What I love I cannot go back to. I don't have the heart to face it again but as soon as I saw Everett walk in I knew he would try to convince me. I built a stone wall down the center of my bed and straightened my shoulders to deflect his empathy.
“No.” I glared at him with guilt.
“Come on, man!” The agitation in his voice leaked across the room. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.” He tried to look at me but I wouldn’t budge. “You can’t quit forever. This isn’t like you.”
He was right. This wasn’t like me at all. I used to be so dedicated and hopeful but that person was gone. He was trapped beneath the fresh coat of white paint on the walls, weaved into the beaten down carpet floor, and locked inside the ancient jersey case crucified on my wall.
I took a deep breath and shifted my view to Everett. The disappointment in his look threw my fingers into a nervous twitch.
“I know it's been a while.” The words rolled out of me like a soggy tear. “I just don’t think I can go back.”
“Aiden, I know it was bad...and I’m sorry.” He leaned on his hand, pressing it into the quilted blanket. “I'm sorry you had to go through that but we’re here for you. The whole team is here for you.”
I knew they were always here for me. We all knew that but in that short, time bending, moment I had never felt so alone.
The clock was ticking, the huddle was torn apart, and my men were lined up and ready to charge. My husky voice broke the silence and put the play into action, sending the entire field into a frenzy. The ball was snapped into my hands and sent a confident chill through my body. As the ball rose with my arm I could feel the weight of a hundred thousand eyes on me. They were waiting for me, anticipating me, enthralled by an action I had not yet taken. My breathing steadied as I matched my eye with our wide receiver. I side stepped and drew my arm back like a bow.
Shooting up from the bed, my hand stuck to my forehead and rested in my hair. I’ve tried to bring myself to the stadium for practice but I knew my guilt and shame would devour me before I even reached the front door. My hands craved the touch of the thick laces and my legs yearned for the forced quickstep dance before I released the ball. I never thought I would quit but I guess it's already happened.
“We haven’t been the same since you left.” I could tell by the rigidness of his voice that he was desperate. I couldn’t lie to myself. I knew they needed me but I couldn’t promise what me they would be getting if I came back. The last thing I wanted was to disappoint them again. “No one knows the team like you do. You have something special, Aiden.”
I hung my head and shut my eyes.
“It would be a tragedy if you threw this all away.” Everett stood up and casually moved over to my dresser. He posed with his left leg over his right and ignored my presence with his gaze fixated on my framed pictures. “Hmm.” He lifted the grey bordered image stuck in front of the rest and balanced it between his thumb and his forefinger. He then turned it around to face me as if he had forgotten it was my room he was in.
“What?” I spoke.
“Three years ago.” His eyes stabbed me and conjured a messy feeling that stamped my brain. “I remember you told me that this was the best day of your life. You threw that ball better than you ever had before. This was the day I knew you would end up in the hall of fame or at least I thought you could.” Everett set the picture back down and stared at it with his shoulders square to the memory. His head began to shake gently back and forth, wrenching my gut. Suddenly my palms became aware of the soft fabric bedsheet cushioning them and reminded the creases in my fingers of the silky, leather gloves I wore during the last game.
I saw everyone running. Running away from me and running towards me while I moved swiftly, sweeping through the center of the field. My hands were out of my sight but they worked like a machine. I was always in control. In that quick second I released my arm from its tension and surged up everything in me that I could give. I could feel the muscles in my calf scream and the veins in my forehead pop. A millisecond before the ball was sent into the field I caught a glimpse of a rhino stampede about to trample me.
I forced my thought back to the pictures holding Everett’s attention and found my way in front of them. They all looked so promising.
“I’m sorry.” I can’t believe that was all I could say from all that raced in my mind. When I reached to grab one of the frames near the back of the collection my eyes focused in on every detail. It was as if I was there now wearing that gorgeous yellow jersey, smiling so wide the corners of my mouth could rip, and knowing that the world was going to know my name. A drop of salty disappointment slumped its way to my chin. I could feel every hit, every pulsating throw, and every victory fall off of me like an old shirt.
I turned to Everett with a river shading my eyes. “I...I…” I was so infuriated that I couldn’t get anything out of my mouth but that. I had so much to say. The fury permeated my body and tensed my shoulders sending my arm across the display of images, knocking them all onto the ground.
I tried to move my arm fast enough to get my guy the ball and send him away on a run for six points. My feet moved further over to avoid the stampede but I could barely move a yard before my hip tingled from impact. My back was leaning towards the ground and the ball slipped from my fingertips. Another shock was sent into my shoulder and then on the side of my neck. Just before my elbows met the ground I could feel myself being pulled backwards as if there was a rope hooked on my neck. My eyes bulged and my arms were thrown up as if to grab a helping hand from the sky. As I looked up at the clear day above my head twichted, snapping towards my shoulder blade. My brain went fuzzy and a loud ringing punched my ears. I closed my eyes as the weight of the man on me was lifted and felt the tufted grass roll underneath my palms. When I reopened my eyes there was a crowd of people hovering over me. A couple of them bent down to lift me to my feet but I could barely feel them. I wobbled as my arms were tossed over their shoulders. My mouth hung open as I stared at the ground and listened to the pounding in my brain. A drum was beating down on me trying to push my skull out of my head. When I finally looked up I was being set down on the bench. A million people were trying to get my attention and help me out of my trance but all I could think about was the throbbing, shooting pain pulsating through my body. I looked over the shoulder of my coach and stared at the blobs of green and the painfully bright posts. I tried to remember what had just happened but the memory was leaking out. The terror within me grew with the pain.
"I'm sorry!" I breathed heavily as Everett stared at me in astonishment. "I let you guys down. I don't want to do it again but I can't do this." I concentrated my gaze on him as if my eyes were a gun. "I can't quit. I need this game. I have to come back!" Everett widened his eyes and furrowed his brow. I was a surprised to. I never thought I'd go back after what happened but the last month has been more miserable than the day I got hit. "This is what I'm meant to do and I'm so sorry I forgot that." My shoulders shook as I bent down to sit with the memories I tossed on the carpet. I looked at them again and set each one on my lap.
Everett sat down next to me and smiled to himself. "Everyone is going to be so happy when they see you at practice next week." I looked over at him with his knees up and eyes glued to the wall. My face was overwhelmed with tears and a smile. I could feel the ball in my hand and the field beneath my feet again. Excitement flooded my body and forced out laughter. Suddenly the image of being hit again grazed my neck but my laughter only heightened. The last month I was terrified of being that hurt again but the only thing that could truly hurt me is never pumping a ball out of my hand and into the end zone. I can't believe I ever stopped.