Gary knew he should feel like a winner. Everything about his life at this moment should have been perfect. Captain of a winning football team, a great new friend that was exactly the sort of friend he knew would be by his side forever. He would probably come out of the football season with a scholarship. There was just one thing missing.
He should have the girl still. She just wasn’t ready to accept Julius, accept anyone different from her, and he couldn’t blame her. He really, truly couldn’t. A few months ago, he would have thought the exact same thing himself. Hell, he probably wouldn’t have been a whole lot worse if it hadn’t been for Coach Boone bringing the team together, showing them that they weren’t really that different after all. He wouldn’t have Julius by his side.
So when Julius decided to go off with his girl, Gary had to leave. He knew he probably could have gone with them, staying up all night and laughing and smiling and reveling in the win that felt so good, but he’d see him with her, see her happy to accept Gary into their lives, and it would hurt more than he even let himself realize.
He reached into the pocket of his letterman jacket, pulling out the keys to his mom’s Camaro and twirling them around in his pocket a few times, looking back at Julius walking away with his arm around his girlfriend. Sighing, he turned back towards them, ignoring the autumn air very suddenly chilling around him.
“Hey, Julius!” Gary called, jogging a little to catch up to them. “Mind if I hang out with you after all?”
“Of course not,” Julius said, smiling at his friend and reaching his other arm around him. “Who am I to turn down the chance to spend time with Superman?”
Gary laughed, tilting his head into Julius’s shoulder as he did. He caught sight of familiar blonde head of hair turning around the corner to the left of them, but he ignored it as best he could. Someday, there might be something with her. He had meant it; he would never have embarrassed himself in front of his team for a girl he didn’t truly care for, but right now?
Right now, this was his family. Julius was his brother.
He would have a normal night. He’d be a high school senior. They’d have a few beers, probably in someone’s backyard, and no one would stop them. Not tonight. They were invincible. He was invincible. He may not know a lot of the world outside Alexandria, but tonight, this was his kingdom. He laughed at something Julius said, stepping in front of them and walking backwards into the street to add his own twist to whatever joke he’d said.
Julius never had a chance to laugh at Gary. He screamed for Gary to move, watching in horror at the look of realization in Gary’s eyes as the truck headlights barreled for him. Gary tried to move out of the way, but he didn’t quite make it. The last thing he remembered was Julius’s hand on his shoulder and the look of fear in his eyes.
The next morning, the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the last thing he’d seen when they closed, just much less fearful and far more relieved.
“See, I told you he was Superman,” Julius said to Gary’s mother, who was sitting in the corner, her hair still perfectly coiffed and her legs neatly crossed. “No one but Superman lives through getting hit with a truck like that.”
Gary’s mind was still groggy; the world hadn’t quite fallen into focused. He recognized stiffer sheets than at home, a bed that wasn’t his, a room that was too white and sterile. A hospital. He had to be in a hospital.
“A truck?” Gary said, repeating the words he’d heard but not yet comprehended.
“Yes, Gary,” his mother said, barely a twinge of emotion in her voice, but he knew his mother; anything different would have meant she didn’t actually care. “You were hit by a truck last night after the football game. Julius insisted on seeing you. I was hesitant, but I know he is your friend.”
“So that’s why I feel like I got hit by a truck,” Gary said, wrapping the one arm that didn’t hurt to move around his mother who bent down to embrace her son.
“If you will excuse me, boys,” Gary’s mother said gently as she ended the hug. “I am going to inform the nurse that Gary has woken up.”
“So, Superman,” Julius said, pulling one of the guest chairs up and sitting down in it backwards, leaning his arm over the back. “How do you feel?”
“Super,” Gary replied, rolling his eyes.
“They said you broke your leg and have a concussion,” Julius said. “Not to mention those nasty bruises on your arm. But you’ll be okay. You just won’t be able to play.”
“I have to,” Gary said. “It’s the championship.” The words were reactionary, and the moment he attempted to sit up, a sharp pain moved from the middle of his thigh up his body, catching in his lungs as he inhaled sharply to dissipate it.
Julius just looked him up and down, spreading his arm above his body as if to indicate that his point had been made for him.
“Okay,” Gary said, gingerly settling himself into the closest position to comfortable that he could. “I guess I won’t be able to play.”
“Don’t you worry, though,” Julius said, reaching towards Gary’s hand reassuringly. “We won’t forget how to play without you.”
“Are you sure?” Gary said, looking up into Julius’s eyes as Julius guiltily moved his hand away. “I can always recruit Sheryl. She’ll tell me if anything goes wrong. She knows more about football than half the guys on the team. She’ll keep you in line.”
“You know she does that anyway,” Julius said with a laugh. “Besides, I can keep the team together. I managed okay at practice this morning, even with how shaken up everyone was. You know I won’t let you down.”
