Not until sitting in the grass in the field’s far corner did he shed his gloves and realize his knuckle was bleeding. For the adrenaline of the first half he couldn’t place the injury, hadn’t felt it. He brought the hand closer, to inspect, guiding with the unmaimed hand as if a scientific curiosity, something wholly separate from him. To his eye the blood in the thin crescent wound looked clotted and he pressed his thumb to it and pulled the thumb away and was surprised to see a thin red daub on its spatulate end. He brought the thumb and the hand to his mouth in turn and sucked clear the blood. He leaned and spat. Reaching his good hand to his teammate, flitting his hand against his arm, he said, “Hey, let me get that.” The teammate squirted a last jet of water into his mouth and with puffed cheeks handed the bottle over.
“Rest up, guys,” announced the coach, pacing before the team with his beloved whiteboard nearly pressed to his nose. “Lotsa water, guys,” he reminded, “drink lotsa water.” He looked suddenly across the field, narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth as if to say something but fell quiet again and returned to the world of the whiteboard. Xs and Os all over, like a love letter to sport.
The assistant coach came jogging over from the direction of the school, whistle jaunty on his lanyard. “Dave,” he said, slowing. The coach looked up. “They’re not gonna clear him.”
The coach bit his lip. “There’s no chance?”
“None. He’s totally out of it.”
The coach turned to face his seated team. “You guys heard that?” Murmered assents, Yes Coachs, shaking their heads and looking around, though no surprise to be found in the group. “That’s your teammate we’re talking about. Now I wanna make something clear,” he said, one finger aloft. “Look. Guys. In no way am I advocating for a dirty game.” He fixed a hard stare on a few select faces. Under the baking afternoon sun his milky eyes shone. “But you can’t let some…”, stepping closer, bending at the waist to loom closer still, “fucking prep-school douchebags,” the words spoken with a purposeful staccato inflection, “come in here and push you guys around.” He raised back to his full height. “I don’t care if they’re more talented than you. Talent doesn’t mean shit.” Across the field the other team was leaving their corner and ambling onto the field, languid in donning their equipment, loafing about their warmup drills, the haughty nonchalance of the sport’s more affluent strongholds.
The injured player held up his hand. The coach crossed his arms and lifted his chin in the player’s direction. “Dylan.”
“Yeah,” he said, pushing himself up with his good hand to address the team. He showed to his team a peace sign. “Two things. First, we gotta possess the ball. Defense is busting their ass, they came up with a couple huge stops only for us to throw it away as soon as it was on the other end. That can’t happen. They need a break, they’re gassed. And if you’re playing middie and you get winded playing d, run your ass off in transition and once it’s settled we’ll get you a sub. There’s no excuse for being lazy. Get it to the attack, we’ll hold it, and we’ll get some fresh legs on. And attack, hold onto the ball. There’s no excuse to not be able to pass and catch by now.
“And the second thing is,” again displaying his peace sign, “that skip pass has been there all day. A lot of us are beating our guy and then when the slide comes we panic and just dump it off to the next man. If you’re doing that you might as well not dodge in the first place. Know where the slide is gonna come from, keep your hands free, because if a defender is sliding he’s leaving his man—Wall, how open is the crease?”
Without looking up, a gangly kid starfished on the grass said, “It’s been there all day.”
“Exactly. Find Wall. Or if that second slide goes, pass to his guy. It’s not that hard. We’ve done this shit a million times in practice. Keep your head up, see what’s happening, and find the pass. If we’re winning off the dodge we should be scoring. These guys aren’t that good. We can beat them.” He looked to the coach, who gave a single nod.
“Alright,” the coach said. “Everyone up. Start passing, running, getting the blood going again. Come out this half and punch em in the nose. I want to win every fifty-fifty ball. Let’s get back to the hardnosed, scrappy lacrosse we’ve played all year. It takes no talent to try.”
The team scrambled to their feet. Dylan lifted his helmet by the facemask and slid it on with the one hand. He bent to collect his gloves as the coach was saying, “Make sure these fuckers remember playing us.” He pulled his gloves on and looked at the scoreboard, at the sunlight glinting off the glossy black. He removed his left glove and looked at the knuckle, flexing the digits, stinging and swollen and stiff. He slid the glove back on and jogged onto the field.
