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This Won't Hurt

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When you win, nothing hurts – Joe Namath

 

 

Kansas City, MO. Training camp.

Practice field: Kentucky bluegrass underfoot and July sun overhead, allowing not an ounce of forgiveness from a cloudless sky. Heat radiating up off the turf, pulling down beads of sweat, making mirages of the hash marks.

“You get enough reps in? You feel good?” Coach appears all at once, no fade in, no warning.

Alex pulls off his helmet, swipes at the sweat running down his temple. Coach Nagy’s looking at him, squinting out from under his visor. Chase and Tyler too, all waiting on his answer. Alex swallows. “I’m good.”

“Good, good,” Nagy echoes. “I want Chase to get some work in. Take ten. Get yourself some water.” He’s already turning away, Chase already fastening up his chinstrap, eyes fixed out on the field.

In lieu of getting water, Alex stays parked on the sideline, watching Chase take his first snap of the day. Chase has a decent arm, but he’s six foot nothing, which in this context passes for small. And he’s twenty-seven – not old, but past the point when a QB gets miraculously better. Alex can read those tea leaves as well as anybody: career backup. The sort of reliable fallback option that lets a coach exhale – solid, but not starting caliber.

He’s also the man that will replace Alex, should Alex stumble. Chase has to be ready in case something happens to Alex; that’s why he’s out there now, taking reps. And Alex has to be ready too, because once you lose that job, it’s a long road back. You can be playing the best football of your life, but if you miss a beat, it can still all be gone.

So you train together, and you sweat together, and you laugh together, and then, when the moment’s right, you pray the other guy is slow getting up. Alex pictures the cartoon of wolf and sheepdog, friendly before the punch of the clock, at each other’s throats after. And so Alex will watch Chase. And Chase will be watching him, waiting for his chance. That is, of course, unless Tyler usurps both of them. Given football’s affinity for miracles, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, but Tyler’s just a kid. Standing next to Alex, he tugs at the hem of his practice jersey, his gaze locked on Chase.

“Don’t watch Chase,” Alex says, under his breath. “Read the coverage.”

Tyler nods, and his eyes do flick up to the ‘backs, but there’s a tidal draw back to Chase. Back to his arm. Back to the ball.

It’s a sacred thing in football – the ball. A holy relic never to be let to touch the ground. Something to clutch to your chest, something for which you would let your bones break and your blood spill. Something to curl around and protect, your body’s most vital organ.

The football is not just the method through which points are scored, but the goal apparent. More even than that, the football is the embodiment of dreams for everyone who ever played, or wished to. The football is the pen that draws the play, the football is the trophy, the football is the artifact treasured when playing days are past. And sometimes, Alex can imagine that the football itself is actually stationary, and that it’s the players, and the field – and indeed the whole planet rotating under it.

These are the sorts of thoughts he used to share with David. The sorts of thoughts that would make David roll his eyes and grumble, “What? Did you get stoned while I wasn’t looking or something?”

But David had never visited Kansas City. Never, as far as Alex knows, come within 500 miles of it. David was a true Californian in his disdain for anything east of Tahoe, a child born of irritated fault lines and the coastal ranges they produced, and thus incapable of imagining the utter flatness here, and the way it could, if you squinted, be mistaken for a never-ending football field, a place where these sorts of thoughts are conceivable.

Part of him wonders how it would be taken if he turned to Tyler. Asked Tyler what he thought about Alex’s theory of geological formations as the mediating factors that channel the capacity of human imagination – but Tyler is radiating waves of nervous energy; it’s easy to read in the twitch of his hands and those quick-flickering eyes. There’s a particular way your throat tastes, when you’re that nervous. A particular longitude and latitude at which your chest becomes tight.

The sense-memory of that nervousness crawls around up under his pads, pulling at the space between his shoulder blades. “I’m gonna take a walk.”

Tyler barely nods.

Further up the field, members of the O line are drilling footwork – quick, precise steps, executed over and over again. Beyond them are the receivers, beyond them –

“Hey, Eleven!”

Alex looks toward the sound. Up at the very end of the field – at the bit set aside for special teams – there’s a guy walking toward him.

