“That’ll make it more fun,” said Dez. “ ‘Cause no one’ll want to get hit. No one’ll be like, ‘Go ahead, hit me, I don’t care, I want to get wet.’ That’s what ruins most water balloon fights: people wanting to get wet.”
“Yeah,” said Chip. “But I really don’t want to get wet. I’m kind of cold as it is.” He wore a pair of black dress pants with one knee torn out from a semi-intentional fall in a funeral home parking lot and a thin gray t-shirt he’d gotten from church camp two years ago. The shirt had just recently officially become too small for Chip, but he sometimes still wore it out of habit. “Also,” said Chip. “Our mom said we couldn’t get wet.”
“Nuh uh,” said Blaine. “Mom didn’t say that. She doesn’t care if we get wet.” Blaine was ten, one year younger than Chip, and Dez was technically his friend. Chip hadn’t even wanted to come over to Dez’s house for the afternoon, but without consulting him, Chip’s mom had called Dez’s mom to make sure it was OK for both boys to visit even though Dez had only invited Blaine. Dez’s mom had said that was fine, and Chip’s fate was sealed. “I can’t call Dez’s mom back and tell her you aren’t coming after she was nice enough to say you could,” said Chip’s mom. “I’d look like a fool.”
“Then blame it on me,” Chip had said. “Tell her I’m throwing a fit. Tell her I’m crying. Tell her I wet myself.”
“No,” his mom had said, wrinkling her nose. “Have some self-respect, Chip. Geez.”
So now Chip was stuck at Dez’s house with Blaine until Dez’s mom decided it was time for them to leave, which definitely seemed like it should be soon. Chip wasn’t wearing a watch so he didn’t know how long he and Blaine had been stuck wandering around Dez’s back yard while Dez bossed them through various pretend-combat scenarios, but it felt like at least six hours, which probably wasn’t right, but still.
At first, Chip could tell Blaine was enjoying pretending to gun down waves of enemy soldiers because at their house, their mom only allowed them to pretend to shoot animals, monsters, or non-humanoid aliens. But Chip had sensed Blaine’s interest waning in the last half hour and he’d begun to hope that Blaine would finally agree that it was time to broach the subject of leaving with Dez’s mom. But this water balloon fight idea had reinvigorated Blaine, and Chip could tell that Blaine would certainly give him no support in his quest to go home now. First, there would have to be, at the very least, a failed attempt at a water balloon fight.
Dez told Chip and Blaine they had to wait outside while he went into his house to fetch a bag of balloons because his brother was home.
“So?” said Chip. He’d hoped that going inside would remind Dez’s mom of his existence and thereby remind her that he and Blaine should be going home soon.
“So you can’t come in,” said Dez. “My mom said you guys could only come over if you didn’t bother my brother.” He went inside and closed the door behind him.
Blaine stretched as if preparing to run a triathlon. He was a head shorter than Chip, but stocky and rugged with a smattering of brown freckles across his tall forehead. Blaine was game and hearty, but only to a certain point. If pushed too far, he would collapse inward upon himself, a trait that had ruined large portions of at least three family vacations.
“Why would us going inside bother Dez’s brother?” asked Chip. “What was he talking about?”
Blaine lowered his voice to a whisper. “Dez’s brother’s a pitcher. He played college baseball somewhere but he got kicked off the team and now he’s living at home and he’s all quiet and weird now.”
“What did he get kicked off for?” asked Chip.
“He throws super fast. Like, over a hundred. Dez said one-oh-four but I dunno. Anyway, he lost his control. I heard he accidentally hit a teammate in the head with a pitch during batting practice and now that guy’s got brain damage.”
Chip believed it. He’d heard about pitchers losing their control before. One minute they’d be throwing strike after strike, and then the next minute they’d be wild, balls flying everywhere, over the backstop, into both dugouts, plunking innocent bystanders, and no one knew why this phenomenon occurred. It was one of the great mysteries of sport. If a pitcher proved to be susceptible to such losses of control, if that had already proved dangerous on at least one occasion, Chip didn’t see how any team could afford to keep that pitcher on the roster. Better to get him out of there before he could do anymore damage.
