“Water, Floor, Leaves” by Katrina S. Forest
I didn’t work with partners. Everyone knew that. Heck, it was probably in my official player bio: “April Harding. Only deaf athlete in the Diball Intermediate League. Enjoys sushi, mystery novels, and hates doubles matches with the burning passion of a thousand pyromancers.”
Don’t get me wrong; I was plenty social. But the court was my space. Me, a ball, and a netted goal for me to send the ball into by any means necessary. (“Any means,” of course, excluding teleportation, stepping out-of-bounds, or laying even a fingernail on my opponent. Had to have rules, after all.)
But now my sponsor had gotten the adorable little idea that I should participate in the Intermediate League’s doubles tournament. So here I was standing with a partner I’d only met a week ago, staring at the stadium’s huge digital clock as it counted the minutes to start our first game.
My wandering eyes caught a flicker of movement from my new partner Travis’ hands. “April?” he signed. “You okay?”
“Fine,” I quickly signed back. Had to keep it together. It was our sponsors who thought that knowing the same language made us automatic best friends. Not his fault.
I ran my hand along the smooth glass of my bring-in jar as I reviewed our opponents one last time: Carl and Marta. Carl was a barrier-maker: bringing his hands near certain liquids caused them to transform into a wall of bubbles. Marta was his opposite, a barrier-breaker who could transform her skin to a stone-like shield.
Then there were Travis and I. I controlled the water in my bring-in jar, and he controlled leaves. Theoretically, two ball-movers like us had an advantage against a breaker-maker combo. So why did my stomach feel like it held a brick?
“Seriously, you look like a deer in headlights,” Travis signed. “I mean, really, really huge headlights. Coming at a deer that’s never even seen headlights.”
My face grew hot. “Thanks for the observation, genius.” My fingers stretched across my jar, pinky at its base, thumb just barely scraping its lid. Travis shook out his hands like he was getting ready for a pleasant jog.
At that moment, the stadium lights briefly faded out, then returned to normal. Game time. We jogged towards the court’s center circle, where the referee waited with the ball. I stood just outside the curved line, while Marta stood opposite me. The referee eyed both our feet to make sure we didn’t slip into the forbidden zone even a second before the gun. Satisfied, he set the ball in the center of the circle. Its dull surface looked as smooth as if it’d just come off the factory line. Even though I stood only three meters from it, that distance felt more like three miles.
I had to win this. My string of losses last month had poisoned my reputation. My player score wouldn’t take much more abuse.
While the referee reached for his gun, I glanced at Carl. He’d chosen to stand just behind Marta. Maybe he planned to lay down one of his bubble barriers right here in the center of the court. Maybe I should’ve told Travis to start closer to me, instead of standing halfway between the starting circle and the goal like he did now. Maybe…
Maybe I needed to shut up and watch the referee.
The gun flared. Marta raced forward, and I slapped my hand down on my jar’s metal latch. Water poured out, forming a stream that flew to the ball, hugged it, and pulled it in my direction. Fast, but not fast enough. Marta got close and intercepted, kicking the ball out of my water’s control with such force that it was a marvel she didn’t bust her foot. Up close, though, I saw her skin had changed texture, looking rough like granite. With protection like that, who needed to worry about foot injury?
Marta tried to rush past me, but I jumped in front of her and fought to reclaim the ball. She dodged back and forth, keeping it just out of my reach. My breath escaped through my teeth every time she turned her back to me. Always a move ahead. With one turn, though, I saw something shimmer on her waist. Something that worried me a lot more than her possession of the ball.
She was wearing a bring-in belt and jar! But her power had nothing to do with any outside element. Why would she weigh herself down with extra equipment? The jar carried a pale green liquid, but I had no idea what that could be for, unless…
Unless she carried double ammunition for Carl.
My brain panicked. Travis and I had worked out a bunch of shortened hand signals in practice, but none for, “That player is carrying a jar even though we didn’t think she was going to.”
And now my hesitation gave Marta a chance to move past me and sprint for the goal. I turned to chase her, but Travis was already on her tail. What did the guy do, abandon his post as soon as the gun went off?
Travis’ leaves flew ahead of him, avoiding Marta’s body, but getting in her face enough to slow her. Effective, but it left Carl unguarded. He could be anywhere on the court behind me, and I didn’t have time to find out where, not if I wanted to get Travis’ attention while he was still close by. I commanded a blob of water to splash Travis in the face.
His leaves went slightly astray, but then reformed as he glared at me. I jabbed my finger in Marta’s direction.
