Final Breath

bydrteetho©

"Think you're a cool guy, huh? Think you're this big hero saving your damsel in distress, are you? Well you're not, you're nothing but a goody-two-shoes, a traitor who turned his back on the people that count around here! Instead you cast your lot with the freaks! What the hell is your problem?!"

I knew instantly what a ridiculous speech that was. I was embarrassed to think that at one time I thought Billy was a cool guy. "Awww," I mocked him, "is poor little Billy sad because I ruined his fun little game? Poor baby!" I laughed out loud, happily noting how I had wiped the smug look off that bastard's face.

Billy got right in my face, close enough so I could see his slicked back hair and smell the cinnamon gum on his breath. "Say something funny again, asshole! I dare you!"

The sound of someone clearing his throat behind him broke Billy's concentration. He turned to see Jamie, followed closely behind by Ricky, Torrey and Brandon.

Billy, ever the smooth one, recovered his composure. "Good thing for you your little friends showed up just in time. But you'll get what's coming to you. All in good time. For now, remember this. You've made yourself an enemy today, and it will be the biggest mistake you've ever made. You've crossed the wrong motherfucker this time, Garrett!" And with that, he walked away, pleased with himself after his show of bravado.

"Sorry that you might end up being caught up in all this," I apologized to my friends, "but I have a feeling that the shit's soon going to hit the fan."

I had a feeling that the price for doing the right thing was going to be high. I just hoped the payoff would be greater.

**********

It all came to a head on Halloween day.

The day started with an early morning football practice. It was the last practice before we were to play our biggest rivalry game of the year on Friday so it was going to be an intense session. We started with a jog around the track to warm up. I fell in with Jamie, Torrey, Brandon and Ricky, as per usual. We were just starting to talk about our opponents for the next game and how badly we wanted to win, when I felt someone cuff me on the back of my head. I turned my head and saw Billy with a shit-eating grin on his face as he forced his way into our group to take his place next to me. Figures, I thought.

"Hey Gare!" he said in the most fake greeting in the history of fake greetings.

"What do you want?!" I yelled back. Meanwhile, for now my group of friends quietly gave me space to deal with Billy and stared straight ahead. It wasn't their deal so I didn't expect them to immediately step in. I told them after the Monday furore died down that it was only right that I try to handle any situations brought about from my actions. They agreed and offered to help if necessary, as good friends do for each other, but I didn't want them to feel obliged.

"You still going to that freak's Halloween party?" Billy sneered.

"Maybe," I retorted, trying to play it cool. "What's it to you?"

"God, Gare, you're a loser! How about ditching that bitch and hanging out at my party instead? If you're lucky, I may even forgive you for that little stunt you pulled the other day and hook you up with a cheerleader so you can get yourself some tonight!"

"How about you shut your face and mind your own damn business?!"

"You've got a lot of nerve, talking to me like that!" Billy snarled. "You're gonna fucking regret it!"

"Get out of here, Billy, seriously!" Jamie piped up. Billy just smirked and accelerated to put distance between us.

"Asshole!" Jamie muttered under his breath.

Torrey looked at me and asked, "You're not gonna let that guy mess with your head, are ya?"

"Hell no!" I exclaimed. "I'm going to do what I had planned to do all along and go to Erin's party. If you think I'm going to change what I do just because that jackass says so, then you're crazy."

The head coach's shrill whistle blew and we all grabbed our helmets and formed a huddle around him at midfield. His Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses were his only concession to Halloween; his distaste for the holiday was well known. He didn't give us one of his famous motivational speeches this time; he was saving that for game day. After those speeches we felt like we could run through brick walls if Coach just said the word. But today he wanted us calm and focused so we could work on our game plan and the other fundamentals of the game we needed to successfully execute in order to win.

We did a great job working through our drills. Personally I was feeling good and the team as a whole was sharp, and it showed in our practice. We moved into position for our last drill. The quarterback would throw short out passes to the receivers while defensive players worked on form tackling; their part of the drill called for them to wrap up but not finish the tackle by bringing the player to the ground. The idea was to practice form, not hurt a teammate.

The first few cycles of this exercise passed by without incident. When my next turn came up, however, I heard Billy's voice pierce through the air. "Out of the way, rookie! I got this!"

