Several months into the war, a ball appeared in my neighborhood, rolled underneath the front fender of an abandoned car. The ball was blue and roughly the size of a basketball, maybe bigger, although I didn’t stop to measure its circumference. I assumed a child had lost their ball or it had not been among the things they took with them as they fled, so I left it there, and when I returned later from work—yes, some of us still went to work despite the war—the ball was gone. I hoped the ball and whoever had lost it had been reunited, but it returned a few days later, except this time it was purple, and it was in my yard. I picked it up and bounced it on the cracked sidewalk, dribbled it, enjoying the way it adhered to the laws of physics and bounced obediently back into my hands. The sound echoed off my house and all the other houses and could’ve been mistaken for gunfire, so I dropped the ball and went inside. The next morning the purple ball was gone, but a red one had appeared, this time on my front steps. It was dirty, like it had been traveling a long time through littered streets to find me, so I took it inside and gave it a bath, shined it up until it beamed like a red sun. I put it on my couch, but it looked lonely, so I left the TV on while I went to work. It had been some time since I’d seen any of my colleagues, but that just meant I was more productive. I wrote emails, posted a video, created an excellent slide deck, and congratulated myself on my good ideas. But my sense of accomplishment was short-lived. When I got home, balls were everywhere. They were much smaller now, softball-sized, except for the red one, who still sat on the couch acting like it had not spawned this infestation. All the small balls were different colors, and where the earlier balls stayed still, these moved, quickly and unpredictably, so that I tripped several times while trying to make myself a sandwich. I didn’t want all these balls, and I felt resentful the red ball would behave this way after I had taken it in and showed it such kindness, so I chased them around and picked them up, one by one, and tossed them all out the front door and down the front steps and into the yard. It took a lot out of me. I was tired, so I went to bed, but my sleep was unpleasant. A soldier came by the next day and asked me what I was doing with all these balls. He said they were unsightly, and he’d gotten complaints about them. “From who?” I asked. “Whom,” he corrected. “From whom?” “Citizens,” he said. “Go ahead then,” I said, “take them away.” He said it wasn’t his job and asked me why I needed so many balls and what was their point and didn’t I know there was a war going on and why hadn’t I joined the fight? I told him I didn’t believe in war. “What’s belief got to do with anything?” he said. He told me the next time he came by, he better not see any balls. So I delivered each ball to a neighbor’s house as a gift, placed it on their crumbling steps or in an empty flower pot to brighten things up. I thought I had gotten rid of all the balls, but the red one still sat there watching endless news coverage of the war. I tried to change the channel, but the ball bounced off the couch and knocked the remote out of my hand with surprising strength. I felt like it was mocking me, and it would never leave, and wherever I went and whatever I did the red ball would follow, forever and ever and ever, plaguing my waking hours and my dreams. So I quietly pulled out a kitchen knife and snuck up on the ball and plunged the knife into its rubbery skin. Blood spurted from the fresh slashes, but the carnage didn’t stop me, as a matter of fact it was encouraging, because whatever can bleed can die. The ball bled everywhere, and its red flesh peeled easily as it screamed, low at first, then like a chorus of children growing louder and louder. All through the neighborhood, everyone’s balls started screaming, but I couldn’t stop stabbing until it was fully deflated, and the ball wasn’t really a ball anymore, just a bloody memory splattered all over my couch and carpet. Then I went out to find the soldier.
-- Jeremy T. Wilson is the author of the short story collection Adult Teeth (Tortoise Books). He is a former winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction and has been named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. His work has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Florida Review, The Masters Review, Sonora Review, Third Coast, The Best Small Fictions 2020, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at The Chicago High School for the Arts. His debut novel The Quail Who Wears the Shirt is forthcoming in the fall of 2023.