Chapter 9 - Winners and Losers

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The excitement of Johnny’s eleventh birthday was still fresh in his mind as he headed back to school on Monday morning.

It wasn’t until fourth period math that class bullies Tim and Stan Maguire started in on Johnny with their first harassment of the day. As the students were settling in for the class to start, Tim quickly grabbed a measuring ruler out of his bag and smacked Johnny from behind, right in the spot on his neck that was still tender from the last smacking a week earlier. The brothers laughed loudly as Johnny squirmed around in his seat and raised his hands to fend off any potential follow-up blow. By the time the teacher entered the room, Tim and Stan had slipped innocently into their seats.

As the teacher began sketching out a math problem on the chalkboard, Johnny quickly lost track of the lesson and gazed at Sabrina Santana sitting three rows in front of him. Under his desktop, he clutched the Captain Justice comic she had given him at his birthday party. Sabrina took notes diligently as the teacher continued to explain the formulas on the chalkboard. Johnny knew how proud her father was of her studies.

“You’re always studying so hard,” Johnny told her once in amazement. “Every day you bring home all your books in your backpack. I never bring any home.”

“I want to get straight A’s,” she had explained. “That way I can get a scholarship and go to college. I want to be a doctor because then I can help people. Don’t you have something you really want to do, Johnny?”

“Yeah, I do. I want to be a hero.”

Sabrina had laughed, flashing the perfect teeth that made her smile so pretty. “You still on that? Like Superman, right, or Captain Justice? You’re funny, Johnny. I can never tell if you are serious or making a joke.”

Johnny remembered this conversation as he watched Sabrina. Now that they were older, his feeling about her had changed. There was something different from the simple friendship he felt when they were younger, something that made his heart flutter and his face flush.

Johnny tried not to think about it. He read the Captain Justice comic for the remainder of the class.

“What do you have there, Johnny?” a voice called out after the recess bell. Tim and Stan hovered over Johnny’s desk while the other kids shuffled out of the room. The twin brothers’ features mirrored each other. They stared down with sets of piercing blue eyes, ready to mock anything Johnny might do or say.

Tim waited another beat and then snatched the comic book away from Johnny.

“You can’t take that!” Johnny cried.

“Why not?” Tim’s eyes widened with delight. “What are you going to do?”

The two brothers edged closer to Johnny, their fists clenched and ready for confrontation. Johnny’s eyes burned and his breathing was heavy. For a second, he thought he would strike them, but his body froze.

“He’s not going to do anything,” Stan said.

“Thanks for the comic book, Johnny,” Tim added with a chuckle.

Then the brothers walked away. Johnny watched them leave and felt profound frustration with himself, his inability to fight back, his inability to be the hero that he imagined in his mind.

He thought again about the gun in his grandmother’s dresser and Millie’s story about the robbers in the supermarket. Millie said that Grandma Stella had fear just like everyone else. But when push came to shove, her anger grew bigger than her fear. Johnny promised himself that one day his anger would grow bigger than his fear.

After school ended, Johnny walked out to the soccer field and waited on the sidelines for the game to start. It was a match between the Santa Ramona Dragons and Moreno Valley Tigers, a rival team from a junior high school in a nearby city. The bleachers were packed and folding chairs surrounded the field.

Johnny saw Sabrina run onto the field from the locker room, ahead of the other players. She wore the blue team uniform with "Dragons" in bright gold letters across the front, still carrying her book bag slung over one shoulder. Her black cleated shoes were laced tightly, and blue-and-gold tube socks stretched over her shin guards.

“Johnny, you made it!” She smiled, jogging up beside him. The other girls on the team filed out into the field, paying him no notice. He felt that Sabrina’s peers must wonder why she would bother to stop and talk to him, a boy who wasn’t popular and had no special standing of any kind at school.

“Of course I made it. You didn’t think I’d forget, did you? You didn’t forget my birthday.”

“I hope you liked my present,” Sabrina said.

“It’s great. I can’t wait to read it.” Johnny swallowed nervously. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that the Maguire twins had already snatched Captain Justice away from him.

Sabrina’s fellow teammates were moving into position. She asked Johnny to hold her bag and then trotted out to the center of the field for the opening kickoff.

Within seconds after the referee’s whistle marked the start of the game, Sabrina took control of the ball and charged up the field to score the first goal. The crowds cheered from the sidelines and Johnny pumped his fist in the air.

After establishing this early lead, both teams struggled in a deadlock for a long while, each side unable to land a shot past the opposing goalkeeper. Finally, after fifteen minutes of a stalemate, Sabrina appeared poised to score again, receiving a pass from a Santa Ramona fullback and racing up past midfield. She dribbled the ball around several members of the Tiger defense until there was no one in her way except the Moreno Valley goalie. Sabrina dashed toward the goal in a straight line, looking ready to challenge the goalie head-on with a direct shot at close range.

Then suddenly Sabrina stumbled, falling to the ground for no obvious reason. The ball rolled away and the crowd let out a collective cry of concern. The referee whistled for play to stop while Sabrina tried unsuccessfully to get up off the ground. She was wheezing and clutching her chest with one hand. A circle of players and both coaches formed around her.

Johnny had seen this happen to Sabrina once many years before. He remembered her father telling Stella about the special condition that gave her trouble breathing, and how it was kept in check through medication.

Johnny scrambled over to Sabrina’s backpack and unzipped it. Searching inside, he found a side compartment that held her asthma medicine and inhaler.

Johnny grabbed the breathing device and ran across the soccer field. He pushed frantically through the circle of bodies to the center and handed it to Sabrina, who was sitting on the ground.

She sucked the mouthpiece and depressed the canister to release the dose of aerosolized medicine inside. After inhaling, she held her breath for ten seconds while her lungs absorbed it. She then exhaled and gently rose to her knees. After her breathing returned to normal, Sabrina walked slowly off the field, assisted by the coach and followed by several teachers and teammates. Still coming out of a daze, she turned and her eyes connected with Johnny’s.

“Thank you so much, Johnny.”

The crowd pushed Johnny to the side, but he had a smile on his face for the rest of the day. He had found a way to help his friend. He had found a way to be a hero.

Copyright 2013 Dmitri Ragano

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