"Just another beautiful day," Keith said, staring out at the Lake, the sun starting to set beyond the tree-line at the water’s edge. Some of the other counselors may have been contained a note of sarcasm there, but not Keith. He absolutely loved the fresh air and constant physical activity. Being here was a nice reset from the constant struggles of the real world, where he constantly had to be at his best and train without any reserve. Not like that mattered anymore though.
The letter had come during that day’s afternoon activities and Keith knew it was a mistake the moment he decided to open it. The anxiety had gotten to him and he couldn’t stand to wait. Instead, he asked Louis to watch his group so that he could open the letter and the celebration could start early. Celebration . . . riiiiight.
At least he had a beautiful view like this to come to in times like this. He was just able to stare at the lake, watch the sun's rays bounce off it, and try to forget all of his worries. It used to work before. Now he couldn't keep his mind off anything that didn't involve that letter in some fashion. No, this was the last thing that Keith needed to be thinking about and he knew it. He needed to just take his mind off of it, however impossible that may have seemed.
Most of the clothes he brought to camp could be considered "workout gear" so he didn't even need to head back to his cabin after finally making the decision to go for a run; he was already dressed for it. Going for a jog was always his way of sorting out his thoughts, put things in a better perspective. Back when he needed to decide between which scholarship he was going to take, he went on a 14 mile run to clear his head. From the beginning of the run to the end, his mind ended up changing completely and he was grateful for the journey. Otherwise who knows what school he would have ended up at?
Keith darted towards the forest, jumping onto the path that had become his usual route, weaving in and out the trees with ease. It was hardly wide enough for one person to carefully walk on, let alone run, but he had taken this path for the past two weeks now, and had it mapped out carefully in his head. The entire route was four miles, and provided for quite the workout, so Keith found himself taking it anytime he needed to cool down.
As he continued down the path, his blood pumping and sweat collecting on his brow, his thoughts wandered. What was he even going to do next? This was supposed to be his chance to get to the next level. To make his passion into a career. The tears formed and started dripping down his face almost as much as the sweat beads that continued to pour out of him with each step. The salt in them burned a little but he powered through, using the pain as a motivator.
Keith must have taken his eyes off the ground in front of him for a split second because before he knew it he was tumbling forward, slamming into the trunk of a giant tree. The force of hitting it almost took his consciousness from him but instead just left him dizzy and lightheaded. He remembered in all the movies what it was like to be knocked out, waking up hours later with a lump on the head and no memory.
Instead everything just felt foggy and he didn't know what was happening at first. He couldn't have been out for more than a millisecond and could still vividly recall the fall. It couldn’t have been that bad. So much for the movies . . .
Keith’s fall must have made quite the noise because before he knew it, Diane was running down the path, a look of concern on her face.
"Hey are you --" Diane started to ask but stopped herself as soon as his saw his face full of tears, "Oh my god, what's wrong?"
“I fell it’s not a big deal,” he said, trying to pick himself but Diane quickly stopped him.
“Oh yeah then what’s this?” she said as she wiped a tear away from his cheek.
“I just. . .” Keith started but quickly everything came rushing to him. The disappointment his parents would feel. The lack of respect he’d get from everyone that once respected him. Everything he’d lose because of one stupid decision.
The tears started up hard and he couldn't have stopped them if he wanted to. Everything about his life was now up to question, all because he didn't put his best foot down. He didn't try with all that he could. He couldn't have. Otherwise things would have worked out just how they had in high school and then college. Things always worked out. Always.
"I just . . . I don't even know what I'm doing. All this training, all this love for the game, what does it amount to? So I can just be head basketball coach at a high school that sees me as a disappointment," said Keith through tears.
"What happened, Keith?" Diane sat down next to him, putting a consoling arm on his shoulder.
"They turned me down. Didn’t even give me a shot before they took every dream that I’ve ever had away from me. How can they even do that? I had tryouts scheduled and they just told me not to come. Didn't even want to bother. God dammit!" He punched the ground next to him in frustration. How could this be happening to him? He may have been a complete mess but how could he be wrong? Those bastards screwed up, not him.