From the halftime whistle it was clear something was brewing. The referees missed a fair number of calls early, a recipe leading always to escalation. Players made prone to outbursts which are some cousin to blood reparations, payment for the searing injustice of a foul not given. Through the third and the beginning of the fourth the score differential ballooned and play devolved. The four hundredth blow came after a dead ball on the sideline nearest Dylan, in a chaotic ground ball scrum. He watched from his attacking half, tense, coiled, eyes darting. The flailing and raking of sticks, bodies on bodies, low dust swirling about the moil of competition. Scuffling feet kicked, and the clang of metal against metal rang clear. And then—above the din came the enormous singular crunch, and he saw the upended feet soaring by the helmets, heard the thud as the body crashed into the dirt and skidded to a halt.
For a brief moment all froze. As if to delineate between when the game stopped and the competition began. He saw peripherally the first of those to break from the sideline and come streaming onto the field, first from the other team, then from his. He flinched. To his left Wall was sprinting over midfield with his defender in close pursuit. Dylan’s eyes lighted on the scoreboard and then trusting instinct he joined, launching himself across midfield and into the fray. Referees blared their ineffectual whistles, running with hands frantic over the heads as if to call some higher power to intervene. Dylan picked an indefinite shape of the wrong color and drove his shoulder into it, knocking a player off a teammate and onto the ground. He turned and swung at someone’s helmet, missed. He cocked his arm to throw another wild punch but was crashed into from behind and went sprawling facedown into the dirt and a tangle of stamping legs. He made to push himself up but a foot came down onto left hand and the body attached to the foot went tumbling over kneeling Dylan. By the time he scrambled to his feet to reenter the brawl it had all but ended, save for the wrangling by the refs and coaches of those pugnacious few still wishing to fight. Shouting and shittalking took violence’s place. A band of his teammates barked trash talk at a similar band of opponents and converged, shoved a little. A ref jumped between the groups and pushed them to his wingspan’s length, shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” as if he could think of no other words under the moment’s volatility.
Dylan brushed dirt from his chest and shoulder and looked down. He extended his hand to the player lying there on his back, hauled him up. His teammates peeled away from the opponents with a few parting taunts and turned and marched towards their bench. Dylan set off in that direction. A nearby teammate starting jawing at an opponent once more and Dylan grabbed him by the back of his collar and yanked him away. The teammate struggled briefly and then yielded and they walked to their sideline side by side, Dylan repeating, “Just let it go, just let it go.” The referees retrieved their scattered flags and hats and conferred on how to proceed.
The team gathered on their sideline. The coach propped his hands against his hips and set his jaw forward and tilted his head back and waited for his team to be silent. His clipboard lay on the bench. “What the fuck was that?” he began at length. Anger took hold—his hand flew to his visor and tore it from his forehead and spiked it. “I told you I didn’t want you to play dirty!” Spittle rained on his team, doubly irksome because they could not easily wipe their faces. “Who hit that kid?” he asked. He widened his eyes at a player in the front.
“Wasn’t me, Coach.”
“Who, then?” he asked. “Whoever it was is done for the game.”
A usual suspect, Mastro, stepped forward and threw his arm in the direction of the other team. “They were being dirty, not us,” insistent, pointing, fired up. “That kid was being a punkass all game. He jammed his stick into my stomach on the dead ball,” miming a backwards jabbing motion as he said it. “After the whistle.”
“Go sit down,” the coach told him. He trooped away, throwing his stick, ripping his gloves and elbows pads and flinging them. “Okay,” the coach said to the team, but before he could collect his thoughts the referees called out for the coaches to come meet with them. The coach grimaced at his team and shook his head and left the huddle.
