First Step Forward
1 (Cooper Lowry)
There are two types of hits you take in pro football: the kind you see coming and the kind you don’t. And after eight years in the game, given the choice, I would take a surprise hit every time. Why? Because thousands of hits later, I’ve learned that the rag-doll effect will be to my advantage. If I see that human freight train coming, I will tense up; it’s only human nature. When I do, that hit will sing through every nerve ending, every joint, even the smallest bones in my toes.
Five minutes ago, that’s exactly what happened—I had a front-row seat to my own impending pile-up and ended up taking the wrong kind of hit. So hard that I felt compelled to check and see if any of my teeth were knocked loose before trying to stand up. Once I’d determined that all my pearly whites were still intact, I jogged over to the sidelines and tried to appear unfazed.
My eyes stay fixed on the field, that lush green expanse surrounded by everything I’ve ever wanted. A full stadium,
a jersey with my last name on the back, and a fourth-quarter clock ticking down to a win. We’re in the red zone, and my last catch got us there. Unfortunately, getting there also involved a strong safety known as “Stinger” bulldozing my ass to the ground. The nickname? It suits him. I ended up looking like a Slinky gone haywire in midair and hit the ground in a pile.
“Lowry. Over here, kid. We gotta do this.”
When Hunt snaps his fingers in front of my face, I tilt my head and give him my best don’t worry, doc expression. A team trainer is either your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on what you need. Trainers have the good stuff: the pain meds, the sleeping pills, and the sideline syringe that keeps you in the game. They also deftly ignore your bullshit, refuse to believe that don’t worry smile, and with one signature, they can have you on the sidelines in a suit and tie instead of a uniform.
“What month is it, Lowry?”
“What day of the week is it?”
“Who scored last?”
A grin slips on my face. “Us. Me, specifically.”
Hunt shakes his head and grins back. At the end of the third quarter, I caught a wide-open pass and sauntered into the end zone like a king. That put us up by fourteen points and now, with less than a minute on the clock, it’s nearly guaranteed we’ll leave the field with a win.
But nothing in this world is a sure thing. I don’t care how close a victory feels or looks; shit happens. Guys fumble.
Lightning strikes. A naked nut job parachutes onto the field. Zombies storm the stadium. Live television and pro sports mean anything goes, so there are no assurances that all four couldn’t happen at the same damn time.
My eyes dart back to the field—on the lookout for those pesky zombies—and Hunt gives my arm a thump with his tablet.
“Jesus Christ, Lowry. You aren’t going to miss anything; it’s in the bag. Let’s finish this thing.”
He refrains from grabbing the face mask on my helmet and giving it a jerk until I pay attention, because under the scrutiny of the league’s mandatory concussion protocols, that sort of shit is a thing of the past. These days, after a rough hit, instead of a whack to the back of the head and a command to shake it off, we end up on the sidelines answering inane questions about how we feel and standing on one leg like a flamingo to show we won’t fall over, all just to prove our brains aren’t entirely scrambled.
I tip my chin down and paste on an earnest expression.
“Hunt, just give me this. The last few seconds. Then you can ask me every stupid question you need to. I won’t even threaten your life when you point that annoying little light in my eyes.”
Giving up with a sigh, Hunt tucks his tablet under his arm and flops down on the bench, knowing it’s easier to give in on this one. Leaning back, he puts his hands on top of his head, clasping his fingers together, and tries to relax.
If I’m not on the field and in the middle of it all, savoring the last few minutes of a game is my favorite time. Always has been, because when I was a kid, my first coach
told us those were the seconds that mattered. In those moments, he said, we would understand the truth about success, failure, and teamwork. In my eight-year-old mind, everything he said was already the gospel, so I believed every word.
When the clock hits zero, the crowd noise surges—seventy thousand half-drunk people in the Rocky Mountain altitude who don’t give a shit about anything but us right now. Our win, their win—in this city, no one can tell the difference.
Hunt stands again and cocks his head in my direction, silently asking if we can get this over with now. With a single nod from me, he’s back on task, asking me to repeat words back to him, recite a series of numbers, and stand still for his inspection. When we get to the part where I have to lift one foot off the ground, a twitch in my knee nearly sets me off balance.
