The Punctured Football: Part Two

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Part One

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.

On Monday I wrote how characters that depart from each another at the end of one scene should not reunite at the start of the next. And if you look through every scene in this story I followed that guidance from start to finish. There are never two scenes of the exact same characters back-to-back.

I also tried to maintain an even balance between the appearance of each character. Petey is the star and appears in each scene. Noah and Brad are the main supporting characte4rs, and they each get a pretty equal number of scenes. Secondary supporting scenes are Petey’s dad and mom, who also get a pretty equal number of scenes in the story. This setup allowed me to bounce back and forth between the main thread with Brad and the other main thread with Noah, but also to break up those threads with small asides to his parents so that it wouldn’t feel like Petey was just ping-ponging back and forth the whole time.

One of the benefits of this approach was how it provides credence to Brad’s character development, which primarily occurs offstage. In the case of Petey, we see him grappling with his problem firsthand. We hear all the conversations he has about it and the process that leads him to his final solution. But Brad has been going through his own process as well, and we don’t actually see that firsthand. I imply it at a couple times, such as when they met at the school. Before then Brad had only been insulting and hostile, but here he had softened up enough to admit that he didn’t hate Petey. Then there is that moment at the end where he says:

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.

So yes, Brad has developed as a character, and we’re able to believe in it because of the gaps between each of the boys’ encounters. Those gaps suggest that enough time has passed for him to have changed his mind. If those same changes had been shown in back-to-back scenes it would have felt too abrupt and unbelievable.

So now I have written three stories in my latest batch, and there is a common theme in them that I want to shine a light on. That theme is three simple words: Children, conflict, and play. I have explored the intersection of those three ideas in various ways, and will explore one more interpretation of them before I conclude this series. Come back on Monday as I explain this further.

The Punctured Football: Part One

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“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.”

Part Two

On Monday I shared my history with writing stories, and how I have oscillated between a problem of writing too few words and writing too many. In my very first stories my issue was that I would just say what happened without dressing it up at all. They read like a list of events more than a narrative. Here is an excerpt from the very first story I wrote:

We all agreed and headed off toward some islands in the distance. The next morning we landed on the first one. There wasn’t anything we could profit from, except for some branches that we made into harpoons with our swords. There were three other islands to visit, the next one was like the first. By then we were quite thirsty, but didn’t have any fresh water, so we went on. The next one appeared to be perfect, but as we neared the island three alligators swam towards us, we tried to sail away but they cut us off. Then one swam forward towards us I hacked at his head with my sword, I only managed to get a few cuts when he raised a six-foot tail, and dropped it in the middle of the boat.

This is a play-by-play of events. Even in its moment of action, the fight with the alligator, everything is “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” It took me some time to understand the importance of giving moments space to breathe, to evoke them rather than tell them, to let the reader experience them directly.

This can be taken too far, though. It would not do for a story to dwell on every moment. One has to filter from all of the things that could be shared in a story to just the things that should be. In writing this current piece I had to fight the temptation to throw in some side-plots to pad out the central narrative. That would be necessary to round things out if this were a larger coming-of-age novel, but it isn’t. It is a short piece about how a young boy deals with one problem and every scene that I’m including needs to be related to that single narrative.

There is still an element of rounding things out, though. I don’t want back-to-back scenes between the same two characters because that would feel weird. Characters need to have an interaction and then move on to somewhere else before they come back together. That might seem like an arbitrary requirement, but if you pay attention it is a commonly followed guideline in most stories. Come back on Monday as we take a closer look at this rule and the reason it exists. I’ll see you there.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Seven

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

There wasn’t much for Tharol to gain from ruminating on Master Palthio’s words, but he couldn’t help himself from turning them over and over in his mind. What had his master meant by saying he had made sure of Tharol’s failure in the contest? Had he formed the land such that the jump was impossible? Had he been involved in the deceit that Reis played on him?

If Master Palthio had simply meant to express a lack of faith in Tharol’s abilities he could have just said that. But he didn’t. He said he had made the missed jump happen. And he had told Tharol as much to put this worm in the boy’s mind, to make him irritated to understand the reason why. To make him ask himself all these exact questions!

When Tharol realized that he spat on the ground, right in the middle of the battlements as he marched his morning watch.

If that’s what Master Palthio wanted then Tharol wouldn’t waste another second on it. Let the old fool keep his secrets. The man was likely a traitor to the city anyway. Getting too close to his mind could only corrupt him. Better to keep his own counsel.

Not that he had much choice in the matter. Master Palthio stopped looking for audiences with the boy, even stopped making eye contact with him during lessons and training. He just cut off all connection at once and that suited Tharol just fine.

In spite of his professed indifference, though, Tharol couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when Master Palthio showed a special favor to Reis.

It occurred the morning after the competition while all the boys were gathered with Master Palthio for their morning lessons. At the end of the lecture Master Palthio shifted to the plans for the day, and when he came to the assignment for the night watch gave the same phrase the boys had always dreaded:

“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to me.”

