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A View From the Fence
And as afternoon fades onward into evening, one can hear the beginning warm-ups of the pep band from somewhere far off. And as they rehearse, there comes, like the first harbinger of battle, the staccato rattle of the drum...
* * *
And then, all is chaos. Utter chaos.
The noise is deafening. Crowds of students and faculty alike fill the stands, the former brandishing air-horns, toilet-paper rolls and aerosol string despite the best efforts of the latter. The Band, looking somewhat impressive but mostly stupid in their distinctly silly black-and-gold uniforms, are nonetheless blaring out impressively exhilarating harmonic studies in brass and percussion. Pulses quicken to the beat. The air crackles with electricity and suicidal light-diving moths. A chill has fallen, and if morning ever comes after this strange and surrealist night, the first frost should be scattered all about, but for the moment, the only visible result of this is to make our exhalations steam and curl in the air before us, gaggles and gaggles of miniature dragons testing our breaths. The chill feels good. It prickles the skin and makes our muscles warm in compensation. I smell hot-dogs from the concession stand, and onions too, somewhat masked by odors of vinyl and plastic and sweat emanating from all of us nearby. The crowd throbs and stirs over the gutsy cries of the Pom-Pon squad and even their very chatter and conversation grows to a level of near-deafening-ness. Somewhere in that crowd are the recruiting agents for Alabama and the Crimson Tide, my ticket to academic paradise.
Somewhere in that crowd is my Father.
Coach Garrick is wandering around, looking spartan and precise in his Edgerton jacket and aviator glasses, and on the distant sidelines, the team's equipment managers are readying the water bottles and the clipboards.
The announcer is reading off the names of the other squad now. One by one, they rush on to the field, to the muffled cheers of those Montrose fans dedicated enough to attend the away games too. There are a few raspberries and catcalls from the home bleachers, but they are mostly drowned out by the sheer volume of _bustle._ I hear them read off Christasion's name, but for all that I care, they could be reciting from the phone book. Focus. Focus. Focus. Focus for the college scouts. Focus for Dad. Quick noise! All heads turn towards the accidental blare of lights and sirens from the regulation standby ambulance as the driver, presumably, leans on the wrong switch somewhere. Noise, light and color. The impossible hulks of crepe-covered floats leftover from the Homecoming Parade lurk nearby, each and every one proclaiming imminent and unspeakable victory for _us_. For me.
For the Team.
Tension thickens in the air as the announcer approaches the end of Montrose's roster. We gather together in a huddle. I am wedged between the Aryan form of Quarterback Brian Stockmann and the sheer bulk of Erik Heldeghast, one of the linebackers. Stockmann is saying something that is presumably a last-minute pep talk, but even I, directly at his left, am unable to pick out a single word. But it's loud, and it's enthusiastic, and when you're in this state, nothing else matters for the world. He finishes his speech. The mouthguards go in. Nature holds its breath.
Brian Stockmann places his hand in the center. Seventeen others shortly follow, mine included.
We bellow a single syllable. Presumably it is the word "Team!" though through the guards, it is likely that the precise word used was something along the lines of "Mwah!" But it doesn't matter.
Because at this very moment, the homefield announcer's voice rises in pitch and volume, and the bustle of the throng becomes a deafening...
Shivers run through our forms...
"AND NOW... LADIES AND GENTLEMEN... THE EDGERTON HAWKS!"
* * *
The next few hours will ever be a blur to me. An endless series of intense triumphs, intense pains, and combinations thereof. Muscles burn. Shoulders ache. Running like hell. Athletic performance pushed to the redline and beyond. Reaching a point where exhaustion dictates that you spray water randomly at your face rather than even _trying_ to get that damn straw into your mouth. Blood, too. A particularly nasty hit leaves an impact gash on my lower lip. Heldeghast, the big ox, actually ends up nicking my forearm with one of his cleats. Damn lucky he didn't break my fucking arm. One hundred and ten percent proof adrenaline cocktails on the house, liberally spiked with testosterone. We're at peak functioning performance.