But I’ve done this all before. I know how to answer the questions and command my body to do what it should. You don’t survive eight years playing pro ball without learning the right answers.
“Scale of one to six. Zero means none present. Six means severe. Head pain?”
Lie. The pain brewing at the base of my skull, where the occipital nerve meets my spine, feels like it might snap into a hundred sharp shards of glass if I turn my head too far to one side.
Lie. It’s more like a five, but I never answer zero to everything. It’s more believable that way.
Lie. There are fuzzy little bright white stars passing in front of my eyes, and if I blink for too long, they multiply.
Hunt scribbles on his clipboard, and then signs the bottom of the page.
“You know what to do, right? No aspirin, no liquor. Go home and take it easy.”
We both know I’m lying.
In the locker room, I attempt to look as whipped as possible. Feigning complete exhaustion keeps the media at bay a bit, leaving only the bravest and most foolhardy of them to step near my locker. A swan dive to the ground like the one I executed earlier means that the broadcasters spent the entire time-out saying things like “hope he’s OK” and “that was quite a hit.” All while showing the same clip on a loop for amusement and ratings.
But that’s what makes the show, doesn’t it? Watching a guy like me, who, if I’m on my game, is the idiot carrying the ball downfield with a target on his back. Depending on whose side you’re on, you’re either hoping I make it or hoping one of those three-hundred-pound guys tackles me to the turf.
When I hit the ground tonight, it felt like it always does: heavy, unforgiving, and crushing. Then everything
went silent in my head. Those seconds, when you can’t figure out where you are, what your middle name is, or why the sky looks so shimmery, are scary as fuck. Because suddenly your body isn’t your own, which is the strangest sensation. When I was playing high school ball in West Texas, I used to wonder if those moments were like what happens right before you die. Eventually, after years of coaches and trainers shaking me sane again, I stopped worrying about it.
The ruse of exhaustion almost works. I’m already halfway down the hall when Bodie Carmichael from Channel Eight steps right into my path and sticks a mic in my face. I actually groan out loud. He does the usual, slicks back his greasy hair and smirks, before launching in.
“Hell of a hit, Coop. How are you feeling?”
The impulse to give him the antagonistic sound bite he wants rushes through me.
How am I feeling? Well, shit, Bodie . . . I feel like a dude named Stinger just made me his bitch. Like I just swallowed my own balls, then gnawed on them for a while before trying to reattach them with a dull knitting needle.
Bodie would love it, the viewers would love it, and it would make the perfect epilogue to tonight’s sportscast highlight reel. But the team media director? Would she love that answer? Not so much. I take a labored breath and respond more appropriately.
“I’m good. Glad we put this one to bed. That’s all that matters.”
I refuse to linger long enough to offer Bodie the chance at a follow-up question. Even the exchange of a courtesy
nod that acknowledges the precarious balance between athletes and reporters feels like more than I can handle, so I step back and continue down the tunnel. That’s all he’s getting from me tonight. Hell, it’s probably the same as any other night, but with my head throbbing in waves, it feels more justified than ever.
On a forgiving day, the media refers to me as quiet, taciturn, or reserved. Every other day, they just say I’m a prick. There’s truth in both.
Attempting to celebrate our win at a downtown bar was a shitty idea. I knew it was, but we just sent the opposing team home to the West Coast with another loss under their belts and a few more guys on injured reserve. And that kind of performance is what football-crazy cities love, trouncing their longtime rivals in a blazingly glorious beat-down. We don’t pay for drinks at bars most nights anyway, but tonight, whatever we want, it’s there. Alcohol. Women. Accolades. Ass kissing. Take your pick.
I thought one drink would be fine. But I overlooked how effectively liquor hits the bloodstream after adrenaline fades and your dehydrated body starts to wane. It has a mainline effect you can’t elude, even when you try to chase the whiskey with twice as much water, hoping to drown out the whooshing sound in your head of your own blood rushing through your veins.
Which is why, when the cute coed standing in front of me—whose name I can’t remember—tries to hand me another whiskey sour, I wave her off. That headache I lied
about is everywhere now, radiating from each hair on my head.
