Where evil twins and friends come together to lovingly snark Point Horror and other teen genre fiction
 

Recap #199: Graveyard School #12: Scream, Team! by Tom B. Stone

SOCCER RIOT!

Title: Graveyard School #12 – “Scream, Team!” a.k.a. “The Bad News Belville Bears”

Author: Tom B. Stone, a.k.a. Nola Thacker, a.k.a. D.E. Athkins

Cover Artist: Cam DeLeon

Summary: Belville Bears 13

Grove Hill Tigers 0

They’re big. They’re mean. They’re ugly. And they’re totally killing the Graveyard School Tigers. The Belville Bears used to be the worst soccer team in the universe. But now they’ve gotten good. Wicked good. Unnaturally good. Tyson Walker knows something is wrong. But can he stop the new monster team before they turn the Tigers into kitty litter.

Initial Thoughts

We have our first non-skateboard related sporting book in the series. And it’s got an all-star cast! Tyson! Algie! Kirstin! Skip! Maria! And Jason Dunnbarr who is surprisingly a lot nicer than he was in his first appearance!

“Scream, Team” offers more world building to the land of Grove Hill by introducing us to Belville Academy and giving us a better grasp of the land beyond Graveyard School. I referred to this book in my introduction post by mentioning how this is such a refreshing change of pace to sports tales. It really enforces ideas about healthy sportsmanship, and that parents who scream and rave about their kids always winning is NOT the right way to raise a child.

Here’s hoping you guys enjoy this more than Nola Thacker’s other “Scream Team” novel.

Recap

Dr. Morthouse starts off the annual soccer pep rally with these stirring words of encouragement.

“Kill them. In a manner of speaking, of course.”

Dr. Morthouse, principal of Grove Hill Elementary School, smiled at the assembled students. “Losers aren’t welcome around here.” She smiled even more broadly. Something silver glinted in her mouth.

[Wing: Aww, Dr Morthouse, as charming as ever.]

The first graders immediately recoiled in their seats.

Algernon “Algie” Green sat between Tyson Walker (Forward) and Kirstin Bjorg (Sweeper) (ugh I keep getting her name wrong and spelling it Bjork) and cringed as well. It was his first time in a school that held soccer pep rallies (or ANY pep rallies). He still couldn’t believe Tyson and Kirstin, the Tigers’ co-captains, talked him into joining the team as the goalie. He was a baseball boi, not a bloody soccer bloody ‘ooligan, Judy!

Algie groaned as Coach Dare Bryant took the stage from Dr. Morthouse. The burly no-necked soccer coach with a bullet-shaped head and checkered hat congratulated the kids for supporting the Grove Hill Tigers. The cheers erupted as Bryant mentioned the Tigers winning the previous season, and with the first game against the Belville Bears coming up the Tigers will need all the support they can get.

Doc M asks for the Tigers to stand up so everyone can give them a big round of applause. Algie refuses to move out of his seat. Tyson and Kirstin don’t care.

Kirstin leaned over and grabbed Algie’s arm. “Come on,” she said. “You’re a member of the team, too.”

“No,” said Algie. “You can make me play goal, but you can’t make me stand up.”

He was wrong. Tyson grabbed one arm and Kirstin grabbed the other, and the next thing Algie knew, he was sagging weakly between them.

“Smile,” Tyson hissed.

Algie frowned.

Algie couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if some stupid soccer player broke his fingers, which meant he wouldn’t be able to play for the Tigers’ baseball team. [Wing: It … it is not a good idea for you to be in goal, then, Algie.]

At Graveyard School, anything could happen.

Algie’s mood hadn’t improved a lick during soccer practice, where he was screaming a number of synonyms for “STOP THOSE FUCKERS” as loud as he could. He might be new, but he knew the drill. If he stopped the ball, all anyone would care about would be that the game kept going. If the ball went into the goal, they’d blame him and it’d be his fault if the Tigers lost in their real games. The only people who mattered were those who scored goals. I tell ya, goalies get no respect. No respect, no respect! Nyuk-yuk-yuk!

Oh eww I was possessed by Jabberjaw for a moment.

Algie was tense as he saw Tyson getting closer with the ball, wondering what the fuck was keeping Kirstin. As a sweeper, she was supposed to be the last line of defense between the opposing team and the goal. At the last second Kirstin appeared, and Algie hoped she would stop Tyson. They were both amazing soccer players.

She was fearless, with what seemed like supernatural endurance. She was so skilled that she almost never fouled another player. “Brains over brawn” was her motto. “Keep your head and make the other players lose theirs.”

And believe me, Kirstin’s NEVER lost her head. [Wing: I love Kirstin.]

Too bad for Algie this was one of those times Kirstin couldn’t stop Tyson, which meant Algie had to *gulp* protect the goal.

Without knowing what he was doing, Algie leaped forward. All his hatred for every game that wasn’t baseball was in his leap. The ball brushed his fingers and spun upward.

Algie lost his footing as he plummeted back to earth. He instinctively curled up to protect his soft insides as he fell. He felt a toe connect with his ribs. He grunted in pain, wishing he had spines like a porcupine. He’d drive one up under the toe that had kicked him.

A body crashed down onto him.

“Owwww!” he howled.

“Goalie?” asked Coach Bryant. His question meant “You are all right, aren’t you? You’d better be.”

Kirstin was amazed at how well Algie stopped Tyson’s shot while Tyson apologizes for crashing into the poor goalie. Algie’s not happy to learn HE has to get the ball even though Tyson kicked it. As he went to retrieve the ball, Algie hoped Coach Bryant would call an end for the practice…

But Coach Dare Bryant never gave up. He always made them practice until it was too dark to see. Until long after the other teams had quit their own practices, long after the last intrepid skateboarders had finished going over moves up on the hill above the graveyard behind the school.

Yeh right.

Once practice finally ends, Coach Bryant gives the usual instructions for the night before their next game. No junk food, no staying up late, no weird, bone mangling sports activities. Like soccer, Algie snarked. They’ll be meeting at the school 9 AM sharp to take the bus to Belville Academy. Tyson finds it hilarious when Algie asks what’ll happen if he misses the bus.

