Monday, October 24, 2016

Dark Winter: Chapter 11

Of the fifty best football games I ever saw in my life.  Fifty were college games.

--Iowahawk



Every man in the stadium had at least one memory from boyhood where he was dozing in right field and suddenly woke up long enough to make a game winning catch, or miraculously dug deep enough to push past anyone else during a sprint, leaving everyone else fighting for second. Or maybe just kicked the kickball hard enough to get a third grade grand slam homer.  All hands raised in high fives as you ran around the bases. All faces smiling at you, even your childhood enemies honestly and brightly smiling at you, wanting to drink deeply of your glory.

All the echoes of these memories come boiling up over the edge, as twenty-two armored gladiators enter the well of Spartan Stadium and a sound of voices like a magnificently majestic  river turns into over a two hundred foot waterfall.

Every dream of schoolyard triumph that was put away as a childish thing is suddenly alive again.  The air is cold enough so that every breath is seen as fog and yet aged men joyously pull their shirts off and bellow like spanish bulls in the arena awaiting the toreros.

The roar becomes deafening.

Few in the stadium really knew it intellectually, but there was bone deep vibe that this was the last game that would ever be played between these two titanic rivals.

Roy Scheer was in the zone.  He was so completely zeroed in, so absolutely focused when he trotted out on the field, that he was honestly able to ignore it completely when the arena roared into life at him setting foot on the gridiron. Seventy-five thousand throats howled their joy as two teams of young men entered a coliseum that put ancient Rome’s to shame.

This was Roy’s last year before moving up in the world. Scheer was on track to break sixty-five percent conversion this year.  Which meant he was on track to win the Heisman.  Not that that trophy really mattered all that much; Tim Tebow had won it and look at his non-career.

But this was his year.  Finally, his year.  

Greg Scheer’s knee tried to buckle as he jumped to his feet to shout with joy as his Roy entered the field.  Greg ignored the lance of pain shooting through it.  The cold always bothers him when the weather first turns and it has sure turned early this year.

He feels a very familiar soft warmth, his wife’s arms were around his waist.  He avoids looking down at Brandi.  Her bright half smile masking her concern for him would annoy him and he doesn't want to be annoyed today. He loved her deeply, but her concern for his knee felt a hell of a lot like pity to him, and he didn’t need that today.  

This is Roy’s big day.

This is Greg’s big day.

His big dreams for himself are finally going to come through, even though it will be his son that lives them.  The Scheer family had been running Scheer Butcher Shoppe since 1895.  It was a good, steady life in Traverse City.  His family never had wanted for the necessities.  Prudent investment in insurance had kept the worst of life’s catastrophes within acceptable limits.  Just like his dad and just like his granddad.

Just like his dad and just like his granddad was pretty much the story of Greg’s life.  Born in Grand Traverse County.  Go to HIgh school.  Go to work in the butcher shop.  Grow a bit older, turn over the shop to his oldest son and try to give the other two boys enough of a grub stake to take care of themselves in life.  Which his middle boy, Roy, most certainly would.

Greg did take pride in his shop.  He made himself take a real interest in the work.  He stayed on top of things and kept up with fashions in the business.  He didn’t just break down boxed primal cuts like his dad did. He broke down whole carcasses. He went out of his way to get beef that had been grass fed all it’s life.  His poultry had never known a cage and the taste showed it.  This year, he had started breaking down freaking damn goats for the first time in his life.

He had stayed on top of other fashions as well.  He didn’t go down to the Winter Beer fest in Grand Rapids to get blitzed.  He was there to figure out which Michigan Beers were going to be the “in thing” to drink this year.  Occasionally managing to lay in kegs of the good stuff that wasn’t getting canned yet.  It was risky but the risk was manageable. It made Scheer Meats a destination stop.

The rich snowbirds and fudgies on Mission Point were only too happy to pay his prices.  In fact, he had a lot of well-to-do clients from both arms of the bay.  Northport, Torch Lake, even people from the new money McMansion forest at Harbor Bay were delighted to make the two hour round-trip drive to his shop.

Truth be said, the prices put him a bit outside the range of the local folks in TC, but he adjusted things downward when the season came to an end.  Boxed primal cuts had their place, after all.

