The score was tied. Less than a minute remained on the clock. Peb dribbled the ball downcourt and saw Narkeedi ahead of her, poised to spring at the goal. Zel was climbing to her feet at the opposite wall of the court. Thirty feet away, Peb could see Zel’s mouth bleeding. Peb pumped the ball toward Narkeedi. As it shot from Peb’s fingers, a blow smacked her in the left kidney. She went sprawling on the hardwood floor.
“Too bad, shorty!” an unseen male voice jeered from the stands.
Peb leaped to her feet. Her eyes, fixed on the loose ball, took in two images. The ball caroming off the side wall of the court. Fendi and other fans pounding the other side of the wall with their fists.
“Go get her, Peb! Bash her, Peb!” Fendi shouted.
The ball bounced off the end wall near the goal, but high off the floor. Narkeedi sprang for it. It bounced off her fingertips. She scrambled for it. So did a short, heavily-muscled Invader with 4 on the back of her padded halter.
The fans were roaring, “Avengers! Avengers! Avengers!”
“Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!”
For an instant, the ball hesitated between Number Four’s fingers. Narkeedi slammed a hand down, knocking it to the floor. Narkeedi caught it on the bounce, and charged for the hoop.
We’ve won, Peb thought. She glanced at the scoring module high overhead. Thirty-eight seconds, but time enough! Tall, fast Narkeedi was the team’s best shooter. Zel’s jaw was red with blood. She charged toward Number Four. Two other Invaders were converging on Zel. So was Peb. It was three against three now. Each team had two players in the penalty box.
Number Four spun to meet Zel just below the hoop. Zel slammed a forearm into the Invader’s chin. Number Four rocked on her feet. Then she counterpunched to Zel’s bloody mouth. Zel smashed a knee into Number Four’s gut. The husky Invader doubled over. With both fists, Zel struck an uppercut to the falling chin. All these hits were legal. Only the breasts were off limits.
Avenger fans were ecstatic. “Bash her, Zel! Stomp her face!” Fendi yelled.
Narkeedi stepped off to make the lay-up as Number Four was falling backwards. Narkeedi stumbled over her, and both collapsed in a heap. The Invaders’ fans laughed and hooted.
“Good work, Narkeedi!”
“Nice job, Narkeedi!”
The ball ricocheted off the rim of the hoop, then bounced off the floor toward Peb. She snatched for it and caught it.
“Shoot, Peb! Shoot! Shoot!”
Number Four lurched to her feet and charged toward Peb. Narkeedi was close behind her. Peb moved to sneak the ball past Number Four to Narkeedi. Before she could let it go, Number Four planted an elbow in Narkeedi’s face. Narkeedi fell backwards. Her helmeted head bounced off the court wall. She collapsed on her back. For an instant, Peb’s eyes froze on Narkeedi. Her teammate lay still. No more substitutions, no more time-outs, flashed through Peb’s mind. Suddenly, an enormous fist bashed Peb’s face. Peb spun toward the floor. Someone snatched the ball from her.
“Avengers! Avengers! Come on, Avengers!”
Peb hit wood. Once more she felt pain in her left kidney.
“Have a nice sleep, Shorty!” Above Peb’s head, fists and feet were striking human flesh.
“Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!”
Zel was under attack from three sides. She kicked Invader Number Seven in the crotch. Number Seven fell on her side, doubled up and fighting for breath. Zel traded several hits with Invaders Number Four and Eight.
“Atta girl, Zel! Stomp her ass!” Fendi shouted.
Peb was rising to her feet. Lanky big-footed Number Eight gave Zel a swift kick in the guts. The blow threw Zel on top of Peb, knocking the wind out of her.
“Too bad, Zel! Better luck next season!”
We just lost, Peb thought.
Number Eight was dribbling the ball up the court.
“Invaders! Invaders! Invaders!”
“Go get ’em, Zel!” bellowed Fendi. “Get up and kill ’em.” Crouched, gasping, and holding her belly, Zel got up. She had two bleeding cuts on her lower lip. A red drop fell off her chin.
“Invaders! Invaders! Invvaders!”
Breathless, Peb struggled to her feet. Number Eight leaped and tossed the winning goal through the hoop. When the klaxon sounded seconds later, the roar nearly drowned it out. The Avengers had just lost the Quarter Finals. Girls’ High School Number 984 was out of the tournament.
“Ee-yah! Invaders! Ee-yah! Invaders! Ee-yah! Invaders!”
