Dominic began his summer vacation between his sophomore and junior years as Multioak High School’s presumptive third-string quarterback for the upcoming football season. But then, Pete, the Marionettes’ returning starter at quarterback, went down with a season-ending injury in mid-July, which moved Dominic up to the second string. Or, as his dad put it, “You’re not just the second-string quarterback, son. You’re the backup.” Dominic knew it was silly, but his dad was right: “backup” sounded cooler. But Dominic’s status as the backup quarterback also proved to be short-lived, because two days after Pete went down with his injury, Christian, Pete’s former backup and the current presumptive starter, went down with a season-ending injury of his own. And just like that, before two-a-day practices had even started, Dominic was the presumptive starting quarterback for the upcoming football season at Multioak High School.
As soon as he got the news of Christian’s injury, Dominic went out to the back yard to try to throw his football through the tire swing for a while. He knew he needed to work on accuracy and arm strength so he stood a long way from the tire swing, but this proved to be too discouraging, so he decided he’d start with accuracy and build up to arm strength. He moved closer to the tire swing and had more success, but not as much as he’d hoped. The truth was that Dominic wasn’t sure he was capable of being the starting quarterback. For now, the team was still solely focused on strength and conditioning; official practices wouldn’t begin until two-a-days started up in a couple weeks. Since Coach Fossek left oversight of the summer workouts to his assistants, Dominic hadn’t seen him in months.
The upcoming season would be Coach Fossek’s third as head coach at Multioak. His first season had been a staggering, unexpected success. His second season had been good but not great. Coach Fossek did not look like a football coach. For one thing, he had waist-length brown hair. Before Coach Fossek arrived, Dominic had never seen a football coach without a sensible haircut. The other major way in which Coach Fossek did not look like a football coach was that he always looked frightened, even when he certainly wasn’t frightened and there was no reason to be frightened, which made the frightened expression on his face frightening in itself. And the fact that the frightened expression never really went away made it into a sort of distorted or perverted relative of the stoicism or smoldering intensity most other coaches tended to prefer displaying with their faces as wards against all circumstances, good or bad.
Dominic wondered if he should try to get in touch with Coach Fossek, maybe ask him what he should be working on, maybe ask him if the starter needed to study a different, more thorough playbook than the third-stringer did, and if so, if he could get his hands on that playbook so he could begin studying ASAP.
But then Dominic realized he didn’t have Coach Fossek’s phone number. He didn’t even have Coach Fossek’s email address. And he didn’t know where Coach Fossek lived. In fact, Dominic had never actually had a conversation with Coach Fossek. In fact, Coach Fossek had never said anything to Dominic, not one word. The truth was that as far as Dominic could tell, Coach Fossek only ever interacted with the starting quarterback and left every other aspect of coaching the team to his assistants. But now Dominic was the starting quarterback, so Coach Fossek would be interacting with him exclusively. Coach Fossek hadn’t reached out to Dominic yet, but it was inevitable. He was probably waiting for two-a-days to start. But when Coach Fossek did finally make contact, Dominic didn’t want to seem like the junior third-stringer he’d been up until a little over two weeks ago. When Coach Fossek made contact, Dominic wanted to be ready, Dominic wanted to be worthy of the title “starting quarterback.”
And Dominic wanted to apologize for throwing up on the team bus last year on the way back from the game against Heavenburg Central. He’d apologized to the assistants and many of his teammates, but he’d never been able to get close enough to apologize to Coach Fossek. He wasn’t even sure Coach Fossek remembered the incident. But now that he was the starter, Dominic figured he should clear the air, just in case there was any lingering resentment.
A week passed. Dominic heard nothing from Coach Fossek.
“I’m open about my flaws,” said Christian, lowering the rifle from his shoulder and pointing the barrel at the ground. “That’s how people know I’m not just bragging when I talk about my strengths.”
“OK, but you could still be mistaken,” said Dominic. “About your strengths and your flaws.”
