School Spirit by pawpiles

It looked… ridiculous. Oversized, exaggerated, with a big grin plastered across it’s beak. It was all sorts of garish colours, the faux feathers dyed to match the team uniforms. It stuck out like a sore thumb, in direct contrast to the bleak contents of the school’s storeroom. Big, piercing eyes crossed the short distance between me and the mascot head.
I took a deep breath, pushing my way through the mop handles to get a better look at it.

Up close, the illusion of craftsmanship fell away. The feathers had fallen off in parts, bare patches of foam clearly visible to any onlookers. Everything on it’s surface was made of hard edges and sloppy sculpting, like a rough draft that someone forgot to finish.

Despite all this though, it had a certain charm. I found myself smiling back at it. I could see through the mesh eyes and into the back of the head, orange foam pads stacked all the way to the top to keep it from sliding around on one’s shoulders.

Looking back at it, becoming the school’s mascot should have been the first thing I tried. It was an empty position that virtually anyone could fill. It would have saved me the embarrassment of trying out for the football team… and the cheer team. I didn’t expect them to let me in, of course. I was 5 feet tall and couldn’t touch my toes to save my life. But somehow, I was still disappointed when they gave me the boot.

The counsellor seemed confused as to why I wanted in on the football game so badly. I wasn’t particularly athletic, and I had next to no working knowledge of the game itself. I knew why, of course. But I really couldn’t tell her.

My girlfriend had shown up to every single one of my badminton practices since the 9th grade, without fail. No matter the day, I could count on Delilah’s smiling face showing up somewhere in the bleachers. From time to time, she’d peak in on my student union meetings, despite not being part of it. That kind of support was what got me through every day without melting into a puddle of anxieties and stress.

But when it came to supporting her… Circumstance always got in the way. Football practice had a strict “no distractions” rule, and the big games were always too packed to get a look at the field. In the 3 years she’d been on the team, I’d only ever made it to one game.

I wanted to run out onto the field and give her a huge hug, put her massive helmet on, get in on the celebratory team photos, but I never got the chance. By the time the field had cleared enough to let me in, she’d already taken off with the rest of the team. It was just me, watching the sun set between the goal posts and over the trees, reading the messages she’d sent me on the bus ride back to the school.

She played most of her games without ever knowing I was there, stuck behind waves and waves of people that couldn’t fit into the stands. Obviously, I felt lousy about it.

This was the last year she’d be on the team before we both graduated. The last game of the season was starting in an hour, and I didn’t plan to miss it. I would be there, on the field, for her final game. Win or lose.

It took a bit of wriggling, but the mascot head fit snugly. It was a little claustrophobic, but I could rest easy knowing that it wouldn’t come flying off halfway through the game. The room seemed dimmer looking through the fine mesh eyes, and my field of view far narrower than I was used to. I tilted my head to look down the front of my shirt, only to find that the ridiculous foam beak kept it from pointing all the way down. It was astonishing to me that anyone could perform in a costume like that.

On the bright side, someone had taken the time to clean it before putting it away for the final time. It mostly just smelled like dirt.

A small tower of toilet paper collapsed as I yanked the rest of the costume from the shelf, blowing the dust off the surface of the box. Clearly, the position of “school mascot” was not a coveted one. It appeared that I was the only person to take it out of the supply closet in a long, long time.

The box came open easily, revealing a jersey and a mess of legs and wings. Whoever had put it away last time had clearly been in a rush. I lifted it from it’s cramped container, untangling the foam limbs and ruffling the dirt off the feathers.
Holding it in front of me, I came to the realization that I had no idea how to put it on, or what I was going to do after I’d put it on. I’d signed up for this position under the assumption that I would have some training beforehand, but for the most part, the custodian just unlocked the door and left me to my own devices.

If it hadn’t been such a split-second decision, I would have read up on how to be a good mascot beforehand. But really, it was only for a night. I couldn’t possibly fuck it up that bad.

I ran my hand through the feathers around the neck, desperately searching for a place to pull the suit open enough to slip inside. My fingers slipped into a seam just below the neck, tearing open down the line. I had a brief moment of panic before realizing that it was fastened with Velcro, and I hadn’t ripped the costume in half.

Reluctantly, I lifted my legs up through the back of the costume and plunged them down the leg holes. My hands disappeared into the costume shortly after, chubby arms turned into clunky wings. I wiggled my fingers inside the attached gloves, watching as the tips of the costume’s wings bent back and forth awkwardly. Not particularly flexible, but they’d do. The costume sagged around my back, still undone. With no one else around, the best I could do was contort myself enough to stick the two sides back together.

