The Last Chance
"...Osman I was the founder of the Ottoman Empire, the Emperor is the largest species of penguin, the cosine of an obtuse triangle where x equals 4.3 and y equals...y equals...come on Johnson, you knew it all this morning; don't lose it now!"
With a low sigh, Brian Johnson thumped his head against his bedroom window. He'd been studying nonstop for the last two hours since he'd gotten home from school, but even that hadn't seemed nearly enough time for what he was about to undertake. Everyone was counting on him, and he wasn't sure he knew enough to deliver.
From downstairs came the sound he'd been waiting to hear, yet at the same time hoped he wouldn't have to hear; the grandfather clock in the den striking four thirty. Almost simultaneously, his door cracked open. "OK, it's time," his mother informed him.
"Right, be right down, Mom," Brian told her softly. He trudged slowly over to the mirror and straightened his tie, then fiddled with his shirt collar one last time. He stared at his reflection and tried to force himself to look confident. "You can do it, Johnson," he told his reflection, "You got this far, you can get to the top-I hope."
He took a deep breath and headed for his bedroom door. This was the moment he'd waited most of his life for, one he'd long thought would never actually come: the finals of the M.K. Simmons All Chicago Academic Competition, the be-all end-all high school contest of the entire Chicago metro area. Ever since his family had taken him to the finals of the event when he'd been eight, Brian had known he'd wanted to win it, to hoist the championship trophy aloft and know that he'd done it and had been the best. All through high school, he'd been on Shermer's teams, only to have them burn out in the first round for whatever reason. But this year had been different, and the team had managed to come together, and now they stood just one win away from Valhalla.
That was the good news. The bad news was, they'd have to win against mighty Lake Forest Central-the very definition of a dynasty. Nine years in a row, Lake Forest Central had carried off the crown, and pretty much all of those wins had been utter and complete blowouts. This year's edition, from Brian's own analysis watching them between Shermer High's matches, looked no less talented and deep. It was going to clearly be a challenge of epic proportions to topple them, and much as he wanted to feel confident, part of him still felt like the dream was impossible, that it was out of reach no matter how hard he'd try.
But they had to win somehow, he'd already long since vowed. Everyone was counting on him-not least of all his own family, who wanted the gold almost as much as he did-and he had a daily reminder of that coming down the stairs every day, much as he was now, for on the mantle, prominently displayed for anyone coming into the living room, were the pair of first place trophies his parents had won on the very last Shermer High team to win it all, twenty-six years ago. They had made it no secret over the years they wanted the family tradition to continue.
"And here comes the future conquering hero now," his father was clearly more than ready when he reached the hall, rubbing him on the shoulder emphatically, "Ready to bring the gold home to Shermer where it belongs, Brian?"
"Of, of course, Dad," Brian forced himself to nod more confidently than he actually felt.
"Give me a break," his sister abruptly snorted from the living room. While Mary had never gotten along well with Brian much of the time anyway, she'd been increasingly hostile all through the previous week as the competition had unfolded; the loss of attention almost certainly proving grating. "They don't stand a chance," she continued retorting, "No one can beat these guys, so why bother even showing up?"
"Now Mary, be charitable," her mother scolded her strongly, putting on her coat, "How would you feel if Brian told you your acting classes weren't worth taking? Get your coat on; we're just about ready to head on out."
"I don't see why I have to be dragged along to this," Mary continued complaining even as she complied with her mother's wishes. Brian tried to block her out as he hefted his own coat and followed his father outside. The sky overhead was a dark gray, matching the unseasonably cold weather for mid April. The news report last night had in fact predicted that there would be rain this evening that would eventually turn to snow. Brian hoped it would hold off until after the festival; given how the town had increasingly coalesced around the academic team the further it had gotten in the tournament, he wanted the possibility of a parade in case of a victory, much like Shermer High's athletic teams had always gotten when they'd won something big, to remain open. The visions of a parade flashed in his mind: yes, standing on a fire truck, waving at the crowds cheering at him...
"Brian, you awake?" his father tapped him on the shoulder.
"Oh, uh, yeah," he said quickly.