“But who knows me better than I know myself?” said Christian, raising the rifle to his shoulder again. “Given that I’m willing to face my flaws, I mean.” He pulled the trigger and the report of the rifle made Dominic flinch. There was a splash in the small pond no more than 100 feet away from where Dominic and Christian stood on the patio in Christian’s back yard, but the Styrofoam cooler bobbing on the surface of the pond remained intact. Christian had explained to Dominic that his mom had told him he had to stock the pond with fish, but Christian was afraid of fish, disgusted by them, so this was the final step in what Dominic gathered had been a long and involved process. The cooler had fish in it and the idea, as Christian had described it, was that Christian would shoot the cooler from a distance, it would break apart, and the fish would fall into the water. But since Dominic had arrived, Christian had missed six consecutive shots and Dominic didn’t know how many Christian had missed before he arrived.
“I’m afraid of fish,” said Christian, lowering the rifle again. “And I’m a bad shot with a rifle.”
“OK, sure,” said Dominic.
“But I would have been a better starting quarterback than Pete this year,” said Christian. “And I think I would have had a chance to be as good as Hosea.”
“Oh, please,” said Dominic. “Hosea holds every record in the conference.”
“And I guess he will for another year,” said Christian, pointing to the cast on his foot with the barrel of the rifle. The cast was an odd shade of yellow. Dominic kind of wished the gun would go off. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal, Christian’s foot was already injured, he was already going to miss the whole season.
“Maybe I’ll break Hosea’s records,” said Dominic. “Well, not all of them. Just a few. Maybe one or two.”
“Maybe,” said Christian, smirking. “Does he hold the record for most, uh, like, um…”
“Well, I know you’re trying to think of a joke where it’s like bad record that I’d be breaking so since I already know that’s what you’re doing, don’t even bother to think of something.”
Christian took another shot at the floating cooler full of fish and missed again. This time there wasn’t even a splash. He must have missed high, the most dangerous way to miss.
“So is there a special playbook for the starting quarterback or not?” asked Dominic. “Do you have it here? Can I borrow it?”
“There’s no special playbook,” said Christian. “Coach Fossek tells you everything you need to know.”
“But I haven’t heard from him yet,” said Dominic. “Can you give me his phone number? Or his email address?”
“I have them,” said Christian. “But I can’t give them to you.”
“Because Coach Fossek will contact you when he decides it’s time.”
“Well, when did he contact you?” asked Dominic.
“Right after Pete got hurt,” said Christian. “Coach called me in the middle of the night. I heard before anyone else.”
“But you’ve been hurt for a week now,” said Dominic. “And I still haven’t heard from him.”
“Well,” said Christian. “Maybe you aren’t the starter.”
“I have to be,” said Dominic. “I was the third-string quarterback. You and Pete got hurt. We don’t even have a fourth-string quarterback.”
Christian grinned. “Maybe there’s a promising freshman.”
“No,” said Dominic. “No way.”
“You’re pretty bad,” said Christian. “That’s my point. Coach might be looking for other options. Might even feel a little desperate.”
Dominic said nothing. He wasn’t the type to say his flaws out loud like Christian claimed he was, but Dominic was well aware of his shortcomings as a quarterback. He knew he was bad. But he’d never had the personal attention of a football genius like Coach Fossek, the man who had transformed the now-legendary Hosea from a hapless band nerd into a record-setting Multioak hero in his first year as head coach! Surely there was something within Dominic that Coach Fossek could work with, some raw material that he could form into something, if not record-setting, at least competent. “How did you get hurt?” asked Dominic.
Christian cleared his throat. “My parents were gone for the night. I was home alone in the house. I was down in the basement but I had popcorn in the microwave in the kitchen. I heard the microwave beep so I knew the popcorn was done. I ran up the stairs but the toe of my right foot caught one of the steps and my left foot went forward and struck the uncarpeted top step right on the heel, breaking it. Then, from the pain, I fell backward and my left foot swung back under me. I grabbed the railing but my weight came down on my left foot, which bent beneath me, breaking two metatarsal bones.”