“If you’re just standing around, come hold for my kicker.” He sounds like a coach, but he’s got a practice jersey on. A voice with that Southern twang so pervasive in football it sounds more like home than California. It takes Alex a second to place him – everyone’s faces are still too new – and it’s the number that does it – the big, white 2 across his chest. That’s Dustin Colquitt. The punter.

Colquitt frowns. “Unless you just wanted to keep wandering around looking lost?”

In the multi-tiered caste system of football, there are many, many rungs between QB1 and punter. And perhaps this is where the crescendoing minor chord gets struck in the tragicomedy of Alex’s life: accosted for favors by the punter.

Colquitt seems to think nothing of his request, one hand held up to shade his eyes from the sun, a slightly impatient look on his face, like he’d ask god or Head Coach Andy Reid himself if he thought it’d get him what he wanted faster.

The last time Alex held for the kicker, he was playing on Saturday nights. “No. I’ll hold.”

Alex follows him back to a duo standing up field. “You said you were going to go find someone to hold,” one of them says. Another kid, no older than Tyler. “You didn’t say you were going to get the starting quarterback.”

Colquitt tips his head. “I got sway.” He points at the kid. “This is Durham.” Then at the man behind him. “And that’s my snapper, Snap.”

The last guy rolls his eyes and holds out his hand. “Gafford. Tom Gafford.”

“Normally I’d be happy to hold.” Colquitt has a snub nose and a mess of blond hair. “But I can’t hold and watch his form at the same time, and Ryan’s not here today.” When, after a moment, nobody moves, Colquitt says, “You getting paid by the hour, Durham? Let’s go.”

Alex squats down, tips the football lying on the turf upright. “How do you want it?”

The kid looks down at him, skeptical expression still firmly in place. “Laces out. Just a bit to the right.” He toes a mark in the turf.

“Try not to kick his hand,” Colquitt says, dry.

Alex pitches the ball up to Gafford. Gafford snaps – fast, clean; Alex sets, and just a fraction of a second later, Durham’s foot is connecting, a solid thump, and it’s aloft, sailing end over end between the goalposts. Clearing, but not easily.

“Not bad.” Colquitt drops into a crouch and he taps the inside of Durham’s foot. “But still high, yeah? You gotta connect with it here. The hard part of the instep. You bring your hips around faster, it’ll get easier.”

Durham nods.

The next kick is lofted higher. And the others look identical to Alex, but it’s not until the fifth that Colquitt grins. “Yeah. Yeah, that one I like.” He pats Durham’s shoulder. “That’s a good one to end on. You feel good about that one?”

The kid nods and smiles down at the ground. “You gonna kick today, Dustin?”

Colquitt shrugs. “Sure. I’ll kick a few.” He glances at Alex. “You gonna stick around, Eleven? See how it’s done?”

He’s smiling at Alex like it’s a joke – one Alex isn’t quite sure if he’s meant to be in. “I’ve seen my share of punts.”

“Yeah,” Colquitt says, “but I’m the best.” Gafford snaps and the first punt goes high and true, a perfect arc, an impossible pause at the zenith before tumbling into the protective netting behind the posts. “My brother’s a punter,” Colquitt tells him conversationally, shaking out his leg. “My uncle was a punter. My daddy was a punter. His daddy – well, he owned a grocery store, but you better believe he could kick a ball.”

The next ball travels a near-identical trajectory. Colquitt follows it with his eyes. “What do you say, Snap? You put that one over five?”

Gafford grins. “Five-oh-five, I’d say.”

“Seconds,” Colquitt informs Alex. “See – it’s not the length. It’s how long you can keep it up.” Then he winks.

 

 

The Chiefs let them go home at the end of the day, one of those tiny and incalculably valuable luxuries, not missed until it’s gone – until you’re wrapped up in a world of fourteen hour work days, followed by summer dorm room barracks, bed checks, and lights-out by ten. Instead they practice at the local facility and get to go home. It is, Coach Reid says, about trust.

It is, Alex thinks, more likely about doing everything possible the polar opposite of 2012. As though the Chiefs thought to themselves, well we’ve figured out what doesn’t work.

Cue a new coach, a new GM, and one slightly used, slightly tarnished quarterback, picked up cheap.

Either way, it leaves Alex with plenty of time to distribute his belongings throughout an empty house. A two-story rental in a sea of identical models, set atop identical lots. Each, he imagines, in possession of identical stainless steel appliances, vaulted ceilings and curved banister stairs. Alex pulls out his Ritual Coffee hoodie, his NC Boardshop tees – sets them adrift in the best suburbia has to offer. He hangs his Adapt beanies and Giants caps on premade, factory-installed hooks.

The Gold-Blooded gear, obviously, didn’t make the trip.

Alex cocks his head and stares at his closet. The effect is one of an aging hipster that woke up in the Container Store. The real estate equivalent of buying a minivan. He rubs the bridge of his nose.

Moving forced a whole host of confrontations with wool- and cotton-constructed ghosts, in a how-much-effort-will-you-expend-to-carry-this-with-you sort of way, relics not just of San Francisco and the ‘Niners, but of David. Over the years, Alex has, in fits of mental health, whittled down the number of David’s possessions he still has. But there were still enough of them – tucked in the back of drawers and the depths of closets – to fill boxes, just as impossible to throw away now as they were years ago. And now Alex has carried it all east, to the windswept, land-locked Midwest. Stockyard Capital of the World. Bible Belt. Breadbasket – pick your cliché.

He drifts from box to box, pausing to hold what was once a favorite scarf, the material soft under his fingers. In a week, it’ll be coming up on five years. Alex will be in New Orleans. David will still be gone.

 

 

The Kansas City locker room is decked in shades of red and gold just similar enough to be disorienting. Alex sits down in front of his locker, lets his head drop, closes his eyes.

Jamaal Charles is groaning off to Alex’s right. “Goddamn, I’m sore. Goddamn. Why the fuck we do this?” Alex glances over; Charles is stretched out on one of the air mattresses littering the room, arm thrown over his eyes. They’re deep enough into two-a-days now that everyone’s exhausted. Irritable.

“Well, in your case I can think of about thirteen million reasons why.” Sherman. Fullback. His eyes are also closed. He kicks out at the mattress near Charles’ head.

Charles bats at him half-hearted. “Get your fucking feet away from me.”

Eric Berry pushes through the doors at the other end of the room, eyes both of them. “Now, now children. Don’t make me sing Kumbaya.”

Off to Alex’s left, Colquitt warns the room at large, “He’ll do it too.”

“Shut it, punter.” Charles and Sherman say it as one. Charles holds his hand up for a high five.

Colquitt just rolls his eyes, sounds amused more than anything else when he says, “Too bad you can’t make a full time job out of talking shit, Sherm. You’d be in line for a raise.”

Sherman’s grin is likewise affectionate. “Maybe my job is giving you shit, Colquitt.”

“I thought your job was watching his ass.” Colquitt tips his head back towards Alex, the first time anyone in the room has acknowledged he’s there.

Eric Berry cuts his way between them. He delivers a soft knock to Colquitt’s shoulder as he goes by. “Too bad you’re not bigger, Dusty. Bet you would have been real good at that.”

Colquitt gives him a look of death. “See if I ever put you on the two again.”

Berry grins and pulls up short in front of Alex. “Your Center is in with the trainers again, Mr. Smith.” It’s said with one eyebrow significantly raised, his tone hard to judge. Berry is the only guy in the room who doesn’t seem the least slowed down by two-a-days. But then, Eric Berry might be insane.

Alex hops up, nods his thanks.

Hudson, who at 299 is the lightest, and at Center is the coordinator and spokesman for the O line hive mind, is reclining on one of the trainer’s tables when Alex walks in. “Your hand?”

Hudson nods, confirms, “My hand.”

Alex pulls up a chair. “How is it?”

Hudson holds it up for inspection. Not a single straight finger left, each twisted and gnarled as a manzanita tree. “You’re about eight years too late to be asking that,” he says. But he grins and bumps the back of his hand against Alex’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, boss. I’ll be good to go.”

Alex, and in his experience quarterbacks in general, view their O lines as a terrifyingly human and fallible wall between them and assured destruction. Alex is reasonably sure an O line views their quarterback as an expensive show pony who could make their lives much, much easier if he would just do his damn job, and do it quickly. “How are the rest of the guys? How’s Fisher doing?” Kansas City has a young line, but Fisher’s the only true rookie on it. The first overall pick in this year’s draft. Kansas City’s prize for a miserable 2012.

