“Do you think Curtis and Jordan would play if we asked them?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to ask them.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re not careful and it’s my only football.”

“I don’t think they’re not careful.”

“You weren’t playing at the park after the parade.”

“No. What happened?”

“Well, so they had those airplanes, y’know? Those ones that you hook on a rubber band and it goes flying through the air.”

“Okay.”

“Like the ones you can get from the arcade at Seventeen Alleys.”

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“So Curtis and Jordan each got those from the fair games and they were launching them right over there by that building. What do you call that building?”

“I don’t know. But they do all the city stuff in there, don’t they?”

“Yeah, like the mayor and everybody.”

“Yeah.”

“So they were shooting their planes alongside of that building and talking about how they thought they were shooting them high and long enough to go all the way over the building.”

“Oh wow.”

“But Curtis’s dad, he heard them and he told them ‘don’t you do it.’ He told them they’d never get their planes over it and once they got lost on the roof he wouldn’t climb up there to get them back down again.”

“Sure.”

“And, well, they didn’t try it right then. Because right then the hot dogs and hamburgers were ready and everybody started to eat. But then after that they went and tried it and guess what?”

“What?”

“Curtis’s dad was right! They got stuck right on top of the roof and they never got them down!”

“Oh wow. Are they still up there?”

“What? No. Curtis and Jordan went back for them the next day when Curtis’s dad wouldn’t know anything about it. But the point is that they’re not careful and I don’t want my football up on the roof.”

Petey caught the ball once again and paused for a moment before chucking it back to Brad.

“Yeah okay,” Petey said, “it’s just we can’t really play a game with only the two of us.”

“Well we’re playing right now, aren’t we?”

“It’s not a game. It’s just catch.”

“Well…let’s make it a game.”

A game of two cannot have offense, defense, and passing, though. Thus the two boys decided beforehand whether the next play was a run or a pass. If it was a run then one of them would hike the ball back and then try to tackle the other. If it was a pass, then the hiker would tear down the field to get open for a catch. The boy playing quarterback would imagine defenders breaking through the front line and would have to throw it before they got to him.

“Go left! Go left!” Petey called. “I can’t throw so far to the right.”

“You just turn your body!”

“Go left!”

Petey lobbed the ball high into the air, it hung high against the sky, then came down to the earth with a squelching splash!

“Oh, you’ve thrown it into the marsh!”

The marsh was the name for the low part of the field where all the water drained to and was a perpetual pond of filth.

“Whoops! I didn’t mean to.”

“Well don’t ruin my ball, okay. Don’t throw it into the marsh anymore.”

“I won’t, Brad. Anyway try to catch it next time.”

The incompletion had been their fourth down and now the other side got their turn to charge it up the field. They were held at the forty, but the boys didn’t make much more headway with their next set of downs.

“It’s fourth down again,” Petey wiped some sweat off his face. “It’s too far to make it.”

“If you hadn’t tackled me so quickly on that last run…”

“What? I’m supposed to tackle you when I’m playing defense.”

“Well you’re in charge of the play this time. What do you want to do?”

“A kick.”

“A kick?”

“Yeah, I’ll try for the field goal. If I get the ball into the tree there–“

“You’re not kicking my ball into a tree!”

“I mean if I kick it…” Petey rotated slowly, looking for a suitable target, “over the soccer goal. That’s a field goal!”

Brad couldn’t find anything wrong with that, so they lined up for the play. A few random numbers shouted, a hike, a step back, a kick! The ball sailed quickly and decisively. It was in-line with the edge of the goal post, but angled too high. It quickly reached its zenith, plummeted back to the earth like a diving hawk…and impacted onto the corner of the goal post!

The goal post corner was two metal poles cut at an angle and welded together, making for a sharp point. The corner punctured straight through the ball and held it fast like a head on a spike. The two boys watched in horror as the ball noisily deflated, shriveling from bottom to top up until it rolled off to the side and down to the ground. Limp. Empty. Not a ball anymore.

