The locker room is always tense before a game. Alisa is trying to get her uniform to stay in place, counting more on safety pins and prayer than she probably should, and Birdie—true to her name—keeps whistling, which is probably going to get her slapped if she doesn’t stop soon. Cram twenty girls from opposing squads into one small space and tensions are going to flare.
“Has anybody seen my nail file?”
“Where’s my hair tie?”
“Birdie, shut up.”
The October air smells like bonfires and promises, and it’s always October for this game, for the big game. October is Homecoming season. This is when promises are made and pledges are broken, and the boys of fall walk proudly into legend with their short-skirted heralds singing their praises every step of the way. The girls of fall, too, when they choose to take the field.
“Does this top make my breasts look big?”
“Did somebody take my blue mascara?”
“Birdie, shut up.”
There are locker rooms for the football players, of course: empty, echoing gray rooms lined with lockers and the memories of hot October nights that have no end. The world makes the mistake of thinking that every night happens only once, but no two people live through the same hour, the same evening, the same season. Every trial and triumph is unique, even when it’s shared—maybe especially when it’s shared, because then there are other mirrors for the moment to reflect against. Every night is infinite.
“How are my tights?”
“Tilly, will you come braid my hair?”
“Shut up, Birdie!”
Bit by bit, the preparations are completed: faces are painted, hair is styled, and squad divisions become clear as crystal, written proudly across the front of uniforms and detailed in the color of fabrics, cosmetics, ribbons tied to ponytails or braids. The Falcons, in blue and gold, and the Ravens, in red and rust. There is the much-scolded Birdie in Falcon blue, with gold glitter clinging to her cheeks like stardust. There is Alisa in Raven red, wearing a skirt that should have been retired two seasons ago. They line up like warriors preparing to take the battlefield, each facing another across the locker room. Bit by bit, the chatter and arguments die. Even Birdie’s whistle comes to a temporary end.
The team captains step forward, Elle in blue, Rona in red. Elle is the first to hold out her hand. Rona hesitates, takes it, shakes.
“Let’s have a good clean game tonight,” says Elle. “There’s no home team advantage.”
“That’s because every team is the home team here,” says Rona, and smiles, dropping Elle’s hand as she turns to her squad. “Gimme an ‘R’!”
“R!” scream the Ravens, and the Falcons are doing the same with their own name, and the locker room devolves into an almost primal storm of shrieking female voices. This, too, is part of the ritual; this, too, is the herald of the endless October night.
The game is about to begin.
There is no sign of primal fury in the twenty girls who slip from the locker room onto the darkened gridiron. They walk with calm precision, ten and ten, taking their places in front of the empty stands. Elle raises her hands, looking to Rona across the empty field. Rona mirrors the gesture. The captains nod in brief unison. Two sets of hands are clapped, and the age-old cry to battle echoes through the night:
“Ready? Let’s go!”
The stadium lights flash dazzlingly on, and the sound of thunder is close behind as the crowds in the stands—who were not there a moment ago, who have always been there, who will always be there when the October lights are lit—leap to their feet, stomping and clapping and howling for the boys of fall, the heroes of the night. Here they come now, twenty-two players in blank white uniforms pouring out of the locker room doors and onto the green, the sacred, moonlit green. They pump their fists in the air, and the cheerleaders are shouting encouragement, and vendors are selling popcorn in the stands, and oh, this is the night. This is the time they have been waiting for since they were born.
This is the night when they are heroes.
It doesn’t seem to matter that none of them are in team colors, because they fall into position all the same, without jockeying or argument. The crowd settles, and the cheerleaders lower their pom-poms, falling back to the flats of their feet as they wait for the game to begin. There is no need for a coin toss, customary as it would have been: The teams have not yet been truly decided.