The boys sighed and looked down.

“However…” Master Palthio continued and all the boys’ heads shot back up in an instant! “I have decided that in one fortnight the night watch will fall to…Reis.”

The boys gasped. All of them congratulated Reis warmly, and most of them expressed the feeling that he really did deserve to be the one to break that barrier for them all. Even Tharol made himself smile and offered a kind word.

Inside, though, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The fact that this decision came immediately after their last competition made it likely to Tharol that the two events were connected. Reis had won the competition and Tharol had lost. Reis was chosen to take the night watch and Tharol was not. Well, perhaps Tharol deserved the snub, but it was still a hard thing to accept.

None of the other students seemed to feel that Tharol had been looked over, though. Or if they did they never expressed it to him. In fact, much like Master Palthio, Tharol found that most of the other students didn’t want anything to do with him at all. A couple of them remained indifferent, but he could feel a strange shift in how most of them were perceiving him. There was a cold silence that started to fall when he entered a room, a refusal to meet his eyes in conversation, a series of extremely curt replies. Somehow he had been made into the most detested boy in their order and he didn’t have any idea why.

Or rather he didn’t have any idea until the next week when it was his turn to be Marshall over the next patrol. He had just come out of the armory and was crossing the road to where the line of boys were awaiting his instructions: Reis, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro.

“Everybody ready?” he asked nonchalantly, looking down at his waist as he buckled his sword on.

There wasn’t a response. Normally Tharol would have thought nothing of it. It had almost been a rhetorical question, after all, a mere formality. But once again he could sense a bitterness in the quiet. He looked upwards and all of the boys were staring firmly back at him…just not saying anything at all.

“I said is everybody ready?” He strained.

The boys nodded idly.

“I said is everybody ready?!”

“Yes, sir,” they returned sullenly.

“If any you are feeling discontent with the situation then I’m sure you’d agree we should resolve it before proceeding further,” he said officiously. “So what’s going on?”

A moment of heavy silence, then Bovik spoke up.

“I think we’d be more comfortable if someone else took command today, Tharol.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why don’t you assign an acting Marshall? You have that right.”

“Maybe if I was wounded, but I’m perfectly capable of carrying out my responsibilities as is!”

“Bovik’s right,” Janeao spoke up. “Why don’t you let Reis take charge?”

“Is this because I beat you out of the last competition?” Tharol shot back, deciding that as long as they were having this argument they might as well be honest about where it started. “Still sore on that?”

But to his surprise Janeao only chuckled and shook his head.

“What about you?” Tharol rounded on Bovik. “Would you be alright with Reis taking command?”

“Sure.”

“Even though he knocked you out last competition?”

“He didn’t.”

“What?”

“Once I saw you making an alliance with Beesk and Inol it was clear how things were. Sure enough, you sent them straight away to bully Avro into joining your little regime, too. Reis and I figured our only chance was to infiltrate your crew from the inside. So Reis told me his plan to trick you into throwing away your crown and I happily laid down to a count of four and let him take my crystal!”

“Hey, come on guys,” Reis started to speak up. “Tharol’s Marshall today. We’ve always followed the schedule for patrol.”

But Tharol wasn’t about to let things go. “So I played to win,” he countered. “So what? That’s what we’re supposed to do. Is that why you don’t want me to be Marshall?”

“No, that’s not even close to why,” Bovik sighed.

Tharol held up his hands in defeat. “Then what is it?”

“You let Beesk have private conversations with outsiders even though it’s against Standard Procedure. And you took a bribe from him when we went to marketplace.”

Tharol was taken aback, completely bewildered at what Bovik said. But then it dawned on him that he had never told Bovik about the street thief he had left the money to at the market. All Bovik had seen was Tharol hand an empty money bag back to Master Palthio when they had returned that afternoon. And of course Bovik didn’t know anything about how he was trying to win Beesk’s friendship to learn more of his plot.

Tharol looked down, his anger slowly dissipating. He finally realized how bad he must have made himself look to all of them. “You guys–” he said softly, “it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.”

A heavy silence followed. All the other boys expected him to try and explain himself, but Tharol realized that would mean showing a hand he was ashamed of. He would have to admit to them that he had been suspicious of them, that his reason for getting close to Beesk and Inol was to find out who else might be a traitor in their midst. He couldn’t say it.

*

Tharol moved through the next few days feeling completely detached from himself, numbly drifting from moment to moment. The hateful feeling of the other boys was only a small part of his hurt. Far more was that he agreed with them.

How had he come to distrust his friends so? Where had he learned to assume the worst in them? Yes, they had always been undisciplined, but to assume that they were traitors? How had he given up faith in them so easily? They deserved better.

If anyone had been corrupted or tainted, it felt like it was him. He had let himself become cynical and pessimistic.

There was only one bright spot that remained for Tharol. Reis still supported him, even if only in private.