Zel said something inaudible between her gasps but her lips formed the words, sister fuckers. Over the din, Peb could hear the defiant chanting of loyal Avengers’ fans.
“Nar-kee-di! Nar-kee-di! Nar-kee-di!”
“Good work, Peb! Nice job, Zel! We’re all proud of you!” Fendi shouted amidst the tumult.
Peb and Zel walked over to Narkeedi just as their fallen teammate sat up. They helped her to her feet. “I’m all right,” said Narkeedi. “Just got a sore head, that’s all.” Zel unstrapped Narkeedi’s helmet and pulled it off, revealing the bleeding scalp.
Peb’s side still ached. I need a hot bath.
In the locker room, the Avengers got some words of praise and consolation from their coach. Peb was so sore in her lower back, she barely heard them. As the coach dashed out to meet the sports writers, the team trod wearily to the tiled bathing chamber. Fourteen girls washed themselves together around the water dispenser, passing the nozzles between them. When Narkeedi came in with her bandaged head, all surrounded her. They huddled and wept, while the steam swirled around them and water spewed from the nozzles they had dropped on the floor. Peb had been too tired and sore to cry. Now she could join the rest of them. A winning season. We got through the Octo-Finals. Now this—to lose by one lousy goal with three seconds to go. After bathing, Peb dried her hair with a hot air hose. Later she would twist it into the long braid that was her trademark. Back at her locker, she dried herself with a towel.
As she finished, Zel came up with a little jar of salve. “Here,” said Zel, “let me rub you down with this.” So Peb lay face down on a bench while Zel massaged her lower back. Zel’s touch was very gentle. “You’ll feel the difference right away,” she said, putting the jar on the bench. “You can keep this. My treat.”
“Thanks, Zel.” Zel’s towel fell off. She bent over to pick it up with the sureness and grace of a dancer. Peb stole a sideways glance at Zel’s flat stomach and strong limbs. Then she prudently looked away.
Peb got up to dress. She could feel the heat soaking its way into her back, and the pain draining out. We didn’t do so bad: thirteen and three in the regular season. The Avengers have never had a team this good. Never gone to the Provincial Tournament before now. Although Peb was the shortest player, never started, and seldom scored more than five goals in a game, she had skills to be proud of. She specialized in handling the ball and in trading punches with the other team. The Avengers valued her for that. The fans enjoyed watching her fight. Cheers rang out whenever the coach sent her into the game.
Fendi had once told her, “You’re an inspiration to all us short people.”
Peb also took as a complement the jeers of opposing fans.
“Come on, girls, get dressed!” Narkeedi called out, slamming her locker door shut for emphasis. “The fans are waiting for us.” Wearing the bandage on her head like a golden coronet, Narkeedi slung her bag over her shoulder, and merrily marched out.
Peb and Zel put on winter underwear, then jumpsuits of orange and blue with the number 984 on the back, then knitted caps and athletic shoes. The bandage did little to mar the look of her face, with its high cheekbones, freckled nose, large part-gray part-blue eyes, and full-lipped mouth.
They picked up their athletic bags and left the building. The security guard at the exit nodded and smiled as they passed.
Outside, the words PLAYERS’ ENTRANCE. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY loomed over the double doors. Blustery cold winds lashed at the loyal throng of Avengers’ fans, who had already raised Narkeedi and two of her teammates on their shoulders. A hand-held camera and microphones floated among the heads like debris in a flooding river. Aided by the backlights, Peb could see Narkeedi leaning forward to be near the mike.
“No, I’m not the star player,” Narkeedi was saying. “We’re all stars. Everybody on the team is a star.” At that, cheers and applause rang out.
“Zel! Peb!” Fendi cried out. Fendi worked herself free from the knot of people, and ran in Peb’s direction. “Peb, you were great tonight!” She hugged Peb, then turned to Zel. “You too, Zel!” Fendi released Zel.
“You’re both gonna get the Sports Heroine badge. No doubt about it!”
“Thanks, Fendi,” Zel said, “but we’d rather have won.”
“You will! You will! Next year!” Fendi cried out. “I can’t wait till next year!”
“Where’s Gamma-Ray tonight?” Peb asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t drag him up here,” Fendi said, her voice so hoarse she could barely speak. “You know how he hates courtball.”
“There’s somethin’ to learn from it,” Peb said. “The White Boys would leave him alone if he could defend himself.”
Dozens of Avengers’ fans surged around Peb and Zel, hoisting both onto their shoulders.
