A tie should be okay, a voice was telling me from inside, but I didn't feel okay, inside. I looked at the gang, they didn't give a fuck, like we were up three-zip. I didn't feel like partying. I can't loosen up just like that. I always think five moves ahead. I think strategically. I'm not the group leader for nothing.
- Hey, Joe, come over here – Gula called from the fountain in the park where most of the gang was.
- In a sec – I said, but I didn't plan on moving.
I took out my cell. I thought of Dean, the big city boy. They didn't do well in Zadar, I was gonna fuck with him.
It was ringing and rattling and buzzing and whizzing, he probably didn't hear. But he did, there he was, he picked up.
- Hey, man, ya know who's calling? – I laughed cold.
- Nope, but I know it's a hillbilly – the pussy answered readily.
- You hillbilly big city motherfucker! It's Joe, did ya already forget me?
- Hey, Joe, what’s up? Sorry, I didn't realize it was you. I don't like when I don't know the number, especially with a 098 area code. It’s the enemy line – Dean laughed what else could he do?
- Right, 091 is my enemy line. But I'm calling you as a friend, sort of.
- Yea, pretty boy, what's the problem?
- Nothing really. I just wanted to hear you and ask how you did in Zadar – I snickered to myself like I didn’t know what was up.
- Don't even make me think about Zadar. We're still here, going back soon. Where are you?
- What do you mean where am I? In Rijeka for fuck's sake!
- A point, right?
- Yeah. Listen, I just wanted to thank you for Kazakhstan last Wednesday. I had a blast. You're a true host, no doubt about it!
- It's alright, man, it’s the least I could do. Did you say you're in Rijeka?
- How many of you?
- I don't know. A shitload. Why?
- Great. Listen to me - said Dean like he had something real fucking important to say.
I realized I didn't want to improvise. So I interrupted him, strategically.
- Hey, Deanie, can you give me a call? I’m outta credit.
- Okay. I'll give you a buzz right back.
What a stupid fuck!
We were about the same distance from Brinje, I'd say, but it was important that we got there first, for psychological and strategic reasons. Something like a home-field advantage.
- There’s a ton of us, a fucking ton of us… - Gula, Kevo and Krika were partying in the back seat as we entered Brinje. I mean the gas station, the rest stop, not the town of Brinje. We were about fifty cars. We drove as one all the way from Rijeka, like an overnight express. We parked, we claimed our space. The other team wasn’t even out yet. In the spirit of fair play we parked close to one another to make room for them when they came. We closed ranks. I tried to call that little faggot Dean, to mess with him because we got there first, but the pussy didn't answer.
"You'll answer to me, pal, you'll report to me when the time comes," I thought to myself. "You were thinking you were closer, you had better cars, you'd make it to Brinje first. But you don't know who you’re dealing with. Forget Kazakhstan, forget the truce! You're in for Afghanistan!"
We waited by our cars, windows open, baseball bats on the seats. As the group leader I had a telescopic baton. I had a big responsibility, after all. The deal was no bats, but you never know. They had them, too, that was sure. The only thing I could say for sure was no firearms. You might find that at the regional level, but not locally. That was the code of honor and it hadn't been broken once since independence. Gula and Kevo were directing tourists to the other side of the parking lot; this side was reserved for guests from Zagreb, they explained. Organization was top-notch. Lighting was perfect. I looked at my boys, arms crossed on their chests like bouncers, legionaries. Like generals. No one would have said it was the same disbanded army from the park in Rijeka, by the fountain an hour and a half ago. I shivered with pride, with a sense of duty, responsibility. It's a big burden.
I didn't know why they were late: they had been in Zadar, they should have come already. Who knew what those pussies were up to? Or did they just run away and would they try to blame it on the cops or who knows what kind of big city bullshit?
The weather was perfect, not muggy at all. It was Lika, after all.
- Here they are - someone shouted.
A line of Zagreb plates drove into the parking lot, solemnly, as if they were coming to church for a wedding. Gula and Kevo directed and coordinated them, leaving enough room for the action, for a ring, between our cars and theirs. I watched the Zagreb pussies behind the wheels nod just a bit, as a sign of respect for the good organization. Dean came out first: sunglasses on his face (at midnight, no less), spitfire jacket turned inside out, acting cool, calculating. He approached me, rolling up with superiority, Napoleon-style, but just a bit shorter, and fatter. He greeted me with a quick nod of his bald head:
- All set?
I looked around. My boys were still at attention but now their hands were down, at the balls. Hand over fist.
- Did you doubt it? – I cocked my head and looked at him, my nostrils trembling, Bruce Lee style.
- Well, the game can begin then - said Dean, turning to his team that had meanwhile taken their positions.
And before I could weigh out the teams, Dean suddenly turned and punched me in the stomach with all his might. I doubled over in pain. The wind knocked out of me flashed in front of my eyes, exploded. And before I could even catch my breath, a knee landed right on my nose and upper jaw. The pain was instantaneous, sharp, sword-like, unbearable, but short-lived. Soon enough a warmth, a heat came over me, it hit me right in the brain. I fell on my back and then lost track of things. For a while at least. I don't know how long it lasted, but when I came back to my senses, I could only move my eyes. And even that was slow, every move hurt me to the marrow. My body wasn't mine. I didn't feel bones in my arms and legs but some kind of mush from a blender. All around and above were lights and shadows. Dull blows were dealt, uncontrolled, like in the final rounds of a boxing match. I didn't recognize anyone: either because of the fucking lights that were pecking my brain, or because the rest of my guys were knocked out just like me and were now looking for me like I was looking for them. I couldn't see Dean either; only the lights and the moving shadows and the dark roof of the gas station blending into an even darker sky. That's all I had in the frame.
