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LAND OF CORN CHIPS
a novel for ages 8 +
BY ANGELA CARLIE
Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved
If Nate had to pick one parent over the other, he wouldn’t know what to do. Well, not normally. Before the break-up both his parents were equally important to him. But recently, his dad was an empty seat in his life, which made choosing a little easier. A complicated situation that spanned the entire football season starting with his dad’s first excuse: he’d been too busy at work to attend games. And then the second excuse: a new girlfriend who also happened to have a daughter hogging all his time.
His dad obviously favored them over his own kids. Come on, who misses their very own son’s football game? Nate’s dad, that’s who. But Nate didn’t have time to dwell on that. There was a game to play. A game to win.
Coach Brad slammed a fist onto his clipboard. “This is it boys. Your last chance to show these guys who they’re playing against! Are you ready?”
“Yes, coach!” the entire team yelled. The team huddled on the sidelines and cupped their hands together in the center. “1-2-3…Go Missiles!”
They ran onto the field and lined up for the final play of the season. This was their last opportunity to shine. Ahead by only one point at the ten yard line with fifteen seconds to go, it was up to the Missiles’ defense to stop the Eagles in their tracks and win the Dane County Youth Football Championship.
This was Nate’s third and final year on the Missiles’ Pee Wee team as lucky number thirteen. Next year he’d be twelve years old and moving up to the bigger kids’ league—the Junior High team. Never the star of the team, he didn’t get to make touchdowns or passes, but what he did get to do was tackle. Defensive lineman was his job and he was awesome at it. No one wanted to get in front of him unless they had a death wish. They knew better. What Nate lacked in body mass, he made up for in gusto, or so the coach told him once.
The crowd roared in the stands and the music vibrated the stadium, but Nate tuned it out as soon as he stepped onto the field. He lined up in a three-point stance. The only thing he heard was his heart thumping in his ears and the grunting kid in front of him with the number nine on his blue jersey trying to be tough. Ha! He wasn’t tough. Any other day Nate would flatten him in a second. But this day he had plans to slip Number Nine’s block and sack the quarterback. What a great way to end the game, with Nate’s tenth sack of the season.
“Are you ready? Are you ready?” the Eagles’ quarterback shouted. Everyone got into position. Number Nine stared Nate down. There was no way he would even touch Nate.
The quarterback yelled, “Shift…down…set….go!” No one moved. “Go!”
The center snapped the ball.
Everyone moved in slow motion. Green and blue jerseys blurred together. Plastic pads and helmets smashed and cracked. Number Nine went for the block, but Nate slipped past him, not taking his eyes off the ball for a second.
The quarterback was in Nate’s reach. Nate leaped over two bodies and flew like a dagger through the air, hitting his target dead on. He knocked the quarterback on his butt like a sack of dog food. The ball slipped from the quarterback’s grasp and rolled onto the ground.
The crowd roared. The buzzer screamed through the stadium, announcing the end of the game.
“Way to go!” Nate’s buddy, Josh, smacked him on the back. The rest of the team ran onto the field to celebrate.
In the stands, Nate’s mom jumped up and waved, a happy smile stretched across her face. His dumb little brother, Dennis, sat next to her, glaring at him. Dennis poked his tongue out from behind thin lips. Cindy, Nate’s older sister, stood on the track, twirling blond hair around her finger and talking to the Jr. High football players. But, Nate didn’t see him. He didn’t see his dad, who probably didn’t bother to show up at all. Again.
Nate’s shoulders slumped forward. His dad didn’t see him sack the quarterback this entire year.
Last year Nate’s dad didn’t miss a single game. This year was a different story altogether. He only made it to two games.
Coach Brad gripped his clipboard in one hand and jogged up to Nate. “Hey. Awesome sack out there. We sure are going to miss you next year.” His empty hand ruffled Nate’s shaggy brown hair.
“Thanks.” Nate forced a grin and cringed that Couch touched his hair. Couch was the only one who missed the memo on touching Nate’s hair. He hated it.
“Hey buddy. I’m real proud of you, so I know your dad must be too. He probably just got caught in traffic or something.” Anger flashed through Coach Brad’s eyes. He turned to scan the stands.
“Oh, yeah. That’s probably it.” Yeah, right. Nate may not drive, but he knew there wasn’t much traffic on a Saturday.
Nate’s dad and Coach Brad were partners on the police force before Nate was born. When a bank robber shot the coach in the leg, he quit the force. Nate’s dad transferred to the missing children department after that, and was there ever since. Evidently, a lot of kids went missing in Dane County because all he ever did was work.