Hudson sticks his lip out thoughtful, tips his head back and forth. “He’s coming. Better every practice. He’s carrying weight, you know?”

Alex went first overall in 2005, a bright-eyed kid with a stellar arm that went 21 and 2 as starting QB in Utah. His family had gone with him to New York for the draft. And David, of course David had been there too. The eve of the draft, Alex’s mom had chased everyone out of their room, with strident declarations of Alex needs his rest. Alex’s dad had closed with a hearty, big day tomorrow, and when the door shut behind them, David had lain down, resting his head on Alex’s shoulder.

The smell of his shampoo, the weight of his head was familiar, even in this anonymous room, even in this anonymous city with its lights and its noise and its promises. He let his fingertips rest on the back of David’s neck, and David burrowed closer, one arm hooked loosely around Alex’s waist.

“You jump for them?” David asked.

Alex smiled into his hair. “As high as I could.”

“You run fast?”

“The fastest.”

“You let them pick your brain?”

Alex grinned. “Wonderlic wunderkind,” he said, echoing one of the more inane comments spouted by a reporter earlier that day.

David’s head came up at that, expression relaying exactly how ridiculous he thought it was. Alex pressed him forward; David offered token resistance, a smirk on his face before he capitulated and let Alex kiss him, soft and lazy and familiar.

David pulled back, but just a little. He stayed close enough Alex could see the faded spray of freckles across his cheeks, not nearly as pronounced as they were back in high school. Close enough Alex could see all the different shades of green and brown and gold in his eyes.

Alex ran his fingers across David’s smirk, and David’s face had gone still, smile freezing under Alex’s touch. David was always prone to moodiness – earlier in the day it had been nonstop we have to go the Met while we’re here and the Guggenheim and Central Park and Times Square, just to say we did. Words tumbling over each other, one hand on Alex’s sleeve, like he was prepared to drag him out if need be. Now he was frowning, serious and distant. “What do you think all those GMs would say about this?”

As though Alex was supposed to have an answer. As though there were an answer. Alex shrugged.

David didn’t look placated. And maybe that was a moment when Alex should have asked him, Is this going to make you unhappy? Is this the right thing?

But those weren’t the sort of questions you asked. Not at twenty, not facing down the NFL draft as a first-round, sure-thing, can’t-miss pick. Not when everything and everyone in the world was a wind at your back, blowing you in one direction.

Before Alex could respond, David had sighed, dropped his head back down against Alex’s shoulder. “So, do you think it’s going to be San Francisco?”

“Maybe.” McCloughan, the ‘Niners’ GM, had liked him. But going to San Francisco would mean going first overall. At the time, it had been impossible to think about.

David’s fingers ran over Alex’s shirt, catching and twisting in the fabric. Alex stilled his hand. “You like San Francisco,” Alex said. It was supposed to be comforting.

David laughed a little against his chest. “Does it matter?”

Alex didn’t have a response for that either, nothing for the sudden sharpness in David’s tone.

“Hey, I’m sorry. Hey.” David sat up, held Alex’s face in his hands. “I’m just nervous. I do like San Francisco, really.”

“It’s gonna be fine,” Alex said.

David slid back down, wrapped his arm back around Alex, and fitted himself close. “Yeah. It’s going to be fine.”

 

 

Reid says, “Good job today, men.” Up at the front of the room he’s a round, bright-eyed presence. Alex tilts his head, squints. In his red Chiefs polo, Reid resembles nothing so much as the wall-smashing Kool-Aid Man. This realization brings a certain amount of delight, tempered only by the fact that there is no one familiar at his side to turn to and share it with. Alex bites his lip hard to keep from smiling. He nods seriously at whatever Reid is saying.

“So,” Reid continues. “Tomorrow’s going to be an off day. Enjoy your time away – ” The rest of whatever he was going to say is lost to whoops and cheers, louder than kids set free at the end of term. And the fact that it’s an old coaching ploy, a bite of carrot to offset the stick, hardly dims their enthusiasm.

Alex feels almost giddy on their behalf, and after they’re released, a hugely grinning Eric Berry sets an arm across Alex’s shoulders. “So what are you going to do tonight now that we’ve got tomorrow off?”