I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the mirror at the back of the room as I arched my back to do up the last strap of Velcro. I was surprised to see how well the suit fit, blocky and silly-looking as it was. The previous mascot and I must have been the same height.

I didn’t feel as though I was looking at a reflection, so much as I was looking at another being entirely. It’s big, green eyes stared right through me as it matched my movements. Something was missing, though. I lifted my stubby legs into my line of sight, laughing at how tiny my shoes looked compared to the leg of the costume.

Right. The claws.

My tailfeathers brushed against the cold concrete wall as I lifted my leg and slipped the first foot on. Certainly not a perfect fit, sitting loosely around my ankle without the laces tied, but about as good as I could have hoped for. After all, the costume wasn’t made for me specifically.

The first had gone on without a hitch. The second, however, was a bit of a challenge.

The laces around the ankle were a mess of tight knots. To undo everything and tie it up proper would take more time than I had to get out onto the field. Even if I had the time, the foam wingtips covering my fingers wouldn’t be of much use to me.
But I wasn’t going out with an incomplete costume. If I was going to mascot for the team, even just once, I was going to do it right.

My beak bent to the side as I tried my best to look down, slipping my foot underneath the laces just enough to get it halfway inside. I struggled with it for a while, tugging on it with force as I wobbled around on one leg.

I swung from side to side, hopping around in a desperate attempt to keep myself balanced. Still, the final part of the suit refused to give way.

Without so much as a warning from my own body, I was spinning backwards on my heel, headed straight towards the adjacent wall. My stiff, foam fingers reached out to grab a hold of the chain hanging from the ceiling, but my body was falling quicker than I could react.

I felt the boards of the shelving behind me splinter in half, the poles on either end collapsing into the center as a waterfall of empty bottles and rags crashed down over me. There was no saving this one. I listened to the hollow clunking as more and more of them slid towards the hole and fell to the floor, marvelling at the mess I’d made.

There was a brief period where I felt that I’d gotten off easy. The entire shelf up until that point had been mostly-empty spray bottles and cloth. Of course, me and the universe both understood that it couldn’t just end there.

The last thing on the shelf to fall was a tub full of blue liquid, the consistency of laundry detergent. Shoulders sandwiched between the broken boards, the best I could do was sigh as the Tupperware upended itself onto me. It dripped viscously over the mesh eyes as it poured down through the faux feathers, drizzling down the sides of the beak and dripping onto the jersey.

I was perfectly still for a few seconds, taking as much time as I needed to ensure that I wasn’t going to destroy anything else. I squeezed my eyes closed and bit my lip, but nothing else happened. Not even the fluorescent lights in the hallway buzzed. It was just cold, dead silence after the cacophony of noise I’d created.

I struggled to stand for a few seconds, the stiff mascot props not lending themselves well to maneuverability. After a bit of rolling back and forth, I’d managed to pick up enough momentum to carry myself back up and onto my knees. A grimace rolled across my face as I peered down the front of the costume. It was totally... destroyed.

The feathers clung together, matted even worse than they had been on first inspection. The jersey was stained, my fingers were stained… There wasn’t a single spot on my torso that the mysterious liquid hadn’t covered. This wouldn’t come out in a single spin cycle. This was more of a “take it outside and spray it down with a hose” situation.

Not that I had the time anyway. Halftime had begun quite a while ago, and I hadn’t even made it out onto the field. I took a deep breath and smashed down the wave of hopelessness that had begun rising, doing my best to reassure myself. The game wasn’t over. I wasn’t going to miss it for the world.

My shoulders relaxed a bit. 20 minutes was more than enough time to get my shit together.

With a few more deep breaths, I was up on my feet again. There was a stark unevenness between the two massive claws on my feet. One was jammed in haphazardly, sole resting on the back heel, while the other was planted flat to the floor. The supply closet door creaked open as I slipped out awkwardly, doing my best to mask the disgust I felt at the sensation of moving. Everything worked sluggishly and mechanically, like a robot taking it’s first steps. The substance had gone from a liquid to a gummy semi-solid in less than a minute. Stringy, green goop hung loosely between my wingtips and the handle of the door.

The stuff had saturated into every nook and cranny of the costume. My vision through the mesh eyes was partially obscured by the translucent blue goop, leaving me stumbling down the hall towards what I could only hope was the washroom. With any luck, it was soluble in water. I didn’t have the time to wash it fully, but I didn’t have the time to stumble blindly towards the field, either.

