“You know he is.”
Barker steps closer. He can see the boy, leaning away from him, eyes bulging out of their sockets, dried blood and brain matter splattered on the fabric roof of the silver minivan.
Barker looks at the shotgun, the boy’s thumb still stuck in the trigger guard. An analog watch rests on his thigh, two small circles of dried blood over the three and over the six.
“He’s a big feller ain’t he?” Thompson says.
“Yeah, he is.”
“And what you make of that?” He points at the watch, almost touching it, his sheriff’s badge scraping past the nose of the dead boy.
“He watched the time. They do that.”
“Watch the time like that. They decide they gonna do it at say 12:30 p.m., and they watch and when that clock say 12:30 p.m., that’s when they do it.”
“You think it’s that boy been missing all week?”
“I reckon, but I don’t know.”
They found the van by a creek in the Arkansas wilderness, hidden by a rocky outcropping, glistening with quartz and other minerals. The birds sing around them, around the death and the smell and the stillness of it all.
“Fuck man,” Thompson says.
“That boy thunder.”
“You know he is.”
They watch him move down the field, football tucked under one arm. He sticks his hand out, just like he saw on the television, and the free safety doesn’t stand a chance.
Their helmets collide like rams, and the crack makes the other boys stop and look. Linemen disengage from their blocks and stand there, watching. A small boy says out loud, “Holy shit.”
“That boy lightning.”
“You know he is.”
The free safety hits the turf, sending a cloud of black rubber and fake grass flying. The other boy, the thunder, he keeps going, never stopping—never thinking of stopping—until he is in the end zone.
“Everything he do, he do big.”
“You know that boy?”
“That’s my boy.”
The other men watch this holy moment, offer their supplications with tears hidden in their eyes. Four years and it is Friday nights, and he becomes their boy, too. Ain’t no one from Booneville like this, they say. Ain’t nobody from nowhere like this. They pray about it. On their knees they pray about it.
Beau is one of them. In his grays and helmet, he’s one of them. But then again, in a lot of ways, he is not. Coach tweets on his whistle, and the boys bend in half, reaching behind their calves, pulling themselves downward.
Beau sees the lineman behind him, barely stretching, his belly too big and his legs too rigid to clasp any further than his knees.
Coach tweets again, and the boys go upright.
“Win,” they say, all together, and down they go again.
Beau watches the lineman struggle. Robert is his name, a sophomore, but the biggest kid they got in the trenches.
When Coach tweets, they say win. Over and over. All morning, he reminded them what they are there for.
“You think this is fun? This ain’t fun. Nothin fun about this. This all about Friday. This all about winning. Ain’t a game. When I blow this whistle, you say win, cause that what we do. We don’t do that, we wasting time.”
“Win.” Beau whispers it to himself. He knows winning isn’t just on the scoreboard. It is in every movement. It is in every drill. Every moment on the practice field is designed around this concept. You win against your opponent. You win against your teammate. You win against your Coach. His father told him. He believed his father.
“Coach say to go half speed, you go full speed,” his father once said. “He say walk through, you go full speed. Soon Coach just know, Beau don’t got half speed. Beau don’t got walking speed. Beau go boom, and that’s all he go.”
Beau likes that. They finished warm-ups with jumping jacks, and at each peak, with their arms in the air as if in celebration, they call it out together.
“Win, win, win, win.” Over and over, until Coach blows his whistle, and the hitting begins.
In the dressing room, he checks his jawline in a small cracked mirror affixed to the back of his locker. He clamps his teeth again and again so the tendon rolls across his cheek like waves to the shore.
“Hey, Beastmode, what you doin?”
It’s Teddy Graham. That’s what Coach calls him. Teddy Graham.
“Olson look just like a teddy graham,” Coach said. And the upperclassmen made him stand with his hands over his belly, just like the cookie, and they laughed. And Teddy Graham laughed too.
Olson’s a lineman. A junior, short and fat, with a square head. He’s naked except a towel, but he has the center open on purpose so when Beau turns to look Teddy Graham’s balls are right in his face.
