A Beastly Game
Being undead felt rather like being hung over, all things considered. Ben came to that conclusion as he staggered from the alley. He tried to piece together what had happened. He had been chugging beer with his rugby mates and the team they had played earlier that evening, enjoying a good commiseration buzz. The match had been unofficial, just warm-up for next week's tournament, but his own team had not expected to lose. They covered their disappointment by buying drinks for the visitors; he had paid for the first round himself.
He remembered the Transylvanian scrumhalf inviting him to another party. He remembered stepping out the back door of the bar. In retrospect, stepping out the back door had probably been a recipe for trouble. Who parks in an alley in South Africa? Nobody. He woke behind a dumpster with his head throbbing and his mouth tasting of vomit, and with the distinct knowledge that he was now a vampire. It felt strange to know something so thoroughly when at the same time he didn't really know anything about vampires. He hadn't had any idea they were real. Everything he knew about them he knew from the television shows and movies that his wife watched, and those were inconsistent at best.
He had no idea what he was supposed to do next. Should he rampage through Durban biting people in the neck? He didn't feel any particular urge. He checked his pockets and found his cell phone, wallet, and keys still intact. At least the Transylvanian hadn't rolled Ben after turning him into a bloodthirsty monster. It figured that it would be the scrumhalf; they always got away with murder.
He debated calling his mother to ask her what to do, but when he checked the time on his phone it read 1:20 a.m. Too late. His wife, Julia, was probably in bed already as well. The guys were likely still in the bar, but he didn't really see a point to going back inside. They'd just make him open beer bottles with his fangs or something. Did he have fangs now? He ran his tongue around his teeth. He did. Pretty impressive ones, especially considering that one of his own canines had been knocked out in a bad tackle a few years back. The tooth was back now, pointier and sharper than ever.
He flagged a cab. If he couldn't drink any more, he might as well go home to Julia. The cabdriver smelled like blood. At first, Ben thought it might just be a matter of poor hygiene, but then he realized his suddenly keen sense of smell must be a symptom of the vampirism. He was glad to be behind a Plexiglas barrier while he sorted this new development. How badly did he crave blood? Badly enough to drink some, but not badly enough to kill for it. On a par with how he usually felt the night after a big match, only before, he had craved burgers. He wondered if there was any place in South Africa that served blood to go. It would have to be a specialty shop, and those likely weren't open this late.
The driver startled him out of his thoughts. "You're that rugby player, aren't you?"
"Yeth," said Ben. Apparently it was difficult to talk through fangs. He tried again, Afrikaner-style. "Yah."
"I've seen you play, man. You'll be a Springbok in no time, man!"
Ben skipped the S-words this time. "Thank you. I hope!"
They fell into silence. Ben had to admit his mood had been brightened, just as it always was when he got to thinking about being selected to the national team. Everybody said it was only a matter of time.
When the cab arrived at his development, he paid and waved the guy off. He waved at the night watchman too, to get the man to buzz him in. This was the unfriendly fellow in the guard rotation, which was just as well. Ben wasn't sure he could smile without baring his fangs.
He trudged up the sleeping street. He noticed that if he tuned out his aching head and empty belly, his senses took on an unusually keen edge. He could hear people snoring and shifting in their beds, and dogs patrolling their yards. The ocean asserted its powerful presence; even with his back to it he could feel the sheer size of it, spread to the dark horizon and beyond. If he concentrated hard, every no-see-um drifting through the night became something visible and tangible. He didn't like that last bit, so he went back to pitying himself over the headache and hunger woes.
At his own house at last, he opened the door and the lattice security gate, shushing the two Staffordshire Terriers before they could start their usual welcome fuss. He hoped they wouldn't present themselves too much like dinner, but he needn't have worried; they both took one look at him and bandy-legged it for the bedroom, tails tucked under. He tossed his keys, wallet, and phone on the kitchen counter and opened the fridge.
A beautiful steak lay on its Styrofoam tray on the first shelf, awash in its own juices. He ripped the cellophane from the package and tipped the tray to his lips. The liquid ran into his throat, not blood but close enough. Delicious. He kept going, tearing into the meat with his strong new teeth. His mouth was alive with sensation: the silky raw texture, the metallic tang. If he had known anything could taste this luxurious he would have become a vampire years ago. He devoured the entire steak with only a vague pang of guilt that it had probably been intended for Sunday dinner.
The hunger and headache faded, replaced by exhaustion. He decided to sleep on the couch. It wouldn't do to roll over in his sleep and sink a tooth into Julia by mistake, especially now that it seemed a bloody steak could obviate his need to kill anyone. Julia always said that for a front row player he was a sissy. She would probably be glad to be proved right this time.
