble Creek . . . "
The team cheers, but Dwayne, lost in thought, doesn't join in.
. . .
Alex feels amazing. Sometimes he'll have bad days; sometimes he'll have good days. He might be feeling at 20 percent, or feeling 80 percent.
But now, I feel like I'm 100 percent.
Colin passes the ball straight to Alex.
"Hello world," Alex whispers, "Alexander Song is back."
Zooming past defender after defender, Alex scores a point gracefully and easily.
. . .
Chris begins running back to defend. In basketball, the defenders are the attackers and the attackers are the defenders. Why is this stupid sport so needlessly tiring?
The Smiling Center passes to Connor who quickly dribbles the ball down the court.
Everyone returns to defend, but before anyone can react, a player takes a three-point shot.
To Chris' surprise, it is a very ugly shot. The ball barely spins, and the opponent’s shooting form is terrible. However, the ball hits the backboard with a thump, bounces between the inside of the rim for a bit, and falls through.
"Lucky shot! They won’t make it again!" Alex shouts, and Chris can almost see him smiling as he says, "Let's take back those points!"
The ball goes to Colin, who immediately passes to Chris. Chris understands. Colin did miss that three-point shot, which was a pity because that shot was very nice.
Let me show you how it’s done.
Chris, making no move to shake his defender, raises his arms to shoot. The defender jumps, and Chris makes his move.
He dribbles into the paint easily and manages to sandwich a shorter opponent between the Smiling Center and himself, allowing him to take a nearly open shot.
In their desperation not to allow their points to be snatched away, Jackson Wills’ ball is snatched away.
Jackson quickly steals the ball and dribbles down the court. He scores even though the Smiling Center is blocking him.
It seems luck is on Marble Creek's side today, because the referee calls a shooting foul, meaning that Jackson can take a free throw shot.
Chris guesses that Jackson is nervous, but is wrong.
Jackson takes a perfect shot and scores.
Jackson Wills sends an attacker into the paint, and Alex tries to defend, but the bulky attacker pushes him aside. Alex falls backward and hits the floor with a thump.
Spencer tries to block the attacker, but Jackson Wills scores.
Chris glances at Alex, wondering if his friend is okay, and Chris sees a sight that he’s not sure he’s happy or scared about.
He’s already standing up, unfazed by the fall. There’s a look in his eyes– the same look he had during the Pennel Creek game when some opponents started fouling him.
He just started his engine.
. . .
It just stops, completely and utterly.
Alex glances around, confused, as all of the players just freeze. He looks around and finds that he is laying on the ground, and there’s a sharp pain in his back.
I got fouled.
Alex tries to move, but it’s of no use.
I need to defeat them, let me move!
Alex somehow frees his hands, and he tries to push himself off the floor.
I got fouled! I need revenge!
He starts to slowly get up.
Let me destroy them!
Alex knows that he’s in his engine, and he does not care– there’s only one thing on his mind.
The ball is in Alex’s hands. He dribbles around, letting his subconscious take over.
He breaks ankle after ankle, and defenders fall left and right.
He takes a shot.
I want victory!
. . .
Connor Codell stands up, heaving a disappointed sigh.
"What is it?" asks a teammate sitting next to him. Connor takes a sip from his water bottle, preparing himself to get into the game.
Connor replies, "I was going to give him the victory . . . but no one could resist crushing that"
The captain walks over to the coach and asks him to be subbed in.
Sorry, Marble Creek.
It’s time to fix you.
. . .
Connor Codell, 11, 6th grade, October 20, Harrison Middle School
"Look at the weird kid! He’s drooling on his table!"
Connor quickly sits up from his desk, wiping the saliva from his cheek.
"That’s so hilarious!"
Connor looks down at his desk, avoiding all eye contact. It only makes it worse, he thinks ruefully.
"Bro, did you see the fight in the gym hallway?"