"Well try and concentrate; you need to be at full focus for this," Mr. Johnson told him gently but firmly. Brian couldn't mistake at all the firm, pleading look in his father's eyes, the one that he knew meant he had already assumed the final match was going to be won, and anything less very likely would not be satisfying to him or his wife. He took another deep, nervous breath; as expected, more expectations that had to be fulfilled at all costs...
He tried the best to suppress any anxiety, though, as he climbed into the backseat of the car. The drive to Shermer High took no more than ten minutes. Scores of people had already shown up to wish the team off as the Johnsons' car pulled into a space right in front of the building. "All right, good luck," Mrs. Johnson wished her son in parting as he climbed back out, "You can do it, we know you can."
"You're going to choke, I know it," Mary told him sarcastically in parting. Brian ignored her-he'd gotten in too much trouble in the past when he hadn't-and started trudging slowly over towards the blue Shermer High shuttle parked in the fire zone. He scanned the knots of people milling around other cars in the parking lot. Many faces he recognized, but most notably, he couldn't find four particular familiar faces, faces he'd been especially hoping he would see before the finals were over...
"Guess who!?" a pair of hands suddenly covered his eyes from behind. Brian sighed in resignation. "Thank you, Matt, I didn't really need that, but thank you," he said calmly.
"I can never fool you anymore, can I?" Matt Martelli removed his hands. He was decked out in a loud red suit that, along with his usual thick-rimmed glasses, all but screamed nerd, a trait Brian had been bent on getting himself away from for some time now. Despite his standard nerdy appearance, though, Matt always lived life a bit on the wild side-so much so Brian had a feeling people wouldn't have guessed Matt was a frequent Dean's Lister unless he'd told them. This was Matt's second year on the team, and although not a leading member of it, he'd carved out a reasonably good niche for himself in that time. "I take it you're in a good mood today then, Matt," he continued as the two of them continued the trek to the shuttle.
"And why shouldn't I be?" Matt took a deep dramatic pause before grandly proclaiming, as if the information concerned something exceptionally major, "Amy Yetter said yes. So, I'm locked in for the prom."
"Sure, with her and who else?" Brian had to point out. Ever since eighth grade, it had seemed like Matt had had a different girlfriend almost every month.
"Oh you misinterpret me, my friend; I'm completely monogamous; always have been," Matt said with mock indignation, "I'm glad, though, I ended up with her in the end; out of the remaining uncommitted girls of the senior class, she was the best option. Which reminds me, who are you taking?"
"Um," Brian lowered his head a bit, "Uh, Matt, I hate to break it to you, but I'm not going. Believe me, I want to, but, well, you know how it is with me...I'm just not..."
"You're just not the material for dating. Yes, I've heard that close to four hundred and seventy-nine times now," Matt seemed like he'd been expecting this, "You know, Brian, it's very simple; all you have to do is stop thinking that you're hopeless and give it a shot. And besides," he leaned close to his friend, "I know you're secretly glad it's Lake Forest Central we're facing, because SHE'S going to be there..."
"Matt, I told you, I'm not..."
"You can't fool me, pal; I see that look in your eye whenever you see her on that stage. I saw it when we watched their matches last year, and I remember how pretty you'd said she was all the way back in freshman year," Matt pressed him, "What are you so afraid of; just go and say..."
"Hold on," Brian held up his hand. The other members of the team were gesturing to them from in front of the shuttle. He quickly bustled over. This year's team had been very well assembled-so well assembled, in fact, that increasingly he was beginning to feel somewhat inferior to all of them, particularly after everything that had gone wrong over the last few weeks for him. Near the front of the shuttle and making the strongest gesturing was team captain Corey Jacobson-class president, salutatorian, and son of the long time Shermer High Simmons Competition moderator, who'd already locked down a highly valuable scholarship to UCLA. Like Brian, he'd been on the team all four years, and the two of them shared the drive to get to the top. Set to follow Corey out to the West Coast was his girlfriend, likely valedictorian and all-area basketball superstar Lori Troxell, who was right behind him with her arm around him. This was her third year on the team, and it had been a toss-up whether she or Corey would have been captain this year. For much of their time throughout the years, Brian had been neck and neck with her for the honor of having the highest grades in the class, but regrettably the poorly constructed shop lamp had pretty much completely destroyed any shot he had of having that honor now, he knew with a heavy heart. And standing off to the side, rocking nervously in place, was the only junior member of the team. But Josh Wainwright had more than earned it; easily top of his class, he'd burned through the qualifying rounds with ease; indeed, for a few days Brian had been scared stiff that he'd been bumped off the team on account of Josh doing so well...so scared, in fact, that it had been for this that he had begun looking around for a gun, even before his shop project had crashed and burned, feeling he'd be unable to live with himself if he failed to make the team for one last try. Somehow, as he stared at the three of them now, he could feel his soul shrinking. They had accomplished so, so much more than he had; they all deserved to be here. Did he really belong...?
