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By the end of school, the gray sky had descended and submerged the rugby field in a muddy, drizzling mess. You could hardly see the goal posts.
But this was rugby, and Aaron had possession of the ball.
The wet leather scraped his chest, he grasped it tighter. His heartbeat was steady, smooth as a piston. He dodged a tackle. Plowed through another, locked the muscles in his shoulder and crunched into the guy’s ribs, flattened him. He darted between two more opponents.
A wall of bodies flooded toward him, nowhere to go.
Aaron jammed his cleats into the mud, and they gripped, caught like anchors. He halted, his body bent over the oozing mud, rigid.
“Aaron, I’m right behind you!”
Aaron pumped his thighs and accelerated in the opposite direction, full afterburner. So much for inertia.
“Aaron, pass it to Cooper!”
But the enemies closed in like a shock wave. He yanked the football close, gripped it in an iron cradle as he collided with eight bodies. It was a blunt sound, like a baseball bat into flesh. He was knocked sideways, flipped through the air. The horizon spun like a propeller and a steal cleat scraped his forehead. He hardly felt it.
Then he found grass, an opening. He planted his foot and exploded down the field, the ball still at his side.
“Aaron, pass me the ball!”
But there were more. Way too many. They swarmed, blotted out the horizon. He spun and barely dodged one, he caught another’s jersey in his fist and wrenched him to the ground. They kept on coming.
“Pass it to Cooper—he’s open!”
Aaron dropkicked the ball down the field and out of bounds.
Cooper ran up next to him and grabbed his jersey. “Aaron, I was right there!”
Aaron swatted his hand away. “Get open next time.”
Coach Reiner yelled from the sidelines. “Harper, pass a damn ball!”
Buff jogged up behind him, then he and Aaron collected their team into a huddle.
“Buddy, I want you on the wing,” said Buff.
“Just give me the ball,” said Aaron. “I can beat these assholes.”
“That’s not how you play!” he said.
“Just give me the ball.”
“Coach is looking for smart passes, not this bullshit!” he said.
“Just do it,” said Aaron, and he turned away from the huddle. Sweat steamed off his body and dribbled over his lips. He tasted blood, hot and salty. His jersey was caked with mud.
The two teams lined up for the scrum, and Coach Reiner blew the whistle. The forwards slammed into each other, and all movement stopped, there were grunts, yells.
Aaron sprinted into the mass of bodies.
"Buddy!" Buff’s head appeared as he mowed the others down like bowling pins. He pitched the ball back to Aaron, a perfect pass, before the bodies piled on top of him and brought him to his knees.
Aaron leaned forward, and the wind screamed. He reached out and his fingers touched cold, slippery leather.
He caught the ball, and adrenaline pulsed through his temples. Someone rushed him from the side. He planted his foot and leapt, swung his legs clear over the tackle.
But he wasn’t in the open. More bodies jammed the field. He sprinted sideways. Cooper was behind him again. “Aaron, right behind you!”
But the goal line was right there, not five yards, he could make it. Aaron aimed for a hole and charged, he angled forward, and tensed his body for the blow.
He was smashed in the chest and thrown to his back, dragged through the mud. The other team stripped the ball, snatched it up. And then they were off running down the field.
And ten long seconds later, they scored.
Coach Reiner blew the whistle. Rugby tryouts were over.
Aaron stood and scraped the mud off his shirt. He and Cooper gasped for breath. Then Cooper turned and pushed him in the chest.
“What the hell was that?” he said.
Aaron glared at him. “Don’t touch me,” he said.
“Did you pass a ball once?” said Cooper.
“I told you to get open.”
“I was open,” he said, and he shoved Aaron again. “I would have scored!”
Aaron pushed him back. “I said don’t touch me,” he spat. Then they were in each other’s faces, Aaron had jersey in his fist, he cocked his arm back.
Buff appeared between them, pushed them apart. “Back off, Coop,” he said.
Cooper stumbled backwards. He straightened his jersey and glared at Aaron. “Maybe someone should have told you—it’s a team sport.”
Buff put his arm around Aaron’s shoulder and led him to the sidelines, where a clipboard was circulating with the names of everyone who had made the team. He looked glum.
Aaron scanned the clipboard. His name wasn’t on the list. He scanned it again.
“Coach, my name’s not here!” said Aaron.
“You’re right,” said Coach Reiner. “It’s not.”
“But I scored three times, you saw that right?”
“You need to learn how to pass.”
“How to pass?” said Aaron. “I scored three times.” Aaron stared the side of the coach’s muscle-packed jaw. Then he flipped the clipboard onto the grass and walked away. “Whatever,” he muttered. “It’s a stupid sport anyway.”
“Harper—” Coach Reiner raised his voice, and even his calf muscles flexed. “When you play for me, you leave your ego in the locker room. Now get the hell off my field!”
“Well?” said Buff furiously as he and Aaron hobbled to the stands after rugby tryouts, both of them drenched in mud. Behind them, the goal posts sank into the mist…