The back door opened and there was Dez with a clear plastic bag full of new balloons in his hands. Behind him, looming in a tattered red hoodie and a backwards baseball cap, was Dez’s older brother, his face gloomy and at least 60 percent covered with black stubble.
“This is my brother Jace,” said Dez, beaming. “He’s gonna be in our water balloon fight. Me and Jace versus you guys. Brothers against brothers!”
Chip and Blaine looked at each other. Blaine looked scared. “This isn’t fair,” said Chip. “Jace is way older than us. He’s way stronger.”
“So?” said Dez. He grinned. Behind him, his presumably powerful hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie, Jace stood with his eyes closed, breathing softly through his mouth.
“We’re not playing if Jace plays,” said Chip.
Dez crouched and dumped most of the balloons on the ground in front of him. Then he handed the bag with the remaining balloons to Blaine. “You guys get these balloons. Use the hose around back, and me and Jace’ll use the hose here by the front porch.” As Dez spoke, Jace stooped down to pick up an empty yellow balloon, walked over to the hose, fitted the balloon over the nozzle, and turned on the water. After a moment, the balloon began to swell in his hand.
“We’re not playing,” said Chip. “We want to go home now, right Blaine?” Blaine looked at the ground. “Tell your mom to call our mom so she can come pick us up.”
“My mom’s not home,” said Dez. “She left Jace in charge while she went into town to eat dinner at the American Legion with her friends.”
“The Legion?” said Chip. “She’ll be there all night. Let me use the phone. I’ll call our mom.” He tried to walk past Dez, but Dez stepped in his way.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” said Dez. “If either you or Blaine can get one of us with a water balloon, you can use the phone.” Jace took the water balloon off of the hose and tied it closed. He hefted it in his right hand, his pitching hand.
“But we’re not playing,” said Chip, backing away from Dez and Jace. Blaine, gripped with sudden panic, turned and shouted, “Run,” just as Jace lifted his arm. Chip turned and ran after Blaine. He was almost to the front corner of the house when Jace’s balloon struck the siding inches behind Chip’s head. The impact of the balloon was deafening. An icy explosion of water sprayed across the left side of Chip’s face and knocked him off of his feet, sending him rolling around the corner. When he came to rest, Chip was dazed and dizzy, yellow balloon fragments stuck to his cheek. After a moment, he got up to his hands and knees, looking down at the cold blades of grass poking up between his splayed fingers. His left ear was ringing.
Blaine knelt next to Chip, still holding the bag of water balloons. “We’re gonna get brain damage,” said Blaine, his voice weepy. Chip hated hearing him like that.
“No, we’re not going to get brain damage,” said Chip, but his voice sounded weird in his own ears and he wondered if Jace had already given him brain damage. He stood up. “Come on,” he said. “We have to hide while we think of a plan.”
Blaine nodded, his eyes full of fear. He looked helpless. It didn’t bode well for either brother if Blaine was already broken.
“We’re going to make it,” said Chip. “But hurry.”
The boys took shelter behind the shed in Dez’s back yard. Chip stood watch, peering around the corner of the shed. There was no sign of pursuit from either Jace or Dez. Chip assumed they were stockpiling balloons for an assault. It would only be a matter of time before Jace flushed them out, hurling balloons at lethal velocities, aiming right for their heads like a sadist while Dez danced around laughing and taunting, his pitiful water balloon tosses adding insults to the inevitable injuries.
“Here’s what we do,” said Chip. Blaine was half crouched, his body rigid. “First, I’m going to run and check the back door. If it’s open, I’ll go inside and call mom myself. Then we just have to hold on until she gets here.”
“What if it isn’t open?” asked Blaine.
“Then we’ll come up with a new plan,” said Chip. “Wait here. If you see Jace coming, run.”
“Should I make some water balloons in case Dez comes by himself?” asked Blaine. “He said if we hit him with one, he’d let us call mom.”
“No,” said Chip. “He won’t let us call mom no matter what. All he wants is for Jace to hit us with water balloons, I can tell. We’re not playing his game.”
Chip sprinted across the back yard, up onto the deck, and tried the back door. It was locked. He ran back to the shed. Blaine hadn’t moved. “Was it open?” he asked.
