If you take Union Street away from down town and turn left on Oak Street, you would go over a small hill. This is the tallest point in Ellison. From this spot, you would notice a giant billboard advertising Timber Lodge, the truck stop and restaurant on the North side of the freeway. You would also see a few roads measuring off large blocks of land, and the bottom of the hill you would see the new Ellison Sports Center. The Sports Center consists of two soccer fields, one baseball field, playground equipment, and a building housing a concession stand and bathrooms. It was donated to the village by the farmer who owned most of the land on the northwest side of town. The sporting area was surrounded by fields of corn on either side and the main freeway was on its northern border. Kids seemed to like being relatively close to the freeway; it always gave them something to watch if the game was boring or if they were just waiting around.
Most of the people who grew up in Ellison don’t know the names of any of the streets over the hill. The land had been gobbled up by a housing developer, and now they are just trying to fill the entire area with three variations of the same cookie-cutout home. It is Ellison’s first subdivision, called Silent Meadows. Ellison, like towns much larger in size, was starting to become more segregated: the near downtown area was considered the poorest area; the southeast side, the “old” area; and now the far west side, the rich part of town.
The Kellers were the first family to build a house in Silent Meadows. They had lived in a ranch house closer to downtown, but when Emily became pregnant with their third child, it was decided they should have something larger. Now, Tyson’s would be starting his first year of school; her oldest, Bryce, would be entering his junior year, while Alex would be an eighth grader.
She was in a house surrounded by men, and as all five of them sat down for a late breakfast before Alex’s soccer game, she couldn’t imagine it any other way. Tyson had a mound of pancakes in front of him, and he had taken it upon himself to pour his own syrup. She was impressed that over half of the syrup made it onto his plate. If he didn’t have food in his mouth, he was talking. His stocky stature and strong almost square facial features earned him the nickname of “her little man.”
“Nice one, genius. Give me that,” Bryce reached across and grappled the bottle away from his brother, whose pancakes were now swimming in swirls of syrup and melting butter. There was no denying that there were brothers. Tyson looked exactly like his oldest brother. Bryce, however, was lanky and prided himself on a good sense of style, politeness, and being the go-to guy for a wide expanse of friends because of his great listening skills. Like the typical teenager, he had a fork in one hand and his phone in the other. Unlike his parents, Bryce did not have a Facebook page. He used Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, with Instagram being his favorite. He loved selfies.
Although, Emily hadn’t said it out loud, she was excited for this year’s prom seasons, because she was certain her Bryce would be crowned king. Having a popular, handsome son with a fortitude of Christian values reflected well on his upbringing. Even over his pancakes, Bryce was taking a minute to use his phone to check out his hair and to make sure his blue polo was set just right. This was one of his favorite obsessions, which is why Emily had starting calling him “Mister GQ,” even though he had no idea what “GQ” meant until he looked it up on his phone.
As Tyson inhaled his food and Bryce split his time between phone and food, Alex was sitting on the other side of his big brother just looking at his plate; a little slab of butter was starting to pool from the heat, but otherwise his pancakes were dry.
“Bryce, give your brother some syrup,” Tim had bellowed from across the table, and Bryce slid the bottle over to his brother without looking up from his phone. Emily had met Tim their freshmen year at Fox Grove High School, and they got married not soon after graduation. However, they decided to wait a long time before starting a family because they wanted to be economically stable, and then after the birth of each son, they waited to see if they could afford to have another. Tim looked much younger than 40, and Emily hoped she looked just as good as he did. Bryce already towered above his father several inches, but although he was only about 5’9″, Tim was all lean muscle and his voice was so deep that it was sometimes difficult for people to understand him. Bryce and Tyson both had acquired his father’s naturally tan skin, but neither of them had dark blonde hair like their father. Their hair was a dark brown like their mother’s.
Alex, on the other hand, had light blonde hair with Emily’s pale complexion. Unlike his brothers, Alex had more mousy features with very large ears and a narrow face with green eyes that always looked surprised. The ears had been a problem at school last year with some of the other kids; bullying is alive and thriving in Ellison. Alex preferred his hair spiky and messy, and he asked for so little that Emily just let him keep it that way. He struggled in school with all of his subjects, he didn’t have many friends, and he was very uncoordinated. Regardless, he had no problems saying “hello” to everyone in hopes of them becoming his friend, and he played just as many sports as his older brother. Although, he did not have as many trophies, and unlike Bryce and Tyson, he did not have a fun nickname. Emily hadn’t really noticed that, but Alex had.
