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The Jackal
Friday night, and you have done the unthinkable. You’ve taken your father’s Jackal Ghost bowling ball from its locked hard-shell case under your mother’s bed—the ball that looks like a purple and black version of the earth, a jackal’s head rising from the swirls—and gone to meet Teddy and Zeke and Evan and Marya, most importantly Marya, for a night of bowling, the game your dead father was obsessed with: the game that, according to your mother, ruins people.
            You justify your disobedience with logic: your mother could have hid the ball or gotten rid of it, or at the very least kept the key secret, but she didn’t, so what’s stopping you? Then there’s the fact that the ball is technically yours anyway, left to you by your father, so why should you feel guilty at all?
            Teddy told you Victoria Lanes, 9pm, and so you arrive early in the dim-lit lobby, the first one, your stripy shoes already Velcroed, the Jackal clutched between your hands like you’re afraid it might disappear.
            Teddy is your only friend, and even he was hesitant in his invitation: “You know, you could probably come along with us tonight, I don’t think they’d mind.” And now, you don’t really know why you came, other than the need to escape being alone with your mother every night and the TV and the dying cat who hates you, and the hidden photos of your father that cast a presence you feel burning through the closet door. You said yes to Teddy because why not, because you’re tired of your mother’s rules, because it’s the last month of ninth grade and maybe this is the month things change, the month you are no longer trapped at home, the month Zeke stops making snorting sounds when you speak in class, the month milk-covered peas aren’t flung at you in the cafeteria, and Marya will be there, and even though bowling is a distant, blurry memory, you have thought of it often, a part of yourself wanting to experience the game your father loved.

            “Who invited him?” you hear when the others arrive, and then “Isn’t his dad dead or something?” and Teddy shrugs, like he doesn’t know. Zeke is looking at you as if there’s something wrong with your face, and Evan acts like he doesn’t see you. They’re waiting in line for their shoes, and you stand a safe distance away, pretending to be unaware of them, something you’re good at. You trace your finger over the Jackal. You have not held this ball in years, not since your father placed it in your hands and said “This is the one I use when I really want to win” and you had stared like it was the best secret anyone ever told you.
            You are last to the benches. Zeke’s manning the computer, and asks loudly “What’s his name again?” You are standing right there, but he doesn’t look at you, and Teddy mumbles your name like it’s a shameful word. The family in the next lane is singing happy birthday, the smell of pizza and grease in the air, and now it’s your turn, you hadn’t even noticed, and why did you decide to do this again, in front of all of them? There’s a disco ball casting spinning stars on the hardwood boards of the alley, and the Jackal is sweaty and too heavy in your hand, and you almost drop it down the lane.

You remember the last time you saw your father bowl, about a month before the accident. It’s one of your clearest memories of him, one of your last too. You sat behind him on the benches, the Jackal Ghost barrelling into the pins, its face zipping up in the ball return, your father winking at you after each strike, or at the woman sitting next to you, you couldn’t really tell. You’d seen her before with your father, once in the car, another time his hand on her arm. You noticed how she watched him, her eyes fierce and eager and happy, not like your mother’s eyes. When the call came a month later from somewhere in Nevada halfway across the country, you wondered if the thin, scared voice on the other end was that same woman. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry to be the one to have to tell you this.” Then: “He left something for you.”

Now you sit with the ball in your hands. You can feel its warmth, see the snaking oil lines across it that your father would trace in white chalk after a game, how the axis of spin would migrate, a strange code that only he could read, but now you see it almost glowing like the trail of iridescent worms, and the Jackal seems to whisper through your fingers. Maybe your mother is just scared that you’ll find success like he did, that you’ll leave her, that you’ll forget all the things “boys like you” (her words) have been known to forget.

Your first strike, no one seems to notice. Your name flashes over the monitor but nobody’s looking, and then it’s Zeke’s turn, and you’re invisible. “Nice one,” Marya says. She’s sitting next to you on the bench, in jeans and a white sweatshirt, and you can feel the precise distance between her shoulder and yours. “Just luck,” you say, but you’re not so sure. You normally don’t believe in these things, but you thought you felt his arm guiding yours, adding force to your swing, torque to your hand at the last moment, thought you heard him whisper, “Like this” from somewhere behind you (or was that just the chatter of everyone else) and maybe that’s his breath causing the pins to topple, not the Jackal at all.

A fluke, you think, but the strange thing is, it happens again on your next turn. And again. And again. Turkey, three strikes in a row. Your fourth turn: hambone. Frame five, and there’s a humming in your ears and your fingers are glitter and the ball cascades like something liquid. Frame six, and you’re almost at two hundred, and Marya is laughing giddily every time you’re up, because How is this happening? Because, Who are you, even? Zeke and Evan are quiet, and Teddy is high-fiving you and saying, “Told you he’s special,” and they ask to use the Jackal, and you say “Sure,” but it’s all gutter balls for them, and then you’re up, and it’s a Seven Bagger, then Schleifer (a term your father taught you, when the pins appear to fall one by one until none remain), then Golden Turkeys, the Jackal a blur down the lane. You hear: “He’s using a weird ball,” and “His dad was like a professional, right?” and “He’s cheating! He’s gotten all strikes!”

On the bench, awaiting your last turn, the alley shifts, a quick shudder, a glitch, or maybe something is wrong with your eyes: you can see the hairline scratches on the boards, the pixels in the spinning green stars. You can hear the click of shoes on tile, the huff and whirl of the ball return. Each sound is isolated and precise, and you can feel your father’s fingerprints on the ball too, where his thumb would twist in the hole and flick the thing as if it weighed nothing, and you sense the Jackal’s pit-black eyes on you, and Isn’t there some Egyptian jackal-headed god? One of the children from the lane next to yours has been watching and walks up to you, points at the ball: “Is it magic?” You look at him wondering yourself, but it’s Marya who says, “It’s not magic; it’s him,” and the boy looks up at you, eyes wide.

When you see your mother in the lobby—yes, she has tracked you, called Teddy’s mom and Marya’s and they no doubt said something like, “Didn’t he tell you they’re all bowling tonight?”— it’s like the ceiling has come racing down, and you can’t move. You can almost hear her words: “Why would you do this, play the game that ruined your father, took him away from us?” But it’s your last turn, you’re up, and Marya is saying “Show us how it’s done!”—even Zeke is clapping his hands and whistling like he’s on your team now—and while you know your world is not going to change anytime soon, you know that soon it will open up, get wider and wider and so wide you won’t know there’s a ceiling at all, and you’re thinking about this ceiling-less world that lies in wait, not your mother’s face, and you take three strides and swing the ball down the lane.


Joy Baglio’s short stories have appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She's received support from Yaddo, The Vermont Studio Center, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ conferences. Joy holds an MFA from The New School and is the founder of the literary arts organization Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop.