Fiction: Home Court

Originally broadcast on the No Sleep podcast. You should listen to that. It’s a pretty fantastic production that’s visceral enough to make me cringe at my own story.

We were right in the middle of what looked like a nice third quarter comeback against Colinsville, the guards working the ball around the arc, when the ref blew the whistle. “Three seconds in the lane!” he called to the scorer’s table.

“Dang it, Teddy, get out of the lane!” I yelled, leaping up from my folding chair and glaring at my center, his right foot planted squarely just inside the paint.

“Coach, I can’t!” Teddy called back. I exhaled my frustration noisily. I’d been working with this kid all season to get the three-second rule through his head, but somehow he just could not grasp the concept that if he stood under the hoop for more than three seconds in a row, it meant a turnover for our team. Eric Polderman shook his head, handed the ball to the ref, and started stalking down to the opposite end of the court. All of the other players followed, except for Teddy. Teddy stayed right where he was.

That was enough for me. “Nick, you’re in!” I called down the bench. “Get Teddy out of there!” Nick Karlson bounced out of his seat, flashed his jersey at the scorekeeper, and trotted onto the court, yelling out, “Teddy, sub!” Still Teddy stayed stationary.

“Coach, I can’t move,” Teddy hollered over to the bench. “I’m… I don’t know, I’m stuck,” he groaned, staring down at his foot. The refs were ready for the inbounds, but now they looked over at me.

“Ah, for the love of God,” I muttered. “Time out!” The whistle blew again as I strode onto the court and over to Teddy. “What’s happening, kid? You hurt?” I asked.

Teddy looked up at me, his face a mask of panic that took me off guard. “No. I mean, I don’t know. I just… I can’t move my foot, Coach.”

I looked down at the floor. Teddy’s size 14 Reebok was planted exactly where it had been when the ref blew the whistle. His calf muscles were visibly straining with effort. I turned to the nearest referee. “Hey, we have an injury here. Mark, come take a look, huh?” The school trainer nodded and climbed down from his seat in the second row, groaning audibly as he shifted his considerable bulk. The kids and parents in the stands were buzzing as Mark and I stepped close to Teddy.

Mark reached down and put a hand on Teddy’s calf muscle. “Feel any pain?” he asked.

“No, I’m not hurt,” Teddy said, “It’s just like, like my foot’s stuck to the floor.”

Mark arched an eyebrow but nodded. “OK, try to lift your leg up for me.”

“I am!” Teddy groaned. “I’m telling you, I’m trying to move my foot but it just won’t move!”

Mark glanced at me. I shrugged in confusion. “Take it easy, Teddy,” I said. “You probably pulled something or got a bad cramp, that’s all. You’re gonna be OK.” Mark had his hands on Teddy’s ankle now, his fingers moving all around it in what looked like some kind of massage. “Let’s get the kid off the court, Mark,” I said.

Mark looked up at me with the same worried expression I’d seen from Teddy. “Coach, he’s right. This foot is stuck here solid.”

 If I’m being completely honest, Teddy Milligan probably shouldn’t have been on the court. He certainly didn’t belong in the starting lineup. The kid was raw, inexperienced, and not especially bright. But he was also 6’7” and 250 pounds. On a team where the next closest thing I had to a genuine big man was Nick Karlson at 6’2”, 175, Teddy’s flesh got him places his spirit couldn’t. Heck, the kid was only a sophomore. His skills and coordination were bound to improve, and there was a solid chance he’d tack on a few more inches before he finished growing. When you’re coaching a 2-and-8 high school basketball team with precious few rising stars waiting in the wings, sometimes you take a gamble and toss a lumbering giant of a 15-year-old out on the court before he’s ready.

As Mark and I tried to figure out what to do with Teddy’s foot, I saw Coach Rich from Colinsville making his way across the court, accompanied by one of the refs, the young blond one with the perpetual smirk. “Everything all right over here, fellas?” Coach Rich purred. I couldn’t stand the guy, but you gotta stay professional.

I started to reply but Teddy cut me off. “I can’t move my foot! I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m… I’m getting scared.”

“His foot’s stuck to the floor somehow,” I told the ref, ignoring Rich as best I could. Mark was still massaging Teddy’s tendons, trying to restore feeling or something like that.