Beau doesn’t say anything. He just looks at the balls and looks away.
Coach call Beau “Big Easy” sometimes because he’s big, and he makes it look easy. Everyone calls him Beastmode, too. Beau doesn’t think twice about the games the others play in the locker room. He pulls up his pants, claps Teddy Graham on the shoulder, looks him in the eye for a long time.
“Win,” he says, then turns him lose. Teddy Graham just stands there with his dick out.
Beau studies the eagle—the War Eagle—painted on the rubbery latex coated cinder blocks on the back wall of the gym. “That War Eagle gonna fuck you up,” he says, and he touches the black outline, follows it with a finger like he sometimes follows his lead blocker through a gap.
What is school spirit? He knows. It’s when he lifts his arms in front of the screaming student body, and they say his name like they never say it any other time. It’s when he steps across the goal line, and the nearest defender is 25 yards behind him. It’s when a different cheerleader sucks him off every Friday night.
It’s when Anna Carol don’t, and suddenly she’s the most beautiful and most sacred. He wants to hold her and put her hair between his fingers like the laces of a football and feel something soft and hear her little voice speak to him where only he knows what she says.
He swoops his finger around the outer circle of the War Eagle, following it inward across the wings, across the razor-sharp talons. “That War Eagle fuck you up,” he reminds himself. “Fuck you up real good.”
Barker stands in the driveway. There are cars everywhere. Thompson steps out of the patrol car, his boots crunching in the gravel.
“They come from everywhere,” Thompson says, and he points at a license plate.
“Californy,” Barker says. “Nice ride, too.” There’s a University of Southern California decal on the back glass. Barker sticks his thumb at it. “You reckon he here recruitin or here helpin look for this boy?”
They take a few steps toward the house—an old, green-painted thing, with white lattice and creeping ivy on the right side. Something stirs in the window, and Barker knows they are peeking out at him. He knows just by him being there they were already starting to panic.
“You remember him don’t you?”
“Course I do.”
“He ran 434 yards on 11 carries against Dover. That’s a state record.”
“Damn is right. Forty fuckin yards per touch, and you know he was on the bench by halftime.”
Barker looks at the house. He rests his forearm on his pistol, leaning to one side.
“You tell them? Or I tell them?”
“You tell them. I reckon they know. He been gone a week.”
“Kids go missin a week sometimes. Don’t mean they dead.”
“I reckon they suspect.”
Thompson tips off his deputy hat, draws in a deep breath. Barker does the same. They approach the house, which seems to sag under the weight of their burden, as if it knew.
“Ma’am, your boy, we found him. He’s dead. We are sorry.”
Barker stares past her into the living room. On the wall, the boy’s high school jersey is framed. Another wall holds a life-size cutout of the boy, his arm extended toward a nonexistent defender, his leg kicked up in a high step, the football just barely visible in his right arm, tucked away like a child, safe from harm. The living room is filled with recruiters, their crisp polos showing their school logos. They are here, Barker knows, not to help find the boy, this woman’s child. They are after their asset, for which they have already spent a considerable sum.
The woman screams. She screams like she’d done every Friday in the fall. She screams like every momma ever screamed when he told her what he told her. The boy’s father takes her in his arms. He struggles to hold her on her feet.
“Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
Barker doesn’t know who he was talking to.
Anna Carol says she will go to lunch with him, and it’s bigger than four touchdowns against Lavaca the night before. He types up the text three times before he hits send and flicks the phone into the corner of the couch, too scared to see her response.
When he does check, it says, “Sure.”
Just that. “Sure.”
Beau pulls on his favorite black and red War Eagles sweater.
“Sure,” he says, grinning at himself in the mirror.
He brushes his teeth.
He tells his momma where he’s going, and she smiles, too. He kisses her on the top of the head.
“Love you, momma,” he says. She squeezes him tight around the torso. He gets his shoes from the front step, slides into them.
