“Well whadda we gots here?” the lanky teen in a blue muscle shirt asked rhetorically as he approached the kid a head smaller than him in the street.  He spoke with a slight lisp due to his two front incisors missing, the result of a fight he often bragged about, although the permanent injury made it difficult for him to chew his food thoroughly.

Taking the cues from their friend, a quartet of other punks about his age circled and closed in on the hapless boy, who went from bouncing the basketball in his possession to holding it against his chest as if trying to hide behind it.

“Looks to me like you’re lost, little man,” the tall black boy opposite his toothless friend intoned.  He was the tallest of the five, his over six-foot stature towering above the child in the center of the circle.  “There ain’t no one around here lookin’ for a pickup game.”

“Aw, come on, Stretch, man.  That ain’t no way to greet a kid from outside the ’hood. We should make him feel welcome.  Maybe offer to play a little five-on-one, huh?”  This third taunter was shorter and pudgier than the other two, but still not someone the ball holder would want to meet in a dark alley.  Or in the middle of the street during early evening for that matter.  Especially with a handful of the guy’s friends.

“I don’t think he’s lookin’ for a game, dudes.  I think he’s going home from one.  Maybe came from one of them there after school programs to keep kids of the streets.  Y’all know, the ones we always skipped out on ’cause it was so much more fun bein’ on the streets.”  The fourth boy, in a red knitted hat and filthy jeans, laughed at his own joke with an exaggerated ‘yuck-yuck-yuck’ that was equal parts over-the-top ridiculous and disturbingly chilling.

They were all close now, much too close for the ball carrier’s comfort.  He could pivot off of his right foot and be in contact with any of them before he took a second step.  He was not sure which one was scarier; the really tall one they called Stretch, the one with the horrible laugh, Mr. Toothless who had addressed him first, the fat kid or the one who remained coolly silent with his arms crossed in front of his chest and an unblinking stare that made him feel several shades more uncomfortable than any of the others.  He was told about what to do in the case of gang confrontations in school, but until now, neither he nor any of his friends had ever experienced one.  It was difficult to remember things like call for help, go to a grown-up or a policeman, find a way out and run, or turn and walk the other way when you were being pressed in upon on all side.  He took a breath and darted his eyes in every direction, trying to find his escape.

“Hey, what’s your name, man?”

His name?  That was a dangerous thing to reveal, he knew, but he figured if he told them, maybe it was the first step in getting on friendly terms with this riffraff.  He had no intention of actually making friends with them, but if he could get on good terms enough for them to let him pass or drop their defenses enough for him to make a break for it, something as harmless as a name was a small sacrifice to make.  Besides it didn’t need to be his real name, did it? “Jordan,” he said, almost like a question.

“Jordan?”  It was a mocking echo.  All of the bullies snickered a bit. “Man, with a name like that you must be one bitchin’ b-ball player.”  Mr. Toothless grinned, flaunting his gaps.

“I do okay.   But I really got to get home now.   I’m late for dinner as it is.”

“Dinner?  Oh, we ain’t had our dinners yet neither.  Got to work up uh appetite first.”  The fat teen patted his paunch.

“Hey, howzabout you play a little b-ball with us,” Knitted Hat suggested.  “Let us see some of your moves.  Show us whatcha gots.”  He started shuffling around a bit, demonstrating a little fancy footwork and a few head fakes.

The tactic of each street kid talking to him one after the other had Jordan turning in circles, making him dizzy.  His anxiety level was already high.  He did not need to be disoriented on top of it.  He forced himself to stop spinning, opting just to switch his head back and forth to see who was addressing him while looking for a way out.

He chose too late to be more defensive about himself and his ball.

Stretch used his giraffe-like stature to his advantage, reaching over Jordan’s shoulder from the back while his attention was distracted in another direction.  “Y’all know what my favorite b-ball game is boys?”  He gave a swift, hard punch downward, jostling the ball from Jordan’s grip.  It bounced off the asphalt with such power it sailed over the owner’s head and into Stretch’s waiting hands.  The lofty teen scooped the loose game sphere from the air, backed up two steps and waited for his befuddled victim to turn about in pursuit.  He did not need to wait at all for the reaction he was anticipating.  “Keep away,” he answered himself.