While sharing a car ride home with Tyson’s family, Algie caught a glimpse of something silver high atop Graveyard Hill. For a moment, Algie remembered his brief encounter with Grove Hill’s dark side but then pushed to the back of his mind again. It was safer not to dwell over what happened. Yet Algie just can’t catch a break when the car stops at his house and he’s practically assaulted by his family’s small dog, Biscuit. Or his mom put it, he needed to “Stop playing” with Biscuit. Sucks to be you, Alg.

Tyson was trying to get in some extra practice at home, even though it was getting late and it was time for dinner. He was scrimmaging opposite his older brother James, who repeatedly mentioned soccer wasn’t his game (though he HAD learned a few things from Tyson over the years). Tyson mused James sounded like Algie, to which James asked if having a goalie who hated soccer was bad for team morale? Not like Tyson was worried; he was sure they were winning Algie over. Hope springs eternal.

Mr. Walker decided it was getting too dark outside to keep practicing, even with the light in the yard. Tyson looked down and noticed the creepy shapes the shadows of the three Walkers were making.

With the shadow of the soccer ball curving grotesquely at Tyson’s feet, Tyson, James, and Mr. Walker made a team of distorted two-dimensional shadow figures. The shadow of James moved across the yard and up the stairs. The closer he got to the light, the longer and thinner his shadow grew, lingering behind him on the steps and on the law.

Watching the shadow team, Tyson rolled the ball up onto his toe and began to juggle it with his feet and knees, bouncing it gently up and down, catching it on the top of his foot, the top of his thigh. He was very good at juggling.

So was his shadow. The enormous shadow ball rose and fell in perfect time. His enormous shadow feet and legs looked monstrous and powerful. He was playing with an opponent he could never beat, never outrun, never outwit.

Heading inside, Tyson motioned to the shadows and described them as a soccer team to fear. Big, mean, and inhuman.

The next day, Algie’s mood hadn’t improved during the bus ride to Belville Academy. Skip Wolfson (midfielder) helpfully added the school’s had worse buses. Maria Medina (midfielder) agreed with Skip while Tyson tried to figure out why Algie was being such a Depressing Desdemona. He was just nervous. No one could hate soccer THAT much, could they?

Tyson tells Algie not to worry, and Algie’s all “Worry? Even though you said the Bears are easy to beat? Worry? Moi?” Kirstin offers this encouragement.

“We’ll skin ’em alive,” said Kirstin, still staring out the window. “We’ll tear their heads off.” She sounded as if she truly meant it.

GEE I WONDER

Algie really is scared they can’t beat the Bears, even though it’s THE BEARS. Tyson tries to tactfully explain to Algie just how awful the Bears really are without it sounding like unsportsmanlike gloating and hot dogging. After all, Coach Bryant was serious about being a good sport almost as much as he was serious about winning.

According to Tyson and the rest of the team, the Belville Bears are objectively the worst soccer team around. They whine, complain, lie about getting hit by other players. They’re never fun to play because they’re so nasty and unpleasant. Their coach yells at them and insults them, even calls them names, from the sidelines. Algie is horrified a coach would do that to his players, and their parents are just as bad. Hell, the Bears don’t even like each other and always get in each other’s way.

Kirstin said scornfully “About the only thing that runs fast on that team is mouths.”

Once the bus finally reached Belville Academy, Algie was at a loss for words at how neat and pristine the school looked. Stone pillars, wrought iron gates, lawns that sparkled like green jewels. Tyson found it hard to believe kids who had so much could be such assholes. Okay well, a couple of kids on the Bears were okay by themselves. Like, um, what’s his name. And that other guy. While Algie was in awe of the beautiful soccer field, Skip snarked the Bears’ uniforms are just as pretty… for now.

With five minutes to game time, the Tigers and Coach Bryant were wondering when the Bears would show up. As everyone got into position, the stands filled with Tigers fans and Bears supporters. Most of the parents of the Tigers showed up, except for Kirstin’s. They never came to the games because she claimed they didn’t like soccer. And yet even Dr. Morthouse showed up dressed in red and white, the team colors. The Bears fans and supporters were all dressed in orange and black.

Algie didn’t know what kind of team could be late to a game at their own school, but he really didn’t care. Maybe the Bears would never show up. Maybe there wouldn’t be a game after-HOLY JIMINY FUCK WHAT IS THAT?!

The Belville Bears finally arrived, but something was… different, about them. They were big. Enormous. Almost like actual bears. [Wing: I will take ursine shapeshifters just as well as lupine ones!] Algie was horrified by this supposed team of sixth graders, and Tyson’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head when he caught a glimpse of them for the first time in a year. Kirstin didn’t seem at all worried by how much these kids had bulked up. But she was staring them down just the same.

Tyson went to shake hands with Mitch Robbins, the captain of the Bears, and could barely recognize him. He knew Mitch as a tall, skinny, nasty kid who loved to stick his elbow out or trip on top of other players on purpose. This Mitch, though, he was clearly drinking his milk. Well, he’s drinking SOMETHING. Tyson almost got his digits broken during the handshake; Mitch’s fist was so big it completely engulfed Tyson’s hand! Once the Bears won the coin toss, Tyson walked back to his side of the field. He tried to make sure Algie didn’t see how scared he felt.

As a side note I swear when I think of Mitch I imagine Danny Cooksey as Budnick from Nickelodeon’s “Salute Your Shorts.”

Seriously that name just screams “Redheaded douchebag.” And yet surprisingly, Budnick is not one of my favorite characters despite my ginger obsession.

Stacey Carter tried to cheer for Maria as loudly as she could, because Maria and the Tigers are gonna need all the help they can get. The game was tied 0-0, something unheard of in all the years the Tigers (or ANY team) have played against the Bears. Puke perfect Polly Hannah smugly declared “They’re worse than terrible,” and for once Stacey agreed with her. The Belville Bears were certainly worse than terrible. Oh but Polly wasn’t talking about the Bears. That was not the smartest thing to say to the girl whose best friend is one of the Tigers. But Stacey doesn’t let it get to her. She even offers to share with Polly some orange sod-oooooops. Sorry about that, Polly.

