Sabastian and I ascended the driveway as the dachshund snarled, bounced, and pulled too hard at its collar, wheezing. Had its chain been longer, or staked into the grass closer, the dog could’ve reached the cement.
“I dare ya to go pet it,” Sabastian said. He shoved my shoulder. I stumbled onto the grass. The mutt nipped at my ankle mid-retreat. I glared at Sebastian, exhaled through my nostrils. He didn’t care.
“I’m just trying to toughen ya up, buddy. This summer, we’re gonna get ya nice and strong. That way, senior year, you’ll have nothing to fear.”
I reached up toward my eye, but stopped before smudging the powder foundation. Mom had helped me apply it every morning since school ended - I did extra dishes to say thank you.
Landon’s house was 70’s sitcom, a weird combination of brick and wood, painted tan wherever possible. Rainbow pinwheels protruded from potted plants, guarded by garden gnomes. An American flag hung from the closed garage, no cars in the driveway. Dead grass
matched the building. Cracks in the cement gave way to ants and weeds. A tire hung from the yard’s shade tree, its charm pointless while the dog guarded it.
“So anyway,” Sebastian said. “Tessa. Like I said earlier, she just moved into the house three blocks down from me. No one can figure out what her deal is. I suspect her dad’s a government spy, but who knows. Either way, she was invited.”
Sabastian knocked on the front door. The dog yelped louder, until Landon answered and leaned past the frame.
“Princess! Shut the hell up!”
Princess calmed to a groan. Landon backed into the house and gestured us inside. I expected him to wear a T-shirt and jeans like Sabastian and me, not a white bathrobe, slippers, rubber gloves and fez cap. He closed the door behind us, eyeballed me top to bottom.
“Is this the young starburst of glimmering potential? The one you’ve whispered to me about prior to this most glorious of days?”
“Ya, he’s cool, I promise. And dude, ya don’t need to act in character around us.”
“Nonsense! Now come forth! The others grow restless and will not begin without I, their gracious host.”
The floorboards shook beneath my feet, pulsing deep from within the house. The embedded cigarette smoke hit my nose. Landon led us down a hall of family photos, a plaque with Bible quotes, and a framed master’s degree for engineering – presumably his older brother’s. Just before the kitchen, Landon reached a door, cracked it and squeezed inside, chatter becoming clear. If Sebastian’s goal was to deprive me of my comfort zone, he succeeded. A party in the basement? But why no music? Landon ushered us down, nicotine replaced by grease and metal. I froze at the third step from the bottom. There were people – a lot of people – all kids I recognized from school, socializing in a room so large it spanned the property. A massive octagonal cage stood centered, made of fiberglass, airtight, sealed. It took up the majority of space and everyone was gathered around it. Landon left our side, pushed his way through the crowd. Someone opened one of the cage’s two entrances and he stepped inside. The room fell silent.
“Ladies and gentleman!” Landon shouted, hands raised. “It has been a long and stressful year! But we are now free of our educational system’s malfeasance! No doubt, you are all overdue for a summer of boundless entertainment! Make no mistake. Entertainment! You! Shall! Have! Without further ado, I welcome you all… to Piñata Club!”
An air horn blew. The crowd cheered. The lights - mounted to the ceiling every two meters - grew bright. Above the cage, a rotor connected to hooks lowered five different piñatas into the enclosure - typical savanna animals. Landon stepped back out, gently rested his palms on the heads of two boys. With assistance, they were blindfolded, given Wiffle bats, and directed toward opposite ends of the cage, the doors sealing behind them. As they rested the bats across their shoulders, stretched, prepared for whatever was about to happen, Landon returned.
“Remind me again the name of this bright-eyed go-getter.”
“Lamont.” Sabastian nodded toward me. “He’s had a rough year. Ya know? I think this’ll be good for ‘im.”
“Well, I suggest with sincere diligence, that you avoid risking coin on his behalf, or anyone else for that matter. Kira has the memory of an elephant, and would sooner not forget your debt, still unpaid since last summer.”
“Kira and I are cool.”
“You believe so?”
“Then perhaps she may join the conversation?”
Landon waved across the room, where Kira paused conversation with another girl to come over. I recognized Kira from homeroom and the track team. Sculpted from marble, she wore high-waisted exercise leggings and a crop top. Washboard abs. Arms toned. Black hair in a bun. Sabastian went stiff and avoided eye contact as she glared on approach.
“Did you enjoy dodging me all year, Sabastian? You’re lucky we didn’t have any classes together.” She paused when she noticed me. “Lamont, right? I heard about your… altercation. How’s that eye?”
As if to save me from answering, someone rang a gong from across the room, and everyone looked toward the cage. The mechanism above the octagon began to move, and the piñatas rotated clockwise at a slow, steady rate. Both guys, still blindfolded, prepared their bats and moved cautiously. The crowd cheered. Kira caught my raised eyebrow.
