As I walked home after football practice later that week, I was feeling better than I had in a long time. I had deposited some money back into my savings account, and my parents had yet to notice the late statement, so I still had time to rebuild my balance. If I could just make it through the weekend and the next game with Gray and his friends, I would be golden. I ducked through the fence that ran around the playing fields and hit the path that led through the grove and straight to the street where I lived. As I walked, I whipped out my cell to call Winter, hoping that we could have another movie night. I was so distracted with dialing that I didn’t notice anyone else on the path until I was practically on top of them.
My heart seized at the sound of the gruff voice, and I stopped abruptly. Standing right in my path were Gray, Lenny, and Ogre, who looked gargantuan standing next to his friends. Instantly all the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. They formed a daunting trio, and they did not look happy.
They know, I realized. And suddenly I wished I had taken up my friends from the offensive line when they had asked if I wanted to join them for pizza. Or that, at the very least, a couple of those guys were here flanking me right now. They acted as great buttresses during games, and at the moment, I knew I could use a couple of bodyguards.
“What’s up, guys?” I asked casually, playing it off as if we met this way every day.
“You tell us,” Ogre said, stepping forward. “You tell us how the great Mike Riley could turn out to be such a rat.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, starting to sweat.
“Don’t try to play innocent, Riley,” Gray said. “We know you cheated.”
Oh God. I was dead. My life was actually flashing before my eyes, and it wasn’t pretty. I glanced around, wondering if there was any way I could flee, but it was no use. There was no way I could navigate all the rocks and trees and fallen branches and get away. One of these guys would surely catch up with me.
“That’s a serious allegation,” I said, grasping at straws—stalling for time. How had they found out? How?
Gray pulled something out of his back pocket and everything inside of me sunk. He had two blue playing cards in his hand. Where had they come from? How could I have been so careless?
“You’re pretty good. They’re exact duplicates,” Gray said. “Just like the deck we always use.”
“Here’s a tip,” Lenny said, stepping up next to me. He was so close I could smell onions on his breath. “If you’re going to try to cheat someone out of their money, don’t leave such incriminating evidence behind.”
He grabbed the cards out of Gray’s hand and flung them at my feet. My heart pounded in every inch of my body. Trying to explain anything to them was futile, I knew. With evidence like that, there was no way I could exculpate myself. All I could do was throw myself at their mercy and hope they would be benevolent.
“Listen, guys. I’m really sorry—”
My sentence was cut short as I was suddenly, violently, shoved back against a thick oak tree. My head slammed into the rough bark and I saw stars. For a good few seconds I couldn’t breathe. They were going to kill me. They had come here to kill me.
“I knew we shouldn’t’ve let this asswipe get up from the table,” Lenny said as he held my shoulder back so far I screamed out in pain. “Why do you guys always gotta challenge me?”
“I don’t know what pisses me off more. The fact that you cheated, or the fact that you used my little sister to do it,” Gray said, squaring off in front of me.
“It’s . . . it’s not like that,” I said quickly.
“Oh, no? Then what’s it like?” Ogre demanded, twisting my arm back. I cried out in pain and bit my lip. So much for an amicable solution to this mess.
“Here’s the deal, superstar,” Gray said. He picked up a thick branch from the ground and brandished it. “You pay us back every dime, and we won’t kill you.”
I choked, finally sucking in wind, and tried to double over, but Ogre and Lenny held me fast. For all the strength in my well-conditioned body, I couldn’t move a muscle.
“I . . . I can’t,” I said, barely coherent. “I don’t . . . have . . . the money.”
Lenny pulled back one hand and slammed his fist right into my gut. I wheezed for air and clouds formed over my eyes. This was worse than any hit I had ever taken in a game. I thought I was going to pass out, but finally the pain ebbed, and I was able to breathe again. Even as I fought for air, my brain tried to figure some way—any way—out of this mess. Could I divert their attention somehow and make a run for it? Hardly seemed likely, considering I could barely breathe. What could I say that would be in any way conciliatory? How could I get them to back off?
“How could you not have it?” Gray asked, stepping forward.
“I . . . I paid some people back,” I told him, my eyes pleading for mercy. “I wouldn’t have even cheated except that I was already in debt,” I added, hoping to convey my desperation, hoping they would take pity on me. “I just don’t have it, Gray. I’m sorry.”
I felt like I was about to cry, but I knew that was the last thing I could do in front of these guys. That kind of degradation would only make them want to hurt me more.
Gray looked at his friends as if for guidance and I felt a surge of hope. Maybe he believed me. Maybe he was backing down!
“Well, then you’d better figure out a way to get it back,” he said finally, embittered. “We’re not just gonna let this slide, Riley. And I’m assuming that you’re gonna want to keep your all-star legs intact. A shattered shin, for example, wouldn’t do much for your prospects.”
He pulled back as if to slam me with the branch, and I screamed. “No! No! No! Wait! I have an idea!”
Gray stopped, and a couple of tears squeezed out. Lenny clucked his tongue in clear disgust.
“I have an idea,” I repeated. And, in fact, I did. It was amazing how intense fear inspired creativity.
“I’m listening,” Gray said, leaning on the branch now as if it were just a benign walking stick.
“What if I . . . what if I throw the game this weekend?” I asked.
That got their attention. “The big rivalry game?” Ogre asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, desperate. “You guys bet on the game, and I’ll take a dive. Then you can win back your money and then some. It’ll be a sure thing.”
“You’d do that?” Lenny asked, amazed. “You’d lay down to Dorchester?”
I swallowed hard. This was the biggest game of my life. A source of major pride for me, the team, and the school. Throwing the game would mean letting all those people down. Plus, Coach had told me that scouts from a few major football powerhouses were coming that weekend to check me out. Including, quite possibly, Penn State—although it hadn’t been confirmed. Taking a dive could keep me from attaining all the things I had worked so hard for my entire life, but then, what would any of that matter if I were paralyzed, maimed, or dead?
“To keep you guys from killing me, yeah,” I said.
Ogre and Lenny released me, and my quaking knees somehow supported me. I was still scared out of my mind. There was a good chance I wasn’t going to feel safe again until I got home and locked the door behind me. Maybe not even then.
“We’re in,” Gray said, looking down his nose at me. Ogre and Lenny gathered in close, breathing down my neck. “Now don’t let us down.”
Seemingly innocuous words, but they may as well have been a death threat.
“I won’t,” I promised them, my voice trembling. “I swear to you, I won’t.”