Connor looks around, observing his surroundings. After all, the more he can understand this nightmarish prison known as ‘school’, then the easier he can defend himself from it. Connor knows he can’t read the mood. He knows he can’t fit in, and that anything he tries to say, whether it’s relevant or funny or not, is immediately stupid.
"Dude, it was crazy! I saw those videos. Man, they were going at it!"
Pietro. Tall boy with a mean face. Loves talking about fights, just like the rest of this lousy school. Left-handed, plays basketball. Popular with girls. Seems to have an inferiority complex about his small shoe size. Looks like he skips leg day. He’d fall over fast if he lost balance.
"I was there, bro. It was funnier afterward when that dude with the big and ugly pink shirt started screaming."
James. A little shorter than his dumb friend Pietro. Wears sunglasses all the time, and pisses off the teachers as much as he possibly can. Likes being labeled as a sort of troublemaker, as he finds it quite hilarious. He’s physically weak, and really skinny, too. Pietro could probably throw him halfway across the room.
"Seriously? I take a class with him! He’s always making the teacher mad."
Maxwell. Slightly less mentally challenged than the other two, and physically the most dangerous. Plays on the football team, though he’s not really any good– he’s just big.
"You three need to shut up. I need to finish this thing or my average is going to drop below a seventy."
Horton. He literally looks like an elephant. The stupid guy of the group. He’s always finishing his assignments because his grades suck. Looks pretty slow, though. I could get away from him easily.
"Just forget it, Horton. You’re gonna make, like, a ten on the assignment anyways."
"Nah, that’s crazy!"
"Bro, you wanna fight?"
"Your shirt’s not big and ugly and pink enough."
Laughter all around the room. Connor forgets to laugh.
"Hey, look at Connor being all depressed again!"
More laughter. It’s not happy laughter– it’s a mean, pointed laughter.
It’s not Connor’s fault that his parents finally sent him to ‘normal’ school halfway through 6th grade, right after the social cliques began to form, and Connor found nowhere to fit in, like an extra piece to the puzzle.
And extra pieces get thrown away.
The bell rings, and the class is dismissed.
Connor glances at his schedule. His next class is Spanish.
I think I’ll just skip it.
Eventually, the hallways are empty. Everyone is safe inside their classrooms. Connor relaxes, strolling down the hallways happily. It makes him feel like he owns the entire school. He likes that feeling– that feeling of control.
He turns a corner and runs into somebody.
"I’m sorry," he says quickly, backing up. He glances up, and his eyes widen with terror.
It’s Pietro, James, Maxwell, and Horton. Clearly, they also thought they could probably skip their classes.
Connor starts stepping backward, and Pietro and his cronies follow, mocking and shouting at him.
Connor spins around and runs away as hard as he can. However, he’s not the star of the basketball team, like Pietro.
Pietro grabs him and shoves him into a locker.
Connor’s face hits the metal, and he cries out in pain.
"Hey, Con-nor," says Pietro, saying his name in a mocking, singsong tone.
Connor doesn’t answer. James and Maxwell catch up in a moment.
"Why were you running, Connor?" asks Horton, the last to catch up.
"I think that’s very rude, Connor," says Maxwell, grinning.
"I’m very offended. How about, to make up for it, we require some payment, Connor?" says Pietro.
James catches on, "Oh yeah. Let’s check your backpack for some of this payment, Connor."
Connor tries to resist, but he’s useless against these four huge boys. They open his backpack, and flip it upside down, shaking everything out. His papers, folders, and binders all fall out. Pencils are scattered everywhere, rolling down the hallway for a distance before stopping.
Pietro grabs a thin blue notebook at the top of Connor’s pile of school supplies, and reads it aloud, "Misc- . . . mi- . . ."
Pietro points the book at Maxwell for him to interpret it.
Connor’s eyes widen with fear, "Wait, please, stop. Stop!"
Pietro turns his head to Connor, amused.
