The locker room before the big whoops-the-jerseys-were-the-wrong-size rematch against the High Seas Surfilletes. I get a glimpse of my own eyes in the medicine cabinet mirror. They look like they belong to another manâ€"another dead manâ€"a dead squidâ€"a dead squid whose whole life slipped off the road down a gully of misery and substance abuse stemming from having really gross eyes.
It’s the opposing team’s coach leaning in our doorway, picking his fingernails. He’s got a big fat stupid elf grin on his slender handsome brilliant elf face. “Ready for the big match?” he coos.
“Yup,” I say.
“Halflings, huh? How’d you get stuck with these guys? I mean, it’s cute that you think you can win and all, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Your little fat halflings? Against my trained, professional elves? You’re just going to get walloped again and you know it.”
“Yeah. That’s what’ll happen.”
“Tell you whatâ€"how about a friendly wager? If your little fatboys win out there today, somehow, I’ll…”
“…I’ll…sorry? Did you just say…”
He looks puzzled and leaves the locker room. I finish shaving and slowlyâ€"almost inaudiblyâ€"I begin to hum.
“What’s the plan, coach?” pipes Polo Broccoli as the team gathers breathlessly–they had to climb some stairs to the field.
“Well,” I say, “as far as tactics go, try not to let the elves get past you this time.”
“Okay! What if they do?”
“I dunno. Do whatever seems appropriate. Maybe you picked up a rock in your shoe. Maybe your leg’s starting to cramp so you need to do some stretches. Maybe you’ve been meaning to write a letter home.”
“Are you okay?”
“Let’s play some Blood Bowl, guys.”
The elves will receive the first kickoff. My boys punt the ball right past their line and into the hands of somebody who evidently has trained to play this game and has hands correctly shaped to hold a ballâ€"I checked the rules and it’s not only legal, but encouraged. My boys swarm up on their line in a loose scramble, but the elves hop effortlessly by them. It’s like trying to catch a handful of sand in a butterfly net.
A pass happens. The details aren’t important, but my boys are left stumbing after a windmilling collection of cleats and a wake of victorious sod. The elves have scored again. Okay.
“Okay,” I say.
Our turn. Elves kick the ball past our lines, and on an impulse, I throw out a few quick gestures to such teammates as are paying attention. The gestures mean “we’re screwed,” but that’s just the physics of language and connotation at work there; every gesture and phrase I’ve used more than once this past month has meant that. These gestures also mean, “tighten up.”
Pervince goes for the ball, because of course he does, and scoops it off the turf with a grunt of exertion. He looks around for the elves that have not, just yet, materialized to kill him. Small victory there, which Polo Broccoli takes advantage of to backtrack-waddle to support his flank. Meanwhile, I’m seeing that keeping my boys scattered around would have definitely been the wrong tactical call; I’m seeing that because some of them did stay scattered around, and the elves are finally punching through them to go kill Pervince.
Pervince yelps as four bruisers rip furrows in the grass toward himâ€"and shunts the ball over his shoulder to the startled Polo. Nobody’s tagged Polo yet–he books it for the treemen. He’ll go down in three seconds if I can’t keep that zone clear–and I know I can’t.
The treemen start battering away at the more eager elf linemen. I see one elf try to dart past a branchâ€"and launch backwards at high speed as a huge length of oak catches him under the chin. All the way under. My treeman killed a guy.
It’s amazing; field a team of halflings and treemen and suddenly nobody wins.
Especially not me yet, because Polo is looking pretty lonely with the ball in his mitts and the elves who aren’t hung up on the treemen are pouncing in for the kill. I can’t keep them all at bayâ€"one sprints up from behind Polo and launches into a flying kick that knocks the ball out of Polo’s hands into the grip of an elf thrower, are you kidding me? Is that a move they practiced? Was that even practical? How high does “winning” rank on their priorities list against “instilling deep-seated racial self-loathing in halflings worldwide”?
“Treeman!” I yell suddenly. “Branch him!”
My treeman clocks the offending lineman on the jaw and the ball pops up into the grip of another elf. But suddenly this elf is not having a party with all of his elf buddies. Suddenly this elf has the ball and he has a bunch of winded halflings in front of him, and granted, they are blinking because this has never happened beforeâ€"shit, this moment is only going to last about five secondsâ€"
“GET THEM, YOU LARDBAGS!”
