This is a sample of a published short story. Read the whole thing in “Claw the Way to Victory,” a new anthology of sports stories available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01B201YG0/
Sports... but with animals as the players.
(My story is actually part of the Kindle sample. Read a longer preview there!)
by James L. Steele
Eighteen players jogged onto the field. Nine of them wore red and grey uniforms, the players a mix of three canines, four felines, and two reptiles. The logo on their shirts depicted a hurricane moving the continents out of its way. The Force.
The nine on the other team were all wolves. The logo on their black and yellow jerseys was an image of a salivating, canine muzzle snapping shut. The Pack.
The two teams met in the center of the field with the referees: two squirrels, one horse, one sheep, and one elk. The teams stood in opposing lines, facing one another, meeting each other's eyes. Nobody on either team was under three hundred pounds, and they wore no pads or helmets.
One wolf in a black and yellow jersey, labeled 24 Rett, stood in line with his team, sizing up the cougar across from him. The feline was grinning at him, licking his lips. Greg growled, hopefully not loud enough for the refs to hear. He didn't want to mess up on his first pro game.
The head referee had switched on his microphone and addressed the stadium packed with one-hundred-thousand spectators.
"Welcome, everyone, to Barnett stadium! Once again, it is Discus season!"
The stadium roared and cheered. Greg broke his eye contact from the cougar and observed them, probably looking like a real rookie on camera. It was his first time in a stadium this large.
"Back from training in the deep south, where the weather is hot and there is no rest for the weary, The Force!"
The team wearing red and grey postured in ways according to their species: some howled, others roared, others opened their mouths and hissed at the opposing team, who stood still and waited ceremoniously for their turn. Greg could barely keep his composure.
Five years in little leagues, twelve years on school teams, four years playing college level, and it actually happened. He had been recruited into one of the most exclusive pro Discus teams in the National Discus League. The Pack only recruited wolves, which meant he wasn't just playing Discus anymore. He was part of history. This was his childhood wet dream come true.
The equine referee now broadly gestured at Greg's team. "And back from training in the far north, where the only shelter you'll find from the elements is under your fur, The Pack!"
Now The Force stood at attention, and The Pack postured and howled together at the same pitch, making a sound that was audible even over the cheers and roars of the spectators.
The equine referee turned to all sides of the stadium. "Welcome to the season-opening game!"
Greg observed the crowd again. Canines, avians, equines, felines, rodents, ursines, and every other genus was in the packed stadium. Millions more watched by high-definition broadcast.
The referee continued the introductions, getting the spectators worked up. The stadium was full of energy, and it fed the players. Right now, Greg felt like he could tear a hole in the walls of this place. It took everything he had to stop himself from drooling in anticipation.
Greg grinned, feeling giddy as a puppy. He had been training hard for months, loving every minute of it, packing on forty pounds of muscle, building his chest, neck, and jaws. He'd been told bodybuilders envied his jaw muscles, and he would probably get some kind of endorsement deal for that alone, but first he had to prove he could play. He wasn't in doubt about that anymore.
The equine switched off his mic and walked up and down the gap between the two teams.
"All right, you animals, here are the rules. Blood happens, and claws and teeth are okay, but no intentional wounds above the shoulders. Do not use the coin as a weapon against another player. Do not use the stadium walls as a weapon against another player. Do not..."
The players pretended to listen. Everybody knew the rules, but NDL policy stated the rules must be stated at the start of every game. This whole time the players stared at each other, making subtle gestures of the ears, muzzle, tail, and any other part of the body they could get away with. Everyone had to stay still for this part, but they could make subtle taunts.
The cougar was licking his nose, raising one lip and flashing a single fang at Greg. The cougar's jersey label read 67 Agani. Greg countered by biting down on an imaginary coin, flexing his jaw muscles, showing them off. If Agani noticed, he didn't show it.
Finally the referee retreated to the sidelines, and out of the team entrance walked the emcee, carrying the coin.
As soon as he saw it, Greg drooled. Everyone on his team did. He'd learned to associate the sight and smell of that disc with pleasure and accomplishment, and already he wanted to run up to that fox, knock her down, and clamp his teeth on it.
The master of ceremonies this game was the state governor. The fox wore formal attire, a blouse and skirt. Greg wasn't sure how she was able to lift the coin without toppling over; she didn't look like she had an ounce of muscle on her. She was downright comical walking with that thing.