“You broke it!” Brad shrieked, fists clenched into little balls.

“I didn’t mean to!” Petey wringed his hands anxiously.

“Why would you kick it there? It’s the only ball I had!”

“I didn’t know! It was an accident. You know I didn’t do that on purpose!”

“I told you so much that I didn’t want to ruin it! I told you to be careful so much!”

“Let’s go to me home and talk to my mom. Maybe she can fix it. Maybe she could buy another.”

Brad stomped over to the lumpy, brown sack that had once been a ball and cradled it in his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Petey!” he shot back. “You’re a terrible friend…and a jerk!” And with that he stormed away.

*

“Back already?” Petey’s mother asked as the screen door bounced shut behind him. “I thought you’d be at the park until dinner.”

“I’m back,” he said simply. “Brad is done playing for today.”

“Oh…” she raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“Nothing!” he replied in anticipation of the question she hadn’t asked. She raised the other eyebrow but he wasn’t in the mood. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I’ve got to go do homework, okay?”

“Whatever you need.”

“I need to do my homework.”

She just stared at him as he bit his lip and looked elsewhere.

“So, okay, bye,” he concluded, then turned and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms.

“Okay, bye.”

But before getting to his own room Petey passed by the room of his big brother, Noah. Noah was inside, laying on his bed on his stomach, playing the Super Nintendo.

“Noah?” Petey cautiously advanced into the doorway.

“Hey, bud,” Noah didn’t turn. “Plug in the second controller.”

“No, I have to do homework…Mom’s making me.”

“Oh, okay.”

Petey stood another moment in the doorway, silently chewing his lip. “Hey Noah?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“So Brad is really mad at me right now.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“Well we were playing with his football together and I kicked it and it fell onto a sort of spike in the park and it popped.”

Noah whistled.

“Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it.”

“That’s no good.”

“And so now Brad is being really mad at me about it.”

“Well how do you feel? Guilty about it or no?”

“Yeah, I guess guilty. But I don’t get why, because I really didn’t do it on purpose!”

“No, I’m sure you didn’t. But you know, it’s not a bad thing that you feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, you’re not supposed to feel good when that happens.”

“But I don’t feel bad like I would have if Brad had been the one to kick it. Then I would have felt sad for him. But just because it was me I feel like I did something really wrong.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I’ve felt like that and I don’t know why. You really feel dirty even though it was all an accident, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“And Brad’s pretty mad about it?”

“He hates me now.”

“So it’s kind of like how you feel. Both of you are blaming you for it even though that’s not fair.”

“So what do I do?”

Noah shrugged. “I don’t know, man, that’s a hard one. To tell you the truth I was hoping it would make you feel better just by talking about it.”

“Well…it does a little. Thanks, I guess.”

Petey turned to go but suddenly Noah whipped his head around to look over his shoulder.

“I guess if there’s something you feel like oughta do to make things right then do it, just don’t do it because of blame. Either from you or Brad.”

Petey nodded and closed the door.

*

“Hey Brad, how’s it going?” Petey said cautiously as he approached the edge of the curb.

“Don’t talk to me,” Brad said flatly.

“Hey it’s okay if you need some space, but you have to know that it’s not my fault what happened to your football.”

“It’s not your fault?” Brad raised an eyebrow. “You kicked it into the corner and it punctured. Who else made that happen if not you?”

“I–well–I guess, yeah, it was my fault. But that doesn’t mean that you or I should blame me for it.”

Brad turned to full-on stare at Petey with incredulity. “Are you even hearing yourself right now?”

Petey did, and he had to admit that he sounded pretty ridiculous. He squirmed uncomfortably and wondered why everything had seemed so clear and simple in Noah’s room, but out here it just all got turned around. He wasn’t even sure himself what he meant anymore.