He takes her to Big Boy Burgers cause it’s where he always goes. The old men in the corner get excited when he walks in the door. They’re drinking soda and chomping on big greasy burgers and talking about the night before, 46-0 against Lavaca, and on their homecoming, too.
When he and Anna Carol sit, they stand and circle his table. Beau knew this would happen. It happens every time he comes here. It happens no matter where he goes. A small town like this changes during football season. Everywhere in town, every trip in Walmart—it’s a tiny pep-rally, with Beau at the center. He smiles at her.
“Who’s this pretty lady? This your lady? Shore is a pretty thing.”
They all but pinch her.
“Just a friend,” he says.
They share a glance, like they know something. One of them puts his styrofoam cup down on the table, puts both meaty hands down in front of them. He leans down, right in their face, and winks.
“Quite a show you put on Lavaca.”
“Quite a show you put on Dover.”
“You put a show on everybody so far.”
“We gonna win state?”
“You got any offers? Where you going after high school?”
“Naw, just talkin.”
“Missouri, Arkansas, some D-2 schools. Some NAIA schools. Just talkin.”
A murmur goes through the old men. Beau looks at Anna Carol, and she turns bright red. She cups one hand over her brow so they can’t make eye contact.
“A boy like you do mighty fine at an Arkansas, I reckon. You win state, I reckon talkin become offers. You win state; it’s all open to you.”
After the men leave, Anna Carol tells him she hates football. She hates it. She takes a drink of her Dr. Pepper, looks at the old men who have returned to their slobbery burgers, and says, “I can’t think of anything more pathetic than being grown and obsessed with high school football.”
“War Eagle run deep,” Beau says.
Her brow wrinkles up. “What’ll War Eagle give you when it uses you up? What will you have left?”
“War Eagle will send me to college.”
“I hate football.”
“You don’t know football. Don’t nobody hate football. Why you cheer if you hate football?”
She thought for a long time. Longer than she thought before she said “sure” to having a burger with Beau at Big Boy on a Saturday afternoon. “Sometimes you ain’t got a choice what you do.”
“Why you come here with me then?”
Anna Carol shrugs. “I’ll let you know when I figure that out.”
Beau looks at the men, who seem to pause their entire conversation just because his gaze went their way. One man puts down his burger and gives a little salute with two fingers.
Outside on the glass, it says “GO WAR EAGLES WIN STATE” in red and black letters. The kids stop Beau and Anna Carol there, tugging on the sleeve of his hoodie.
There’s six of them, all dirty and towheaded. The bravest one, a kid with blue eyes and an explosion of freckles across his cheeks and nose, speaks up.
“You the best player ever played here.”
“Been a lot of good War Eagles.”
“I’m gonna be just like you when I get big.”
Beau gets down on one knee, looks the kid in the eye. Anna Carol just looks at them, bewilderment in her eyes. “Be better than me,” Beau says.
The boy produces a piece of paper, folded into dirty sections. He opens it and hands it to Beau. It’s a team roster from Friday’s game.
“Sign it. When you make the NFL, I can show my friends.”
“You show em. When I make it, I’ll score a touchdown just for you,” Beau says, scratching his name across his own printed name on the roster. “You keep that touchdown. Yours forever.”
The boys giggle and clap the brave one on the back. Beau smiles at this. He can say do this, and they will. He can say do that, and they will. They look at him like he’s already made it to the NFL, as if there is no doubt he will be there.
Anna Carol watches intently. She’s lived here her whole life, but it’s never been this serious. She had heard of the glory days, of the years her father spent playing at War Eagle Stadium, how reverent he is of those moments. Before Beau, her father’s team had the best overall season record at 6-5. A record of 6-5, and the old man still can’t stop talking about it. Maybe it’s always been like this, she thinks. Maybe she’s just never been in the center of it.
“This happen often?”
“You know it does.”
“Every day. Football mean a lot to them. This the best season the War Eagles ever had. Ain’t been a Beau Thurman before. They been good War Eagles, but they never been great War Eagles. Until now.”