And when that gets through the sourdough breadbowls they’ve got for skulls, my boys raise an uneasy cry and blitz. Their fat legs scramble. Their bellies heave with sudden effort. There are a couple elves standing nearby, but the low-centered onrushing mob of blubber keeps them from aiding their ball carrier friend, who’s starting to look a little lonely himself. The thrower’s eyes dart across the field looking for a clear pass, and at the last minute his arm blurs and the ball slides left into the hand of one of his blitzersâ€"who is also on the wrong side of my halfling wall. Who haven’t stopped running.
It’s a suicide charge. Everyone knows that. That’s why the elves don’t have their footing and can’t stop Polo, careening like a meatball meteor, from stripping the ball from a suddenly concussed blitzer. The elves are popping with outrage. They scream onto Polo’s heels and block him from running, but Polo hands the ball…
“BOTH HANDS!” I yell.
…successfully to his teammate Sancho, who zags out of the melee and starts huffing into enemy lines. He has a clear run to the end zoneâ€"but he has little legs. And the elves are really, really mad now.
One elf plunges out of nowhere. Another elf plunges out of nowhere. There’s ten seconds left on the clock. Sancho looks up to see one of his pursuers about to leap when Polo sacks him from behind. Sancho tucks his little head down…
And the other elf drags his ass down to the pitch in a howling tumble.
Muddy, bloody, hungry, miserable halflings sitting on splintered benches. Elf vendors passing ale flagons to the thin, but not totally grouchy, crowd. Elves on the other side tactfully determining who gets the dead player’s orange slice.
“Okay,” I say aloud. “Speech time.”
Hands go on ears.
“No, not swear words. Not exclusively. Guys, I want to talk about what happened out there.”
“I saw a brain!” squeals Milo.
“I saw my brain,” mumbles Sancho.
“You almost scored.”
The halflings look at each other.
“I’ve been watching this match from the sidelines,” I say. “I think I’ve seen a few things you haven’t. On that side there’s the elvesâ€"they’re bullies. They’re bruisers. They’ve been playing like you’re a bunch of butterball pushovers worth as much consideration as a patch of wet grass, and where they run into any obstacle, they blow through itâ€"no second thoughts. And when I look on my side, I see men playing with heart. I see men playing earnest. I see men focusing not on breaking noses, but on settling down and playing Blood Bowl.
“Well, knock it off. You guys like pizza?”
There’s a cheer.
“Alright,” I said. “If you win…sure. But I’ll take you out to pizza if you manage to kill one more elf.”
Whistle blows, halflings assemble. Ball sails overâ€"he’s kicked it just behind my front line, not far from the center. Pervince lunges into motion. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I could swear he lags a little less this time. The elves surgeâ€"but there’s no butterfly net waiting for them. Just lardy walls. There’s nowhere for his blockers to hop over, so they start knocking halflings back insteadâ€"only a couple elves fight through the mass. Pervince is squealing, but he has the ball. One, two elves dive after himâ€"one, two elves find halflings covering Pervince. And I get desperate enough to yell:
My treeman grabs Pervince by the helmet. Elves lunge to snatch the ball from him, but the stunned halfling is zipping up, up over the treetopâ€"he’s whipped back and launched down the field sharp and heavy as a catapult stone. He skips over the elf line and lands midway to the goal, burrowing headfirst into the grass. His feet twitch.
And he gets up. And he starts running, running towards the goal line. Howling elves break after himâ€"he’s only got once chance to make it. He’s got to sprint harder and faster than halflings are meant to. He’s got to risk stumbling and breaking his neck on a dive. In practice, this hasn’t worked once. I clamp my hands over my eyes.
There’s a sickening thud of heavy flesh against grass.
The crowd goes wild.
The elf coach finds me that evening.
“Not bad,” he said, “for a bunch of halflings. Too bad you couldn’t stop me from scoring again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad.”
“I guess this just proves…”
“Would you like some pizza?”
My halflings are gorging themselves on stuffed crusts. The treeman they have to thank for their feast chews thoughtfully on the corner of a sack of fertilizer. The elf coach looks at my team, starts to say something. Walks away with reporters swarming him.
Yes, we lost. 2-1, in fact. We saw two touchdowns foiled at the goal line and managed one only through a lucky tree lob. And yes, maybe Milo Weatherbee had a slight fatal heart attack trying to jog across the width of the pitch during that last play. But you know something?
The crowd didn’t hate it. There was barely any booing. When I looked out thereâ€"they were talking to each other. Not shouting.
“Let’s see,” I say aloud, “if we can’t…win a game.” And this time, the word didn’t make me cry or throw up.
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