Hero BallEdward Helfers
Bug Boy crashed our nightly pickup game in character. He wore foggy rec-specs, short-shorts over compression tights, a surplus pinny with a turtleneck underneath—all black, even the duct-tape sealing his sneakers. The only thing missing, Flores joked when the kid unlatched the gate and strolled into floodlit haze, was a cape.
“Dude’s getting stomped,” said Metzger.
“If he doesn’t die of heat stroke first,” said Trey.
“Should we break the news,” asked Quentin.
“Nah,” said Green. “Let him learn.”
The rules at Fort Constance were simple—ones and twos, first to fifteen, winner stays, no blood, no foul. Regulars ran the queue, lumped challengers onto losing teams. But when Bug Boy finally subbed in, the tables turned: outlet fake, behind the back, coast-to-coast layup. On the next sequence, he snagged a steal, feathered a floater over McBride, whose recent growth spurt made doorways dangerous. Misdirection, hesitation, stutter-step—he dropped nine straight including the decisive bomb, which Green answered with a blindside shove. Kid took the hit in stride, didn’t trash talk or fight back. Didn’t need to. He’d already flexed.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, we ate crow. Bug Boy was cradling a faded duffel on the curb. A force field of talcum powder stung our nostrils.
“Not bad,” Metzger told him.
“For a pest,” Flores added.
“For anybody,” Trey said.
“What’s your vertical,” Quentin asked.
“What’s your name,” asked McBride.
“More importantly,” Green said, “who do you play for?”
“You” was all the kid managed before a car horn interrupted our interview, two staccato beeps courtesy of the white Crown Victoria now circling the roundabout. Through windshield tint, a silhouette took shape—broad-shouldered, steeled by a glowing cigar. Bug Boy zipped his bag, hustled over, slipped into the passenger seat as if summoned by Pavlov himself. Then the car peeled out, all skid marks and tailpipe smoke.
* * *
If the legend of Bug Boy began that evening—a tale retold at dive bars and class reunions—the milestone didn’t register until school resumed. Cronan Heights spanned three blocks, zigzagging corridors conceived by an airport architect, abandoned wings and secret stairwells ideal for hiding. Still, in the early weeks, sightings painted a portrait not entirely inconsistent with our pipsqueak prodigy. Between bells, before homeroom, in the cavernous cafeteria, he was always on the move, eyes blurred by coke bottle glasses, shoulders hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of cult-issued khakis, worn every day with a church shirt buttoned at the collar. Any other freshman, evasion of this sort would not be tolerated, but what spared him our torment—stolen textbooks or hallway jostling or fake fart campaigns—was otherworldly game.
Come tryouts, oddly enough, kid failed to report. In the airless gymnasium, Coach butchered our names before directing suicides and bulldog drills. Whatever hope we might have harbored had evaporated by scrimmage, at which point Bug Boy appeared in a doorway propped for ventilation purposes, chair fan rippling his shorts, goggled gaze fixed on the underhung rafters.
“No spectators,” Coach said.
“Not here to spectate.” The kid sloughed his bag onto the floor.
“Is that so,” Coach said.
The kid nodded.
“You think you can waltz in here thirty minutes late?”
“I’ve got news for you. Punctuality is a part of our process.”
Kid cracked his neck.
“Son is there something in your ears?”
Though tempted to watch the train wreck unfold, Trey interjected. “With all due respect,” he said, “Kid’s new here.”
“And,” said Coach.
“And he can play,” Flores chimed in.
“Not for me,” Coach said.
“He schooled Green,” said McBride.
“Posterized,” said Metzger.
“Give him a shot,” Trey said. “Maybe we could win for a change.”
At this, Coach stiffened, rankled by the reminder of six losing seasons. He was a lonely figure, twice divorced with a military past. Sometimes, during free periods, he would circle the courtyard with his hands folded behind his back like a convict plotting escape. He smoothed his scalp before plucking a ball from the cart. “Fine,” he said. “One shot. Half court. Miss and we’ll see you back here next year, on time.”
Unfazed, the kid caught the pass cleanly and squared up in one fluid motion. No running start, no deep breaths, no wasted motion—the release came soft and quick at the peak of a pogo jump, nothing but net. Cheers erupted, but if the kid was pumped, or surprised, or insert any emotion, you wouldn’t know it from his frozen pose, face paused in a hollow stare.
“Don’t just stand there,” Coach said. “You’re on blue.”
