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The Final Cut
By Fred Bowen
PeachtreeCopyright © 1999 Fred Bowen
All rights reserved.
Ryan Phillips looked around the small huddle of boys standing on the windswept field. It was late afternoon on a crisp autumn day. "First down," he said. "What should we do?"
Eli Powell, the biggest kid in the group, shrugged his shoulders and didn't say anything. Miles DuBow shook his head and said, "I don't know. I just don't want to be the hiker again."
Edward "Zeke" Zilkowski stepped into the middle of the huddle and took charge. "Okay," he said. He used his finger to trace a football pattern on the front of Ryan's sweatshirt. "Ryan, you're going to go down about five steps, fake out to the sidelines, and go long." Ryan studied Zeke's finger as it moved up his sweatshirt and nodded. He glanced over his shoulder. The four boys on the other team were waiting impatiently on the other side of the football. Ryan turned his attention back to the huddle.
Zeke looked up at Eli. "Eli, you go down about seven steps and cut across the middle —" he started.
"What about me?" Miles interrupted, punching Zeke on the shoulder.
"Miles, you hike and stay in to block."
"Again?" Miles protested. "I've hiked way more than Ryan and Eli put together."
"Come on, you're our best hiker," Ryan pleaded.
"But there's nothing to hiking," Miles complained.
"That's why you're so good at it," Zeke said, patting Miles on the back.
"I don't see why we're even playing football," Miles muttered. "We should be practicing basketball."
"We've got plenty of time to play hoop," Ryan said. "Come on. Let's play football."
The four boys lined up. Ryan looked across the scrimmage line and eyed his opponent, Dustin Henry. Zeke meanwhile kept his eyes on Dustin's teammate Nathan Harmata.
"Remember, you can't rush in before you count 'three Mississippi,'" Zeke called to Nathan, who was clearly ready to pounce on Zeke.
"Just hike the ball," Nathan replied, locking eyes with Zeke.
Zeke barked out the signals: "Ready, set, hut one ... hut two ... hut three."
Ryan broke into a run, and Nathan started counting. "One Mississippi ... two...."
On his fifth step, Ryan broke to his right, glanced back at Zeke, and then suddenly changed directions and started sprinting upfield.
"Three Mississippi!" Nathan yelled.
Zeke lofted a long pass toward Ryan, sending the football sailing into the clear October sky. Ryan dashed after it. As the ball started to fall ahead of him, he took a flying leap and stretched out his arms as far as he could. He felt the ball brush against his fingertips, then his body slammed against the dirt. When he looked up, the ball was bouncing awkwardly away. "Incomplete!" Dustin shouted.
Ryan clutched his aching side as he got to his feet.
"Good try," Dustin said as he helped Ryan up. "You had me beat."
Ryan trotted slowly back to the huddle.
"Sorry," Zeke said. "I threw that one a little too long."
"I should have had it," Ryan said, still holding his side.
"You'd better hike it this time," Zeke said to Ryan. Then he turned to Eli and Miles. "Eli, you go down and do a buttonhook. I'll throw it high. Miles, you go down and out."
"Finally," Miles said.
This time Zeke whistled a hard pass right to Eli, who grabbed the ball but was tagged before he could move an inch.
"Good catch, big guy," Ryan said, clapping his hands.
"Third down!" Dustin called. "You guys have two more downs left."
"Tie game, right?" Zeke asked as the teams moved up the field. "Next touchdown wins."
"Yeah," replied the boys on the other team as Ryan and his friends huddled again.
"I can beat Dustin on a long pass," Ryan whispered to Zeke.
"Okay," Zeke said. "You run a long slant from the right side." Then, pointing to Eli, Zeke said, "Eli, you cut across the middle from the left side in case Ryan doesn't get open."
"I guess I'm hiking again," Miles said, sounding annoyed.
"You're the best, Miles." Zeke smiled. "What can I say?"
Ryan lined up on the right side. He kept his feet straight and stared directly at Dustin. He was careful not to let his face or his position give Dustin any clues about the pattern.
