A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Empire"
Originally featured on 10-19-2007
As part of our series "A Funny Thing Happened To Me on the Way to the Fall"

I’m in darkness, nestled in the patch-work quilt mom made before she died. I hear the door shut downstairs, and the force rattles the pots in the kitchen sink, like the coppery sound of shaking a keychain. There’s uneasiness in the steps on the wooden floor downstairs, so I get up to see if everything’s alright. Outside, the first snow flurries through our yard catching up the crusty fall leaves and spinning them in the air.

Downstairs, Dad’s come home and I watch for a moment before he notices me. His legs seem heavy, and his movements deliberate. His cheeks are ruddy from the cold, and he sees me and gives me a warm smile. He tilts up his silver flask , the one with the bear engraved on it, up into the air, letting the last few drops fall from the lip of the silver into his own mouth. He winks at me and holds his finger up to his lips as if this were our little secret.


I woke up again in the soft blue of morning. The sun had just crest over the mountains and the pines across the river still held some darkness beneath their boughs. I clenched my teeth on the shivers from the cold air. I showered and dressed and nudged my brother awake on my way downstairs.

His feet were heavy on the steps as he came down the stairs. He seemed more tired than usual, his hair wasn’t combed and he fumbled with his shoelaces. I made sure he had his homework packed. I grabbed an instant waffle from the toaster for him and wrapped it up in a paper napkin so it doesn’t get cold, and so he doesn’t get butter all over his hands.

I had the lunches packed already and I had my backpack and ball. One thing to know about me is that I never go anywhere without my ball. I keep it close to me, letting it slip between my hands as I walk down the hallways at school, letting my finger get used to all the grooves, making my hands crave the weight. On the court, the ball is part of me, and I will it to go into the basket. I feel like I’m me, on the court, but I’m also the ball, I’m the hoop, and I can just pull the ball into myself, and I sink a basket. On the court, I’m more than myself, more than the house I live in, more than these lunches I mad, more than everything I am when I’m off the court.

I never forget my ball; not even after we lose a game like we did last night.

The school still had a large banner stretched across the bricks above the entrance for the game against Skyline Academy the night before. I tried not to look at it as I went inside the double doors. Skyline is our biggest rival. It’s a private school about thirty miles west of Leadville, my town. Some kids from Leadville go there for school, even though they can’t afford to live in Skyline itself. I thought someone would have taken the banner down, but no one had. Maybe they kept it up to rub it in our faces. No one loves a loser. People will high-five you and hold you up on their shoulders when you win, they will talk proudly about you and jeer their rivals, but when you lose, they blame you and no one wants anything to do with you.

The score’s tied against Skyline, and I have the ball. I weave through the Skyline players and go up for a shot, but I’m fouled by Rick Rogers, the best player Skyline has. I know Rick because we both started on Varsity of our different schools our freshman years. The guy had a good shot, but played dirty. The ref hadn’t seen the foul, and the ball left my hands. I feel stinging in my eyes, and I feel tears. Rick says, “Queer.”

“You can’t get so steamed,” my dad says in the car ride home, “I know it gets your yolk, but you can’t let anyone get to you. You have to brush fouls and trash-talking off; else someone will always be controlling you.”

I sit quiet.

“And I know what it feels like,” dad continues, “I had the same problem when I was your age, always getting mad for no good reason.”

He looks over at me. His eyes are bloodshot and drooping, his cheeks are flushed.

“Hey dad,” I say, “why don’t you let me drive?”

His hands get tight on the wheel and he sighs long and deep.

“Okay,” he says. He pulls over the car and takes a pull from his silver flask.

“You’re a good son,” he says after being quiet for a long time.


After school, I rode the bus home with my brother. We sat side by side in one of the bus seats, and I gave him some advice on how to get on his English teacher’s good side. We worked on our homework together, as the bus jostled and shook, messing our work, but we got most of it done. I made my brother keep working on it when we got home until he’s finished, and then I started dinner. He got up from the kitchen table and went to the couch to watch television. We only have the three rooms, the bedroom upstairs, the kitchen-living-room, and dad’s room, which we don’t go into much except sometimes to steal some money.

Dad got home around the time I finished dinner, but I could tell right away he was off. He sat down at the table and grumbled about something. I put some macaroni and cheese down in front of him and then down in front of my brother. Dad said something to me but I didn’t understand. Dad began to curl spaghetti around his fork, and lowered his head for a bite, but his head kept lowering until his face rested in his plate. I jumped up and pulled his up. I took his napkin and wiped off his face. He said something to me, but I got under his shoulder and lifted him to his feet, then lead him to his room and to his bed.

It snowed heavily that night, thick flakes that piled up around the downstairs window, almost covering it completely. In the morning, I wake up and listen to the radio to see if school’s cancelled, but it’s still on. The snow hardens into ice as the day goes on, the sun melting it, and then re-freezing it.


I’m waiting for the bus with my brother when Mike Engelmann runs over to me to tell me that Rick Rogers is in the parking lot and had something to say to me. I tell Mike that if Rick’s here and has something to say he can come say it to my face. A few minutes later, Mike comes back and says Rick’ll say it to my face if I walk to the back parking lot where he’s parked. I follow Mike and my brother follows me.

Rick’s BMW is parked in the back, and he’s talking to a pretty sophomore I’ve seen in the halls.

“Hey Rick,” Mike says, “he’s here.” Then he backs off, telling someone walking by to stick around because there’s going to be a fight.

“I heard you had something to say to me,” I say,

“Yeah,” says Rick, “I said something.”

“Well, if you’ve got something to say to me from now on, you can say it to my face, not behind my back like a coward.”

“I’ll call you queer to your face, in the game, or here in the parking lot.”

There’re some of Rick’s teammates from Skyline in the car and they laugh.

“I ain’t got to listen to you,” I say, “it ain’t worth it to fight you Rick.”

“It looks like you’re the coward then.”

“You can call me coward if you like.”

By this time a crowd had gathered around. I looked around at their expectant faces. They stood back from Rick’s car, and I could see they were afraid of what would happen, but they stood and watched anyway.

Rick looked back at his buddies in the car.

“You probably get beat every night by your drunk dad anyway,” Rick says.

“Screw off,” I say and I drop my ball and book bag.

“Yeah, I bet he hits you and your brother every night,” Rick jumps down from the hood of his car, “I bet that’s why you’re afraid to fight.”

I take a swing at Rick and hit him in the jaw. It’s a wild punch, and Rick staggers back. I see him step on a patch of ice and slip. I swing and hit him again, hard. Rick tries to get back up, but he slips on the ice again. I hit him again; I feel his nose crumple from my fist. I grab him by the collar and pull his face into my punches. I feel the bones in the back of my hand buckle, and they arch up, like the legs of a spider, but I keep hitting him, and he keeps trying to get up, but slipping on the ice. I start to kick at him, and then I feel someone pull me off.

I shake the person off and start to run. The buses have left already, and the whole front parking lot is empty. The front lawn and parking lot are covered in the gray, muddy snow. I stop running. There’re people telling me that Rick’s friends are going to come and I’ve got to get out of there. Mike Engelmann is there and he’s talking excited about how I busted Rick’s face and his arm; Rick’s friends going to take him to the hospital. I taste metal in my mouth, the tangy taste of adrenalin, like sucking on a penny.

I look around me. My brother is there, waiting to see what I am going to do next. He looks at me, his eyes glazed with fear. I want to reach out to him with my broken hand. I want to hold him.

Read More By Jim McCollum

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