“I don’t know.” Heading back to his empty house sounds only marginally more appealing than heading back to the weight room. But both of those sound better than exploring whatever passes for nightlife in Kansas City by himself. “Probably unpack a few more boxes.”

It is immediately clear this is the wrong answer. “No,” Berry says in a tone of horrified disgust. He shakes his head, then he starts scanning the room in front of them, one arm still tight around Alex’s shoulders. He eventually steers them over to Colquitt.

Colquitt looks back and forth between them, deepening skepticism on his face. “What?”

Berry points at him. “You should take Alex out tonight.”

Colquitt does not look enthused. “Why can’t you take him out?”

“Because I have a date,” Berry brushes imaginary lint off his shirt.

“And if I have plans?” Colquitt’s arms are crossed in front of his chest.

Berry makes a deeply skeptical noise. “Please.” He stares down Colquitt. “You can show him what skinny white boys do in Kansas City.”

Colquitt’s eyes flick over to Alex. Alex swallows. “You know, I could probably just – ”

“He was gonna go unpack boxes.” Berry gives Alex’s back a hearty slap. “Go have fun.”

There’s a pause while Colquitt watches Berry leave, and in that space Alex realizes he’s just witnessed a perfectly executed rookie handoff. Here, you watch him. Keep him out of trouble. Make sure he stays in one piece.

Except, of course, Alex is no rookie. “Look, if you’ve got plans,” Alex says. “I really don’t need to be entertained, or… supervised.”

Colquitt’s gaze snaps back to him. “I was – ” He shakes his head. “Actually, I was going to go grocery shopping.” He looks embarrassed. As if he were worried about Alex passing judgment, instead of the other way around.

Alex hesitates, unsure of his welcome. “I need food. Groceries, I mean. I need groceries.”

“Yeah?” Colquitt leans back against the lockers, studies Alex. “Well, okay. Alright then. Groceries.” And then, with a crooked grin, “God – just don’t tell Eric; he’d kill me.”

Colquitt drives them into the city, narrating as he goes. “That’s the Power & Light District. Bars, clubs. Mosaic. Fuego. KC Live.” He points as they go past. “That’s where Eric and Jamaal and all them like to go out.”

Alex glances away from the window. “But not you?”

“Not really my scene.”

The last of the sunlight is slanting in low, making Colquitt squint and pull the brim of his cap down. Alex watches his fingers drumming across the steering wheel. “Where do you go out?”

Colquitt waves a hand vaguely. “Eh, you wouldn’t like where I hang out.” Then he turns off onto a side street. “And this is where Whole Foods is.” Parks and looks seriously at Alex. “The good Whole Foods. Not the shitty Whole Foods – that’s down in Overlake. Too many strollers.”

Colquitt moves methodically down each aisle of the nearly empty store, slow progress punctuated with long contemplative pauses to stare at the shelves. He stops and picks up a yogurt container, brow furrowed in an intense study of the back label. He’s shifting his weight back and forth, absently going up on his toes and then back down.

Alex is probably staring. Alex is also cold, the refrigerated air making his skin prickle. “Hey.”

Colquitt looks up.

“Any day now.”

Colquitt frowns at him. “You don’t care what you eat?” He gestures with the yogurt container. “You should care about what you put in your body.”

Lessons in nutrition from a punter. Alex shrugs. “I just get the same things every time. Makes it easier.”

Colquitt laughs. “You know, I’m starting to see why you took this trade so hard.”

As if he knew Alex. As if he had any idea what being traded was like. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I – nothing.” Colquitt holds up a defensive hand. “I just meant, you don’t seem like a big fan of change.”

Even if he wanted to, Alex probably couldn’t count all the times David had said something like, “What if we just tried the other Thai place?” Or, “You know the store brand is exactly the same thing, right?”

Alex should probably relax.

Colquitt’s quiet for the rest of their shopping adventure. Everything Alex starts to say feels stilted and awkward, and he swallows the words back. In the truck, Colquitt glances over at him and then flips the radio on.

When Colquitt pulls up in front of Alex’s house, he frowns down at the steering wheel. “I didn’t mean anything, earlier – ”

Alex reaches into one of his grocery bags and pulls out the beer he bought. “You want to come in and drink this?”

