By Bryan Thomas Woods
At football practice, I’m a scarecrow. It’s not hard, mostly. Crows, sometimes Cardinals, scamper among the overgrown grass that pokes through the wooden bleachers. The other players ignore them.
When the team huddles, I stand behind them in my shoulder pads and helmet to look bigger. I wave my arms and march towards the congregation. The birds fly away before I get close.
My brother, Jake, plays quarterback. Dad moved him up a year, to play with the sixth graders, because the competition is better. Jake hates when I’m a scarecrow. He grabs my facemask and drags me back to the huddle.
After practice, Dad picks us up in his van. Jake and I sit in the back. Dad wears a crumpled blue button-down and smells of stale cigarettes. He asks Jake if he threw any interceptions. Jake didn’t. He asks me how many passes I caught.
“Not sure,” I say.
“He played good,” Jake says. He doesn’t mention the scarecrow because I ask him not to.
On the drive home, Dad tells us about the team we are playing on Saturday, Cedar Hills. Small but fast.
“We should throw the ball over their heads,” I say.
“No, they’ll be in the receiver’s pocket the whole way,” Dad says. “Keep your head on a swivel and keep them guessing, Jake.”
Jake nods and we pull into the apartment parking lot.
A gaggle of geese surround the fountain out front. Green water dribbles from a spigot and pools, ankle-deep, in the stained stone base. I slam my car door and the geese scatter.
Inside, I do my homework on my bed and let Jake use the desk. This is our second apartment since Mom died. In the first, we had our own rooms. Now, Jake and I share the only bedroom and Dad sleeps on a pullout in the living room. His clothes hang from a pipe in the corner. Better for everyone, he says.
Every night, after dinner he pulls out the mattress. Jake and I lay down together and watch TV. Usually a detective show. Dad stands in the dining room, swinging his golf clubs and chiming in with who he thinks did it. He’s usually right.
“Do you want to go outside?” Jake asks.
I slam my textbook closed and hop off the bed. After our homework, we are only allowed outside to practice, so I grab a football from the floor.
We play catch in the courtyard. A small patch of burnt-out grass cut between the snaking sidewalks that connect the buildings. Jake doesn’t laugh when I drop the ball and chase after it. I pick it up and jog back to him.
“Do you hate birds?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “I like them.”
“Hike,” he says and smiles. I run another route, but the ball bounces off my hands and rolls behind a decaying pine bush.
“And football?” Jake says.
I shrug, push the branches aside, and crawl into the bush. The football rests against a root, next to a goose from the fountain.
I reach for the football, but the goose stands tall and squawks. It spreads its wings and flaps. I try to stand, but pine needles and broken limbs scrape my forehead and cheeks. The goose lurches forward and snaps his bill on my hand. I scream.
The goose honks and flies away.
A mixture of blood and tears drips down my face as I stumble from the bush.
“I’ll go get Dad,” Jake says. His voice is high-pitched. Scared.
“No,” I say and grab his collar before he can run. I stifle sobs between gasps for air.
“You have to stop this stuff,” he says.
“It’s fine,” I say. “No one understands scarecrows either.”
For a while, we sit in silence. The blood dries and I can breathe. Jake crawls behind the bush and grabs the football.
We sit on the sidewalk and roll the ball back and forth to each other. We talk about football, school, and Mom. When it gets dark, we head inside.
“What happened?” Dad asks.
“Tough practice,” I say.
Dad and Jake smile and we climb onto his mattress.
“Dad, do you like birds?” I say.
“Not really. Do you?”
I shrug. His eyes narrow on mine, but only for a second. Then, he smiles.
“After your game on Saturday, I’m going to play golf,” Dad says. “Tons of birds out there. You can come if you like.”
I nod yes and we turn on the TV.
* * *
Bryan Thomas Woods writes short fiction and humor. He is studying creative writing at Full Sail University. After serving in the military, Bryan settled in Orlando, Florida with his wife and children.