Polly was the one person in the Grove Hill stand not dressed in the school colors (red and white), decked out in her usual pink and white (and now featuring orange). Nor did she really care when the Tigers didn’t score. Stacey wore a rugby shirt she borrowed from Maria’s collection. What does it say when even Dr. Morthouse is showing more school spirit?

Tyson snagged the ball, but the Bears were on top of him. They even growled like real bears. Jason Dunnbar snagged the ball as Tyson passed it and made for the Bears’ goal. At that moment Tyson looked a Bears fullback in the eye and took a step back. It wasn’t like looking into a bear’s eyes. It was like looking into a SHARK’s eyes. [Wing: SHAPESHIFTING BEAR SHARKS.] Maria was open when the Bears sweeper came out of nowhere and plowed her down. And then whacked her on the back again. Kirstin called “Foul,” but the ref said to play on.

Jason was about to shoot the ball when that same sweeper came after him, with the ferocity of a truck destroying a house. Too late though. Jason kicked the ball in time, but the goalie simply stuck his hand out and grabbed it in midair. As the Tigers supporters groaned, the goalie kicked the ball back into the game. Kirstin and one of the Bears ran towards it…

And saw the goalie kicked it so hard it was practically a pancake.

Things got worse, but they didn’t get better. The Tigers and Bears were always coming that close to scoring a goal, only to snatch it away from the opposing team. No one could believe the Bears would ever GET that close. For someone who hated soccer so much, Algie busted his ass protecting that goal. Blocking, punching, kicking, he did it all. By halftime, the rest of the team praised Algie for his amazing performance. Even Jason, a boy who once made Algie as miserable as possible, called him a hero.

“You’re a hero, Algernon. No matter what happens, you are a hero,” said Jason. Jason’s own face was covered with dirt. A chunk of his hair was missing from his head. One of his shin guards was wrapped around his leg backwards.

“You too,” Algie managed to say.

Jason didn’t give compliments easily. And he clearly wasn’t used to getting them. “Aw, it’s my job,” he said.

Aw yeah character development.

Coach Bryant asks everyone applaud Algie for the amazing work he’s done. Tyson asked what they’re gonna do about the Bears; it’s like they’re a whole new team. Algie watched the Bears stiffly lining up to a take a drink from a silver cooler over on their side of the field. Bryant wasn’t sure what to make of them, other than their new coach, Coach Sandman, has clearly worked a miracle. Yet the Bears appeared to be a living contradiction. They’re not fast, but get the ball first. They’re not skilled, but have excellent ball control.

Didja hear that Wing? They really *snerk* have excellent ball control. I know I’m always in control of my balls. I never lose track of them. It’s important kids learn ball control if they hope to become functioning adults. [Wing: These books are so dirty.]

Okay back to pretending I’m an adult who’s not going to Hell.

While watching the Bears line up with military precision, Algie asked if there was anything new the coach could tell them. Bryant advised to follow the Brazilian doctrine of soccer playing by making quick passes and being creative. The one downside the Bears have displayed is their inability to predict what the opponent does next. All they do is react.

On their way onto the field, Kirstin had this to share.

“This is crazy! These are the Bears. The worst soccer team in the universe, remember? They can’t pass, they can’t run, they’re afraid of kicking the ball because it might hurt their toes. They’re terrible sports and dirty players. They whine and complain…”

Kirstin turned to Tyson for support as co-captain, whipping up everyone’s enthusiasm and reminding them they’re the Tigers and they’re grrrrrrrrREAT!

Wing feel free to murder me now, that one crossed a line if the ball jokes hadn’t.

[Wing: That certainly won’t be the thing to trigger a copyright lawsuit around here.]

Algie wearily watched the Bears as he made his way to the goal. He realized they even walked like actual bears, remembering an experience he’d had in the Adirondack Mountains with his great-aunt. He’d come upon a black bear feasting on a berry bush, and Algie backed slowly away before the bear noticed him. His aunt explained the bear was likely bulking up for hibernation. Don’t bother it, it won’t bother you. But NEVER get between a mama bear and her cub.

It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see these soccer-playing Bears as the real thing.

Real, people-eating bears.

Once the game resumed, Algie took the initiative and moved over the goalie line so he could be useful. Now he could perform just like the other players, and the Bears seemed startled by this turn of events. Their confusion multiplied when Algie kicked the ball back onto the field before retreating to the goal.

Jason quickly trapped the ball and made his way to the Bear goal, but all it took was a second of hesitation for him to go down. With the Bears in control once more, Algie’s nightmare intensified. More and more impossible shots were coming his way and Algie did his best to block them. Every single Bear would stop in their tracks whenever Algie got the ball, waiting to see what he would do next. [Wing: Interesting.] As long as he had the ball, Algie was safe. It was two minutes to the end when things finally went wrong. One of the Bears managed to kick the ball so hard it spiraled into Algie and threw him back INTO the goal, the net coming loose around him.

And the ball.

Kirstin helped Algie up and assured him it was a good try, but the game ended soon after.

With the score at 0-1, for the first time in history, the Grove Hill Tigers lost, they LOST, to the Belville Bears.

The parents of the Bears cheered their asses off and mocked the Tigers as Tyson went to shake Mitch’s hand. While Tyson said “Good game,” he hadn’t meant it. But he was obliged to say it to be a good sport. The one thing Coach Bryant hated more than losing was bad sportsmanship. And no one wants Coach Bryant to be unhappy.

Sadly, Bryant’s pretty unhappy as is and told the Tigers they’d talk about this later. As the kids shamefully retreated to the bus, Dr. Morthouse glared at them. She was probably considering murdering them right there, but decided not to since they had more games to play. Polly was no help, smugly declaring the Tigers lost big time. The only thing that hurt Algie worse than losing was the pain from where the ball hit him. He wondered if it’d left an imprint on his chest.