Ben dreamed he was playing to great cheers in an all-vampire league, on the hottest day of the year. He woke to find the sun streaming into the living room. The hadeda ibises outside the window had started their morning haa-haa-haa-de-da racket. His skin was smoking. He leapt from the couch and wrenched the drapes shut. His left hand caught fire. He yelped and ran for the kitchen sink, in the process tripping over the coffee table, careening off the end table, and knocking down several photos in the process. Why did they have so many tables? He turned on the faucet and dowsed his fingers in cold water. They hissed faintly.
"What on earth are you doing out here?" Julia asked, coming down the corridor from the bedroom.
Ben switched off the tap and turned around, cradling his fingers. He gave a half-smile, afraid to show his teeth. He still adored the first glimpse of her in the morning, before makeup sharpened her lovely soft edges. This time he also noticed the tantalizing pulse where her jaw met her neck. He hoped there was another steak hiding in the fridge somewhere. "Nothing. Tripped. Burnt myself."
"You amaze me. How could anyone do that much damage to himself this early in the morning? Let me see."
This was one of the perks of being married to a doctor. He held out his hand for her to examine. She took it and gently rotated it in her own so she could see all angles.
"That's a decent burn, Benny. I'm not even going to ask how you managed it. Hang on, I'll get you some ointment."
She disappeared down the hall and came back a moment later with a small tube of burn cream and a roll of gauze. She put the tube on the counter and turned on the tap to wash her hands. He focused on her ass to keep from looking at her neck.
She applied the ointment and the gauze in her usual no-fuss manner. He loved that about her as well. That was how they had first met, when she had first started as one of the team doctors. If he hadn't hurt himself so often they might never have gotten to know each other.
She finished dressing his hand. "I think you'll be able to play fine. Maybe take it easy at practice tomorrow."
She leaned in to give him a kiss, then jerked her head back.
"Benny, did you brush your teeth when you got back from the bar? I can survive onions or morning breath but you have the foulest mouth I have ever been near."
"Sorry, Jules. I'll go brush and we can have a do-over."
"But...I mean really bad. Rotten-tooth bad. Dog-breath bad."
"Thank you for elaborating," he said with a wry smile.
She frowned. "Forget the breath for one second. What's the matter with your teeth?"
He'd forgotten about the fangs. Time to come clean.
"A bit of a weird thing happened last night," he began.
Julia took it remarkably well. Clinically. She insisted on inspecting his teeth (after he had brushed them) and on taking his pulse (nonexistent) and his heartbeat (same). She pulled up the rulebook online to see if there were any restrictions on undead players (there weren't). She told him to call his mother, not to break the news but just to say he loved her and they would visit soon. While he was on the phone, she stepped out the door and came back with one of the citronella tiki torches from the backyard.
He hung up the phone. "Do we have mosquitoes in here?" he asked.
"No...it's just...it's pointy at the end. I figured just in case."
"Bamboo is wood. I'll just have to use more force." She looked as if she meant it. She probably could, too. He might be one of the biggest men in the country, but she was strong enough to pop bones back into place, which meant she knew how to put them out of place as well.
"I told you, I'm not going to hurt you."
"I don't have to kill anything. I can bleed the Staffies, like the Maasai bleed their cows."
"I am. I promise the dogs are safe. You're safe. I love you, Jules."
"And I love you, but I think there should be a trial period, just the same. Observation."
It made sense. "So what do we do?" he asked. She was always better than he was at planning.
"We make sure I'm the one who does your team physicals for now. And then you play on Saturday and make sure you hit that Transylvanian bastard extra hard, or I will."
The week went relatively uneventfully. Ben ate a lot of raw steak. He practiced a tight-lipped smile that didn't show his fangs, and talking around them. He got a custom mouth guard fitted by a somewhat baffled dentist. He begged out of the daylight practices, with Julia's help; she reported to the coaches that he had injured his hand but should be fine for selection on Saturday. He mulled over the things he might say to the little Transylvanian. He liked "I hope you're bloody well pleased with yourself," but Julia begged him not to pun. There was no dignity in punning, she said. Don't give him the satisfaction.
Ben and Julia arrived at the park on Saturday just after the sun had set. He was nearly late for the team meeting, which would have been an automatic ouster from the lineup, but he couldn't risk the sunlight. He wondered if there was such a thing as vampire sunscreen; otherwise his career had just been drastically shortened. Night games like this one didn't come along often. Now that he thought about it, this had been at the traveling team's request. They had claimed it had to do with jet lag, but now he wondered.
In the locker room, he felt a twinge of nerves. Not entirely unusual, and something he could often translate into focus. He struggled a bit with his strange new mouth guard. When one of his teammates caught sight of it, Ben made a joke about trying to intimidate the Transylvanians. "I wish I had thought of that," said the other.
