Pick a Team, Any Team by Tim Frank

When I was thirteen my dad bought me the number nine Dembele replica shirt, complete with maroon socks, black and white shorts and a matching scarf. I loved it so much I wore it for five days straight, even in bed. I refused to bathe, so I developed strange rashes and became all sticky.

But that soon changed when Dembele tore up his contract and transferred to a club in Spain that paid him three times the wages. He was welcomed like one of their own—a saint.

I peeled my kit off, wiped my tears on it and screamed into a pillow as the sports channel documented every aspect of his new career abroad.

I started seeing Dembele lookalikes throughout the city and I fought the urge to spit at their feet. My asthma returned. I was put on Ritalin.

But one day on the bus home, I became philosophical. Many people in society had a uniform that one could identify with; from the police chasing shoplifters along busy high streets, to the nurses injecting insulin into diabetics, even beggars dressed in rags as they slept beneath underpasses. But who’s to say they couldn’t find a new role, somehow? Why can’t they change?

Then I thought: damn it, no, my dad had to save months for that strip. The truth was Dembele was the enemy in a spanking new polyester shirt.

“Why don’t you just support Dembele’s new team?” my dad said to me one morning before school, while juicing a stick of celery in the kitchen. “You know, that way he could still be your hero.”

My jaw dropped in horror.

“Maybe not,” he said, as he saw my face contort in disgust.

As I rode the bus to school, I attacked a Wham bar - its sticky softness wrapping around my teeth - and my dad’s words swam through my mind. I was so unnerved by what he said, I couldn’t even focus on Tracy Cooper’s shapely calves during home tech later that afternoon.

The way I saw it, if my dad’s loyalty to our team—because it was his team as much as mine—was in doubt, I had to question his commitment to everything. Was our family life a flimsy lie? And what about my mum? What was the truth behind their relationship? Did he really love her? Were his trips to the bookies really a cover for filthy rendezvous with the waitress he always flirted with at Dan’s diner—the place we’d go to pig out when our team lost?

Playing a PC football game one evening in my room, I controlled an avatar based on Dembele. Online he was just like in real life—a pacey, highly skilled athlete with a muscular physique, and in this particular game he still played for my team. He hadn’t been transferred yet in virtual reality.

I smashed my controller and reached for my scream pillow. My mum poked her head around the door and asked if I wanted some crisps to cheer me up. I didn’t need crisps but I did need her motherly understanding. She sat beside me and as if reading my mind, said, “I don’t know much about football but it seems to me losing your hero could be a blessing in disguise. Because, just think, it could give an opportunity for a younger, more loyal, player to get a run in the team.”

She didn’t understand and I let her know with slow, deliberate shakes of my head.

“I’ll be honest with you, honey,” mum said, with a steely glare quickly playing across her face. “Destroy your heroes, trust no one, kill your babies. It’s the only way to protect yourself.”

“Mum, do you love dad?” I said, wiping the snot from my nose as tears began to flow.

“Let me put it in a way you can understand; your dad is regularly injured and sometimes the manager has to play some lesser players to fill his position.”

I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about but I had the sudden realisation she probably wasn’t the person she seemed to be—maybe she was a robot from the future, here to change reality? I stared into her glossy eyes and tried to find circuit boards or loose wires poking out like a bust-up Terminator. But if she was a machine, she was a first-class human replica.

I’d had enough. All this doubt had got to me and I needed to do something—make a protest, purge the evil, even make an offering to the gods of football. So, I gathered up my Dembele football strip and dumped it in a pile in the garden. I soaked it with lighter fluid, then lit a match. The explosion almost scorched my irises.

Neighbours peeked over fences from every angle, gossiping about me, about my family, about the government as the fire raged and I turned to face each and every one of them and shouted, “Well, what do you put your faith in?!”

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool.

Tim Frank has been nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020

Tim Frank is the associate fiction editor for
Able Muse Literary Journal.