Either way Petey was spared trying to explain himself any further by the arrival of the school bus. The two boys stepped on board. By force of habit Petey followed Brad to their usual row and almost tried to sit next to him, but a single withering glare from his friend sent him to the row right behind.

“If you’re curious, though,” Brad turned in his seat for one last jab, “my dad yelled at me for ten minutes’ straight yesterday because I’d already ruined my birthday gift. Says I’d better not expect anything for Christmas. So thanks for that!”

Then he spun around, leaving Petey to stare out the window, hurt and confused.

*

“Hey Dad, any extra chores I could do this weekend?” Petey asked that evening.

“Um, yeah, always. How come? You saving up your allowance for something?”

“Yeah, it was Brad’s birthday last week and I want to get him a late birthday gift.”

“Oh you don’t have to use your allowance for something like tha–hang on, didn’t we get him something for on his birthday already? A couple of CDs, wasn’t it?”

“No, it was CD-ROMs, not CDs. They go in a computer and play games.”

“Okay, well we got him covered either way.”

“Yeah, so I know this is extra and that’s why I thought it should come from my allowance.”

An unusually concerned expression came over Petey’s dad and he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Say–uh–is there something you wanted to tell me about the Morris’s?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Are they having trouble making ends meet? Something like that?”

“What? No. I mean–not that I know of anyway.”

“Well this seems like some weird behavior from you, Petey.”

“No, I just–Brad and I were playing with his birthday football the other day and we broke it. I don’t think he’s going to be able to get a replacement for it so I wanted to get it for him. Just to be nice!”

Petey’s dad nodded as he thought it over. “Well alright, whatever you want to do son. I need someone to rake the leaves, clean out the gutters, and tidy up the shed. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”

That weekend Petey spent all of his spare time doing the extra chores. In addition to the ones his Dad had come up with he also cleaned the dirt of the window sills and tightened all of the faucet knobs for his mother. Noah even let Petey clean his room for $2, though they had to keep that transaction a secret from their mom. Bit by bit his wallet got fatter until at last he had $13.

“That should do it,” he said as he wiped the sweat from his brow late that evening.

The next day Noah agreed to walk Petey to the sporting goods store so that he could get the new football.

“So you think this is the best thing, huh?” Noah asked.

“I guess? Like you said, it’s bad that Brad’s football got popped, so I think it makes sense to just do something to make it better.”

“Yeah, but are you doing it to make him happy or just to make him like you again?”

“He’s not ever going to like me if he isn’t happy.”

“He won’t? Cuz that sounds like a pretty terrible friendship then.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just saying what it sounds like,” Noah shrugged. “You go ahead and do what you think is best.”

Petey did go ahead and he did buy the football as planned…but he couldn’t get Noah’s words out of his head. It had hit on something he had already been feeling, but hadn’t been able to put words to. There just was something wrong in the idea of giving a football to Brad so that he would treat him decently.

“I don’t want to just give Brad stuff to make him be my friend,” he muttered to himself on the swing at recess. “I want him to already be my friend first.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing Susan. Hey, have you seen Brad?”

“I think he’s trying to get the ducks to come through the fence.”

Susan was right. There was a patch in the fence around the field where the chainlink had been snagged by a lawnmower once and twisted, resulting in a small hole. And it just so happened that this hole was right beside the canal and sometimes ducks would go swimming past it. Everyone remembered that time immemorial when Diego had coaxed one of those ducks through the hole and it had gone squawking and flapping across the entire field, chasing down whoever showed the most fear! It was many students’ greatest wish to recreate that legendary moment, even though this had been expressly forbidden by the Principal, but no one had ever managed it.

Brad was crouched down at the hole right now, poking pieces of bread through it and then backing away so as to not startle his prey. As Petey approached he saw that there were two ducks enjoying a little meal of Brad’s crumbs just outside of the fence, but they were stubbornly ignoring the trail he had also laid out through to the other side. As soon as Petey got within sight the ducks quacked in offense and scuttled down back into the canal.

