|Word Count C-3 = 5,381||Montgomery|
Geoff sensed the electrically charged atmosphere inside of the Foothill High gymnasium Friday night, as he entered the front door. He felt that if someone were to have brought in a container of gasoline, it likely would have exploded. Geoff wanted to make a showing at this important event, primarily as a goodwill gesture toward Pierce, as he wished to redeem himself for having “pushed a button” a few nights before.
He found an excellent seat in the third row of the bleachers, in almost the exact center, directly behind the home-team benches. Scanning the crowd behind him, he was surprised to discover his friend Luke Steen near the border of the adjacent section. Rising to his feet and waving his arms, Geoff caught Luke’s eye and motioned him over. Then Geoff looked around for anyone else he knew.
He spotted two of his patients, Steven and Andrea Young; an entire section separated the two of them. He recalled that when they had visited his office together for visual examinations a few months before, they had behaved toward each other like the King and Queen of Abrasion. Geoff mumbled to himself, “I bet they’ve split up by now,” just as Luke placed a hand on his shoulder and sat down beside him. “Hey, buddy!” saluted Geoff.
“Hi, Geoff! I didn’t expect to see....”
“Hey, Doc!” interrupted another voice very familiar to Geoff. Turning forward, he acknowledged Tom Hastings with a wave. Tom was walking by with three of his surfing buddies. “I didn’t know you were a B-ball fan!”
“Penny asked me to leave so she could invite over some of her pals for a Kibbles-’n’-Bits party! I didn’t have anywhere else to go!” Geoff quipped.
“Next she’ll be demandin’ the car keys!” guffawed Tom, almost out of earshot. “See ya bright and early...unless the waves are too big!”
Suddenly, the pep band began to boom a medley of excerpts from recent blockbuster movies. Concurrently, the Warrior cheerleaders performed an intricate routine, created and choreographed by the resplendent Raquel Lacey, who always was situated in the middle of the pack.
The nine cheerleaders were draped in identical silver and purple, scanty two-piece ensembles with complementing accouterments. They had a flashy pom-pom in each hand, sparkling ribbons in their hair, and ornate puffballs on their shoes—all moving in a continuous blur. “Great ‘routine,’ eh?” Luke noted. Geoff smacked his lips.
Scores of people, milling around, began to grab available seats, the supply of which was diminishing by the second. Random “waves” ran the entire length of each bleacher, as spectators alternately stood up and sat down with thunderous shouts and upraised hands. Sometimes two waves, if simultaneously begun at both ends, “collided” with one another in the middle.
Brightly colored banners and pennants swayed back and forth in time to the music. On one side of the arena, the flags exhibited orange and black scorpions; while those on the opposite side displayed silver and purple warriors. The Scorpions’ mascot—covered with an orange, segmented, styrene shell, complete with black eyes, pincers, and a stinger—slinked across the court and approached its opposing counterpart. The latter was sheathed in silver, multi-sectioned, semi-iridescent armor—replete with purple belt, breastplate, boots, and helmet—and wielded a purple shield and sword.
The scorpion jammed its black stinger into the purple heel of the warrior, who instinctively pivoted around on the other foot. The warrior “crushed” the offender’s head with his “wounded” heel and thrust his double-edged sword into the side of his adversary. A mock battle ensued for a few seconds, with each contender inflicting “injury after injury” upon the other, after which the crowd on each side collectively declared its respective competitor the victor.
In the locker room, after having warmed up, the Warriors formed their usual circle, waiting for a customary pep talk from the charismatic Coach Nevin, who stood at the center. Pierce knew that, even with his back turned when he talked, his boys listened. He was proud of the guys—exhibited by his inspiring smile as he slowly rotated through 360 degrees—and made eye contact with each one.
At first glance, they all looked the same, the uniform of each differing from that of another only in the numerals embossed onto its surface. But Pierce discerned an individual, unique from the rest, as he acknowledged one player after another. “It’s been a long haul, guys,” began Pierce, “and the sweetest victory so far is in our grasp...tonight!”