Under normal circumstances, Chip would have pointed out the stupidity of the question. But Blaine was under a lot of stress, so he let it slide. “It was locked,” said Chip. “But I’ve got another plan. This one’s risky, but I think it’s our best chance. I’ll make some water balloons, go into the front yard, and try to get Jace and Dez to chase me into the back yard. While I’m doing that, you’ll sneak around the other side, go in the front door, and call mom.”
“But what if you get hit?” asked Blaine.
“I’ll be a moving target,” said Chip. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he got hit by one of Jace’s water balloons. “I won’t give him a clear shot. He won’t hit me. And Jace won’t even see you. You’ll be inside calling mom. Once you call her, you can just stay inside and hide until she gets here.”
“What will you do until mom shows up?” asked Blaine. He still looked scared, but having a mission seemed to steady him.
“I’ll think of something,” said Chip. “But right now, we’ve gotta make a couple water balloons so my diversion seems real.”
A few minutes later, with one water balloon in each hand, Chip poked his head around the corner of the house. He could see the dent in the white siding where the water balloon had almost damaged his brain. On the porch, Jace stood with another yellow water balloon in his right hand. His eyes were closed. It looked like he was asleep on his feet. There was a pile of at least ten more water balloons on the porch swing next to Jace. As Chip watched, Dez took another full balloon off of the end of the hose and tied it shut, adding it to the colorful pile.
“Just forget it,” said Dez, talking at Jace as he began to fill another balloon. “Water balloons don’t fly right. It’s got nothing to do with your control. No one can aim a water balloon very good. Just focus on the next throw.”
Jace said nothing.
Chip hoped Blaine was in position on the other side of the house. They should have come up with some kind of inconspicuous signal. Chip was so worried about Blaine that he didn’t notice how nervous he himself was until one of his water balloons popped in his hand and soaked his right pant leg. He knew he needed to act immediately before he could psych himself all the way out.
Chip ran around the corner with a wordless shout, angling for a tall birch tree thirty feet away. But before Chip could take three steps, Jace opened his eyes, cocked his arm, and fired a balloon. A bird house hanging from one of the tree’s lower branches exploded in a burst of water and wood fragments. Chip yelped and dived to put the tree between Jace and himself, but as he did, a second balloon caught him just below the right knee, spinning his body in the air and causing him to land awkwardly on his right shoulder. While Chip lay in the grass whimpering with his upper half behind the tree and his lower half exposed, a third balloon exploded on his right hip and he cried out in pain. Chip was dimly aware of Dez’s cackling as he struggled to his feet and pressed his back flat against the tree. The right half of his body was soaked from the middle of his chest down to his ankle. He felt as if his knee and hip had been battered with the back of a shovel. He realized his hands were empty and he looked around for the water balloon he’d been carrying. He spotted it lying intact in the grass no more than six feet away, but any attempt to retrieve it would put him squarely in Jace’s line of fire. It was as good as gone.
“Come on, Jace,” shouted Dez. “He’s trapped behind the tree! Let’s go get ‘im!”
There was a pause, then Chip heard Dez’s voice again, less enthusiastic this time. “I know, but he’s just over there.” Another pause. “All right, you just stay here. I’ll go get him.”
A moment later, Dez appeared twenty feet to Chip’s right with a green water balloon in his hand. “He’s right here,” Dez shouted back to his brother. “He dropped his water balloon. He’s got nothing!” Dez grinned at Chip, who couldn’t bring himself to move. He was afraid to expose any part of his body for fear of what one of Jace’s water balloons would do to it. He knew he needed to make a break for the side of the house, but he hadn’t been able to avoid getting hit even when he was at full strength and now he was hobbled. While Chip was thinking, a blue water balloon bounced off of his stomach and landed with a weak plop on the grass. He looked up and saw Dez looking sheepish, almost blushing. Chip said nothing and after an uncomfortable moment, Dez walked forward and picked up Chip’s dropped water balloon from the grass, holding it aloft to show it off for his brother. “Got his balloon,” he announced, but after the failure of his first throw, he didn’t seem too eager to embarrass himself further with another. “Aw, I got an idea!” Dez called to Jace. “I’ll give you his balloon and then when I push him out from behind the tree, you nail him with it. With his own balloon! Ha!” He headed back towards the front porch and disappeared from Chip’s view.
