This is the 25th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “Y“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Y” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(3,959 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)
The letter was clear, Jenny was gone and not coming back.
Duke sloshed a splash of rum into a plastic Star Wars cup. He didn’t need this. Not today. Not after the ass-chewing he’d taken at work. Sure, he’d missed his sales’ quota at Waterbed World for the third straight month, but times were tough and people weren’t interested in the Hydro-Thermal Therapeutics of a Semi-Waveless California King Waterbed.
He looked at the note again. Either the ink had blurred or his eyes had teared.
Don’t act like you’re surprised. I told you I’d leave you if things didn’t change. When I married you nine years ago, you were living in a trailer, working at Waterbed World. You swore it was a transition phase – that your luck was changing – that you had Big Plans and wanted me to join you on your journey to prosperity.
Do me a favor, Duke. Put your booze down and look around the room. Breaking News: You’re still in a trailer. Breaking New News: You’re still a salesman that can’t sell.
I’m going to my sister’s. We’re seeing her divorce attorney tomorrow. I’m not vindictive, Duke – although, you have cheated me out of nine good years – but I do want what’s mine. I want 50% of our crap, and 0% of you. That’s it.
PS You’ll soon discover that I haven’t paid bills for the last three months. I’ve cleaned out our paltry savings and have maxed out your credit cards. Attorneys aren’t cheap.
Your Future X,
Duke chugged the rum. As he refilled the cup, he regarded the art. “Princess Leia,” he slurred. “What’s up with you ladies? We treat you like galactic princesses and this is what we get? A humiliating kick in the crotch.”
As if in response, the lights blinked out. He turned the faucet knob. No water.
“Utilities,” he groaned, and staggered to his empty bedroom, where a cooling waterbed awaited.
“I need tomorrow off,” Duke told his boss.
Crazy Carl Carney, as he dubbed himself in late-night waterbed commercials, did not look up from his stack of accounts receivable.
Duke dialed up his volume. “Mr. Carney, Jenny left me last week. They shut off my utilities. I’ve got bill collectors howling at my door and”–
Carl looked up. “And you want time off? I think what you mean to say is, ‘may I have overtime, please?’”
Duke belched a cloud of alcohol. “No. I mean, yes. But not in this case. It’s complicated . . . but the thing is, my ten-year high school reunion is tomorrow and”–
“Wait,” Carl summarized, “let me see if my crazy brain is gunkulating this equation correctly. You’re flat broke. You can’t sell lemonade in Hades. Your long-suffering wife has dumped you . . . but you think the answer to your problems is to ditch work and celebrate a decade of irrelevance with your old chums from Grover Cleveland High School, home of the Fighting Cocks?”
“Yes,” Duke stated unabashedly. “That is correct.”
Carl tugged at the tuffs of his hair, as he did in his zany commercials. “Go,” he grumbled, his face tortured and teeth grinding. “Just . . . freaking . . . go.”
Grover Cleveland High School was in Rose County, 18 miles from Thorn County, where Duke currently resided. He pulled on his best jeans, combed his thinning hair, gassed up his 12-year old Toyota Corolla, and headed out.
From the Twenty he handed the cashier, he received .83 cents change. He tossed it in the console, aware that it was all the money he had to his name. He tried the A/C. It coughed, farted, and died. He tried the automatic window. The motor whined and the glass dropped into the channel. He tried the radio. Static, static, static . . . then a song. Out blared a wonderful, beautiful, totally appropriate tune: it was Free Fallin’, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Duke jutted his head into the wind stream and screeched the chorus. He’d never been lower, never been higher, never fallen so far, never felt so free. “Now I’m freeeee . . . free fallin’.”
A half-hour later, he pulled into the same school parking lot slot he’d used during his senior year at Grover Cleveland High ten years prior. He popped a peppermint into his mouth and blasted himself with a fog of Axe Body Spray he kept in his glovebox. In the reaches of his mind, he hoped against hope that he’d see Jenny. After all, it was here that they met all those years ago. He, the star quarterback; she, the head cheerleader. It was here that they talked of college, careers, and their bright futures.
“Duke,” someone shouted. “That you?”
Duke turned to see a handsome man emerging from the gullwing door of a Ferrari. “Phil,” he replied, “Phillip Huxley . . . is that you?”