"Ready, set, hut one ... hut two...."
Miles hiked the ball back straight and true.
"One Mississippi ... two Mississippi....
Ryan ran straight for Dustin, who quickly braced himself for a collision. But at the last instant, Ryan angled to the middle of the field without breaking stride.
Zeke let go a long pass, and Ryan took off after the speeding football. His legs were churning and his heart was pumping. He got to the ball in time, reached up, and grabbed it, but it popped out of his hands and tumbled end over end in the air. Ryan didn't miss a step. He stayed with it and the ball fell, spinning, right into his cradled arms. He raced into the end zone and raised the football high in triumph.
Zeke, Eli, and Miles raced down the field, celebrating and shouting as they ran.
"Great catch, Ryan!"
"Great throw, Zeke."
Smiling, Zeke turned to the other team. "You want to play another game?" he asked.
"No," Dustin answered, shaking his head. "We've gotta get going."
The other team left and soon it was just the four friends in the middle of the big field, their shadows growing longer as the sun set.
"You want to play a game with just the four of us?" Zeke asked, twirling the football into the air.
"I'm tired," Miles said, shaking his head. "And anyway, I have to practice my sax." He walked over to the side of the field and picked up his saxophone case.
"We've played enough football," Ryan said. "Miles was right. We've really got to start concentrating on basketball. Intramurals start in a couple of days, and tryouts for the school basketball team are in a month and a half."
"Intramurals! That's just a big word for flunky teams," Zeke said. "You don't even have to try out for intramurals. The gym teachers just put you on a team and you play against other kids in the school. All I care about is making the real school team—the Sligo Stallions. I want to play against the best kids from other schools."
"That's what I'm saying," Ryan argued. "If we want to make the Stallions, we should start practicing now and plan on playing intramurals. That would give us a head start."
"Come on," Zeke pleaded, looking up at the cloudless sky. "It's football weather."
"I got it," Ryan decided. "Let's go to my house and hang out in the basement. We can play Ping-Pong and Miles can practice his sax."
"Let's play football while we've still got a little light left in the day," Zeke said.
Eli eyed Zeke. "I bet I can beat you at Ping-Pong," he said.
"You're on," Zeke said.CHAPTER 2
Ryan walked carefully down the wooden steps and felt along the wall for the light switch.
He flicked the switch and a row of track lights suddenly brightened the large, carpeted basement room. A Ping-Pong table stood in the center of the room and a sagging sofa and a couple of battered easy chairs had been pushed against the walls, which were plastered with pennants and posters. Off to the left hung a dartboard. Tucked in the far corner was a small, neat desk with a computer.
As they had a thousand times before, the four boys quickly made themselves at home. Zeke and Eli grabbed the two Ping-Pong paddles off the table.
"Come on, big man," Zeke said, motioning with his paddle to the table. "Let's see who the champ is at this game."
"Hey, wait a minute," Ryan protested. "I'm the champ. I beat both of you guys the last time we played."
"All right, all right," Zeke said, waving Ryan off. "I'll beat you after I beat Eli."
Ryan stepped back and watched the ball flash back and forth across the net. Miles took his saxophone out of its case and started practicing his scales.
"Are you just going to play the same notes over and over again?" Zeke demanded. "Why don't you play a song or something?"
"You can't play a song unless you practice your scales," Miles answered in a know-it- all voice.
"Hey," Ryan said, "doesn't intramural basketball start tomorrow?"
"Nah, it starts in two days," Zeke answered. "They're just going to post the team rosters outside the gym tomorrow."
Eli smashed a forehand that just grazed the corner on Zeke's side of the table.
"You are so lucky," Zeke cried, taking a few practice swings with his paddle. "It's 6–4, your lead."
"You guys signed up for intramurals, didn't you?" Ryan asked.
"Yeah," everyone answered together.
"I hate intramurals, but let's face it, you've got to play intramurals if you want to make the Sligo team," Zeke said. "Coach DeCamp watches all the games."