"Brian, snap out of it!" Corey shouted in his ear, bringing him back to reality, "I want to get us all ready."
"Oh, uh, right," Brian shook his head quickly.
"Just trying to get in the zone, Corey," Matt put an arm around his friend, "Either that or he knows what the speech is and doesn't want to be bored stiff by it."
"Matt, seriously," Corey raised an irritated eyebrow at him. "Everyone together," he pulled the five of them close, "All right, this is the moment we've been waiting for, and all I have to say is..."
"It's time to get on the road," came the moderator's voice from behind them. Corey's father was bustling towards the shuttle with the driver. A graying man with thick rimmed glasses of his own, Mr. Jacobson had announced the previous year that this would be his last tournament, coinciding with his retirement from teaching. Brian had the deepest respect for Mr. Jacobson, a physics teacher for Shermer High for thirty-six years, and considered it an honor to have served under him on the team. "Everyone ready?" the group instructor asked his team, a mixed expression on his face that conveyed that he was both thrilled by the gravity of what they could accomplish and sad that this would be the last time he'd be doing this.
"I was just about to get everyone pumped up, Dad," Corey complained.
"We know; that's why he showed up just now," Matt cracked. Brian had to concur with his friend; Corey's inspirational speeches, while well-intentioned, had thus far during the tournament been long-winded and rambling.
"All aboard then," the driver opened the door to the shuttle as a few loud supportive claps rose up from the bystanders not far off. Brian slid into the middle seat and buckled up. He gave the crowd one last scan as the door swung shut and, moments later, the shuttle started driving off. No, he shook his head, no sign of them. Although, perhaps they had already gone to the convention center. Hopefully that was it...
There was a tap on his shoulder. "Are you sure you're all right?" Matt had an unusual amount of concern on his face.
"Yeah, Matt, I'm fine, really," Brian told him quickly.
"I'm not so sure," his friend shook his head, dead serious now, "I know that look; something's on your mind."
Brian sighed; no way out of it. "We've got to win this, Matt, we've just got to," he confessed.
"Well, if we do, we do, if we don't, we've done pretty good anyway," Matt wasn't as set on it, "Why do we have to win it in your mind?"
"For one thing, for Mr. Jacobson," Brian gestured at their instructor in the front passenger seat, "He needs to go out a winner; after all these years he deserves that much. Plus," his head sank, "I need to do this for my parents. This is my last chance to show them I'm good enough..."
"Oh Brian, please don't start that again," Matt looked somewhat panicked now, "When you start talking like that..."
"You know as much as I do, Matt, they've lost faith in me after I blew the shop project," Brian told him, loudly at first, then softer at mid-sentence, not wanting anyone else to know how he was thinking, "With graduation two months away, this is my last chance to restore their trust now that valedictorian is out of the question," he gestured at Lori, with her arm around Corey in the seat in front of them, "If we fail tonight, it's gone for good, and I might have no choice but to..."
With a flourish, Matt reached into his friend's pockets and started digging around. "Matt, Matt, come on, I don't have the gun!" Brian protested at him, "I don't have the gun; Mr. Vernon took it off me after he found it; it's safely locked up somewhere, and I don't have a knife or poison or anything like that either, all right!?"
Matt merely took a deep nervous breath when he was satisfied Brian had no weapons on himself. "All right," he looked his friend right in the eye, "But promise me, please promise me, if we don't win, you won't try anything, please!? You scared me stiff when I heard what had happened with that gun; please don't go through this again. Promise!?"
"Sure, sure, promise," Brian said quickly. He glanced at the streets of Shermer streaming by out the window, praying he wouldn't have to go back on his word...
A half hour trip down Interstate 94 brought them into downtown Chicago, where it pulled up alongside the Chicago Convention Center. The audience was already streaming into the building in force, clearly bent on getting out of the rain now beginning to fall. Brian scanned the crowds. Still no sign of them. He was starting to wonder if they'd even bother...
"Who are you looking for, Brian?" a puzzled Lori looked over his shoulder, frowning.
"Uh, just some people I invited," he said quickly, not quite sure his team would understand the arrangements he'd made a few weeks ago.
"Strange, I thought everyone we knew had already said they'd be coming," she mused. Shrugging, she bustled after Corey as the group headed for the side entrance. Brian took one last look back. Nothing. Shaking his head, he rushed up to Josh, trailing behind the others. "Nervous?" he asked the junior. Josh nodded, looking very much so. "Good, we at least going into this cohesively," Brian told him, wishing there was some way he could quell the nervous throes in his chest. The group went inside the side entrance and weaved past several building staff members into a side room along the hallway to the stage. "All right," Corey said loudly, gesturing everyone close again, "As I was going to say back in Shermer..."
The door swung open again behind them. "Ah, Mr. Vernon, good of you to make it," Mr. Jacobson greeted the district superintendent-the last person Brian really wanted to see in person at the moment.
"You're five minutes late, Tom," Vernon grumbled to the team instructor, shaking the rain off his hat and trench coat.
"Traffic was heavy, Richard, and it is rush hour," Mr. Jacobson told him calmly.
"Whatever," Vernon shrugged him off. "All right, lady and gentlemen," he said firmly, pacing in front of the five team members like a drill sergeant, "Not bad making it this far. Now I hope you have enough left in the tank to finish the job. I don't need to tell you how big this match is for Shermer High; I checked before I came back here, and it suffices to say half the town's shown up to watch you. So if you blow this match," he glared them down sternly, "Not only are you letting the school down, and not only are you letting me down, you'll be letting the entire community down."
"Uh, Richard, I don't think that's going to encourage them that much," Mr. Jacobson tried to intercede, looking a bit uncomfortable at the way Vernon's "pep talk" was headed.
"I'm calling it as I see it, Tom," Vernon essentially shrugged him off. "So," he turned back to his school's academic representatives, "I expect a hundred and ten percent or more from each of you until the match is over. I expect nothing less from anyone who can get this far. All right, go to work."
"You heard him, guys, it's show time," Corey gestured the others closer. They all clasped their hands together in a circle. "One, two, three..."
"BULLDOG PRIDE!" the five of them shouted in varying degrees of enthusiasm. They headed for the door...
"I'd like a word with you in private before you go out there, Johnson," Vernon unexpectedly stepped into Brian's path as the others filed out into the hall and held up his hand. He was frowning deeply, an expression that made Brian a bit apprehensive of what he might have to say. For years after entering high school, he had heard horror stories about Vernon's detentions, which he had run for years as a teacher and had successfully lobbied to continue running after his promotion to district superintendent a few years back. And while he'd found firsthand a few weeks back the worst stories had been exaggerated, there had been no denying Vernon had run a tight ship and felt anyone who landed with him on Saturdays was definitely a step below everyone who didn't. The look Vernon was giving him now was tinged with more than a little disrespect, bordering, he thought, on a small degree of outright contempt. "I'll be perfectly frank, Johnson: I don't think you really should be out there," Vernon told him sternly, "After you so blatantly violated the school's weapons code recently, I pushed Mr. Jacobson to take you off the roster. You should count yourself extremely lucky that he believes in you enough to want to keep you on, but I'm telling you right now, consider yourself on this team under my protest. I don't want a loose mental cannon like you possibly screwing up what could be the crowning moment of this school's academic system, so DO NOT embarrass me in any way, shape, or form tonight. Understood?"
"V-Very clearly, Mr. Vernon," Brian nodded quickly, eager to just get on stage and get the butterflies out of his stomach.
"I'll be watching," was Vernon's parting words, "Get going," he jerked a finger towards the stairs, a deep scowl welded to his face. Brian took a deep, worried breath, and galloped after his teammates. So many, many people to please; was it possible to please all of them? He could if they just won...