“Me, all right,” the man said, brushing a wrinkle out of his Armani suit. “I was hoping you’d be here. Where’s Jenny?”
Duke hung his head. “Long story, Phil. I’ve had a good run of bad luck.”
Phil clapped him on the shoulder. “Still driving that old beater?”
“Yeah,” Duke confessed. “Still working at Waterbed World in Thorn County. I just haven’t gotten a break. I don’t know why I even came to this stupid event. I’m such a loser. If only I hadn’t busted my knee in that game against Melville; maybe I’d have gotten a scholarship . . . maybe even played pro ball.”
Phil flashed a smile. “Those were the days, my friend. You were the golden boy and I was the hippie stoner.”
“Golden boy,” Duke moaned. “More like fool’s gold. I pissed it all away. But that’s enough about me. Look at you, Phil. You look great. And that car – that suit – Christ, did you rob a bank?”
Phil laughed. “No, even better. I took my passion for drugs and channeled it into the third largest pharmaceutical company in the nation. Huxley Pharmaceuticals.”
“That’s you?” Duke exclaimed. “You’re the Huxley in Huxley Pharmaceuticals?”
Phil nodded. “Guilty.”
“Oh, man, doesn’t your company make those boner pills?”
Phil nodded again. He then intoned the spokesman of his famous TV commercial. “If your erection lasts for four hours, call your physician.”
“Yeah,” Phil said, as the two pals quoted the commercial’s tag line. “If it lasts for five hours, call your girlfriend’s girlfriends.”
They laughed and play-punched one another. Time dilated. They were kids again. Duke wished he could stay in the parking lot, relive glory days, and not face the silent scorn of his schoolmates. But maybe Jenny was here, his subconscious whispered. Just maybe.
“Let’s do this,” Phil said, motioning at the decorated gym doors.
With a noticeable limp, Duke followed.
Hours later, as the band packed up and drunken stragglers sang the Fighting Cocks song, Duke realized that Jenny was not going to show. Unnoticed, he exited the gym through a side door. Aimless, he followed his feet down a familiar path toward the football field. There were no stadium lights, only moonlight. No star athletes, only stars. Smelling the grass, he heard the echoes of marching bands, fans, and the corny cheers of peppy girls.
Channeling his best days, Duke limped to the fifty-yard line. He dropped back, cocked his arm, and unleashed a perfect spiral into the end-zone. In his memory, Bobby “Sticky Fingers” Tolbert caught the game-winning pass. As Duke jumped and celebrated, his trick knee buckled. Humbled by his limitations, Duke limped to the bleachers and sat down.
As he rubbed his knee, he heard a girlish giggle. Seeing no one, he called out: “Helloooo.”
Under the bleachers, a girl squealed. A manly, bawdy laugh followed. Duke recognized Phil Huxley’s voice.
“Phil, that you under there?”
“It is,” Phil called. “Me and a friend. Do me a solid and close your eyes while she finds her knickers.”
Duke peeked through his fingers and saw Felicia Grantham frantically dressing as Phil laughed and buckled his belt. Duke thought she’d married Bobby Tolbert but was suddenly unsure.
As Felicia sprinted out of the stadium carrying her shoes, Phil called out: “Say hi to Bobby for me.”
Still laughing, Phil joined Duke on the bleacher. “You’re a dirty dog, Phil Huxley. That’s Bobby’s wife. He caught my two-point conversion pass to win State.”
“I know,” Phil said. “I was there, on the bench, remember? Never got in the game. Besides, he dropped the ball with Felicia. She said she hasn’t been laid in three years.”
Duke socked Phil in the shoulder. “Maybe you should’ve given him some of your boner pills.”
In harmony, the two quoted the commercial. “If it lasts for five hours, call your girlfriend’s girlfriends.”
As they laughed, Phil took a silver flask from his pocket and shared it. Duke swigged and said, “Damn, that’s smooth.”
“Better be,” Phil said. “It’s Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. 1,900 bucks a bottle.”
“1,900 bucks,” Duke gasped. “I’ve got .83 cents to my name, and you’re dropping two grand on booze. Life has been good to you, Phil Huxley. Very, very good.”
They drank to old girlfriends, to old teachers, to the Fighting Cocks. They drank to the days before Ferraris and divorce attorneys.
Duke beheld the hallowed green grounds and drank silently to his glory days and the inglorious years that ensued. He said, “I peaked, Phil. Right there, on that field, at 17.”
“Naw,” Phil said.
“Yep,” Duke insisted, seeing it all. “I should’ve slid. Those guys were too big.”
“But you scored,” Phil said.
Duke rubbed his scarred knee. “Yeah, they can take away my credit, my car, and my mobile home, but they can’t take that touchdown away from me.”
At 3am, Phil’s phone rang. He smiled slyly and told the caller, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Who’s that?” Duke asked.
“Felicia,” he said. “She wants round two.” He reached into his suitcoat and pulled out a sleek, stainless steel pill box. He lifted the lid and fingered through an assortment of multi-colored tablets. “Not you, not you, not you . . . You!” he chuckled, pinching the pill.
“Still diggin’ the drugs,” Duke noted.
Phil tossed it back and chased it with bourbon. “Yes, indeedy. This is my personal stash. Not approved for public consumption. That pill will sober me up before I reach the car.” He popped another one. “That one will give me a boner that can cut diamonds.”
“What’s that one?” Duke asked, pointing to a black pill with a red hourglass symbol on it.
Phil smiled foolishly. “You’ve got good taste, my friend. That’s an experimental pill called Yesterday.”
“Yesterday,” Duke puzzled. “A pill called Yesterday? What’s it do?”
Phil held it up to the moonlight. “My chemists tell me that it affects the hippocampus – the place in your brain where memory is stored. Additionally, it activates the pineal gland – the place where the soul is said to reside. Combined, the active ingredients unlock neural, numinous pathways – allowing the user to travel . . . back . . . back in time. Hence the name.”
“Yesterday,” Duke laughed, shaking his head.
Phil pressed it into Duke’s palm. “All yours, pal. Just think about a day, any day . . . any yesterday, when your troubles seemed so far away.”
“Wait. What?” Duke said. “This can’t be true. Time travel. Backward. You’re pulling my leg, Phil.”
The words bounced off Phil’s back. “Got a date,” he crooned. “Can’t be late.”
“Wait!” Duke shouted. “You’re kidding, right? Phil . . . ?”
Three minutes later, Duke heard the rev of the Ferrari’s engine and the peeling of rubber.
Duke was drunk and depressed. “What if it kills me?” he asked the night. He stared at the slick, black tablet. He fixated on the red hourglass. It looked like markings of a Black Widow Spider.
He thought about his bum knee, his dumb job, his run-away wife, his busted A/C, and the .83 cents in his old Corolla’s console.
“What do I have to lose?” he said, and swallowed the dope called Yesterday.
Duke woke up in full pads and helmet. It was game day. Banks of lights flooded the football field. From the bleachers, crazed fans waved rally towels and crowed with the team mascot, the Fighting Cock.
Duke looked down the bench. There was Jim, Cal, Justin . . . all the guys. And there was Bobby Tolbert, his wide receiver, applying stick-um to his palms and fingertips. Coach Gleason was yelling at the defense to hold the line. At the end of the bench was Phil Huxley. He’s just a kid, Duke observed, staring at the long-haired boy in the shamefully clean uniform.
Duke dashed to the aluminum water cooler. He examined his reflection. He, too, was 17. He, too, was just a kid.
Yesterday, he thought, it works. His trance was shattered when Coach Gleason shouted, “Get in there, Duke. There’s two minutes on the clock. We’re down by seven. We need a touchdown and a two-point conversion to win State Championship. You got four downs and one timeout. Go, go, gooooo!”
Duke bolted onto the field. His knee did not ache, hitch, or lock. He felt invincible. The Cocks’ defense had held the Melville Whales to three downs and a punt. The ball was on the fifty-yard line, the same place he’d stood hours ago, ten years from now.
He glanced to the sideline where short-skirted girls shook pom-poms and cheered spirited lyrics. He saw Jenny. Her blond hair was long, not cropped. Her breasts were small, not augmented. Her voice was sweet and musical, not bitter and critical. He waved and she waved back. Three girls gathered around her and squealed jealously.
The ref blew the whistle. Duke struggled to recall the plays – plays he had known by heart at 17.
“Hut, forty-seven, sixty-nine, John 3:16, Omahaaaaa . . . hut,” he barked. The center snapped the ball. Duke dropped back, cocked his arm, scanned his options, and flung a duck to his go-to guy, Bobby “Sticky Fingers” Tolbert. The wobbly ball sailed over Bobby’s head, abjectly uncatchable.