“You ever think of anything besides football?” she asks.
“Naw. Not ever.”
“You might have something good to say if you did.”
He looks at her, unsure whether he is insulted or not. He shrugs. He grabs her hand, and she doesn’t protest. “I think about this,” he says after a moment. “Doin this right here.”
She blushes despite herself. He stuffs her hand and his into the pocket of his hoodie, and continues down the sidewalk. They don’t walk a block without someone stopping them.
“Who’s this pretty young thing on your arm?”
“This your girlfriend?”
“We beating Ozark Friday? How many you gonna score?”
“You got offers?”
“You gonna play for Arkansas? Fine school that is.”
“I cain’t wait to see you on play on Sunday.”
They pinch and prod him. Children ask to feel his muscles. Women run their hands on his chest, feeling the shape and firmness—something none of them have ever felt in their own men. They giggle like high school girls. Beau smiles and nods and hugs and says “yes sir” more times than Anna Carol can count.
Coach makes the seniors stand up. The underclassmen look up at them in the center of a circle, the entire team on their knees.
“This is it,” he says. “Ain’t nothing but four quarters of high school football for these seniors. Ain’t nothin left after that. This game ends for them. For most of them. These seniors deserve your best. They deserve that state championship. Ain’t nothin matter in this whole world but winning this game. You hear that? Ain’t nothin else that matter.
“But I ain’t gonna lie to you. They got three D-1 kids at Warren. We prepared. All week we prepare, but those kids gonna come, and they gonna hit you in the mouth, and the question is, ‘What are you gonna do about that?’”
He turns, looks at Beau, lets his gaze linger there for a long time.
“They got three of you,” he says, slowly, like it’s the most important sentence he’s ever said in his life. “They got three of you, and what are you gonna do about that?”
“Ain’t three of me alive,” Beau says, and the team cheers. They get hyped. They link arms, and they sway together like tribal warriors preparing to take the battlefield. Beau beats on his chest with a fist. He slaps the helmets of his teammates. He tugs on their shoulder pads. They tangle with each other until the aggression and anticipation has built to a frenzy, until it is tangible among them. Until Beau can taste it on his lips.
“You will punish them for lining up against you,” Coach yells. “Punish them.”
Beau is still thinking about that word when the War Eagles burst on the field. He rolls it around in his mouth, feels the popping of his lips and the lifting of his tongue as he whispers it to himself. Punish. He stares across the field until he can see the orange and black uniform of the Lumberjacks. He watches them warm up, and it is offensive to him.
Beau takes the opening kickoff 99 yards untouched to the end zone, and they light off fireworks behind the goal post. The scoreboard flashes, and the students scream, “WAR EAGLE, FIGHT, WIN.” He jumps into the stands, feels their hands around him, grabbing at him, pulling him in all directions.
Coach puts him at linebacker on defense, and he prowls back and forth before the ball is snapped and he is loosed from his cage. He tears through the line, sees the handoff and sends the kid flailing to the grass. Beau stands over him, daring him to stand, too late to see the quarterback has pulled the ball and flung it to a wide open receiver for a touchdown.
“Stay home,” Coach says, slapping him on the helmet. “Beau, they readin you. Stay home. Make the quarterback make a decision.”
Beau gets stood up by the left tackle, and they stare at each other like two lions tangled up in the savanna. For a moment, the chaos around them vanishes, and they are alone together.
Beau puts the lineman on his back on the next play and hits the quarterback. He presses the boy’s head into the ground and screams into his helmet. “You ain’t nothin.”
Coach still yells at him on the sideline. “Ain’t I just said for you to stay home? They reading you Beau. Just you. They don’t gotta beat us, Beau. They just gotta beat you.”
Beau can’t stay home. He sees the play, and he sees no one else can make it. When he stays home, the running back gashes them for four or five yards at a time.
With 1:12 left in the fourth, the War Eagles are down 41-35 with one timeout. Beau runs two times in a row for nine yards. Coach calls a bubble screen that goes nowhere, and suddenly it’s fourth-and-1 on the War Eagle 45.
