Total Oblivion

"A fast-paced, suspenseful dystopian picaresque, part Huck Finn and part bizarro-world Swiss Family Robinson..."



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Skinny Dipping

Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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Futures, Options, and Swaps (the weblog of Alan DeNiro)

Saga of the Raiding Team (story by Kristin Livdahl)

Saga of the Raiding Team
Kristin Livdahl

It was the biggest game of the season, and I was stuck sitting in the stands with my parents and their friends. I was supposed to in the band but I’d just gotten out of the hospital that morning. I had surgery for a hernia and my parents wanted to keep an eye on me. I wasn’t allowed to do anything strenuous, like playing the saxophone, for at least two weeks. It sucked. It really, really sucked, because I was supposed to be training.

I watched the cheerleaders run out onto the field. My neighbor was talking to my mom in the row in front of me, and she pointed at them, so I leaned over to hear what she had to say.

“Attendance at these games has really gone up since the cheerleaders traded their pom-poms for swords.”

She was right. The stands were packed but no one really came to see the football game. The team had been camped on the bottom of the league for the last two years. The cheerleaders were chanting, “Olson Norsemen” and clapping their swords and shields together between beats. It was near the end of the football season, so they had on their winter uniforms, turtleneck sweaters with jackets and white stretchy gloves. Under their short skirts, their legs were covered only with nylons. It had to be cold. The uniforms might have been cute, but I thought they were stupid this time of year. The band wasn’t doing much better despite the wool uniforms we wear. The wind and cold cut right through them. I pulled the blanket I was sharing with my dad a little tighter around me, chilled by just thinking about it. Standing out in the cold was just one of the things we’ve had to do in the name of school spirit.

Tonight’s game was against the Granite Bay Giants, our bitter rivals. My best friend, Briana, was down leading the cheer. Briana and I are juniors at Sigurd Olson High School. We live in a small, northern farming community. When Briana left the soccer team to become a cheerleader, we all thought she was crazy. She was already a captain as a sophomore. She told me she had changes in mind, but I had no idea. This year it was a lot cooler to be a cheerleader than a football player. She made cheerleading almost look like fun.

I felt so far from all the action and my friends sitting there with the adults. Things could have been worse for me, though, because my parents weren’t even going to let me go to the game. My doctor, Briana’s dad, said I’d be fine and talked them into it. He was sitting on the other side of my dad from me. They’ve been best friends since elementary school, sticking together all the way through college and medical school. Somehow they talked our moms into moving up here after they got married to start a private practice. Before that, everyone in the area had to drive at least forty minutes to another town for medical care. Both of them loved growing up here, even though the Johnsons were the only African Americans in the area and faced a lot of discrimination.

The whistle blew ending a painful first half with a score of 13-0 in favor of the Giants. It was finally halftime, what we all had been waiting for. My dad put his arm around me because he knew I’d rather be down there, and I leaned into him. I did hurt. Mr. Johnson leaned over to pat my head, and he asked which of the football players I thought was hottest. It hurt to laugh, so I was glad he wasn’t funny. He always asked me questions like, “So, are you still beating your boyfriend?” even though he knew I don’t have a boyfriend. Our school was too small sometimes. Briana and I were looking forward to college.

The band took the field and there was a bare spot where I was supposed to be. Loki, our mascot, ran out onto the field waving his battleaxe and hurling insults at both sides. This year, Loki was my friend Demetrius Pederson, or D.P. as he liked to be called. He was dressed as a Viking with a horned cap and clothes trimmed with fur. The hat had been worn for years by the mascot but it had become kind of a joke since the Vikings never wore hats like that as far as we could find in history class. He’d gotten rid of the beard because it was blond and he said it scratched. Every school needed a Loki, and D.P. was the best we’d ever had. His mom sent him up here a few years ago to live with his grandparents after he started running with a tough crowd. He brought the perfect mix of chaos and malice to the mascot. I sometimes thought he was so good because he’s a bi-racial, inner-city kid forced to live with his white grandparents on their farm in the middle of no-where and sometimes I think it’s just because he’s D.P. He used to think that this was hell, but the place has grown on him. Mr. Pederson doesn’t understand his grandson at all, but you could see the pride on his face as D.P. leapt and swung around the field as Loki.