"Hmm. I wonder what it is inside this little book that you so desperately don’t want us to see?" says Pietro in his singsong voice. He opens the book and starts reading.
"Pietro," he reads, then laughs, "Is this a love letter to me?"
Connor tries his best to glare at him, "Please give it back."
"Tall boy with a mean face. Loves talking about fights, just like the rest of this lousy school. Left-handed, plays basketball. Popular with girls. Seems to have an inferiority complex about his small shoe size," Pietro starts to narrow his eyes, realizing that the notes about him may not be all positive, "Looks like he . . . skips leg day. He’d fall over fast if he lost balance."
Pietro continues to read it, growing angrier every moment. When he’s finished, he gives the book to his friends, and they all read the parts about them. They also begin to get quite angry as they read the insults directed at them– clearly most of them are true, because they look extremely offended. Connor’s observations are never wrong.
Pietro grabs Connor by the collar and pulls him into the air.
"Your stupid little book said I’d probably be able to throw James across the classroom," Pietro says, staring Connor in the eye, "And you’re right. I probably could."
Then, Pietro leans his face in closer, whispering, "But I bet I could throw you farther."
Connor starts to scream, raking his hands across Pietro’s arm, and kicking him as hard as possible, but it’s no use. Pietro is too strong.
No! I can’t get hurt!
In truth, Connor doesn’t mind getting hurt. He’s already been hurt too many times for it to bother him anymore. Connor remembers an old saying– pain only makes him stronger– but he feels it might be different for him.
Pain only makes him emptier.
Every time he’s hit, pushed against a locker, or thrown around, he feels as if he loses some part of himself. Am I even Connor Codell anymore? he sometimes wonders to himself.
Every single time he gets sent to the nurse, his parents are notified, and they are busy enough as is. He doesn’t want them to worry. He can’t get hurt. He can’t let that happen.
But it happens.
Pietro, being very strong, grabs Connor’s collar with both hands and throws him to the opposite side of the hallway. Connor braces for impact, shielding his head. If there’s one thing he knows he can’t do, it's that he can’t die. If I live . . . If I live, then maybe . . .
He slams against the opposite lockers, too weak to even cry out in pain. Pietro comes over, kicking him brutally. Connor just sits there, protecting his head and his crotch, hoping that they won’t kill him.
Maybe . . . maybe I’ll finally follow my dreams . . .
The other three join in, stomping him, throwing his books at him, and laughing. He just whimpers helplessly.
What were . . . what were my dreams again?
Eventually, they get bored and saunter away.
Do I even have a dream?
Connor cries silently. He doesn’t move. He just sits there, bleeding, and waiting for someone to pick him up and send him to the nurse or the hospital, and maybe his parents will send him to another school– he'd already been transferred before.
Maybe in his next school, he thinks half-heartedly, I’ll fare better.
However, Connor knows that if he stays the same, nothing will change. Every school has bullies. It’s not my job to endure them, Connor think, I’ve endured them enough.
I’ll make sure that no one will ever need to endure them again.
I’ll fix them.
. . .
Connor Codell, 11, 6th grade, October 30, Jackson Wills Middle School
"I heard that your experiences in your previous middle school were not that pleasant," says the smiling counselor. Connor can tell that she’d rather be anywhere else than counseling this depressing child. She rolls her eyes just slightly every time I say something to her. She doesn’t want to be here. But she’s smiling so wide, it’s hard to notice. If she was frowning, I bet she would look a lot like Pietro. Smiling is good. I like smiles.
"If you ever find yourself in a situation like the one you found yourself in before, make sure to tell us. We will make sure that these bullies are stopped, okay?" the counselor says.
Connor stares at her, thinking dryly that he would have tried to get help when he got attacked by Pietro if there was even anyone in the hallways. Keep on smiling. I’m sure you can’t afford to frown or your paycheck will suffer for it.
Connor nods and says, "Okay."
"How about you join a club or a sports team?"
"I’m sure it would help you fit in."