But Montrose is _good_. There's a reason why Garrick was only _assistant_ coach until Hyerson got suspended. Hyerson was a damn fine coach. Garrick, while perfectly adequate, is a far cry from stellar. And Pietrick, the opposing squad's chief, is a damn sneaky bastard. Garrick warned us about this. Pietrick, he said, held a position in his school's _art_ department when not coaching, for crissake. This made him a queer, logically, and the one thing that queers have to be, according to our coach, is _sneaky._ I consider this during one of my stints on the bench--I can't find myself able to comment on Coach Pietrick's sexual preferences, although the slightly curly hair probably had something to do with inspiring Garrick's fine-tuned logical leaps. But I _can_ rather reliably arrive at the conclusion that he _is_ a sneaky bastard. At least, whoever's calling the plays is. Edgerton, as a rule, hits hard and leaves you dizzy, but Montrose prefers confusion to accomplish the same end. My specific skills are called into play more often than I can reliably recount, and my heart sings with each hit. Striking blows towards the New World Order. I imagine the U.A. scouts perched up there in the stands, nodding approvingly and making careful notes. And I imagine my father. I imagine him smiling.
The first half is a bitter struggle for territory. Stockmann throws a couple of photo-grade passes that keep us on top, but for the most part it's a bitter ground game of the most classic sort. Lactic acid white death scrounge scrounge rip rip turf blood Go Team, Fight, Team, Win, Win, Win! By the time the half is over, the lot of us look like shit. Excepting Boy Wonder Brian, of course, who always looks immaculate. Most of us are feeling like shit, too. But we're on top of things, if only by a few points.
As we retire to the locker room for the half, clearing the field for the Pom Pons, a thought occurs to me through the swiftly dimming haze of action. Christasion hasn't been deployed yet. I haven't seen him leave the bench. The rosters (I checked them) listed him as one of the kickers, and okay, that _might_ explain his lack of shoes (yes, he's _still_ not wearing them...), judging from the odd personal preferences amongst the types of people I've seen playing that particular position, but something is still tugging frantically at my consciousness like a petulant three-year-old in a toy store.
Damn it, what the fuck am I missing, here...
Even if I could have figured it out in the next few minutes, I wasn't given a chance, for Brian Stockmann takes this moment to congratulate me, calling me a "fucking good safety." We are proud of our achievements, yes we are. We are happy that our work is paying off, that our concentration and focus is coming up roses, at last. We are referring to ourselves in First Person Plural. God help us. So caught up are we all with planning for the New and Improved Future that we forget all about poor dumb little Jake Christasion.
Just a word to Garrick might have changed everything. A single offhand remark. I amongst the entirety of the Edgerton squad had seen Jake Christasion in motion, seen his capability for brain-destroying sprints. I could have told Garrick what a fast motherfucker the little retard was. He would have been better prepared, perhaps. Things wouldn't have had to turned out like they did.
There were a thousand possible chances to stop what happened. This was by far not the most important of them.
At any rate, so swooning were we all with pride that any thought of mentioning said fact to Garrick went completely out the window. Garrick knows how to coach. It's his job to be prepared for this. And if Garrick fucks up, at least he's got his goddamn Last Line of Defense. Keep smiling, Jor. You're halfway to paradise.
Notes on the opening of the second half of the game that would change my life forever: After spending most of my time in the locker room at the half re-tuning my psyche and washing out my wounds, I was marvelously refreshed. All traces of the exhaustion I had felt just moments earlier was gone. Focus is wonderful. My Dad was right. I _had_ been missing something all along. I could _sense_ it, now, looking back. It's as though I'm seeing the world through a filter now, a screen, that neatly sorts the world for me into discrete patterns of challenges and adversaries. Providing solutions where none existed before. Giving me confidence in my power to excel. Thus basking in the glow of my newfound strength, I begin to idly see myself applying my powers to my college education and the great wide open of the work world beyond. Maybe politics, after all, like my Dad has always wanted. Hell, I can _envision_ myself going straight to the top. It's all a question of mind over reality, and reality is starting to seem pretty fucking weak.
With these thoughts in mind, we huddle for the second half. Break. Then, out into the Noise once more...