Governor Shields stopped at the sideline next to the referee and waved to the crowd. The equine addressed the stadium again. "Tossing the coin into play this game, Governor Paula Shields!"
The stadium cheered. Greg heard a few jerks booing. Greg couldn't take his eyes off the coin, which was covered in sponsor logos that would become illegible by the time the game was over.
Governor Shields waved to the crowd a few more times, then held the disc close to her blouse and cast. Greg was surprised she could throw it any distance at all. The disc sailed between both teams, flipped halfway over and hit the ground rolling.
The coin was in play.
Both teams charged one another and dove for it. The tiger on The Force bent down, opened his mouth and snatched it up in his jaws. He ran for the opposite goal, muscular arms shoving a couple wolves out of the way. All around him players rammed one another, raking each other with claws across the shoulders and legs and chest. Greg chased the tiger.
A wolf from The Pack leaped onto the tiger, hugged him around the arms and took him down to the turf, rolling, snarling and howling. The tiger's mouth popped open and the coin rolled. Greg had been running parallel to the tiger and veered to snatch it.
The cougar dashed up from the other side and bent over the coin. Greg growled, flashed his teeth and rammed the feline on the shoulder. He reached down and snapped the coin up in his jaws, never slowing down for a moment.
He didn't know why they called it a coin. It was an oblate disc the diameter of his head, and it weighed thirty pounds. Greg barley felt it in his jaws as he tore down the opposite end of the field. He ran with his arms close to his body to make it harder for anyone to latch onto him with their jaws or hands.
Around him, wolves collided with other canines and felines and reptiles. Claws swiped chests, dogs fell to the turf, and felines dropped and rolled. Greg veered away from a knot of approaching canines. He had the feeling he'd held onto the coin for long enough, so he wound up his neck and pitched the coin through the air. One feline leaped into the air and tried to intercept, but missed, and the coin came down. One of his fellow wolves leaped in the air, and caught the coin in his teeth, neck muscles bulging from the strain.
The action flowed away from Greg. Players caught up to one another, tackled each other, traded blows, separated, and ran after the coin again.
Something solid and feline slammed into Greg, knocking him down to the turf muzzle-first. His training had conditioned him to turn his head to the side so he wouldn't break his muzzle, and he landed with the weight of a built cougar on top of him.
A feline growl rumbled in Greg's ears. The wolf rolled over and shoved the cat off him. He leaped to his feet, crouched, and squared off with the cat. The cat continued licking his nose, loving his rookie scent. Nobody did things like this to him in the college games and it caught Greg by surprise, but the reaction was surprisingly natural.
Greg charged. Agani faked right, but Greg didn't fall for it. He plowed straight into the cat's chest, hugging him around the waist, and took him down. Claws gouged into Greg's back, ripping his jersey and gouging his skin. Greg howled. His first instinct was to go for the face, but he had to hold back. He raised a leg and dragged his claws against whatever flesh his foot was near. The cat snarled, raking his claws across Greg's back again.
Felines had an advantage over canines in how sharp their claws were. A canine's claws were meant to grip the turf while running, not to claw opponents. Agani had Greg right where he wanted him.
Greg rolled off Agani, dragging his own claws across his chest. He heard fabric ripping, and the wolf felt a little twinge of pride. He sniffed the air and found the coin. It was in a reptile's mouth, coming straight for them. He glanced at the scoreboard and saw neither The Pack nor The Force had scored yet. Greg tore across the field, straight for the reptile. Just above his own heartbeat, he heard the stadium cheering.
Every member of each team bled from somewhere. The smell of blood ignited something in Greg. He didn't understand it. Something about being in a group, fur matted with blood, made him wild with excitement. It's what got him into this sport, and it's what paid his way through college.
Black and yellow collided with red and grey. Reptiles, felines, and canines singled Greg out and tried to cause some kind of injury to take him out of the game. Sometimes he slashed them with his claws, sometimes he tackled, and sometimes he merely squared off with them, posturing and snarling and sometimes drooling.
He knew it would happen. As the rookie, they would of course be all over him. He was ready. Greg was three hundred and forty pounds of canine. He could lift one-twenty with his jaws alone, and not many canines could top that. Eventually, eight of the players on The Force realized Greg was no rookie to push around, and finally left him alone.