Colquitt blinks, looking surprised. There’s a beat before he responds. “Sure.” He takes his hat off when he comes inside. Wipes his feet carefully on Alex’s doormat. Helps Alex carry his groceries in.

Alex waves towards the living room. “Make yourself comfortable.”

From the kitchen, Alex can watch his meandering circuit of the room as Colquitt navigates around the stacks of boxes. “How long have you been here, again?” He asks.

“On and off since March.” Alex walks into the living room and hands him a beer.

“Huh.” Colquitt looks around the room, thoughtful.

Colquitt’s as loud as anybody in the locker room. More part of the team than any other punter Alex has met, he interacts with everyone with a boisterous, casual ease. It’s strange to see him look so hesitant, move so cautious through Alex’s space, as though Alex is something to be handled delicately, like he deserves concern – or pity.

Alex can feel a flush spreading across the back of his neck. At the very least, he has a couch. He sits down. “How’s Durham doing?”

Colquitt looks surprised. “Oh, well. He doesn’t really have a shot of making the team. Ryan’s got the kicking job locked up, and the Chiefs aren’t going to carry three kickers. But he’s got decent technique. If he keeps working he has a good chance of catching on somewhere else.”

Alex has seen guys that would run over their own grandma if she were their competition in camp. “You spend a lot of time coaching him.”

Colquitt shrugs, fingers twisting around the beer bottle in his hands. “He’s a good kid, you know?”

“Still, it’s nice of you.”

Colquitt sits lightly on the opposite end of the couch. “You gotta watch out for the new guys.”

Alex frowns. It would have been nice to have had some kind of mentorship in San Francisco. Although with the revolving door of personnel the ‘Niners had through his first years there, it’s hard to imagine who would have had the time.

Colquitt’s watching him. “Football’s not an easy job.”

At the low point in San Francisco, those years when the team could barely string two wins together, the crowds had booed him. They burned his jersey. They even put it on the news. Right before traffic. “I guess not.”

Colquitt lets his head fall back against the cushion, mouth twisting crookedly. “Money’s not bad though.”

Alex inclines his head. Looking around, the walls are still blank, the floor space mostly empty. Maybe he should just pay someone to fill it – if Kansas City decides to keep him, this will be home. Alternatively, Kansas City could decide to cut him. In which case he should have bags packed, ready to go. And there’s the dilemma: no crystal ball. His future is a black box. His career is both alive and dead until proven otherwise. Schrödinger’s Signal-Caller.

“Hey though – ” Colquitt straightens. “Seriously. These are good guys here. Last year sucked. Everything about it sucked. And when you lose somebody like that – ”

For one bewildered second, Alex thinks he’s talking about David.

“ – Jovan, I mean. It makes you realize what’s really important.” Colquitt rolls his eyes. “I know that sounds stupid, but. It’s true. The guys on this team are all really important to me. And they care about me, and fuck, I’m – ” He shakes his head, swallows whatever he was going to say, and looks down. “I’m just the punter. They’ll give you a shot.”

Alex watches him shift, nervous, at the edge of his seat.

And – Alex must come off so stilted, so awkward. It’s suddenly not hard to imagine how he must seem: a quarterback who doesn’t say anything in the room. A quarterback who won’t unpack his things. Which isn’t – Alex clears his throat. “Thanks.”

“Anyway.” Colquitt stands up. He sets his empty beer down. “I’ve definitely talked at you enough. And I should – ” He gestures vaguely towards his car. “Groceries and all – ”

“Colquitt,” Alex says. “Thank you.”

Colquitt pauses. He tips his head. “Sure,” he says. “Thanks for the beer.”

 

 

Preseason will always be the time of year David died, as inextricably linked to it as heat and exhaustion and boredom and sweat. If Alex were a less contemplative man, he might merely say he hates August. The vast majority of football players would certainly agree. A return to workouts, to being yelled at. The stress of one’s job hanging by a thread constructed of nothing but your body’s fragile health and your coach’s whimsy.

