by Adam Meyer
Tyler inched away from the subway station, looking up at the far corner where Bucky Gallagher and his friends usually played street basketball, and felt his stomach cramp. The boys weren’t there.
Normally Tyler would’ve been thrilled not to see Bucky and his crew. Bucky wasn’t big but he was strong and he was as mean as the school day was long. Tyler had only gotten beaten up by him once, years earlier, but the memory of it had stayed with him. Bucky was a big part of the reason Tyler’s mother had encouraged him to go to that Manhattan high school for “smarty-pants” an hour’s train ride away. While Tyler wasn’t sure if he belonged with those kids, he was thrilled to be spending most of his day in a completely different borough from Bucky.
Now Tyler stood in the middle of the street, looking down at Bucky’s house, a small white box with worn aluminum siding and a bristly lawn full of dead patches. The backboard that grew out of the front sidewalk was like a low-hanging moon against the bruised sky, the street empty except for a swirl of dead leaves. A sharp wind carried the scent of Chinese food from a restaurant nearby. Tyler turned away, nauseous.
Every single day since school had started, Tyler did the same thing: he went to the corner, confirmed that Bucky and his friends were playing basketball, then headed in the opposite direction, over the old wooden footbridge, even though it was four or five blocks out of his way. Tyler didn’t care. Even with a big stack of homework waiting, he was happy to burn a few extra minutes just so that he could get home without being harassed by Bucky.
Only now he had no idea where Bucky was.
So what? he told himself. Without enough light for basketball, he and his buddies had probably just gone in to play video games. But what if that wasn’t it? What if Bucky Gallagher was out prowling the neighborhood, looking for someone he could put down, push around, spit on?
Tyler took a deep breath and started for the footbridge.
He hesitated at the edge of the concrete, where the path gave way to the first wooden planks, the low chainlink rising on either side. He had never gone across the bridge in the dark. Of course it was well-lit at this end, dregs of light from the subway platform spilling down. But up ahead, where the long walkway stretched out over the canal, the night pressed in.
What if someone’s out there? he wondered. Or something?
When he was in elementary school everyone used to say that an evil troll lived under the old footbridge … not some ogre like in the fairy tales but more of a shape shifter. Of course no one had actually seen the creature, they just knew someone who knew someone who had. By middle school everyone laughed off the old stories, and so had Tyler. He hadn’t even thought about them in years. Then again, he never went on the footbridge after dark, and he couldn’t remember seeing any other kid do it either.
Tyler started out over the bridge, his sneakers barely making a sound. He looked back quickly then focused on the dark sprawl ahead, relieved only by the moon and the faint light from houses on stilts. Just ten minutes from now he’d be home, where his mother was busy making a meatloaf, and he’d laugh about how nervous he’d been. Still, he reached around for the cell phone in his backpack, just to make sure it was still there.
After a few steps he picked up his pace. Invisible gulls cawed, the whip of their wings startling him. The smell of damp wood and old seaweed clogged his nostrils, and he began walking faster, so fast it was almost a run. The busted lamppost at the far end of the bridge floated like a finish line, and he was more than halfway there when he heard a voice, high-pitched but still a boy’s, calling out from below.
“Help me! Please!”
Tyler stopped even though he didn’t want to, but it was like his legs had a mind of their own. He glanced over the side, trying to figure out where the voice had come from. He was just trying to see who had called out, figure out what the situation was.
No, said a voice inside him. Keep going.
Then Tyler saw the boy. He was even smaller than Tyler, his shoulders narrow and pinched, his face as thin as a gull’s wing, and he stood on the densely-packed rocks, groping at the water.
“Help! I can’t get my ball!”
At first Tyler couldn’t even see the ball in question. But then his eyes made it out, a couple of feet past the rocks. It was soccer ball-sized only it had yellow and orange stripes, the colors sun-faded, the plastic surface peeling.
Sorry, Tyler wanted to say. I have to get home.