The bus ride was interminable. Tyson asked if anyone else noticed how creepy it felt to shake hands with the Bears, saying it was like their hands were dead. Like they were lumps of cold, dead meat. Kirstin muses she hadn’t noticed.

Surprisingly but distressingly, no one blamed Algie for the loss. Instead, Kirtsin and Jason turned on each other. It was offense’s fault. It was defense’s fault. Tyson couldn’t believe what he was seeing, his teammates acting like a bunch of, of… Bears!

While Tyson tried to get Kirstin and Jason to cool off before Bryant heard their arguing, Skip noticed the two were acting like a couple of dogs in a dogfight. And since his family runs a pet supply store (among other reasons) he’d know. The tension defused, Jason wondered what the fuck happened to the Belville Bears.

If things on the bus were bad, the feelings at school were worse. No one wanted to start off the soccer season with a losing game, especially considering who the Tigers lost against. Tyson was starting to go overboard practicing for the next game against the Birch Valley Volunteers (I love that name). James had to talk Tyson into getting some sleep the night before game 2, warning him he’d overexert himself and be unfit to play. Tyson tried to make James understand why this was such a big deal. It was the Bears. THE BEARS.

James reasoned the Bears simply got better, but Tyson knew it was more than that. There’s no way a team that bad could improve so drastically overnight, no matter who their coach was. And the roster hadn’t changed, he was sure of it. He’d recognized most of the players. Well, they had certainly changed, but they were same kids on the line-up. Not noticing his freaky shadow as he headed inside, Tyson tried to figure out what was going on.

If the Belville Bears were bad, the Birch Valley Volunteers were worse. No, the Birch Valley Vultures would’ve been more accurate.

They were huge. Bigger than the Bears. They had blank, white eyes and their teeth were filed to points. Saliva dripped from the corners of their mouths, and their huge hands almost seemed to drag on the ground next to their huge feet as they advanced.

All of the Tigers, including Kirstin, were terrified. Tyson tried to be brave, but it didn’t work. He was prepared to run, but didn’t get far.

He took one step back. His foot made a horrible slurping sound. He jerked it up and turned to run.

But both feet were stuck.

He looked down. The blinding emerald green of the soccer field had turned into a sea of white, wormy muck that gave off a ghastly, ghostly toxic glow. Things writhed in the muck, and a wave of putrefying odor washed over him.

He pulled with all his might and got one foot free.

Maggots fell from the cleats.

His teammates were struggling and screaming. They were being swallowed by the goo.

He saw Kirstin go down.

“Kirstin!” he screamed.

She turned her head. She turned her head all the way around so it was facing backwards between her shoulders.

“Nooooo!” shouted Tyson.

Tyson tried to get free from the muck and was hoisted up by the Volunteer center forward, looking straight at those milky eyes and red teeth. Poor Tyson thrashed and kicked the Volunteer’s face, knocking off a chunk of his flesh. Tyson screamed and screamed…

Until James managed to wake him up. Tyson sunk back to reality as James told him to get a grip before he missed the game. It was just a dream. The Birch Valley Volunteers aren’t monsters, and Kirstin’s head doesn’t spin around and around and around…

To Tyson’s knowledge.

On the bus ride to the county park, Tyson kept a close eye on his teammates fearing some bizarre transformation would happen to them as well. Thankfully, the Volunteers really were a perfectly ordinary group of kids. [Wing: Shame. I was enjoying the Vultures, especially after Spellbound.]

They played like ordinary soccer players, too. They yelled enthusiastically when they played well. They groaned when they blew a shot. They threw an occasional elbow and a trip or two, but they also reached out a hand to help an opposing player up, and once their forward even shouted, “Good goalie!” to Algie when he blocked a shot.

The Tigers won, 2-1.

Tyson was feeling good and almost forgot about the dream altogether, until Stacey Carter had shocking news. The Belville Bears were playing nearby, and they were beating the Woodstock Warriors.

Stacey and the Tigers hurried to watch the Bears, and they looked different from last time. They were all big, but in different ways. Some were wide and tall, some were muscular and huge, and some were spindly and sharp. But they all moved swiftly and silently, almost like ghosts. They were also slaughtering the Warriors.

The Warriors, a sturdy, tough team that made up in tenacity what it lacked in skill, fell before the Bears like trees in front of a bulldozer. They passed, they ran, they worked hard – but somehow never quite got a good shot or even a good pass. No sooner had they gotten the ball then an enormous foot would appear, trapping the ball and sometimes the Warrior’s foot as well.

The Bears scored.

And scored.

And scored again.

Algie could barely watch as a Bear scored a goal so hard the ball tore through the net. One of the Belville parents screamed a cheer so loud it almost deafened the kids, not that he cared. Upon close inspection, Algie felt this guy looked more like the parent of a Volunteer or Warrior than a Bear. The man bragged about how hiring Coach Sandman was the best thing they did since the Bears were annihilating the competition. Algie hesitated to ask which kid was his. The man pointed to a midfielder named Tiffany Ann, but Tyson didn’t believe it. She couldn’t be the Tiffany Ann he knew. She looked nothing like her dad.

“Lots of kids don’t look like their parents,” said Algie.

“Yeah,” Skip agreed. “That’s true. But how many sixth-graders do you know who are taller than their fathers?”

[Wing: Ostrich was pretty close and was far taller than his mother by then.]

Another sidenote, that name “Tiffany Ann” just screams pigtails to me and if I ever commission her I’m going for that interpretation.

Algie was about to argue that was indeed a thing that could happen, but knew Skip meant something completely different. All the Bears looked very strange, as if they’d become more inhuman since the last game. Their faces washed out and ghostly in various, unhealthy shades of moldy white and green. They looked like pizzas without toppings.

But no one else noticed. No one else cared. As long as the Bears kept winning, their parents were happy.