The Fighting Cocks huddled up. Duke studied their hopeful, baby faces. They’d follow me into Hell with water pistols, he thought. He wanted to tell Justin to avoid beaches. He’d drown in a riptide in four years. He wanted to tell Jim to stay out of seedy bars. He’d be knifed in five. He wanted to tell Bobby to fuck his wife, that opportunistic bastards like Phil Huxley would gladly fill the void. But time was short, so he told them to go deep.
Duke set up in the shotgun. “Hut, hut, Jabba the Hut!”
The center snapped. Duke scrambled out of the pocket. It was a blitz. As the defense sacked him, he ducked and tucked and clutched the ball, falling into a fetal position. Six brawny boys pig-piled him, grinding elbows into his groin before the refs hauled them off. He rose slowly, his body and ego equally bruised.
He called a huddle. “Listen,” he said, “we’ve got one minute to win it, guys. Grover Cleveland High will never have another shot at a State Championship. Never! The Fighting Cocks will go 3 and 9 next season; 0 for 12 for the following three seasons. After that, the football program gets defunded and the Fighting Cocks will become an intermural lacrosse team.”
“Lacrosse,” the center growled, spitting out a tooth.
“Wait,” Bobby Tolbert asked, “what makes you think you can tell the future?”
“Trust me,” Duke pleaded. And to his surprise, they did.
Duke looked into the eyes of each child, conveying hard-earned wisdom. “The Whales are expecting a pass. I’m going to fake to Bobby. But I’m going to run it to the right side. I’m going to need you guys to block like hell. On three. Break.”
The Fighting Cocks assembled on the line of scrimmage. On three, the receivers raced to the end-zone. The offensive line protected Duke long enough for him to pump-fake a pass to Bobby. When the defense shifted left, the right side opened up. Duke tucked the ball and ran for his life.
Jim, Cal, and Justin hustled ahead of Duke, hurling their bodies into the oncoming linebackers. As Duke sprinted, he could hear Jenny’s voice, an octave above the din, screaming his name in adolescent ecstasy.
It was deja vu all over again. Duke knew that number 44 was going to launch himself, headlong, at his chest. Duke balked, and 44 flew by. He knew 52 was shooting low for an ankle tackle. Duke hurdled the kid and kept galloping down the gridiron. He caught a whiff of Jenny’s perfume. He tasted his own sweat, dripping from his wispy mustache. He heard the beat of his heart and his cleats and the marching band drums.
All the while, the game-clock ticked down: 00.10, 00.09, 00.08.
Sprinting, Duke chewed up tens of yards: 40, 30, 20, 10. The Whales that had goose-chased the receivers, abandoned their assignments and charged the wily quarterback. Duke recalled the wall of bristling man-boys he’d met on this very field a decade ago. He recalled crashing into the mob, head down, hell-bent on scoring. He recalled the agony of his knee smashing into the lowered helmet of a Samoan kid that would go on to play Division 1 College ball.
Duke did not repeat his past. He slid. His brain did not make the decision; it was his body. Every cell in his system recalled the surgeries and sutures and rehabs. To slide – to take a dive – was the most cowardly, but prudent, option.
When Duke burrowed out from under the heap of humanity, he saw that he was four yards short. How could this be? he wondered, plucking turf from his face-guard. I scored. I set up the two-point conversion to win the game – this game – ten years ago. I blew out my knee doing it, but by-god I won this damned thing. It’s all I’ve got. My one and only accomplishment.
Whistles bleated and refs waved their hands. A man was down. Duke wiped sweat from his eyes and saw Bobby Tolbert writhing, his shoulder obviously separated. This can’t be, he thought. Bobby’s supposed to catch the two-point conversion pass. The future is the future. The past can’t be changed . . . can it?
“Penny for your thoughts,” Phil Huxley chirped.
“What?” Duke turned.
Phil pulled on his helmet. “Coach put me in for Bobby. What’s the play?”
“Yeah, me,” Phil laughed. “Grady’s ankle is wrecked. Paul doesn’t know where he is. So, yeah, I’m your wide receiver.”
Duke plumbed his memory. None of this had happened before. He had no script, no playbook for the next eight seconds. “I don’t know,” he blurted. “I don’t fucking know.”