Connor frowns, disliking the idea. Interaction with other human beings will surely make it worse.
"I’ll . . . think about it."
"It’s very late in the school year, and the basketball season just started! Maybe you’d like to try that?" asks the Counselor with a hopeful tone, "I know many of the basketball boys, and they’re all very nice."
Something flickers in his mind. He remembers something, a note about Pietro: "Left-handed, plays basketball."
Connor stands up with a newly found energy, "I’ll join the basketball team."
I’ll fix them.
I’ll fix them all.
. . .
Levi Verola, 12, 6th grade, October 31, Jackson Wills Middle School
Levi Verola loves basketball. Anybody who knows him would agree– he’s very good at it, too. Despite being big and strong, he’s got a great reaction speed and lots of people fear his strength in the paint.
In addition to all of these strengths, he’s still a sixth grader, which means he has two more years to get bigger, stronger, and faster.
In other words, when he’s in eighth grade, Jackson Wills might have a good chance at winning the Regionals.
"Listen up, everyone!" says Coach Cooper, "We’ve got someone joining us today. He just transferred, and he’s interested in playing basketball. Why don’t you introduce yourself, Connor?"
Levi stares at the boy and is scared by what he sees. His eyes are empty, but he looks more determined than anyone Levi has ever met.
"My name is Connor Codell," says the boy, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I swear on my life that I will be better than every single one of you."
Some of Levi’s teammates get angry, "Tryna pick a fight?"
"No," replies Connor. Levi smiles. He likes this boy.
"How good are you, then?" asks someone else.
Connor says evenly, "I’ve never touched a basketball before."
. . .
Levi Verola, 12, 6th grade, October 31, Jackson Wills Middle School
"Hey Levi," one of the older boys leans in close to whisper at him, "Would you do me a favor, big guy?"
Despite being a sixth grader, Levi is the biggest on the team, so they all call him the ‘big guy’.
"What is it?"
"Would you beat up that Connor dude for me? Maybe it’ll shut him up."
Levi turns his head toward his teammate violently, "What the heck are you saying?"
"Oh, you don’t think you can beat him alone?" asks his upperclassman, "I’ll send some of my friends with you."
"No, no!" Levi shakes his head, "There’s no way I could shake someone up like that! That’s terrible!"
The boy frowns, "Look, man, just do this one thing for me. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like he’ll snitch on you. If he’s a freaking martial artist then you can just stop, but if anyone asks, just say it’s a . . . Halloween prank or something. The coach needs you too much to kick you from the team."
Levi trembles with anger at the cruelty, but agrees. The boy is his upperclassman and is a starter on the basketball team. If Levi plans to get a good reputation with the team, he needs to start by listening to his superiors.
Two non-basketball players join him as he hunts down Connor.
Connor is found.
Thankfully, it’s during the class periods, so there’s no one in the hallways but them. Levi makes his move. He runs over to Connor and grabs his collar, slamming him against the lockers.
Connor barely seems to notice at first.
Levi isn’t sure what to say, but when Connor looks up at him and stares at him with those disconcertingly empty eyes, Levi lets go, immediately afraid. However, his cronies are not. They surround Connor.
"What are you doing?" asks Connor, but it’s clear that he knows what they’re doing.
Levi swallows hard, "The . . . the basketball team doesn’t like your attitude. We’re here to . . . punish you. Yeah, this is punishment."
Connor narrows his eyes and says, "Punishment?"
Levi nods in response.
The two boys on the side grab Connor’s arms. Connor doesn’t resist. He simply says quietly, barely a whisper, but Levi can hear it. He can almost feel Connor speak.
"I knew it."
"You do need to be fixed."
In an instant, Connor seems to change. Like a wild boar cornered in a hunt, his eyes are filled with rage, and he pushes the two boys aside easily. He pushes off the lockers behind him and grabs Levi’s collar, pulling him down to Connor’s height.