He’d lost plenty of balls—up trees, in neighbor’s yards, even down sewers—and it stung every time. And this particular ball looked like something the boy had owned for a while. A ball that meant something to him.
“I’ll get you a stick or something,” Tyler said, but the boy shook his head.
“No. You gotta come down and help.”
Those words made the antennae in Tyler’s brain twitch. Wasn’t that part of the story about the troll—a shapeshifter, remember he’s a shapeshifter—that he would lure you down under the bridge and eat you? Tyler shook his head. Ridiculous. He didn’t believe in trolls. Yes, he was scared of the dark, and for good reason: he didn’t want to run into Bucky Gallagher. But at least that was a perfectly reasonable fear.
“What’s your name?” Tyler said, trying to make out the boy’s face more clearly. He couldn’t see much beyond the shadows, but Tyler had lived in this neighborhood his whole life and felt sure he had never laid eyes on this kid.
“Eli.” As if reading Tyler’s mind, he went on: “My mom and I just moved in a couple of months ago. She told me not to play down on the bridge but I didn’t listen and now I lost my ball and I’m gonna be in trouble.”
Tyler hated to leave this kid to get the ball himself—the canal was deep in spots, and what if the kid fell in?–but he didn’t particularly want to spend any more time out here than he had to.
“Please, please, my mom’s gonna be so mad I lost my ball.”
The boy squeezed his eyes shut. He wasn’t crying but he was close, and that was it. Tyler dropped his backpack at his feet, looped one leg over the chainlink, and began to lower himself onto the rocks. Their sharp points stabbed up through the bottom of his sneakers and he made his way toward the boy, who clapped with delight. Tyler smiled in spite of himself. What was the big deal? He’d grab the ball and give it to the kid and be done in three minutes.
As he got closer to the far end of the rocks they were spaced out further and further so he had to watch where he stepped. He was amazed that the boy had even gotten out here with his short stubby legs, and then he noticed a gap that he hadn’t seen before, three feet of wide open water, the boy standing on a clump of rocks on the far side.
How had he crossed that gap? Surely he must’ve jumped out there but when Tyler looked at Eli’s pants they were completely dry, as if he’d crossed the rocks without a splash. And that wasn’t all. The boy’s shirt—which Tyler hadn’t been able to see from the bridge–had the same orange-and-yellow stripes as the ball. That was no big deal, Tyler supposed, but it didn’t sit right. It didn’t sit right at all.
“Aren’t you going to help me?” Eli asked.
Tyler tried to choke out a response but the words wouldn’t come. No, he thought. Hell no. Cold water had started to seep into his socks and goosebumps ran up his neck and the bright moon overhead had dashed back behind the clouds.
Tyler turned away, about to make his way back up to the bridge. This boy—if he really was a boy—could get his own ball, or he could have his mother help him, or he could buy a new damn ball. Tyler didn’t care, but there was no way he was spending another minute down there.
At least that was what Tyler thought until he looked up at the bridge, at the place where he’d left his backpack, and saw that it was gone.
“You lose something, shithead?” Bucky Gallagher asked, leaning down over the chainlink, holding the bag by one strap.
Tyler tried to answer. He wanted to, especially if he could’ve come up with something clever. But he didn’t say anything, clever or dumb, just stood there, his mouth hanging open.
“Heard you go to some fancy new school,” Bucky said.
Tyler needed a second to find his voice. “It’s not so fancy.”
“A school for smart kids. Guess they let you in, anyway. ‘Cause you’re not so smart, now are you?”
Tyler knew there was no answer Bucky would like except “yes” so he said nothing.
“Guess I’ll be seeing you around,” Bucky said, slinging the backpack over his shoulder, heading back down the bridge in the direction Tyler had come from.
“Wait,” Tyler said, or maybe he squeaked it, because his voice was barely there.
“Excuse me?” Bucky said, half-turning. The muscles in his jaw worked beneath the skin, as if there was something trapped in there and trying to squirrel its way out.