“I know,” Gary said. For a moment, their eyes locked, and Gary didn’t quite know what to make of it. Maybe it was the light, maybe his brain just hadn’t quite woken up, but he swore that, behind those dark brown eyes, Julius had been even more worried than maybe he had even realized. The moment passed, and Gary slowly began to forget he’d even been thinking about Julius’s eyes as the doctor and nurse arrived in his room, his mother just a half-step behind.
Julius managed to come to Gary’s room every single day, even with the incredible amount of hours that Coach Boone managed to find for the team to practice. He had never been so close to anyone. Not his mother, not Emma, not even his former best friend, Ray. Julius and him had been close ever since camp, but it was like Gary’s accident woke something up in Julius.
Gary wasn’t quite sure what it was.
On Friday, the day before the game, the doctor signed off on Gary’s release for Saturday. His mother must have told Julius, as he’d already left for the day when Gary had heard, and when his mother drove to the hospital to pick him up that morning, he found Julius sitting in the backseat, grinning, as he watched Gary carefully lower himself into the car seat with the aid of his crutches.
“I hear you’ll be able to make it to my game,” Julius said from the back seat.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Gary said, trying to smile as he realized how much more everything ached when he wasn’t in the safety of a hospital bed, cared for by nurses who knew exactly how to handle his injuries. “Speaking of, shouldn’t you be there by now?”
“Nah,” Julius said, shaking his head. “We’re headed straight there. Your mom’s just inside filling out the papers. Coach knows I’m going to be late. He knows I’m bringing you.”
“He knows I can’t play, right?”
“Yeah, he knows,” Julius said, reaching between the door and the seat to rest his hand on Gary’s shoulder. Gary looked down at it, the dark skin against the light blue button-down his mom had brought him. Instinctively, he reached his own up to meet it. “The guys are all really excited to see you. I think it’s going to help them a lot to know that you’re okay.”
Gary saw his mother walked towards the car; both men dropped their arms to their sides much more quickly than they both knew made them seem innocent.
“Are we ready to go, boys?” Ms. Bertier asked as she turned the key in the ignition. “I do believe you have a football game to get to.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Julius said, and she drove off towards the game.
Gary stayed on the bench for the whole game, always shielded by a few of his teammates in case a play went too far out of bounds. He cheered, and Coach Yoast even asked his advice a few times, as if he was taking pity at Gary’s current state. During half time, he’d even pulled him aside and told him that the team wouldn’t be here without Gary, that he wasn’t on the sidelines today because he lived in the spirit of each boy out on the football field.
No one had ever really said something like that, but when he’d repeated it to Julius a few minutes later, Julius just smiled at him with a warmth he’d never felt before.
“It’s true, you know,” Julius said. “Coach isn’t just trying to make you feel better. Just the fact you’re here is making us play better. It sure as hell is helping my head get into the game.”
“I kind of feel like I wasn’t supposed to play tonight, you know?” Gary said, motioning for Julius to sit next to him on the bench. “The way you guys are playing tonight. It’s like today I shouldn’t be in there.”
“You should be,” Julius insisted. “But you’re not. You’re here; that’s what’s important. You’re here with us. Nothing could keep you away from this.”
“Nothing would keep me from supporting you,” Gary said.
By the end of the game, it had turned into a blow-out. 27-0. Gary’s mother had told them she would leave on her own if Gary felt well enough to take the team bus back, and he wasn’t entirely sure if he was.
But he wasn’t going to miss this for the world.
The team headed up a set of stairs towards the buses as they left the locker room, but Gary and Julius went a little out of the way to avoid having to use any stairs. Gary wasn’t exactly proficient on his crutches yet. They walked in silence, the air between them thick despite the celebratory mood that they should have been in, and Gary couldn’t take another second of it.
“Are you okay?” Julius asked when he noticed Gary had stopped walking. “Do you need help?”
“No, I’m fine,” Gary said, locking eyes with Julius. Something had changed between them since the accident, and he wasn’t sure if he was right. Maybe his brain had been more messed up than anyone had realized. There was one way to be sure.
Before he knew it, he’d leaned forward, pressing his lips against Julius’s. It was tentative, it was awkward like a first kiss all over again, but something did catch his attention: Julius didn’t stop him.
Julius was carefully pulling him closer.
Pulling apart, they didn’t say a word. The breath Gary exhaled slowly as they broke apart seemed to linger between them forever, and as they both looked to each other, wondering what the other was thinking, they smiled.
This was their celebration. Gary knew nothing was wrong with him because Julius hadn’t hit his head, and he felt the same. This was them, this was real. This was even beyond surrogate brothers.
Smiles crept across their face, their hands meeting each other before Gary broke the embrace by moving towards his crutches.
Together, they walked towards the buses. Gary thought a lot in those few minutes, and he realized something.
He realized that some things had to happen.
This was one of them.