The whistle blows to signal start of play. Here’s the snap, the quarterback drops back to pass, and he connects! The ball flies straight and true to the tight end in a throw that would be the stuff of high school legend on another field, on another night, in the arms of another October. The tight end turns, and he runs as hard as he can for the goal, clutching the ball in his arms like a promise. The people in the stands are screaming their heads off, and it’s all about the game, it’s all about the moment, it’s all about this sweet harvest night with the full moon overhead and the scent of bonfires on the breeze. It’s about this, and only this. There has never been anything else—
—his name is Daniel Ryan, Specialist, United States Army, and he was never supposed to be here. He enlisted because he needed a way to pay for college, and the man at the recruitment center swore that there would never be another war fought this way, with men on the ground. He’s tired; he’s so tired. Tired of fighting, tired of knowing that he’s in a place he was never meant to be. Tired of being an invader in a land that doesn’t want him there. But he’s fighting for his country, and he knows it would be unpatriotic to admit to his exhaustion. So he keeps going, long past the time when he just wants to lay down and sleep for a week. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t realize something is wrong, doesn’t sense the danger in the silence until the convoy rolls over the IEDs buried in the road, and everything goes white, and there’s nothing, nothing, nothing at all, until—
—he’s running hard across the green field, moving fast in his white uniform, his feet turning distance into memories. By the time the defensive backs pile into him, he’s halfway to the goal line, and the ball rolls away, forgotten, as he smiles up at the stars. He stands in blue and gold, Falcon colors, his name and number printed bold across the back of his jersey, and the crowds go wild once more.
“DANIEL RYAN, HE’S OUR MAN!” shout the Falcon cheerleaders, and if anyone thinks it’s strange for them to be cheering after the tackle, nothing is said. Across the field, the Raven cheerleaders fluff their pom-poms and glare.
No one likes to give ground first.
The teams take up their positions for the second play, and the ball is snapped once more, the sound like a prayer in the cool night air. The cheerleaders on both sides of the field shout and clap and leap, their pom-poms waving wildly, and the running back has the ball and he’s running, he’s running, he’s running like that’s all he’s ever wanted to do—
—the call comes in while he’s on the road back to the station, ready to finish off another shift. Armed robbery in progress, hostages involved. He responds without hesitation, hitting the gas and rocketing back the way he came. This is his job. This is why he joined the police force, fresh out of college and pursuing a better future for himself, for the city that he loves. It hasn’t been easy. Nothing good is ever easy. He’s had his regrets—regrets are only human—but he’s never been sorry that he chose this life, and he isn’t sorry even as the robbers open fire. Officer Tony Woodrow falls. The ground seems to reach up to catch him, and if he regrets anything at all, it’s that the fight will be going on without him—
Rust and red bloom across his white uniform as he laterals the ball to a wide receiver, and the Raven cheerleaders scream triumphantly, their voices cutting through the night like the caws of carrion birds. It’s a rare play, but all their joy seems to be reserved for the man who made it. Woodrow goes down under a hail of white-uniformed bodies, but the ball is still in motion, the wide receiver is running, running, and everything could change in an instant—
—the fire is threatening to take out an entire city block, and they keep going into the inferno, one fireman after another collapsing from heat, from exhaustion, from smoke inhalation. They have to keep trying, or so many more will die, and she’s so tired, but that doesn’t matter; when Nadine Wallace joined the fire department, she did it with the understanding that she’d be fighting right up until the moment when the fire took her down. Then a window blows and the flames reach out like greedy hands, and the last thing she has time to think is that she knew it was going to end this way; she knew that she was going to die fighting. Now, finally, she has the chance to rest—
The blue and gold-uniformed figure of Nadine Wallace, wide receiver, changes directions like she was intending to do so all along, running back toward the Raven goal. None of the figures on the field seem to find this strange. The white continue to scramble, while the lone red uniform redirects to intercept her. Still Nadine runs, a perfect silhouette against the night, and the people in the stands go wild.
Two Raven cheerleaders turn to each other, using the sound of screaming to cover their voices. “Remember when women never made it onto the field?”
“Times change, Alisa, jeez.” The other cheerleader snaps her gum, eyes glinting red in the gleam from the floodlights. “We’re co-ed now.”
“Chill, Kerry,” says Alisa, and thrusts her pom-pom into the air, whooping encouragement for their team.
The players keep running. The cheerleaders keep cheering. The sweet October night goes on.
