This isn’t the end of Roger’s backstory, but I still have a big football action sequence to write and I need to take my time with that – and it’s back to the day job tomorrow, so nowhere near as productive for the near future. But I don’t want to leave y’all hanging in tears after that last bit, so here’s a bit more for you to end your weekend on a good note 🙂
I don’t want to live anymore, Roger thought when he woke up in the mornings and he meant it, being a teenager. His body wanted to live – it twitched and thrashed and begged him to take it for a run, a walk, anything. But his brain fought back, made his body curl up into an ever tighter ball, pulled the covers over his head, returned to the womb, or tried.
“Jayce.” Sometimes he’d whisper the word out loud, to make it hurt more. But only when he was deep under the covers, as if the whole world would turn and look at him if they could hear it, shocked and horrified.
His dad came in, making enough noise in the hall to alert Roger. Roger didn’t move. By this, the third morning after Jayce’s death, he knew the routine. His dad slowly pulled back the covers to reveal his head. “Let’s get some soup in you,” he said gently, as if Roger had the flu.
Roger turned so that he could take the cup and drink the tepid broth. His body responded to the salt and the broth, unknotting a bit. He’d have to get up and pee in a minute, but not yet.
“The memorial service is today,” his dad said.
“I know,” Roger replied dully.
Jacob got up and opened the drapes, for the first time since Roger had shut himself in.
“I don’t want to go.”
“I know. But you know you have to.”
Jacob paused. His son was so deep in his grief he couldn’t see it. “Because the team is counting on you,” he said softly. “Your friends are counting on you. Jayce’s parents know you were his friend, they need to see you. If you can’t say anything, that’s okay, you don’t have to. But you have to go.”
Roger was still Roger. Everything his dad said was undeniably true, his presence was necessary. And the out he’d offered him, that he wouldn’t have to get up and talk when everyone else did, was the lifeline he needed. He knew what would happen if he spoke: the worshipful adoration he felt for Jayce, the boundless puppy love, would come tumbling out and everyone would know.
At least he could dress in black. His father had bought him a black suit, and all the team members would be wearing the same tie, with the school colors. He got in the shower for the first time in days, sloughed off the filth while Jacob stripped the sheets from the bed, more than ready for a good washing after three solid days of inhabitation.
They arrived at the service, and Roger saw Damien. “Let’s sit there,” he said to his dad.
Damien was Roger’s second best friend, the team’s Center. Had been his very best friend, before Jayce had eclipsed the sun. They’d developed the uncanny communication that marked the best Quarterback/Center relationship, and it had made being friends off the field easy, like they already knew each other before they got to know each other.
He nodded as Roger sat next to him, somber music playing as the mourners took their seats. “Are you going to get up and…” Damien ventured.
“No, I…I can’t do it, man.”
Damien nodded. He didn’t say anything else. He’d been hurt when Roger had started spending less time with him, but then, he’d watched Roger when all the guys were hanging out together, deliberately never looking at Jayce, like he didn’t know him, which made no sense seeing how the two of them were inseparable otherwise…oh. His mom’s brother was gay, it didn’t bother him, he knew Roger wasn’t thinking about his ass when he had his hands behind it. And he wasn’t going to force Roger out of the closet, if that’s where the dude needed to be.
He put a hand on Roger’s shoulder. “I’ll do it. I’ve got a speech and shit.”
Roger exhaled. “Thank you.”
The speech was good. He spoke of Jayce’s athletic gifts, his sense of humor, his practical jokes, and pretty much painted him as the Golden Boy, struck down too early. Damien wasn’t going to bring up the cruelty of some of those pranks, or the way Jayce would shout at anyone who made a mistake during a play, telling them what fucking retards they were.
“Shit,” Roger said as they left the church. “Look over there.”
“Yeah, man,” Damien nodded. “Tinkly piano time.”
It was their code for those segments on ESPN, the brave/tragic stories of athletes who’d overcome, or succumbed to, adversity. Always accompanied with the sensitive piano music that made teenage boys smirk at the sentimental tone. And here it was, the ESPN truck and camera, filming the somber boys leaving their friend’s funeral.
But it wasn’t just a young athlete’s death that was required for TPT. The Big Story had yet to play out fully. The Santa Vera Skyhawks’ record with Jayce at the helm was 8-0 with two games left in the season. Comparisons to Matt Leinart had been bandied about, at least in the local press. And the game was still on for Friday night – the world kept turning, and the whole region’s high school football schedule couldn’t be disrupted for anything less than an earthquake. A major one.
It was only then, as the two young but already media-savvy players saw the Big Red Logo on the side of that van did they realize what came next. Roger was the backup quarterback. The season was on the line, the chance to go to the state championships.
“Time to win one for the Gipper,” Damien murmured.
