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Chapter 32

I spent the weekend recuperating and hiding from everyone. I needed time to think about all the enlightening information Number Nine’s backdoor trick had revealed. The biggest revelation by far was that I had a brother. What on Earth had happened to him … and my birth-mother? More importantly, why did they leave me?

By Monday, my wounds were healing nicely and weren’t very noticeable. I wore a long-sleeve shirt just to be on the safe side. I went through most of the day avoiding people I knew. I didn’t feel like talking about anything and figured the safest thing to do was to keep my mouth shut. Who knows what might slip once a conversation started to flow.

I got through the day according to plan and didn’t even mind sitting by myself at lunch. Rich had taken the day off and it was the first time we hadn’t served as the other’s safety net. Despite savoring the solitude, I secretly hoped he would be back tomorrow.

After lunch, I skated through Chinese class, half-listening and pretty much just going through the motions. It was during that time I realized that next period I would have to face Malton in a pickleball death match for the ages. I wanted nothing more than to beat him, but my elbow hurt from whatever happened Friday night – and let’s be honest, it must’ve been a brutal fist fight between me and Eye Patch’s gang. I rubbed my elbow hoping it wouldn’t affect my play or, more importantly, it wouldn’t prevent me from putting a killer spin on the ball.

Malton and his rat terrier side-kick were in full obnoxious mode when class began. The tension in the air was palpable and by the looks on everyone’s faces, they too, hoped I would win the match. They wanted to see him go down just as bad as I did, especially since he had already beaten most of them and rubbed it in their faces.

“Ready to die, Trenton,” Chuck squeaked from a safe distance as Mrs. Gladstone took attendance.

“If he’s as weak as Matt, I’d say it’s going to be a shut out,” Malton added, but did so too loudly as Mrs. Gladstone eyed him sternly before blowing the whistle.

The class broke out of formation, retrieved their equipment from the bin and dispersed onto their assigned courts. I purposefully waited until the coast was clear before heading to the metal rack. It didn’t matter, though, because Malton was waiting, his fangs shining bright.

He looked down at the only remaining paddle and smacked it hard with his paddle before picking it up and extending it toward me. I shook my head at this juvenile act and reached out, but Malton dropped it and laughed.

“Get bent, moron. You’re going down,” he snapped arrogantly and was joined by a fawning Chuck. They laughed and made their way to the court.

I examined the paddle before grabbing it. It didn’t look like there were any cracks, but when I picked it up, a small chunk near the top fell off. I thought about letting Mrs. Gladstone know, but figured the missing piece wasn’t large enough to prevent me from using it, so I’d just as well suck it up. However, as I walked toward the court and gave a practice swing, my elbow screamed. A jolt of pain shot up my arm and I winced. I immediately rubbed the sore spot and realized that my injury combined with a broken paddle wasn’t hopeful news for the good guys. Freaking Malton!

“Remember, Trenton, this isn’t ladies tennis,” Malton exclaimed. “So I hope you left your panties in the locker room.”

“Just serve,” I replied, holding my elbow as best I could without letting on that it hurt.

Malton hit the ball over the net with a high arc. I was surprised because I didn’t think he would lob it over since those were easy to smash back. However, it kicked wildly and spun off the court just out of reach. I whiffed and instantly heard jeers from the other side of the court.

“Looks like this is going to be easier than I thought.”

He copied the same the serve and although I reached it this time, my return hit the top of the net and dropped on my side. He was now up by two with nine to go. Panic filled the room as the hopes and dreams of karmic justice quickly evaporated.

I figured this idiot would try the same serve for a third time, so I moved in a step and took the ball early before it had time to spin wickedly. Unfortunately, my return was weak and gave Malton a golden opportunity to smash the ball deep. I was down three and the disappointed grumbles trickled through the crowd. I even think Mrs. Gladstone felt bad.

“Looks like you’re buying lunch, Chucky,” Malton exclaimed. “This shut out is looking easy.”

“Fine by me,” Chuck replied with a sort of barbaric snort.

Malton served and I finally put it back in play. We went back and forth for a few exchanges until I caught the back line. Malton let the ball go thinking it was out, but I protested and was quickly backed up by Mrs. Gladstone. Malton was pissed, but quickly waved it off as no big deal.

“That’s okay,” he began, “even charity can’t help you.”

“We’ll see,” I replied with that same mysterious confidence I’d been feeling as of late.

“Ooh, big talker down three to zip,” Chuck chirped.