"What? The pros?" Diane asked, still confused as to why exactly he was so upset. Keith wasn't surprised, it was an odd situation to have stumbled upon: a man who could barely get words out through the blubbering mess he'd become. Dad would be so ashamed of me right now.
"I don't even know what free time is. Everything has been spent preparing for this. Every waking moment. Watanka? I wish I could go to a camp like this when I was younger. It was always basketball camp or football camp or baseball camp. Any camp that made me better. Better at a fucking sport that doesn’t even matter anymore. All for some non-existent ‘next-level.’ I needed them to succeed. It was one after the other. I always had another thing to go to. I didn't have summers off. I didn't sit around playing video games with my friends late until the sun went down then rose again. I wasn't that kid. I didn’t get to be. I was an athlete. That was my identity. And now what am I?" Keith finally caught his breath and looked at Diane who just looked at him with sad puppy dog eyes. Is she even listening to me?
"Wow. Just when I thought you were Superman and didn't have any weaknesses" she swooned.
"How am I even supposed to succeed? My entire life I just assumed I'd be playing a sport professionally. Coasted my way through school because of it." Keith sniffled, trying to hold back more tears. At this rate, he'd be out soon. "I'm not even sure I could do basic algebra now. Heck, most of the time I did do my homework, it was just from online answer books. Now what? I'm just a dumb jock who's gonna wind up working in a factory. I should have just listened to my dad. I should have tried harder."
"Keith, I could be totally out of line with this but it seems like you're looking at this all wrong. You don't need to be anything you don't want to be. You seem to think there are only two options: playing professional basketball or going to a factory. Why do those have to be the only things? Why can’t you just find another approach? Why does having this one thing not work out mean the end of the world to you?"
"You just don't get it."
"What's there to get? Go somewhere else. Go to Europe and play. A lot of people do that. Hell my friend Jeannie's brother has been playing in Europe for two years and he played for a division III school that never made the playoffs. There are options. Sometimes you just have to open your eyes a little wider to see them."
Diane was right, Keith knew that, but it was still hard to actually admit to. It didn't matter anyway because there was no way his dad would let him do that. As soon as word got to him –hopefully not until Keith had some time to digest the information himself – he was sure to be driving up, wanting to come up with a game plan. Find other farm teams to try out for. Everything that he knew about getting to get to the next level. Keith had had enough of it. Enough of everything.
“What’s the point in playing if it’s not what I set out to do?” he asked, immediately thinking that it sounded better it in his head than out loud.
"Honestly, I can't even believe you even think like that. So what, one thing got in your way. So you're just going to quit? Sounds pretty childish to me." Diane's words cut deep. She was completely right and Keith knew it. He was acting extremely childish. Why would one obstacle mean everything is over? Granted it was a big obstacle but still. It just reminded him of how much things had just been given to him throughout his life. Was he even worthy of the life that he yearned for? He was naturally gifted so he had a litany of options in school. No matter what sport he did, he excelled at it. In basketball, he was the point guard. In football, he was the quarterback. In baseball, he was the short-stop and clean-up batter. He was always in the spotlight and he always thrived in it. But it had all come so naturally that it didn't even require much thinking on his part. Did he even deserve it?
By the time schools were seriously looking at him for college athletics, he just took the best scholarship on the table. It was a choice that was in front of him, no reaching out necessary. They came to him. The scouts courted him at his games, chatting up his dad, and usually offering to pay for some kind of meal at a get-together. This trend seemed like it would continue but suddenly the phone calls stopped coming. Now he was two years removed from school, with several failed walk-on attempts under his belt, barely able to stay afloat while he chased his dream to become a professional athlete.
“Thanks,” Keith said, truly meaning it.
“Oh yeah, sure. Little miss Diane and her infinite wisdom. We all know how much everyone appreciates it.”
