There’s this bowling ball.
Its proper name is the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs. That’s what you would search for online, if you wanted one. Only, you won’t find it online. And you won’t find it in a bowling supplies shop—not that they really exist anymore—or a sports and leisure store, or anywhere. Maxo isn’t a brand. There’s no record of them, no one’s ever heard of them.
The Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs is made of polyester—it’s there in the name. A polyester ball is what you’d recommend to a beginner, or to someone who takes their bowling seriously but who just wants a cheap ball for practice—some of the bowling club guys call those bashers. So the Maxo’s not what you might call a reactive bowling ball. On paper it’s ordinary, basic even.
Only, it isn’t ordinary.
Not that you’d know that, at first glance. The Maxo looks pretty regular. It’s perfectly round, a little scuffed like the balls at the alley often are, and it’s this purple-black colour. The purple’s barely there, though. You have to kind of stare in order to see it. If this colour was on a paint swatch in a DIY store, it’d be called something like abyss or universe. Swirl suggests a pattern or something, but there isn’t one, it’s the same all over. There’s the usual three holes for your fingers and your thumb. Its name—Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball—is inscribed just a few inches down from the holes. You might consider this the ‘front’ of the ball. Or maybe you wouldn’t. The writing is in this thin gold outline, and you have to concentrate to read it. Below the name is the weight—14 lbs, which is on the heavier side for a lot of people.
It looks ordinary. Boring even. None of the patterns or marbling the kids tend to go for at the alley.
But the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs isn’t ordinary.
It’s fucking abnormal.
And there’s this bowling alley. It’s on a commercial estate just outside a little town in England—you don’t need to know where, exactly—sandwiched between a Nandos and a Cineworld. We’ll call the bowling alley Strike Alley, but that’s not its real name. It’s best you don’t know.
Strike Alley, that’s where the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs is.
You could say, that’s where it lives.
Strike Alley goes through peaks and troughs, in terms of footfall. There’ll be a quiet weekend with maybe one kid’s birthday party booked for the Saturday afternoon, the part-time staff leaning on the counters, chatting, playing on their phones, being paid for doing essentially nothing. Days and nights like that, the management worry about the future. Then, on a random Thursday evening, it’ll seem like half the town’s teenagers have descended upon the place—on those nights, the Slurpy machine usually breaks down after a few hours and so the little café gets hit hard for Coca Cola. On busy nights like that, the whole place smells of the café’s hotdogs and burgers, mixed with sweat and deodorant. If you’re near the bowling counter, there’s also the smell of the spray that goes in the bowling shoes the customers have to wear. And everywhere, the air’s full of words, of pop music coming out of the speakers dotted around the place, and the constant dull thunk, roll . . . crash of the bowling alley proper.
It’s on those kinds of nights that the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs usually shows up. Maybe because there’s more choice. Or maybe it really is just random. Who knows?
There’s this whole mechanism that gets the bowling balls from the far end of the lane back to the customers. There’s a lot to it, but it’s basically called the Ball Return. A lot of customers probably don’t even think about it—the only part of that whole process which is apparent to them is the part that spits the balls up on to the rack at the head of the lane, ready to be used again. This is the bit where you see people bending over, inspecting the balls, using splayed fingers to move them this way and that. Sometimes they test the holes for a good fit. Like they know what it is they’re even doing.
Sometimes, what the machine spits out is the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs. Maybe that means the machine, or Strike Alley itself, is what this story is really about. But probably not.
So picture the Maxo sitting there in the rack. Maybe it gets bumped by the next ball to come up. Maybe it, in turn, knocks against another ball. And all the while, on this busy Thursday evening, people are testing out these bowling balls. Trying the holes for size. Deliberating over which one they’re going to hurl down the lane and get a strike with.
Imagine if those holes in the bowling balls, imagine if they had little teeth. Like a cigar cutter. Waiting for you to put your fingers in.
Don’t worry. The Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball doesn’t have teeth.
So someone chooses the Maxo. Maybe they like the weight of it, the way it feels in their hands as they try it out. Maybe they like the way the holes are a perfect fit for their fingers. Perhaps, on some level they’re not even aware of, they rather like how you could maybe stare at that purple-black-abyss-universe orb and it’d flip so you were looking into it, like an optical illusion.
And they bowl. The Maxo rolls, and rolls, and maybe they get a strike, maybe they get a spare, or just a couple of pins, or maybe they miss altogether—a lot of people call this a gutter-ball.
They don’t see the Maxo again during their game. Maybe they wonder about it, wish they could bowl with it again. But it doesn’t come back.
Not then, anyway.
It’s time you heard about Corey Wheatley.
Corey used to come to Strike Alley every Friday night, and he always came alone. He was a loner—that much was clear from the long hair, the glasses, the heavy-metal t-shirt. Perhaps that sounds unfair, but it’s true; he just looked like one of those people whose life didn’t necessarily involve a lot of other people. Whether that was by choice or not, who knows. Some people are perfectly happy that way.