It was good life, or at least good enough

It just wasn’t the one he wanted.  

The one that had been stolen from him when it had been just within reach.     

The Traverse City Trojans had been a powerhouse of a high school football program for decades.  The corn-fed country boys of  northern Michigan had often utterly dominated the rest of the state.  Thirlby Field was a required stop for any college scout.  And in year when big hair and painted-on jeans were beginning to fade, Gregory Scheer had been it’s king.

He was going to be one of the greats.  Everybody said so.  Everybody knew it.  In his senior year, he had rushed 2,400 yards and scored 32  touchdowns (23 rushing, 9 by kick return).  “Get Some Greg” had been the battle cry.   

Scheer could fool the eye like no one else when he ran.  It was nearly a magician's trick.  He didn’t seem to change his pace or his speed at all.  He looked very easy to catch but whenever the tackle got just within reach, Get-Some-Greg just wasn’t there anymore. He never seemed to change speed at all but somehow the tackles always ended up with nothing to show for their work but a bit of Greg’s team shirt.  Greg Scheer had taken to signing the rags of his shredded jerseys.

He was going to be one of the all time greats, no one doubted it.  He was going to have everything: the Sport’s Illustrated swimsuit wife, the collection of Ferraris.  The big house for himself on Torch Lake.  Buy his mom a place on Mackinac Island itself, just like he knew she dreamed of.

His last game before heading out to join another team of Trojans in California was drilled into his memory.  It was against St. Francis, of all places.  The local Catholic school was alright, it just wasn’t anywhere near the Trojan’s league.  Even if technically they were.

Greg remembered it all with crystal clarity.  Hearing the dull thump of the kick as Saint Francis, for once, had the opportunity to return the ball.  The ball spinning end over end.  Aaron backing up a couple of feet to catch. Then a quick lateral to him.  Greg could still feel the pimpled texture of the football as his large hand dug into it.  He could still feel ground through his cleats as they dug in.  He could feel everything on the field.  He didn’t need to look at all.

He could hear the standing room crowd chanting like a locomotive,“Get-Some-Greg!

He was past the fifty in no time.

Get-Some-Greg!

Past the forty and changing course again.  He had two on his tail.

Get-Some-Greg!”

Past the thirty.  He was going to make this the thirty-third TD this season.

“Get-Some-Greg!

Past the twenty, Past the fifteen.  The two St. Francis tackles had almost reached him.  Time for an extra bit of speed and then jink to the right.  He caught movement out of the corner of his eye.  There was a third tackle and he was in a good position.  

He tried to adjust again he saw his coach signaling him to take a knee.  No point in getting creamed on the ten when you weren’t going to make it over the line.

Greg ignored him, if he just dug a little deeper he knew he was going to make it over the line.

“Get-Some-Greg!

Past the ten..  Just a little more.

SLAM!

The crowd moaned.

Greg was caught low.  He could feel what sounded like a crumbling pile of leaves coming from his right knee.  He hit the ground hard.  He had been tackled before, of course.  Hurt before, of course.  But this time was different.  He was hurt so bad he wasn’t feeling any pain.  He let go of  the football he was still clutching and look at his leg.  It was bent at a wrong angle at the knee.

Then he did feel pain.

A few months of surgeries followed where pins, pulleys, wires and hooks were installed.  Then physical therapy after that.  Graduation.  Marriage to Brandi, who was on the cheerleading squad.  A couple of semesters of business classes at NMCC.  Then into dad’s butcher shop and on to  teaching his sons to play the game that broke his heart.  

His oldest was not destined to be an athlete. His youngest wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either; the body was there but he lacked focus.

But even as a boy, his middle son, Roy, was something beyond special.  Everything he should have been, Roy was going to be.  

Greg smiled in beatific joy at his son.  

Hell, Roy was already leaving his old man in the dust.  For one thing, he was a quarterback.  Realistically, a runner could last maybe three to, at most, seven years before he was out for good, but QB could be good for a decade or more in the NFL.  

Roy had the knack.  He could assess an opposing lineup’s play so well he may as well have been in their huddle.   More importantly, he could manipulate them.   

The teams lined up, Maize and Gold defending their line.  White and Green attacking.