“Yeah,” Roger acknowledged. And with this realization, he straightened up a bit, his eyes cleared, his pulse increased. The doors he’d shut in his head began to open, thoughts coming out of hiding to mingle, debate, propose. That’s right, I forgot. I have a game to play, I have to make a plan, I have to think about the plays that Jayce had run so many times, routes that the offense had down pat, tactics that we’d be a fool to change now…
He had to make the coach see that, that Roger needed to be Jayce at least long enough to carry the flag, to make a seamless transition, to build on what the team had done so far… God knows he’d watched Jayce’s every move, memorized every motion of his gorgeous body in action. Now he could put all those long gazes to good use.
Sometimes your future turns on the smallest event. In Roger’s case, it was the photo that a freelance photographer snapped of his face, in the moment that the football mainframe he’d built in his head started to spin up again. You just knew when you saw the frightening concentration in that photo that he was thinking about the game, about what came next. That he was going to step in and do this.
Jacob noticed it in the car. He let out a very quiet sigh of relief, seeing that his son had come back. Without asking, he pulled into the In-N-Out Burger window. “A cheeseburger with fries, and a 3×3 protein style,” he said into the order box.
“With onions,” Roger added.
Jacob smiled. “With onions.”
The great champions have a secret. They can stuff their emotions down so hard and so deep for so long. Long enough, anyway. It’s not denial, or repression, but a sophisticated bioelectrical emotional control system that can raise or lower your mental temperature as needed. When you win it all, when you reach the top, then, only then you can burst into tears, if you still have to. Roger just deactivated everything related to Jayce, his feelings, the gay thing. It was all in the way, so out of the way it went.
There were supposed to be limits enforced by the school on the amount of time the team spent practicing, meeting, preparing. But between teachers and parents and school board members who wanted the state championship so badly they could taste it, and those who felt that this was the best therapy for their children’s grieving process, there weren’t any dissenters to the rules violations for now.
Then it was Friday night. High school football in Santa Vera was a pretty big deal no matter what. But this…the game was being televised on a San Diego station. ESPN was here to film it for the unfinished story. Sports reporters were here from around the state. And college recruiters were sitting quietly in the crowd, drawn by the story, looking to see who would break and who would thrive under the pressure.
Coach Stefano wasn’t a sentimental man, and he hadn’t thought that he’d have any problem doing what he did every week before a game, pumping the kids up to get out there and do what they did best. But when those young men sat before him in the locker room, eyes upturned, knowing that the Big Game required a Big Speech, he couldn’t speak. The capital letters overwhelmed him, Jayce’s death was more than he could talk to, and he was horrified, mortified to discover that he couldn’t give it. That words failed him.
The outcome of a game can hang on moments like that. Sometimes the pause can be powerful, a moment for the emotions to gather, for their power to be acknowledged before they’re gathered up and controlled. But the reins were out of Coach’s hands, Roger could see.
Roger got up. He was wearing #7 tonight, Jayce’s number, and not his own #12. “Okay. I didn’t talk at Jayce’s funeral. I couldn’t do it. It hurt too much. I would have laid down in his coffin right next to him if I had. He was…” He blew out a sigh, relaxing.
What Jayce was now was a means to an end. Roger would start crying again later, but tonight, Jayce was a tool in his winning arsenal.
“He was an asshole.”
The team laughed, shocked, relieved, the truth of it undeniable, the contradiction between perception and reality they had all experienced at the memorial service.
“But he was my asshole. I loved the guy. Yeah. He was our asshole. He was fucking…sorry, coach…he was great. He was amazing. Yeah, he yelled at us when we messed up, and you know why? Because he wanted us to know that it wasn’t okay to mess up, that he could see exactly what had gone wrong. That it wasn’t ‘nobody’s fault’ when a pass got dropped or he got sacked. It was somebody’s fault. Somebody could have done better. None of that ‘everyone gets a gold star’ shit, right? No way he was buying that.
“And those pranks. God.” More laughter. “So embarrassing. But did anyone ever get hurt? Humiliated, yeah, no doubt. But never hurt. He never, ever did anything that could have messed up your ability to play, right? Physically, anyway! And I can tell you, he put a lot of thought into those. So you know, he was thinking that too, that it had to be something that might hurt your feelings, but it wouldn’t hurt the team.
“So what I’m saying is…he deserved better. Than to be dead at seventeen. He deserved a shot at growing up, at learning to control his temper, at being an even better QB than he was. He deserved a shot at all those initials. USC, or UCLA, and definitely NFL, MVP.”
Murmurs of agreement, nods, the ripples in the pond from his words, the ecosystem of a team coming to life again.
His voice got louder, more confident. “If he was here, we would have won tonight without even thinking about it. You know it. We’re supposed to be all humble and respect the opponent and all that, but man, these guys, on the other side of the stadium? They’re not that good. Our only problem tonight would have been getting cocky and making mistakes. But, knowing Jayce would yell at you, how many mistakes would you let yourself make? Right!”
“Okay then. We’re going to play it like Jayce would play it. And I’m not a yeller, man, but I can glare, and I am gonna glare at your ass if you mess up and you’re gonna hear Jayce’s voice in your ears.”
“So let’s do it! Let’s GO!”