“The rules of Piñata Club are simple,” she said. “Two people enter the ring with the bats. The first one to call for mercy, remove the blindfold, or go limp, loses.”
Before I could ask a follow-up question, the zebra bumped into one of the fighters, startling the guy. He swung hard, hit the butt end, cracked it in half.
Candy was not inside.
Instead, a gratuitous amount of LEGOs fountained out, hit the ground, and scattered in every direction. The guy who broke the piñata took one step back and several pieces stabbed the soles of his feet. Onlookers laughed - I fought the urge. The guy screamed. Gave away his position. The other fighter dashed to attack, bat raised. He fell victim to the LEGOs, yelling louder than his opponent had. Gritted teeth. Swung. Hit the defender in the shoulder. They were right in front of each other, and knew it. They both flurried while another piñata – a rhino – rotated toward them. The crowd ooo’d in anticipation. With the rhino in their striking zone, both hit it simultaneously.
LEGOs were not inside.
My jaw dropped as a small swarm of bees flew out. Both guys shouted obscenities, ran around the octagon, stepping on countless LEGOs. They swung wildly - an attempt to hit the bees… or maybe each other. I couldn’t tell. One called mercy. The gong rang. A ventilation unit opened above the cage, and the bees escaped through it. Crowd members rescued the fighters and cleaned up the LEGOs, resetting the octagon for the next fight.
“A bummer they only broke two,” Landon said, breaking character. “I filled the other three with poop, poison ivy, and sexual lubricant. What a shame.”
“Where do you get all this stuff?” Kira asked.
“The internet man! It’s a crazy place these days. But the piñatas I bought local. Gotta support those businesses somehow.” He looked at me. “You must be wondering why someone would subject themselves to this.”
“Why, for honor and glory of course!” Landon said, then paused. “…but mostly for this.” He pulled a card from his bathrobe. “A twenty dollar gift card to Wacky Jo’s mini-golf, bumper cars, and go-carts. The crowd votes for a winner at the end of the day.”
I rolled my eyes, glanced away to see a girl staring at me – the same one Kira had paused conversation with. She wore torn jeans and a hoodie despite the summer heat, hair bleached blond, straightened, and shoulder length. I struggled to look
away. Kira caught me.
“Her name’s Tessa. She just moved here. Her dad apparently made her attend the last week of school. Weirdly strict parents, I guess. I met her on the track, but she’s quiet like you. I barely know anything about her.” Kira smirked at me, showing more teeth the longer I stared at the floor, my face warm. “In fact, will you boys excuse me for a moment?”
She stepped away, and Landon and Sebastian huddled as they watched Kira go back to Tessa.
“Ya know what I heard?” Landon said. “The woman who runs the coffee shop on Fifth Street explicitly saw Tessa wearing tights and carrying weird instruments. She said her parents are traveling performers.”
“I think she’s a spy,” Sebastian said. “But if not that, she must be a professional artist. Bill what’s-his-name, the guy who janitors at the community center, he said he saw her carrying ten different canvases while walking across South River Bridge.”
“Preposterous. If she’s not a performer, then she’s a baking show winner. James from civics heard Tessa taught the lunch ladies how to cook that amazing lasagna on the last day of school. That was professional grade stuff, not the work of a casual chef.”
Kira came back alone, staring directly at me.
“So here’s the thing,” she said. “I talked with Tessa. You two are gonna fight.”
My heart rate doubled.
“Hmmm,” Sebastian said. “I don’t know if ma’ boy should fight some girl from out of town for his first Piñata Club.”
“I thought you might say that. She and I talked. We’re teaming up to offer you a deal. If Lamont wins, I’ll clear your debt with me. If Tessa wins, Lamont has to take her out on a date.”
“Never mind what I said,” Sabastian said, grabbing me. “He’s in!”
“Perfect. I’ll go let her know. Any objections from the host?”
Landon raised his palm upward like an opera singer. “It shall be permitted!”
As Kira walked away, Sebastian put a finger to my lips.
“I know what you’re going to say, but listen, this is really a win-win. Even if you lose, the experience will be good for ya. To live a little, ya know? And if ya win, well, if ya can survive that octagon, ya can survive the next school year.” He gave me a big hug. “I love ya, man. I promise. I’m always looking out for ya. You gotta believe in yourself.”
Sabastian knew how to soften me up. I sighed. Then nodded.
“Yes! That’s ma’ boy!” He grabbed my cheeks like in those Italian mobster movies, then looked to Landon. “Can his fight be next?”
“It shaaall be dooone!”
Sebastian and Landon yanked me toward the octagon before I could get a word in. Cage clean. Piñatas switched out. Tessa was already inside, grinning at me from the far end, intimidating, until someone blindfolded her. They told me to remove my shoes and socks. I did. They handed me the bat. I held it close. Fabric slipped over my eyes. Hands escorted me forward until they let go and the door sealed behind me.