“Blaine!” shouted Chip. “Help! I’m trapped! Do something!” He peeked around the tree to the far corner of the house where Blaine was supposed to be hiding. He couldn’t see around the corner so he had no idea if Blaine was really there or not. “Blaine!” he shouted again.
“Yeah, Blaine!” shouted Dez. “Come out and help your brother! My brother won’t kill you with a water balloon! I promise!”
Chip sighed. He would receive no help from Blaine. He didn’t know how they were going to get to the phone with Jace refusing to leave the porch, but he could think about that after he got out of this situation. For now, his sole concern had to be escaping to the back yard without further injury.
Dez strolled back into view and stopped ten feet away from Chip, smirking.
Neither boy spoke. Chip concentrated on maintaining a frightened appearance. He didn’t want to oversell it, but at the same time, he doubted Dez’s ability to perceive subtlety, but also at the same time, he doubted that Dez was seeing anything except what he wanted to see.
“All right then,” said Dez, walking toward Chip. “This is boring with you guys just scared and hiding the whole time. Let’s get you out in the open.”
When Dez was two steps away, Chip lunged at him. Having Jace on his side had made Dez cocky, but he was even smaller than Blaine, so it wasn’t difficult for Chip to wrap both arms around Dez’s neck from behind and drag him out into the yard, making his way toward the corner of the house with Dez acting as a screaming, struggling human shield.
Jace had a red water balloon in his hand, cocked back and ready to fire, but Dez, his voice strangled, shouted as well as he could, “Don’t throw it! Do not throw it, Jace! You might hit me!”
Jace said nothing, but for the first time, his face conveyed something other than numb resignation. He looked furious. His pitching arm, held up and behind him at the ready, trembled as if straining at an invisible leash held by an unreasonably passive master.
Dez kicked backwards at Chip’s shins, but he landed only glancing blows and none of them hurt even a fraction as much as Jace’s water balloons had. When Chip finally got to the corner of the house, he waited until Jace was all the way out of sight, then shoved Dez back around the corner so that he stumbled and fell to his knees in the front yard. Then Chip turned and ran.
Blaine was waiting for Chip behind the shed. He was hunched over. He looked grim, hunted, ashamed. Before Blaine could say anything, Chip clapped him on the shoulder and said, “It’s fine. I’m fine. Our plan wouldn’t have worked anyway. Jace isn’t moving from the front porch. He’s guarding the front door and he won’t move. He didn’t even move when I captured Dez. I don’t know what his deal is. I think he’s more messed up than Dez told you.”
“You captured Dez?” asked Blaine, light flickering in his eyes for a moment.
“Yeah,” said Chip, smiling. “Didn’t you hear him screaming?” Chip wanted to protect his brother from Jace, but he also wanted to protect him from his own dread and guilt.
“I was wondering what that was about,” said Blaine. “I was…I was already back here when I heard…”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Chip. “I got away clean. But that still doesn’t solve our problem.”
“Maybe Dez’s mom will be home soon,” said Blaine.
“Maybe,” said Chip, knowing she wouldn’t. “But Dez isn’t going to tolerate just guarding the door for much longer. Eventually he might be able to convince Jace to come hunt us down. And even if they don’t come after us, we can’t just hide all night. That’s pathetic.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Blaine. “It’s not pathetic to want to be safe. It’s not pathetic to hide from something that can really hurt you.”
“I’m not saying you’re pathetic,” said Chip. “But we can’t just let Dez do what he wants. We have to do something.”
“I can’t,” said Blaine. “I can’t.”
“I got hit and I’m OK,” said Chip. “I got hit twice.” He wasn’t really OK, though. He was in pain. The longer he stood still, the more the pain asserted itself and demanded bigger and bigger chunks of his attention. He suspected severe bruising at the least. At worst, he suspected something he didn’t know the word for and wouldn’t have been able to pronounce if he did. If he or Blaine were to get hit in the head, Chip didn’t know what would happen, but it would be dire.
Blaine wouldn’t look at Chip. He was retreating from the entire situation without moving, mentally fleeing the scene at full speed.