As soon as the coach was gone the team swarmed Mastro, inundated him with Nice Hits, helmet slaps, fist bumps. His spirits flipped, he took the praise with a grin. “Kid tried to tell me he’d fuck me up,” he said, taking a hand to his sweaty and matted hair and sweeping it back from his forehead, stretching his other arm along the top of the bench. “He’s like five six, trying to say he can take me.” He slapped an offered palm. The assistant coach sat on the bench next to Mastro and nudged him with an elbow. The air about the sideline reeked of briny sweat. “Hell of a hit, Mastro,” the assistant coach told him, nodding sagely. “Hell of a hit.”
The team milled about, getting water, stretching, joking. Some paired off to pass. Dylan rubbed his twice injured hand and squirted water on the cut. Bruising turned his hand an unnatural greenish hue. Faint stinging as the reddened water trickled over his knuckles, cleansing a top layer of grime. He looked from Mastro reveling on the bench to the scoreboard and then to his head coach taking leave of the referees. “Okay,” the coach called, striding toward the sideline. He gestured for his team to gather. He spat as his team congregated around him. “First of all,” he said, looking relieved, “they said they are going to let us finish the game.”
Dylan’s footsteps against the tile echoed down the hall. He came to the trainer’s office and listened for a moment to the voices inside and went in.
Christian sat on the examining table with a flashlight probing his eyes. “Hey,” he said with a smile. The trainer turned and nodded at the entrant.
“Did you win?” the trainer asked.
“No,” Dylan said, sheepish. “We didn’t play great.”
“What happened with that fight? I didn’t get much of the story from Dave.”
“There was a fight?” Christian asked.
“Yeah,” Dylan said. He hung in the doorway, leaning against the jamb. “Mastro destroyed some kid and next thing I know I’m sprinting into a fight.”
“You?” Christian asked. He shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”
“Yeah, well. Consider it payback. How’s the head?”
“I’m rocking a pretty sweet headache right now.”
“It’s the worst concussion I’ve seen this year,” the trainer cut in. He looked at Christian. “You probably won’t be cleared for the rest of the season.”
Christian laughed. “It’s not like I was gonna play anyway.”
“You might’ve gotten in,” Dylan said.
“Please,” rolling his eyes. “I only got in today because we had no chance.” To the trainer he explained, “Next game is the first round of the playoffs, so if Coach didn’t put me in today he would’ve gone the whole season without playing me. Unless he decided to play me in the playoffs, which, he wouldn’t’ve.”
“Well,” the trainer said. “At least you got in today.”
“Yeah, thank God,” Christian said, and grinned at Dylan.
“You’ll get time next year,” Dylan told him. “With half of us leaving.”
“Maybe,” Christian said. “You drive here? I could use a ride.”
“Sure thing,” Dylan said. “But first,” stepping forward then, revealing his purpled hand to the trainer, “can you take a look at this?”
The trainer scooped Dylan’s hand and held it to the light. “My. That’s pretty nasty,” he said, inspecting the cut, the swelling. “What happened?” He fixed a stare on Dylan, who shrugged. “I think we’re probably looking at a broken finger. I’ll get you a splint. Does it hurt when I do that?”
Dylan recoiled from the trainer’s squeeze. “Yes,” he said, teeth gritted. The trainer felt around, kneading. “It’s at least fractured,” he concluded. “We’ll put a splint on it. I have one around here somewhere, I just saw it, I could’ve sworn…” opening drawers, lifting things and putting them back in the same spot. “Of course,” he said, searching, “you’ll probably miss the next game,” the words absentminded as he continued his fruitless pursuit of the vanished splint. “That’s the playoffs, you say?” He stood and smoothed the front of his shirt. “I’ll bet I left it next door,” he announced, and hurried out of the room without any apparent interest in the answer to his question.
Dylan looked at Christian in the newfound quietude. “You good to go?”
Christian slid from the table. “Yeah.” They walked out of the room and down the hall, away from the sounds of the trainer opening and closing cabinets and drawers in his adjacent office. They crossed the hall and exited the double doors to the parking lot. “You really joined the fight?” Christian asked as they reached the asphalt.
“Oh yeah,” Dylan said. The sun was slanting onto the handful of cars remaining at this advanced hour. Most of his teammates had long since driven home. He looked down at his friend and grinned, looked back across the gleaming tops of the cars. With a tone verging on wistful he said, “I laid some kid out.”