The air horn blew. I stepped back until I found the wall. The fight had begun. Motors hummed above me as they rotated. Hard to hear footprints, especially barefoot ones. I held my bat like a fencing sword, poking at the area around me - my attempt to distinguish Tessa from piñata. Afraid to break one, I stopped poking, and instead used the bat like a dowsing rod, letting it sway softly in an arc, and waited for it to make contact. Then it did - something lifeless touched the end and bounced back. A piñata. I reached out a hand, felt papier-mâché. It rotated onward and I followed. I crouched, held the leg of maybe a giraffe, moving with it around the octagon - a risk. If Tessa swung and broke it, the contents would shower me. But if she was cautious, poked it like I did, I would feel it and know where she was.
I shuffled under the piñata for a minute, then felt it move above me, unnaturally - had to be Tessa. Unsure of her position, I briefly considered swinging my bat in a spinning motion, to get her in the knees. The piñata above me burst, interrupting the thought. My response time surprisingly good, I tucked and rolled, managing to get to the wall without anything falling on me. What came out of the piñata made a screech. It snarled, hissed, and ran around the octagon. I recognized its noises - two summers ago at Uncle Steve’s cabin, rummaging through the pantry, Mom using a broom to shoo it out. A possum.
Although terrifying, its screeches were a good thing, allowing me to determine its location, keep myself at the opposite end of the octagon. I bumped into something soft and pleasant smelling. Panic shot through me. Tessa had the same idea. I swung and hit her, maybe in the shoulder. I couldn’t tell. Her swing was better – hit me in the face, and I staggered toward the center. I gave a retaliation swing. Hit nothing. Then another. Then another, but this time, it
connected. Not Tessa.
I didn’t realize how close the next piñata was, hitting it more with my hands than the bat. It broke and a gooey substance splattered all over me. Chunks globed into my hair and onto my arms. Sticky. I backed away. Whatever it was didn’t spread across the floor. Pudding? No, I could smell it, so distinct – Vegemite.
I kept a mental note of where the puddle was, imperative I didn’t step in it. I lost track of the possum - the crowd now roared and cheered so hard I couldn’t hear its little noises. With some luck, it might eat the Vegemite and leave me alone.
I heard Tessa startle from across the octagon, followed by Wiffle bat against soft cardboard. Like rainfall, hundreds of small objects poured onto the ground, round enough to roll across the entire arena, to every corner, several bumping into my toes. I imagined the octagon now looked like Hungry Hungry Hippos. I felt one with my heel, pushed gently to try and identify it until it popped. Slippery liquid poured out, and I was pretty sure they were paintballs. A double-slip hazard – genius really. You could either slip on the balls themselves, or on the paint that came out. But the balls came with an advantage, acting like sonar, remaining stationary unless someone shuffled into them. More rolled into my feet from afar, from two sources rippling through the sea of paintballs – Tessa and the possum.
I stood, listening with my feet, of all things. Tessa stepped toward the animal - I could tell it was her, movements more cautious, intent, less sporadic. The possum – by contrast - moved aimlessly. As she approached it, I noted her position in reference to the Vegemite puddle. Tessa committed to the attack, did a short dash, then swung. The possum screeched. Tessa screamed. This was my chance. I sprinted to close the gap. I popped several paintballs but luckily didn’t slip on any. The stickiness of the Vegemite on my hands actually helped me keep hold of the bat. I swung and hit her, staggered her toward the puddle. I felt her grasp at my shirt, but fail. I think she fell into the Vegemite because of a squishy noise and her ‘ewww’.
The crowd laughed so loudly I couldn’t hear anything else, but the fight wasn’t over. I needed to whack her a few more times before she climbed out of the Vegemite. I raised the bat, but stopped. Something was wrong. I felt… faint. I wheezed with each breath. My throat felt swollen. Constricted. What was happening? Did another piñata break without me knowing it? Release something my lungs didn’t agree with? I tried to shake it off. It didn’t work. I felt dizzy, and with the blindfold on, unconsciousness took me quite easily.
I woke in a hospital bed, alone. Comfortable. Relaxed. Well-rested. To my right stood a table with flowers and two cards. I grabbed the first one and opened it.
Hey dude. Landon here. So… apparently, we didn’t do a good enough job venting the bees from the previous fight. Ya done got stung a few times and didn’t notice. You’re highly allergic. Sorry about that. Sabastian says ‘sorry’ too. Get well soon.
P.S. My parents found out about Piñata Club. I’m grounded all summer. See you next year.
I smiled and put the card back, feeling bad for Landon. But, in hindsight, Piñata Club probably wasn’t the best idea. I opened the second card on the table.
Instead of being like all the other gossips around here, I’m trusting you’ll take the time to get to know me. I like arcade games and drive-in movies. Pick me up Saturday at 6:00. Don’t be late.
On the back was a twenty-dollar gift card to Wacky Jo’s.