But Alex is, in fact, a contemplative man, and as such, he is willing to grant a reprieve to the calendar month of August. The month is merely home to a host of shitty things, that’s all, brought on by his perspective, and nothing inherent to the calendar itself. If Alex had chosen any other profession in the world, he would likely not harbor such antipathy. Of course, if he wanders down the dendritically branching hypothetical of alternate job choice, wouldn’t that change everything else as well?

If Alex hadn’t chosen a profession that led him to be so busy, so single-mindedly focused on work, so far from home so often, couldn’t you imagine that, for example, David might not be dead?

This is not the first time his thoughts have meandered down this path; it leads nowhere good, and Alex should know better.

This time last year he’d been in San Francisco preparing for the Vikings, moody enough or quiet enough that Colin had danced around him. “Hey I – ” Colin trailed off, started again. “One of the guys told me – I’m sorry about your friend. I mean – ” Colin was just in his second year then. As a rookie, he wasn’t privy to most of the locker room gossip, but apparently this year he’d been informed of the reason behind Alex’s annual black moods in August. Colin’s words came out awkward and slow at the best of times; this was no different. “Just sorry, I guess.”

When Colin Kaepernick had been drafted by the ‘Niners, Alex had known that this was the guy he was going to lose his job to. He just hadn’t known when. “Thanks.”

“Also,” Colin hesitated. “Coach said Minny’s making changes to their line? That I’m supposed to study?”

Colin ran like a dream. He had an arm, sure, but it was his positively cervine gait that was mind-blowing. The way he could twist and flare suddenly into action, a stag eluding hounds. The metaphor was particularly apt, given that Alex had imagined a target’s crosshairs on the back of Colin’s head more than once.

But this, knowing thy enemy, preparing – this is where Alex still had him. He pushed everything else in his head to the side, and motioned for Colin to sit down next to him. Because there was always football. Even at your highest highs and lowest lows, there was always the Game waiting to be played. Just like it had been four years earlier when, the day after David had died, Alex had gone to practice, totally and utterly unsure what else to do. “Show me your game book.”

Colin watched him as he flipped through (This is Jared Allen, right? Here’s what Allen likes to do. This is Cook – he’s fucking fast) nodding along and following Alex’s finger as it sketched out diagrams on the page. Back then, Colin’s tattoos were still mostly outlines, just barely sketched in. His body a literal work in progress. He glanced over at Alex, shy grin on his face. “Thanks.”

This year Alex is in Kansas City, staring across the green slant of a practice field – identical in every way that doesn’t matter to every other field he’s been on, still strikingly unfamiliar in all the ways that count.

Alex walks down the line of men stretching, finds a gap and drops onto the ground. Next to him, Sherman is sitting with his legs extended in front of him, grabbing his toes, and his lips are pursed in either thought or pain. Sherman turns to Charles. “Yeah, okay, that makes sense. But who’s your running back?”

On Alex’s other side, Bowe reaches skyward, one hand grabbing one elbow. “Please tell me y’all aren’t doing Fantasy.”

“No.” Charles looks insulted. “One game. Team Human versus Team Aliens. Fate of the planet in your hands, who’s your running back? And if you don’t say me, I’m gonna put shaving cream in all your shit, so – ”

“Fuck that,” Bowe says. “AP all the way, baby – you can sub in the second half. Maybe.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “Man. You suck.” He turns back to Sherman. “Who’s your QB?”

“I don’t know. Peyton?”

“A division rival? Low, dog. Low.”

“Who would you take?”

Charles pauses in thought. “Rodgers probably. Boy’s got an arm.” He glances over at Alex. “No offense.”

Fun fact: Aaron Rodgers was the second quarterback drafted in 2005. After Alex. Alex wonders if Charles remembers that. He laughs, though. Because it’s funny. “None taken. Aaron can have all the aliens.”

Sherman asks, “Hey, this game – is it being played on earth, or what?”

“Shit.” Bowe cracks his neck. “How many more days ‘til New Orleans?”

Alex lays back against the turf thinking about numbers. He folds one leg across his body. Way up above, wisps of cirrus clouds are sketched across the sky. In the era of Fantasy and betting, quarterbacks are most popular when they can be distilled down to a set of favorable numbers. Passer rating, for example, ranks Peyton Manning second (96.7) and Aaron Rodgers first (104.9) among active quarterbacks. Alex keeps track. Everybody – no matter what they tell you – keeps track. Albeit with varying degrees of comprehension and worry.