“Hey, give it back,” Jordan whined like a five-year-old, advancing on the ball-stealing bully with braver steps than he thought he had in him.

“Give it back…give it back,” Stretch mimicked disdainfully.  “You want it?  You want it?”  Stretch backtracked a couple of steps, holding the ball low and in front of him like he was baiting a dog.  When Jordan lunged, he plucked it up out of reach again and threw it one-handed to Mr. Toothless.  “Go get it,” he laughed.

Toothless was quick to react, snagging the ball and starting to dribble it like a well-practiced forward.  He divided his attention between his ball-handling, the irate Jordan who was wheeling around to confront him, and the other four guys on his ‘team’ who were whooping and gesturing that they were open.  “Hey man, you gotta be quicker ’n that.  Here, I’ll show you.” He faked right, faked left, then passed to the Silent Guy on his right, Jordan following it all, always half a step behind.

The ball made its way around the ring one time, from Toothless to Silent Guy to Knitted Hat to Stretch to Fatso and back to Toothless, Jordan foolishly following it all the way, trying to get ahead of it.  When it stopped, Jordan stopped, his breathing becoming labored.  He panted a bit while Toothless gave a second wide grin.  “I’m sorry, dude,” the bully told him, not sounding the least bit sympathetic.  “We’re just having a little fun is all.  Here, you can have it back.”  He held the rubber-and-leather orb out like a peace offering.

Only the offering was more like a Trojan Horse.  The moment he made a move to relieve the older teen of the item, it was bounce-passed to Knitted Hat and the game started all over again.

The street quintet was a far cry from the Harlem Globetrotter skill set, but they managed to pass, dribble, lob, shoot and, in a couple of cases, roll to each other, keeping the ball out of Jordan’s reach, running him ragged.  All the while they teased him, laughing at and insulting him to no end.

Finally, after about ten minutes of having their fun, Silent Guy announced in a voice way too low for his age and body, “Okay, boys, that’s it. Let him go.”

Knitted Hat tossed the ball to the guy in charge, who tucked it under his arm.  The ring broke, all of the other tormenters falling in next to their leader.

“Okay, kid…Jordan, if that is your real name, you can go.  And thanks for the ball.”  They quintet turned as one and started walking toward one of the nearby brownstones.

“Give…it…back…”  Jordan breathed heavily, not willing to give up.  He started to chase after his departing oppressors.

Silent Guy spun around quicker than Jordan thought possible. “You want it?  Here!”  He arced back his arm and threw the ball so hard it smashed Jordan in the head, knocking him backwards off his feet, his body splaying by the curb like a tossed doll.

The ball bounced lazily back to the group, who shared one last laugh at the smaller boy’s expense before disappearing into the house.

While he lay there, tired, sore, humiliated and stripped of his lone possession, Jordan, if that was his real name, swore he would not let these punks get away with what they did to him.

“What? You’ve got to be kiddin’ me.  Hey, muchachos, check this out.  Ain’t that the Jordan kid?”

Mr. Toothless pointed down the street to the boy familiar to him and his friends trying to sneak past them on the opposite sidewalk.  This time he was carrying a pillowcase, the open end gathered in his fist, the rest of it bulging and round, doing a pretty transparent job at concealing a blatantly obvious item.  He quickened his pace when he heard he had been discovered.

The quintet of street kids was on him like a pack of wild hyenas, chasing him down and surrounding him in no time.  “Oh, Jordan, it is you.  What?  You were in the ’hood and didn’t stop to say hi? I’m hurt, man.”

“Yeah, me too,” Knitted Hat chided, trying to conceal a ‘yuck-yuck-yuck’.  “I thought we were friends, man.”

“What my friends are trying to say,” explained Silent Guy, who was not so silent anymore, “is that you keep trespassing on our turf, but you’re not nice to us and you don’t ask permission.”  He sighed sarcastically while the others began to feel the muscles on the sides of their mouths twitch upwards, anticipating what was to come.  “I’m afraid your gonna have to pay for your actions again, dude.”