Travis looked, and his eyes widened. Behind him, Carl sprinted past, closing the gap between himself and his partner. Marta yanked the jar from her waist and tossed it to him, then took off full speed towards the goal again. Travis and I both chased her. Stupid! I shouldn’t have pointed out the jar so early. Now I’d thrown us off.
Carl completely ignored us as we ran past him. Instead, he took both jars to the boundary line and started pouring a line of liquid right across the court. When one jar was empty, he switched to the second.
Marta was stalling. Instead of making a straight line for the goal, she kept weaving back and forth to give Carl enough time to empty the jars. I shadowed, but her control was amazing. Only when she pivoted on one turn, did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the ball exposed.
Get it now! I ordered the water. It sprayed the ball towards me with a high-pressure jet. Once it fell into my possession, my body instinctively began dribbling back up the court. My water became an extra hand when I needed it, nudging the ball into my control if it went too far. Marta was aggressive – right at my side, attempting a steal. Travis wasn’t far, though, so I shoved the ball towards him. His leaves coated it just as it reached the line of liquid Carl had left on the floor. But instead of just rolling the ball over some unknown substance, his leaves swooped it up. It lingered, actually hovered, about two and a half meters in the air with a mass of leaves holding it. Travis’ arms shook like crazy with the effort. Then he flashed me a grin that read something between, “I’m awesome,” and “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Bad timing. With Carl kneeling beside it, the liquid on the ground foamed and fizzed, throwing up a wall of bubbles between Travis and me. Lines of smoke rose from around the ball, paired with the distinct smell of burning leaves.
Travis panicked. He yanked his leaves away, but he’d saved half of them at most. The ball fell with a heavy clunk, bubbles of acid (or whatever that stuff was) forming all around it. Marta reached in with her foot and pulled it out without making a mark on her granite-like skin. I tried for another steal, but no such luck this time. The scoreboard lit up, celebrating Carl and Marta’s first point.
I looked at Travis. Okay, genius, what’s the plan now?
The referee waved for the ball, and all four of us returned to starting positions. With no magic to hold it, Carl’s bubble wall dropped, once again leaving a wet line of liquid halfway between the center line and our goal.
“Man,” Travis signed, shaking his head, “I thought I had it made with that aerial move.”
“Yeah,” I signed absently. This wasn’t a new problem. All this week, Travis had had tons of good ideas and no ability to put them together into a cohesive plan. But maybe that was where I could help.
The referee placed the ball on the floor, raised his gun, and glanced at both teams for our confirmation. I laid my open palm against my fingertips for a timeout. He nodded, and the screens above us flashed “Time Out” in bright blue letters, displaying a three-minute countdown underneath.
I turned to Travis. “Have we… have we thought about playing it aerial the whole way?”
“The whole way?” Travis seemed to be searching for a polite way to express his doubts on my sanity. “You want me to play an eight-pound ball full aerial with half my leaves? You did see my arms doing the shaky-shaky thing when I had all my leaves, right?”
I had. And I wouldn’t be much better with my water. We’d practiced aerial moves, but they were exhausting. Plus, the ball had to touch ground at least every twenty seconds or the point would go to Marta and Carl. Playing it in the air for more than a single move was insanely risky. I hated risky.
Of course, I hated sending my player score down the toilet even more. “What if… what if we do it in a pattern? Water, floor, leaves. And I can signal you when I want to reverse it: leaves, floor, water.”
Travis nodded. “Right, mess with their minds a bit.” He stroked his stubble-less chin. “Didn’t know that was your thing, but I’ve got no better ideas, so… sure, why not? Let’s do it.”
I rolled my eyes. This wasn’t my thing. Any move that trusted that ball to another player wasn’t my thing.
But coming out here to play my sport, leaving a family that spoke my language, and jumping into a city where I had to pantomime through every conversation… that hadn’t really been my thing, either. I’d done it anyway.
The clock ticked down way faster than normal physics should’ve allowed. The moment it reached zero, Travis winced, and the referee motioned us back into place. Travis and I both stood at the circle’s edge, while Marta took the edge on her side. Carl stayed by the acid.
We ran forward the moment the gun went off, leaves and water flying for the ball. Unfortunately, Marta got it first. She dribbled around us like her life depended on it, down the court towards the line that Carl had now oh-so-helpfully turned back into a bubbly acid wall. Instead of following Marta directly, Travis and I sprinted for the small gap between the wall’s edge and the boundary line – a gap that Carl no doubt would’ve filled if he’d had a drop of liquid left.
Marta ran through the wall as expected and looked shocked to find us on the other side. I took full advantage of her hesitation and sprinted forward. There was a still a huge gap between us.
