The clock radio sprung to life at 8:30 am. Joel lay in bed for a few minutes listening to a static-filled rendition of a classic rock song that he would never usually tolerate but was too tired to turn off. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he reached out and whacked the bright red digital clock that sat on the table by his bed. The music came to an abrupt stop and Joel lay for a few more moments enjoying the silence.
With a heavy sigh, he sat up. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, planted his feet on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Then Joel remembered – it was Saturday! No school and no responsibilities, unless you consider soccer practice a responsibility, which Joel definitely did not.
He looked around his room for something to wear. He didn’t have a big bedroom – there was barely room for his bed, and the chest of drawers. One wall was lined with shelves that were packed with books, toys, collectables and other treasures. The small amount of floor space that he did have was covered by a bright red carpet with a large smiley face. He grabbed a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, got dressed and headed downstairs.
The house was completely silent, which was unusual – Joel had a younger brother, Marc, who could be counted on to cause a general uproar wherever he was. There was no sign of his parents either. It wasn’t completely unheard of for his mom and dad to have gone somewhere without him, but usually they told him about it beforehand.
Joel walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He was not exactly sure what he would find there, but he was in no way prepared for the sight that met his eyes. The fridge was empty. Totally empty. There was no food, no shelves, no light, and no color: just dark emptiness. It was like a black hole had materialized inside the refrigerator.
Joel slammed the door closed and waited for a few seconds. The palm of his hand felt clammy against the door handle and he shivered.
He swallowed hard, and then opened the fridge for a second time. Everything looked totally normal: there was milk, juice, a couple of yogurts, some cheese and a produce drawer filled with a variety of green stuff.
“OK,” he muttered to himself. “Weird.”
He put a hand on his forehead, but didn’t seem to be warmer than usual. He had definitely lost his interest in food, however, and closed the fridge door.
He looked around the kitchen, but everything else seemed normal. There were a couple of dirty dishes by the sink, the kettle was sitting on the island in the middle of the kitchen, and the table near the fireplace was empty except for a small pile of mail.
He wondered where his family had gone. He couldn’t remember his mom or dad saying they would be leaving early that morning, but then again he didn’t always pay attention when they were talking to him.
Joel slipped on a pair of gray sneakers that he had left next to the kitchen door the night before and walked out into the warming morning air. It was another perfect day – sunny with just a few clouds lazily traversing the sky. He walked across the yard and up the shared driveway that connected his house and two neighboring houses with the street.
Soccer practice would start in about 30 minutes and it was going to take Joel that long to get there if he had to walk. It really was pretty rude of his parents to leave him without a ride. Still, in another few years he would be driving himself.
He walked up the tree-lined street and took a right turn towards the town center. There were no sidewalks where he lived, but it was a quiet area and there were few cars on the road. The houses along the street were all of a similar style – large, red brick buildings with a double garage to the side. They all had expansive front yards, some with swing sets or trampolines, but Joel didn’t see anyone playing outside as he passed by.
He made his way down the winding road, thinking about soccer. Coach had him playing center back, but he really wanted to move into a midfield position. It wasn’t that he was bad in defense, but he felt that midfield would make better use of his sprinting and passing skills. Plus, he was pretty small for a defender – only 5’ 1” – and that definitely made his job tougher. Not that he was complaining, Joel was not a complainer, and he was happy to be on the team. He just wanted a change of pace.
He reached the end of the street and took another right. This was a much busier road as it was the main North/South thoroughfare that connected several nearby towns. Luckily the street had been upgraded a couple of years ago, and there was a sidewalk for pedestrians. As the cars zipped past, Joel’s mind roamed from one subject to another: school, soccer, his absent parents… and Cassandra.
He sighed deeply. Cassandra… Just the thought of her made his heart race. It wasn’t just that she was pretty – which she was – but she was also smart, funny and loved soccer. In other words, she was perfect. Unfortunately, Joel was pretty sure that Cassandra did not feel the same way about him. Sure, she would smile when she saw him at school, but she smiled at everyone – that was just the sort of person that she was. And yes, she did say “Hi,” to him when they had Spanish class together, but again, this was just her being friendly. That was another thing he liked about her. She was so nice.
Joel reached the entrance to North End Park and jogged up the path. The soccer fields were at the far end of the park, past the lake and the baseball diamonds. He noticed several people fishing in the lake, staring intently into the water. Now that was an activity that he just didn’t get – talk about boring! As far as Joel was concerned, you might as well spend your time watching grass grow. It offered the same level of excitement, without having to impale slimy worms on a barbed hook. Ugh.
Soccer practice was just starting. The rest of the team were running laps, calling out to each other and laughing. Joel picked up his pace and ran over to where Coach was studying a clipboard.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “My mom and dad totally flaked out on me. I had to walk the whole way.”
Coach gave him a strange look. “What?”
“My parents were supposed to give me a ride to practice, but they were already gone when I woke up.”
“And you are…?” said Coach
Joel looked around nervously. Coach was not known for his sense of humor. In fact, Joel was not sure if he ever saw him smile except when his team scored.
“Your name?” repeated Coach.
Joel decided to play along. “I’m Joel,” he said, “your favorite defense superstar.”
Coach did not look amused. “Are you trying to be funny?” he scowled.
“No. I thought you were,” said Joel.
“Obviously you don’t know me kid, but I am not funny.”
“Then why are you pretending you don’t know me?” asked Joel. “Is it just because I am late?”
Coach bent down to stare directly into Joel’s eyes. “I’m not sure who you are or what you’re up to, but you better turn around and walk away right now.”
Joel took a step back. He had never seen Coach act this way before and it unnerved him. He glanced over at the rest of the team. They had stopped running and were all looking in his direction. Joel took another step back from Coach, then turned and ran towards the group of boys.
“Hey guys!” he yelled as he ran. “What did I miss?”
His teammates did not reply, but continued to stare at him as he approached.
Joel slowed to a walk and then stopped altogether. “Hey Alex,” he called to one of his friends on the team. “How was karate yesterday?” Alex was one of the most athletic boys that Joel knew. Not only was he the top scorer on the team, he was also one step away from being a black belt at karate.
Alex took a step towards Joel and then stopped. He shook his head quickly, as if trying to rid himself of an annoying fly. “You…” he began, but trailed off into silence. He stared at Joel for a moment. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
Before Joel could reply, Coach was back and in his face.
“Listen to me.” Coach was speaking more slowly than usual and his voice was deeper and more gravely, almost like a growl. “I am going to count to three, and if you are not gone by the time I finish, I am going to personally remove you. You do not belong here.” He paused for a moment.
Joel gulped and glanced over at his teammates again. Nobody was smiling.
This was crazy. He had been on this team for three months now, and he knew every single one of these guys.
Joel turned and ran.