Greg recognized his son’s voice even if he couldn’t make out the actual numbers being called.  But his heart thrilled when he clearly heard his son yell, “HUT!”

The teams collided. Greg watched his son start to fade back.  His boy had a great receiver in Gilbert, those two made an stoppable...Uh oh, wait a second, Greg thought.  One of the Wolverines had gone down wrong, he was blocking his own line.  There was an opening in the defensive line and Roy was near it.  Roy read the situation and changed his plan in an instant.  Greg could see it.  Roy might just be able to run this one all the way in. Greg bit his lip; there was no way that Roy would miss a chance to...and there he went, off like rabbit. Roy skinned himself away from two linemen that had their hands on him but couldn’t get a grip.  The crowd screamed as Roy Scheer tore through a narrow gap in the line.  

Brandi was jumping up and down, crying and clapping, “Oh Greg!  Oh Greg!” She sang with shining, sparkling eyes.  

Greg was frantically pumping his fists, trying to make up for the the fact that he couldn’t jump himself.  The Wolverines had a fast tackle in Elijahwon Jackson and while he was eating up the distance, it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to get to his boy before he crossed the line.

Greg looked up at one of the big boards just so he could see the name SCHEER in  green on a white football jersey.  Greg knew he had won.  He had beaten a life that had tried to beat him into nothing.

Suddenly Roy was knocked out of the camera’s line of sight.

“WHAT THE FUCK!”  Greg screamed.  Some dumb ass idiot son of bitch streaker.  A fucking streaker! Had tackled Roy from the goddamn sidelines.  Where the hell was security!  This was great.  This was just great!  It didn’t matter what call the ref made at this point.  They couldn’t change anything.

The camera had finally reacquired Roy.  He was still on the ground and the streaker was still on top of him.  What the hell was he doing to his son?  Roy was kicking at the streaker with his cleats. The blood was shockingly red on Roy Scheer’s white Spartan jersey.

Greg saw a lot more of the nude streakers suddenly charging on to the field, attacking any of the other players they could reach.  Brandi realized the truth before Greg did and started screaming, “Nooooo!”

Greg felt icy panic clenching his gut. How the hell did those things get here?  Where did they come from? He pulled away from his wife and started running down the steps of stadium in shambling limping jog, trying hopelessly, pointlessly to reach his son.    

Everybody in the country knew how contagious they were.  Especially contact with bodily fluid. Everyone knew that one bite was all it took and you would be no different from the shrieking animals that were bringing down the fittest, best armored young men in the state.  They were fighting back as best they could.  Both teams forgot their decades long rivalry and fought back-to-back, as waves of the things swarmed over them.

Now the screaming was howling in over the crowd like a Nor’easter.  The zombies weren’t just on the field. They had begun clambering over the infield walls.  They were going after the crowd.  The big board cameras focused on them for a moment.  Almost like a school of psychotic, cannibalistic salmon jumping over a small waterfall desperate to get up stream. Then someone had the sense to kill the camera. There weren’t supposed to be this many in one place, at one time.  Nobody had ever heard of a troop of more then fifteen of them and there were way more than that here already.  

How many could possibly have gotten here, no one had time to reasonably ask.  A hundred, maybe a little more.  But how many more?  Maybe lots more.  If hundred were here, then why not thousands?  Who knew for certain?  This had never happened before.

“ZOMBIES!  ZOMBIES!”  The cry was taken up by the entire stadium.  Panic cascaded through the crowd.  First the ones nearest the zombies - the ones who actually had reason to be terrified for their lives.  Scrambling backwards, trying to get away from the clawing, red eyed demons in front of them.  

Then the people behind them.  Men painted Green and White, and Maize and Gold, who had stripped off their shirts, defying the cold November air with their power beer bellies suddenly felt naked and frightened.  They turned their backs on the people that were frantically clawing their way backwards from the zombies right in front of them and ran.  Or at least tried to run. Spartan Stadium was all uphill and it was a steep hill.

The only thing on Earth more contagious then ZT952 is blind panic.  Panic couldn’t be more primordial.  It is the lowest of the base responses.  It is evolution’s “run in circles scream and shout” wild card.  It is the, “try anything in order to survive,” bone deep emergency routing program.  It is your genetic code admitting that sometimes you can’t save most of the tribe.  So maybe saving only ten percent is going to have to be good enough.  Panic is a very social event. Once it has a crowd, it will not let go until it is a crowd no more..