“You stay here,” said Chip. “Just stay hidden no matter what. If you see Jace coming, run. If it’s just Dez, beat him up.”
Blaine didn’t ask Chip what he was going to do. He didn’t say anything. He turned away and peered around the far corner of the shed, kneeling on one knee and then the other, tightening his shoelaces, double-knotting, triple-knotting.
This time when Chip rounded the front corner of the house, he didn’t run. He walked, empty-handed and projecting a complete lack of concern despite his limp.
As soon as Dez saw him, he started screaming, “Get him, Jace! Get him in the face!”
But something about Chip’s approach stayed Jace’s hand for a moment. It was just long enough for Chip to say, “Go ahead and try, Jace. We both know you can’t hit me.” He stopped walking and spread his arms. “Everyone heard how you lost your control. You’re wild now. You got lucky before, but you can’t hit me when it matters.”
Jace’s arm moved too fast for sight. Chip heard the water balloon zip past, but he didn’t hear it land. Maybe it hadn’t landed. Maybe it was still flying. Chip began to walk forward again, allowing himself a cocky smile. “Ball one,” said Chip.
Jace took another balloon from the pile on the porch swing, took a moment to concentrate, his eyes boring into Chip’s eyes, and then he fired again. This balloon hit the grass five feet in front of Chip, spraying water across his legs from the knees down.
“Ball two,” said Chip, not breaking stride. “You’ve still got the velocity, Jace. Everyone can see that. But that control: you had it earlier, but now it’s gone again, and who knows why?”
“Shut up!” shouted Dez. “Jace, get him! Hurry! You can do this!”
Jace’s next throw missed way up and to Chip’s left, popping in the branches of the birch tree he’d hidden behind during his first failed assault on the porch.
“Ball three,” said Chip.
Jace was visibly rattled. He wiped sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. He was trying to stay focused, but he kept tossing his head as if gnats were biting at the corners of his mouth. Dez, his frustration overflowing, picked up a balloon and threw it at Chip himself. Chip batted it out of the air with a casual wave of his hand. It landed in the flower bed and didn’t pop, a gleaming orange blob among the dead, dry geraniums.
Jace’s fourth throw came out of his hand at such a sharp angle that it went almost straight up, arching high into the gray sky. Chip followed the errant balloon with his eyes as the wind caught it and carried it over the house where it began to fall back to Earth, eventually disappearing from view behind the peak of the house. Beyond that, its fate was unknowable. For the time being, anyway.
“Ball four,” said Chip. “I’m calling my mom.” He stopped twenty feet from the porch. Jace stood next to the depleted pile of water balloons with his hands open, empty, limp. Dez looked at his brother with a mixture of disappointment, sadness, and pity. The look was familiar to Chip, though he felt it more than saw it. Jace looked at his feet, avoiding his younger brother’s eyes. “I’m gonna go inside,” he mumbled.
Chip started to walk forward again. It seemed impossible that the slouching, pitiful man on the porch could be the same man whose exploits had injured Chip’s body, terrified Blaine, and whipped Dez into a bloodthirsty frenzy.
“Jace,” said Dez, his voice thick with emotion. “This isn’t baseball, Jace.”
Chip stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck began to rise one by one.
“There are no umpires,” said Dez. “No managers, no crowds…”
Chip took one step backwards.
Dez kept talking. “No strikes, no balls, no walks. When you miss, you just throw again and again and again until you hit what you want to hit and no one counts the misses. You throw whether your control comes back or not. You throw until I stop filling balloons for you. And I’ll fill balloons for you forever, Jace. You’re my brother.”
Chip spun on his heel and ran, every nerve ending in his body blaring alarm. He’d taken three panicked strides when the water balloon caught him square in the back of the head and his world went bright red, black, and wet.
Some moments later, lying face down in the grass with his arms wedged under his body and Dez whooping and chanting Jace’s name like the lone rioting fan of a championship team, Chip took solace in the fact that most humans only use a very small percentage of their brains. He would lie still for just a bit longer to see how many of his mental faculties would return, and then he would take another stab at getting back to the shed. Blaine would be there, waiting for a plan, and if bad plans were all Chip could offer his brother, then he would offer bad plans forever.