Uproarious cheers and shrill whistles were emitted from the members of the tightly knit basketball team. Jerry Wells began repeating emphatically, “Go, Coach...go, Coach...go, Coach....” The rhythmic chant quickly was picked up by his best friend, Billy “the Stilt” Stillinger, the team’s first-string center, who clenched his huge fist and pounded the air in sync with the beat. Then the cadence was picked up, at once, by the rest of the team in unison.
As Pierce made another complete revolution, the chanting became louder, and the meter grew faster. He raised his right hand and, in his typical authoritative tone, commanded, “OK, OK, men...quiet down, quiet down!”
As the clamor subsided, Pierce continued. “This is it, guys. Now, I don’t wanna see any mistakes out there! You’ve got to remember all the plays we’ve practiced this week, when they’re called, including all the new ones. I’m counting on you more than ever...and so is the rest of Foothill High and your city! This is a must-win game! Don’t forget, guys: That basketball is your best friend, and we know how to take care of our best friend...right?”
From the group of boys, wholly unified in spirit, came the responses, “Through the hoop, Coach!” and “Right on, Coach!” and “That’s it, Coach!” along with some cheering and applauding—all of which their esteemed coach swiftly repressed with his upraised hand.
“Let’s give ’em the ball only from the bottom of the net!” Pierce charged. “Now, get out there and have some fun, but remember this: When you get your chance to drive in that last nail, don’t be afraid to swing the hammer!”
That was it; the boys went berserk. They crowded in on their favorite coach, slapped him on the back, ruffled his hair, and joined hands with him and with each other, chanting, “Go, fight, win, team!...Go, G0, GO!!!” with their arms oscillating up and down in unison.
As the Warriors filed onto the basketball court and over to their benches, amid joyful music, jubilant cheers, deafening applause, and standing ovation, they were hailed by the cheerleading squad with a familiar cry, “Go, fight, win, team!...Go, G0, GO!!!” Pierce humbly trailed the team, but his heart was exploding with pride and expectation.
As he passed by the cheerleaders, he stole a furtive glance at Raquel Lacey; she was gazing at him. Then he looked straightaway at Jerry Wells, who was leaning forward, preparing to sit down. Pierce silently vowed that he could not allow himself to be distracted tonight.
From the time the team lined up for the jump ball, Coach Nevin had a sinking sensation in his stomach—not unlike that of most coaches at the beginning of a big game. The Scorpions raced out to an 8–0 lead, drilling their first four baskets in a row. After the fourth two-pointer, Pierce signaled for a time-out.
Somber-faced, the concerned coach spoke to his team: “All right, guys...we’ve gotta stop their scoring right now. I want you to run every possible second off the shot clock on each possession, and I want nothing but open shots...lay-ups would be even better. Jerry, I want that ball worked inside everytime before we shoot...no more long shots for awhile! All you guys get tougher on defense...now!”
The change in strategy began to pay off on the Warriors’ first possession. “The Stilt” broke open underneath the basket; and Jerry spotted him for a quick assist, leading to an easy lay-up. By the end of the first quarter, the Warriors had trimmed their rivals’ opening lead by five points: 21–18.
With two minutes left in the first half, the Warriors had managed to take a two-point lead: 46–44. The Scorpions called time-out. Pierce correctly surmised that his boys were about to face a very tight, man-to-man, full-court press. “Guys, we wanna take care o’ that ball! Pass it the instant you feel ’em start to double-team any of you. If no one’s open when you take the ball inbounds, remember we have two time-outs left. Use ’em if you have to.”
The Scorpions steadfastly worked in the ball. However, Billy “the Stilt” put pressure on the Scorpion center by fronting him on the entry pass. The guard, unable to complete the pass, attempted a fifteen-foot jumper. Billy gathered in the long rebound and made a quick outlet pass. The Scorpions immediately applied intense pressure and shut off all Warrior dribbling.