D.P. had the crowd all worked up when the band launched into Immigrant Song by Led Zepellin. Briana entered with a series of handsprings and drew her sword as she landed on her feet in front of D.P. It took us a long time to find a way for her to carry the sword on her back without it slamming her head. Loki capered around taunting her. Briana saluted us, and they joined battle. While the music played, even though I’d been helping them practice for the last two weeks, I forgot that I’d seen it before and that those two were my best friends. The fight was a thing of beauty and it took my breath away. Briana’s braids flew as she spun and met each of Loki’s attacks. Her mom had done each one with red and white beads, our school colors. Loki stood a head taller than her and D.P. had filled out a lot over the last year. He had started as a skinny tall kid and now he was a well-muscled star on the cross-country running and ski teams. Loki was tough, but Briana was strong and tougher. For a little while, it looked like the battle could go either way, but Loki couldn’t win because he was Loki, and, well, because Briana did the choreography. As the song ended, Loki was vanquished and Briana stood triumphant. She held her sword out and moved it over us deciding whom she might take to Valhalla with her when they fell in battle. That last touch was my idea. People in the stands on both sides stood and cheered. She sheathed her sword and the other cheerleaders joined her for a victory dance as the band played a medley of hip-hop tunes. Just before the end of halftime, I saw D.P. and Briana sneak over to the visitor side to harass their cheerleaders.

The football team must have been inspired by halftime, because they surprised everyone by scoring two touchdowns and winning the game 14-13. The guys on the football team weren’t so bad individually. I’ve known most of them all of my life, including Briana’s brother who was already a starter as a freshman. As a group, they were a pain, though, and Monday they were going to be insufferable.

D.P. and Briana met me down at the fence on the way out.

“Sonja, did you see us?” D.P. asked. “We made their cheerleaders cry.”

“How was it?” Briana asked. “We missed a couple of moves.”

“No one noticed,” I said. “It was great. D.P. just needs to gnash his teeth a little more.”

They were going out to get pizza with Briana’s dad, but I had to go home. Two more weeks of down time was going to kill me.

That night I was too wound up to go right to sleep like my parents said I should. My dad had taken away my sword when I went into surgery. I wouldn’t get it back for at least two weeks, so I practiced the moves, slow, holding an imaginary sword, up in my room.

The next day, Sunday, Briana came over to keep me company for a few hours. D.P. always had chores to do on Sundays. Briana’s grandfather videotaped halftime so we played it back and discussed improvements.

On her way out, Briana stopped and looked out the window.

“I can’t wait until it snows,” she said. “We need to wax our skis.”

We’ve both been on the cross-country ski team since junior high, but I’d been afraid to ask her if she was going to quit this year. She could probably do both cheerleading and skiing, but I don’t know.

“Do you still want to be on the team?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said glaring at me. “We joined it together. Besides we’re going to need the training if we’re going to be on the raiding team.”

“You don’t have to worry about making the team. You’re the best swordsperson in the school.”

“You don’t have to worry either, Sonja, you’ve gotten really good. You’re better than a lot of the boys.”

“I need to be training. I’ll never make the team now.”

“You’re smaller than most of the guys but you’re fast and wily. We’re going to do this together.” She gave me a hug and I felt a little better.

She didn’t doubt that I would make the team, even though we only had six weeks until tryouts. Briana was fast, strong and intelligent. People were drawn to her. She was born to lead. She could easily grow up to be president. She could do anything she wanted to. She was always telling me that I could, too. Sometimes, I believed her. To be honest, though, I was afraid of being left behind.

On Monday, I was back in school after being out for almost a week. After my second period math class, we met at D.P.’s locker to walk to Phy. Ed. class. Briana had her sword and shield slung on her back. D.P. opened his locker and dumped his books then pulled out his battleaxe, shield and knife. We talked about tryouts on the way to class. D.P. thought we’d have to fight Mr. Moore, our Phy. Ed. teacher, to get a place on the team. Coach Moore wasn’t any taller than me, but he was a champion wrestler when he was in the marines and the idea of fighting him was pretty scary. He wouldn’t be the type to go easy on any of us.

I was dreading class because Coach Moore was friends with our dads, and he always gave us, the only two girls in class, a hard time. We were all glad when he agreed to coach the raiding team, but we were all a little afraid of him, too. There were two other girls in class at first, but they dropped out during the first week. Because he didn’t know very much about sword fighting, Coach got help three times a week from two guys who drove up from the city. They belonged to a reenactment society and were into martial arts.

While I helped some of the guys put on their padded armor, I watched Briana, who was already dressed, warm up with her sword. It was a reproduction of a real Viking sword, and she handled it like she was born to it. Most of the guys were using battleaxes or swords like Briana’s. I had a hard time with the reproduction sword’s weight, so Coach suggested I switch to something lighter. My dad found me a real Samurai katana on Ebay for my birthday last spring, and I’ve been practicing with it ever since.

I’d been right to worry about class, because for the next two weeks, Coach called me “hernia woman” and made me go around with him critiquing everyone’s form. Most of the guys didn’t want to hear what I had to say, but he made them listen.