“Three cheers for Peb!” Fendi shouted, her voice nearly gone.
“Ee-yah! Ee-yah! Ee-yah!”
“Three cheers for Zel!” Fendi managed to squeak.
“Ee-yah! Ee-yah! Ee-yah!”
Glancing over the many heads, Peb saw the news crew leaving. Narkeedi and some other players, now back on the ground, had joined the cheering.
Shooter really means it when she says the whole team are stars. Too bad she graduates this year. I’ll miss her. Shooter was Narkeedi’s gang nickname.
Peb noticed a familiar face among the fans—a broad, pink, hatless face with large ears. “Hey, Floater!” Peb called out. Balk the Floater was wearing a black duro-plastic jacket with Young Heroes on the back in yellow letters.
The fans were still cheering. “Peb! Peb! Peb!”
“Zel! Zel! Zel!”
“You did a real good job tonight, Peb,” Floater called back. “Did the Young Heroes proud. Listen, everybody loses once in a while. This has been the best season the Avengers have ever had.”
“Thanks, Floater,” Peb called back through the shouting of the fans. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Floater was Balk’s gang nickname. He and Peb had dated three times. The short feisty courtball girl and the tall but rotund scholar from Autonomous University made a surprising combination, but Floater had his merits. Anyway, a girl in Peb’s situation just had to have a boyfriend.
As a child, Peb had been just another dirt-scratcher’s kid. In recent years, she was just another a city-rat schoolgirl. Now she had risen above the crowd for just one glorious moment. She waved to the fans, whose numbers were still growing, as people worked their way around from the exits. She was disappointed her family had not appeared. That would make my night complete, she thought as she was lowered to the pavement. Maybe they’ll show up yet. Mom can’t walk very fast. Anyway, I’m glad Ruslee isn’t here.
Back on the ground again, Peb recognized one of the two who had held her up. He was a tall muscular young man, somewhat past his high school years and clad in a Young Heroes jacket. Thick silken black hair peeked out beneath the margins of his knitted cap. He gave Peb a comradely punch on the shoulder, pulling it so it didn’t hurt. “Good job, Puncher,” he said, smiling with his very broad mouth. He and Narkeedi each had one arm around the other’s waist.
“Thanks, Blackie,” Peb said. “Thanks for comin’ out.” She regarded Narkeedi. “As for my brave teammate, well, there’s only one thing to say, Shooter. Cut out the false modesty. You’re the best we got.” Peb smiled.
“You girls put on a fine show tonight,” Blackie said. “All of you.” He held Narkeedi a little tighter than before. Turning to her, he said, “I’m especially glad you came out in one piece.” They briefly kissed. He turned back to Peb. “As for you, Peb, you’re a big surprise—shortest girl on the team, tallest when it comes to that fightin’ spirit they’re always talkin’ about.”
“I’m just showin’ the world what us Young Heroes are made of,” Peb said. She remembered Zel. “Excuse me, Zel! I forgot my manners. This is Tayshi Lap of the Kaaklo Clan, better known as Blackie. He’s president of the Young Heroes. Blackie, this is your kinswoman, Zel Praftay.”
“Glad to meet you, cousin of my clan,” Zel said.
“Yeah, same to you, cousin,” Blackie said. They bowed. As Blackie straightened up, the long black forelock which gave him his nickname drooped almost into his eyes. In a single movement, he wiped it out of his face and sized up Zel in a glance.
Meanwhile Balk the Floater had managed to work his way up to Peb.
“Hi, Floater!” Zel called out. “I’m glad you liked the game.”
“Oh, it was a great game,” Floater said, smiling in Peb’s direction. “What I like most, though, is seeing my best girl on the court.” Peb and Floater embraced. She gave him a brief, heartfelt, and guilt-ridden kiss on the lips.
“So glad you could come and watch, darlin’.” Peb smiled.
Floater turned back to Zel. “Everybody did a fine job, but honestly, I don’t know how you girls can take it. Courtball wasn’t this rough a few years ago.” He glanced at Zel’s bandaged lip, and his smile disappeared.
“They ought to ban kicking,” Zel said.
“Yeah,” Floater said, “and allowed substitutions without having to call a time-out.”
“Peb! Peb!” Turning toward the familiar voice, Peb saw her sister Gaathi, whose plump face and double chin seemed even broader when framed by a scarf and earmuffs. “You were great, Peb! Could you hear me cheering for you?”