And then, all of a sudden, as if someone turned up the volume, there was the murmur of voices. First like the thin croaking of frogs, but then thicker, deeper, ball-shaped. Shadows turned into faces, faces of women, faces of children, old faces, wrinkled. Faces were coming towards me, looking at me with horror and disgust like they would at a run-over cat. I didn't know a single face. The buzzing was cut by the sound of a siren, two sirens-- a regular one and one that sounded like a pinball table. Through the sirens came cries and moans in total discord with everything. Sirens always make me feel uneasy and so they did now, but the moans made me laugh. But I couldn't laugh because I would have cried with pain in no time. The next face that entered the frame had the hat and uniform of a cop, it kept rocking left and right, slow and serious. Then other uniforms came in, white uniforms, serious as the cops but quicker, ant-quick.
It's been a long time since I heard a bird sing. Like when you hear a goldfinch in a cage on the balcony next door, or a sparrow on your own balcony. And then you sit down or lie down, lie low and listen to it twitter and pluck some notes of its own. I don't think it's the twitter that woke me up. I think it's the emptiness, forgetting how sweet it is when the chirping of birds seeps down your ear, like warm tea down the throat: chirp chirp chirp tweet tweet…
I could swear I understood every single word of it, even though I couldn't find the words to translate them. It'd happened to me before, when I'd play music, some soft guitar. I'd turn off the light and go to bed. Sleep would come down on me like cobwebs, and then a louder note would wake me up and I was sure I'd understood every word of the guitar, but I wouldn't remember what exactly it had said when I woke up.
Or was I awakened by this light piercing my eyeballs like needles, through my closed eyelids? I tried to open my eyes but again, zero movement. A battery gone dead. I tried to turn my head so the lights wouldn't kill me. It's great when you forget you can't do it, even for a second. But then you remember you can't do it and you hit your head against a ton of lead,
luckily only in your mind, because you haven't moved a millimeter. Then you do it on purpose, you move in your mind, turn on the side, bend your knees, stretch a little. Then you stretch your arms, work your head, move your ass, in your mind, of course, and you feel a little better.
If only it wasn't so hot! The nurse doesn't know when you are hot and when you are cold: she covers you, straightens the blanket and turns the sheet over the edge, like in the army. It's nice when she does it, when she tucks you in, you feel nice and safe. But then she goes, and she's gone… and she's gone. That's why it's important I hear this bird now, hear it sing to me, hear it trill (is that the right word?)... It's nice when a bird sings, when you understand it, when its words squeeze out their words, the big-city death-bed old-fart words stinking of shit and fear like they do, the grandpas and their shitty diapers, they smell of death and death is all they talk about: th-teh-ree, three of the-hem died...
Diapers! Of course! It's time for diapers! How could I forget? The nurse should come any minute and change my diapers and then she will uncover me, free me from this agony. Here, I can hear her steps, I can hear them right through the whispers of the shitty old farts from the other beds, their whi-hi-spers... th-teh-ree, th-teh-ree... They whisper through the bird’s twittering that's getting faster, sparkling, nervous, less clear. But the nurse is coming. I can hear her steps, she will uncover me now, turn me over, change my diapers. Change, that's all that matters.
I laughed (in my mind, of course) at the mention of my name.
- Joe - the voice went on softly, as if through laughter - I know you can hear me.
- Dean! - I screamed, in my mind. - You're alive! I didn't know what happened. No one would tell me, not the doctors, not my folks when they came to visit. Only these Methuselahs whispering: "th-teh-ree, th-teh-ree." I'm sick of them! Why don't you get me another room, without those vultures, those corpses. Please, in the name of Kazakhstan!
- Listen, Joe, I don't have much time - Dean said after waiting, I guess, for me to finish my silent prayer.
- I don't know if they told you - he went on - but the game in Brinje finished 2:1, for your team.
My heart was beating, I was trembling, inside. Dean went on.
- That's why I'm here now, in additional time. And I have a penalty shot - said Dean.
I said nothing. I kept silent and watched him through my closed lids. He caught me by surprise. He was a good talker too. A true little cocky Napoleon. Then the bird started to screech at the top of its lungs, like the sound of an alarm. That's what it shouted: alarm, alarm! This time I found the words to translate it. I smiled and just as I opened my mouth (in my mind), something soft and spongy sat upon it, like a pillow. A pillow! Dean put a pillow on my face! The pillow was cold and it felt good at first. He even rubbed me a little, wiped the sweat off, and I was almost grateful for it. But then he pressed with all he had, I felt every one of his finger pads, the smell of tobacco coming through the thin spongy pillow. I started to kick and struggle within, with my legs, with my arms, I got hold of his hand and tried to push it away, but in vain.
- A-ha-larm, a-ha-larm! - the old folks gargled.
I struggled and wriggled, but it was all in vain.
Then a bell started to ring, a siren began to howl, like that time at the gas station in Brinje.
- Alarm, alarm! - screamed the nurse.
Dean pushed a little more, I could hear my upper jaw crackle. And then he suddenly let go of the pillow, rocked the bed full power, unloaded me like I was in a wheel-barrow, and left the scene of crime.
I smashed against the floor two times, first with my feet and then my head. I remained lying face down. Blood started running down my nose, like warm tea. I felt the salty taste on the tip of my flabby tongue and then, after a long time, I felt myself again.
I laughed from the bottom of my heart. I laughed in my mind, at the top of my lungs. I laughed at Dean and his flushed Napoleonic face, rejoicing over our final victory, the total ruin on the other side. What shitheads! Miss a penalty in additional time!
 The lyrics to a soccer chant sung at matches by hardcore soccer fans.