Phil lifted his helmet and winked. “I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Phil added, “I’ve got this. The cornerback thinks I’m cutting across the middle. I’ll sell it, then flash to the sideline. Relax, Duke. You’re not the only one that believes in Yesterday.”
The whistle blew and the play-clock started. Duke didn’t have time to ponder the quandary. He got under center and barked, “Hut, hut, 1, 2, 3, Pizza Hut!” The center snapped the ball and Duke dropped into the pocket. Big boys with bad intentions clamored to catch him, to kill him, and worse. He gazed up the middle, helping Phil sell the ruse. Then, blindly, he side-armed the ball across his body, aiming for the end-zone cone.
As the game-clock buzzer sounded, Duke had a premonition of the ball sailing sadly through the air, far from the fingers of legal receivers, to include the fourth-string bench-warming druggy, Phil Huxley.
Phil turned on a dime, his long hair whipping like a horsetail. He sold the route and double-backed, flying to the sideline. He leapt, stretching out, his body longer than its length. With one hand, he gripped the pigskin, squeezed it, and pressed it to his heart. Simultaneously, he dropped his toes and plowed two ragged rows inside the end-zone.
The ref’s hands flew up. “Touchdown!”
The Fighting Cocks, both fans and players, celebrated with the abandon of the clinically mad. Jenny broke from the ranks of her squad and rushed onto the field. Duke held out his arms, prepared to intercept her supple, sweaty body, but she ran past him. It was Phil Huxley that she tackled, Phil that she kissed.
Coach Gleason called the final timeout. “Settle down,” he shouted, “it ain’t over. We’re not settling for a tie. Duke’s going to fake a pass to Phil in the flat, then run it up the middle. This is it, men. Our last, best chance. If we don’t get this two-point conversion, the Fighting Cocks are fucked!”
After the huddle broke, Duke pulled Phil aside and whispered. “You’ve been here before . . . do you know the outcome?”
“Outcomes,” Phil corrected. “The past is as fickle as Jenny.”
Duke shook his head, unsure of place and time. “Will this work?” he asked. “Will I score? And if I do, then what?”
Phil stretched out his hand as if to shake. Duke accepted the gesture. Phil pulled him so close that no one, not even God, could hear his words. “You’ll score. We’ll win. But the Samoan will smash your knee like a Faberge egg.”
Phil released his grip and grinned. As he ran to his position on the wing, he called over his shoulder: “The future is in your hand, Duke. Who knows what Tomorrow will bring?”
Duke looked up into the stadium lights and his head swam. He looked down, into his hand. In his palm, was a single pill. It was red, stamped with a black hourglass symbol – the opposite color scheme of the pill that had propelled him into yesterday.
It’s called Tomorrow, he knew without knowing. And he ate it.
The whistle blew and the crowd crowed and the night sky swirled like Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
“Hut,” Duke shouted. “Hut the damn ball!” When the center complied, Duke took a knee five yards short of the end-zone. As the Melville Whales fell upon him, he blacked out.
Duke pulled his Maserati into the same school parking lot slot he’d used during his senior year at Grover Cleveland High ten years prior. He popped a peppermint into his mouth and spritzed himself with a French fragrance, a high-end cologne he kept in his glovebox. In the reaches of his mind, he hoped against hope that he’d see Jenny.
“Duke,” someone shouted. “That you?”
Duke turned to see a handsome man emerging from the gullwing door of a Ferrari. “Phil,” he replied, “Phillip Huxley . . . is that you?”
“Me, all right,” Phil said, brushing a wrinkle out of his Armani suit. “I was hoping you’d come to this reunion, Duke. I’m a big fan. Thanks to you, I won fifty grand on the Super Bowl. You were spectacular. Would it be uncool to ask for your autograph?”
Duke smiled and turned his head. The passenger in Phil’s Ferrari arose smokily, like a genie from a bottle. It was Jenny.
“Jenny,” Duke mouthed, peering over Phil’s shoulder.
“Yep,” Phil boasted, “she made an honest man of me. We got hitched in Vegas three years ago. Got a kid and everything.”
“Jenny,” Duke repeated, and extended his hand to the beauty.
She took it and held his gaze. “It’s been too long,” she said.
Duke bowed and kissed the back of her hand. “To me,” he sighed, “it seems like only yesterday.”
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