The sisters hugged warmly. At age twelve, Gaathi already outweighed Peb by five testons. She’ll be as big as Mom some day. Peb’s father Thool Pornel scuttled excitedly up. His craggy, weatherworn face was pink. His large blue eyes were full of pride. “She’s right, Peb!” he called out. “You done a wonderful job! Done great all season, in fact!” He wrapped one arm around each of his daughters, and squeezed them both. “We was all pullin’ for you,” he said.
“Thanks, Dad,” Peb said. “I just wish we could have won. I’d like to get that Number Four in an alley somewhere and—” She stopped herself. “I meant that to be a joke, but it’s not comin’ out that way.”
“Cool off, darlin’,” her father said before he let out with a laugh. “It’s only a game.”
“I think by Number Four she means Borgah Flinkum?” Floater ventured.
Peb looked out at him over the family huddle. “I never learn the enemy’s name, Balk. If I don’t, it’s easier to hate ’em.” She imagined her own fists hammering Number Four’s broad jaw.
Her father chuckled. “Peb, you take it all too serious. Like I said, it’s only a game.”
“Sure, Dad, only a game,” Peb said sullenly, “but you saw Narkeedi knocked unconscious tonight. She woke up with a bloody head. Also, look at Zel’s face.” Peb put a hand on her father’s shoulder, leaned forward, and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks so much for comin’ out tonight, Dad.”
“You’re very welcome, darlin’.” He smiled, showing four missing teeth. “I’ve missed a lot of Avengers’ games, but not this tournament. Kuthool himself couldn’t keep me away.”
I’m glad Dad could come. Most games, he’s on the road.
Thool looked over his daughters’ heads. “Look who’s comin’,” he said fondly. “My big cuddly wife.”
“Hello, Balk! Good seein’ you again!” Peb’s mother called out to Floater. Then, without waiting for a reply, she elbowed her way into her family huddle. “There’s my tough little girl!” she called out. “Out of the way, everybody. I’m the only mom she’s got.”
Peb saw a fat version of her own face, careworn but happy, converging on her own. Ghepsi Breed of the Forshah Clan gave her daughter a firm and vigorous hug, while kissing her on the cheek. Zel and Narkeedi were already moving away, relieving Peb of the responsibility of introductions. Her mother was an embarrassment to her.
“I worry about you on that court, darlin’,” Ghepsi said, blowing a whiff of beer into Peb’s face. “I’m glad you came out all right. Sometimes I think the game’s gettin’ too rough. Used to be less girls gettin’ hurt.” Peb’s mother reached into an overcoat pocket, pulled out a half empty bottle of beer, and unscrewed the cap. “But you done good tonight, Peb. The family’s real proud of you. Real proud!” She took a long swallow, and glanced impishly at Thool. “Infinite knows, Peb, you got your daddy’s temper.”
Peb laughed a little bit. Gaathi made a face. Both their parents laughed heartily. Peb glanced over and saw Blackie whispering something to Floater. Nodding sagely, Balk moved away. Peb would make it to Air Strikes tonight, since there was no school tomorrow, but she would have to wait until her parents were asleep. Meanwhile, Ghepsi had raised the bottle in front of her face again. Sure, Mom, sure. You’re proud of me, but you’ll keep on doing what makes me ashamed of you. So Peb thought, but she kept smiling.
End of Chapter One
You have just read the first chapter of my Young Adult Dystopia Discarded Faces. To download the whole ebook, go to your search engine and search for “Discarded Faces Double Dragon.”
Discarded Faces is the first novel of a projected trilogy, The Danallian Chronicles. The second and third novels are still being written, as of the Spring of 2014. Watch for them by clicking Like on the Facebook page “Speculative Fiction of Betty Cross” and friending Betty Cross on Facebook.
Reviewers’ praise for
“Cross creates a fresh world here, filled with sporty, determined courtball players and bands of teens who form gangs to make sense of their harsh, oppressive world. Inventive world building fits the gritty society… Overall, this is a fresh take on dealing with repression a la 1984 and other political dystopias. Recommended for older teens and new adults.”
— Catherine Stine, author of YA novel Fireseed One
“The main character, Peb, was likable and believable.”
— Jessica Bradshaw, author of Hazy Shade of Winter, a YA paranormal romance
“Discarded Faces is an inspiring read. It starts out slow as you get to know the character Peb and her life on Fifth Earth but becomes very addictive as her problems pile up.”
–James Crawford, author of YA Leech novels Caleo and Jack
Recommended for Ages 15 and up.