Corey was a good bowler. Maybe he’d read up on it, and that, coupled with a lot of practice—he really did come every Friday—meant that over the years he got pretty good. One time, the bowling club, a few of them went over to where he was—lane seven, as always—and tried to strike up a conversation. Corey was polite, but he was difficult to maintain a conversation with. One of those people who don’t really give much back when you’re talking with them. So you just end up talking at them. Apparently, they invited Corey to join their team, but Corey just smiled awkwardly and said no thanks, and when they asked again he said no thanks again, and that was that, and everyone went back to their bowling.
Anyway. Sometime after that, maybe two weeks or so, Corey picked up the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs. He bowled it, and he got a strike—this was not out of the ordinary for Corey.
It’s unlikely that this was the first time the Maxo got spat out for someone to use. But it was the first time it was noticed. No one had ever seen that ball before.
So what happens next with Corey Wheatley is, he’s leaving Strike Alley and heading across the car park towards his battered little Fiesta. The Fiesta, it coughs out all this black smoke from the exhaust whenever it starts. It can’t be legal.
It’s a cold night. Really cold. Corey’s breath rises like a ghost into the dark as he walks towards his car. He even slips at one point, on the ice. The car park’s pretty empty by now, almost no one else there apart from Corey. The glass doors of Strike Alley glow this warm soft yellow, and Corey looks back at it. For a moment, it’s like he’s going to turn around and go back inside, play another set. You get the sense with Corey that Strike Alley is a kind of happy place for him. A refuge, maybe. But you shouldn’t project on to people.
Corey keeps going towards his car, in the end. Shoulders up, hands deep in the pockets of his black faux-leather jacket.
The Fiesta’s parked under one of the big lights. It makes it look like him and the car are about to be abducted by a flying saucer. It’s because of the light that it’s possible to see Corey pause. Possible to see him bend down and come back up with something in his arms, almost like how someone might hold a baby, but not quite. A very big, 14lb baby, perhaps. With a surface that catches and reflects the lamp light, but not in quite the right way, not in a way you can really explain.
Pretty much no one knows how it got out. How it keeps getting out.
Corey must’ve liked the Maxo, must’ve liked how it felt on the ends of his fingers and thumb, how it glided down the lane. Maybe he liked the sound it made as it wrecked its way through the pins at the other end. Maybe he got a little bit lost in its surface with its peculiar shade of oblivion.
Because what Corey did then was, he opened his car and put the bowling ball on the passenger seat. Afterwards, when people tell this bit of the story, some people make out like he even put the seatbelt on it. They make out like he was some kind of obsessive.
He didn’t. He wasn’t.
Wednesday night, so four nights after Corey took it home, the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs is back at the alley, lurching up out of the mouth of the machine at the head of lane three, which is being used for a fourteen year-old’s birthday party.
At 14lbs, it’s too heavy for any of the kids. The parents aren’t playing, just watching.
No one picks it up.
After the party have left, a member of staff notices the ball. The member of staff wonders how it got back, when Corey took it home and isn’t due back at the alley until Friday. By now, it had got out that Corey had stolen a bowling ball. Management were planning on speaking to him when he came back for his regular slot.
The member of staff spends a long time looking at the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs, sitting there on the rack amongst all the other balls.
The next day, everyone’s talking about how over the weekend, Saturday night apparently, Corey Wheatley killed both his parents with a heavy rock, before slicing open his wrists and bleeding to death in their bathroom.
Something like that, in a small town like this, it makes the local news. It makes the regional news. One or two of the national tabloids even run a little story on it.
Management call a meeting to tell the staff about Corey, because everyone knew him and he had been well-liked until this. They’d even been planning not to ban him if he came clean about taking the bowling ball home. During the meeting, one of the younger members of staff, a guy who got sacked a few weeks later for spitting in the hotdog buns before applying sauce to hide it, he makes a joke at the staff meeting about how the bowling ball is probably in evidence somewhere. About how mad it would be if it was actually a bowling ball Corey had used to cave his parents’ skulls in. He even says strike! before he notices no one is laughing.
It’s January when someone else finds the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs waiting for them.
This time it’s a woman called Mary-Anne. She has three kids. She’s divorced but she has a boyfriend, and things are going steady between them. Mary-Anne works part-time as a dental receptionist. She got arrested once, in something like the late 90s, for shoplifting.
This is all stuff you hear in the aftermath.
She drove them all off a cliff, into the sea. In what you might call a twist of fate, Mary-Anne actually survived the drop. She was rescued—hypothermic, delirious, and with plenty of broken bones—and an air ambulance took her to hospital. The rumour that came out of the hospital is that she kept asking to see her baby—that this was all she said, over and over and over. People assumed she meant one of her children. But you shouldn’t ever assume. It makes an ass out of u and me.
