Back-Up

Vera Hoak first heard about Gianni Flematti's accident on the local radio news and then read about the crash in the newspaper the next day.

The mishap happened a few days before New Year's and while Vera's immediate assumption was that it was probably a stupid high school jock gets drunk and smashes up his car story, it turns out Gianni hit a patch of ice, went off the road, and flipped over down an embankment in the middle of the day while sober.

The accident was the talk of the school when classes resumed following the holiday break but by then Vera had time to process the news so she didn't have to get all freaked out listening to the gossip and rumors.

'Flem flamed out' was the main storyline around the school. Vera never liked the nickname some had given Gianni – implying that he was snot mucus.

Gianni's main claim to fame was that he was the backup goalie on the hockey team which didn't exactly make him front page news but Vera wasn't Miss Popular herself either so she wasn't about to comment.

"Did you hear about Flem?" Vera's friend Carly asked when Vera arrived at their lockers, knowing Vera had the secret hots for the guy although Carly couldn't understand why.

Carly was a cute blonde and Alyssa, the third member of their friendship trio, was a noticeable raven-haired beauty. Vera felt like the third wheel around her two more popular and attractive friends knowing she was a homely looking mouse of a quiet and shy girl in comparison, afraid of her own shadow.

"Yeah, I heard," Vera sighed.

"Apparently he was hurt bad," Carly reported.

"I hope you're wrong," Vera said with concern.

"Nobody cares anyway," Alyssa piped in from where she was standing in front of her locker a few feet away checking on her make up in the reflection of the small mirror on the inside of her locker door. "Flem's a nobody."

"Nobody's a nobody," Vera said in defense of the nobody hockey player. She wondered if people considered her a nobody too.

Vera thought of the times she sat in the back of the stands at the hockey games watching Gianni sitting in his goalie gear on the bench, apart from the other players because he was the back-up goalie and he had to leave room for the line changes.

Gianni didn't get a lot of playing time backing up the all-league all-star goalie Gil Conway but he was always prepared and ready as he patiently waited his turn to contribute to the team.

Vera used to take skating lessons but she quit a few years ago, tired of the competition and the egos. She still went to free skate, though, because she liked to skate, and sometimes she'd hang around afterwards and watch the hockey team practice.

She also saw Gianni working at the Corner Market which was only a few blocks from her house. They made the greatest Italian grinders so she was in there often enough for one of those or when she had to run errands for her mother.

"How bad?" Vera wondered aloud, asking about Gianni's condition.

"Bad enough for the priest to show up, apparently," Carly said.

Vera couldn't imagine what Gianni must be going through and she sincerely hoped he was going to be okay.

She trudged through the first day of school back from the holidays noticing Gianni's absence from the two classes they shared and from the hockey team table in the cafeteria during lunch. Vera thought of him laid up in a hospital bed and she wished she had the guts to visit.

She wondered if Gianni's ex-girlfriend Becky would stop by the hospital. They broke up at the beginning of the school year and lately Vera saw The Beck holding hands with Brian Lewis while walking through the school halls.

It was a short school week because New Year's was on Wednesday this year. Vera got through Friday without saying anything stupid in defense of Gianni Flematti. Carly was a good enough friend not to say anything about Vera's secret crush on the guy so most of her peers were unaware that she liked the 'Flemmaster'.

Vera awoke on Saturday morning and she lay in bed debating on whether or not she should go visit Gianni in the hospital. Would it be dumb of her to go see someone she barely knew? They weren't friends – just classmates.

Still, it was driving her crazy worrying about him when all she had to go was rumor control and overdramatic misrepresentations of his condition – from being comatose and brain-damaged to paralyzed and blind. The only way she'd know for sure was to go see for herself.

Vera got out of bed and took a shower before dressing in a pair of jeans and a Greenville High School sweatshirt (green, of course). She brushed out her rusty-brown hair and pulled it back in a ponytail. She examined herself in the mirror and decided to forgo any makeup. She was going to the hospital, not a nightclub.