At school the following week, Polly was insufferable during lunch. She couldn’t shut up about how much the Bears were winning, disgusting Maria and Stacey. They gladly handed over their food to Jaws Bennett, the boy who could eat anything (even roadkill). Polly chided Maria for not eating, saying she’ll need her strength. Even though the Bears are gonna mop the floor with the Tigers the next time they meet. That was too much for Maria and she decided to leave before she turned Polly’s head into the new game ball. Kirstin followed after her, confusing Polly.

“What’s wrong?” asked Polly, sounding genuinely puzzled. “Was it something I said?”

“It’s always something you said,” Maria said over shoulder.

Maria’s raging hate-on for Polly gives me life in these troubled times.

The girls seat themselves at the table where Tyson, Algie, Skip, and Jason are currently residing. Tyson figures now’s the time to discuss what they’ll do about the Bears. Jason, trying not to sound like he’s worried too, figures it’s just “Dumb Bear luck” that they keep winning all their games. Tyson knows it’s more than that when Algie chimes in he heard three of the Woodstock Warriors were taken home in stretchers. Possibly.

“Better stretchers than a hearse,” remarked Kirstin.

Tyson was relieved that at least he was getting through to Algie, that Algie could tell something was wrong with the Bears. They don’t laugh or talk while they play, nor do they act like they even enjoy soccer. Algie was about to quip that last part wasn’t so strange, but decided against it. He agreed with Tyson that no team improves that quickly, barring they were replaced by ringers. Jason wonders if that’s the case and they played against total strangers, but Maria argues she recognized the Bears. Kind of. Tyson swears, as team captain, he’s gonna find out what’s going on before it’s too late.

Algie hated giving another afternoon of delivering papers to Stacey while he investigated Belville Academy with Tyson. Time was money and he was losing more of it whenever he needed Stacey to fill in for him. It was especially frustrating because they rode their bikes, and Belville was practically made of nothing but hills.

Why do rich people always live uphill? he wondered. Because garbage rolls downhill?

Upon reaching the seemingly innocent looking private school, Algie and Tyson stashed their bikes somewhere safe before continuing onward. From their hairstyles alone (Algie’s ponytail, Tyson’s dreads) the two would never pass for Belville students, so they needed to be careful. Tyson had the foresight to call ahead and ask when the Bears would be practicing. A good captain is always prepared.

The two boys carefully sneaked around the gym to find the Bears, but were in for a genuine surprise when they found…

The Bears.

The REAL Bears.

Tyson and Algie were almost speechless at the sight of a bunch of disorganized, uninspired kids who spent more time whining and yelling at each other than actually practicing.

Before they’d all looked alike: oversized, blank, mean.

Now they were all different shapes, sizes, colors, and skill levels once again. Their goalie was a short, stocky kid who was trying to make up for what he lacked in height by jumping extra-high. Tiffany Ann was wiry and fast but kept tripping over the ball, all speed and no control.

What had happened to the Bears?

Algie didn’t understand where the real Bears were, until Tyson pointed out these were the indeed the Bears he knew. It was the other monster Bears who were fake. Tyson was more confused over Coach Sandman’s lack of attention. The supposed genius coach was reading a book and only looked up once in a while to give generic encouragement without actually looking. Did he not care?

The boys stayed and watched the rest of the practice, wondering when the Bears would undergo a metamorphosis from their Jekyll modes into their Hyde personas, but nothing happened. When Coach Sandman decided it was time to call it quits, he reminded the team of the following rule:

No eating or drinking before their next game on Saturday, and they have to meet at school three hours beforehand.

Algie and Tyson watched, visibly unnerved, as the Bears dragged themselves into the locker room, pushing and yelling at each other. It was only slightly less creepy than some of the shit Algie’d seen at Graveyard School.

During their next practice, the Tigers discussed this new evidence. Jason’s convinced Sandman’s hired ringers to replace the Bears, but Tyson disagrees. The parents would know the difference, and not even a ruthless bunch of winning fanatics such as the Belville parents would go along with that. Of course, Maria argues some people would do anything to win. Yeah Maria, just ask Eddie Hoover.

Whatever’s going on is because of Coach Sandman. Tyson wonders if the Belville parents would really think he’s so great if they saw how he runs his practices. But if he really is using ringers, it makes sense he wouldn’t care about practices. Tyson’s more confused than ever. The Bears that keep winning look like the Bears everyone knows, yet at the same time they don’t. Are the Bears who win some sort of evil doppelgangers of the sucky Bears? Jason jokes their coach probably keeps the monster versions locked up before each game, then uses hypnosis to make everyone think the real Bears won.

Somehow Tyson managed to talk Algie into coming with him to watch the Bears play against the Cloverdale Comets. This time, the game was being held at the Cloverdale school, which sucked because the boys had just won a game of their own. Algie’s not pleased when Tyson says he only had to stop three balls, making it feel like Algie’s not doing any hard work when they win. The game HAD ended 4-0 instead of 4-3, after all.

By the time the boys reach Cloverdale, the game’s begun and for once, the Bears weren’t ahead.

The Comets, a small, fast, wiry team that seldom lost, buzzed around the Bears like bees. And like real bears with real bees, the Belville Bears kept swept the Comets aside, hardly noticing them at all as they lumbered down the field.

The fans on the Comets’ side shouted encouragement and tried to cheer. But it was easy to tell that they were not enjoying the game.

The Comets themselves appeared to be enjoying it even less. But they didn’t give up. And, occasionally, their passes were so quick, as if they acted on instinct rather than according to any set play, that they were able to break free and make it down the field within shooting distance of the goal.

Unfortunately, the goalie always caught the ball and with an angry growl sky-booted it back to the other end.

Still the score was 0-0. Not since the Bears had played the Tigers had the score been 0-0 for so long.

Go Comets.

Algie and Tyson discreetly made their way to the Bears side of the stands, edging to get a closer look at Coach Sandman and thankful everyone was watching the game instead of them. Up close, the Coach seemed entirely average and normal looking, but the boys’ observations are cut short when they hear the Belville parents whining.

“They’re not winning,” a parent-sounding voice said fretfully behind the two boys. “Why aren’t they winning? That’s what we pay the coach for! Winning! It’s no fun if we don’t win!”