“Yeah, put your money where your mouth is,” added Malton, licking his chops.

I served the ball to his backhand, but he ran around it and returned it with a sweeping forehand. The ball sailed over my head and landed at the back of the court, but bounced high. I easily got behind it and nailed a line drive just over the net, without spin, that caught the paint and rolled into Chuck’s feet. Malton and Chuck stared at the ball in amazement as if this was the first time a point had been scored on his holiness.

“Lucky shot,” Malton snapped.

“I’ll say,” Chuck added and kicked the ball in my direction.

I retrieved the ball and announced the score for good measure. Malton cocked his eyebrows with disdain and shook his head.

“Just serve, dickhead,” he said and received a coughing admonishment from Mrs. Gladstone.

I smiled and served, but this time made sure he couldn’t return it with his forehand. Something in the way he anxiously did that last time told me his backhand was suspect.

The ball kicked right and Malton swung uncomfortably. The ball sailed high and out of bounds and it was a good thing too because while everyone had their eyes on the ball, I rubbed my aching elbow.

“Looks like someone has a weak backhand,” I said and quickly served the ball before he could react. However, having planted the seed, I switched things up and sent it to his forehand. He jumped the wrong way at first, but recovered in time to return the ball. With the ball set up nicely, I placed it deep in his court and he volleyed it back just as deep. Knowing he’d expect another deep shot, I pulled off a drop shot worthy of Wimbledon and watched Malton freeze in disgust.

“All tied,” I announced and served to his backhand for my fourth straight point.

Malton was visibly angered now, so I thought it was the perfect time to pour salt on the wound.

“Looks like someone’s buying someone else lunch today,” I said.

“Just wait until we get off the court, smart ass,” he replied.

I served to his forehand this time, but purposefully hit it out of bounds, which gave me a second serve. The trick worked as Malton wasn’t prepared for the spinning backhand and I went up another point.

I was enjoying myself and so was the crowd, but after losing my serve on the next exchange, I was reminded that this wasn’t over yet. I needed to stay focused if I wanted to prevail and launch my pickleball career into superstardom.

Malton showed he was a one-trick pony and served up his usual, which I quickly swatted back and out of reach. He reacted by slamming his paddle on the floor, which luckily bounced back up, allowing him to catch it as if it had been planned all along. Mrs. Gladstone raised an eyebrow as another warning. Malton sighed and prepared for my next serve.

During the next five points, I moved Malton around the court like a puppet on a string. He didn’t know what hit him and continuously looked to Chuck for an explanation, but Chuck was as vapid as Malton and sensing his master had been defeated, was soon looking for the exits.

“You can quit if you want,” I said, seeing the defeat in his eyes and knowing he wanted to scurry back under his rock.

Malton’s mind swirled and the sudden realization registered that his moment for abandonment had passed. Had he faked an injury or fabricated unfair play by me earlier then there may have been a chance at saving face, but that time was beyond his grasp now and I had him right where I wanted. He knew it too and I relished it – no pun intended. Well, maybe just a little.

Anyway, Malton glanced at the curious faces penetrating his overblown ego. He couldn’t back out now. All he could do was take his medicine and live to fight another day. The fallout would be momentous, but knowing Malton’s type, he’d become an even bigger bully. Only one way to find out, I thought, and shot him a devious stare.

I served the ball with a slight arc and gave it a little spin. I had done this on purpose because I wanted him to struggle just enough that he would have to return the ball to my sweet spot ... which he did.

Unable to get around the ball for a forehand slam, Malton reached uncomfortably with his backhand and propped the ball up and over the net. I stepped in and smashed the ball right at him ... he was defenseless as it hit him square in the neck, dropped to the floor and dribbled away.

I had won and the cheers from the crowd stunned both Malton and me – his little sidekick too. Malton, in shock at being hit, steamed and slammed his paddle to the ground then mounted a charge at the net, but Mrs. Gladstone saw this coming, quickly blew her whistle and jumped in front of him. Malton stared blankly, still perplexed at what had taken place. His ego had not only been beaten, but crushed.

After a few moments of persuasion, Malton exhaled angrily and huffed and puffed away, bumping hard into anyone in his path.

Mrs. Gladstone turned to me and exclaimed, “Congratulations, Mr. Locke, it looks like you’re on course to becoming our class champ.”

I smiled victoriously and was soon congratulated by all those victims of matches past. It felt good and I reveled in the moment, understanding there was going to be hell to pay for this small, yet precious, victory.

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