I turned around and pushed my way into the bathroom backwards, doing my best to keep the upper half of my body from sticking to anything and everything. Luckily for me, the school had cleared out relatively quickly, and the hallways and bathrooms were vacant. I didn’t want anyone seeing me in a predicament like this one.

I stumbled over to the sink and threw the wings underneath it, the automatic faucet turning on with a hiss as it soaked through to my skin. I rubbed the wingtips together, trying my best to pry the goo off with the friction. Rubbing turned to scraping, frantically clawing at it with my flimsy mittens, but it was no use. It’d already hardened.

I lifted my soggy wings to the mascot head, trying desperately to tear it off and clean the goop from my eyes, but it wouldn’t budge. It had been superglued to the rest of the costume, the places where the seams had once been now filled with the stuff. The foam squished up against my cheeks as I tried to rip it free, but it didn’t budge.

I was stuck in it, at least until someone else could cut me loose.

I pulled my weighty head up, back to my shoulders, and looked at the reflection in the mirror. Everything seemed pretty much the same. It was every bit as ugly and asymmetrical as before, the big eagle flashing me a dorky, pearly-white smile that could be seen from outer space. There was no way on earth anyone would ever be intimidated by a mascot like this one.

I sighed. I couldn’t see my own face through the mesh in the reflection. This was me, at least for the next few hours. I continued looking into my own eyes, following their cartoonish arcs, the neon green irises. Every bit as garish as it had been on first impression, especially with the addition of the bright blue goop.

But, despite everything, it just seemed… okay. Like it was meant to be that way, sitting atop my shoulders. There was nothing wrong with it. The ridiculous charm of a mascot costume was really starting to get through to me, as I peered into the goop covered eyes.

It’s innocent, smiling face took me back. Way, way back, to when I was still 13. I’d seen so many games with my dad, and every time, I’d waited for the mascots to come out and perform at halftime. It was the highlight of every outing.

My mind kept running through the memories, flashing past the dance-offs, and the cheerleading routines. It was like a valve had been opened inside my head, a million pieces of information flooding in all at once. For the moment, it felt nice. A little peace in an otherwise hectic evening.

Then it dawned on me.

The pearly white smile, the big, goofy eyes, the flimsy wings and faulty feet. They weren’t meant to be threatening. They were meant to be charming. For tonight, I was a performer, not a player. And to someone in that audience, someone just like me, I was going to be the best part of the show.

The goop over my eyes glowed a brilliant cerulean, bright enough to outshine the fluorescent lights of the washroom. I felt a strange power surge through me, the memories of someone else continuing to course through my veins. Every cheerleading routine they’d ever pulled inside the mascot, every dance. The smile inside the suit seemed to stretch as wide as the one outside. It was decided. I could worry about my own problems later, but as of right then, I had a job to do. I wringed the ends of my wings, letting the water collect on the floor.

I’d wasted enough time. Little Mountain High School was in desperate need of a mascot.

Everything was in order now. No longer was I mechanical and clunky in my stride. Every move I made was calculated and smooth. The wings on my costume cut through the air as I sprinted down the halls, clawed feet slapping against the linoleum. There was nothing holding me back, no extra weight. In a way, I felt as though I was the costume.

My loose jersey flapped against my chest as I rounded the corner, moving swiftly down the hallway and bursting through the double doors, out into the gymnasium. My feet came down softly to the floorboards as I sprinted, every movement of my leg as graceful as a dancer. Whatever imbalance I’d felt before was no longer present.

I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. This was not the same girl who’d come in 5th in her track and field events. If I’d had the time, I would’ve rubbed my sudden athletic ability in my gym teacher’s smug, old face.

I glanced up at the clock above the stands. Fashionably late, as always. There were only a few precious minutes left until the game was over for good.

Regardless of how fast I was, I needed to be faster. I tucked my head to my shoulder and leaned into my steps, keeping careful footing beneath my body. One arm pressed tightly to my side while the other braced for impact, my shoulders lining up with the doors to the change room. All I could do was hope that the athletes had already finished up in there.

I crashed through the door without missing a beat, the stinging in my shoulder barely noticeable. I relaxed a little when I heard the door slam shut behind me, reassurance that I hadn’t smashed it off it’s hinges.

Locker doors crashed closed as I whizzed past them. I was putting all my mental energy towards keeping my footing as I moved overtop the shoddy tile, dodging backpacks and hopping benches. The arms of sweaters threw themselves around my ankles, dragging behind me before falling off like feral animals. It was a miracle that I hadn’t already tripped.