“Now, now, dear, take it easy,” answered another voice. “They’re just taking a little while to get warmed up today.”

A third voice chimed in with “Well, I don’t know. I like a close game. I mean, what fun is winning if you beat every team by so much?”

A shocked silence followed. Then the first voice said, “Are you crazy?”

Algie and Tyson exchanged glances. The Bears’ parents, most of them, anyway, had turned into monsters. Only they still looked like human beings.

Maybe the kids aren’t so different from their parents after all, thought Algie.

Who wants to bet most of the Belville parents would go on to appear in “Goosebumps?”

The boys tried to turn their attention back to Coach Sandman, whose own attention was aimed solely at the game. Tyson noticed Sandman’s lips were moving, softly speaking as if he was directing the Bears how to move. Tyson caught a snippet of Sandman saying something about Comet number nine and a fullback covering left midfield when the ref whistled for halftime. Sandman came out of his trance and turned around just in time to see Algie and Tyson, and screamed at them to get away from his cooler.

Tyson crashed into Algie, Algie crashed into the bench and knocked over the large silver cooler. The coach went ballistic as the cooler crashed, and what looked like purple juice spilled to the ground. Algie didn’t stick around to let Sandman capture him, but freaked when he bumped into Tyson. Tyson’s glad the coach obviously knew they were too fast for him. Uh-huh.

The boys made a beeline for the Comets’ stand before any of the Belville groupies caught them. Well Algie wanted to leave, but Tyson insisted on watching the rest of the game. However, Tyson wants to see what Sandman is up to, so the boys ask to borrow binoculars from one of the Comets’ parents. On the other side of the field, the Bears were all lined up while Sandman screamed and raged. He threw the empty cooler around while the Bears seemed to… deflate? One Bear parent offered the coach a bottle of orange sports drink, but Sandman swatted it away like it was poison. The Bears looked at the spilled orange drink like they wanted some, which intensified Sandman’s rage.

Giving the binoculars back, Tyson’s attention returned to the field and he saw something odd. He asked if Algie saw the same thing. While the Bears were walking back onto the field, some weren’t walking stiffly. One even skipped! And, and holy shit they really ARE shrinking! How was no one else seeing this?! The further the game continued, the more the Bears reverted to their usual selves. And the more they did, the more Coach Sandman lost his patience and said all kinds of shit. By the end, the Comets had won 1-0.

Shaking hands with the Comets, the Bears were way more human than they’d appeared at the beginning of the game. They weren’t quite there yet, but the way they frowned and slumped their shoulder as they shook hands was so totally a Bear thing to do. Sandman vented his frustration by kicking the cooler around.

But since the Bears lost, that meant they were tied with the Tigers and would meet again during the playoffs unless someone beat them beforehand.

Tyson didn’t leave until the rest of the fans departed from the field, but he wanted to check something out. Sandman’s cooler, dented and beat up, was still on the other side of the field. Cautiously, the boys walked over to the cooler and Tyson flipped the spigot. A single drop of a suspicious, moldy-smelling purple liquid came out. Algie’s relieved he didn’t get any on his clothes when Sandman appeared behind them.

Making himself smile, Sandman joked if the boys were scouting for the Tigers. Algie was understandably creeped out at the idea Sandman knows who they are and stammers they accidentally knocked over the cooler. For a moment Sandman panics when he sees Tyson’s hand on the spigot, asking if they drank anything. Tyson assures the coach they touched a nary a drop and hands the cooler back to him. Watching Sandman walk away, Tyson was thinking about the contents of that cooler.

The Tigers won their next two games, but so did the Bears who were back to monster form. Tyson wasn’t sure how they turned back, but he hoped he could figure out what made them normal again in time for the game. [Wing: …you spill the cooler and they start turning back immediately. The coach freaks out. The cooler remains intact at their next games and they stay monsters. Are you — are you really having this much trouble keeping up, Tyson?]

Algie was having his own problems at home. He was going over his books and realized he was spending more than he was making. Soccer was cutting too much into his paper route, but he couldn’t quit when the team was winning. They might even win the state championship… if something horrible happened to the Bears before the game. Like a freak Bear explosion.

Mrs. Green then entered the room, asking if she could talk to Algie. He immediately knew where this was going. She would churn out some shpeel about how you’re only a kid once and he should give up his paper route because he’s spending too much time working instead of having fun. Algie was convinced his mom had no idea how much hard work it was being a kid, even without a paper route. He wondered if sometimes she wished she was a kid again. Thank God it’s not April Fools’ Day, huh?

Algie’s mom did indeed sense something was bothering him and indeed suggest he quit his paper route. He was smart enough not to mention he was thinking of quitting the Tigers, and placated her by lying about a sleepover at Tyson’s. See? Fun!

Thankfully Tyson didn’t have a problem letting Algie sleep over the night before the big game. It’s not like Algie was nervous or anything. He was terrified. BIG difference.

Algie woke up screaming that night, five minutes past the witching hour. Mr. Walker heard it and checked to see if everything was okay. Tyson assured his dad they were a-okay, and it’s not because the boys had watched “Zombie Frat Party” earlier that evening. Once his father left, Tyson asked Algie what the hell was wrong. He’d been mumbling in his sleep for hours. Algie confesses he’s not sure if he’s been having repeats of the same nightmare, or if it’s all part of one big, bad dream. Tyson offered to listen.

“Well, it’s chasing me. I’m in my goalie stuff, and it’s chasing me.”

“What’s chasing you?” asked Tyson, willing himself to be patient.

“A big silver bullet. I’m dodging and running and dodging and running, and everywhere I go, it goes.”

Tyson nodded wisely. “Tracking device. Like they have on those torpedoes in the movies and stuff. Probably geared to body temperature.”

