Henry’s breath clouded faintly before his face. Beneath his windbreaker and sweatshirt and thermal top, over his T-shirt, he was wearing his weighted vest. No snow yet, but the clouds sagged low, like an awning about to collapse. He switched from a walk to a trot and passed from the Small Quad to the Large. Here the buildings were bigger, especially the tinted-glass library and the chapel, which loomed at the north end. The stripped trees shivered in the wind. A single light shone from an upper-floor window of the VAC: Schwartzy’s office.
The stadium, a cavernous stone horseshoe with Roman arches, was built a century ago, and its size indicated some strange ambition. Even for the homecoming game, it was never more than a quarter full. Four mornings a week, Henry came here and charged up the deep, wide concrete steps that served as bleachers, down the shallower ones that served as stairs.
Inside the stadium’s near-enclosure, the silence smelled different. He didn’t bother to stretch—just bounced on his toes a few times, rocked back and forth, and charged up through the dark. The stone bleachers were knee-high and deep, and each step required a leap. A leap of faith, since it was so dark he could barely see the next one. The cold air shocked his lungs. The first time he ever did this, a few months after his arrival at Westish, he slipped and chipped a tooth on Section 3, then sank to the ground after Section 9, wishing he could puke, while Schwartz whispered unflattering remarks in his ear. That was when Schwartz still ran stadiums, the big guy surprisingly nimble. Before his knees got too bad.
Each step sent a frozen jolt up Henry’s spine. Step. Step. Step. What was Schwartz thinking, sending him out here at this hour, in this weather? He liked rising early but this was absurd, more night than morning, no flicker of dawn or stirring of birds to keep him company. Just black cold and those clouds pressing down. He’d hardly slept, worrying about Owen, replaying that throw in his head. Of course if Owen’d been watching the game instead of reading, it wouldn’t have happened, but that didn’t stop Henry from feeling responsible. Then, beyond what he’d done to Owen, there was the simple frustration of messing up in the field, something he hadn’t done in so long he’d forgotten that it was possible. Perfection was what he was after out there. At least those scouts had left before it happened.
After an interminable ascent, he reached the top row and slammed a gloved hand against the big aluminum 1 bolted to the back wall. He gave it a good whack, but the frigid atoms barely resounded at all. When he turned, he was standing atop a steep precipice that fell off into darkness. He kept his back against the wall as he edged, as quickly as his quivering legs would let him, toward the staircase between Sections 1 and 2. He could practically touch the rumpled quilt of cloud overhead.
He minced quickly down the stairs between sections—the descent, though easier on the legs, was the scary part—using his windbreaker sleeve to wipe his nose. His ears burned. At the bottom he turned and gave a little skip and duck, like a high jumper beginning the approach. “Come on!” he growled aloud in Schwartz’s voice, trying to rally himself as he shoved off and headed grimly back to the top, dragging one weary leg before the other, slamming a squeezed fist into the frozen metal 2.
Just do half, he told himself on the way down, shaking his limbs in a full-body shiver. Half a stadium, seventeen sections, and then home to a hot shower, so hot it’d feel cold on his numb skin, and some hot chocolate from Owen’s hot pot, and anything else that’s hot. And then burrowing back beneath the sheets, the warm hot sheets, until physics class, which was still five hours away.
But then around Section 5, his legs began to loosen, his lungs to unclench. Better thoughts flowed through his brain. He picked up the pace. The blood worked through his body, trapping warmth between the layers of his clothes. His feet landed more lightly on the stone.
First he took off his gloves and flung them aside. Two sections later, he grabbed his Cardinals cap in one hand so he could peel off his windbreaker with the other, jamming the cap back on as he tossed the windbreaker. It floated up, bloated by the wind, before settling on the steps. Heat radiated off Henry’s face. Salty snot ran down over his upper lip. A majestic fart propelled him to the top of Section 12, just at the springing of the stadium’s curve. He slapped the sign as if high-fiving a teammate. It gave back a game shudder. He was cruising now, darkness be damned, stripping off his sweatshirt and his long underwear top without breaking stride. He moved through the dark, glad of the dark, part of the dark. He was down to his vest and T-shirt, wielding his own heat. A warm pocket of dark in the large cold dark.