The second set of doors was a little heavier, catching me off guard and sending me spinning for a second. The painted walls of the change rooms disappeared as I spun through, doing my best to catch my footing as I stumbled. The crack of helmets rang out across the field as I reoriented myself, the warm, early summer air encapsulating my costumed head. I was nearly there, and just in time.

The final stretch towards the field was a long one. The hallway seemed to go on forever, plain concrete all the way down. I dragged the tip of my wing along the wall as I ran, feet moving effortlessly beneath my body. I barely had control over myself, just doing what I felt was right. It was as though I was going through the motions of another person, someone who’d done the routine a thousand times.

In a second, I’d passed under the green and blue streamers hanging at the end of the hall, charging down the steps towards the field. The whole field seemed to pause for a moment as the crowds looked up, and the team turned to have a look at the late return of the school mascot. Patches of the crowd whistled and cheered as I bounded down the steps with my newfound determination.

With a hop, skip, and a jump, I’d cleared the fence and bounded out onto the sidelines. My clawed feet sunk into the Astroturf as I landed, throwing my hands in the air triumphantly. The cheering from the crowd died down as I dropped my hands, turning into quiet chatter as the players broke from their huddles.

With that, the last plays of the game were set into motion. Yelling rose from the field as they scrambled to get into place after the distraction, everyone tensed up and huffing in each other’s faces. The helmets clacked together as the players bashed heads at the 50-yard line.

Now was the time.

My eyes were trained on her jersey. Number 35. It glimmered in the bright floodlights, ruffling subtly in the calm breeze. The air was still for a brief second, the jersey motionless. And then, fast as a bullet, the football was out of Delilah’s hands and through to the quarterback.

I pumped my fist in the air and cheered him on as he stumbled backwards, helmet whipping back and forth as he scanned for a target. His hands were visibly shaking as the opposing team closed in around him. The crowds and crowds of people behind me shrieked in unison as the arms wrapped around his waist and pulled him to the turf. The plastic crack of the pads was barely audible over the yelling in the audience.

The whistle blew. I took a deep breath. That was 10 yards they could get back.

I spun on my heel and faced the crowds, motioning them to stand and shout. I felt like a commanding presence, my wings outstretched and conducting the stands like a maestro. I stomped my feet, and the audience stomped their feet, the wild clanging of metal sounding out as the teams reassembled. I could virtually feel the opposing team rolling their eyes.

A voice rose from the stands, soon joined by many others. A simple chant. But one that could hopefully inspire the home team.

With the blow of a whistle, they separated again, 11 players dispersing across the field. The chant continued as it rolled towards the field, more and more voices being picked up along the way.

Once again, the stillness across the field was broken by a whistle. The ball whizzed backwards as it came to the quarterback’s chest, but this time, he was sure of the plan. No more Hail Mary’s. His hands dug into the pigskin as he backed up, side-eyeing the runningback that was already on his way.

The QB made a shoddy toss to the runningback before crumpling to the ground under the defense. The crowd gasped as he fumbled it in his hands, feet faltering beneath him as he failed to grab a hold.

You could virtually hear the empty clunk as the ball contacted the earth.

The runningback slid to his knees, helmet in hand as the ref called off the play. 20 seconds on the clock, now. Last play for the Little Mountain Eagles, and with the score tied up, the last game of the season was hanging in the balance.

Despite the tension though, there was no silence. The crowd was not still. I was not still. I backflipped and crumpled to my knees before the stands, beckoning those still sitting to get up and make some noise. I waved my wings to the air as the sun set on the football field, the cacophonous sound of shoes on metal enveloping the cheers of the guest team.

I didn’t even have to think about it. It came naturally to me.

In an instant, the crowd fell silent. I didn’t need to turn around to know what was happening. I could feel the tension between the players already rumbling beneath the turf.

The whistle blew on the final play. 70 yards to the end-zone.

The crowd was doing all the cheering for me as the ball flew back to the QB. I did my best to keep the people in the stands going, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the ball that was spiraling elegantly away from the center.

You could hear the crack as the ball collided with the quarterback’s chest. He wrapped his arms around it tightly and drove backwards, moving the pigskin up into his fingers. Off in the distance, the clock ticked on through the numbers, uncaring of the action happening in front of it.

It was a pass.

