I faked right and spun to my left at the last moment, feeling for a moment the huge linebacker scrape past my back as his arms failed to find a solid grip on me, before his momentum carried him to the grass. I had only moments to find my mark, as the offensive line crumbled around me. I saw my receiver put on a burst of speed and break free of his pursuer, and launched the ball towards him.
I never saw the ball land, as a lineman had found an opening and drove me to my back, emptying my lungs and filling my vision with the black velvet of the night sky.
The cheer which roared from the crowd was enough to let me know my throw had hit its mark, and I laid in the grass for a few moments more, closing my eyes and listening to the thundering of feet and the screams of the fans. The cheering intensified and reached a crescendo as, presumably, the ball crossed the line and we scored.
That was it. We were in overtime, first team to score would win. It was a long, exhausting win. But we did it.
“Hey, Athan! My man,” I heard someone say. I opened my eyes to see an outstretched hand. I grabbed hold of it, and the guy attached to it, my best friend Brick, pulled me to my feet.
“Did it again, my man,” he said.
“I just threw the thing. Tyler did all the work,” I said, gesturing towards the growing cheering mass of people thronging the receiver at the end of the field.
“Yeah, yeah. You can put down the humble act, everyone here knows this win, and the one last week, and the one the week before that, those were all on you. Everyone here knows you’re the one with a football scholarship at Cal, not Tyler.”
“Whatever, man. Dude made an awesome run, he deserves some credit.”
“You make an awesome throw, you deserve some credit.”
“Want to thank me? Go buy me a burger.”
“Haha, I’m here to feed your ego, not your face,” he shot me a cheeky grin and squeezed my shoulder as we headed towards the locker room.
When we got inside, more cheers rang out. Brick gave a cheesy bow and shoved me forward into the limelight, where I stood awkwardly in the center of my team’s adulation. It went on for way too long. People kept coming forward to give me a high-five or bump it, but otherwise, I just stood there with everyone staring at me. I hated it. I just wanted to change and disappear. At some point they all even broke into one of the crowd chants: Lets-go-sha-arks. Clap-clap-clapclapclap.
When the praise had died down some, I snuck over to my locker where I changed as fast as I could. I was pulling on my shoes when Brick found me again.
“Hey, tell me you were serious about that burger, my man,” he said. “Some of the guys here want to take you out, even if I’m way too cheap for that shit.”
“Hey, thanks guys, but I really should go. Dad’s probably waiting y’know,” I lied.
The wave of disappointed groans punctuated my guilt.
“Yeah, don’t want to keep the big man waiting,” Brick said, more to the others than to me. I think he was trying to cover for me and let me escape, which I appreciated.
“Yeah. Gotta go. See you guys on Monday,” I said.
“Yeah, later losers,” Brick echoed, as he steered both of us out of the locker room. There were murmurs of farewell cut off as the heavy door slammed shut behind us.
“You really should hang out with the team sometime outside of games and practice,” Brick said while we cut towards the parking lot. “The guys are likely to think you don’t like them.”
“I don’t dislike them, you guys just always seem to be a lot more interested in partying and shit than I am. You know my dad doesn’t mess around when it comes to drinking or grades and shit. Nothing that’d threaten my scholarship.”
“Yeah. And he’s gonna call all his army buddies and have them ground you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, that. So, maybe next year when I’m at college and not under his thumb so much.”
“Two problems with that, my man,” he said, boxing my shoulder with a smirk. “One, I know you’re enough of a boy scout that you are still gonna be under his thumb, even once you’re at Cal. And two, when you go away, I ain’t gonna be around no more. Which defeats the whole point. Like I care if you hang out and have a ton of fun without me.”
“Sorry to inconvenience you with my life plans, man.”
“Nah, no worries,” he said with the same easy grin as always.
We’d reached our destination, a little hill on the back property of the school grounds. As we crested the hill, the bright stadium lights turned off and the hill fell into blackness. We laid on our backs and looked into the night sky.
I’d been out in the desert and seen the sky far from civilization, and was amazed to find it full of stars. Here, in the middle of the Los Angeles suburbs, only the brightest stars could shine through the omnipresent dim glow of human life. But it was enough.
“You never told me,” I said trying to pick out Brick’s silhouette from the blackness behind him. “Where are you going when you graduate?”
“That’s cuz I’ve been avoiding telling you, man.”
“So stop avoiding telling me and tell me.”
I saw motion and thought he was propping himself up on his elbows. “Army, man.”
“Oh. Second question: are you fucking crazy?”
“No, just seems like the thing to do.”
“People are saying they’re planning another invasion into China.”
“Yeah, I know. Which is why I want to enlist. They’re gonna need people.”
“I…you’re not wrong but…there will be people. You don’t have to throw your life away, man.”
“It’s not throwing my life away,” he said, sitting upright. I could see his face standing out against the night sky now. “If everyone thought that, if everyone did that, they’d have to draft to get people. And then they’d pull your number, and people like you who’ve got a big bright future in front of ’em, you’d be out there fighting and dying.”
“So what, you’re gonna fight and die instead of me?” I sat up too. I wished there was more light, I couldn’t see anything on his face.
“Hell yeah, my man. Makes more sense than hoping some other guy we don’t know is gonna do it. I’d fight and die for you any day of the week.”
“I know that Brick, but…that’s like, school fights. Bullies and assholes and Sinos. What you’re talking about is going over there where there’s guns, and lasers, and bombs.”
“There’s bombs everywhere, man.”
“You know what I mean.”
He didn’t answer. I heard him fumble in his pockets for a moment and then heard a click-hiss as a lighter snapped to life, illuminating Brick’s face with the red superheated wire. Like all modern electronic devices, it was powered by a tiny deuterium-lithium crystal–or delith cell, to anyone who wasn’t a geek–which generated a tiny amount of electricity almost forever from fusion. Batteries hadn’t been produced since before I was born…and neither had cigarettes, but that didn’t stop Brick from smoking one of them now.
“You know, people have known those things kill you for literally hundreds of years now,” I said.
“Yeah, you tell me every single goddamn time.” He paused and pulled a drag, making the end flare bright red. “You know, bullets have been killing people for hundreds of years too, but that doesn’t stop us from using them,” he said.
I couldn’t think of a reply.
“Cheer up, my man,” he said. We turned and looked at each other, both on our backs, seeing each other upside down now. The glow of his cigarette outlined his face with harsh lines, but I could see the edges of his familiar smile.
“They probably won’t have another war.” he said. “Everybody knows the Sinos are out of everything and are just posturing at this point. Even if they do, there won’t be a world to fight over anyway. Then, doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing.”
“I guess. How was that supposed to cheer me up again?”
Brick laughed and put out his cigarette as he stood up. We were probably sitting on the only hilltop with cigarette butts on it in the whole county. “I gotta get going, see you Monday?” he said, more than asked.
“See you Monday, man,” I said, with a lazy wave of my arm.
He took a few steps away and stopped, fumbling with something in his pocket. “Oh,” he said, and turned around to face me. “Forgot, I still owe you for lunch on Friday,” he said, and tossed a credit chit at me.
I stuck out my arm to catch the black object hurtling towards me, when lightning crackled between my fingertips, and a bolt of electricity shot out from my hands to evaporate the incoming object out of the air.