“Yeah, well I do. So thank you.” They both smiled at each other, looking anywhere but at each other’s eyes. Keith wasn’t sure if it was because she liked him or if she was embarrassed by the way his face looked covered in tears.
“I’m going into the city in a couple hours. Would you like to come with?” Diane asked. That was out of nowhere. A trip to the city was all that Keith needed right now, especially with Diane. Was there an implication here? Should he be nonchalant about it? Should he be more straight-forward? Fuck it.
“Okay, but only if it’s a date,” he said as bluntly as possible.
“I . . . well yeah,” she was barely able to get it out through her nervous laughter.
“Then I’ll meet you at your cabin at seven,” he said, finally having a smile come to his face.
“You better clean yourself up,” she said and he finally noticed just how dirty he was from the fall. His knee was pretty banged up as well, with blood dripping out from it. It looked worse than it felt though, with Keith able to ignore it for the most part.
“You sure you don’t want me to look like this? I figured I’d be going for the deep woods survivalist look.” She provided him a chuckle.
“Just let me go jump around in the mud a bit so I can get on your level and we should be good to go,” she said, smiling uncontrollably. “I need to get back to the kids though. One of the boys thought he lost his grandfather’s watch during our scavenger hunt today so I had to go look for it. Thankfully it was just on top of one of the stumps next to the fire pits. Didn’t prevent me from getting eaten alive on my way out here though. Little bastard better be appreciative.”
“Here let me. . .” he said, holding out his hand to help her up, “You know, those kids don’t realize how good they have it. I don’t think anyone else would have gotten that for him.”
“Oh, so you’re saying you wouldn’t have?”
“Me? Of course not. It’s lost for the ages.” He grinned wide, his eyes darting back and forth between her eyes and her lips.
“I’ll see you in a bit, hard ass. Keep your head up.” And with that she was gone, leaving Keith to stand there, grinning like an idiot. It may have been small, but it was finally a win. And god knows he needed it. One unfortunate fact remained: he still needed to deal with his father.
Deciding he could probably use the extra pump before his date, he started back down the trail, this time paying a little closer attention to the path at his feet. His knee throbbed throughout the run but he powered through it, finally returning to his place after a four mile run. He returned to an empty cabin and was able to quickly make it to the showers, unoccupied thankfully. For some reason the kids were all in the dining hall. A little early isn’t it? Looking forward to a little privacy, he found himself annoyed somewhat to find Louie inhabiting the cabin when he returned from the showers. The six pack at his feet – half gone – didn’t help matters.
“Dude you were supposed to watch my group for me,” said Keith,
“Calm down. Al and Marion are doing some safety lesson. All the kids are with them. The counselors have officially been dismissed for the night. Looks like I really interrupted a difficult time in your life. Enjoy your spa day?” Louie had a slight edge to him. The kids must have gotten to him.
“Huh. . . wonder why she didn’t tell me that?” Keith said, almost under his breath.
“What? Who?” Louie asked abrasively.
“Diane. I just saw her. She didn’t mention anything about it. Guess that makes sense why she was able to leave her group,” Keith trailed off towards the end, almost just saying it to himself.
“Diane? That girl’ll take any excuse she can to go smoke a cig in the woods. She thinks no one’s wise to it but I can smell that shit on her from across the lake. Wait, why were you in the woods with her anyway?” he asked suspiciously.
“Running. You know me. You won’t believe this though, I’ve got a date." Keith was excited to be able to tell someone of his success but he was still confused by Louie. Had Keith mentioned that he saw her in the woods? How could he have known she was there?
“You know, somehow I do believe it,” said Louie, rolling his eyes, “Diane I take it?”
“Hey, you know you could be a little more happy when good things happen to your friends. It’s not always a slight on you. Life is rough for all of us.”
"Yeah, that perfect six-pack and those All-American good looks must make your life pretty tough to navigate. I bet you only have like . . . three girls that think about fucking you in a given day. What a rough fucking life," said Louie, his tone somewhere between annoyed and complimentary, "You don't even realize how much that is not a normal thing. At all. I wish I had that many girls even thinking about me. Doesn't even have to be sexual. Could just be ‘Hey, that guy sure is pleasant.’"
