Fiction by Nikki Loftin
Illustrations by Michael Slack
Every one of my best friends was on my soccer team, the Darth Invaders, and we were all in terrible danger.
We had five days to live. Six if you counted Monday, but since it was already Monday night and we were all at soccer practice anyway, Monday didn’t count.
Coach Hopkins blew his whistle at the end of practice. “Guys? There’s been a change for Saturday. We’re up against the Panthers.”
“The Panthers?” I yelled. “They’re the biggest, baddest team in the history of soccer! They’ll kill us!”
I don’t know what our parents thought when they picked us up. I was pretty sure the sight of their sons running around on the field yelling, “We’re all going to die!” was a shock.
On Tuesday, the team met up on the school playground at recess. Henry had news.
“Guys, listen. I did some research.” He pulled some folded-up papers out of his back pocket. Henry was the brainy one.
“Research?” I asked. “On what?”
“Fear,” he said. “Our biggest problem is fear.”
“Our biggest problem is mortality,” Jamal muttered.
Henry shushed him. “It’s fear. So I went online and got some ideas on how to solve this.”
I had an idea, too. “We could all pretend to be sick on Saturday.”
Jamal spoke up. “We could all move away.”
Lee fell down on the ground, pretending he was in pain. “We could all get broken legs. Oh, wait!” He jumped up. “The Panthers will do that for us.”
Henry frowned. “Are you going to listen or not?” We all got quiet so he could read.
“Here’s the first one, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ ”
“That’s dumb,” Jamal said. “The only thing we have to fear is death by Panthers.”
The Panthers were legendary. We all ignored Henry’s fear research and shared what we knew.
I heard they were actually two years older than any of the other teams, they drank raw egg-protein powder milkshakes to bulk up, and they had to order uniforms from an adult uniform company to fit them.
Mateo heard they all had rips in their jerseys, and each rip stood for an opponent they had sent to the hospital.
Jamal heard that their parents wore face paint, and if you ran too close, they would try to trip you. He said once some of the Panthers stole all the juice boxes from the other team’s snack.
“They might steal our snack?” I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s O.K.,” Jamal said. “My mom signed up this week. She only brings string cheese.”
Normally, I would have thought that was lame. This time, I guessed it was lucky. Nobody would steal string cheese.
Why did this have to happen to us? We were too young to die this way. Mauled by Panthers.
Every day that week we got more and more scared. Henry tried to keep us from freaking out.
On Wednesday, he shared a Japanese proverb: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
We all decided that the Japanese proverb writers had never seen the Panthers mow down a group of innocent, normal-sized fifth graders.
On Thursday, Henry brought his iPod to school and played “We Are the Champions” over and over again, making us all sing along like we believed it. The teacher finally asked what was going on.
“We’re studying fear,” Henry explained. “Henry David Thoreau said, ‘When I hear music, I fear no danger.’ ”
On Friday, Henry tried another tactic. “Let’s stop thinking about fear. Let’s work on courage instead. Lieutenant John B. Putnam Jr. said it best: ‘Courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to face it.’ ”
When nobody said anything, Henry handed me the list.
“Um, Henry?” I asked. “It says John Putnam died when he was 23. Courage didn’t save him.”
“Fine!” Henry yelled and marched off to the jungle gym. “I tried. You win. Let’s just all be afraid. Nothing can help us now. We’re doomed! THE END IS NEAR!!!”
I looked down at the paper again. “Hey, guys,” I said. “Look at this last quote. It’s really weird, but … read it.”
The other guys all gathered around.
“Cool,” Jamal said.
“A litany?” Mateo asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s like a meditation thing,” Lee said. “You say it over and over, and it tricks your brain into believing it.”
We all looked at each other. “It’s worth a shot.”
On Saturday morning, the Panthers ran late. “Probably had to shave before the game,” Lee muttered.
“ ‘Fear is the mind-killer,’ ” I reminded him.
Lee stopped dribbling the ball. “ ‘Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.’ ”
Henry ran over. “What are you guys talking about?”
Jamal ran past and shouted, “ ‘I will face my fear!’ ”
Henry laughed. “You guys memorized the ‘Litany Against Fear’ from Dune?”
“Yeah,” I said, dribbling the ball around him for a practice goal. “ ‘I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me. When it has gone past, I will turn to see its path.’ ”
“Awesome!” Lee yelled. “ ‘Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing!’ ”
We all yelled the last line together. “ ‘Only I will remain!’ ”
When the Panthers showed up, we weren’t afraid anymore. Well, not very. We watched them run onto the field.
“Hey,” Mateo said. “Their jerseys don’t have any rips at all.”
“Their parents aren’t wearing face paint, either,” Jamal noticed.
One of the Panthers ran right past me. When he saw me, he stopped and looked … a little bit afraid.
“Did you see that, guys?” I whispered. “That Panther was shorter than me.”
The game was great. The Panthers were good, but every time we began to get worried about losing, we started in with our “Fear is the mind-killer” chant.
“Is anyone still afraid?” Henry yelled at halftime.
“No way!” The rest of us answered. Then we finished our string cheese and ran back on the field, ready to face the Panthers.