Darci? Sandi? It’s definitely something with an i at the end, I know that much. Giving blondie here my complete focus would be a nice diversion, but my head is screaming and my teeth are starting to hurt.
That will have to work for now. A bland endearment that also manages to call up what’s left of my Texas accent. When I say it, though, I realize exactly how much of a prick I sound like. Names are always better. But descending into lame platitudes is only to save face from the fact that I now think there might be two of her standing there. Maybe more. And I can’t remember any of their names.
“I’m good on the drinks. You take that one.”
She smiles and takes a sip, looking up through her eyelashes at me. Fuck. Not sure if I’m crossing my own eyes or what, but three of her is definitely too many. If Hunt were here, he would cross his arms and shake his head before dragging me out of this noisy bar to drop my stupid self into the nearest bed. Taking a play from that book, I’m going to take myself out of here.
I casually slap the bar top in a move that signals my intentions and lean toward her so she is sure to hear me.
“I’m gonna have to call this one early. I got rocked today.”
Giving a small pout face, she lets her blue eyes go wide, then narrow. She’s annoyed but covers it quickly. Very, very well done, Darci-Mandi-Sandi.
Once she rights her expression completely, she draws her hand to rest against my chest and proceeds to purr.
“Poor baby. I saw it. Do you need someone to look after you tonight?”
When we walked in tonight, it was obvious that she was a jersey chaser. I watched her scope us out, taking a complete and nearly instantaneous inventory of each of our faces, then pause as she determined who had the best game, the biggest contract, and the least number of ex-wives. With two touchdowns today, a five-year contract so good it made the news when I signed it, and zero ex-wives, I won.
But now I’m bailing on her, so her only option is to put this little act into overdrive. Wild guess that she doesn’t really want to take care of me. I might puke if the pain gets worse and I’m thinking a scalding-hot bath full of Epsom salts isn’t exactly the sexy vignette she had in mind for a night with the Cooper Lowry, number eighty-two wide receiver on an NFL team poised for a playoff run that already has Vegas bookmakers working overtime. The poor girl probably doesn’t know how she’ll make up the lost time if I leave, since every other starter in the room is already drowning in women and alcohol.
Scanning the bar, I whistle at one of the practice team guys and wave him over. The kid is eager and willing and fit—what more could she want? He’s got a jersey just like the rest of us. If everyone’s honest, that’s all she’s interested in anyway.
“This is Derek. Third-round draft pick last year, sweetheart.”
Baiting the hook for Derek is almost too easy. She scans him from head to toe, then turns on her charm, complete with her hands on his biceps and her hip pressing into his thigh. She doesn’t even say good-bye when I let my highball glass slide across the bar behind her.
Despite having grown up on a few hundred acres of ranch land and missing the respite of that, living in downtown Denver does have its advantages. Primarily, it means I can walk nearly everywhere I want to go. From my loft, it’s two hundred yards to my favorite coffeehouse; another two hundred beyond that is the best burger in town. Our practice facility is less than a mile north and the stadium is two miles due south. Unless I’m desperate to get out of the city, away from the buildings, noise, and fans, I can easily leave my truck parked for weeks at a time.
Some imagine that Colorado is still cowboys and Indians, but these days it’s mostly hipsters and weekend warrior triathletes. Between the track bikes zipping along down by the Platte River and the miles of groomed urban trails, this city is becoming a place made for everything but your car. So much so that when people drive, it’s usually badly. Very badly, very rudely, a brake-check away from road rage. People think Texas is no-holds-barred when it comes to attitude, but a Coloradan behind the wheel puts the wild in the West.
I thought that leaving the sweaty bar, with its weird lights and loud guitar rock anthems blaring in the background, might clear my head, but it’s freezing out, which
does nothing but make my skull go from throbbing to screeching. The puffs of warm air leaving my mouth hang in front of me, and the distraction of it lingering there nearly topples me into the street. Stopping on the sidewalk, I shove my hands into my pockets and try to refocus my vision properly.