I’m so much bigger than him! Why does he look so . . . huge?
Connor’s face is merely a centimeter away from Levi’s.
"I think you need to be punished," whispers Connor, "You think you can hurt me ‘cause you’re big and strong and good at basketball. All basketball players are the same. You’re just like Pietro. I am the strongest. I am the only king of the court. I could easily throw you into this locker behind me."
Levi is frozen with fear. He has never felt so scared in his life. What was supposed to be some messed up "Halloween prank" has turned into something much worse. He doesn’t even know what Connor is saying, but he’s terrified nonetheless.
Levi does not doubt that he might die here.
"Why don’t you throw me, then?" asks Levi, barely able to raise his voice.
Connor stares at him, probably thinking about it.
Finally, he replies seriously, "I haven’t fixed you yet."
Levi doesn’t want to ask how Connor will go about ‘fixing’ him.
"Tomorrow," Connor says, "At practice, you will smile. You will not stop smiling. Every single time you step on the court, you will smile. You will laugh. You’re the happiest person in the world."
Levi nods quickly.
"If you don't," Connor adds, "I’ll kill you."
Connor lets Levi go.
Levi stands up, shaken.
The next day, at practice, when the upperclassmen ask him what happened, Levi responds vaguely.
"Lots of threats and stuff."
They seem satisfied with his answer.
As Connor steps onto the court, empty-eyed, Levi can’t help but remember the terror that he felt that Halloween, barely escaping death. He remembers Connor’s threat, telling him to smile.
Levi realizes that he doesn’t even need Connor to tell him– he’s already smiling uncontrollably.
"What’s so funny?" asks one of his teammates.
Levi can barely keep his laughter down.
"You- . . ." Levi says between bouts of laughter, "You’ll get- . . . get fixed!"
Levi laughs and laughs and laughs. It’s all so funny to him. The entire rest of this terrible basketball team is going to have a rotten surprise. They don’t even know that they just invited a monster onto their team. They have no idea that soon, they will feel that same terror that he felt. Their Halloween prank is coming back to get them– no, to fix them.
. . .
Marble Creek has closed the score down to a one-point difference.
But there are only thirty seconds left on the clock.
We can't lose.
The feet of his teammates and his opponents pound on the court as loud as volatile cannonballs. Sweat rolls off his cheek, his legs burn, and the volume of the ball’s bouncing increases as the pressure begins to enclose on him like a vicious serpent. Fear and stress cloud his vision, and the only thing Alex can see is the vitriolic gaze of the attackers.
30, 29, 28 . . .
The opposing team takes an infuriatingly long time to dribble the ball down the court.
25, 24, 23 . . .
Alex feels his leg shaking with excitement. I want the ball. I need the ball.
20, 19, 18 . . .
Clearly, the other team is trying to stall. Colin notices this too, and dashes at the attacker at full speed. The attacker tries to escape from Colin, but fails and passes to another player.
16, 15, 14 . . .
Alex wills his legs to move. If this is the last day of my life, then I have to at least win this game.
10, 9, 8 . . .
Alex grabs the ball, and with a strange sense of calm, begins to speed down the court.
"Alex! Be careful!" screams Colin.
His heart rate matches the speed of the ball. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. This is the most important game of the tournament-- the final shot. If Alex doesn’t make it, his team will lose, ending their chance of winning at the Regional Basketball Tournament.
Alex has always been good at lay-ups. After his previous failure, Alex practiced so much that he could score with almost a 100% accuracy, while most people had an 80%.
He's in perfect condition.
The crowd joins in on the countdown now.
"4, 3, 2 . . ."
And as Alex leaps up to take the lay-up, he lets the ball out of his hand slowly, so that it won't bounce off the backboard very hard.
I’m unstoppable right now.
A hand, coming from Connor Codell, behind him, slams the ball to the floor.
It bounces off the floor with a thump, and erases all chances of scoring-- and winning the championship.