“Well,” Coach Rich said, “Have you tried just taking his foot out of the shoe?”

Mark and I looked at each other sheepishly. “OK, Teddy, Mark’s going to untie your shoe and you’re going to lift your foot out of it nice and slowly, got it?” I said.

 “Coach, I don’t think I can,” Teddy murmured. As Mark reached for the laces of his Reebok, Teddy let out a sudden gasp. “P-pulling,” he moaned. “Feels like something’s pulling down on my foot.” Mark’s fingers moved nervously around the double-knotted laces, trying in vain to get them undone. Suddenly Teddy’s whimpering peaked in a high-pitched shriek. I was watching his writhing face when I heard a crisp snap, followed by another and another.

 “Jesus Christ!” Mark yelped, scuttling backwards across the hardwood. “The kid’s ankle just shattered!”

My wife and I moved to town at the start of the school year. I’d had a good job coaching basketball at a big school outside of Milwaukee. The kids were mostly good boys, but the constant back-and-forth with overbearing parents and clueless administrators wore me down after a few years. When a coaching position opened up in a little town on the other side of the state, we jumped on it. It seemed like a lot less stress and a chance to really make an impact on some kids who might not get a lot of chances in life.

As a newcomer to the town and the program, I didn’t know much about the Milligan family’s reputation, but I knew exactly what Alan was saying. Every small town has a family or two that fits the same profile: petty criminals, mostly harmless but notorious just the same for being constantly in trouble with the law, or their neighbors, or the bank, or whoever else is in arm’s reach that they can manage to piss off. The type of folks where you see a headline in the local paper about somebody getting busted for his fifth DUI or domestic violence charge and you scan the article until you spot the name “Milligan” and you shake your head and say, “Yep, sounds about right.”

When Teddy walked into the gym on our first day of tryouts, my assistant coach Alan warned me not to get too attached. “Nice kid, big kid, got a lot of potential,” Alan told me, “But when you get right down to it, he’s a Milligan. Even if he manages to make it through school without getting arrested or hooked on meth, you’re going to lose him to academic probation at some point.”

So even though I didn’t know this particular family, I’ve known their equivalents all my life. I knew Alan’s assessment was probably spot-on. But heck, I wasn’t going to chase the biggest kid in school off the court without giving him a shot. And wouldn’t you know it, Teddy kept showing up for practice and even showed some signs of knowing what the hell to do with a basketball. He wasn’t a smart kid by any means, but he listened well and tried his damnedest to do the things I told him to. Any coach will tell you a teachable kid with a little raw talent is worth two hot-headed sharpshooters. By the time the season started, Teddy was locked in as our starting center. I didn’t see any all-conference honors in his future, but as a big man on a bad team, he was right where he needed to be.

All around me I heard the gym erupt into chaos. Kids screaming in the stands, players running up for a closer look then scampering away in horror, refs and school administrators barking panicked orders. I kept my eyes glued on Teddy. He was staring down at his ankle, now a bloody mess that sheared away from his shoe at a 45-degree angle. It was hard to make out anything specific through the wash of blood but I could see several jagged white shards that had to be severed bone.

“Coach, it hurts!” he groaned at me. He was somehow still standing, foot still planted in the lane even as his ankle splintered beneath him. He looked me square in the eye and said, “Can you get me out of here? It hurts!”

“You’re going to be fine, Ted,” I reassured him, reaching out to pat his sweaty shoulder. “Mark!” I barked, turning back around. “Get the kid off the floor! And Alan!” I called to my assistant, who was sitting shell-shocked and white-faced beside the scorers’ table, “Clear the gym, now!” Alan lurched into motion, turning to holler directions to the frantic crowd.

I turned back to Teddy, trying not to stare at the bloody pulp of his lower leg. Coach Rich came stalking across the court, clearly pissed that we were delaying his blow-out. “What’s the idea clearing the gym?” he started, his words trailing off as he finally caught sight of Teddy. “Jesus,” Coach Rich murmured. “Jesus Christ.”