Only Agani remained. He was always around. Whenever Greg got the coin, the cougar was there, slamming into him, knocking him down, stealing it and his chance to score the first goal of the game.
A packmate tackled one of The Force's canines and sent the coin rolling across the field. Greg was there. He bent down, snatched it up in his jaws, and bolted for the goal. This time, he did not pass to someone running ahead of him. There were too many others around, too much interference. He clamped his jaws tighter and ran as erratically as possible.
Agani tackled him from the side, throwing Greg to the turf and lying on top of him. The coin popped out of his mouth and rolled. Agani licked the inside of Greg's ear and growled. Greg growled and shoved Agani off with one arm. The cat stumbled away, still licking his nose at Greg. The wolf wanted to rip that smile off Agani's face.
They took off running after the coin at the same time, keeping stride. Greg tried to lose the cougar, but the cat stayed with him. The wolf growled the whole way, letting the scent of the coin push his endurance to its limit.
One of his packmates snatched up the coin and ran for the goal line. Greg followed, cougar right beside him, knocking down everyone who came near him. He body-slammed the tiger as he tried to pursue, knocked down one of the reptiles, and kept pace. Greg kept everyone off his packmate except one. He couldn't shake the cougar. The cat matched him move for move and kept pace. Agani didn't even seem interested in the coin, only in staying with Greg.
A wolf in red and grey charged up the side with the cougar and slammed into Greg's packmate. The coin flew from his mouth and rolled. Greg dashed by the fight, bent low, opened his mouth, and grabbed the coin. Agani tackled Greg from behind. The wolf crashed to the ground, cougar rolling behind him. Greg did not let go of the coin.
As soon as the stadium stopped spinning, Greg stood up and found the goal line. Before he could take a step, Agani clamped his jaws on the other side of the coin and pulled. The cougar had a powerful grip, but Greg was not intimidated. He pulled back and anchored himself into the ground with his claws. Now Greg had the advantage. His packmates fought The Force, keeping them off him while he played tug-of-war for the coin.
Greg was so close to Agani, he saw his reflection in the cat's eyes. The cougar pulled. Greg pulled back. They spun in circles, snarling and bleeding from various places on their bodies. They raised their arms at the same time and clamped fists, trying to push each other away. The cat was strong, but so was Greg.
The stadium cheered, some chanting his name, and Greg let their cheers and screams feed his muscles. He snarled louder. He pushed harder. He dug his feet into the soil.
The feline suddenly twisted. Greg fell to the ground, still holding onto the coin. Their eyes were still locked, their scents mixed in his nose. The cat wrenched his neck again, and the coin slipped out of Greg's teeth. Greg snarled and rolled to his feet, chasing the cat's tail to the goal line.
His other packmates were busy taking out the other members of The Force. Now it was just Greg and Agani. Greg hated the cat's scent. He hated the cat's ugly pink nose. He hated his face, and that short, yellow fur. The feline was all that stood between him and the goal, and he had Greg's coin. It was up to him to keep Agani from scoring a goal, and Greg would not blow this chance on his first pro game.
The cheers and stomps and howls and screeches of the audience filled his muscles and quickened his legs. He closed in on the cougar. He caught up to the tail. Greg reached out, wrapped his arms around the cat's waist, and twisted to the side. He and the cat fell, rolled, and twisted together.
The cat was a threat, and he had to keep this threat from coming back and stealing their coin again. Greg opened his mouth and lunged for Agani's throat. The cat didn't scream; he merely went still. Greg felt relief. He stood up, followed his nose to where the coin rested, picked it up in his jaws, turned, and ran across the field to the goal. The stadium became thunder.
Greg crossed the line and stood at the goal, arms at his side, holding the coin in his muzzle, turning to all sides of the stadium. His first game in the professional league, and the first goal of the game was his--the first goal of the season. He lived it up. He tossed the coin in the air and caught it in his teeth again and again. The stadium cheered louder each time.
Greg turned down field. Both teams were gathered around Agani. The cat wasn't moving. The front of his throat was missing. Greg just now realized he had swallowed something while he ran to the goal. His muzzle dropped open. The coin fell from it and plopped on the grass between his paws. A bloody mouth-print covered some of the sponsor logos.
Both teams were glaring at him. Greg glared back. He swallowed again, tasting feline blood.
---read the rest in “Claw the Way to Victory” on Amazon.