Halftime finds six players in blue and gold, seven in red and rust, with nine as yet undecided. Not that the decision is a conscious thing; not that the teams will necessarily be equal when the night is done. Some games end with all twenty-two players on the same team. It all depends on their circumstances, on what they want all the way down to the bottoms of their souls.
As the cheerleaders group like strange, colorful birds around the edges of the field, watching the marching band go through its paces, a figure in glittering silver and green runs out of the locker room, pulling one of the remaining white uniformed players from the huddle. The man looks confused as he is led away, passing his substitute. The new player is led by a silver-and-green figure of her own.
“Are substitutions at this stage legal?” asks Rona.
“Technically,” says Elle. The team captains are standing together, with no signs of animosity between them. It would be a waste of energy, and they have little to spare at this point in the evening. The teams are so close to evenly divided; it’s still anybody’s game. “I wonder who made the error by sending him here.”
“Medical technology keeps improving. It may not have been an error at all.”
“Even so,” says Elle. She picks up her pom-poms, shaking them experimentally. A single black feather falls out. “I wonder if he’ll get another chance.” Unspoken are the rules of this field, of this game, of this endless October where every night is played a thousand times over again: Only warriors come here, earning their place on the team by dying a warrior’s death. A substitution at this stage in the game may mean the player who was removed (Albert Li, United States Marine Corps) may not be coming back for another chance at the trophy.
The marching band is finishing their final song, and the cheerleaders flock forward while the crowd is still applauding, taking up their places for the halftime show. Oh, this is part of the ritual, and oh, they almost seem to soar as they throw themselves into the leaps and backflips, and oh, they have been here before so many times, and oh. October never ends if the game is never truly finished.
Elle and Rona stand atop their respective pyramids and clap their hands, and the cheerleaders shout defiance into the blackness of the night, and the game—the game that never ends—goes wildly on.
The score is tied, 21-21, and the players are falling into more fixed roles on more fixed teams, blue with blue, red with red. They don’t seem to notice doing it, even when a uniform blooms in the middle of a play and a player switches sides without warning. Falcons fly with Falcons, Ravens with Ravens. It is the simple logic of the game. The cheerleaders shout their names and wave their pom-poms in the air, and if a name is never called before the player’s uniform changes colors, no one really seems to care about that. Each of them is lost in his or her private battle, each of them playing on a different green field, somewhere in the recesses of their hearts.
Clarice McNally, bus driver and local hero, who saved six schoolchildren at the expense of her own life, joins the Ravens.
Michael Jones, SPCA, who was stabbed in the back six times while investigating an illegal dog-fighting ring, joins the Falcons.
Neither team is marked as “home” or “away” on the scoreboard: it’s just numbers, 21-21, and then the Ravens score a touchdown, and the numbers change. “Gimme an ‘R’!” shouts Rona, and the Ravens scream delight into the evening air. The moon hasn’t moved since the start of play. It’s still early evening, the scent of popcorn and bonfires and fresh green grass filling the air. The players move across the field, falling back into position, counting down to the next play.
“Go Falcons, go Falcons! Go, go, go Falcons!”
The ball is snapped, and Clarice McNally—the substitution, whose bus hit the water as the game was starting, whose lungs gave up as halftime rolled around—snatches it from the air, turning to run toward the distant, welcoming shape of the goal. She runs for the joy of running as much as anything else; her lungs pull in each breath like a benediction, so glad to be breathing unencumbered, so glad to be alive.
—but she’s not alive, she’s not, she remembers the water reaching up to wrap its arms around her, and it’s not October, it’s nowhere near October; it’s June, the school year is racing to a close, and if the bridge had been maintained like it should have been, she would never have been forced to drown—
Clarice stumbles to a stop. The safeties are five yards behind her and closing fast when the ball tumbles from her nerveless fingers and hits the turf, dead in play as soon as it touches the ground. Clarice is a heartbeat behind it, dropping to her knees as confusion and contradiction swarm around her. She can’t be here. She died, she died in the river, and half the children in her charge died with her. Some parents will remember her as a hero, but what about the parents of the dead? What about the ones she couldn’t save, who drowned reaching for the only adult who might have been able to help them?
“No,” she mumbles, starting to rock. “No, no, no.”