“Just hold tight, Teddy,” Mark said, now recovered from his initial shock. “I’m going to try your shoe again.” Mark crouched down on the hardwood, glancing up at me as he reached for Teddy’s Reebok with a shaky hand. As soon as his fingers touched the laces, a harsh grinding sound reverberated through the gym and Teddy howled with pain as his leg buckled in on itself, sending a thick mist of blood across all of us assembled. Coach Rich turned aside and vomited intensely on the court.

Mark scrambled backward again. “Goddammit goddammit goddammit,” he whimpered. “I’m not touching it! I’m not touching his foot again!” Teddy’s eyes had started to roll back in his head even as he managed to somehow stay standing in the lane. I clasped his shoulders and shook him until he was able to focus again.

“Teddy, you’ve got to help us,” I said. “We don’t know why your leg is doing this. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

Teddy blinked at me through glazed eyes. “I didn’t… didn’t get out of the lane.”

“Somebody’s called 911 already, right?” I snapped at Mark. He dug out his phone and began dialing immediately. Behind us I could hear sobbing, both from the stands and from my players as the school security guard tried to shoo everyone nonessential out of the gym. I grasped Teddy’s hand in mine. “You’re hurt, Teddy,” I told him in as calm a voice as I could muster. “You’re hurt pretty bad, I won’t lie to you. But we’re going to get you out of this and you’re going to be OK. You trust me, right? Right?” I watched his face, trying to get a fix on his eyes as beads of sweat broke out along his forehead. “Teddy. Teddy!” His eyes slowly slid into focus and stared back at mine. “You’re the guy, Teddy. Right? You’re the guy!”

He managed a thin smile. I felt his weight shift to the right. The bones just wouldn’t stop breaking.

A few nights after the team’s first practice, I made a detour from my usual route home to stop by the liquor store for a bottle of Maker’s. It was a snowy night with a below-zero windchill, the type of night when I make sure my bourbon supply is fully loaded. On my way out of the store I spotted a familiar figure hulking up the opposite sidewalk: Teddy Milligan. I called him over. He was wearing just a blue hoodie despite the cold, said he didn’t have a ride so he was just going to walk home. Of course I told him to get in the car.

When I told Alan about that conversation the next day, he just nodded like it was all old news and said, “Sounds about right. Leopard can’t change its spots.”

“That seems unfair,” I said. “Teddy’s just a kid. He doesn’t even have spots to change yet.”

Alan gave me a look that seemed somewhere close to pity and said, “Look, Coach, I’m happy you’re here, but you gotta remember you’re not in the city anymore. You screw something up in the city, people get mad for a few days and then something new comes along to distract them and they forget about it. You screw something up in a town as small as this? It’s gonna be the only thing anybody here thinks about when they hear your name, and they’ll carry that hard feeling until the day you die. Make too many waves around here and this town will swallow you right up.”

“Mark, we gotta get him off the court!” I barked. The gym had been mostly cleared now, just a circle of us left looking on helplessly as the pool of blood spread across the hardwood – me, Mark, our team, the two refs, and a couple of teachers who’d been watching the game. The kids were mostly quiet, obviously terrified. A couple of them had started crying. Mark just stared at Teddy, ashen-faced and uncomprehending. He seemed to have gone into shock. “Come on,” I said to Nick Karlson and Mike Santiago, the two kids closest to me. “Grab onto his shoulders, let’s drag him out of here.” Teddy made a sort of humming noise, either trying to calm himself or just because his brain had stopped processing what the hell was going on.

I stepped behind him and grabbed his left arm just below the shoulder, finding a grip on his sweaty underarm. Mike Santiago did the same to the right. “OK, ready… pull!” I said, and we both commenced to tugging at Teddy’s torso.

“Hurrgghh!” Teddy groaned. I was pulling with all my might but it didn’t seem to be doing any good. The thought flashed through my head that even if we pulled until his leg snapped clean off, it would be worth it to get him the hell off the floor.

“Coach! Coach!” Teddy hollered, snapping out of his stupor. “It isn’t going to work. It’s just pulling me down further.”

I stopped tugging and looked down at Teddy’s crumpled leg. I let out a gasp despite myself. He was right, he was being pulled down. His foot had disappeared entirely into the hardwood, as if the court was sucking him under like quicksand. Teddy looked up at me blankly. My jaw moved for a few seconds before I had to look away.

“Maybe…” Mark stammered, “Maybe we could saw the floor away around his foot?”

