Friday, June 27, 2008

Tar Heel Dead

I'm a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred,
And when I die, I'll be Tar Heel dead.
- William Starr Meyers, Hark the Soun
Up until last week there were two things he'd never done.
He'd never killed anyone, no matter how hungry he was.
He'd never missed a home game, not one in all of ninety-six years. Not even if they were during the day, no matter how difficult it was to get there.

Now there was only one thing he'd never done and Nat was darned if he was going to leave in the middle of the final regular season game just because some vampire hunter was on his case.

The crowd roared and all around him people jumped to their feet as the leading freshman player, Mark Guntry, slammed a one-handed dunk into the basket. Or so the coliseum announcer on the loud speakers informed him. Nat had been too busy looking over his shoulder for the hunter and he'd missed it. Darn it all to heck. He looked back at the court, but it was a media time-out and the cheerleaders and dance team had swarmed the floor. "Give me a 'C'" they yelled and the crowd responded.

He'd known better than to lose his temper. He'd kept it tight for all ninety-six years of his current existence. But man, oh man, to dress in rival colors, to paint your face that particular hated shade of red, and then to sit in the very middle of the home team's bleachers and talk trash. Now that was asking for it, Nat figured. He'd kept his cool through the talking. He'd kept it even when the State fan had booed during Cathedral Mount's foul shots. But when the asshole had applauded as one of Cathedral's injured player was carried off the field, yelling, "Good job! Hope it's broken! Hope you're through playing for the rest of the season," well, that was when he'd flipped. And Cathedral lost, which only made the guy even more unbearable.

Following the guy outside had been easy. Watching him run from the crowd threatening to beat him up had been fun. He'd stalked him straight down Franklin Street in the middle of the post-basketball crowd, through the main quad of campus, and waited until the gates of the Arboretum. The Carolina night tasted like disappointment and the early blooms of dogwood trees.

State fan tasted delicious! If he'd thought about it clearly, which Nat hadn't, he'd have just done him like usual. Take a taste, let the magic cloud his mind, and leave him in the woods with his pants down, wondering what he'd drunk the night before. But even when the guy was down with a skinny, gawky, former-basketball playing vampire on his chest, he'd still had to get his word in. "I bet you're a faggot just like your team," he'd said. The world had flared blood red around Nat and that had been it. There wasn't even time for him to hide the body for later disposal--traveling party of coeds still gleeful from the game and looking for a place to party had caught up to him.

Coach had always told him his temper would get the best of him, and look, Coach was finally right. Well, now he was right twice.
The first time he'd lost his temper, he'd ended up a vampire. Now he was going to end up dead if he wasn't fast.

"Thou shalt not kill." The hoarse whisper came right from behind him and Nat immediately fled to the other side of the coliseum in a blur of motion.

Where was he? Whoa, stop making gender-based assumptions, Nat sternly told himself. This is a different era, and you can't let how you were raised blind you to new dangers. He mentally corrected and reset. Where was she? Or maybe there were many hunters. He let his eyes drift over the crowd in the cheap seats with him, high up at the top of the giant curve of the stadium, with the multitude of winning banners hanging just above them. From here, the basketball players were tiny toy figures scrambling up and down the court in their uniforms of light blue and dark blue.

"Get it, get it, get it!" Nat yelled, finding himself on his feet screaming with the rest of the crowd as a loose basketball hit the floor.

The man behind him shrieked at the top of his lungs, "Are you blind, ref? Do you need glasses?" The crowd booed at the ref as a Cathedral player shrugged and jogged back to the bench where a weary coach started lecturing him. Even from way up here Nat could see Coach's red face.

Ah man, the score was tied. The other team was evil incarnate, Nat thought. Even though he'd met some evil things, when anyone played against his team they might as well play for Hell itself. Of course, some of the kids down there might very well one day. One opposing player in particular looked like he'd sold his soul for a good three-point shot. Nat could see the grimy aura coming off him even at his distance. It was one of the things he'd gained when he'd become a vampire. The ability to see auras, the ability to move swiftly. Those were nice advantages, but it still didn't make up for never seeing blue sky again.

How had they found him? And why now, with only one minute, 37 seconds left of regular play in the biggest game of the year, were they coming for him? He knew the answer to the question. He'd killed, for the first time in either of his lives, and boy, did he regret it.

He knew at least one of them was here by the trickle of sweat forming at the back of his neck, the constant urge to look over his shoulder. He wouldn't leave the game, that was for sure. Not that he could - it would still be daylight for another half an hour. As usual, he'd snuck in the coliseum the night before, easily scaling the walls and coming in through a roof vent, like he usually did when there was a day game.

It had been harder at the old cramped gym. The smell of socks and sweat embedded in the floorboards, the way the place bounced with the students hopping up and down, the shivering the old building made when the home team won. The way his teammates, short things all of them compared to the players of today, worked together. He missed the scramble for the ball and the coach yelling and the drills and sneaking cigarettes and beer into the Forest Grove parking lot.

