Indiana boys grew up with some kind of ball in their hands, fathers smiling benevolently behind them, as they whispered dreams of fame and fortune. Jonny Prater's left him with the tensile pressure of a miniature professional style basketball and the burden of love; a sport that couldn't love him back. Jonny, unlike his father, grew long and lean, with hands as dexterous as a pianist. The basketball became a minor moon he could control with the flick of his wrist while the rest of the world formed a glittering array of stars revolving around his peripheral. This included his younger siblings, Melody and Ben, who on the day of the accident were down the hill, orbiting the swing set lost in another one of their made up games.
By the time Jonny had met them half-way down the hill, the blood, bright and milky, had bubbled up over Ben’s right eyebrow. Melody, face flushed, held Ben around the waist, trying to keep him from falling.
"What the hell happened?" Jonny asked, the basketball sweating in his grip, as he palmed the ball against his hip.
"We were playing with rocks."
"Who threw it? Where is he?"
"Johnny, does it really matter?"
"Of course, it does. It was that Donaldson boy, wasn't it? That little shit."
"We've got bigger problems," she said, grabbing Jonny's hand. "You understand, right?"
Ben looked the color of a dead fish left to rot next to the shore of the mucky river that ran through town. Ben moaned and held his hand to his forehead, his eyes flashing pearly in the hazy afternoon.
"You going to knock or am I? Come on Jonny. He's getting heavy." Melody was looking at him, trying to hold Ben up, with her skinny thirteen year old arms. Ben was only nine, but he was stocky, with broad shoulders, that reminded them all of their father.
Next to the park stood a row of ranch houses with original metal siding that had cracked and warped from too many Midwestern winters. They needed a phone, but the only pay phone in town was on the corner of the gas station lot.
"If you're just going to stand there, give me your jersey."
“Did you get hit in the head too? You know how hard I worked for this?” He thumbed the straps, pulling out the fabric like an old man showing off his suspenders. “Give him your shirt.”
“And let the whole world see my underwear? Why are boys so stupid? The jersey. Now.”
Reluctantly, he took it off and handed it to her.
Melody wound the cloth around Ben's head, tying off the shoulder straps until it looked like a turban.
"How long will that last?" Jonny asked.
"Not long enough," Melody said.
The air stirred with the reverberations of the bass coming from a pair of subwoofers, its sound bouncing off the walls of the surrounding houses.
"Anybody you know? Help, maybe?" Melody asked.
A purple F150 came into view, music and the sound of its exhaust converging.
“Ah crap. It’s Mackey.”
Melody tugged on his arm, "Johnny, we can't. You know how he is."
"What you do Jonny? Punch the little dumbass in the head?" Mackey dribbled onto the court, working the ball back and forth smoothly in front of his feet as he moved quickly from the far end of the court, taking over Jonny's hoop.
"Maybe we can just walk?" Melody said, her voice hushed, trembling.
"Just bring Ben along closer to the truck. Everything else will take too long."
Melody whispered soothing words while they walked away from the swing set and closer to the basketball court. Ben started to cry. The blood had slowed some, but it was running over his eyebrows. Jonny had never seen so much blood that wasn't on some actor in a movie.
Jonny ran across the grass and onto the court, before slowing to a walk.
"The hell you want, Jonny?" Mackey said, ball cupped around his hip.
"Not here about me. It's my brother." Jonny pointed toward Melody and Ben huddled together like a pair of broken winged birds perched on a wire.
"Don't give a shit. Not about any of you Praters.”
"Not what you told Taylor Riggs," Melody shouted from the bumper of the truck. Ben sagged against her hip.
"I say a lot of things about a lot of girls," Mackey said, smiling, his teeth large, but straight.
"Come on man. Ben's bleeding. We don't have time for this."
Mackey dribbled the ball hard onto the concrete, the seams spinning, before catching it against his hip.
"So you're all pussies, is that it?"
Melody stepped onto the court and Jonny felt something slipping away. There was no muscle memory for emergencies. No second shots either.
"We just need a ride, that's all," Jonny said, hating to beg.
"What's in it for me?"
"What do you want?" Melody said, sticking out her chest like she was ready to fight.
"I've got this, Melody. Go back to Ben."
"He's not going to do anything for you."
"She's right. But maybe I'd do something for her," Mackey said. He spun the ball on his index finger, something he knew Jonny couldn't do. "Take her for a ride. Bring little brother too."
“I’ll play you for it. The ride. I win and you just take Ben.”
“Jonny, we ain’t got time for that. I’m getting in the damn truck.”
“Wait. What if I win?” said Mackey.
“Melody,” Jonny said, looking at her, wondering, if they’d always be at odds from now on, their bodies making them enemies. “She’ll take that ride.”
Jonny could hear Melody behind him, begging, and then cussing at him, but it was too late. He was already at the three point line, the ball bouncing to Mackey and then back into his hands. Jonny gripped the ball and took a jab step to the right. He crossed over to the left, the last bounce clearing Mackey’s right shoulder. Jonny jumped, the ball coming up from his hip, eyes concentrating on the front of the rim, holding his right hand upward like the bow of a swan’s neck, the ball lifting into the air, and then falling through the hoop. Jonny looked back at Melody, smiling, but she had her back to the game, already putting Ben in the truck.