They jogged out of the tunnel in their usual order, with Ben third after the captain. He loved the roar of the crowd at a home match, but he had never felt so completely intoxicated by it as he was tonight. Tens of thousands of voices, tens of thousands of heartbeats. The smell of grass and beer and sweat and fried food and night. The hum of the light grid. The nerves he had felt earlier disappeared, replaced by an impossible sureness. This must be how the great players felt every time they stepped out on the pitch.
All of a sudden, he knew that this would be his last match. He would never become one of the greats. How could he go on? He couldn't practice or play in daylight. He couldn't hide from the other doctors forever, or avoid the mirrors in the team bathroom after the game. He would have to find something else to do, like sportscasting.
He had never held back, but as the game started he threw two hundred percent into his tackles. Nothing illegal, just good old-fashioned bone crunching. He tried to get at the bastard scrumhalf whenever he could. Ben was easily twice his size. The other had the usual cockiness of his position, but Ben just hit him and hit him harder. No puns.
Just at the siren for halftime, Ben crunched the little guy again. They trotted back toward the locker rooms side-by-side.
"Why?" Ben asked.
The scrumhalf laughed, showing his own custom mouthguard. "You're good. International caliber, even if you haven't gotten the call yet."
Ben tried to understand. "You're recruiting? Why not just offer money?"
"You would never leave South Africa while you have a chance at being called to the national team. And once you've played for the Boks you won't be eligible to play for another country. Besides, look at us, we're a national team competing against your local club. How's a third-tier country like ours ever supposed to compete when we can't afford good players?"
"So you just take away my choice?"
"You're not going to pass anybody else's physical, believe me."
If it wouldn't have gotten him in trouble, Ben would have punched the other man in his smirking face. Instead, he turned away, to head to his own team's locker room.
"If you want to keep playing, you'll consider us!" he heard the scrumhalf call after him.
Ben paid more attention to the other team as the second half began. He realized that only about half of the Transylvanian team were vampires like the scrumhalf; he heard the pounding heart of the loosehead opposite him when they ground into each other in the scrum. He wondered if their teammates knew, and decided they must. He remembered how they had looked at the practice game last week, the way they had hunted his own team across the pitch. He resolved that they would not lose this game.
His teammates seemed to take his cue. They allowed the Transylvanians no chance. They attacked with ferocity, pushing into enemy territory again and again. They scored off a maul, and then off an interception, and again when Ben pushed one of his teammates over the try line.
He played better than he had in his whole life. He felt as if he were the most powerful man in the world. His team would win. That was obvious. Even against this team of monsters. What was the famous quote? "Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman's game played by beasts." They were playing against beasts now. He was one of them.
The clock wound down. His own team was ahead 24-9 with only two minutes to go. His next tackle took down the vampire winger, who spilled the ball forward. Scrum. This might be his last scrum ever, he realized. The hooker put an arm around his shoulder, and he wrapped his around the other man's ribs.
Both packs surged forward. Heads and shoulders interlocked, legs strained. Bodies as battering rams. Locked between them, Ben again heard the pounding heart of the Transylvanian loosehead. This was what he had trained his whole life to do, and he would never do it again unless he chose to join their team. He would never play for his own country. Anger overwhelmed him. How dare they take this away from him? Did they roam the world taking on other teams and then destroying the dreams of their opponents? Had other players fallen from the sport in this way? His outrage spurred him on, and he urged his teammates forward in turn.
This was it for him. He and the boys made the final shove, and he suddenly knew what he had to do, just this once. Had to because he was losing everything, and for just one second he wanted to know what it felt like to make someone else feel that too. The win was already theirs; nothing could take that away.
As the scrum collapsed Ben turned his head and bit into the forearm of the Transylvanian loosehead. His fangs sank through flesh. If this would be his only taste of living human blood he was okay with that, though it made the raw steak taste dead and stale by comparison. Just this once. The other man screamed and clasped his fingers over his bleeding arm. It looked dramatic, but it was just an arm. The medics would be at his side in seconds.
Ben heard the referee's whistle, even above the roaring crowd and the shouting players and the swoon-worthy, sense-blurring blood. He saw the red card the referee waved in his hand. He would be banned for weeks or months or years or forever, but his career was over anyhow. He would become a legend and a cautionary tale, but being called a maniac would be better than being called traitor. He had heard the way Saffies playing for Australia were booed every time they returned to the country, and he never wanted to be the recipient of those jeers. Now at least he could probably have a career in broadcasting, once people were done being scandalized.
Hopefully Julia would forgive him.
She probably wouldn't leave him alone with the dogs for a while.