“The other boys wouldn’t understand if we were seen together,” he said during one of their secret conversations.

“I get it,” Tharol sighed. Reis wasn’t compromised in the eyes of the other boys and it was better to keep things that way.

“And while I’m sorry about your reputation, the fact is we found out exactly what we needed to. Avro, Janeao, and Bovik are sincere. I think we can be certain of that now.”

Tharol nodded numbly.

“And I’m still on good terms with them…and you’re still on good terms with Beesk and Inol. Look, I know it’s a terrible thing to ask, but we’ve just got to play the hands we’ve been dealt. Eventually everything will come out right. We’ll set a trap for Beesk and Inol, and once we spring it we’ll be able to explain to everyone your real role in all this. You’ll be welcomed back a hero! Think of this as your sacrifice for a greater cause!”

Tharol nodded. Reis was right, he still had a role to fill. Since he already looked guilty to the rest of the boys he might as well lean into that. He would keep tabs on the dishonest side of the order, Reis on the honest.

Now he moved forward with a singular purpose: to get to the bottom of Inol and Beesk’s plot. He kept watching for a moment where the two of them were isolated from the rest of the group, and he didn’t have to wait long. Just the next afternoon he spied them chatting together behind the lumber stash. He approached them and they looked up expectantly.

“Hey…can we talk…openly?” he asked.

They looked to each other. The same look they had made just before leaving him to defend their crystals in the competition.

“Yeah…” Inol said finally. “I think we can.”

“Alright well–I want in,” Tharol shrugged.

“Yeah, you can be in,” Beesk nodded and Tharol was surprised at how smoothly this was going!

“I want–I want to be part of whatever’s going on with that lady we met out on patrol.”

They smiled.

“Funny you should say that,” Beesk said. “Because we just received permission from her to bring a third member into our party.” He tapped a piece of parchment hanging out of his front pocket.

“Beesk, you have that out for everyone to see?!” Inol shrieked. “Get that put away!”

Beesk rolled his eyes, but he folded the paper again so that it was hidden entirely from view.

“You’re in communication with her?” Tharol asked.

“She leaves us notes in a notch along the outer wall. Honestly don’t have a clue how she gets them up there, but we check it every day. Send her our own messages in the same way.”

“Okay. And you asked about bringing me on board?”

“That’s right. Actually we made the request earlier because we were hoping you would be given the first Night Watch. Guess that didn’t pan out.”

“You want to bring her in during the night?”

“Yeah, it would be more secure. Everyone else is asleep then, right?”

“Sure, but…well, how have you brought all the other merchants in?”

“Just left a rope hanging over the wall during the competitions. No one’s keeping watch then.”

“There’s still the guard golems then.”

“Yeah, and Inol and I always be sure to set up our two side-by-side, slightly rotated opposite directions so there’s a blind spot in between.”

“Okay, fine. So why aren’t you bringing the woman in that same way? Why wait for night?”

Inol and Beesk shrugged their shoulders.

“It’s her requirement,” Beesk said. “She insists she’s got to walk in through the gates. Don’t know why. Probably afraid of falling off the rope with that big, stone head of hers or something!”

Tharol smiled at the joke, but was secretly mortified at how nonchalant Inol and Beesk were about leaving the entire gates open to a stranger. Their carelessness really was more dangerous than malevolence.

“So are you planning to wait for Master Palthio to choose one of us three to be over the Night Watch?” he asked.

“No, she’s impatient,” Inol said. “We want to move forward with when Reis takes the Night Watch. That’s when security will be the weakest.”

“But Reis is such a stickler for the rules,” Tharol pointed out. “I don’t think we can win him over.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why we’re going to poison him instead.”

Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen

On Monday I spoke of heroes who face their challenges alone. I pointed out how in the last competition Tharol’s support slowly dwindled away until he eventually he had no one. Then he was forced to make a desperate jump as his only chance for saving face. In that particular moment he failed, proving that he didn’t have what it takes. And that theme carried through in today’s chapter. Tharol is dejected and ashamed, abandoned by all of his authentic friends, forced to pretend an alliance with the more unsavory ones.

In short I am taking my time in bringing Tharol to his moment of total isolation. While it is a lengthy process overall, it has featured some dramatic shifts, such as in today’s scene where Avro, Bovik, and Janeao suddenly reveal how Tharol has made himself look to them. I was excited by the opportunity to take him from lofty and confident to far more friendless and depressed in a single, fell swoop.

It was a very dramatic transition to make, and I feel that that flair was exactly what was required at this point in the story. For some stories this wouldn’t be the correct choice. Some stories need characters that slowly push towards change until all at once they make a sharp turn. Others should go through several swings, back and forth, before coming to rest somewhere along that pendulum. And still others should remain constant in an otherwise changing world.

I’d like to spend some time exploring these different styles of character arc with my next post. I’ll look at examples of each type in other stories and consider the strengths of each. Come back on Monday to read about that.