“Hey Brad,” Petey said.

“Oh great, you scared them off.”

“They weren’t coming through anyway.”

“Gee…thanks. What are you even doing here, Petey?”

“I want to know what it’s going to take so we can be friends again.”

“Well, you broke my football. So I guess you get me a new one of those,” Brad sneered sarcastically and Petey’s heart dropped a level. He definitely couldn’t give him the new football now.

“Friendship shouldn’t be about just giving each other things,” Petey stated flatly. “That’s just selfish.”

“No, it should be about wrecking each other’s stuff and then pretending that doesn’t matter.”

Petey was taken aback. Once again everything made so much sense in his head right up until the moment he actually tried to say the words out loud. Brad just wasn’t responding the way that he was supposed to!

“No, it matters. That’s why I’m really sorry that that happened. I really am.”

Brad squinted his eyes in an accusing stare and spoke in a heavy whisper. “Did you know, Petey, that that’s the first time you’ve actually said you’re sorry?”

“What?”

“In all this time you haven’t said sorry even once until now.”

“I–no, that’s not true. I said sorry already!”

Brad shook his head. “You just told me over and over that it wasn’t your fault.”

Petey couldn’t believe what he was hearing…but at the same time he also couldn’t remember a specific moment where he had definitely said that he was sorry. Was it possible?

“I–” Petey began, but no other words came to finish the thought.

“Listen Petey, I don’t hate you,” Brad sighed. “But I just don’t think I want to be friends anymore. Forget about the football.”

*

“So did you give it to him?” Noah said over his shoulder as he heard the door to his bedroom click shut.

“No…” Petey said slowly. “Instead we just fought some more.”

“I’m sorry, man. Are you sure this friendship is working?”

“You think it would be better to just stop being friends with my best friend?” Petey’s voice was hurt. “Just run away like that.”

Noah sighed and put down the controller to the Super Nintendo. “No, probably not. You two have been buddies since forever. So no, I don’t think you should just throw that away. Being best friends is hard work sometimes. It takes real effort.”

“Yeah…but Brad’s all done. He told me he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.”

“Ahh,” Noah rubbed the back of his head. “That’s rough, little bro. I’m sorry.”

Those last two words made Petey wince.

“And he also pointed out that I never told him I was sorry when I broke his football. I just kept talking about how it wasn’t my fault.”

“Well I’m sure you were scared right then.”

“What kind of friend am I if I don’t even apologize?”

“You still haven’t?”

“No, I did.”

“When he told you that you hadn’t?”

“No, before that.”

“So I guess you are the kind of friend who apologizes, then. Maybe a little late, but if I’m hearing you right then you did actually apologize all on your own.”

“Well…yeah. But I still don’t blame him for being upset. Maybe he’s been too much of a jerk about it…but I don’t think I did everything right either.”

“Yeah…maybe so.”

A long pause followed, after which Petey gave himself a little shake.

“Well,” he said, “I just wanted to talk I guess.”

“Yeah, thank you for talking to me about it.”

“Sure.”

That night Petey wasn’t able to fall asleep. His mind turned matters over and over as he lay on his pillow until his pillow started to feel too hot and he sat up. A few moments later his dad walked past his open door and happened to notice Petey sitting up.

“Hey bud, everything alright?”

Petey shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Petey’s dad moved into the room and sat at the corner of the bed.

“What’s going on?”

“Brad and I had a fight. I don’t really want to talk about the whole thing again, though. I’ve been talking about it a lot already.”

“And thinking about it a lot.”

“Yeah. And I guess that now I don’t know what to do about it anymore.”

“It’s complicated?”

“Yeah. I keep thinking about things I could do…but I’ve already tried to do things the right way a bunch of times and it never works out how I thought it would.”

“Sure, sure. Do you mind if I offer a piece of corny, fatherly advice?”