* * *
Within the week, two things had crystallized. First, even the worst among us, even Quentin, forever flat-footed and lost in space, looked better with Bug Boy in the mix. Of his many superpowers, more valuable than skittery speed or stunt-man ups was peripheral vision.
Secondly, his superior talent meant that for all our hard work, hours benching plates and hoisting prayers, victory now meant little more than playing second fiddle, a tune few of us could follow.
“Something’s fishy,” Green whispered after the season opener, a surprise blowout against a deeper team with trees up front. He stood in the back of the bus, straddling the aisle while leaves skittered in our slipstream. Blinking streetlights strobed his lanky frame.
“Tell me about it,” said McBride. “Winning almost feels wrong.”
“I mean Bug Boy,” said Green. “Kid’s too clean.”
“Then let him run the point,” said Trey.
Green whipped out his phone, scrolled to a grainy image of the chauffer from Fort Constance, now leaning against the bleachers, the same man Bug Boy left with in lieu of team transportation. He was bald with bushy eyebrows, a thick goatee. Around his waist, a black leather belt cinched his shapeless suit.
“So,” said Trey.
“Hawked the kid all game,” said Green.
“Helicopter dad,” Trey said.
“No resemblance,” said Metzger.
“Bodyguard,” said Quentin.
“Shadowy overlord,” said McBride.
“Guy muttered into his sleeve the whole game,” Green said. “Voodoo shit if you ask me.”
“Nobody did,” said Trey.
“Breaking news,” McBride said, “Bugboygate Engulfs District Three.”
“Illegal Implant Discovered on Star Student-Athlete,” said Flores.
“Match-Fixing Scheme Points to Alien Mutation Plot,” said Quentin.
“I know it sounds crazy,” said Green.
“Batshit,” said Trey.
“Just keep your eyes peeled.”
For what exactly, Green did not say. But soon enough, glitches emerged. For starters, Bug Boy never spoke unless spoken to, classic robot move. During our second homestand, not once did we observe our star player: Smile, grimace, cough, clear his throat, break a sweat, jam a finger, chew nails, chug water, flex a cramp, or lose his temper. More importantly, after every victory, Bug Boy changed alone in a stall, skipping showers or impromptu dance parties before exiting Clark Kent quick. To avoid congratulatory throngs, he would slip through the service entrance, on the other side of which his guardian idled in the fire lane, flicking spent stubs out the window. Once, the kid forgot his bag. Quentin caught up with him on the loading dock only to trip over untied shoelaces, spilling supplies down the ramp. Intermingled with trainer tape, court grip, protein packets, and mouth guards was a tube of unlabeled ointment, an item Bug Boy sheepishly retrieved.
* * *
DON’T ROIDS MAKE YOU BIG Flores texted at the winter formal the following evening, where circling chaperones and speaker feedback drowned out any attempt at real conversation. Stagehands had transformed the gym into a kelp forest, curtains cast in hues of green and yellow. None of us had dates, except Trey, whose appeal would prove mystifying for years to come.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS he replied.
TOPICAL texted Green. HELPS W/ RECOVERY.
MOOT POINT IF BEE BOY HAS SYNTHETIC MUSCLE texted McBride.
HIGH PERFORMANCE OIL texted Metzger.
SPACE SUIT texted Quentin.
HOW WOULD THAT EVEN WORK texted Trey.
INTERSTELLAR LAB ACCIDENT texted Flores.
INTERGALACTIC WITNESS RELOCATION PROGRAM texted Quentin.
IT’S ALL ADDING UP texted Green.
MORONS texted Trey before silencing his phone.
In his absence, as the DJ spun slow dance songs, we traded GIFs from horror flicks, exchanged ruminations on the corporeal composition of evil. In the language of hashtag and emojis, we memed cloning juntas, crony cabals underwriting the outsourcing of American sport, druid-like eminences convening in chambers beneath the fieldhouse. In place of people, we conjured computer cords strung on skeletons, tresses bound by rods and pins, algorithms coursing through fiber-optic circuits, mercury oozing into unseen cavities.