Before she died—organ failure on account of the hypothermia—she did apparently make one slightly different remark.
For probably the thousandth time, she asked to see her baby. Then she said she wanted to see all the dark inside of it, one last time.
This time, no one at Strike Alley talked about how Mary-Anne had taken the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, home with her after an evening with friends at the alley. This was because pretty much nobody knew. No one had told them about how she’d paused by the driver’s door of her car a little before 9pm on a Monday evening in January, how she’d crouched down and come up holding the ball.
Mary-Anne made it halfway across the car park before she stopped. She had meant to return it to one of the racks. But she stopped, and she looked at the ball for what was maybe a minute and a half. There was almost no one else around. It was like a Hopper painting, the way the dark and the light cut all these angles around this one figure.
Then she went back to her car, the ball cradled in her arms. She got in, started the car, and drove home.
It keeps happening.
Two teenagers, a boy and girl, stroll out of the car park together one afternoon, the boy holding the bowling ball.
A father takes it home.
A ten year-old kid nudges it with his foot, like a football, letting it roll all of the way out of the car park and down the road.
Those two teenagers, they show up after going missing for a few weeks. They were in the woods outside town. Identification had to be done through DNA.
That father—he made it so he wasn’t a father. Then he put his head in the oven. His wife came home from work and found him and then she found the kids in the bathroom.
That ten year-old boy, the would-be footballer.
It keeps happening. Not often, but it does. It happens enough that if you’re watching for it, you see it.
Corey Wheatley, and then Mary-Anne, that was all a long time ago. Not quite fifteen years, but close. And it’s been happening, here and there, all the while since then. Almost nobody noticing.
A lot’s changed—the staff at Strike Alley, almost none of the ones here now were here when this all started. The café’s been renamed, and they serve a salad option now. There’s a soft-play area towards the front. Families come for that as much as they come for the bowling.
But the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs is still here, picking its victims.
And so am I.
I’ve tried getting rid of it. I’ve buried it, I’ve thrown it into the sea, I’ve tried smashing it with a sledgehammer. One time I dug a hole, filled it with concrete, and put the ball in. I watched it sink, and then I watched that concrete for hours, just to be sure. The Maxo was on the rack for lane two when I came into work the next day.
I’ve thought about burning the whole place down, the whole bowling alley—if people don’t come here anymore, they won’t come into contact with the ball. But I can’t do that. It’s people’s livelihoods.
The thing is, I’m getting these thoughts. It’s from the exposure to it, I think.
Right now I’m able to not act on those thoughts. Maybe because I know the ball’s secret. Ask any magician—it’s harder to trick someone when they know it’s happening, when they’re watching out for it.
But whenever I see the Maxo, whenever I’m near it, I can feel it working on me. It’s this pressure, just behind your eyes.
That time with Corey Wheatley, I just happened to be in the car park. I was on my break, having a cigarette.
When it was Mary-Anne’s turn with the Maxo, I had just finished my shift. I was in my car, waiting for the engine to warm up.
I was the one who told everyone about Corey. Who grassed him up to management for stealing the ball. Later, I was the one who didn’t tell anyone about how Mary-Anne took that bowling ball home too. I saw all the rest and never said anything.
I think it wants me to see. There’s no way it’s a coincidence every time.
It wants someone to bear witness.
Someone who won’t try and stop it.
Who won’t intervene when he sees someone taking it with them, out of the car park.
Who won’t tell anyone.
At what point do you stop being a witness? If you do nothing—at what point do you become complicit?
Maybe the ball got to me a long time ago, just in a different way.
Sometimes you can’t solve a problem. You either have to accept it and make alterations and allowances, or you move it. Management do this all the time with problem staff members. Move them to the café. Move them to soft-play. Move them back to the bowling alley. Just move the problem around, and that way everyone gets their fair share of hardship and respite.
The Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs is that kind of problem, I think. It’s never going to stop. All you can do is move it somewhere else, make it someone else’s problem.
Strike Alley, this small town—they’ve had their share of this, so me and the Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs are going on a road trip. Call it a bowling tour.
We’ll show up at some bowling alley far away from Strike Alley, and the staff at this new place, they’ll see I’ve got my own ball with me. They’ll just think I’m one of those guys who takes his bowling seriously. But when they’re not looking, when their backs are turned, I’ll place the Maxo on one of the racks, and I’ll finish my set without it. And then I’ll walk out, leaving it there.
Sometimes all you can do is move a problem somewhere else.
So listen. If you’re ever at a bowling alley—maybe for a birthday, maybe a work party, whatever—and you see this purple-black, colour-of-the-universe bowling ball. And if it seems kind of odd and you feel like it’s calling to you, like it’s pulling you in. And if it’s got this writing on it that’s hard to read, writing that says Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14lbs—
Please, just leave it alone.
Don’t look at it for too long.
And for Christ’s sake, don’t pick it up.