“Sure Dad.”

“Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to do things the right way. Just do what’s right. Then, after that, it doesn’t matter what happens.”

“Huh.”

“Does that make sense?”

“Yeah…I think so. Thanks, Dad.”

“No problem. Try and get some sleep.”

“I will.”

The next day Petey knew exactly what he was going to do. He didn’t try to talk to Brad at school, though, he wanted to have a conversation when there wouldn’t be any distractions. Instead he took his backpack with him to the park after school, sat on the swings, and waited for Brad to show up. Sure enough, he soon saw Brad walking across the field like he did on most days. Petey rushed down the hill and onto the field, backpack swinging from his shoulder.

“Brad!” he called out as he came near.

Brad shook his head in a longsuffering way. “Petey, no,” he said. “Please stop talking to me. I’m not interested.”

“I will, alright. I’ll stop talking to you if that’s what you want. I just want to say one last thing and that’ll be it.”

Brad sighed. “Okay…well what is it?”

“I know you don’t want to be friends anymore and I’m not going to try to make you change your mind, but I do think that that’s a mistake. It’s okay to be upset, but I think it’s wrong to stop being friends just like that.”

Brad shrugged. “Still not interested.”

“Okay,” Petey said bracingly. “That’s alright. And even though you don’t want to be friends, I want you to know that I really am sorry about what happened. It really was an accident, but that doesn’t change that you lost your football. And I don’t think it’s fair for you to not have your football anymore…” Petey reached into his bag “so here’s your replacement. I bought it with my own money and everything. Now things are back to how they were.”

Petey handed the ball to Brad who stared back at him in stunned silence.

“Okay,” Petey exhaled deeply. “That was it, I’m done now.” And with that he slung his backpack over his shoulder, turned around, and walked away.

He made it nearly thirty feet before Brad called out.

“Hey you, get back here!”

Petey turned around and saw that Brad was grinning sheepishly.

“What?” Petey asked.

“Hey look, Pete,” Brad walked forward until the two boys were near again. “Look I know I’ve been being a jerk about all this. I didn’t feel good about it…but I did it anyway. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.”

“So–uh–I’d like to be friends again if you’ll allow it. And…here, keep your ball,” he held the football out again but Petey didn’t take it.

“That’s for you,” Petey insisted.

“Oh come on, I can’t take it,” Brad protested. “You bought it with your own money you said.”

“Yeah, to give it to you.”

“But then…if I take it…that means I’m being your friend just because you gave it to me. And I really don’t mean that, Petey. I really do want to be your friend without this.”

Petey gave that one a lot of thought. The fact was he didn’t want their friendship to be repaired just because he had bought something for Brad either. But he also didn’t want to end up getting a new football out of all this, that felt wrong, too.

“Well I don’t want it,” he said flatly.

Brad looked down at the football and furrowed his brow in deep thought. Suddenly he looked back up with a big smile. “Hey wait…I’ve got an idea!”

*

“Ready?” Brad asked ten minutes later. He had run back to his home and retrieved two screwdrivers which the two boys were now wielding side-by-side.

“Ready!” Petey affirmed.

“Okay. Three…two…one…now!”

The two boys swung their screwdrivers down as hard as they could, puncturing the new football at each end! It did not deflate with a sad whistle like the last one had, though, it ruptured all at once with a huge BOOM! Each of the boys fell backwards laughing.

“Holy cow, that scared me!” Petey giggled.

“My heart’s racing!” Brad added.

They lay there laughing another minute longer, getting out all of their frustration and sadness together. When at last they quieted down they sat back up and looked at the flat pancake that had once been a football. Brad picked it up, flung it into the nearest trash can, and pocketed his screwdriver.

“C’mon buddy,” he said, extending a hand. “Let’s go play.”

Petey took the hand and let Brad pull him to his feet. “Sounds good,” he said, and the two friends walked off, arm-in-arm.