Outwardly, Jordan expressed fear, his eyes widening as he panned the circle in search of an exit like before. Internally, however, he reminded himself, Make it look good.  He did not clutch the encased ball to his chest like last time, but rather made it appear as though he tightened his grip around the mouth of the pillowslip.

In reality he was only holding it loosely, anticipating, hoping, praying it would be snatched from his possession.

He was not disappointed.

“Give it back!”  Just as he expected, the poorly disguised basketball was suddenly in the property of the fat kid, its cotton sheath shed in seconds, its properly weighted and inflated body being dribbled on the sidewalk cement the way it was meant to be.

“Aw, man, you gotta be some kind of major loser to have Gutsy get the ball,” Knitted Hat teased.  “You sure you’re cut out for this game, kid?”

Jordan ignored him, going after the ball like before.  Only this time he had no intention of obtaining it again.  Fatso, now called Gutsy, spun it up on one finger, dodged it between his hands, faked a throw over Jordan’s head and passed it to Silent Guy off to the side.

Like before, Jordan follows.  He was very convincing.

Again, the ball completed a tour between the harassing teens, bobbling, bumping, sailing, swooping and whooshing back and forth, up and down, behind backs, off of knees and elbows, darting every which way without ever coming near the boy who had brought the item.

Jordan’s plan was working.

As before, the street kids finally tired of their humiliation session after about ten minutes or so.  Silent Guy whistled to round up his posse, who broke their surrounding formation from their quarry and began to cross the street back to their homes, toting the ball with them.  “See you around, Jordan,” Silent Guy hissed over his shoulder.  “Better luck next time.  And thanks for the ball…again.”  They all laughed nastily, proud of themselves for another successful romp at the expense of the same kid.  It was becoming a tradition.

Jordan just stood there, watching them walk away, not bothering to chase or protest.  He no longer had to be convincing.  The damage had been done.  Now it was only a matter of time.

He did not need to wait long.

It was Gutsy, the one who had touched the ball first, who went from laughter to concern first.  “Ha, ha…ho, oh…oh, guys, I don’t feel so good, man.”

“Whatsa matter, Gutsy?  Too much of a workout for you?

The heavy bully was not alone in his misery.  “No, man, seriously, I don’t feel so good neither.”  Stretch went to put a hand on his head to see if he had a fever when he noticed the discoloration on his fingers.  A quick check of their opposites revealed they were all turning ghostly white, bubbling and flaking as though his skin was boiling from the inside.  The onset of pain quickly followed.  “Wha…? What the hell, man?  Ahhhh!”

One by one the other boys performed self-inspections, finding that everywhere the ball had touched their bodies were now becoming severely discolored, shedding and producing boils at an alarming rate.

Laughter turned to shrieks of horror.

It was music to Jordan’s ears.

“It’s…it’s the ball, man!”  Mr. Toothless pointed with a withering hand, his threshold of pain looming nearer with each decaying digit.  “He…he did something to the ball.”

Silent Guy dropped the sphere like it was a poisonous snake.  “What the hell?”  He spun around, half his body feeling like it was on fire.  “What did you do to us, man?  What the hell did you do to us?”

Jordon could not stop the smile on his face from forming.  He was absolutely delighted with the outcome of his handiwork.  For once, the little guy won.  For once, the bullies were the victims.  “See you around, guys,” he threw the other boy’s words back in his face.  “Better luck next time.  Oh, that’s right, there’s not going to be a next time.  Oh, and you can keep the ball.  I don’t want it back anymore.”  It was his turn to laugh.

“You asshole!  You son of a bitch!  I’m gonna kill you.  I’m gonna….ahhhhh!”  Silent Guy, now definitely not living up to the nickname Jordan had initially given him, had every intention of marching back over to him and ripping him to shreds, but the erosive nature of whatever it was he had come in contact with had worked its way into his central nervous system.  He felt like every nerve ending was being pinched and twisted by a pair of pliers that had been heated beforehand in the fires of hell itself.  He screamed louder and longer than any horror movie victim he had ever seen, then began to tremble uncontrollably.  But before he lost all control, before he collapsed, before he was forced into the agonizing throes of whatever unbearable torture awaited him, only to be alleviated by the eventual sweet kiss of death, he made one last attempt at exacting vengeance.