Last season Nate overheard Coach Brad and his dad in an argument about arriving late after a game. Coach had to stay after an entire hour to sit with Nate. They probably never made up after that because Nate didn’t see them talking much since.
Coach tapped his clipboard on Nate’s shoulder. “Come on, buddy. Let’s be good sports and say goodbye to the Eagles. Then, we’re all going to Pizza Castle to celebrate.”
“Okay.” Nate didn’t really feel much like celebrating. His stomach gurgled and moaned at the thought of eating pizza, his least favorite food group, but it was his last time to spend with his teammates. Most of them went to different schools and didn’t see each other again until football season.
The Missiles lined up and marched toward the defeated team with their hands outstretched. The Eagles shuffled in the opposite direction in the same manner. When their hands met, they said, “Good game, good game, good game,” to each player. The Eagles didn’t say it with much enthusiasm, though.
Nate’s mom waited for him at the gate to the field. “You did awesome, baby!” Her eyes sparkled and she patted him on the shoulder. Nate told her long ago not to get all mushy in front of the guys. Some of the other kids weren’t so lucky. Like Josh—poor kid. His mom kissed him in front of everyone after every single game. Once when he got hurt, his mom even cried. Some of the guys gave him a hard time about it. Nate just felt bad for him.
“Oh, honey.” Mom’s expression fell, the corners of her mouth turning downward. “Let’s talk about it in the car.”
Nate watched the ground while they trudged up the paved trail covered with crunchy leaves that led to the car. The warm, dry breeze blew the remnants of fall around on the ground.
His mom turned to make sure the kids were in tow. “Keep up!” she shouted at Dennis who dragged his feet behind Nate.
“I’m tired. I don’t want to walk,” Dennis said.
Mom sighed. “Too bad. You’re a big boy now and can walk on your own.”
“Yeah!” Nate said. “So deal with it.”
“That’s really not helping.” Mom glared back.
Cindy rammed her shoulder into Nate’s arm. “You’re such a jerk.”
Mom took a deep breath. “Cindy, you know better.”
Cindy caught up with Mom. “I forgot to tell you that I’m supposed to meet my friends at the mall. Can you drop me off?”
“When am I going to have time to take you to the mall?”
“Can’t you just drop me off on the way to Dennis’ karate thing?” Cindy asked.
After a quiet shouting match between Mom and Cindy that Nate tuned out, they reached the minivan. Mom opened the side door for all to crawl into the back. “Fine. I’ll drop you off after I take Nate to Pizza Castle.”
Nate looked back at his mom when he climbed into the van. “You aren’t going to stay at Pizza Castle?”
“No, Nate. I guess not.”
“So, who’s picking me up then?” He tried not to let the disappointment rise in his voice. Now both his parents were bailing on him.
“I’ll call your dad to pick you up…okay?”
“I guess,” Nate grumbled. “Where is he now anyway?” Probably on some secret mission to save all the missing kids in the county. He had to be doing something important to skip Nate’s last game.
“I don’t know. He mentioned Chelsea having a ballet recital or something.” Nate’s mom’s voice softened.
“Oh.” Nate’s eyes burned. Chelsea wasn’t even related to his dad. She was his new girlfriend’s daughter and got all of his attention lately.
“I’m sorry, honey.” Nate’s mom hated it when his dad missed stuff. That was probably why she divorced him.
“Can you please pick me up then?” Nate’s voice cracked.
Cindy blurted out: “Oh, suck it up! The jerk is just gonna drive you home. You don’t have to talk to him or anything.”
Mom didn’t yell at her. Whenever the kids bad-mouthed their dad, their mom never heard it for some reason. “Do you mind that much, sweetie? I really can’t leave Dennis alone at karate. Your dad can just pick you up and drop you off at home.”
“I guess. But, what if he doesn’t show?” Nate asked.
“I’ll call him and make sure that he does.” She waved her cell phone in the air.
“Okay.” It really wasn’t okay, but Nate didn’t have much of a choice.
The minivan pulled into the Pizza Castle parking lot, full of cars decorated with green and white window paint and flags. There was no mistaking that they were at the correct place. Nate unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the van door.
“If he doesn’t show up by five, borrow someone’s phone and call me. Or, use the pay phone and call collect if you have to,” his mom said before driving off.
The pizza party didn’t last as long as expected. Everyone left around four. Josh and Nate sat on the curb, the last ones waiting. Coach paced behind them, talking on his phone and rubbing his round belly.
“So have you heard about the dragon-napper?” Josh asked Nate.
“The dragon-napper. I never heard of him either. My brother and his friends were talking about it the other day. They said that some older kids from the high school went missing and that some crazy lady saw a guy on a dragon take the kids for a ride.” Josh shrugged.