“That’s my backpack.”
Bucky started back toward the subway station. Tyler scrambled across the rocks, nearly falling in the canal, but he didn’t care. If Bucky got out of his sight, he’d never get his hands on his backpack again.
Tyler had just made it to the base of the bridge, reaching up for the chainlink to haul himself up and over, when he heard a voice behind him.
“Give it back to him.”
Tyler froze, wondering for half a moment who had spoken. It was the little boy’s voice and yet it had an impossibly hard edge.
“Excuse me?” Bucky marched back toward the spot where Tyler had hooked his fingers into the fence. Oh shit, Tyler thought, forcing himself not to back away. The rocks were uneven beneath his feet and if he let go now, he might just topple over.
“It sounds like you heard me,” Eli said.
Turning, Tyler saw Eli holding the ball, the same orange-and-yellow ball he’d been trying to reach earlier. That he said he’d been trying to reach, because apparently he’d gotten it himself with no trouble at all.
“Oh, I’m real scared.” Bucky slung Tyler’s backpack over his shoulder and pressed his hands together in an imitation of fear. “The two of you, what’re you gonna do? Nerd me to death?”
“Give him back his satchel and leave him alone,” Eli said.
“His satchel?” Bucky laughed even harder, the sound grating on Tyler’s ears. “Where the hell are you from, you little freak? Someplace they don’t speak English, I guess.”
“I’m from right here. I’ve lived here a long time. Longer than you.”
“Oh yeah, then how come I’ve never seen you before?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t come out to play a lot.”
“Well, we’re gonna play right now, all three of us.”
Without warning, Bucky launched a kick at the chainlink fence, and the shockwave through the metal knocked Tyler back a step. His sneakers skidded on the rocks and he knew he was going to fall, and then it was like a big hand came out and held him upright, though when he turned around Eli was still three feet away, his arms too short to have done anything anyway.
Sure, exactly, the way his arms were too short to get that ball back?
Tyler swallowed the oversized lump in his throat. He looked up at Bucky and was surprised to realize that suddenly he was less afraid of the bully than he was of the little boy— looks like a boy but what if he’s something else?—behind him.
“If you want to play, then all right,” Eli said. “Let’s play.”
He hurled the orange-and-yellow ball up at the bridge. Bucky snatched it easily. He had been the eighth grade dodgeball champion and he’d had throws a lot meaner than that hurled at him.
“You wanna play catch?” Bucky asked, bouncing the ball between his feet, thump thump thump. In his oversized hands, the orange-and-yellow ball looked ridiculously small. Bucky bounced it a couple more times and then turned it over, his fingers curling into the plastic. “Who wants to be first?”
Tyler said nothing. He’d been nailed by plenty of throws from Bucky and he knew how much it would sting.
“I’ll be first,” Eli said, looking up at Bucky.
“That’s a great idea, you little pisshead …”
Bucky reared his arm back and then whipped it forward, so fast Tyler could barely track it, whipping the ball over the chainlink. The throw was aimed at Eli but as it zipped past Tyler the ball shifted into what seemed like slow motion, and then he realized that it was slow motion, the swirl of orange and yellow stripes slowing to a crawl, the ball hanging there a moment, suspended.
Then it began to reverse course, arcing back up over the chainlink, defying gravity as it picked up speed, and when it was just a couple of feet from Bucky it began to motor even faster, so fast he didn’t even have time to duck as the ball smacked him clear in the jaw.
“What the …?”
He spat out a mouthful of blood and stared at Tyler as though he’d had something to do with this.
“It was my turn, wasn’t it?” Eli asked innocently.
Bucky was speechless, a first. His pea-brain was probably trying to process what had just happened, and so was Tyler. He was willing to bet that even the smartest kid in his “gifted” school wouldn’t be able to explain what they’d just seen.
“You stupid punk.” Bucky spat out some more blood and reached down for the orange-and-yellow ball, crushing it between his hands. “You think you can mess with me? You think you can scare me with your stupid magic tricks?”