* * *
The majority of the second half is much like the first. A hideous, bitter struggle. We manage to keep our lead, but as the clock ticks ominously downwards towards the final minutes of the last quarter, that lead has closed to four points. This game is everything I could have hoped it would be. A washout would have been nice for the U.A. folks to see, but I'm almost glad that they're not. When the point spread is too great, the final minutes sort of fizzle out as fans leave the stands early, eager to avoid the rush, and the whole thing kind of lurches to an abrupt and anticlimactic halt. There is a reason _why_ all these stories (this one included, by the way) always have it come down to the last minutes, and that is, of course, _drama._ I can picture the scouts in my mind's eye, the detached and observational expressions fading from their faces as they, too, get caught up in the flood of emotions and find themselves, quite unconsciously, cheering and giving their all towards a simple High School squad perched on the brink of glory.
The brink of glory...
Twenty-Eight to Twenty-Four. Fourth down, and Montrose has been pushed way back into their own territory. Something like twenty yards to the first, due to a picture-perfect sack that has occurred just moments before, leaving the screaming crowds on their collective and breathless feet. The sounds pouring from the bleachers seem like nothing less than the voices of angels.
Montrose is in a bad spot. They're way out of field-goal distance, not that with a four-point spread that it would do much good anyway. They've got an impossible distance to cover in a single down, and if they screw it up, we're in optimum striking distance to bring in a TD and wrap this thing up for the history books. The best they can hope to do is punt here, let us receive, and pray that they can stop us quick on our back line or force a change of possession or something. Then, they'd have to take it all the way to the end zone. A considerable task, but one well within the realms of possibility, so none of us are letting our guard down. Meanwhile, the big illuminated numbers on the scoreboard are telling us that the clock is poised on the brink of the one-minute mark. We're on timeout now, Montrose's final. Garrick is barking at us, but it's almost impossible to hear him over the shattering sussurant roar of raging excitement and the blood rushing through our eardrums. Four quarters of solid noise and light. We're dazzled and dazed but goddamn it, we're almost there. You can almost smell it.
Montrose breaks and snaps into punt formation. The ref spins his arm in a wide circle, and the clock passes into the home stretch. Fifty-Nine, Fifty-Eight...
We begin our rush.
And, once again, time slows.
Because only now do I see who's been let onto the field, for the first time this whole game. Christasion.
Our cleats dig into the turf as we push onwards, ready to receive the ball.
But I know, in that one sickening moment of clarity, that we're never going to get a chance. Because in that one moment, I see _everything._ Almost too late to do anything about it.
Yes, punting is the _accepted_ thing to do here. Yes, it's the _normal_ thing. Yes, it's the _logical_ thing. In the mind of Coach Garrick, this makes it the _only_ thing. And, indeed, for all intents and purposes, Montrose _appears_ to be getting ready to punt.
But there is another option in these cases. One that has completely slipped Garrick's mind.
They _could_ be bluffing.
I saw this _once_ before. Easter Sunday, 2012. Patriots versus the Steelers, in Pittsburgh. Dad and I were watching the game on my grandparents' big old Satellite Feed to help while away another endless holiday afternoon. New England pulled this one when they were in a similar spot. All set up to punt, but when it came down to the moment of, they simply gave the ball a light tap, recovered it _themselves_ and turned it into a running play, much to the surprise and dismay of Pittsburgh. I turned in disbelief to my father (I had been rooting for the Steelers) wondering if they could really _do_ that. He simply looked at me and said, "Jordan, it's a low down, dirty, and unsportsmanlike thing to do, but it's well within the rules." He then turned his attention back to the game, which New England eventually ended up winning. I never even found out from him whether or not he felt that it was _wrong._
At any rate, I gave the matter some thought over a couple glasses of sympathy ginger-ale punch, and I figured that the _only_ reason to fake a punt would be the surprise factor. It's really a stupid play, when you come right down to it. You're putting yourself in an awkward position, having to receive a ball kicked by your own team, and you're really not gaining all that much raw yardage. Plus, there's the risk that the other team will recover your botched punt and be in prime scoring position. In virtually any other situation, a field goal attempt would be preferable. You've gotta hope, one, that you can catch the other team with its pants down, and two, that you're giving it to a runner who could outwit an entire line of onrushing receivers.
