Game, Set, Match

The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Whispers of an Apparition: Literary Reading of Paranormal Fiction.  Please enjoy.

 

You might find it difficult to believe that I used to like my job.  When I collected an evil soul and deposited it in Hell, I knew that I had made the earth safer.  When I collected a good soul at its proper time and freed it into Heaven, I knew that I had rewarded that soul.  I felt as if I had made a difference.

Now I feel like I’m just another rung in the hierarchy of middle management, as if I’m some minute cog in the universal order, as I’m just some glorified mailman.  That is why I enjoy my free time so much.  I get to escape my troubles and forget — at least for a little while.

Racquetball keeps me sane so I try to sneak in a game whenever I can.   I detach my mind and let my instincts play the game. Not many people play these days. It seems like it was an ‘80s thing.  It is the one bad part of being immortal.  Your hobbies go out of style.

My matching black cotton T-shirt and shorts feel cool against my body.  Martha, my wife, hates them, not for the style but for their emblem.  In the center, right above my heart, a large skull smiles over crossed bones.  Martha thinks it’s pretentious.  I think it’s intimidating, and intimidating your opponent is essential to winning.  Winning is everything.

The racquet’s grip reassures me.  It connects me with my tool — my weapon.  In one fluid motion like the swing of a scythe, I can cut my opponent down.

In the next locker, my opponent changes.  He would die, without any help from me, if he knew that he was going to play a game with Death. People do not want to meet me, even if over a friendly game of racquetball. The only thing at stake is according to the club rules for non-tournament games is that the loser buys a round of drinks at the bar.

My opponent is 6-foot-3, about two inches taller than me. Size does not matter.  Skill is the only element needed to win, and I am skillful. I will win and reign supreme.

We stretch for a few minutes before the game.  We do not say a word to each other or wish each other good luck as we both want to win.  Our pants from our warm-up jumping jacks echo off the blinding white walls. Many of the other courts’ walls have black rubber scars from where the balls hit them.  Ours are virginal.

It’s time to begin.  I win the coin toss and opt to serve.  At the line I wait.  The game starts at noon. Only a minute left.  My opponent, in a ready stance, balances on the balls of his feet with racquet in hand and waits.

It’s noon.  Slowly, I squeeze the ball and bounce it twice.  I listen for the dull thud it makes against the court’s floor.  It is a ritual that I repeat before each serve to get a feel for the ball.

I serve the ball, not hard, but light so that it can be easily returned.  I hear a faint harpsichordalsound as the ball leaves my aluminum racquet and its graphite strings.  Quickly, I enter my ready stance and wait for the return.  I hear twang, that sound more like a banjo from my opponent’s racquet.  He has returned the ball.

In the first few volleys, we analyze each other’s form, like generals in the first scrimmages of a war.  We look for weak points and try to exploit them.

Let’s see how he can handle a little spin on the ball.  YEAH!  I score the first point of the game.  It’s a good omen.

I serve again.  This time with a little more speed on the ball.  He returns it, but he runs into the left wall, leaving a long scratch with his racquet.  I hit it again a little bit harder to the opposite end of the court.  He runs, swings, and misses the ball.  Another point for me!  He is a whimp.

This will be a quick game.  I might be able to get a quick bite before my next client — an accountant from Toledo.  Next I try a corner shot.  Yes!!  He misses it again!  Third point for me. I love it. I’ve got him. He is dead.

I take the next serve nice and easy, just a straight shot down the middle.  He returns it.  I got this, no sweat.  Shit!  He put a spin on the ball, and it bounces straight to the floor.  I lose the serve.  The bastard was playing possum with me.  Lawyers have more tricks than the devil himself.

He serves.  He hits it low and fast, faster than I thought he could. I miss it.  He has a point. He will not get anymore.

I am ready for him.  The next serve will be to the far right corner.  I know it; I know his type.  He will try to tire me out by running me along the court.  He serves.  He must have hit the ball light, for it barely makes it across the line.  I have to run, dive, and hit the ball higher than I want.  The ball bounces off the far wall and makes a long black smear on it.  He returns the ball before I can get up.

“Nice serve,” I say.  He is better than I thought.  The score is three to two.  I am still a point ahead.

* * *

This guy is an animal.  This is the closest game I have ever played in my life, twenty to twenty.  But he will not win.  It is my serve, and I have a trick up my sleeve that I have been saving.  This serve will separate the men from the boys.  It’s a corner shot — low, fast, and englished.  The ball should stay about three inches above the floor, and if he is able to return it, the ball will drop to the court.

I serve.  It’s perfect and dead on target.  Nothing can go wrong.  No one has ever returned this short.  Fuck!  He hit it.  He played it off the wall, adding to its speed, its spin.  There is no way that I can get the ball.  I’ll have to dive for it and pray for the best.

I hit the wall with an explosion of pain and blood.  I’ve broken my nose.  I lose the point and a few pints of blood.  The crimson liquid smears over the court’s white wall and my smirking emblem.  The skull now wears a bloody crown.  With a tissue from my back pocket, I try to stop the bleeding.

He serves for the game point.   A few have tried to stop me, some have tried to hide from me, but I ultimately win all bouts.

I hit the ball hard, harder than I‘ve hit anything before.  The ball rebounds off the wall, leaving an oval dent.  It hits my opponent with a crunch in his solar plexus. He falls like a rag doll thrown to the floor.  Silently, I kneel over him.  I reach into the center of his chest and retrieve an orb.

By the holy light of his soul, I can see all the marks and scars left on the court’s walls from our game.  I close my hand around the soul and feel the warmth and love of a good soul.  I deposit it in a bag that hangs like dog tags around my neck.  It is my spirit bag where I keep all my souls until I can deliver them.  I dress quickly and leave.  I have won the game, but at what cost.

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