Bucky reared his arm back again, this time aiming the ball into the open water, intending to throw it as hard and as far as he could. But when his hand sailed past his ear, the ball didn’t leave his palm. He shook his hand up and down and side to side, but the ball stayed glued there. “What the …” Bucky began jumping around and waving his arm like a crazy person, but the ball and his hand were totally joined.
Tyler tried to fight a smile and lost.
“You think this is fucking funny? We’ll see who’s laughing when I kick your ass all the way to ….” But wherever Bucky was going to kick his ass, he lost track of it, distracted by the ball that was stuck to his hand. “You son of a bitch. What’s on this thing, some kind of superglue?”
Eli turned to Tyler, half-smiling. “Something like that.”
Back on the bridge Bucky lay on the wooden planks, desperately trying to pry the ball from his hand with his foot. He pulled and pulled but it didn’t seem to matter. Crazy-glue my ass, Tyler thought. It’s some kind of magic. It has to be.
Bucky stood again, one hand pressed against his jeans, the other still palming the orange-and-yellow ball. “Soon as I get this thing off, you’re dead.” He nodded at Tyler, just so there was no misunderstanding. “Both of you.”
And just like that, the ball dropped from Bucky’s hand, bouncing gently against the wooden planks and rolling a few inches away. Bucky stared in disbelief and then he reared his sneaker back, kicking the ball so hard that it sailed out over the railing, disappearing into the dark water.
“That was my ball,” Eli said.
“Oh yeah? Well fuck your ball.” Bucky spat out another mouthful of blood. “And fuck you, too.”
Bucky hauled himself over the fence and down onto the rocks below. He looked down at the fist attached to his right arm as if to make sure that the stuck ball had left no lasting mark. Tyler began to slowly back away from him, every step an adventure on the slick, uneven rocks, not wanting to slip into the icy water but wary of taking his eyes off Bucky.
However, Bucky wasn’t coming for Tyler, at least not yet. He had his sights on Eli, but the smaller boy didn’t back down. His sticklike legs stood their ground, his thin frame straight. Tyler wanted to say something, do something, but he couldn’t move.
He found himself just watching as Bucky grabbed the front of Eli’s orange-and-yellow shirt—just like the ball—and hauled him up a couple of inches off the ground. Eli didn’t say anything, just looked at Bucky with a slightly-amused glint in his eyes. Eli’s arms hung limply at his sides, and that only seemed to fuel Bucky further, his lower lip curling down in a half-snarl, half-grimace.
Tyler realized than that he had a clear shot at the bridge. His backpack was there, untouched, and all he had to do was climb up, grab it and bolt. But what about Eli?
He’s not your problem. Just get the hell out of here, pronto.
But Tyler’s legs wouldn’t move. This was different than all the times he’d stood in the corner of the cafeteria while Bucky threw scraps of bread in his hair or spit on him and called him names. This time he felt a tingling in his lower back, and he thought it might be courage.
“Leave him alone!” Tyler didn’t know where the words had come from, just some boiling chamber deep inside.
“Or else what?” Bucky asked, twisting Eli’s head slightly, like he was going to snap it right off his neck.
Good question, Tyler thought. Because he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to take Bucky on. Maybe he was counting on the fact that Eli would do something, well, amazing, the way he’d made that ball fly through the air and stick to Bucky. But his face was turning pale and his eyes looked sort of dead, and Tyler wondered if maybe he’d run out of whatever magic it was he’d had earlier.
So that’s it? We’re just going to lie down and let Bucky pummel us?
No, he wasn’t, not today. Tyler found a rock between his feet, one just big enough to fit in the palm of his hand, and he brought his arm back without really thinking about it and threw.
Tyler could remember trying to launch the ball in from right field in Little League, the way it had bounced recklessly toward the third base line, out of the grasp of any teammate. But this rock sailed with precision, like it was on an invisible track, and skidded right across Bucky’s forehead, knocking him sideways. His hands fell away from Eli and the little kid dropped down onto the rocks, grunting coarsely.