Time seemed to slow to a standstill as the defense rushed him down, their cleats tearing up the plastic grass behind them. There was no hesitation in the QB’s face. He knew as well as anyone else that it was make or break. His shoulders tensed as he brought the ball behind him, fingers digging into the leather like a death grip. And then, all at once, the ball shot forwards. He moved like a catapult, the ball arching above the growing pit of people and down the middle.

Past center line… all the way to Delilah.

I watched as the center jumped to catch the ball, quick fingers nabbing it in mid-air and bringing it close to her chest. She landed with sure footing as the crowd went wild, already in a sprint to the end zone.

One of the safeties tore down the field after her, the rest of the pack not far behind. The crowd watched with baited breath as the center booked it down the field. Hot on her tail, he reached out to grab her waist, fingers slipping from her pads as she stumbled. The crowd gasped, interrupted by cheering as she recovered, and kept running…

Over the 20-yard line.

Over the 10-yard line.

The safeties hands were one again around her waist, but this time, he was holding on for dear life. Number 35, the center, the woman who had been there for me every moment of every day, spun around on her heel as the arms did their best to pull her to the earth.

But she wasn’t having it.

She stumbled past the 5-yard line, taking strained steps as the weight around her hips continued pulling backwards. It was though she was limping, the other safety only seconds away as he ripped down the Astroturf.

With a shimmy and a weak leap, she’d gotten out of the squeeze. Her arms outstretched towards the end zone, ball in hand, as she inched through the air. The safety’s hand caught around her ankle as she plummeted towards the ground, but it was already too late.

The ball crashed down inside the end zone as the buzzer went, and the noise that was made by the audience shook the entire field.

I threw my feathered arms in the air triumphantly, bellowing out through the hollow head of the mascot. I was swallowed up in the crowds as they bounded forwards across the line and out into the field.

I pushed to the front of the cheering mob and jumped into a cartwheel as I rolled down the field towards the end zone, only to be swept up once again by the sea of football helmets and jerseys. Everyone was shouting and screaming with excitement, save for the guests, who were grumbling and packing their things up in the stands.

And, at the very end of the field, was Delilah, hands on her knees as she caught her breath. She smiled weakly to the incoming crowd, before being completely enveloped by cheering, smiling faces.

I was jostled around through the players, bumping shoulders and elbows as I sneaked through to the center. If it hadn’t been for the foam padding of the mascot suit, I might not have survived the mosh pit of football players I’d found myself in.

Compliments showered down over her as she blushed sheepishly, slipping her helmet off and letting her short hair unfurl around her neck. Everyone around her talked a thousand miles a minute, completely overwhelming her senses.

Luckily, the cooler of ice-cold sports drink was enough to disperse the crowd a little.

It poured down from above, splashing over my already dirty mascot head and onto the players below. Their jerseys stuck to the chest pads of the players as they continued shouting and cheering, but the audience had backed off enough to let the group spread out a bit.

I finally moved up enough to get into the center, falling to my knees as the energy I’d had was suddenly sapped. I was still smiling, but I could only just now feel the exercise I’d been doing catching up.

I bowed before her to take a breath, and much to my surprise, the entire mascot head slipped unceremoniously from my shoulders and fell to the ground, rolling around my knees. I laughed along with the crowd as I untangled my hair, taking in the fresh air that I’d missed so much.

Whatever it was that had stuck the costume together wasn’t a fan of electrolytes.

“Oh… my god…”

The voice was only a foot away from me. I recognized its honey-sweet tone immediately.

I raised my head to smile, but I barely had enough time to do so before she had her head pressed against mine, my chin in her hands. She went in for the kiss, and within a second, we were encompassed by “aww”s from the rowdy boys around us.

“I’m so… I’m so glad you… I can’t believe you made it! Did you see me?”

I nodded excitedly.

“I saw… Everything!”

I felt accomplished. I’d finally done it. I’d been there for her, even if it was only this once.

I did my best to describe her plays, but I could barely do them justice with words. I didn’t have to, as she seemed well aware of what she’d accomplished. She collapsed onto the suit, pinning me to the turf. I dared not lift my head, content to look at the emerging stars of dusk above the highschool.

“Also, like… I didn’t know you were a mascot?”

I laughed, wringing the jersey in an attempt to get the Gatorade out of the mesh. I briefly turned my head to look at the smiling beak and big green eyes of the eagle. For a second, I thought I saw it wink.

“…Yeah… I didn’t either.”

School Spirit

pawpiles

2 October 2017 at 19:23:37 MDT

hey just crossposting from my fa! enjoy The Story
also gatorade plz dont sue

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