A small television screen behind the bar at the local VFW focuses on a young blonde in a black and white dress that barely rests upon her shoulders. “Tonight’s top story,” she begins with authority. “Complications to the new Covid-19 vaccine, rushed into production by the Trump Administration, is being blamed for the rapid rise in hospitalizations across the country. Reports from Tennessee are…,” the anchor continues, but is drowned out by a man on the barstool directly in front of the screen.
“Turn this shit off,” he commands just wanting to be heard. “I’m sick of hearing how the world is going to end just for them to tell us to keep going to work.” His volume was just under what could be considered a shout.
Franklin Monroe, a modestly built man who wore the pain on his face for all to see, was in no mood for anything negative. Taking the last drink from his beer, he lowers it just a moment too soon causing a very small amount to spill out onto his yellow shirt. He uses his sleeve to wipe his mouth, and turns his head to the man behind the bar.
The older, white-haired man tending the bar, stopped wiping up a now clean section not far from Franklin. Slinging the rag with his right hand over the top of his left shoulder, “You need a hobby, Frank.” His voice was calming, but loud and boisterous. With a quick glance, the older man reached for the remote to the television, grabbed it, and slid it over to the much younger Marine. “You ever considered trying to coach,” the bartender asked. “You used to be pretty good, if I remember right.” Corporal Monroe, catching the remote before it slid past him and fell to the floor, now looked at Tom from the corner of his eye, wondering if another beer was on its way or if he was going to have to ask for one. “All State receiver, weren’t ya,” he said, more of a conversation starter than a real question. “Ya know, I always thought you were better with a bat in your hand.”
Welcoming the chance to avoid what was on the screen, a quick smile appeared on Franklin’s face as thoughts raced through his mind of the days before he joined the Corp. Before he knew the hand life was to deal him. “Only struck out once, senior year,” he bragged. “And that was a bullshit call. No fuckin’ way that bitch caught the corner. I’d have…” his voice softened and trailed off. “You workin’ today, or do I need to get my own?”
This was Frank’s way of stopping himself from going to the dark place, as he called it. Today marked two months since he got the news of his wife and daughter being killed when a semi truck lost control and collided with them head on. Without trying, his mind connected the links between that lone strikeout, and having kissed the love of his life for the first time. He remembered being furious that night after the game; the bad call grinding on his emotions. She had only kissed him to shut him up, but it still counted as far as he was concerned.
“Fuck it,” said the younger Marine. It was clear that he was going to say something else until the news began showing recently captured footage of what appeared to be a swarm of drug addicts attacking an elderly lady at a shopping mall somewhere in Florida. “What the hell is this shit,” he muttered to himself; gaining the attention of Tom who turned toward the screen.
“Jesus titty-fuckin’ Christ,” the former sergeant said under his breath. “They’ve gotta do somethin’ about these idiots and the bath salts down there.”
No more than a second later he assumed, a slight buzzing sound catches Frank’s attention. Picking up his phone, he looks at the screen to see he had missed multiple calls. “Shit!”
As the corporal stands up in preparation of paying for his drink, a voice comes from the entrance of the dimly lit room, “Don’t even think about it, Frank. I got ya today.” The voice belonged to Mason O’Conner, a put together man just a couple of years younger than Corporal Monroe. He had an athletic build about him, if maybe a little on the heavier side. Though, he carried his weight well enough to not look out of place next to a recently discharged Marine. He had a clean blue hat with a yellow H centered upon it, a blue shirt with the word Warriors across the chest in a near match of the yellow on his hat, and wore a pair of slightly faded blue jeans that completed the small town look.
“Sorry,” Frank told the younger man. “Lost track of time.” Mason said nothing as he made his way next to his brother-in-law, and paid for the beer. The Marine then said, pointing to the TV, “Mo, you see this shit?”
“Yeah. It’s being talked about on the radio, asshole. We’re going to be late for the game.”
Jed and Dominic sit on the tailgate of Dominic’s truck atop the overlook of the high school stadium. There, they watch as the two teams scramble into their respective pregame huddles in anticipation of running onto the field; waiting only for team captains to return from the coin toss. The sun is still bright in the sky as the new season prepares to get underway.
From the field, a small school band plays the Hatton fight song from their seats among the home crowd. Jed, a baby-faced, wiry man in his mid-twenties, rumbles through the ice in the cooler behind him in the bed of the truck. “You good,” he asks with an expectancy of context. His attire is rather non-descript, having never been much of a football guy. Soccer was more of his thing, but never managed to find the motivation to devote great effort to it. He was there for the enjoyment of sharing cold beers with a good friend. Despite the heaviness of the humid Oklahoma air, small town Friday nights in the fall were perfect for that.
Dominic, on the other hand, has two specific reasons to be there. The first one, the obvious one, is to get drunk. Secondly, to watch Hatton get humiliated by Mansville. It’s a rivalry that lost some spice while he was in the Navy. The year he joined, Hatton moved up from the ranks of eight-man football to the standard eleven-man. It wasn’t until this year that Mansville made the decision to do the same; renewing the rivalry.
The sound of another vehicle and tires approaching on the hardened ground diverts Dominic’s attention from answering his friend. Looking through the windshield, Dom struggles to make out any faces as the sun’s glare covered the glass as if it was concealing the occupants on purpose. “You know these guys,” he quizzed.