“They were probably just trying to scare you. Your brother’s a dork. Besides, doesn’t dragon-napper mean that someone is stealing dragons?”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t know about that, I just thought it sounded funny. Can you imagine going for a ride on a dragon?” Josh laughed.
“There are no such things as dragons,” Nate said.
“Yes there are.”
“No, Josh. There really are no dragons.” Nate couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, but knowing Josh, he was probably serious.
“Well, there used to be dragons. Like in the olden days and stuff,” Josh said.
“I don’t think so.”
Josh’s mom pulled in front of them. She rolled down the passenger window. “You need a ride, Nate?”
“Nope. My dad’s coming.”
Josh climbed in the van. “See ya.”
Coach slammed his phone closed. “Nate! Come inside to wait.” He grabbed his protruding belly. “I’ve got to use the john.” Coach ran to the front door and inside the building before Nate could say anything.
He stood and followed. A wall of nasty smelling pizza assaulted him. His mom told him once that he was the weirdest kid in the world to not like pizza.
Nate sat at a booth, alone and waiting for his dad again. Sometimes his dad really made him mad. Nate didn’t know why his mom let him come around at all. He never did what he said he was going to do. What a liar. At that moment, Nate didn’t even care if he ever saw him again.
He had a feeling Coach would be a while and he had enough of pizza smells for one night so he went outside and paced the sidewalk in front of the building. He kicked a rock around until he lost it in the gutter. Finally, he sat back down on the curb and waited.
The sky had turned the same color as the roses in his mom’s garden—pinks and purples mostly.
Sixteen couldn’t come soon enough. Then Nate could have his own car instead of waiting on his dad. His mom said when he turned sixteen he could get a part-time job to help pay for a car and stuff. He counted the days, hours, and minutes until that day came.
Two cars waited to go through the car wash across the street. Nate could be a car wash attendant. That looked easy enough.
A crackly sound came from under the car parked beside him on the left. Nate looked underneath it—nothing.
“Meow.” Behind him. He turned to look—nothing.
What the…and then, there he was, the cat with the crackly old voice, sitting in front of Nate. He was quick.
“Hi kitty.” Nate reached out to pet the scraggly orange cat. He had no collar on him, no ID.
The cat rubbed against Nate’s leg. Nate petted his head. The cat purred.
“Where do you live?” The only other buildings around were vacant and dark. The two cars at the car wash were gone and it was empty. It looked like it had closed already with the lights inside turned off.
A single street lamp in the Pizza Castle parking lot buzzed. Soon after, the lamp beamed its light onto the cars below. The sun was setting, taking all the heat with it. Nate shivered from the cold.
Nate turned to go back inside the building, but the cat rubbed against him and purred like a lawn mower, stopping him in his tracks.
“What should I call you? You’re as orange as a carrot. Should I call you Carrot?”
As if he understood and liked the name, the cat sat in front of Nate. His golden eyes squinted and the corners of his mouth pulled up into a smile.
“You look like a good cat, Carrot. I wonder if Mom will let me bring you home.”
Carrot stood. “Meow.” He turned to face the opposite direction. “Meow.”
“What? Do you see something over there?” Nate asked.
Carrot trotted across the parking lot and sat at the edge, close to the street. He looked back at Nate. “Meow.”
“Carrot, don’t go. Stay here. Here, kitty, kitty. Come here kitty.”
The cat looked across the street at the car wash. Maybe his home was over there. Maybe he lived at the car wash.
A neon light flashed on above the entrance to the car wash. It read “Enter.” It must have still been open after all.
Carrot turned and trotted back toward Nate. He rubbed against his legs again. Carrot crackled and ran back across the parking lot.
“What? Do you want me to come over there?” Nate looked around to make sure no one saw him talking to the cat.
Carrot meowed again.
Nate walked across the lot to the edge near Carrot, looking at the still-empty car wash.
A wind gust blew dry leaves over the deserted street and the sky gurgled like a hungry stomach. The one lamp in the parking lot went dark.
Another sudden rumble in the sky growled for Nate’s attention. As soon as he looked up, a bolt of lightning cracked down and hit the car wash in front of them. Nate jumped back as sparks flew all the way across the street where they stood.
“Whoa!” Nate hollered. “Did you see that, Carrot?”
Carrot’s voice crackled again and he sat down.
Crashing and grinding and mashing sounds came from the car wash and the lights flashed within. Nate covered his eyes from the brightness. A car revved its engine, growing louder and louder. Nate peeked between his fingers to see where it came from but the light blinded him. The engine roared so loud that he almost had to cover his ears. Then sounds of tires spinning and squealing on pavement drowned out the revving engine.