"And how exactly do you know they're not? Are you a mind reader? If anything I’d say you’re the master of anti-social situations."
"Because I don't look like you and that makes me qualified,” Louie reasoned, “I'm the guy that girls think to themselves – or even out loud – 'he was funny.' And that is it. Positively the only thing. My face comes up and that is literally the only thought that comes to their head. Their brains won’t compute anything differently."
"Your self-confidence is just oh-so appealing, Louie."
"I’m very confident in myself. I'm just not delusional. I'm not one of those funny guys who beats himself up because he can't get the hot girl. I get it. I'm the guy who gets the girl who wants to sleep with the funny guy. Can’t say they’re the most mature but hey, I’ll take ‘em.”
Poor Louie, Keith thought to himself, Just doesn't seem to get it. Maybe he'll figure it out one day.
"You know, someday you're gonna meet a nice girl that is your perfect fit and all your resentment towards women will just disappear." Keith tried to give him some advice, make him see that being so negative wasn’t going to help him in the long run, but he knew where this usually lead.
"I think I'll just follow the normal path,” Louie said, cracking open a beer he’d retrieved from his mini-fridge. Apparently the six pack at his feet was empty.
"Which is?" Keith asked, genuinely curious of what Louie’s idea of “normal” could be.
"Just marry someone I can barely tolerate and grow stagnant with till eventually death takes us both." He sipped on his beer as if to reward himself for a job well done. Oh Louie.
"God you're a negative person, Louie."
"Which is it?"
"Which is what?" Keith asked, clueless.
"Are you calling me God or Louie, because I usually prefer one name per sentence when possible?"
"See, you're a funny guy. Use that charm on a girl."
"Yeah right," Louie chuckled, "Hasn't been working out for me so far."
"Oh come on, what about that girl you thought you might get with? You seemed pretty confident about that when we were talking at the fire."
"Well, some guy with a six pack decided to come along and swoop her up instead. So it looks like I’m shit out of luck.” Louie raised his beer in a fake salute.
Oh crap. The thought had never even entered Keith's mind that Louie could be interested in Diane. He had mentioned having a crush on some girl but Keith always assumed that it was Marion. He couldn’t help but feel like a complete idiot, cringing at his own ignorance. He was parading it in front of Louie without even realizing.
“I'm sorry, Louie, I didn't even . . . Honestly, I thought –"
"It’s fine," Louie interrupted, "It was just a little crush anyway. Not like I had a shot. Would be kind of stupid to call dibs on something that wouldn't happen anyway. No hard feelings."
Louie patted him on the shoulder and walked over to his bed, grabbing a book and immediately diving into its pages. They sat there in silence for a while, with Louie reading his fantasy book and Keith throwing a baseball up into the air as he lay on his back, essentially playing catch with himself. Every now and then Louie would shoot Keith a glare, as if asking him to leave the cabin.
“Look if you don’t want me to go on the date –“ he started but Louie was quick.
“Okay then I don’t want you to go on a date with her!”
“—then I’m sorry and hope you realize what you’re asking is extremely immature,” Keith finished.
“I don’t know why you said anything then if you weren’t going to change your mind.” Louie greatly resembled a child having a temper tantrum, straight down to his crossed arms and pouty look.
“Because I thought you were going to be a mature adult and say ‘No, don’t worry, it’s fine. It’s not like I had a thing with her anyway. Go for it.’”
“Go for it? You think I’m gonna tell you to go on a date with the girl I’m into? Are you out of your mind?” Louie was getting sloppy now, a little slur to his words and violent stomp at the end of his sentence.
“That’s what an adult will do! It’s not like I’d be mad if you got a date with her. It’d mean she was into you and I’d be happy for you. That’s how adults handle situations. This isn’t high school.”
“Oh it’s just so easy to be happy for someone in hypotheticals isn’t it? Bet you’ve gotten your way your entire life. You know, it’s not so easy for the rest of us,” Louie threw barbs at Keith but he refused to bite. He wasn’t going to be dragged down into a stupid argument.