More definitive evidence proved scant. If Bug Boy’s backstory belonged in the news, regional sports reporters missed the beat. Headlines touted our unlikely ascent: Cronan Freshman Calmly Sinks Winning Free Throws [STEEL FEELERS texted Metzger]; Rising Star Elevates for Tourney Win [SPIRACLE MIRACLE texted Flores]. Size No Limit for Nimble Prospect [FLEA MACHINE texted Quentin]. At the district title game, after Flores sprained his ankle, and Green got tossed for badmouthing the ref, Bug Boy found another gear. Steals and subtle picks opened kick-out threes, backdoor cuts, thunderous alley-oops. Point after point, the kid absorbed contact, altered orbits, his gravity unaffected by hecklers crowding the balcony with hypnotic signs. In the final minutes, when Coach sent in the scrubs, the kid ignored shutter clicks and chants of buzz buzz, just sank into his seat and buried his head in a towel, wincing with every backslap. [IRON WASP texted Quentin that evening], which prompted Trey to issue a moratorium on all rumormongering. His exact words: [FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, GET SERIOUS].
We tried. To obey the curfew Coach imposed; to monitor our diet, swapping burgers and onion crisps for spinach smoothies; to fine tune our free-throws, perfect our spacing, flow together like a flock of birds. We studied highlights, ignored homework, swore off detergent, sprouted patchy beards. On school mornings, we paid tribute to the lobby display case, mouthing prayers while peering through sea-green glass. It was easy to envision among ancient medals and faded portraits a golden grail, the names of more entitled academies relegated to unreadable font, though deep down, we understood that Bug Boy alone held the key to that cheap ass rusted lock.
* * *
The championship took place at the state college stadium, a cement monolith rising above naked fields. As lesser divisions squared off, we channeled our nerves into pre-game rituals—stretching, shadowboxing, lip-synching—but Bug Boy sat apart in the nosebleeds, studying opponents we would never face, nodding trance-like whenever his guardian whispered into his ear.
“Mind control,” Quentin theorized.
“Could be policing your thoughts,” Green said.
“Then why let me think at all,” Quentin asked.
“Villains love breadcrumbs,” Green said.
“You’re so full of shit,” Trey said.
“Watch your mouth,” said Green.
“Or what,” said Trey.
“Save it for the court,” Metzger said, stepping between the two.
If infighting impacted the game that afternoon, you wouldn’t know it from recruiting websites, shaky montages viewed thousands of times. Bug Boy faking mid-air, dishing easy assists; saving possessions, penetrating the lane; kissing glass, hi-low mumbo jumbo, ankle-breaking jujitsu; splitting triple coverage, gassing defenders, preventing any further doubt about an outcome determined from day one.
After the ceremony, after sappy speeches and Gatorade toasts, Bug Boy stayed behind in the locker room, gripping sink like he might hurl. Seemingly alone, he removed his goggles and splashed cold water on his cheeks. Then he hyperventilated before unpeeling his trademark turtleneck. No wires and cables, no ports or bionic valves. Instead, etched across his back was a spidery tapestry, streaks of scarred skin with elevated edges, bruising under the ribs. He wetted his shoulders with a paper towel, smeared ointment over purple ridges raised like mountains on a topographical map. When he sat down to change, a stifled sneeze issued from a locker at the end of the row. Green bumped his head on a hook, tumbled across the floor. Before he could think up an excuse, Bug Boy had already packed his things and left.
* * *
He didn’t show for school on Monday, didn’t take a victory lap in the parking lot parade or collect recruiting letters piled in coach’s office. For months afterwards, we’d bike past the duplex where Bug Boy purportedly lived, discovered by Flores and McBride on a recon mission earlier that year. They’d scaled the storefront across the street before camping out in lawn chairs, budget binoculars trained on a broken window, through which occasional dribbling punctuated a murmuring television. But now, every attempt at knockdown ginger summoned the new tenant, a cane-wielding geezer whose epithets, accompanied by barking mastiffs, echoed down the stairwell.
The following summer found us back at Fort Constance, retracing our steps ahead of an ill-fated season. Once, a scout surfaced, this crew-cut goon who watched from the picnic shelter, shuffling a stack of business cards for something to do. During a lull, he sidled up to the fence and faked compliments before asking about Bug Boy.
“You came to the wrong place,” Trey said.
“Wish we could help,” said Flores.
“Word to the wise,” said Green. “Focus on folks you can actually find.”
“Sure kid,” the scout said. “It’s not like I do this for a living.”
But then Trey admitted what the rest of us refused to. “He’s never coming back.”
Did he find a new school? Another team? How long would he wear those wounds? What should we have done differently? In the absence of answers, we played harder, deep into summer dusk, night after night running the rock back and forth, burning for the guts to be good.