The infected ball had bounced to a stop directly in front of his right foot.  With all the effort he had left in his failing body, he kicked it in Jordan’s direction, then collapsed in a heap, his whole being convulsing on the pavement along with his fellow troublemakers.

Despite Silent Guy’s condition, the shot was rather accurate, making Jordan scramble to get out of the way of his own lethal creation.  He managed to barely dodge the ball, diving to the sidewalk to avoid contact and escape suffering the demise of his flailing targets.  Swinging around after his dodge, he watched the tainted plaything roll past him, spin toward an open gutter grate and fall out of sight.  Perfect, he thought. No evidence, no crime.

It was not until he started to push himself up off the ground that he wondered why the sidewalk felt softer and warmer than it should have.

Looking down to where he had just been, he noticed in his attempt to escape the kick that certainly spelled doom for him, he had landed on the pillowcase in which he had transported it.

And his hand had touched the inside of it, where the ball had been kept safely away from everyone until it had been unleashed.

Swallowing hard, Jordan looked on in renewed terror as the skin on his fingers started flaking away like specks of dandruff.

He gritted his teeth, cursed himself for his own careless stupidity, and prepared himself for what was to come.

His first thought was that he was rid of them.  He was rid of the street bullies and their nasty antics.  Rid of their name-calling and degrading sniggers at his expense. Rid of them completely.  It was a victory for him, and for all kids who had ever been picked on and wanted to give the pickers a taste of their own medicine. He had won.  He had won!

His second thought was, Why do I have any thoughts at all?  I’m dead, aren’t I?  He remembered vividly every painful moment of his body being torn asunder before finally laying still, the last breath of life escaping his mutated lips.  His folly was testimony to the old adage, ‘What Goes Around Comes Around.’  So why did he still have awareness.

As he opened his dead eyes, he took in a terrible sight.  Though he had absolutely no feeling in his right hand, he could still move his fingers, the few that were left.  A check to his left revealed the same held true for his other appendage, which was also mutilated, but did not appear to be as bad off.  What was more, his eyes were working, though everything he beheld was distorted and weirdly colored.  With little effort and absolutely no sensation whatsoever, he got to his feet to check out the rest of his damaged body.

It was then he realized he was surrounded.

Although the other beings surrounding him were badly disfigured as he was, with exposed bones, hanging flesh, missing pieces and only scraps of clothes patched across their rotting torsos, he could still recognize the street kids he has poisoned and sent to meet their Maker.

Only they were still here. And so was he.  And, other than their appearances, it seemed as though nothing had changed.  Something must have happened to bring them back. Something terrible.  Something supernatural.

Jordan had no time to figure it out.

“Jordan,” moaned Stretch, his jaw half exposed and not aligned at all with the rest of his face.  “You kill us.”

Jordan said nothing, did not even try to speak.

Stretch stretched out his hand, grabbed Jordan by what was left of his hair with what was left of his fingers, and yanked.  With a crunch that sounded like crisp celery breaking, Jordan’s head neatly snapped off of his body at the neck.  Strangely he remained standing while the tall, black zombie raised his acquisition to his own face so they could look each other in the dead of their eyes.  “We play my favorite game now.  Forever,” he stated, laughing like a banshee, which he almost was, as he tossed Jordan’s head to Gutsy.

The fat undead boy fumbled with it a little due to his lack of fingers, but managed to wedge the head between his elbows.

Jordan’s head spun crazily as it was passed from Gutsy to Mr. Toothless, who now had even fewer teeth, to Silent Guy, to Knitted Hat, who now barely had a face, much less a hat, back to Stretch.  His beheaded body stumbled around the circle like a decapitated chicken, desperate to retrieve its noggin and put it back where it belonged.  This was worse than torture.  This was worse than death.  It was the very definition of hell, and Jordan was destined live it out indefinitely, until the end of time if his tormentors so desired.

“Keep away,” the circle of zombies chuckled inhumanly.