Vera's mom and brother were still in bed so she left a note and drove to the Blue County Medical Center a few miles away, second guessing her decision to attempt a visit the entire way.

She sat in her car for the longest time in the parking lot forcing herself not to chicken out and drive home. She finally found the strength to get out of the car and go inside the hospital.

The volunteer at the front information desk told Vera that the patient was still in the ICU but that visitors were allowed. Vera nervously found her way to Gianni's assigned ICU room.

She stopped outside the door and she sucked in her breath before stepping through the door. She stopped when she saw someone sitting at Gianni's bedside. Should she leave?

Vera glanced at the bed and saw the form of a body but she wasn't quite sure if it was Gianni because he head was wrapped in bandages and his face was all bruised and swollen.

"Um, hi?" Vera mumbled while standing confused in the doorway.

The man in the chair looked up at her. "Are you a friend of Gee's?" he asked hopefully.

"Gee?" Vera asked with uncertainty.

"Right, nobody calls him that," the man realized. "But you must know my brother or you wouldn't be here."

"You're Gianni's brother?" Vera asked and then she blushed when she realized it was a stupid thing to ask.

"Yeah, I'm Fabio." He stood to shake her hand.

"Fabio?" She asked with surprise, not sure if he was making a joke.

"Fabio," he confirmed with a deadpanned tone.

She realized she recognized him from the Corner Market and it occurred to her that maybe it was a Flematti family business – something she hadn't considered before.

"I'm Vera Hoak," she said awkwardly. "Gianni and I go to school together. We're in the same class."

"Well, thanks for coming," Fabio said with appreciation. He didn't look all that different from Gianni – clearly older, of course, and somewhat heavier. "Haven't I seen you at the store too?"

"Yeah," Vera confirmed.

"I'm glad you came."

"I'm sure he's had lots of visitors already," Vera said.

"Not really," Fabio replied with disappointment. "The Coach the next day. A couple of the hockey guys the next day after that but nobody since."

"Oh," Vera said with surprise. "What about Becky?" She asked after hesitating for a moment.

Fabio laughed out loud. "Don't you worry about Becky," he advised.

"And your parents?" She wondered.

"I'm his parents," Fabio stated. "We're orphans," he elaborated.

Vera was staring at Gianni now. "He looks horrible," she said with shock.

"He got bashed up pretty good," Fabio let her know. "He's pretty doped up still. He's got a severe concussion and some serious neck injuries. He's been in and out of it."

They both stared at Gianni for a few moments.

"Why don't you have a seat?" Fabio suggested, gesturing to a second chair on the other side of the bed.

"I should go," Vera said, suddenly feeling weak and dizzy.

"It's okay," Fabio gently replied. "I know it's tough to see him like this."

"Yeah," Vera said with a choked voice.

Fabio offered her a genuine smile of understanding. "I'll tell Gee you were here when he wakes up."

"You don't have to," Vera said with embarrassment. "We really don't know each other that well."

"I'll tell him anyway," Fabio said with a grin. "He'll appreciate your kindness."

Vera nodded and she headed for the door.

"Hey, Vera?"

She stopped in the doorway and turned to see Fabio looking at her. "Yeah?"

"Why don't you come back tomorrow?" Fabio suggested.

"I don't know." She said with uncertainty. "We're really not friends."

"You came today," Fabio said. "That makes you friends."

"Okay," Vera said with an uncomfortable sigh. "I'll come back tomorrow."

"Thanks," Fabio said with appreciation.

Vera hurried from the hospital before she either burst out in tears or puked. It was jarring to see Gianni Flematti in such horrible shape and it was upsetting to know that nobody had bothered to come see him after the initial flurry, probably when the hockey coach and players thought he might die or something.

They had fulfilled their obligation and responsibility by showing up once and now Gianni was back to being what he had always been to them – just the backup goalie.

What a bunch of shallow bastards.