The traffic light nearest to where I stand cycles from red to green and I hear an audible click as it does. Which is not a good sign. Because a sudden case of supersonic hearing usually lasts approximately twenty minutes, and then I’m on my knees, holding my skull in my hands and wondering if this is how an ax feels landing on your head. The rebound effect of a tough hit can go on for days, tricking you into moments of peace for a bit, then walloping you like a baseball bat to the face.
The only thing that might help is filling my giant, football player–sized bathtub with a gritty layer of slowly dissolving Epsom salts and water that’s hot enough to turn my skin cherry red. If only my nights were full of the endless debauchery expected from a guy with my job. But my body has made debauchery less practical, while my outlook on life has made even the idea of it less tempting over the years.
Veering across the street, I drag open the door to a twenty-four-hour pharmacy to grab an extra bag of salts, just to be safe. When I get home, I probably won’t leave again until it’s time for Tuesday’s practice. As long as there is a fridge full of food and enough batteries for the remote controls, I’m good to hunker down until then.
The place is empty, as it should be at nearly midnight
on a bitterly cold Sunday night. The clerk at the counter looks up from the five-inch-thick textbook he’s reading and gives me a half-smile. I give him half of that in return.
Slipping down a far aisle, I stretch my hands out to draw against the edge of a shelf, enjoying the bit of stability. At the end of the shelf, I can see what I want. An enormous, glorious bag of salts. When I arrive there, I realize with new clarity that the bag is on the bottom shelf, and I will need to bend over to get it. Who in the fuck puts Epsom salts on a bottom shelf? The only sad souls who need them are old people and guys like me. Neither category is capable of reaching down that far without collapsing or shedding a few tears. I brace my hands on the uppermost shelves, close my eyes, and hang my head.
A complex calculation takes place in my head at this point, a slightly drunken multiplication of the moves required to dip and grab what I need, while simultaneously trying to avoid blacking out. Just when I’ve put all the pieces together and visualized them in my head, a voice breaks my concentration.
“Excuse me. Are you OK?”
It’s a woman’s voice, soft but clear, laced with apprehension. Of course. It would have to be a woman seeing me like this. All I can manage in response is a grunt.
Her voice lowers and I can sense her moving down the aisle toward me.
“Do you need some help?”
“Yes. Shit, yes, I need some help.”
When she gets within a foot of me, I can smell her; she’s covered in the scent of something coconutty. It quickly becomes the best damn thing I’ve experienced tonight and in reaction, I suck in a heavy inhale through my nose. She probably thinks I’m completely insane, but I just need this tropical breeze–scented woman to hand me a bag of salts, and we can both be on our way. She can head back to the beach, or heaven, or wherever she came from. I point down at the low shelf.
“I need a bag of Epsom salts. If I bend down to get them, I might never get back up. I just need the salts, please. I’ll give you anything if you just hand me a motherfucking bag of them. Anything.”
Then she laughs, a gentle laugh, absent of judgment or cruelty, and she clearly isn’t laughing at me because the sound of it is more pitiful. I slowly draw my eyes open just as she starts to duck under my arm, dragging her scent along the way. All I can see is the top of her head, a pile of wildly messy, light auburn waves in a sloppy bun, a red bandana wrapped around to secure the longer pieces back from her face. She’s twisted her way between me and the shelving, on her knees and leaning toward the bottom shelf.
Then she looks up to face me—from between my goddam legs—while pointing at the shelves.
“Big bag or small?”
Christ. It’s possible I’ve developed a brain tumor in the last few hours, because she’s fucking gorgeous. Pretty tan skin, hazel eyes, and full pink lips. In the right side of her nose is a tiny gold hoop piercing. She’s wearing men’s pajamas—not
the kind that girls normally wear, pink and covered in kittens or some crap. No, these are throwback-style, oversized, old-man’s pj’s in navy blue.
When she tilts her head back and lifts her arm to point more directly, just shoot me now, because I get a clear view of some very nice, very naked cleavage. The kind of cleavage I might normally endeavor to spend a great deal of time exploring. I shut my eyes and groan, hoping that not being able to see any more of her skin will somehow make this more manageable.
“Big bag. The biggest one down there.”
I hear her shift forward and another waft of the coconut whatever-she’s-wearing rises. When I open my eyes again, she’s dragging a bag off the shelf and then slips out from her perch on the floor in a graceful squat-hop over my planted foot.