I glanced around at everyone gathered and got nothing but helpless stares in return. “When are the goddamn paramedics getting here?” I called to no one in particular.

You could call it an experiment, me giving a kid like Teddy a shot at the team. Truth be told, though, recruiting the biggest kid in school to play basketball for you isn’t exactly betting the farm in Atlantic City. Still, if it was an experiment, it was looking like a successful one. Not only was Teddy developing into a reasonable imitation of a basketball player, he was showing signs of life all around. His teachers told me his grades had made a noticeable upturn since he started playing ball. He was getting invited out to parties and social events, and not just because he had half-a-dozen grown cousins who’d have bought beer for him if he asked.

I tried not to get too closely involved, because I know how easy it is for a hard-luck kid to get spooked once things start turning his way, and it wasn’t like this was a miracle transformation or anything. Teddy Milligan was never going to be four-year university material, but I’d started planting some seeds about community college or tech school. He liked drawing, mostly sketches of rap album covers, but pretty well done. And one of the few things his dad ever bothered to teach him was how to keep a car engine running long past its expiration date. I’d been subtly trying to let him know he had some options after high school.

“Coach! Coach, it’s pulling again!” Teddy groaned. His teammates circled around, wanting to help but having no idea how. Matt Schick put a hand on Teddy’s shoulder and started to pray out loud. Teddy didn’t seem to take any more notice than did anybody else. Alan sidled up beside me. “Has anyone called his mother?” he hissed into my ear. “I would want to know if my son was… was injured.”

I shook my head. “She works nights at the packing plant over in Haynie Falls. It’d take at least half an hour before anyone could get her here, but yes, go call them.”

I turned back to Teddy just as the sharpest crack yet rang through the gym. His leg had disappeared up to the knee in the floor, his free leg sprawled out at a perpendicular angle on the hardwood awash with a thick froth of blood and bone fragments. His dull brown eyes were glazed with pain. Matt Schick jumped back at the sound of Teddy’s tibia splitting and looked like he might vomit, but quickly regained his composure and resumed his prayer from a safe distance. “Coach…” Teddy croaked.

I knelt down and made myself look him in the eye. “Teddy, I’m here. We’re doing what we can. We’re going to get you out of here.”

Teddy shook his head slightly, a dribble of saliva flopping from his lip. “Coach, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry about the three-seconds.”

Crying hadn’t even presented itself as an option up to that point but now there was no stopping it. I squeezed Teddy’s hand and sobbed as I felt his big body twisting, heard the bones bending and breaking beneath him, felt the hot spray pelt my jacket when the bone shards finally pierced his femoral artery, watched his eyes flicker and twitch as the life ebbed out of him, his big hand clamped around mine. I barely registered that he was crushing my fingers almost to the point of breaking.

Once Teddy was dead, the process seemed to speed up. The paramedics finally stepped into the gym in time to see his leg disappear into the wood, his limp body folding on itself like a stuffed animal in a washing machine. His other leg flipped straight up in the air as his torso slithered down, down into whatever sucking void had a hold of the kid. The prayers and screams and sobs all died away as we all just stood back and watched horrified as big, dead Teddy was swallowed up by the gymnasium floor. The white rubber toe of his Reebok was the last thing we saw of him, slipping away through the pool of blood that itself quickly drained away into the unknown. Soon there was no sign that Teddy Milligan had ever been there, not so much as a scratch in the hardwood.

The gym was silent for a long moment. Even the late-arriving paramedics had ignored their training and frozen in place, bearing witness to something that plainly demanded an awful reverence. Finally Mark spoke up, whispering from behind my shoulder. “Coach… what did we just see? What… what do we do about this? What do we tell his mother?”

I didn’t have an answer. I looked to Alan but he just stood there with his head in his hands, muttering, “I told you. I told you this town will swallow you up.” I glanced around at the circle of horrified faces and felt an uncontrollable urge to run, to get as far away from this gym and this school and any traces of Teddy as I possibly could. I turned away from Mark and tried to take a step toward the locker room but I couldn’t move. I tried again to lift my legs, to will myself into movement, but it was no use. My right foot was frozen in place, held tight to the hardwood as sure as if it was nailed there. Somewhere deep beneath me I felt something beginning to tug.

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