A chilly pause came over the proceedings. I could clearly see the looks of concern on my friends' faces. I could see Jamie mouthing, "Don't do it!" and shaking his head. The backup quarterback raised his palms up in the air as if to ask what was going on. Coach, as good as he was at both inspiring his players and the X's and O's of the game, sometimes had trouble sensing danger in situations like this.

"Well, come on then, we've done so well, boys, don't stop now! Keep it going!" he barked.

Pride got the best of me. I saw the look of derision on Billy's face as he lined up across from me, ready to pounce at me like a caged lion, and I thought to myself 'I'll be damned if I let this asshole intimidate me!'

I gave the quarterback the nod to go ahead. I ran my short route as he lofted the ball in my direction. It was a little high, I had to jump and stretch my body to reach it, but I was going to catch it in my fingertips just perfectly.

CRACK!!

I felt Billy's helmet bury into my ribs. The impact sent me flying through the air. I had just enough time to think to myself, "Oh shit!" before landing hard on the ground on my back with a sickening thud. I was vaguely aware of the guys standing over me, yelling back and forth and maybe threatening to fight. I couldn't really make out too much what was happening; I was too worried about trying to get my breath back.

I never did find out where the damn ball went.

Finally, blessed relief as air flowed into my lungs again. I gingerly sat up straight, testing my physical reaction to movement, and waited for the bout of dizziness to fade. The commotion from everyone surrounding me seemed to fade; good thing too because the noise was giving me a pounding headache. I heard Coach bark out "Billy! Get the hell out of here! You're done for the day!"

Jamie, Torrey, Brandon and Ricky all knelt down beside me. I could see the looks of concern on their faces, and Jamie spoke for all of them. "Garrett! Holy shit, are you OK?"

"Been better," I groaned.

I was eventually able to stand up and watch the rest of the drill from the sideline. Coach asked if I was OK, and not wanting to appear that this experience bothered me too greatly, I nodded.

"Well, I still want to talk to you sometime before game time. I'll talk to Billy too but at a different time than you so there are no further blow-ups. I need to get both sides of the story and really get to the bottom of this. I don't want this distraction hanging over us before our biggest game of the year. In the meantime, if you start feeling worse, check in with the school nurse immediately, do you understand?"

"Yes, Coach."

He then issued two blasts of his whistle, mercifully calling time on this practice.

**********

I shuffled over to my locker, still sore and bruised from Billy's assault, but otherwise none the worse for wear. With showering and having some time to walk it off I was starting to feel better. Plus my mood was brightened from my Halloween costume.

And really, who wouldn't have a smile on their face after seeing me in my outfit? I was going as a medieval style court jester, complete with brightly coloured vest and three-pointed hat with bells at the end of each point. It drew laughs from all my friends, and I couldn't wait to see how everyone else reacted. Some of their costumes were pretty cool too, even if most of them went with the obvious and traditional vampires and zombies and such.

As I opened my locker door I saw Erin standing in her usual spot at the edge of my peripheral vision. She had made her way there and stood quietly without me noticing at first, as was her wont. Not for the first time, I wondered how in the hell she was able to sneak up on me like that all the time.

I turned toward her and saw her curiously eyeing me up and down. She looked no different than usual, but on a day like today she and her friends fit in perfectly instead of sticking out like a sore thumb.

"You know you look ridiculous, right?" she asked.

"What are you talking about?" I asked right back, making sure to shake my head slightly so the bells would jingle.

She just rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Garrett, if you wear this to my party tonight, I will personally kick your ass."

"Don't start something you can't finish, babe," I teased her, and she stuck her tongue out at me in response.

I laughed over the witty repartee Erin and I were sharing. I got what I needed for my first classes and was about to say something else to her. That is, until Vanessa, the head cheerleader, girlfriend to the one and only Billy Jordan, and a notoriously shameless flirt, rudely stood between the two of us, even though it was obvious we were having a conversation.

"Hi there, Garrett," Vanessa said. I'm sure she thought her 18-going-on-19-year-old self was being seductive. I just thought she was being annoying.