The Warriors deftly made their passes and crossed the mid-court line. Coach Nevin breathed a sigh of relief as his players set up their offense. Jerry, the “field general,” held up two fingers on his right hand, indicating that he was calling for the second new play they had practiced. The play was a pick-and-roll to the right, designed to give Billy a clear screen shot at ten feet. The ball swished cleanly through the hoop.
The Scorpions’ resolve could be sensed as they ran the ball back down the court. Carefully maneuvering the ball, they faked the pass inside to their center; and their point guard drained a three-pointer. The Scorpions called a time-out, trailing by one point. Pierce knew that the opposition was about to turn up the pressure.Pierce spoke to his players, particularly to Billy “the Stilt,” in a calm tone: “Billy, hold the ball for four seconds before you call a time-out. We want to find out what defense they’re gonna use.” Addressing the rest of the team as well, he continued, “While ‘the Stilt’ is out-of-bounds trying to make the pass, I want the rest of you to do everything you can to open yourselves up.” Pierce reiterated, “Billy, make sure you don’t call the time-out early.”
When the referee handed the ball to “the Stilt,” his teammates scrambled in four directions, attempting to get open. They continued to move until Billy asked for the time-out, just after four seconds. This time, Pierce had a smile of gratification on his face, as he optimistically spoke to the team.
“All right, guys...I see what they’re doin’ on defense. Plus, I’m sure they think they forced this time-out. When we go back out there, we can get open best by screens on each side o’ the court. As soon as a screen is made, make the pass if the man’s open. If he’s not, then get him on the second screen. Once again, don’t rush anything; take your time with that ball, and get in a good shot! This basket’s the big-un!”
Turning, Pierce happened to observe Geoff and Luke conversing. I didn’t know they knew each other, he thought. He did not recall ever having seen the two of them talking together at the health club. But then he realized that he rarely focused on anything there, other than his workout.
When the Warriors got back onto the floor, their plan to get the ball across mid-court worked flawlessly. This time, Jerry signaled for a double pick-and-roll, knowing full well that he was going to attempt a three-pointer if he was open. He was. The shot fell short, but it was scooped out of the air by “the Stilt,” who thrilled the crowd with a tomahawk jam, even before returning to the floor. The whistle blew as he shot, the opposing center having slapped his wrist in the attempted block.
When Billy converted his free throw, the Warriors took a four-point lead with 15 seconds remaining in the first half. The Scorpions were careless on their attempted inbounds pass; Jerry intercepted the ball and immediately went in for a successful lay-up. This time, when the Scorpions threw the ball inbounds, there were only three seconds on the clock; and they were unable to get off a shot before the buzzer. The Warriors led 53–47 at the half.
Coach Nevin wondered if his team would benefit by the momentum they had generated near the end of the half or if, instead, they might become too confident. Maybe they would think the six-point lead was enough of a cushion. He counseled the team in the locker room accordingly.
Returning after half time, Pierce looked at Geoff and Luke. Geoff pointed at Pierce, while Luke nodded. Pierce returned a cursory nod and then spontaneously looked away. Geoff commented, “I examined the coach’s eyes the other day. Nice guy.” Luke was silent.
The second half was almost a carbon copy of the first half. The Scorpions fought back against their six-point deficit, taking a two-point lead at the end of the third quarter. Both teams were beginning to get into foul trouble. Jerry and Billy, the combined nucleus of the team, each had acquired three personal fouls. Another lead player had four fouls. Since Jerry often had finished the game without getting a single foul in the fourth quarter, Pierce chose to leave him in the ball game. However, Billy had picked up two of his fouls in the third quarter and often fouled out before the end of the last quarter. Consequently, Pierce put in the second-string center to start the final quarter.
“Hey, Coach! Leave me in! I guarantee you I won’t foul out!” pleaded Billy. Pierce leaned over to his big center and exhorted, “I can’t risk that right now, Stilt. Please don’t bring it up again.”
During the first half of the fourth quarter, the Scorpions worked the ball inside to their center, who scored most of their points against the Warriors’ less-experienced second-string center. The latter player garnered a slew of catcalls from the onlookers, prompting Billy to approach his coach again. “Coach! I know I can stop his momentum without fouling out!”