“Grab it!” I caught Travis signing. But he was yelling something, too. He sent his leaves flying above Marta’s head. She looked straight up and actually froze, trying to figure out what he was doing. I didn’t hesitate. I kept running.
Marta swerved away from the leaves, leaving a perfect opening for my water to grab it. In seconds, I had the ball over my head, with Marta behind me, helpless to get it back.
“Leaves!” I signaled and gave the ball a toss. Travis didn’t let me down. His lips curled back when the weight of the ball hit his leaves, but he followed our pattern, bringing it down to the floor so my water could scoop it up again. Our feet moved like this was a dance routine – water, floor, leaves. Water, floor, leaves. On the third repeat, right when we’d reached the gap in the acid wall, Travis signaled that he wanted to reverse the pattern. I followed, letting his leaves scoop it off the floor instead of my water and stepping to position myself to catch it.
I was right in the gap. It was something my peripheral vision had been aware of, but standing with that acrid smell burning my nostrils was a different thing. I hoisted my water above my head, catching and holding the ball aloft. Then Travis inched in front of me. Even with his sweat-slick legs sliding over mine, a few of the bubbles still popped on his shirt, and he winced. The smell worsened. I tried to take a step back, but my eyes caught the boundary line. I couldn’t give him even an inch more of space without being called out.
Did you stand there so I wouldn’t get hurt? The idea infuriated me. Hadn’t I said a million times during practice that I could take a hit? Still, I could do nothing but wait. Once Travis was through, I pushed the ball slightly forward, letting it drop to the floor. Travis reacted immediately, lifting it back up just as Marta came through the wall.
With his obstacle behind us, Carl let the bubbles become liquid again and ran up to his partner’s side. Now we had two people trying to get this ball from us. I had to focus. But I couldn’t let Travis’ move go ignored, either. We couldn’t win if he thought I was some flower he needed to shield. I got a quick sign in each time the ball changed.
“Don’t–” Water. “–protect–” Floor. “–me.” Leaves.
Travis curled up his nose. Water. “Didn’t.” Floor.
Oh, he didn’t, did he? Leaves. I signed to reverse.
“I’ve had–” Floor. “–five–” Water. “–out-of-bounds–” Leaves. “–this month.”
What? Travis dropped the ball to the floor and for half a second, I hesitated before scooping it up. Carl saw the opening and readied a kick. Without enough time to get the ball in the air, I pushed it towards Travis instead. “Reverse!”
His leaves scooped it out of Marta’s reach just in time. For a split second, I felt the exhaustion and pain in my muscles go still. My brain was dizzy with excitement. It’s an athlete’s high. And it’s awesome.
I guess a lot of what makes a game partner work is how you trust each other. It was something I always knew in theory, but didn’t really see the full impact of until after we’d scored our first point, Travis following my signals the whole way. But if he had switched it up again, I would’ve followed his signals, too. I mean, five out-of-bounds in a month? That was kind of pathetic. If I’d known he’d had those stats, I would have held the ball in that gap even without his suggestion.
Not that the rest of the game went perfect for us. When Marta got hold of that ball in the opening, Travis and I rarely stole it back like we had before. But when we got the ball, I saw Carl’s shoulders slump. Our motions were too smooth, too fast to interrupt. After my first fumble, there was no way I was letting myself get thrown off again.
The game ended at 10 to 7. Which is pretty good, if you’re wondering. I waited outside the medic’s room for Travis to come back after getting his shoulder examined. The spot where the bubbles had popped had looked nastily blistered.
He came out smelling like antiseptic and looking like this was the best day of his life. I patted his good shoulder.
“So, our first win. Not bad, genius. Not bad.”
He blushed. “Hey, that’s the second time you’ve called me genius. Is it my sign name now?”
I had to consider that one. It hadn’t been my intention, and you didn’t just give a guy a name without putting serious thought into it. “Sure,” I signed. “You can be Genius.”
“Wait, I can?”
“Until you prove yourself unworthy of the title. Shouldn’t take too long.”
We both laughed. It must’ve been loud, because Marta and Carl gave us some weird looks, and they were halfway across the court. “Well, then,” Travis signed with a flourishing bow. “Genius thanks you for a great game.”
I smiled. We weren’t out of the woods yet, of course. The tournament had six more rounds to go, and the next one would be in two days. But we’d be ready for it. “You’re welcome. And thank you, too.”
About the Author
Katrina S. Forest is a Clarion West alumna who has sold work to a variety of magazines, including Flash Fiction Online, The Future Fire, and Highlights for Children. Her kids think she’s eccentric, but don’t say so because their vocabularies aren’t that big yet. You can find more of her work at katrinasforest.com.