"Uh, yeah, hey Vanessa. Can you give me a minute, I was just talking to... oh." I was going to say I was talking to Erin, but instead of hanging around she gave the cheerleader a disdainful look and pressed a piece of paper in my hand before walking away.

Vanessa's eyes shot daggers at the departing Erin. "Bitch," she grumbled under her breath. But still loud enough for me to hear.

I opened the paper and noted that it was the "official" invite to Erin's Halloween party. The type of little added touch she didn't need to do but wanted to do which made her so endearing. I nodded to myself and slipped the paper in my pocket. I was kind of enjoying letting Vanessa do a slow burn while she waited for me, but I guess I had to talk to her, even though it was the last thing I felt like doing.

"You know, Vanessa, if you want me to do something for you, at the very least you should never interrupt my friend and I when we are talking, or call her a bitch behind her back loudly enough for me to hear it," I lectured her. Not like it would do any good anyway. "Oh, and please inform your boyfriend that I didn't appreciate his attempt to impale me on his helmet in practice this morning. All of that is very rude, you know."

"Whatever, Gare." As I expected, she completely brushed off what I said. "Listen, let's talk about what's really important."

"And that would be?"

"Billy's party, of course! You're going, right?"

I groaned inwardly. I really had no desire to get in any sort of argument with her about this, so I tried hedging my answer. "Maybe, I'm not sure yet."

"Well, I think you should," she said, trying to turn on the charm, running a finger up and down my neck. "Who knows? If you're lucky, one of my friends can make it worth your while."

Did she just imply that she would whore one of her cheerleader teammates out to me as a reward for showing up to Billy's stupid party?! You stay classy, Vanessa.

"You know what? I think my schedule is going to be full tonight," I said.

"Don't be like that, Gare. I wouldn't want to have to make things difficult for you and your freaky little friend."

That was it. I slammed my locker door shut with a bang, making it known that, in no uncertain terms, this conversation was over.

"See you around, Vanessa," I said over my shoulder before booking it to my first class of the day.

Thankfully the rest of the school day passed without incident. It was fun to see all the costumes on display. They ran the whole gamut, from the aforementioned vampires and zombies, to sexy, slutty nurses, to cool superheroes, to ghosts and mummies that completely shielded the wearer's identity. The funniest was my crazy chemistry teacher, Mr. Dalla Costa, who fashioned a get-up made to look like he took an axe to his head.

As the final bell rang I was happy to see Jamie again. "Hey Batman," I called out, for that's who he was today, wearing the full costume, including the mask, pointed hood and hard plastic breastplate with the famous logo in the centre.

"Hey, clown," he retorted.

"Uh, that's jester, dumb-ass."

"Whatever, clown!" We cracked up in laughter.

"How are you feeling, Garrett? Not still in pain after practice?" Jamie asked.

"Well I wasn't thinking about it until you mentioned it. Thanks for the reminder, buddy."

"I'm serious, man. Billy really lit you up."

"I'm fine. I'll need to stretch out a bit the next couple days to make sure I don't get too sore, but I'm OK, really."

"Alright, just checking up on you, man. You know I got your back."

"And I got yours."

We performed our secret handshake after that exchange. It's a guy thing.

"So I take it you're not going to Billy's party?" Jamie asked, knowing full well my answer.

"Fuck no. How about you and Cindy?"

He sighed. "Probably. I really don't want to, and neither does she, but she's so worried about keeping up with appearances with the rest of the cheerleaders. She feels she needs to."

"And you're going to be the supportive boyfriend, I guess."

"Not boyfriend. Just friend."

"Shit, Jamie, I'm sorry dude." I was so wrapped up in my own problems that I forgot about Jamie and Cindy's issues. Jamie, who had turned 18 on New Year's Day, had been friendly with Cindy for quite a while, but it wasn't until her 18th birthday in August that they began secretly dating. You might reasonably wonder why they had to be secretive about their relationship. Well, the calendar may say it's the year 2012, but believe it or not there were elements among the school population that would be driven to anger at seeing Jamie, who is black, dating Cindy, who is white.

"Nah, man, it's all good. You've got enough on your plate without worrying about us. Anyway, I'm trying to convince her to go to this other party my cousin is hosting. We'll see."

"Good luck with that."

"Thanks man. So I'm guessing you're gonna hang out with Erin?"