Pierce replied tersely, “OK, Billy...but no fouls! You got that?” Billy re-entered the game as the Scorpions were awarded the ball out-of-bounds. On the Scorpions’ ensuing play, they promptly fed the ball to their center, who wheeled around and released a soft hook shot. The basketball fell gently through the net—in spite of the fact that Billy came down and brushed the opposing center’s hip with his own. Pierce sent in Billy’s substitute at once. As Billy reached the bench, Pierce admonished, “Billy...that’s four on you!”
“Hey, I know!” retorted Billy. Pierce glared back, silencing “the Stilt.”
With only two minutes left in the ball game, the Warriors were down 85–80. Pierce called over Billy and asserted, “We need you in there now, Stilt, and I don’t want you to foul out, understand?...now hustle!”
“Yes, sir, Coach!” responded an ecstatic Billy.
An outspoken fan was disgusted with the performance of the alternate Warrior center. Upon the player’s second return to the bench, he hollered, “You spineless wimp!” as the player sat with his face resting between his hands.
The Scorpions immediately sagged in to double-team “the Stilt,” and Jerry put away a three-pointer. The opponents lost the rebound, giving the home team the opportunity to tie or to take the lead on their next possession. Billy waved his arms frantically, even though he was well-guarded. Jerry adeptly dunked another three-pointer, giving the Warriors a one-point margin.
With one minute left, the visitors brought down the ball, planning to get it into their center, who had been extremely effective the entire second half. Finally, they made the pass to the center, who had worked loose from Billy. In an effort to intercept the pass, Billy caught the opposing center’s thigh with his knee.
A referee with glasses blew the whistle, assessing the foul to Billy, who followed him to the edge of the court, shouting, “That wasn’t a foul, you four-eyed fool!” As the brutal buzzer proclaimed that Billy had fouled out of the ball game, the “four-eyed fool” formed a “T” with his hands, indicating that he also was charging Billy with a technical foul.
As a red-faced “Stilt” ambled off the court, an austere Coach Nevin shook his finger in Billy’s face, chiding, “We didn’t need that technical, Mister!” Billy impetuously grabbed his warm-ups and stormed off in the direction of the locker room. Pierce made no move to restrain him.
The Scorpion team captain sank the technical foul shot. Their center went to the foul line with a one-and-one shooting situation and made his first shot, missing the second. The rebound went deep into the right corner and was retrieved by a Scorpion forward. Before a double-team could develop, he made a quick pass to the two guard, who drained a three-pointer—giving a four-point lead to the adversaries.
With fifteen seconds left on the clock, the Warriors needed to score without delay. They quickly took the ball across the mid-court line and passed it to Jerry. He was open and drilled his third successful three-point attempt.
With eight seconds remaining, the Scorpions seemingly needed only to get the ball inbounds and run out the clock. But, with an impossible burst of speed, Jerry again wrested the inbounds pass from an unsuspecting Scorpion and launched a ten-foot jump shot—with one second showing on the clock. The referee’s whistle sounded shortly after the ball left Jerry’s hands.
As the final buzzer blared, the ball ricocheted off of the backboard, wound twice around the rim of the basket, and rolled out. Everyone looked at the referee, who indicated that a foul had been committed by a Scorpion.
At the foul line, preparing for the first of his two free throw attempts, Jerry cast a sideward glance at his sweetheart, Raquel, fully anticipating her rapt attention and support. Her concentration, however, seemed to be focused elsewhere. Tracing her apparent line of gaze, he zeroed in on Coach Nevin, who gave him a “thumb-up” gesture. My eyes must be deceiving me, Jerry thought uneasily. She wouldn’t....
He riveted his eyes on the basket. Bouncing the ball three times and taking one deep breath, Jerry shot. The ball rebounded off the front of the hoop; he caught it as it sprang back. “Ooh’s” and “aah’s” swept through the Warrior assembly, and a few claps echoed from some Scorpion fans.