“Oh,” said Dominic. He pointed to a crescent-shaped scrape on Dominic’s right elbow. “Was that from the same fall?”
“Oh, this?” said Christian. He twisted his arm to look at the scrape for a few silent moments. “Yes,” he said. “From the same fall.”
“It’s weird,” said Dominic. “It looks so precise.”
“No, I’ve seen scrapes like this before,” said Christian. “They’re common.” He raised the rifle to his shoulder, fired at the cooler, missed it again. This time the bullet struck the ground in front of the pond, sending up a spray of dirt.
“Hold your fire,” said Dominic. He crossed the yard to the pond, took off his shoes, socks, and jeans, and waded out into the water, which only came up to his knees. When he got to the Styrofoam cooler, he took the lid off and looked inside. It was half-filled with water much clearer than the pond-water. There were two gray fish in the bottom, inert but not dead. Dominic dumped the contents of the cooler into the pond, then carried the empty cooler back to the bank and put his jeans, socks, and shoes back on.
“There,” said Dominic when he returned to Christian. “I did you a favor. Now you can give me Coach Fossek’s phone number. Or email address. I’ll take whichever.”
“No,” said Christian, the barrel of the impotent rifle again hovering above his broken foot. “I might be injured, but I’m still part of the team. I have to respect Coach Fossek’s ways. He’ll contact you when he wants to. If he wants to.”
The moment of self-righteous silence that directly followed these words would have been the perfect time for the gun to go off. The foot was already hurt. Christian was already going to miss the whole season.
Pete was nicer than Christian. Everyone knew that. Dominic thought it was probably because of the security that came along with being the starting quarterback and knowing that he was good enough that no one lower on the depth chart could threaten to take his starting job away. Pete had spent the entire previous season as Multioak High School’s starting quarterback and had led the team to a respectable 8-2 regular season record before losing a close game in the second round of sectionals. He was clearly better than Christian. Everyone knew that too. And he was clearly clearly better than Dominic. Everyone knew that too but probably no one had ever bothered to say it because it was so obvious and furthermore probably there were a lot of people who didn’t even know who Dominic was so why would they be talking about him in comparison to Pete?
“You’ve got the same scrape as Christian,” said Dominic, pointing at Pete’s right elbow. “It’s even in the same place! It looks exactly the same!” Dominic and Pete were in Pete’s basement bedroom, which was entirely empty but for a sleeping bag and a laptop on the gray carpet. The boys were standing since there was nowhere to sit. Pete’s left arm was in a sling. The fixture on the ceiling cast its insubstantial light around the room.
“Oh, really?” said Pete, twisting his arm to look at his scrape. “This scrape sort of looks like a scrape that Christian has? That’s a weird coincidence. I didn’t know that. I haven’t seen Christian since before he got injured.”
“But it’s even shaped the same,” said Dominic. “And that’s not a normal shape for a scrape. That’s so crazy. He’s got a broken foot and you’ve got an injured shoulder but you’ve both got the exact same scrape on your right elbow.”
“All right, all right,” said Pete. “You’re onto us, I get it. I was going to tell you about it eventually. If you wanted it, I mean. I figured it wouldn’t take you long to show up. You lasted longer than Christian, for what it’s worth.”
“Wait, hold on,” said Dominic. “I’m onto you? What were you going to tell me?”
“You can stop hinting,” said Pete. “I don’t know how much Christian told you but clearly this confirms it for you.”
“Christian didn’t tell me anything,” said Dominic. “That’s why I’m here. I was hoping you’d give me Coach Fossek’s phone number. Or email address. But then I saw that scrape and you started acting weird and now I don’t know what to think.”
“Back up,” said Pete. “You haven’t even heard from Coach Fossek yet? You’re trying to get in touch with him?” He laughed and shook his head. “Man, I had this all backward. I thought you were here ‘cause you were trying to get away from him.”