He liked this new coliseum, though it was more palace than basketball court, but he still missed the old one. He missed playing basketball. He missed a lot of things, though it was easier to feed these days. Frat parties and bonfires on the quad provided perfect feasting opportunities. And there were girls on campus now!

He switched seats again, moving as fast as lightening through the crowd to the other side, directly above his team's basket. He held his breath while Lucas Ford made both his foul shots. Well, he would have held his breath, if he'd had any to hold. Back when he was playing on the first Cathedral Mount team of 1910 he'd done that and the ritual had stuck through all these years.

Of course, he'd only added more layers of rituals as the years progressed. Crossing his fingers. Tapping five times on his thigh every opposing free throw.

Up by two now. He jumped to his feet again as a Cathedral player intercepted a poorly thrown pass and raced down the court and dropped the basketball off to his following teammate. Slam! "Yes! Whoooo!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Ah shoot, there was the tingle again. Couldn't they leave him alone? Jeez, he made one little mistake in all this time. Course, those were the rules. He snorted. Rules, just like basketball rules. Wasn't there some cosmic referee who could make the hunters look the other way, just this once? Just like the zebra down below had looked the other way for a flagrant push? Still, he'd killed someone. He hadn't really meant to--hadn't been thinking clearly through the red of his temper, but dead was dead. At least until that guy rose again sometime tonight.

"Ten, nine, eight," the crowd chanted as a Cathedral player dribbled the ball way outside the three-point arc. "What the hell are you waiting for!" Nat shouted. Variations of what he said came from all sides. Darn it. Shot clock violation. The ball switched possession and evil incarnate took it rapidly down court.
"Guard him, you moron!"
Unfortunately, his player didn't listen. The grimy aura player stopped just past the half point, looked, dribbled, and tossed the basket up.

Darn it. They were up by one.

The tingle grew into an electric shock running down his back, just like the vampire who'd made him warned him it would.
"Don't kill," he'd said, before he walked into the sunlight. "They'll come after you if you do."
"Who will?" Nat had asked, still shocked from the events of the night.

"You'll feel them," the vamp had said, ignoring his question like he had every other that dark night, the beginning of only dark nights.
Well, he'd been right. Nat could feel them, him, or her now.

Nat still regretted having lost his temper that night long ago, but it had just about devastated him when Cathedral lost the game. And then a vampire had gone and killed him for talking trash about the opposing team.

"No, no, no!" The Cathedral player missed his second free throw. "You gotta make those! Free points!" The player shook his head. Nat knew how he felt. He himself had missed a couple of important baskets in his time and it always had left him feeling furious with himself.

Dag nab it, the score was tied again with only thirty seconds left in regular time. As the buzzing increased he made to move again. He could see an empty seat down in the lower level. Criminal that someone had not only not shown up for this game against their arch rival, but hadn't even given the ticket to someone who could appreciate it.

"Don't move," the voice behind him said, just as he started up from his seat.

Nat could feel the point of the sharp wooden stake at the center of his back and he stiffened.

"You broke the rules," she said.

He risked a glance over his shoulder. The hunter looked just like a student--perhaps she was. Dressed in team colors with a foot painted on her face, hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was the epitome of the Cathedral Mount University girl.

He shrugged. Thank goodness it was a time-out, and a full media one. He had a couple of minutes before the game resumed. "I know," he said. "I don't suppose it will help if I say I didn't really mean to." Of course he hadn't meant to--the last thing he wanted was an immortal State fan. Any more than he supposed the vampire who made him had wanted an immortal Cathedral fan.

"You broke the rules and the punishment is death," she continued as if she hadn't heard him at all. He risked another glance at her. The hunter's face was set. "We can't have vampires killing people. Every person you take rises from the dead. If we didn't keep you in check you'd spread across the earth like a virus on humanity. But still, you were human, and for that we let you live as long as you obey the rule. Thou shalt not kill."

He groaned to himself. It didn't sound like there was any way she was going to let him go, but he had to try.

"Look. I don't suppose there's any way you can forgive me." He twisted around to look her in the eyes and the stake pressed harder into his back, the thick muscles of her arm flexing underneath her sleeve. She was certainly built, he thought. Women in his time had never looked like that. "I didn't think so," he said as her expression remained flat. Well, he couldn't forgive himself either. "Look then, at least let me finish the game," he begged. "I haven't missed one. Ever. Not one home game. I used to be on the team, did you know that?"

She shook her head.

"Yeah, I was on the first team. 1910. Woody Cartmell was our coach. Man, he had a temper." He shook his head with recollections of Coach's snits. And a gambling problem too, he thought, but didn't say. There was no need for him to bring up old dirt.

"Really," she said and for a moment he saw her face light up. "That's pretty cool." The pressure in his back eased slightly. "So you went to school here?

"Yes ma'am," he said. He couldn't help it, he was raised to be polite and in times of stress he still was.