After a moment Bucky stood and the slick of blood streaming down into his eyes–he’s hurt, he’s hurt bad–caught Tyler by surprise. Tyler felt sorry and excited and more than anything, terrified. Because if there was one thing he knew about Bucky Gallagher, it was that anyone who hurt him got hurt twice as bad.
“You’re so dead. Dead. D’you hear me, you little shit?”
Bucky took a step forward. For the first time in his life, Tyler didn’t back away. He felt tightness knotting his back, his stomach cramping with fear, but he didn’t turn away. Yes, he was scared, and yes, he was going to get his butt kicked, and that was fine, but he wasn’t going to run.
Bucky pointed at Tyler, his finger almost close enough to grab. “You fucked with the wrong guy, you know that?”
“No, you did.”
It was Eli. He was standing behind Bucky, though Tyler hadn’t seen or heard him move across the rocks. Tyler noticed something else. The moon passed behind a cloud and for a moment the boy didn’t look so much like a kid anymore. The once smooth white skin was dark and grayish with grooves cut into it and the orange-and-yellow striped shirt was gone and there was just puckered, hairy flesh rippling with muscle. But then the moon peeked out and the boy named Eli was just a boy again.
“You might want to get out of here, Tyler,” he said, his voice deeper, the words more growled than spoken. “This could get … messy.”
“Oh, it sure as shit will,” Bucky said, reaching out for Tyler, and as he did Eli’s hand—no, it’s a claw!—grabbed the back of Bucky’s shirt. “What the …?”
Tyler ran. He fumbled across the rocks and he leaped up onto the fence, hooking his fingers through the chainlink, scrambling up like a spider, looking back but only for a second. All he saw was a glimpse of a mouth with razor sharp teeth, a gnarled hand clutching Bucky’s wrist, an expression of terror on the bully’s face like nothing he had ever seen. But Tyler kept going, grabbed his backpack and raced across the footbridge, hearing the thunderous slap of his sneakers on the hardwood. He hesitated on the far side,the shimmering reflections of the houses and the swirling circles of night birds. He looked down into the water and saw an orange-and-yellow ball, just drifting there, and heard a scream so fierce it pierced his ears like a needle.
In his mind he heard that scream the whole way home.
When he got there, the house smelled of meatloaf and his mother was turning from the stove, wielding a spoon caked with mashed potatoes. “How was your day, hon?” she asked, and Tyler couldn’t answer.
“Okay, I guess,” he said, and ran upstairs to throw up.
Tyler didn’t see Bucky again for two whole weeks. He wasn’t playing basketball with his friends and he probably wouldn’t be for a while, if ever. He sat on his front stoop, his right hand bandaged in thick gauze. The story going around was that Bucky had been climbing along the side of the footbridge and fallen and crushed his hand between the rocks, mangling two of his fingers so badly the doctors had to amputate them. Of course that didn’t explain the three deep scratches like claw marks on Bucky’s cheek or the tiny patch of hair above his ear that had turned white as snow.
After that night Tyler didn’t take the bridge home from the train station. He just headed right past Bucky’s house. Bucky never bothered him, and if one of Bucky’s friends stepped in, the bully warned him off, claiming Tyler wasn’t “worth the trouble.”
From then on Tyler went wherever he wanted without worrying about Bucky, but there was one place he always thought twice about going—after dark, anyway. One night, however, curiosity got the best of him, and he headed out to the edge of the footbridge. He had nearly reached the first wooden plank when he spotted a small hunched figure. Goopy liquid oozed from cracks in its scaly skin as it reached out with long, misshapen arms, hurling a ball high overhead.
Tyler watched as the ball hovered there, the light from the houses just catching its stripes before it fell, landing in the water without even a ripple. He hesitated, but only for a moment, before he turned and stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked quickly toward home.