“Why would I do that?” asked Dominic. “I’m gonna be the starter, I’m gonna have to be in contact with Coach Fossek all the time. I mean, you were the starter last year, Pete, you know this. I’ll probably have to talk to him not just at games and practices, but maybe even on weekends or, you know, just with game plans and tactics and new plays and stuff like that, maybe talking in the evening about that stuff or coming in early to talk about it in his office before school, even. Right?”
“Dude, you have no idea,” said Pete. “No idea.”
“It’s a lot, huh?” asked Dominic. “Pretty intense? But I guess it’d have to be. I mean, it takes a lot of work to be good. Look at Hosea, right? He and Coach Fossek must have been, like best friends. Or like father and son, almost.”
Pete scoffed. “Hosea. There’s the problem right there. Those two were made for each other. OK, Dominic, so remember last year? Hosea had graduated and it wasn’t clear who the new starter was going to be. It was either going to be me or April. So there was this competition between me and her all through two-a-days, all through the practices and everything, Coach was evaluating us. And then two days before our first game, he names me the starter. And honestly, I don’t know why he picked me because, I mean, I don’t know if April was a better quarterback than me or not, but the drills they were having us do proved nothing. Not to me, anyway. But Coach names me the starter and April quits on the spot. So I go home, I’m happy, I’m excited. I go to bed. And then in the middle of the night my phone starts ringing. I pick it up and it’s, like, 3 in the morning. And the number is blocked so I don’t know who’s calling. So I’m groggy and a little freaked out so I answer in case it’s an emergency or, I don’t know, honestly, I was only half awake. But I answer and I just hear this voice say, ‘Do you believe in God, starter?’”
Dominic waited for the rest of the story but after a few moments, he realized the story had ended.
“You don’t get it,” said Pete. “That was Coach Fossek on the phone.”
“He called you at 3 in the morning to ask you if you believe in God?” asked Dominic. “And blocked his number?”
“He called me at all hours. Dozens of times a day. One time he called me over a hundred times in a day. But then once he went an entire week without talking to me at all, not even at practice. And he’d have me over to his house for dinner, sometimes, and his wife would be there and we’d all just sit in silence while she spent, like, an hour brushing his hair. Total silence. And then Coach would send me home.”
“That’s definitely weird,” said Dominic. “But a lot of those calls were about plays and game plans, right?”
“Never,” said Pete. “Well, almost never. Sometimes they were but only in very abstract ways. Coach thought that by building a very specific kind of connection, we would be able to…it’s hard to explain. He never called plays during a game though. I was just supposed to feel what he wanted. Or, not even what he wanted, I was supposed to feel what the right play was. And the right play wasn’t always the effective play. I can’t really explain it. Coach didn’t even seem to care about winning and losing.”
“But did all that make you a better quarterback?” asked Dominic.
“I don’t know,” said Pete. “I guess it worked for Hosea, right? But it doesn’t really matter if it worked for me or not because I wasn’t going to put up with another year of that. And I knew that just quitting wouldn’t work. Or, well, I didn’t know what would happen if I tried to quit. I was scared, I’ll admit it. So I decided an injury was the only way out. And I needed to make sure it would take me out for the whole season, but I also wanted to make sure I’d have a full recovery. And I also needed it to look like it really happened by accident. But when a doctor examined me, I needed to make sure the injuries matched my story perfectly. So that’s why I had to go to the Injury Artist. She was my only option. And then when Christian cracked after two days of dealing with Coach, he came to me for advice or support and, well, I took pity on him and referred him to the Injury Artist too. And, I mean, I didn’t know for sure, but I thought you’d probably show up too. You don’t exactly seem like a Hosea type. But I guess I made it a full year and Hosea always creeped me out. Anyway, I dunno, dude, if you haven’t even heard from Coach yet, I probably wouldn’t visit the Injury Artist yet. If you haven’t heard from him, it probably means you aren’t the starter.”
“But I was third-string,” said Dominic. “And you and Christian both got hurt. I must be the starter.”
Pete shrugged and winced. Shrugging probably wasn’t good for his injured shoulder. “Maybe Coach wants to have another quarterback competition in practice like me and April had. Maybe there’s a freshman he thinks might be better than you? You are pretty bad.”