Someone blows the whistle for a time out. Not the coach for the Ravens. Not the coach for the opposing team, either; neither coach has been seen since the start of play. Play freezes all the same, and the cheerleaders come flocking onto the field, strangely colored birds descending on the fallen player.
“Clarice? Are you all right?”
She raises her head and finds herself looking at Rona, squad leader for the Ravens’ team cheerleaders. She is pretty, in a stark way, the sort of girl who always seems to stand on the outside of groups and skirt along the leading edge of trends. Her hair is the color of red velvet cupcakes or dried blood, and her eyes are almost amber. She should be terrifying, this autumn-girl under the October moon. Instead, somehow, she looks like coming home.
“I couldn’t save them,” Clarice tells her, and tears run down her cheeks. “I tried, but I couldn’t save them. Why couldn’t I save them?” The grass—no longer pristine, not now, not in the middle of the battle—is cold beneath her hands. The smell of bonfires is stronger now, like the field itself is on fire.
“Fighting doesn’t always mean winning,” says Rona, still crouching in front of the fallen warrior. “Sometimes it just means doing the best that you can do, and hoping that when the scores are tallied, that’s enough to put you on the winning side.”
“Winning? Losing? Children died, and now somehow we’re . . . how am I here? How are we playing football? I haven’t played football since high school.”
“But you did,” says another girl—Elle, with her white-blonde hair streaked in Falcon blue, and she’s lovely, she’s an angel, but her eyes are cold as she looks down on Clarice. “If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be playing water polo, maybe, or chess, or competitive Pictionary.”
“There are as many battlefields as there are fallen warriors to fight on them,” says Rona. She straightens, offering Clarice her hands. “You earned your place here, I swear that you did, and now all you have to do is see the game through to its end in order to get your reward.”
Clarice looks at her, this teenage girl with her hair tied up in ribbons, and nothing has ever been more wrong, and nothing has ever been more right. This is Homecoming, this is the October that never ends, and she has earned her place here, on this field, on this team. She slides her hands into Rona’s without deciding that she’s going to do so, and Rona tugs her back to her feet, stronger than she should be for a girl so slight.
“Fight on, warrior,” she says, letting go of Clarice’s hands. She smiles, and for a moment, she is something else; not a cheerleader, exactly, but something older, and wilder, and serving the very same role. She cheers at the edges of the battlefield. “Fight on, and win.”
Then the cheerleaders are running from the field, and the whistle blows again, and this night—this beautiful, perfect, endless night—resumes.
A touchdown for the Ravens; a penalty for the Falcons; two more players on each team, and only three are still running the field in white uniforms that show no dirt or grass stains, unlike the colored uniforms of their teammates. The Ravens and Falcons show the wear of the game, but the players in white uniforms are unmarred. If any of them find this strange, they do not say it. They never say it.
“BE AGGRESSIVE! B-E AGGRESSIVE!” shriek the Falcon cheerleaders, and their voices are the cries of hunting birds who remember, always, the safety of the hand and the glove.
“FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” answer the Raven cheerleaders, and their voices are the call of carrion birds on the battlefield, no less revered because their duty is to the dead.
The players surge back and forth across the green, and the cheerleaders fly in their carefully practiced formations, pom-poms shaking, voices lashing hard across the night. In the stands, the crowds cheer and whistle and stomp their feet, and if none of them ever comes fully into the lights, fully into view, well, that’s not what this night is about, is it? This night is about the boys and girls of fall, their feet digging divots into the turf, the smell of sweat and blood and battle in their nostrils. This night, this good October night with the moon like a single all-seeing eye, this night is theirs.
The Falcons’ quarterback catches the ball and hooks it hard to a receiver in blue and gold, who plucks it from the air like a farmer plucks an apple. He starts to run, but a player in white puts her shoulder into his numbers, and—
—the plane is going down hard, and there’s nothing that can be done for it now; they’re going to crash into the mountains, and if they’re lucky, they’ll live long enough for the rescue choppers to arrive. They’re not going to be lucky, Emily Kwan knows that in her bones. She opens her email client, breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth, and starts sending her research to her partner back at the lab. She may die, but her work will live on, and maybe a few lives will be saved as hers is ending. She presses send, and the oxygen masks deploy, and the world goes black on impact—
Emily’s uniform blooms red and rust as she goes down with her opponent, a whistle shrilling the end of the play. The Falcons will have to punt now, their forward momentum diminished.
