KING OF FIGHTERS by Dante Vassallo (excerpt from his cross-genre novel-in-progress of the same name)
Jerry and I were playing this game that I made up with a racket ball and a paint stirrer. You might think we had fallen on hard times if you saw us and thought that was all we had to play with, but that wasn’t it at all. We just loved making up games with whatever random shit we had on hand at any given moment. That was just what we did sometimes, and Paint Stick Ball Challenge happened to be the game of the day.
When it was your turn, you had to bounce the ball as hard as you could in the middle of the street, and then when it came down you had to keep the ball bouncing on the street using only the paint stirrer. You got one point every time you hit the ball, and it could only bounce twice before you hit it again. If it bounced three times, or you couldn’t keep it in the street, your turn was done, and the next kid got to try to beat your score. A four was considered a really good score, hence the name, Paint Stick Ball Challenge.
Anyway, I was up and I was killing it. I was up to like, two, and then Jerry yells something about a boy hiding in the bushes in the Braun’s yard and I lost my concentration and my shot at a new world record. I looked where Jerry was pointing, and sure enough, there was a boy crawling around behind the bushes.
“I think I know that kid. His name is Greg,” Jerry said.
I yelled out to him, and that’s when the car pulled onto Candlewood. It was one of those big, giant four door boats with lots of right angles that you used to see everywhere in the 80’s. Naturally, it was grey. It was moving really slowly, and stopping at odd times. It was suspicious looking as hell, and eventually the driver noticed us and drove up to where we were standing.
This sweet looking lady gets out and asks us if we saw her son, Greg. She had clearly been crying, and she looked frantic as she told us how he ran away from home again and she can’t find him.
“We know where he is!” Jerry yells out, but when we look to the Braun’s yard he is nowhere to be found.
“Please help me find him. He thinks it’s a funny game, but I’m so worried that something will happen to him,” she pleaded. That was enough for us. We assured the woman we would track him down. Not to worry, he was in our territory, and we knew everywhere he could possibly go. We agreed to split up and see who could bring this runner to justice first, and it was awesome. We tore through the woods, and ran around everyone’s house while the lady cruised up and down the street in her carboat.
Jerry won. He took the trail entrance down by Kenny’s house and spotted him hiding in the woods a few feet off of the trail. I heard him talking to the boy when I came down the trail from the other direction. I stepped off the path and entered the woods, making a wide arc that put me directly behind him. I kept creeping closer while Jerry tried to talk him out. At least that’s what I thought he was doing, but in reality they were talking about this cartoon called Starblazers. No matter. Greg was distracted enough for me to get a hand on the back of his shirt and pull him to his feet.
I walked him out to his mom, who smothered him with hugs and kisses and thanked us and Jerry told them both he’d be over tomorrow if he was allowed and they said great. It turns out, Greg lived on Foxwood Lane and Jerry began playing at his house all of the time after that. Sometimes I went with him.
One Saturday I was hanging with Brady playing this game that he made up called, Madaforce. I didn’t get that name then, and I don’t fucking get it now. That was just some shit he made up. This game was weird and fun at the same time. It was weird, because we would borrow bikes from these girls who lived on our block. They were small, girl bikes, but Brady insisted that they made it more fun so I went along with it. The girls thought it was crazy when we knocked on their door and asked if we could use their bikes, but they were nice and let us and we always returned them and they would come to us if they ever got a flat tire or their chain popped off.
In Madaforce, we were soldiers in the future that rode these motorcycles that could fly if you needed them to and shoot missiles and drop spikes behind us when the bad guys gave chase. The idea was, when you were in the street, where the riding was smooth, you were in flying mode. When you wanted to land and ride on the planet’s surface, you rode up on people’s front lawns where there were bumps and trees and stuff to avoid. It was pretty fun, but not my favorite thing to do because I didn’t get why we needed the little girl bikes, which Brady insisted upon and explained by saying that if we use our own bikes it just wouldn’t be the same.
We played for awhile, and then we saw these kids coming down our street on a bike. Two kids. One bike. Ryan and Dion. Bad news, these two. It was Ryan’s bike, so he did the pedaling while Dion rode on the handlebars. Bikes have pegs now, but in 1983, you rode on the handlebars or you walked, plain and simple. They glared at me as they rode by, and gave a nod to Brady as they headed toward the beach.
“Crap! We gotta go!” Brady said suddenly.
“Go where?” I asked.
“Just leave the bike at my house and follow me,” he said.
I questioned him on the matter of leaving the bikes behind if we were in such a hurry and he just told me to trust him and hurry up. We raced down through the woods trail to the beach where we saw a handful of other kids all hurrying across the sand along the back edge of the beach. At the far side, you came to a little wooded trail that led to a basketball court that was surrounded by more dense woods.
When we arrived at the court, I saw the largest gathering of older kids I’d ever seen. They formed a huge circle on the basketball court, and in the center of their makeshift ring stood two huge teenagers. They were clearly about to square off, and we made it just in time to see it start.
One kid looked a little scared. He was big, but not muscular. He had orange hair and light freckles, and he was dressed in high tops, grey sweat pants, and a plain white t shirt. I immediately picked him as the loser. Aside from being really large, he didn’t look tough at all.