A runner, my mind calmly notes in those few hideous seconds, like Jake Christasion.
It's too late to even tell them about it. The play is on.
Unconsciously, I slow my steps.
In sickening slow motion, the play unfolds exactly as I have predicted. And Christasion, looking scared and confused, picks up the ball.
There is no _word_ for the speed that Jake Christasion generates. He banks. He turns. He spins on a dime and begins running in new directions. He virtually, to my disbelieving eyes, actually _leaps over_ the defense, at several points. It's amazing. It's _astounding._ It's positively...
History, of course, will always recall the more recent name of Colin Underwood, the flashy young anthropomorphic cheetah who stunned the field of professional football by taking the 49'ers all the way to the roof, but I will tell you now that Jake Christasion had him beat, hands down. The kid was all over the place. Our division had never seen the like. He was like a goddamn...
A Goddamn American Jackrabbit.
Oh, there was nothing obvious. No fluffy ears, no whiskers, nary the hint of a cute li'l powder-puff tail. But SCABS can work from the inside out as well as the outside in. Jake Christasion, lacking external features, had probably managed to pass as brain-damaged or LD or something. Whoever his folks were, they probably whole-heartedly supported such assumptions. Anything but SCABS. I might well have been the first person to recognize it. But once you saw Jake Christasion in that light, everything else fell into place like puzzle blocks.
Shit, I observe silently in the heartbeat or so that follows, you'd have to be nuts to put somebody like Christasion on the field. Five times out of ten, faced with the maddening noise and the lights and the oncoming defenders, folks like him would probably just freeze up and wait for the kill. I _saw_ that look in his eyes. Fear. It probably took them _months_ of intensive training just to get him to hammer down the relatively complex concepts of "Take the Ball, Hold on to It, Run Like Hell in the Direction You're Pointed." Five times out of ten, putting Christasion on the field would be suicide.
But the other five out of ten times...
With an air of completely inappropriate cool and rational detachment, I watch as Christasion, carrying the ball, darts and twists his way past every single one of my teammates.
All except me.
My pace begins to quicken again. My heart hammers in my chest. The clock approaches the half-minute mark.
Christasion is coming.
My stride lengthens. My breath rattles. My focus is stern and absolute. The moment of glory.
Closer and closer.
I can see the panicked sweat on his face, the wide and terrified eyes as they focus on me, one last adversary. He actually speeds up. But it will be to no avail. He is mine. I can see the trajectories working out in my brain, lances of white mental fire calculating my speed, his, and the point of our interaction. Reality moves at a crawl. Another stride for me. Another impossibly long leap for him. Seconds stretch into hours. He exists, in my mind's eye, as so much prey, waiting to be claimed.
Milliseconds ebb and flow like the tides.
My brain starts _thinking_ again...
Jordan? Yoo-Hoo, Jordan?
Shut these damn VOICES up, for crissake! I'm trying to concentrate here!
Yes, I testily reply to myself, what the fuck is it?
Isn't this funny, Jor? I mean, this. It _had_ to come down to this, didn't it?
What? I say to myself, getting more and more pissed off.
This, I explain. You. All this intensive training. Working your ass off. All because of your father, and what he's told you about how to run your life. And now, all of that is coming face-to-face with SCABS incarnate. It's almost funny. History repeats itself. The pattern continues. Like father, like son.
Har de fucking har. Shut the hell up!
Right! Right! My brain says, conciliatorily. Shutting up now.
Silence for a few more milliseconds as my focus returns. Another long stride for me. Another for him.
It's just-- begins my brain.
WHAT! I scream at myself.
Well. It's just... I mean... you're actually going to _touch_ him?
I falter. Um... What do you mean?
Touch him! You know. You kind of _have_ to to stop him from running.
Well, yeah! My brain responds.
Right. So... you're okay with this?
Um. My brain is thrown for a loop.