On the sidelines, Elle shakes her head.
“I thought for sure she was ours.”
Rona laughs, and just claps her hands as the cheer for Emily begins.
The final two players both bloom blue and gold, Falcons on the field. When the final scrimmage lines up, it is ten in red and rust and twelve in blue and gold, an illegal formation that doesn’t draw a flag. Everyone’s focus is on the ball, on the moon, on the last game of the season before the season fades away forever. Emily Kwan snaps the ball to Tony Woodrow, and he’s running, he’s running so fast that it seems like he can almost fly. The other players follow, some defending him, some trying to claim the prize for their own, and it’s a beautiful snapshot of a life well-lived, this moment, this field. In this moment, winning and losing don’t matter. There’s only the play itself, the old, familiar pattern of hands and hearts working in perfect concert.
The crowds scream. The cheerleaders cheer. The players run like there is nothing left to them but running, block like there is nothing that can ever tear them down.
The Ravens score the final touchdown, and the stands go wild for a beautiful, heart-stopping second. Everything is right as Tony’s fellow players hoist him onto their shoulders, shouting their joy into the night, and the cheerleaders . . .
. . . the cheerleaders are silent and still, save for the last fading notes of Birdie’s whistle.
The players falter, looking confused, and in that moment, the shouting from the stands stops. For the first time, the glare from the stadium lights is dim enough to let them see the bleachers, and there is no one there. There is no one there at all.
“What’s going on?” Daniel Ryan, Specialist, removes his helmet. Around him, the other players are doing the same, revealing the faces of bewildered men and women.
“The game is over,” says Elle. She stands on the sidelines, but her voice is clear; her voice is always clear.
“You fought bravely,” says Rona.
“But the fight is finished.”
“The sides are drawn.”
The two step onto the field, and maybe it’s a trick of the light, but the colors of their uniforms seem to shift as they walk, blue becoming red, rust becoming gold, the small differences of cut and style fading, until the two girls are dressed identically. They stop in front of the players, and even the names written across their chests are different now—not Falcons, not Ravens, but Valkyries.
“What . . . ?” asks Clarice.
Rona smiles. “Your coaches are here.”
The girls turn, looking toward the locker room doors; the players, unsure, do the same. A man emerges from one door; a woman from the other. Together yet apart, they walk across the field toward the two teams.
The man has only one eye, and the logo of the Ravens is printed on his sweatshirt.
The woman has hair the color of red gold, and wears a cap with the logo of the Falcons.
They wave their teams to them, and they begin their postgame talks. What they say to their players is private; it has always been private, and always will be, on those sweet harvest nights when the field is filled with laughter, triumph, tears, and regret. But the word Valhalla is spoken, as is the word Fólkvangr, which is less remembered in this day and age, yet has always been there, for as long as there have been Valkyries to choose, and warriors to be chosen. Some warriors yearn for the fight to go on forever. Others seek rest and recuperation. Half the chosen slain are bound for each hall at the end of any battle—and look: The Ravens follow the one-eyed man, and the Falcons follow the woman with the golden hair.
Only Clarice McNally hesitates, looks back at the assembled girls in the red and gold cheerleading uniforms. Birdie is whistling again, a piece by Wagner. She never gets the low notes right.
Rona waves. After a moment’s hesitation, Clarice waves back. Then she exits, and the field is empty, waiting for the next game to begin.
It’s always October for this game, the big game, the game everyone who has ever loved high school football dreams of for their entire lives. The air smells like bonfires and promises. In the locker room, twenty girls in cheerleader’s uniforms are preparing for the field ahead of them. The choosers of the slain have always loved their rituals. Elle, wearing Raven red and rust, smiles across the benches at Rona in her Falcon blue and gold.
“We’ll have a good game tonight,” she says.
Rona smiles back at her sister. “We always do,” she replies.
© 2013 by Seanan McGuire.