“I was third and the two people in front of me had somebody hurt them on purpose so they couldn’t play,” said Dominic, his voice reaching for righteous indignation and coming up just short. “Do the math, Pete! I’m the starter now! And I’m not going to have someone injure me just because I’m freaked out by Coach Fossek’s unconventional coaching methods! I actually think I’ll respond to his methods very well!”
“You can try,” said Pete, remembering not to shrug this time. “It’ll definitely save you some money. The Injury Artist is not cheap.”
“So wait,” said Dominic. “You never told me why you and Christian have the same scrape even though you have different injuries.”
“Oh yeah,” said Pete, again twisting his elbow to look at the crescent-shaped scrape. “That’s the Injury Artist’s signature. She puts it on all her pieces.”
“So what’s your story of how you hurt your shoulder?” asked Dominic. “Christian’s is something about running up some stairs for some popcorn.”
“Oh, right,” said Pete. “So mine is that I was home alone one night and I got really hungry for some popcorn. But we didn’t have any in the house. So I decided I wanted to drive to the Diamond Food and get some. But on my way out to my truck, which was parked on the street, I-”
“Wait,” said Dominic. “Your story is about going to get popcorn too?”
“Yeah,” said Pete. “That’s her current motif. It’s like Laungerton’s green period or Tourant’s fatherhood cycle.”
“The pursuit of popcorn?” asked Dominic.
“No,” said Pete. “Not necessarily the pursuit. Just, like, popcorn.”
In the days leading up to two-a-days, Dominic did not practice his throwing accuracy or try to increase his arm strength. He didn’t know why Coach Fossek hadn’t contacted him yet, but if it was because he intended for there to be a quarterback competition, then based on the information he had gleaned from Pete, Dominic knew that the starting job would not be won with traditional quarterback skills. No, the starting quarterback position at Multioak High School could only be won by connecting with Coach Fossek on his level, by being willing to accept and embrace his strange methods like Hosea had and like Pete could have if he had been willing to fully surrender to them and fulfill the potential that Coach Fossek must have seen in him when he named him the starter over April, the athletically superior option. Pete had talked about all that weird stuff Coach Fossek had done like it would discourage Dominic, like it would make him not want to be the starter, but it had the opposite effect. Throwing a football well had never felt like something Dominic could accomplish by spending more time throwing a football, but if there were a way to achieve football-throwing excellence through merely surrendering his will to a mad genius, well, that Dominic could do. His will had never been that strong in the first place. In that way, it was similar to his throwing arm.
On the first day of two-a-days, at the morning practice, when everyone who hadn’t overslept or decided to quit without telling anyone had gathered in the locker room, the assistant coaches appeared from out of their offices and told everyone to take a knee. Some guys sat on the benches instead of taking knees and Dominic thought they’d get yelled at but they didn’t. And then the assistant coaches broke the news: Coach Fossek would not be coaching the team this year. He had not been fired and he had not retired and if all went well, then there was a good chance he would be back to coach the team next year, but as for this year, no, he was out. The only reason the assistant coaches would give was that Coach Fossek was having serious personal problems that were going to take time and probably some intense therapy to deal with, but they wanted to make it clear that Coach Fossek hadn’t done anything illegal or immoral or wrong in any way and that he was committed to coming back better than ever.
For most of the players, the announcement meant very little. None of them had ever spoken to Coach Fossek before anyway, so as far as they could tell, if the assistants were running the show, then everything was normal. But to Dominic, the announcement was a kick in the stomach, a punch in the throat, a knee in the groin, a two-fingered poke in both eyes simultaneously, one finger for each eye. He was freaking out. On one hand, this explained why Coach Fossek hadn’t contacted him, so maybe that meant the silence wasn’t actually a bad sign. But on the other hand, Dominic had pinned all of his hopes for actually becoming a good quarterback on Coach Fossek and his nontraditional approach to coaching quarterbacks. What would happen to him now?