“So I decide I’m going to turn and punch it away, like when I punch soccer balls over the top of the net, you know? But when I punch it, it explodes and this purple stuff starts pouring out. And I know if I let it touch me I’ll be killed-“

It’s then Tyson has a revelation. He orders Algie to get dressed and calls him a genius, saying Algie was thinking about the problem even when he hadn’t consciously known he was thinking about it. Algie’s completely confused and asks what the hell is Tyson talking about and why they have to leave. Tyson hurriedly explains they have to get to Belville Academy because of Coach Sandman. Algie thinks Tyson’s lost his mind and can’t be serious. Tyson says it’s both.

Biking in the dark to Belville Academy, Tyson explains to Algie what his dream helped him figure out. Sandman’s using a formula to turn the Bears into soccer playing monsters. Without the formula, they crash and burn. Notice how they lost against the Comets after Algie knocked over the cooler? But Algie doesn’t believe it because it sounds like it came from a bad sci-fi movie. Tyson thought to himself Algie was smart, but he needed more of an imagination. Algie insists it was just a coincidence the Bears lost after the cooler spill. Tyson reasons if it’s a coincidence, they won’t find anything. But on the off chance it ISN’T a coincidence…

Sneaking onto the academy grounds, Tyson wants them to search Sandman’s office. They had flashlights, but didn’t use them so the boys wouldn’t get spotted. Algie wondered who’d be caught dead lurking around a gym in the dead of night. Besides Basement Bart, I mean. Algie hoped they wouldn’t run into the Bears, who were terrifying enough by the light of day. His only comforting thought was that the Bears only became monsters when they had official games.

The boys could spot a light coming from the gym, and Tyson nimbly checked to see if the door was still open. Much to Algie’s disappointment, it was. Hidden in the darkness, the boys could see a faint light at the end of the gym. Tyson silently made his way near the door while Algie reluctantly followed. They heard drawers opening and bottles clinking, when suddenly Coach Sandman emerged carrying a large bowl.

Thankfully, the coach didn’t see the boys and made his way to a water fountain. Unfortunately, once he turned around Sandman was sure to spot them. The only place Algie and Tyson could hide was… in his office. Tyson grabbed Algie and made their way in, noticing the office looked nicer than Dr. Morthouse’s. Was that empty case supposed to contain all the future trophies Belville hoped to win? The boys didn’t know, focusing to wedge themselves in the opening between a file cabinet and the wall before Sandman found them.

Barely squeezed in together, the boys heard Sandman return and were relieved he hadn’t noticed them. Tyson was getting excited, because now they could watch Sandman continue whatever he was doing and would possibly learn the secret of the Bears’ success. The boys watched as Sandman took out several bottles and jars of strange looking powders and liquids. None of them looked healthy, and Sandman began stirring the contents together while reading a small notebook. A pinch of this, extraction of that, thirteen drops of something. Near the big bowl was the silver cooler, still dented. Finally, Sandman finished stirring the inside of the bowl, poured it into the cooler, and locked everything up before leaving. Now was their chance.

Algie was dumbstruck as Tyson left the safety of their hiding spot to find the book Sandman was reading. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to read everything and he heard Sandman returning, so Tyson ripped out several pages and put the book back. Tyson prayed Sandman wouldn’t stop to notice the book was now missing pages, and thankfully his prayers were answered.

Sandman locked up and left, giving the boys a chance to move before they froze into place. Algie refused to turn on the lights so Tyson could read; Tyson settled for using his flashlight. A lot of what was written on the pages didn’t seem to make sense. It was too complicated, and some of it was written in a foreign language. Yet there was just enough that Tyson DID understand, accompanied by one word in particular, to terrify him.

He mentally reviewed the way the Bears acted on the soccer field and the way Sandman was issuing them commands at the Comets game. Then there was the way they couldn’t anticipate the unexpected. That one word cast everything in a frightening light that made it all click.

“Good grief. No wonder he was so unwrapped when I took his cooler out,” breathed Algie, reading over [Tyson’s] shoulder. “This isn’t a recipe for some kind of new sports drink, Tyson. Look! Look what it says! Coach Sandman has been feeding his soccer team zombie juice!

And so Tyson’s fears were confirmed.

It was true. It was worse than Tyson had thought.

The Tigers and all the other teams hadn’t been playing soccer against the Belville Bears.

They’d been going foot to foot with the living dead.

But the boys are confused, thinking zombies need to be dead and then brought back to life. Are the Belville Bears really dead? But then, how could their parents not know their own children were dead? The notes kept saying stuff about making zombies strong, and stuff about effective zombie mind control. Algie wants to dump the juice, but Tyson argues Sandman would know it’s gone. And the longer Sandman’s unaware they have the formula, the safer they are.

Algie doesn’t hesitate to grab the cooler and plans to flush it down the toilet in the boys room, wishing they’d had some of this when the bathroom at Graveyard School was haunted. Lucky thing the office door’s not locked. Not so lucky is because SANDMAN NEVER LEFT.

While the boys are locked inside the office closet, they review how Sandman caught them. The first thing he’d done was order them to put the cooler down. Algie dropped it as hard as he could.

“It’s nonbreakable,” said Coach Sandman. “It has a five-year guarantee for normal use.” The phrase seemed to amuse the coach. He shook his head. “Normal use,” he repeated.

Algie rightfully accuses Sandman of cheating with the zombie formula, but he’s not moved before going on a rant.

“It took me years and years of research to perfect this formula,” said the coach. “I’m going to patent it and market it. I haven’t thought of a name yet for it… although I don’t think Zombie Juice quite fits the bill. Might make people nervous. I think something with the word natural in it, don’t you?”

“People don’t want to be zombies to win,” said Tyson. “It’s no fun. Besides, you have to be dead first to be a zombie.”

“Some people will do anything to win. But being dead isn’t necessarily a requirement of my formula. That’s the beauty of it. This works on the living. Major-league team owners will pay me a fortune for this.” The coach’s eyes grew dreamy. “All those years of research, travel, experimentation. The sneers and snide comments I endured. All those people who laughed at me… well, they won’t be laughing when I launch my new sports enhancement product, will they?”

“They’re terrible soccer players. They’re boring to watch and boring to play,” argued Tyson.