"I haven't missed a game this year," she said. "Did you get to see...?" She stopped herself. "Of course you did. The 1987 season finale. Wow, it must have been something to be here. When the students swarmed the court. I watched it on TV."

"It was," he said. He gave her a smile. Enemies they might be, but at least she was a fan. It counted for a lot in his book. He wished he could kill her, but knew he couldn't. She didn't deserve to die, he did.

Goodness, he wanted them to win this game. He said it every game, but it was always true. "It'd sure be something if we win today, wouldn't it? Can you believe this team?"

She shook her head. "I know, I know. No one expected them to win this season, all these freshman."

The game had restarted while they talked and they both turned their attention back to the court.

"Aw, come on ref! Call the charge!" He screamed. He'd leapt to his feet without realizing it and was glad to see she'd done the same, although the spike was still firmly against his back. Was there time for him to do his fast move to the other side again? He must have tensed in anticipation, because the stake pressed harder.

"No way," she said. "Try it again and I'll do you here and to hell with the crowd. I'm sick of following you all over this place. I want to watch the end of the game. If you stay still I'll let you live to the end."

Nat thought about it for only a moment. He'd never heard of a hunter not succeeding eventually. And he really wanted to watch this game, so he nodded agreement.

Another time-out--this one taken by the opposing team. Again, it was going to be a full one. As Nat reckoned, his team still had one full time-out and one thirty second one left. It still amazed him how long thirty seconds of basketball time were translated into real time.

Game play resumed, the Cathedral players tossing in the inbounds pass and streaking down towards their basket. The point guard, another freshman, expertly dropped the ball behind him to the one senior on the team, David Carol. David stopped and without dribbling threw up the three-point shot.

Swish. A perfect basket if ever there was one. The coliseum vibrated with the happy roar of the crowd. Up by three with twenty-five seconds to go. Shot clock was off.

Twenty-five seconds of life, such as it was, left for Nat to live. He'd resigned himself to the fact of his death. Didn't see any way he could really escape, not without killing her, and he couldn't, just couldn't do that. She didn't deserve it. And he was over it all, anyways. He was sick of drinking blood, he was sick of night. The only thing he had left was basketball--the only time he felt himself was during the season. The rest of the time he was one with the darkness, skulking in the corners, exiled from human contact and life.
The ref's whistle blew.

"Oh my god," Nat groaned, along with the other twenty thousand people at the game, and countless others watching it on televisions across the nation. A stupid freshman foul and on a three-point attempt. Coach was shaking his head by the bench and the freshman in question looked like he'd been hit over the head.

"Maybe he won't make them," the hunter said behind him. Prayer and hope rang in her voice and Nat crossed his fingers.

The crowd shouted in an attempt to distract the player. Swish. It hadn't worked.
They tried again. This time the ball bounced off the backboard and rattled around the rim, the sound clearly audible in the quiet as everyone tried to will the basketball out.

"Oh, I can't stand this," she groaned behind him. The stake was still firmly jabbed at his back and it made his shoulder blades itch.
Swish. Game tied once again.

Time-out Cathedral. The players regrouped around Coach and he could feel the hunter take a deep breath.
"You hold your breath too?" he asked.
"I don't know why," she said. "It's like maybe I can influence them. Change events."
"I know the feeling," Nat said.
The thirty second time-out was quickly up and the team re-entered the court, inbounding swiftly and dribbling past the half-court. Nat knew the other team would want to foul them and he found himself crossing his fingers.

The ref didn't call the first foul and the seconds ticked away. The crowd chanted in time with the clock, "Ten, nine, eight."

"Oh, I can't watch," she said. "This is killing me."
"Seven, six."
Mark Guntry grabbed a sloppy pass out of the air and looked for some help from his teammates. Finding none, he tried to dribble his way out of the trap, backing away even further from the basket. Somehow, he twisted free, dribbled three steps and let the ball fly with two seconds left. The buzzer sounded while it was in the air and the coliseum was deathly quiet as the ball flew through the air.

Swish. A perfect three-pointer. Game over, Cathedral had won!
The crowd roared its approval and Nat relaxed for a second. He knew now what he wanted to do, how to atone for his guilt.

He let out a yell with the rest of the crowd, startling the hunter behind him with the volume so she stepped back. Not much, but enough. He flew through the air, not caring if anyone saw him, figuring no one would be looking up at this point, but looking down at the students swarmed the court. Cathedral had won the last regular game of the season, at home, and on senior day, against their arch-rival. As far as perfect days go, it didn't get much better than this, but there was one more thing he wanted.

Nat's last glimpse before he hit the air vent was one of ecstatic faces, his last sound the roar of the crowd's victory. Then he was out into the light for the first time in ninety-six years. His last thought before he exploded into the brilliance and let go of his guilt, was "Thank god, the sky is still Carolina blue."

Tar Heel Dead
by Calie Voorhis

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