As most of the assistant coaches led the team out of the locker room to commence practice, one assistant coach stayed behind and told Dominic and a guy he didn’t recognize to stay behind too. When everyone else had cleared out, the assistant coach said, “Kirk, this is Dominic, he was our third-string quarterback last year. Dominic, this is Kirk, he’s a freshman. You guys are going to be competing in practice for the starting job this year. And I want you to know that me and the other coaches are going to be totally objective about this. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or who you know or who your parents are or if you threw up all over the bus last year and tried to use your school-issued jersey to clean it up before anyone saw it as if no one would notice the worst-smelling puke of all time in a confined space with all the windows closed because it was 20 degrees outside. None of that matters. Whoever proves himself in practice, whoever we think is going to give us the best chance to win football games, that’s who we’re going to go with. Got it?”
“I am sorry about that,” said Dominic.
“Sorry about what,” said the assistant coach, but his voice was flat, he didn’t inflect it like a question.
Kirk, who was a good six inches shorter than Dominic, had hair so blond it almost looked white, and was covered in painful-looking acne, snickered.
It was no comfort at all to Dominic when, out on the practice field, it became clear that Kirk was easily as bad at being a quarterback as Dominic was. No comfort at all.
The Injury Artist, in her black bathrobe and ash-colored cowboy hat, stood on a tall ladder and fussed with her ropes and pulleys and hooks and harnesses while smoking a cigarette. She didn’t seem very old. Younger than Dominic’s mom, definitely. Her studio was a large outbuilding on her run-down property out in the country. The inside of the building was filled with stuff. There were some cars, a few staircases that went up to nowhere, a bunch of tools and household items spilling out of boxes into heaps on the cement floor. In the one portion of the room mostly clear of clutter, the floor was divided up into a grid of different types of surfaces: tile, carpet, sod, gravel, and so on. And overhead were the ropes and pulleys and hooks and harnesses with which the Injury Artist was now fussing.
“But does my story have to have popcorn in it?” asked Dominic.
“Yes,” said the Injury Artist. “Popcorn must be an element in your story, popcorn must be present. But the injury can be to any body part you want.”
Dominic looked down at his hands, his knees, his feet. He was in no physical pain, but he soon would be. It seemed immoral. Not to lie to the team about the nature of his injury but to voluntarily take a body, no matter how bad it was at quarterbacking, and break it. Dominic looked up and saw the Injury Artist looking down at him from the ladder.
“Having second thoughts?” she said. “Almost everyone does. But there is another option, if you’re interested. Something I’ve been dabbling in recently.”
“What is it?” asked Dominic.
“Emotional injury,” said the Injury Artist. “It can be just as debilitating as any physical injury. More so, in some cases. In fact, I recently had a client for whom a physical injury would have accomplished almost nothing, but I cooked up an emotional injury for him that suited his needs perfectly.”
“Was there popcorn in that one too?” asked Dominic.
“Oh yes,” said the Injury Artist. “But his work necessitates that he spend a lot of time at a football field where they sell popcorn, so I came up with a very clever way to meet both of our needs: his emotional injury is linked to psychological trauma involving popcorn, so to even be near it, to see it and smell it, well, that’s far too much for him to deal with right now. And even if popcorn were to be eliminated from the location, the association between the field and the popcorn is still too strong, certainly strong enough to cause a breakdown.”
“Did he, um,” said Dominic. “Did he say why he wanted the injury? The emotional injury?”
“I shouldn’t go into specifics,” said the Injury Artist. “And to be honest, he didn’t say much. But his reason was the same as everyone’s. The same as yours, probably. He was in a hopeless situation. He had a problem with no solution but to avoid it.”
“He didn’t even give me a chance,” said Dominic. “He gave up on me before talking to me once.”
The Injury Artist looked confused. “Who did?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Dominic. “Just give me the scrape.”
“A scrape?” asked the Injury Artist.
“The scrape,” said Dominic. “On my right elbow. Your signature.”
“Just the scrape?” asked the Injury Artist.
“Yes,” said Dominic. “I’ll say I tripped on some popcorn.”