I mean, look what happened with Kim. Don't want a repeat of that, do we? Hell, Jor, you wouldn't even go _near_ Skippy. And you were worried about microscopic scratches on your _hands_ for God's sake. You're openly _bleeding_ now in at least two places, maybe more. Why are you so gung-ho to get up close and personal now?
THIS IS DIFFERENT! I scream. THIS IS MY FUTURE!
Ah... says my brain, somewhat smugly.
SHUT UP! I say, lacking a better response. But it's too late. I'm already trying to think of ways I could stop him while getting as little personal contact as possible. Maybe a throw at the legs, perhaps. Quick shoulder to the gut? How about...
It is a testament to my considerable powers of willpower and concentration that during this entire internal monologue, my pace only slackens by one single half step.
In that one half step, Christasion is past me and into the end zone. Without even giving me time to assume a comical look on my face.
And the crowd goes wild.
The _other_ crowd.
The clock stops. I am in the process of gazing dumbstruck at the scoreboard as the operator dutifully adds six points for Montrose.
Putting them ahead by two.
Downfield, the rest of the Montrose squad is celebrating. Cheers and wild rejoicing. Back-pats all around. Meanwhile, my teammates, long left in the dust by Christasion's impossible run, are also staring blankly at the scoreboard.
Slowly, my attention shifts to Christasion. Standing there, huddled small, clutching the ball like a favorite toy. Montrose has forgotten to include him in their congratulations. Use the SCAB for all he's worth and forget about him in the celebration afterwards.
My eyes go to Jake Christasion's face.
His blank, innocent, childlike face.
Jesus Christ. He doesn't even realize.
He doesn't even realize what he's just done.
All my long hours in training. Sweating blood. Pumping iron. Gazing into the flame, trying to find the center. Good, solid, holy sweat-of-the-brow. All for nothing because of a retard with a pair of jackrabbit legs.
All my future plans. An education at U.A. Playing for the Tide. Law school. A political career. Gone.
And Jacob Christasion couldn't care less.
He doesn't realize that, in this one little moment, he's shattered the foundations of everything I had planned. Wiped away my entire future. Made me look like a dumbass in front of the scouts. In front of the crowd. In front of the whole fucking school. In front of the Team.
In front of Dad...
My blood boils into my throat.
And I am upon him.
He doesn't even have time to run. My fury is mad and senseless and relatively ineffectual, especially with the considerable shielding of the football pads. No damage is done. But, for a long moment we wrestle in silence there in the end zone.
My brain has gone beyond the level of words. My anger is complete, total. It floods my entire being. I am a creature of rage, of violence, of fury.
And then, strong hands pull me back. My teammates, breaking up the fight. Zebralike referees swarm at me, making angry gestures. Garrick is screaming, half at me, half at the universe at large.
I am forcibly removed from the field and told to hit the showers. Garrick promises me a serious yelling-at as I go.
They push me through the gates and close them behind me.
Suffice to say, I do not make it to the showers. I find my steps slowing, dragging, coming to a halt at a point only halfway to the school proper and the locker rooms. Somewhere in the center of the commons. Standing before a tremendous white maple that serves as the central hub of the entirety of the campus area.
Every single leaf has fallen from it in the recent cold snap, save one or two odd tenacious ones near the lower branches. These few sparse remaining leaves serve to accentuate the barrenness of the skeletal form.
A wave of sadness builds in me as I choke back one or two sobs. And then, my movements clumsier than ever because of the bulk of the football pads, I struggle my way up to the first branch. This puts me in perfect position to see the one last dying gasp of a field-goal attempt by Edgerton that falls almost laughably short of the mark.
I see the seconds on the big lighted scoreboard tick down to zero. The final signal goes off, sounding for all the world like one of those damn joy-buzzer things used to give unpleasant surprises to people you try to shake hands with. And it's no funnier.
Final Score: Edgerton 28. Montrose 30.
I've lost everything. Everything.
All because of the Martian Flu.
And I've never even come down with it.
Life is kind of funny that way sometimes, but I'm sure as hell not laughing.
I'm sitting out here in a barren tree, holding back tears and ruining my teeth in rage and anguish and pain under the heartbreakingly clear October sky.