It hardly mattered. This overlook was traditionally used by former players to watch the game, and Dominic suspected someone would be there. However, once the truck came to a stop, he finally recognized one of the occupants. “This mother fucker,” he barked to himself. The annoyed tone was evident to Jed who said nothing, and popped the top on his fresh beer before taking a big drink.
Stepping from the vehicle, Mason had yet to recognize his old rival. He maintained his cluelessness, opting to retrieve some chairs from the truck bed while Frank got out the ice chest. He made his way to a clear area, which was easy seeing as how those four were the only ones there, and set up his perch.
Settling himself in, Mason decided to glance over at Jed and Dominic. “Come to watch ’em lose, Dom,” he quipped playfully.
“You piece o’ shit,” Dominic began. “You know how to ruin a perfectly good Friday night.”
Mason retorted, “I’ve had plenty of practice. What’s your prediction for tonight? Thirty to twenty-seven?” It was an obvious reference to the game between them in their senior season, and a low-blow as far as Dom was concerned.
That game was a dog fight. Both Hatton and Mansville were boasting undefeated records entering the game, and the winner would be the outright division champ. The season was a miraculous one for Hatton; a program perennially average at best. Yet, the stars seemed to align, and they were an absolute force to be reckoned with as their defense was electric.
Opposite them was Mansville; a program that considered their season a failure if they failed to receive homefield advantage in the playoffs. In Mason and Dominic’s senior season, the Bulldogs were expected to win their second straight state title, and third within five years. It was also the year they had Dominic Franks, a four-star collegiate prospect who saw little to no equal on the football field; especially in small town America.
The game itself is one that continues to be talked about among locals. It was dominated by defense, highlighted by Dominic’s two interceptions. One of which, he returned for a touchdown. He scored every point for the Bulldogs that night, his interception return, two rushing touchdowns, and every extra point and field goal came off of his foot.
It wouldn’t be enough, though. It came down to the final seconds of the game. With Dom kicking a field goal with nineteen seconds left in the contest to give Mansville a three point lead, it seemed inevitably decided. That was, until the kick coverage broke down on the ensuing kickoff. The Hatton returner would have taken it the distance to win the game, but Dominic managed to catch him and shove him out of bounds.
The next play was the dream sequence of many athletes. Seconds to play, down on the scoreboard, and it’s up to you to make it happen. Mason made it happen. It was an ugly throw that wobbled in the air, and seemed destined to go right into Dominic’s hands for a third time. Mason would always describe it as a Gust From the Gods that pushed the overthrown ball down, and into his questionably secure hands. He would get hit by Dominic just as the ball got to him, yet somehow managed to hang on, spin away, and stumble into the endzone for the score.
Hatton would lose in the second round of the playoffs, and Mansville would eventually go on to win the state championship that season.
That game became the foundation for their relationship. Never to be considered an every day friendship, the two became friends simply by knowing of one another.
While Dominic was on the field for Oklahoma State, Mason was on the sidelines as a student manager. Mo, as everyone calls him, was one of the behind the scenes type of people that helped prep the players by wrapping ankles, bandaging bleeding scrapes, or whatever else was needed to keep them physically able to perform.
Everyone, having exchanged the masculine pleasantries of fuck you and the horse you rode in on, got comfortable in anticipation of the opening Kick. Soon, though, just as the whistle to signal ready to play sounded, an unusual amount of gunfire could be heard in the distance.
In this part of the country, background noise consisting of Redneck Fireworks was not uncommon. In this instance, however, it was absurd and abundant. For this reason, Mason checked his phone.
“Fuck,” he said with aggression. Not wanting to have been disturbed on this particular night, his phone was on silent, and everyone around him knew the meaning of what he said.
With haste, he began to return the call to Sherriff Dunn who had tried, and failed, thirteen times to reach him. The phone went straight to voicemail, and confusion washed over Mason’s face. “Somethin’ wrong, Mo,” Dom asked with obvious concern.
“Yeah,” came a hurried response just as a cloud of dust and the sound of hurried tires on loose gravel came pouring toward them. Sheriff Clinton Dunn slid to a halt as if he were auditioning to become a Hollywood stunt driver. The truck was quickly placed into park, and the door came open just as quickly.
“Mo, are the girls with you?” Sheriff Dunn wasted no time waiting for an answer. It was obvious that it was just Mason, Frank, Dominic, and Jed; who was now double-fisting some beers. “WHERE ARE THE GIRLS?”
“They went shopping in Tulsa,” Mason answered, but still confused. “Why?”
His question was hardly able to leave his lips before the sheriff interrupted him, “Oh, thank God!”
Having been mostly quiet during the quick reunion, Jed spoke up, alarmed. “Where’d all that blood come from?”
With the insanity and hurried nature of their conversation, nobody, including the sheriff, had noticed that he was dripping in blood. They all exchanged glances, and Dunn checked himself to make sure it wasn’t his blood. “You’re not going to believe this shit, Mo. It’s straight out of a bad movie plot.” Clinton had directed the comment to Mason, but was clear that it was meant for everyone. “Get whatever guns or weapons you have in your trucks and follow me.”