"When are tryouts for the Sligo team?" Miles asked, taking a short break from his practice.
"In about six weeks," Zeke answered as he bounced the ball on the table. "After Thanks giving and after the intramural games end."
"Come on, quit talking and start playing," Eli complained.
"Do you think we'll all make it?" Ryan asked nervously.
"Sure," Zeke said confidently. "We'll make it, no sweat."
Zeke reached across the table to bend a backhand winner past a shocked Eli. "It's 13–12. My lead, big guy." Zeke smiled. Eli retrieved the ball and tossed it to Zeke.
"But we didn't make the team last year," Ryan noted.
"So what?" Zeke said. "We were just seventh graders last year. Hardly any seventh graders made it. We're eighth graders now."
Zeke pointed his paddle across the table and said, "Look at Eli. He must have grown six inches since last year. And you and Miles are taller too."
"Yeah, Zeke," Eli teased, "you're the only guy who hasn't gotten taller."
"Don't worry," Zeke said. "I'll make the team." He wasn't smiling.
"So we're a little taller. So is everyone else. How do you figure the four of us are going to make it?" Ryan asked.
"Easy. The team is only for seventh and eighth graders," Zeke explained. "There are twelve kids on the team. Last year's team had eight eighth graders and they've graduated. I figure Coach DeCamp will want mostly eighth graders like us."
"Yeah, but the Coach will want some seventh graders on the team, too," Miles pointed out and returned to playing his saxophone.
"Yeah, like the Kaess twins, Alex and Andrew," Ryan said. "They're in the seventh grade and they're really good."
"So what?" Zeke said, unimpressed. "That still leaves five or six spots open."
"Come on, Zeke," Eli said, leaning over the table. "Stop yakking and start serving. It's 15–15. Tie game."
"And what about Johnny Fleming and Frankie Reilly?" Ryan asked. "They didn't make the team last year and they're pretty good."
Eli smacked a quick backhand that skidded past Zeke.
"Hey, will you guys quit talking?" Zeke shouted. "It's making it hard to beat Eli."
Ryan got up, walked over to the desk and turned on the computer.
"What are you doing?" Zeke asked.
"I'm going to figure out our chances of making the basketball team," Ryan replied.
Zeke and Eli continued their Ping-Pong battle as Miles played an upbeat tune and Ryan sat clicking away on the computer keys.
"Who's that new kid at school?" Ryan asked without looking away from the computer screen. "Is he any good?"
"You mean Matthew Finn?" Eli asked. "Yeah, he's supposed to be real good." Eli looked steadily across the table at Zeke. "It's 20–19, Zeke. My lead. Game point."
Zeke stood bent forward at the waist, twirling his paddle. "Chill out, you guys. I've got to concentrate."
Eli spun a serve across the table and Zeke flipped back a return. The ball whizzed back and forth.
"Don't forget Ian Will," Miles reminded Ryan. "All the Wills can play. Hannah's on the girls' team and their older brother Nathan is really good."
Eli sliced a backhand that just nicked the corner of the table. He smiled a wicked smile at Zeke and threw his hands high in triumph. "All right! I finally beat Zeke!"
Zeke stared at Eli. "I can't believe how lucky you are!" he shouted. Turning to the others, he said, "I would have won if these guys had stopped blabbing."
"What?" Eli exclaimed. "Like I couldn't hear everybody talking? Give me a break. Come on, Ryan. Let's play right now for the championship."
"Wait a second," Ryan said, pulling a sheet of paper out of the printer tray. "I want to show you something."
The boys gathered around as Ryan laid the paper on the Ping-Pong table.
"What's so important?" Zeke asked, sending his paddle clattering across the table.
"It's a list of all the kids I figure have a chance to make the basketball team," Ryan explained.
Just then, Ryan's stepfather poked his head into the basement room. "Hi. How are you guys doing?"
"Hi, Max. Just playing some Ping-Pong."
"Well, you guys had better get going. It's almost dinnertime. Ryan, you need to set the table. Your mom and Natalie will be home soon. I'm going to make chicken enchiladas."