Towards the end of class, Coach had Briana and D.P. replay their halftime act, because most of the football players missed part of it. We could actually hear some of the insults D.P. was throwing at her, including a women-with-swords Freud joke that no one in class got, except the adults and us. D.P. was really smart, even though he acted stupid a lot. Coach announced before we left class that we would have to fight him, in practice gear, as part of tryouts.

Every night after I finished my homework, I spent two hours doing my shadow sword practice. Our ski coach was always talking about visualization being an important part of preparation and winning. I hoped she was right.

Over the next two weeks, I did have some other things to keep my mind off the lost practice time. For the past year, we’d been building a Viking longboat in shop class, and we finished it in the second week into my downtime. I couldn’t help move the boat, but I was able to step on board once it was on the river. We had launch party and the whole town showed up to celebrate. My dad took a picture of the three of us, D.P., Briana and me standing in the prow by the dragonhead. We tried to look fierce, and Briana and D.P. accomplished it. I just looked desperate.

All of this Viking stuff started when we were freshmen, in our Scandinavian Pride class. Briana and I and some other classmates, kept talking about the class and soon Viking mania spread through the school. Teachers were always looking for ways to make our schoolwork relevant and they started assigning Norse related activities in each of our classes. This semester, we’d been reading translations of the Eddas and many of the old Norse sagas in English class, and now our teacher wanted us to write our own sagas. Almost everyone was going to make up their own battle and adventure stories, but I was thinking of writing about just being a teenager in our high school. I was hoping I could make it a little humorous and show how tough it is to be a teenager at the same time. We still had a few weeks before it was due, so I wasn’t worrying about it too much.

We were going to use the Long Boat for an Outdoor Ed. trip. When news came out about the budget deficit and funding cuts for education next year, someone suggested a raiding trip to supplement school funds. They were going to pick twenty students and those who go would get extra credit for Outdoor Ed., history and Phy. Ed. classes. Without the raid, it looked like we would be losing band, sports and several other school activities next year. The plan was to hit some of the rich cities to the south.

Briana and I hoped to do more than keep the existing programs going. Next year, in the name of diversity, we want to bring a Masai cultural expert from Kenya to the school. We’ve already found a Masai professor who was interested in coming. We foun d him through the Internet and had been corresponding with him for the past few two months. We wanted him to teach us how to track and hunt, although we weren’t sure how well Masai methods would transfer to the north woods. The principle said that if the raids brought in enough money, we could invite him. By next year, we’d probably need a break from all the Viking stuff anyway.

As soon as I got the go ahead, I started running with Briana to train for both the raiding and ski teams. We hadn’t gotten any snow, yet. The first few days I huffed and puffed, but Briana was patient and slowed to let me keep up with her. I wasn’t allowed to take part in Phy. Ed. class until another week had gone by. It left me with three weeks to train with the sword. Briana and the rest of the class were going to blow by me in tryouts. Even after I got the katana back, I still spent a few hours every night going the movements slowly and visualizing. One of the reenactment guys, Dave, offered to come up an extra day each weekend to work with me one on one. The extra training really helped. I drew the sword smoothly from its scabbard now, and I felt more confident with my blocks. Dave told me that he thought I could stand up to a lot of the guys in our class during the last session.

On the day of tryouts, Coach posted the order we’d be in to face him. I was one of the last. Briana was first. Tryouts were closed to everyone but those of us in the class. It was nice not to have a big crowd. We sat on the sidelines watching as each of us was pushed to their limits against Coach. Briana was the only one who looked pretty good, but the battle left even her bruised and sore. I only got one good score on him, but I parried most of what he threw at me and I didn’t loose my sword like I worried I might. He gave me a brief smile at the end, a real smile not his usual scary smile. Coach said he’d announce the results tomorrow during class. I would die if I didn’t make the team. I did the best I could, though, and that was what counted.

Briana and I slipped out the door by the gym and were surprised to find two inches of snow on the ground with more coming down in large, soft flakes. I was sore and edgy with pent up energy. I let out a yell, part joy for the snow, part relief that tryouts were over and part rage left over from my battle with Coach. Briana joined me and we roared everything out at the sky at the top of our lungs. Afterwards, we startled giggling. She came over to stand next to me and took my hand. We stood in silence watching the snow for a few moments. Then I heard D.P. laugh, and we were both hit hard on the back of our heads with snowballs. We turned around to find D.P. and some of the other guys from class. We had a huge snow fight until we were all cold, wet and bone tired. After one final roll in the snow, we went back into the locker rooms to shower before going home. We had the start of promising saga, I thought.

Originally published in Say…What Time Is It?

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