The other kid looked like he just walked off the movie set of The Outsiders, although it would be a few more years before I would see that movie, which I will no doubt be referencing again. This kid was just as big as the other kid, but he was muscular. He had black hair that he wore slicked back, boots, jeans, and a black Members Only jacket that he took off to reveal a black t shirt with rolled up sleeves. He looked tough as hell. I immediately declared him the winner and fucking awesome as well. Plus, he was smiling and taunting the other kid to the delight of the majority of those assembled, so it was pretty clear who the favorite was here.
They started cautiously, though the retro kid continued to taunt the other one as he circled him and looked for openings to land jabs at range. The majority of the crowd taunted the other kid, as well, and before long I learned his name was Joe. I learned that when somebody yelled, “Quit being such a pussy, Joe!” I did not know what a pussy was, but I imagined it was something bad. I never caught the name of the retro kid, so let’s just call him Johnny.
He continued to look for a way in, but Joe kept his hands up, and circled to his right. Johnny had given up on the jabs, and he was just trying to land a big right handed haymaker. Every time he loaded it up, Joe stepped right, away from the power hand and Johnny hit nothing but air or the occasional shoulder. The crowd was getting pissed at Joe’s inactivity, and they started calling him a pussy again and other things I hadn’t heard before that day.
Finally, one kid from the circle shoved Joe from behind and he stumbled forward a little, but just enough
for Johnny to land a half decent shot to the left eye. He fired off another one right after that, but Joe got his hands up as he backed out and Johnny connected with his arms only. The crowd went wild over this, and I started to feel bad for Joe and began pulling for him in silence.
Suddenly, perhaps encouraged by the crowd or the fact that Joe seemed too scared to really do anything, Johnny put his hands down and stuck his face out at Joe daring him to hit him. Joe did not. He continued to circle to his right, and when Johnny stepped left with his hands still down and his chin still out, Joe clocked him. The sound was like somebody hitting a watermelon with a baseball bat. Johnny’s knees went all goofy and he fell into the arms of his fan club who thought they were helping by keeping him from falling but really just propped him up for Joe who stepped forward to smash him in the face again.
He didn’t get to. Somebody screamed out, “Cops!” and everybody looked in the direction the kid was pointing. There on the bridge, three police officers were looking and pointing in our direction. It was chaos after that. Everyone scrambled in different directions. I was frozen in place. I looked around for Brady, but I couldn’t see him through the crowd. I decided to just run the way the largest group of kids ran, which was away from the cops. I made it maybe five steps before a felt a hand nail me between the shoulders and drop me flat on my face. Before I could react, somebody stepped on my hand as they ran past, crushing my fingers. I pulled them under me for a second before I covered my head with both hands as the stampede ran over me.
I felt like I was down there forever before I was yanked to my feet by the back of my Pac Man t shirt. In reality it was maybe fifteen seconds, if that. Brady was dragging me along with him, assessing me for serious damage as he did, when he pointed and said, “See? That’s why you don’t bring bikes.” I looked where he pointed and saw a mass of kids trying to pull their bikes apart from others whose pedals had gotten stuck in their spokes. Only the kids with mag wheels made quick getaways, but even they had trouble pedaling through the sandy parts. I saw one kid just abandon his bike and run. I learned later, that it was probably a stolen bike, and it was better to ditch it and steal another one than get caught with it. I looked around for Ryan and Dion but didn’t see them.
I ran all over with Brady that day, until we eventually circled back and ended up right back on the basketball court. We walked up like we were just a couple of kids headed to the beach. Plus, we were way younger than all of the kids at that fight. Brady led me to a trail that led into woods at the far end of the court, and I was excited to discover there was a little stream that had a bridge crossing it that was made from fallen trees. I made myself a promise to come back here and explore under less stressful circumstances.
We crossed the bridge and pressed deeper into the woods, well off of any trails. We just pushed our way through and I soon realized that Brady had a particular destination in mind. As we got close, we heard voices and somebody called out, asking who we were.
“It’s Brady,” he answered.
“Shit, Brady. Get in here. We thought you were cops,” the voice behind the bushes said.
Brady ducked under some low branches and I followed him into this well concealed little clearing that he obviously knew was here. It was a sweet spot, too. Someone had arranged some logs in a circle as benches, and the little stream ran right near it so you could hear it babble along. As soon as I got in, I looked around and my heart stopped. I saw four teenagers sitting in a circle. Two boys and a very unattractive girl, who all didn’t matter a little bit, were sitting with the kid from the fight. Joe. The winner. What the fuck, Brady?
“Who’s this?” one of the unimportant kids asked. Oh shit.
“Oh he’s my friend. He’s cool,” Brady said.
“Ever been to a fight before?” the same kid asked. He seemed amused by my presence here, while the other kid was sucking on the ugly girl’s neck. I was seeing and hearing a lot of firsts today. I must have nodded or something because he let it go. “You see any cops on your way here?” he asked Brady.
“Nah. It’s pretty clear. Nice fight, Joe,” Brady said.
Dante Vassallo dreams in epic trilogies. Seriously. He also teaches fifth grade in Gloucester Township, NJ and has written articles on professional hockey for The Examiner and Double G Sports. And he is in the final stages of completing his cross-genre novel King of Fighters, which combines the author's own childhood memories with a mystery/thriller web of heartbreak and suspense.