"Okay. I'll be up in a minute."
When Max headed back upstairs, the boys looked at the list of names.
"Sure are a lot of names there," Miles said uncomfortably.
"Don't worry, we'll make it," Zeke said. "And in two months we'll all be teammates."CHAPTER 3
The noises of a new week surrounded Ryan as he hurried down the school corridor. The excited talk and laughter of the students mixed with the metal clanging of slamming lockers. Ryan glanced at his watch.
I only have five minutes to get down to the gym and check out the intramural basketball rosters before World Studies starts, he thought as he quickly weaved his way through the crowded hallway.
Ryan slowed down and look over his shoulder. Jessica Abell, a classmate and a player on last year's girls' basketball team, was hurrying to catch up with him.
"Are you heading to the gym?" she asked.
"Yeah." Ryan nodded.
"Me, too." Jessica smiled and the two started off again in matching strides.
"Are you playing intramurals?" Ryan asked.
"Sure, Coach Franklin wants all the best girl players to play intramurals," Jessica said. "You've gotta play if you want to make the Sligo team."
"You'll make the team, again, easy," Ryan said, "won't you?"
"I don't know. I guess."
Ryan and Jessica turned the corner that led to the gym. At the far end of the corridor, Ryan could see a cluster of kids crowded around two large pieces of paper taped to the wall. Ryan and Jessica picked up their speed.
Zeke popped out of the crowd as Ryan approached. "Hey, Ry!" he shouted. "You, me, and Miles are on the same team!"
The two boys traded high fives as Ryan made his way to the edge of the crowd. "What about Eli?" Ryan asked.
"Aaah, bad news—our big guy's with a bunch of show-offs," Zeke replied, his voice filled with disappointment.
"What do you mean, show-offs?" Drew Moyers bellowed from the wall where he stood with Eddie Wilson. "Eli's on the best team in the league," Drew called. "He's got me, Eddie, Patrick...."
Zeke turned red. He had no idea the "show-offs" were standing right there. Ryan just ignored Drew's bragging.
"Come on, Jessica," Ryan said. The two of them elbowed their way to the front of the crowd to study the rosters. Zeke and Miles stood off to the side.
"Hey, Jessica, we're on the same team—North Carolina," Ryan exclaimed. And then he yelled over to Zeke: "You didn't tell me we got Jessica."
"What am I? ESPN SportsCenter?" Zeke said with a shrug.
"She'll help us," Miles said as Ryan nodded in agreement.
"You mean you guys will help me," Jessica said.
"Your whole team is going to need all the help it can get," Drew teased. Eddie laughed, and Drew added, "Because we're going to roll."
"We'll see who'll roll when the games start," Zeke replied.
"When do they start?" Ryan asked, looking over the rosters for a schedule.
"Tomorrow," Miles said. "There are two games every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday after school."
Zeke pointed to the clump of kids in front of another large piece of paper taped on the wall. "The league schedule is down there," he said. "Every team plays twice a week for five weeks and then there are tryouts for the Sligo team."
Ryan moved a few steps down the corridor and studied the first few games of the schedule.
"Who do we play first?" Jessica asked.
"Duke at four o'clock tomorrow," Ryan said, then he looked over to Zeke. "Hey, Zeke," Ryan called. "Who's on the Duke team?"
Drew Moyers and Eddie Wilson pointed at their chests and smiled.
"We are," they said together.CHAPTER 4
The next afternoon, Ryan tossed a shirt at Zeke, who was sitting on the boys' locker room bench lacing up his sneakers.
"What's this?" Zeke asked as Ryan continued tossing shirts to his teammates on the North Carolina intramural team.
"What does it look like?" Ryan asked impatiently. "It's a team jersey."
"They're all red!" Zeke cried in disgust.
"We're the North Carolina Tar Heels," Zeke protested. "They wear light blue, not red."
Excerpted from The Final Cut by Fred Bowen. Copyright © 1999 Fred Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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