Good job, asshole. Just stand here while this woman saves you from yourself, and don’t even bother trying to do the decent thing and move out of the way while she drags a bag off the floor for you.
The raised-right, polite version of me—who takes full appreciation of fine-smelling, pretty-cleavage-possessing, helpful women—has been replaced with the supreme dickwad version of myself. I normally reserve that guy for the media and people who test my patience. But right now, no matter how gorgeous this woman is, I’m just a guy who can’t muster much beyond a grunt because his job sometimes involves being a human punching bag.
Once I orient my limbs properly, I turn and shove away from the security of the shelves. Miss Hawaiian Tropic
thrusts the bag toward me and tilts her head incrementally, taking inventory, likely trying to determine exactly what kind of a jerk I am.
“This won’t help with a hangover—you know that, right? It’s probably dangerous to soak when you’re drunk anyway.”
Blinking, I crease my forehead tightly. “I’m not drunk; I’m in pain. Rough day at work.”
She nods slowly and narrows her eyes.
“You should add some lemongrass oil to the water. It’s good for detoxifying impurities and soothing inflammation.”
Raising her index finger toward the ceiling to stop me from going anywhere, as if that were even a possibility, she shuffles off down the aisle and peers around. Craning her head down a few random rows, she disappears for a second and then pops up again, her soft-looking waves moving slightly with every step.
Returning, she hands me a small bottle. “Shake a few drops in after you get the tub full.”
My eyes drop to the unreasonably tiny print on the bottle. Before I can make out any of the words, I notice her feet. Shoeless, but clad in a pair of thick, ugly, oatmeal-gray ragg wool socks.
“Are you not wearing any shoes?”
She looks down and lets out another gentle laugh.
“Yeah. That. Nope, no shoes. No worries, though—I don’t think I stepped on any big-city syringes or anything. I just crossed the street from the hotel; that’s all.”
She points across the street to a downtown hotel, and
I trace my gaze over her face again as she looks away, that tiny gold hoop dangling from her perfect little nose. Combined with the bandana wrapped around her messy hair, it’s decidedly a hippie-tastic look, but fuck me if it doesn’t look completely hot on this girl.
When she drops her arm and faces me, the pain threatening to shred my skull in two hits a crescendo, because her pretty lips drop open a few inches as she stares for a moment, then starts to babble. As she speaks, her eyes don’t leave mine and no particular expression covers her face; she simply blathers on and proceeds to devour me with her eyes.
“They wanted seven dollars for the bottled water in my room. Seven dollars, can you believe that? It’s appalling. Seven dollars for twelve ounces of water they poured from a municipal tap and bottled in non-biodegradable plastic loaded with BPAs and f-toxins. But the tap water in that hotel tastes like radiation and fluoride conspiracies. I figured I could at least pay slightly less for the privilege of poisoning the earth and everyone on it. Lesser of certain evils or whatever.”
Nodding, I wait for her to break this staring game, because I’m planning to enjoy it as long as I can. Until she gives in or a blood vessel breaks loose in my brain, I’m just going to stand right here and enjoy the view.
Eventually, she mumbles something about landfills and going to hell, then slips past me and makes her way to a refrigerated case at the back of the store. Once she arrives at the counter to pay, I sidle up and drop my bag of salts next to her bottle.
“Let me buy this evil, guilt-ridden bottle of water for you. As a thank-you for your help.”
Her eyes drop and don’t meet mine again. Not even when she mumbles a protest, then a thank-you. I watch her toddle across a four-lane street, jaywalking in those wool socks, then slip through the revolving door of the hotel.
Just a few buildings down the street, I stumble through the entrance of my warehouse loft building and jab at the elevator call button until the creaky beast finally appears. Charming authenticity, my ass. Tonight I’m convinced the developers of this warehouse conversion kept the prewar-era elevator in place because they’re cheap bastards.
Once inside my loft, I fill the tub and shake five drops of that oil into the water. Stripping my clothes off and letting them land in a pile, I slip into the heated water and sit there as long as possible, until my limbs feel manageably heavy and my mind promises sleep without pain.