“So? They win. It makes the parents happy. It makes the school happy. And although they don’t really remember playing the games, it makes them happy to find out they’ve won. Yes, this little experiment has been even more successful than I anticipated. Today, Belville Academy… tomorrow the world!”

DUN

DUN

DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!

Algie asked if there were side effects, like the players noticing they were turned into zombies. Sandman sneered a lot of the so-called “sports heroes” of today have put themselves through worse to win. [Wing: …he’s not wrong.] And his formula wears off after an hour with no memory of being used. So people will be forced to keep buying if they want to keep winning. Once Sandman finished, Algie had yanked open the closet and hid inside with Tyson. Sandman tried to get in after them… but decided to let them stay til he figured out what to do with them.

Not exactly smart, Alg.

The boys heard Sandman laugh as he locked the door and left the room. But luck continued to favor the boys when they saw the door hinges were on THEIR side. Sandman must’ve thought the boys were zombies to not notice. It took a while, but the boys managed get the closet door off and were relieved to see the office door would be removable the same way. Tyson’s not ready to leave yet. Even though they have his formula, chances are Sandman memorized it or made copies. So even if the boys dump the current zombie juice batch, he could simply replace it. They have to do something.

Sandman returned later, not very surprised to see Algie and Tyson were still in his closet. The boys feigned ignorance and begged Sandman to let them go. The boys were relieved when Sandman locked them in the closet again (or thinks he did), and heard him removing the cooler and leaving the office. Everything was going according to plan, and now they had to haul ass to get to the game on time.

Tyson called James earlier that morning, bullshitting Algie and he left early to get to the game but forgot their gear. Miraculously James bought their stuff. But Coach Bryant was in a sour mood the boys missed the bus and showed up late. As punishment they weren’t starting until they properly warmed up, which was fine by Algie and Tyson. Made it less likely for Sandman to notice them. Tyson was pleased to see the stands were packed, and looked forward to beating the Bears.

Maria was substituting as goalie, and was certainly not happy about it. The Bear goalie, however, looked more confused than anything. But while the Bears acted like their current zombie selves for the first seven game minutes, they quickly began to revert back to their true selves. Sandman was getting pissed and pissed as the Bears fumbled and fouled, when Bryant allowed Algie and Tyson onto the field to the rapturous cheers of the entire Grove Hill stand.

Sandman flinched.

Tyson smiled.

The Tigers were back to dominating the game, much as they were accustomed to against the Bears. With three minutes left in the game, the Bears desperately relied on fear and whatever zombie juice was still in their systems. Kirstin tried to steal the ball from the Bear forward, and he tripped her. While the ref ignored this foul, Algie feared his worst nightmare would come true and the Bears would score. He stretched as far as he could, and, just barely, his fingers graced the ball and pushed it AWAY from the goal.

The whistle blew.

The score was 1-0.

THE TIGERS HAD WON!

The fans and supporters rushed onto the field, lifting the team and its coach high in the air to celebrate. Tyson could see Coach Sandman flinging the useless cooler into the garbage, while Algie declared he was starting to like soccer after all.

Before leaving, Tyson went to see Coach Sandman. He warned the irate coach his parents were expecting him, claiming he told them he was here to shake the coach’s hand. Sandman was in the middle of cleaning out his office and demanded to know what Tyson had done to ruin his formula. Tyson casually explains, after they got the closet door off, the boys dumped his juice and made their own ersatz batch. They used just a dash of the real formula so Sandman wouldn’t get suspicious until it was too late.

Sandman orders Tyson to give him back the formula, but Tyson’s not stupid. He’s not gonna let Sandman make money off turning people into zombies so they can win games. Sandman fidgets, before swearing he won’t use the formula for that. He begs Tyson to be reasonable, saying he spent so many years working on that project. So much time spent hunting for rare ingredients. So much of his life and youth down the drain…

Tyson only agrees so long as Sandman swears never to come back to Grove Hill or Belville.

Okay maybe Tyson IS that stupid.

Sandman immediately agrees before bitterly commenting how the Belville parents fired him. Like it was HIS fault the Bears lost when IT’S EXACTLY HIS FAULT THEY LOST.

The cheering in the Graveyard School auditorium was thunderous, and Dr. Morthouse flashed her happiest, friendliest smile as she applauded the Tigers. Of course even when she’s being nice the first graders are terrified of her. The Tigers and Coach Bryant took the stage, while Tyson smiled at Algie and patted his shirt pocket. It was a gesture meant to symbolize their guarding Sandman’s formula. He couldn’t believe how easy it was to fool Sandman with the phony formula they jotted down. Tyson wondered how long it would take before Sandman, or whatever his real name was, noticed.

OKAY SO MAYBE HE’S NOT THAT STUPID AFTER ALL.

Tyson was sure they wouldn’t have to worry about Sandman again, and happily accepted the applause the Tigers earned through hard work.

“Yeah!” he shouted. “Yeahhhhhhhh! Tiger soccer players kick grass!

Final Thoughts

There is simply so much to love about this book. The many nods to Kirstin’s big secret, Thacker going out of her way to give characterization to the opposing teams, Jason becoming less of a one-dimensional bully stereotype, Tyson and Algie being mature enough to act disgusted with the Belville parents, and the idea that Dr. Morthouse is terrifying even when she’s not trying to be.

My favorite of the other teams had to be the Volunteers, mainly because I love that name.

I wonder how this racks up with the previous sports stories I’ve reviewed for this site so far.

Wing I’m sure you enjoyed seeing Skip again, and you’ll be seeing more of him next month when I review “The Tragic School Bus.”

[Wing: I did! I really enjoyed this entire book, a fun combo of sports story, which I love, and Jekyl and Hyde, which I also love. Still wish there had been SHAPESHIFTING BEAR SHARKS.]

My one regret is I didn’t have any commissions to put in this post.

Trivia

Activities Section: A sports crossword puzzle.

Polly Hannah’s Wardrobe:

  • Blue jeans (that were probably ironed), a pink turtleneck sweater with white polka dots (splashed with orange soda), white jacket, white tennis shoes with pink laces, a gold bow-shaped barrette

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