Four adolescent boys throwing a football around in a front yard on a fall day in Virginia. Playful insults, some bragging, gossip about someone not there, making this other the subject of ridicule, which dislodges and redirects the ridicule away from anyone present.

A boy here needs to hit insults like tennis balls flying at him. Stay on your toes, racket at the ready. Sacrifice another to save yourself.

One boy, holding the football, says, “Hey, go long, go long.”

Another boy starts running, full sprint, looking over his shoulder at the quarterback, who leads the receiver toward the center of the yard with his gaze.

The quarterback back-pumps his arm as if to pass, smacks the ball, pumps again, as if to throw, smacks the ball again, and then finally, as the receiver approaches his destination, he lets it go, a perfect spiral, carefully aimed at the low branches of the one lone, thick tree.

The receiver sees the tree too late, smashes into it just as the ball hits the branches above. Flesh is soft, so it’s not very loud. Mostly the other boys just hear when the skull strikes the trunk, a dull woodpecker tock at the end of the crash, just before the body Slinkys and slumps.

The boys laugh at the injured player, the whole perfectly orchestrated practical joke, until they stop laughing, when some strange new and tragic tone drops down around the event. Then the feeling of a month squeezes itself into ten seconds and flares into a shared panic.

As the three standing boys calculate how to deal with a possible emergency, the receiver sits, then tries to stand, then kneels, then rocks back, and sits again. Blood drips from his forehead.

All three boys now close in on the receiver, huddle around him, ask if he is okay. Someone offers him his own sweatshirt, which had been balled up on the side of the playing space, as a rag for his head. The quarterback says it was an accident. He senses blame, culpability, a phone call to his home. He apologizes. Says he doesn’t know what happened.

The receiver is whimpering, but he isn’t talking, isn’t able to talk yet. He’s like someone just after a nap, caught inside his own rising awareness. Standing doesn’t look likely for a while. But he’ll live.

The quarterback, after continuing to proclaim it all an accident, a mistake, a very bad throw, ball got lose in his grip, etc., walks home. Not his fault. He’ll stay up late working on his defense.

Eventually, after maybe half an hour, the receiver gets up to walk home, too. One boy walks with him, watching closely the slow steps, holding out an arm as if to help but not needing to.


The boys come back the next day. The receiver is smaller and weaker than the quarterback. The quarterback, safe from accountability, he thinks, makes a joke about the bandage on the receiver’s head, something about a mummy.

The receiver is the new omega, patched-up and embarrassed. This moment is everything. He has to play it carefully. He brings up the topic of this weak and stupid boy they all hate at school. It’s a little shaky at first, his story, but he adds some vivid details—bad teeth, weird smell, nervousness, clothes way behind the ever-shifting fashion curve. He gets the others focused, thinking.

Finally someone else insults the kid in the receiver’s story. Then they all agree: Fuck that kid! He is the worst! The worst! The receiver is relieved. He has a headache, sure, and some double-vision when he turns his head in a certain way, but at least he’s not that other kid, who is a total loser.  

“Go long!” someone says, and the receiver, now a little less damaged, returned to the clique, a tale teller rather than a tale told, takes off jogging, much more aware of the location of the lone, blood-speckled tree.

Greg Bottoms is the author of eight books, including, most recently, Lowest White Boy . He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is a professor of English.

Photo by Paul Bilger