“Tyson, that’s enough,” Emily scolded as the boy lifted the bottle for another pour. His plate had transformed more into a pancake bowl than a plate. His brow furrowed, but he placed it back on the table and crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
“Looks like some guys are going down to the river to go kayaking. Can I borrow the car and go down there?” Bryce was transforming the information from his phone into a question without looking up.
“What time?” Emily asked
“Alex’s game won’t be over by then,” Emily almost pouted. “We really want everyone there for his last game.”
“Watching a bunch of kids running around not knowing what they are doing doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. Besides, Alex hardly plays, so doesn’t pay to watch him warm the bench. It’s the last weekend before school starts. Can’t I just go with my friends?”
“I don’t wanna go either, stupid Alex,” Tyson piped up as he eyed the maple syrup.
Alex watched the conversation like a tennis match and piped in, “It’s okay, Bryce. You don’t–”
“You’re going,” the deep rumble came from the other end of the table. “We all are.”
Bryce said nothing, but his feverish texting spoke volumes.
“You can always go after, Bryce,” Emily tried to assuage her eldest’s displeasure. She hate to see him upset. “Still plenty of day left after it’s over.”
He just shrugged. Tyson had taken the opportunity to edge the maple syrup closer to his plate and was taking the bold maneuver to add a second layer to his plate.
“Tyson, no! Don’t do that,” Alex implored from his side of the table. It was at a standard conversational volume, but for Alex that was practically shouting.
Emily, without saying a word, took the bottle from Tyson and moved it to the other side of her plate but looked over toward her middle son, squinted her eyes, and pursed her lips.
“Alex, be nice to you brother, please.”
The remainder of brunch was drama-free, and the five of them headed over to the soccer field. Bryce gave a longing look at the car as they walked with lawn chairs in their hands. Only the visiting team sat in the provided bleachers; the Ellison parents brought their own chairs and sat dotted up and down the sidelines of the field. The more brazen parents were known to bring coolers concealing beer and wine filled thermoses; Emily Keller didn’t associate with those mothers. She was a good Lutheran.
As soon as their chairs were set up near midfield, Bryce vanished to go chat to some of his friends who also had been dragged to the event by their parents. Tyson played with some trucks that he brought from home and asked his mother if he could go to the playground approximately every five minutes. Her response never changed: “I can’t watch you from here, and we don’t know those kids. I don’t want you getting hurt. Watch your brother.”
However, as Bryce predicted, there was very little to watch. Alex sat on the bench and took a growing interest in his shoes as he tapped a spare ball from one foot to the other. Of course, there were a lot of people they knew: the Johnsons, Buelows, Wassermans, Finkles, and many others that they usually sat with and chatted to during Bryce’s basketball or baseball games. At Alex’s soccer game, though, the Kellers stayed in their planted spot and politely waved to them from their lawn chairs.
Near the end of the first half, Alex finally entered the game. Emily sat up straight on the edge of her chair while Tim spread his legs and rested his elbows on his thighs, clasping his hands as if he were praying.
Alex was smaller than almost every boy on both teams, and his red jersey was too big for him, which just accentuated the contrast. He hadn’t quite grasped the concept of dribbling the soccer ball, so every time he got the ball, he’d kick it with all his might. Sometimes it went to one of his teammates, but more often it ended up out of bounds or directly to one of the opposing players. The last two minutes of the half dragged on because of how many times Alex had kicked the ball out of bounds.
With each shot that crossed the outer edges of the playing field, Emily slouched a little more and Tim’s hands held on to each other a little tighter. Both of them hadn’t realized they were holding in their breaths until the whistle blew for the end of the first half, and they let out a collective sigh.
The boys met for a huddle on the field to get a pep talk before the start of the second half. Typically, this wouldn’t take the entire time, and they would disperse to go to their families before the start of the second half. Emily was always ready with supportive comments, because Alex would almost always meander across the field with his head hung low. Today, though, her husband would be left to the task since Tyson had finally broke her down to take him over to the playground for a few minutes.