Jerry felt like a complete jerk. He reflected on his performance so far in the game, having racked up a commendable double-double tally with 19 scored points and 13 assists. Undoubtedly, everybody on his team and in the Warrior bleachers now expected him to tie the score and force an overtime.
The crowd was hushed. The only detectable sounds were soft whispering and some water trickling through a pipe somewhere. Jerry bit his twitching lower lip hard. This isn’t a dream, man! You’ve got to concentrate and perform! His thoughts composed him—momentarily.
As he methodically bounced the ball twice, he looked over again at Raquel. Can it be?...she is looking at Coach Nevin! he cogitated. This time, Jerry saw Pierce returning her stare. Jerry wished he had not looked. His heart had been racing; now it was pounding. He felt dizzy, but he had no opportunity to recompose himself, as the allotted time to shoot nearly had expired.
Twice more he bounced the basketball—his “best friend” besides “the Stilt”—and, in one continuous motion, discharged it. It was released just at a maximum palpitation of Jerry’s heart, causing it to overshoot the basket, rebound off of the backboard, and bounce twice on the front rim of the hoop.
As though on a fence with a mind of its own, the ball cruelly chose that moment to breach its “friendship” with Jerry, falling in front of the basket and plummeting to the floor. The devastated Warriors had lost their final district game 90–89 and would not be going to the regional tournament.
A frenzied state of delirium instantly overcame all who wore a Scorpion uniform or who identified with the Scorpions, as everyone on that side of the arena erupted in uproarious jubilation. Conversely, the mood on the opposite side tended toward confusion and disorientation. For several seconds, every Warrior or Warrior-at-heart appeared not to know what to do nor which way to turn. They looked at each other in dismay. It was as though they all were frozen somewhere between time and eternity.
“That was a severe loss for Pierce,” Luke expressed in a conspicuously sympathetic tone. “Listen...I’m gonna beat the crowd...got somethin’ I need to do, OK? See ya!” He was two rows down before Geoff could respond.
“Yeah, OK...see ya!” reacted a puzzled Geoff. Then, as an afterthought, he added with a shout, “Hey, Luke! When’re you leavin’ town?”
“In a week...but I’ll see you before then,” Luke returned hastily, retreating ahead of the crowd as though escaping a relentless lava flow.
Grabbing his blue jacket, on which he had been sitting, Geoff observed that Pierce seemed to be the first Warrior to “get a grip.” He trekked across the court, evidently to congratulate the winning coach, the latter meeting him halfway. They shook hands and exchanged a few words.
On his way back, Pierce took a detour toward Jerry Wells—still fastened to the foul line, his hands cloaking his face—and gave him a firm hug. At first, Jerry, clearly sobbing, returned the hug with equal intensity. But, almost as quickly, he released his hold, pulled back, looked downward, and turned away his face. Pierce abided for a few moments, apparently perplexed; then he walked back to the sideline. He grabbed the shoulder or neck of each remaining player; a few already were wandering toward an exit, heads hung low.
Geoff observed the lead cheerleader—he searched the program for her name—approaching Jerry. Fleetingly pressing her nose into the back of Jerry’s neck, she accorded him an ostensible, conciliatory hug. She then turned and dashed toward Pierce.
Before Raquel could reach Pierce, though, he was ambushed by Andrea Young, who clutched him tenaciously in a lingering embrace. Wriggling loose, Coach Nevin quickly scanned the crowd, seemingly concerned that someone in particular—Geoff suspected Coach Young—might have witnessed the spectacle. Raquel halted her advance, hesitated a few moments, and turned around, slowly returning to Jerry.
Geoff started to find his way through the crowd and over to Pierce, wishing to offer him some sincere consolation and a little moral support. But the throng of people forced Geoff away from his intended destination. When he finally caught sight of Pierce again, he had entered his office and was closing the door.
It’s probably just as well, mused Geoff, at this point voluntarily moving along with the horde toward the front exits. He resolved that, next time he saw Pierce at the health club, he would tell him what a superb game his team had played—fully attributable to Pierce’s excellent coaching abilities—and that he still should stand tall at Foothill High. Maybe next week, with this night behind him, it would be more appropriate to offer the phrase, “There’s always next year!”