“Your negativity is really affecting me right now, so I’m gonna take the mature route and leave the situation.” He tried being as calm as possible. He just needed to leave and get some fresh air before either one of them said anything they regretted.
Not wanting to come back to the cabin, Keith patted his pockets and searched for his wallet. He grew a little more worried with each pat that yielded no results. It wasn’t in any of them. What could he have done with it?
“Crap. Have you seen my wallet?” Keith said, looking in his previous days clothes. It has to be in here somewhere.
“Wallet? Nah, man. I don’t think so. Can’t say I really check for it when I’m in here though, I’m usually too busy being negative.”
“It’s got to be in here somewhere,” Keith ignored Louie’s comment. He didn’t have time to deal with his childish games.
“When’s the last time you had it?” Louie said, finally being useful.
It was then that Keith realized exactly where it had to be. He had his wallet at breakfast and he hadn’t been back to the cabin, so it had to be with him on the run. It must have fallen out when I whiffed it on my run. It made sense that, that would be where it was, but it was the last thing he wanted to deal with. He was already dealing with enough bad energy right before his date. But he couldn’t exactly take Diane out without money. It happened to be a vital component of the whole date experience and the last thing he needed for his ego was for Diane to pay for the date.
Keith left without saying a word to Louie, not really wanting to deal with whatever insult he had stored up. Now that he was out of beer there was no telling where he’d go with his jabs and Keith had more pressing matters to tend to.
Once he reached the forest’s edge he looked down at his sports watch: 6:40pm. He still had plenty of time. Darting off down the path, he made sure to keep his eye on the forest bed, not wanting to have to go through that incident again, not to mention having to shower on top of that. Soon he came upon the area where he had fallen – obvious due to the disturbed foliage and snapped sticks from his fall. Then there was the giant tree that he had run into. How could he forget that? Some of the bark was peeling off from where his knee scraped up against it. He leaned down, scoping the area for any signs of the wallet.
Off in the distance he could hear kids playing and someone yelling about staying out of the water. They must be out of that safety meeting, Keith thought, smiling at the thought of what it’d be like to be a kid at the camp. To get to enjoy all these things without any worries or fears of what the next day will bring. God damn I wish I was a kid again.
He spotted the black leather of his wallet peeking out of a mound of leaves. It would have completely blended in if not for the giant maize and blue M that adorned it. He leaned over, picking it up and wiping the dirt and soot off it. That could have ended very badly.
A hooded figure rose up behind him. Keith didn’t even notice it until it was too late.
The thought of this moment had entered their mind over and over leading up to this moment but never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the rush that would follow. The cold steel of their blade cut at Keith's Achilles tendon, slicing it in half and sent him flying to the dirt and foliage like a ragdoll. He grabbed at his leg, still not entirely knowing what was happening. He half shouted but a swift kick to his throat stopped that with a CRUNCH. The blood splatter was more intense than expected, nicking what must have been an artery. Keith tried to stop it with his hands but instead gave himself crimson gloves, the flow just too much to stop. His eyes moved from his wound, up to his would-be killer, showing nothing other than absolute terror. Their appearance sent shivers down his spine with the black hood leaving just enough light, to see the white mask. Expressionless. Fearless. Remorseless. Their blank stare, piercing through the dark abyss of the eye holes, a nightmare in and of itself.
"Please, I don't know why you're doing this but just . . . please stop," Keith pleaded in a gravely tone, finally able to get some words out that were more than whimpers. The blood continued to rush from his heel, a pool forming at his feet. His face grew paler with each passing second. The wound gushed and gushed – more than expected. Keith was quickly losing his strength. It wouldn't be long, with his face nearly ghost white. No, it wouldn’t be long at all.
The first of many.
They plunged the long blade down again, finishing the job. Keith no longer struggled. He no longer whimpered. He just laid there. That's all he'd ever do. Just lay.
END CHAPTER ELEVEN.
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