“Up the gut,” Coach says. “Do it. Just get the first.”
They line up fast, trying to save their timeout. Beau takes the handoff. He can hear them in his mind.
“Beau bring the boom.”
“That boy lightening.”
“That boy thunder.”
He can hear them speak, their voices, the creaky violin seesaw way they talk, whispering behind his ear.
“You gonna win state, boy. You gonna go to Arkansas. You gonna be in the NFL.”
He lowers his head. The force hits him like God himself says no, and he goes nowhere. He tries to bounce outside, but they have him, a hundred hands pulling at his arms, his legs, his jersey. He slips. His knee hits the ground.
They are already celebrating on the Warren sideline. And Beau knows.
He can hear Coach say somewhere in his memory, “You think this is fun? This ain’t fun. Nothin fun about this. This all about winning.”
Anna Carol sees him pacing in her driveway. She doesn’t know why, but she looks out the window, and there he is. Pacing.
She watches him, hands stuffed in his War Eagles hoodie, shoulders hunched. She goes to him, and on the front porch he glances at her, like he’s surprised, as if he didn’t pace in her driveway for this express purpose.
“You all right?”
“Then what you doing figure eighting in my driveway?”
“I just come here. I didn’t know where else to come.”
He stops walking, looks at her. She sees he is hiding tears and realizes she has never seen a man cry in her life. Something breaks in her. It isn’t natural. When she touches his shoulder, he can’t hide it. He sobs. He puts his head in her neck and cries.
At the diner in town, the glass that once said “GO WAR EAGLES WIN STATE,” now says, “1:12 SHORT.”
“Ain’t no one say even hi to me today,” Beau says. “Won’t even look my way.”
She thinks about telling him it is silly to cry over football, that by tomorrow no one will remember the semifinals of the state championship. But she knows she is wrong. They’ll remember. They’ll never forget.
She leans forward and kisses him, soft at first. He seems unaware of what is happening. Their tongues mingle for a moment, but he pulls away, and she thinks she has solved it. She knows what he needs to hear, what he hasn’t heard, what fathers and grandfathers and old men at diners and little children asking for autographs and newspaper articles never once said.
“There is more to you than football,” she says.
He looks at her. For a long time, he doesn’t speak.
“Beau was a record breaker,” the school superintendent says, lifting his hand in the air. “Beau started as a freshman, and he rushed for 14,364 yards. A school record. He has a school record for most yards per attempt in a game, almost 40 yards, most touchdowns in a game, seven, most in a season, 41, and most in a career, 140. And I want you to remember he was on the bench by halftime almost every game. Beau lived in that end zone. He lived right there in that end zone.”
He points past the metal folding chairs, the flowers and the casket on the 50-yard line of War Eagle Stadium. “On Fridays, that end zone was Beau’s home.”
Close friends and family sat on the field. Fans sat in the stands. A group of linemen carry his coffin to the end zone for one more touchdown as the high school band played the fight song. The fans cheered like they weren’t at a funeral. Beau’s father falls on his knees.
“Beau was the guy on another level,” Olson says when it’s his turn to speak. “He that guy goin somewhere. He wasn’t like me, and he wasn’t like any of us. Beau picked up tractor tires after practice. After I gone home. After I ate. When I was goofin off, Beau was there, flippin those tractor tires.
“Before Beau, War Eagles was 2-8, when he was a freshmen—a little squirt—we went 7-4, then 8-3, then 11-1, then 13-1 and state runner-up. Every year he grow, and we grow too. I think about 1:12 in the fourth quarter against Warren damn near ever day. I think about how he just need that one yard and from there who knows? Who knows if I block my man a little better what Beau make happen. But there was only one of Beau and 10 of us.”
Teddy Graham kisses the coffin, puts his hand on the polished oak grain, and cries hard. The stadium is quiet—silent like it’s fourth-and-1 in the waning moments of the state championship, and Beau has the ball.