Raquel and Jerry walked somberly to his car, following his quick shower. They were not holding hands. A few hours earlier, both had found it impossible to contain their enthusiasm and excitement. Now things were agonizingly different, especially for Jerry. “Do you still want to go to Dale’s party?” questioned Jerry, attempting to repress his intermittent sniffles.
“Uh...yeah sure, babe,” came the reply from the overtly distracted cheerleader. “But you know what, Jerry...I just remembered that our cheerleading sponsor wanted to have a few words with us girls after the game. I can catch a ride over there with Julie or Morgan, OK?”
“You won’t be long, will you?” inquired a leery Jerry. “How ’bout if I just wait here?” The full moon’s light revealed his disconsolate expression.
“Mmm...well, it might take awhile,” countered Raquel. “I dunno,” she shrugged. “And I don’t want you waiting here alone, licking your wounds, for too long.” She placed her hand on his knee, gently digging her long, silver and purple nails into the sides of his leg. He always liked that. “Some of the guys’ll be at the party, and they’ll console you ’til I get there.”
“Right, uh-huh...not! None of the guys’ll wanna see me now. Nobody’ll wanna have anything to do with me for the rest of the school year,” returned the dejected athlete, desiring some sensitive reassurance.
“Oh, come on now, Jer! You know nobody feels that way about you!” Raquel’s nails dug in a little deeper. “Nobody blames you for losing the game, babe. And no one is to blame Those things just happen, ya know?”
Jerry suddenly recalled why he felt he had missed both of his final shots. He pried Raquel’s fingers off of his knee. “OK...‘babe.’ You go on and do your thing...‘babe.’ Maybe I’ll see ya later.” He looked straight ahead.
Raquel gazed at him, but he refused to look at her. “Jerry...honey....”
“Go on, Raquel! I’ll see you around!” came his irrevocable rejoinder.
Raquel sniffled and reached for a tissue; but Jerry, wise to her Oscar-caliber flair of simulating tears, remained unmoved. She opened the door and stepped out. Jerry revved up his car and screeched away. Raquel headed back toward the gym.
Inside, almost everyone had left. Some janitors were sweeping up the colossal mess around the concession stand. A few clusters of discontented Warrior fans stood, grousing to each other.
Still adorned in her provocative cheerleading attire, the gorgeous young lady strode briskly across the basketball court—straight to the office of Coach Nevin—and knocked on the door. Several seconds later, the door opened. She gave Pierce a hug, which he reciprocated perfunctorily.
They conversed for a couple of minutes, and then Raquel entered the room ahead of Pierce. Pierce left the door ajar. Unbeknownst to Raquel, Jerry had driven around the block and returned to the gym. He watched from an opposite doorway for another minute or so, after which he retreated to his car and sped away.
“What can I do for you, Miss Lacey?” initiated Pierce judiciously.
“Well, to start with, maybe you could call me Raquel.”
“I thought you’d be out with Jerry,” Pierce urged, hoping she would get a clue and leave. He knew he was too vulnerable now to be in the company of a dazzling blonde, and he did not want to do anything he would regret.
“Oh, he’s somewhere sulking,” replied Raquel, rolling her eyes upward.
Pierce sat down behind his desk, distancing himself from the stunningly beautiful eighteen-year-old. “But shouldn’t you be consoling him?”
Raquel sauntered around one end of the desk. “There’s plenty of time for that,” she laughed dismissively. “Pffft...he’ll get over it!” she shrugged.
As she coyly sat on the edge of the desk, Raquel crossed one leg over the other and slowly began to wiggle her foot back and forth. Then she grasped a pencil between her fingers, daintily bringing the eraser to her teeth.
Pierce stood up and walked around the opposite end of the desk toward the door. He stated, in no uncertain terms, “I really think your place right now is with your boyfriend, Miss Lacey. I’m sure he needs your encouragement.” He employed the use of his right foot to draw open the door widely. “Anyway, I need some time alone to write a report for the press.”