“Well, hello stranger, ready for another school year?” Susie Johnson asked Emily as she was standing in line to get a Diet Coke at the concession stand.
“Oh, definitely,” Emily responded. “Bryce is looking forward to basketball and taking his ACTs. You know he took some prep classes this summer, so he’s really looking forward to nailing the test. Oh, and of course, there’s prom and all that other stuff they all love.”
“Well, that’s good. Nancy had such a stressful junior year with all of her student council responsibilities and keeping up with her dance team work.” Susie took a gulp of her Mountain Dew and added as an afterthought, “and now that it’s senior year, it’s college, college, college, you know.”
Emily nodded. “Tyson is starting Pre-K in the morning this year, too, so I’ll have all three boys in school now. He’s going to be a handful for his poor teacher. Chatty and stubborn to no end, but then turns on that little charm and gets away with murder.”
Susie laughed because she knew it was true. An awkward pause ensued since they had covered kids and the school year hadn’t begun, which was the true source of all their gossip and social interaction. Emily now had her own soda in hand and kept an eye on Tyson who was climbing around the equipment and making friends with everyone he came across.
Susie seemed to be waiting for her to say something. People were milling around everywhere since both soccer fields were being used, so they did some people watching as they waited for the games to start up.
Speaking more into her soda can than at Emily, Susie ventured, “And Alex? He’s in eighth this year?”
Emily’s shoulders slumped down just a bit as she seemed to stare off at nothing toward the horizon. “Yeah, eighth. We’re hoping this year will be better for him. He struggles so much, it just breaks my heart. Such a good heart. But, you know, Alex has challenges. I’m not certain how far he will be able to go. Tim and I are thinking that tech school may serve him better. You know, learn a trade or become an apprentice somewhere? He tries so hard. It would help if he had some friends, but you can’t really do that for them. If I could, I would, god knows, but it just isn’t possible.”
During this small confessional, Emily had noticed yet ignored a red glint in the corner of her eye, but she turned and saw the blonde spiky hair swimming in a red shirt just to the side of her. She wondered if he had heard her, but he seemed to be focused on Tyson being spun around on a tire swing. Emily noticed Bryce was pushing him, which made her smile. She liked when the brothers did something together without her forcing it.
“Mom, can I get a soda?” Alex asked as Emily’s attention was brought back to the concession stand area. Susie was looking at him with an empty smile and sad eyes.
Emily reached in her pockets for some coins, and Alex got into line.
“I hope he has a nice year, too,” Susie concluded before excusing herself to rejoin her family on the other side of the field from the Kellers.
Alex, Tyson, and Emily walked back to their lawn chairs together for the last few minutes. Tyson was begging for soda the entire way, crying foul that Alex got one while he didn’t. Bryce had returned to his friends milling about the parking lot, and Tim had his eyes closed with his head tilted to the sky.
Finally, the game started back up, and Alex was back on the field. Tyson was content because he got the remainder of Alex’s soda, and Emily was back on the edge of her seat hoping that the sugar rush would improve his aim. His teammates, though, had learned from the first half and just avoided passing the ball to Alex altogether. Although Emily understood the motivation, she hated to see him being excluded. Being only thirteen years old, they didn’t have the skills to keep it up for long, and one boy wasn’t paying attention and gently tapped it over to Alex who was standing near the center of the field.
Using his usual maneuver and forgetting the necessity of dribbling or passing the ball, Alex gave himself some room and ran up to the ball, kicking it with every ounce of energy he had. Emily hadn’t seen the kick as she was reaching over to take the soda away from Tyson, who had spilled half of it down his shirt. Tim was checking the baseball scores on his phone. Everyone else, though, saw the soccer ball take flight.
The ball soared with more speed than any ball Alex had kicked before, and Emily could attest to that as it made direct contact with the side of her face. Her nose bearing a large brunt of the force, it started bleeding. With the shock, Tim had leaped from his chair and knocked into Tyson, who found himself splayed out on the ground with his lawn chair flipped over on top of him. Tim yelped, ignored his son for the time being, as he scrounged for something Emily could hold up to her nose to help stop the bleeding.
Later on, when Susie Johnson was retelling the story for about the tenth time and had finessed it with the proper nuances, she would end saying, “And there he stood in the field. Just watching. And, though I can’t say for sure, I am pretty sure he was smiling.”