Mackey had the ball and he didn’t waste his time with any fakes. He pivoted, dribbled the ball using his extra weight to bull Jonny under the rim giving Mackey the easy lay-up.
Jonny gripped the ball, his mind cycling through all of the possibilities. Mackey’s body across from him, alert, a moving wall. Jonny made a quick fake to the left, dribble, dribble, and then he was jumping, the ball swinging up from his waist, but he was startled by the long, low blast of the truck horn. Jonny held the ball a millisecond too long, and he felt the error, but the ball was already rolling off his fingers, it’s trajectory wrong, the ball arcing too quickly, hitting the rim too far to the left. Mackey pounced on rebound, dribbled to the nearest edge of the three point line toward the corner of the court. Jonny raced to guard him, but Mackey squared his shoulders and made the fifteen foot shot, the ball falling gracefully through the net.
“You could give up now, Jonny. Save all of us some time. You wouldn’t even have to think of it as a loss.”
“Jonny,” Melody yelled, standing behind him near half-court. She had gotten Ben into the truck.
"You've got to let me do this," she said, her face serious, determined.
"What? No way. I don't trust him."
"He can't be worse than any other guy. You tried, alright?"
Mackey shot the basketball, got his rebound, dribbled back out to the wing and made another shot.
"If he touches you..."
"I'll put Ben between us. I'll kiss the freak if I have to. Other girls have done worse." Melody made another one of those faces Jonny swore only girls could do.
"You can't. I won't let you," Jonny said, trying again to pull her away from the truck. "You don't own me either, Jonny. You remember that."
"You grown now? Is that it? Let's just try the houses. I'll knock on every goddamn door in the neighborhood. Someone will help us."
"I've heard all about him. See the way he's looking all googly-eyed at me too. But I'm not going be the reason Ben bleeds to death. Are you?"
Jonny shook his head. “I won’t quit.” He turned to Mackey. “Check the damn ball.” Jonny chucked it at Mackey, who caught it easily, his smile something Jonny wanted to destroy.
"Jonny, you know this game don't mean shit, right? You won't quit? I will."
Mackey set the ball down on the cracked concrete, started to jog toward the truck. Melody chased after him, her shadow in the twilight looming long in front of her as if she'd run forever. But she got in the truck.
Jonny, the last one on the court, waited. The truck revved, the engine loud over the bass, the music hollow without the heartbeat of the dribbled basketball.
Once the truck was out of eyesight, Jonny picked up the ball and tried to spin it on his finger, but it fell off like a satellite losing its orbit. He'd never felt anything but joy holding a ball, but now he felt guilty, an embarrassment that will start in childhood, a pervasive cancer of the spirit that he doesn't know will follow him into adulthood. He took a shot, the ball leaving his hands without much thought. A muscle memory, he was proud of, until Melody left, both of his siblings safety in question. The ball traced the front of the rim and fell flatly against the backstop fence. Jonny stood there, waiting for dark, before walking home, knowing that someone else would pick up his ball.
The house, though small, and falling apart, loomed in the oncoming darkness. Everyone gone, living their accidental lives, while he sat on the slanted concrete steps, unwilling to go into the house alone. He reached out for his basketball, forgetting that he’d lost that too. Jonny didn’t yet know that all attachments to items, totems, are rooted in childhood, a mask against the frailty of life. But the possibility of death had entered his mind for the first time, watching Ben bleed, helpless, depending so reluctantly on Melody.
Later, after his body had become sore from sitting for so long, Melody stood in front of him, kicking at the gravel, scattering rocks. Jonny's basketball was balanced in front of her stomach.
"Ben still gone?" Melody asked, holding out the ball.
He reached out for it, but brought his hands back to his face. Melody dropped the ball, stopping it with her feet. He looked her over, but she didn’t look any different.
"You should have seen Mom. She was so calm. So loving. I wanted to go with them."
"Why didn't you?"
She sat down beside him and put her elbows on her knees. "I made that deal with Mackey."
"You're kidding, right? I mean Mom was right there. You were home."
"She was busy with Ben. When I told her where you were, she said I'd better wait for you. Then I told her I'd made a deal. She was getting Ben settled in the back seat. She put her hand on my cheek and said, 'You did the right thing honey. No one will blame you.'"
"Blame you? What does that even mean?"
"Permission, I guess."
"To finish the deal. Jonny. We're not kids anymore." Lightning bugs blinked on and off behind her, framing her body like a constellation.
"Nobody asked you to do anything like that."
"I'm a girl, Jonny. We're made to do shit like that all the time. Why should I be any different? Huh? You tell me. Why am I different?"
Jonny stood and took a step toward the door. It was too dark now to see much of her face, but from the silhouette of her body he could tell she was right. She wasn't a child anymore and the differences between them were no longer insignificant. She was as bright as the stars and just as unknowable, a million miles away. He walked into the house, leaving her orbit, the basketball next to her, a minor moon, he could no longer visit.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, TINGE Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Spartan, JMWW, and New World Writing. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.