Raquel gaped at Pierce with a half-smile. She stilled her foot, uncrossed her legs, and slipped off the desk, in no hurry as she made her way over to her model man. She paused next to him—staring as if into the handsomest face she ever had beheld—seeming to anticipate a reprieve.
However, Pierce returned to his initial location behind his desk, remaining standing. Fabricating a full smile, Raquel countered, “OK, ‘Teach’...you may have just lost more than a ‘big game.’” As she turned and walked away, Pierce overheard her murmuring, “Hmm...so there’s time for Mrs. Young but none for ‘Miss Lacey’....”
Pierce reseated himself. He obtained a pen and spiral notebook from a drawer and worked for almost an hour recording the highlights of the game, as well as of the season. Intending to present the account to a reporter from the Orange County Register, he represented all of his key players—particularly his point guard and both of his centers—in the best possible light.
Finally having completed his carefully written narrative, Pierce yawned widely. He laid his forehead on his folded hands, figuring he would rest his eyes, just for a few minutes, before heading home. He meditated upon Raquel’s two final pungent declarations. While pondering the notion that they might forebode the brewing of a sensational scandal, involving Andrea Young and himself—which potentially could jeopardize his chances of being rehired next year—he dozed off.
Pierce began dreaming. In the fantastic dream, he sensed that he gradually was changing into a cornea shaped like the side of a basketball. The image of Coach Steven Young, positioned in front of him, was transmogrifying into a cornea shaped like the side of a football.
As Steven became fully transparent, Pierce momentarily perceived, on Steven’s surface, what appeared to be a swirling object of some sort—maybe a spiral galaxy or a hurricane. It appeared to be a reflection of something; but with a backward glance, Pierce observed nothing behind him. Through the cornea, which had been Steven, an azure disk materialized. A black aperture in the middle of the disk dilated and constricted rhythmically, as though it were “breathing.” The disk began to fluoresce a bright neon blue.
Pierce’s attention was drawn toward two irregular brown spots, resembling indented freckles, which had formed on either side of the scintillating blue disk. One expanded in size and acquired increasing depth until it looked like a bottomless pit. Pierce perceived, within its interior, a chaotic mixture of faint orange glimmers and spiked black shadows, much like the light from the cozy fire in a fireplace produces unsettled flickers and ever-shifting silhouettes on a wall. It was eerie, yet fascinating—repelling, yet alluring. He floated toward it. Dare I touch it—or even venture inside?
A resonating BOOM! rang out. Pierce’s kaleidoscopic dreamscape shrank to a point, like the image on an old TV screen which has been clicked off. His consciousness was sucked out of his bizarre phantasm, like a paper man on a magazine page being ripped away into a vacuum cleaner hose.
Sitting immediately erect and blinking his eyes, Pierce felt dizzy as he attempted to ascertain whether the briefly echoing sound emanated from within his head or externally. Within a few seconds, the reverberating noise had subsided. But it was followed almost immediately by what he determined to be the rapidly retreating footsteps of someone with soft-soled shoes, sprinting the length of the basketball court. A door on the opposite end of the gym clanked open and then slammed shut.
Pierce’s pupils were dilated to about triple their normal size. He sprang away from his desk, his swiveled chair tumbling over backwards and crashing to the floor. Hurriedly, he ran to the open doorway.
Pierce looked across the gym, wishing he had had enough presence of mind to dart to the door, while he still had heard the footsteps, rather than to petrify in his chair. He supposed that there was enough light in the spacious room for him to have gleaned a clue as to who had been running away. His peripheral vision then detected movement below and to the side of him, about three feet from where he stood.
Automatically, Pierce’s head whipped down and to the right. Stepping back, he gasped. An arm dropped to the floor from the chest of a felled body, its hand grasping a bloody white envelope. The envelope apparently had been withdrawn from the person’s shirt pocket—adjacent to a bullet wound. As Pierce’s eyes adjusted to the dimly lighted area, he flinched when he recognized the victim: Geoff Hutton’s friend, Luke Steen.