The entire stadium, seventy-five thousand people, rushed for the exits all at once.

Greg Scheer was fighting against a raging river of screaming of bodies that were almost as mindless as the ones they were fleeing from.  His knee was shit but his arms were still as strong as the steers he broke down daily

He grabbed the back of the chairs and pulled himself down the stadium steps against a raging torrent of bodies.  Elbows and shoulders pounded his head, leaving him sick to his stomach as he kept pulling himself down to the field.

Why are these dumbshits running?  The zombies are on the other side of the fucking stadium, Greg raged impotently.

Greg reached for the next seat with one hand, once anchored, clamped his other hand next to it and pulled.  He pulled again, and again.  He made the mistake of looking down. At the floor, he clamped his eyes shut. There were bodies on the steps.  Some screaming, “Stop, please stop!” Or, “please, please help me!”.  They were all being trampled by the terror-engulfed mob.  Some could of them could only moan.  The girl must have been beautiful, the matted hair arrayed out from her head was golden blonde, she had on a skin tight Spartan’s shirt that showed off a gorgeous form that was covered in footprints.  Her eyes were open and sunken, the eyelids were at half mast and at different heights.  He had his own problems.

“Greeeeeeeeeg!” He could hear, but didn’t listen to, his wife’s blood curdling scream at the top of her lungs. The children come first when you are a parent, he half-thought.  Brandi knows that. We even talked about it once.  If the car was on fire and he was out cold, she was rescue the boys first, because she didn’t have prayer of pulling his two hundred fifty pound body to safety.  He justified his abandonment of his wife of twenty two years as he tried to get to his favorite son.

The mob was thinning.  Their seats been relatively close to the gridiron to start with.  One more pull and he would be through.  Greg pulled hard one last time, driving with his good leg, his shoulder screaming as the middle aged joint was close to giving out.  

He was through.  

The mob was behind him.  Brandi had stopped screaming or at least he couldn’t hear her screaming anymore.  Maybe she had gotten out, he lied to himself as he staggered to the infield wall.

He rolled over the side.  His bad leg screaming in agony when he landed on it.  He tried to stand and couldn’t.  His bad knee was wrecked. After a lifetime of waiting, Greg Scheer was on college stadium turf. Greg Scheer started forward on a three legged crawl across the body strewn field.   One of them was headed his way.  One of the zombies had locked on to him  was charging for him on all fours.

Greg didn’t have prayer of getting away from the thing.  He crouched down on the line waiting for it to gallop up on him.  He held tight as if he was waiting for the snap again after all these years.    It was kind of scrawny thing.  couldn’t weigh more than a buck forty.  He waited until it was at bad breath range and then he charged himself driving with his elbow into the zombies forehead.  His strength combined with the zombie’s momentum to drive it’s own head back way too far.  He felt the wet crunch of it’s neck vertebrae through his arm.  “Get some Greg! Get some!” He heard himself roar above the screaming in Spartan Stadium.

*whang*.

Greg had done more then enough hunting to recognize the shot of a high powered rifle.  Another zombie that had been charging him fell into a rolling heap.  It’s head split open.  Now he was hearing more of shots.

Greg Scheer began to hope.  Maybe there had been a point to this.  Maybe he wasn't’ crazy.  Maybe he if he reached him in time he could do...something.  Maybe he could save...

There he was.

There was Roy Scheer, laying quietly on his side.  Blood now drenching his white Spartan Jersey.  Greg Scheer had been hauling around dead carcasses his entire life.  He knew one when he saw it.

Greg dropped bonelessly down to the ground as every ounce of hope left him.  He looked at his son’s body one last time and then closed his eyes.

Greg Scheer rolled on his back and called up warm memories of a little boy, who he had just tossed a ball to.  Roy was fading back easily avoiding his brother's attempts to catch him while he found a slot to rifle the ball into his Dad’s breadbasket.

Greg wasn’t all that grateful when their teeth tore his throat out but he didn’t mind all that much, either.

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