"Yeah, her and her friends."

"That's cool. You like her don't you?"

"Well, we're friends, so yeah."

"That's not what I meant, Gare."

I shook my head. "Come on, man, it's not like that."

"Really? You sure? 'Cause your eyes light up whenever you talk about her. I'm not blind, man, I know the score."

He was right. Jamie and I were real tight, he was easily my best friend besides Erin, and we could read each other like a book. "All right, all right," I relented, "I do like her a lot. But she's not easy to read sometimes. I don't know if she likes me any more than just as a friend."

"Who knows, Gare? She could be madly in love with you, you big stud!"

"Ha, OK Jamie, we both know you're the man, attracting the eye of a cheerleader and all that!"

"Yeah, I know I'm good," he said, pretending to pop the collar of a shirt that his costume probably hid. "But so are you. What you did on Monday to stand up for her and that other kid was really awesome. You have a set of big brass ones, my friend!"

"Ah, it's nothing."

"Don't go all modest on me now!"

"I just did what I thought was right. You'd do the same if you were in my shoes."

"I hope so. Gare?"

"Yeah Jamie?"

"If you and Erin do hook up, that's cool with me. I'm not big on the whole goth thing, but you know her well and if you're cool with her then so am I."

"Thanks man, you're a great friend and always will be. Good luck with you and Cindy, both in doing your own thing tonight and... you know... nudge nudge, wink wink!"

We shared a little laugh before giving each other a big man hug.

"Man, get these bells outta my face!" he yelled with a goofy grin.

We bid each other goodbye. I walked home to get ready for Erin's party, wondering if something really would happen. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it badly, but I couldn't quite convince myself that it would or even could happen. No, I decided it was best to not get my hopes up. Just go, accept the situation for what it is and try to have some fun with it, and be done with Halloween for another year.

**********

I got to Erin's place at about 7:00 that evening, right on time according to official invitation she prepared. Remembering that she wanted this to be a "come-as-you-are" Halloween party (i.e. no costume), but mostly remembering her earlier "threat" to cause me physical harm, I ditched the jester outfit and went with a simple pair of black jeans and light gray shirt. I rang the doorbell and smiled when she answered. She went easy on the makeup and wore a black blouse, skirt and stockings, plus a lacy black veil that covered the top half of her face for good measure. She looked pure and fresh.

We went inside and gathered in the small living room with the rest of her friends. Scarlett was sitting on Kory's lap in one chair, but otherwise everyone had their own seat. As usual, they were all just chilling, happy to be in each other's company. Erin insisted I take the only empty spot left, one on the couch next to Al. She plopped herself down on the floor and sat between my legs.

Everyone snacked on popcorn while Erin was deciding on which movie to load into the DVD player among the choices that were appropriately both Halloween and goth-themed. She eventually settled on The Crow. While the movie played I mostly listened to the conversation all around me, joining in where I could. Erin, as she usually did, included me in the flow of the discussion as much as possible. I loved that she was so thoughtful to do this for me.

With the obvious exception of Jackson, I knew Erin's friends were OK with me since she told me so on my 18th birthday. My challenge was to try and fit in and relate to them when I wasn't really one of them. I was not goth; I didn't look like them, I didn't think like them, I didn't fully share their interests.

Despite all that, I enjoyed sharing time with them. There were no expectations or peer pressure to live up to. I felt more free to be myself, and they accepted who I was without reservation, and I tried to do the same for them.

And, of course, being with them meant more time I could spend in Erin's company.

Which was both a blessing and a curse; a Halloween treat and trick, if you will. There was no doubt in my mind by now that I was physically attracted to her, and almost certainly falling in love with her as well. More and more often when I saw her I silently perved on her, which left me guilt-ridden and frustrated, because I never thought she would reciprocate my feelings for her. I convinced myself that if she knew I felt this way she would cut me out of her life forever

The movie finished playing, and there was a lull in the conversation. Jackson announced he was going outside for a smoke, and he asked me to join him.

"No, it's alright, you know I don't smoke," I replied.

"I know that. I wanted to talk to you for a minute."

"About what?"

He just gave me that look of impatience that I had seen many times before. I didn't know where this was going, but I joined him anyway.

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