There are message boards. Alex has been on them, paging through, as if the key to all the things he’s doing wrong might be hidden away there. Arguing with himself that knowing what they’re saying is better than not knowing. And he’s wondered more than once who else is on there, if – for example – NFLFAN0421, who is asking once again for a passer rating calculation explanation, is secretly Tony Romo or someone like him. Alex has not posted to these online exchanges – because he is not quite that masochistic – but if he did, he might say something like:

Look. It’s simple. You just calculate completion percentage (Completions / attempts). Subtract 0.3 and multiply by 5 for arcane scaling reasons. Then you calculate yards per attempt (Yards / attempts), scale it. Calculate percentage TDs (TDs / attempts), and interceptions (interceptions / attempts). Add the whole thing up. Divide by six and multiply by 100. Easy.

Plenty of late nights David, who had disapproved of Alex’s internet forays, would hook his chin on Alex’s shoulder, wrap his arms around him from behind. “Alex,” he said once, dragging the name out in protest. “I’m going to make up a new stat. It’s called DCR. Diminishing Coital Returns. It tracks how boyfriends who come to bed late don’t get laid.”

That had been distracting enough to make him laugh and put the keyboard down. He tipped his head and reached back to hold David, press him close. “There better be a small sample size on that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. N is nights, not boyfriends.” Smiling down at him as if it were him and Alex against the world. Just like it’d always been. Just like Alex had assumed it would always be.

Coach Reid would, no doubt, also take a dim view of Alex tracking online forums. This morning, he’d said – live and in person, because he is an NFL coach with no need for a semi-imagined internet audience – and with what Alex was learning, characteristic bluntness, “Yeah, I don’t give a fuck about stats. I care about holding onto the ball. I care about turnovers. I care about wins.”

He’d said it on the plane to New Orleans, before letting Alex escape to the players’ section. The articles were starting to come out, Reid said, the Can-Smith-Handle-It articles. The Game-Manager articles, before the season had even started. All the shit he should ignore. “We’re going to play good, simple, team ball,” he said. And then he stared at Alex, bushy eyebrows raised in an expectant look.

For a second, Alex hadn’t known how to respond. It was hardly the first time Alex had been accused of thinking too much. (Over 200 plays in the Niners’ offensive playbook, each with at least six variations based on defensive formation, and alterable in three distinct ways via audible. And Alex, twenty years old and terrified, determined to learn every one).

Alex had fallen back on the very first thing they teach you to say to coaches, the opening line and the closer, the alpha and omega of footballplayerese, and said, “Yes, sir.”

At the time Reid’s words had seemed a kind gesture – one meant to gloss over Alex’s deficiencies, because had Reid been blessed to have on his team a QB that could throw the long bomb and be quick about it, he would be able to utilize all the opportunities a spread offense affords. If he had an elite, exceptional athlete in that position – thighs all filled with fast-twitch glory and head young enough to be filled with a certainty that he won’t die – Reid could probably help carry the standard of the resurgence of the read-option at the pro level.

But what he has instead is a QB who is not so much great as he is good enough. A QB with a re-constructed shoulder he probably doesn’t want to test, a QB who San Francisco labeled a head case, who they called soft

Alex switches sides, feeling the stretch high in his hip. Up above, the sky is still a perfect robin’s egg blue.

But Reid likes him. Or, more accurately, Reid says he likes him. He’d said, “You know I tried to trade for you in Philly?” He also gives Alex continuous shit about his time at the U of Utah, which didn’t make sense until Alex remembered Reid was a BYU kid.

“I know Urban,” Reid said. “Did you know that? Urban and I go way back.”

Urban Meyer was Alex’s college coach. Urban Meyer was the guy who took one look at Alex his freshman year and said, “You lost? This isn’t cross-country try outs.” And, “Well, you look like you have all the makings of a third string nobody, don’t you? You think you’re better than that?”

Alex said, “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

Urban hadn’t done anything so revealing as grin, but he had said, “Alright. Prove it.”

When Alex had called him after the draft, Urban had said, “You sometimes took pushing, but I always knew you were going to play on Sundays.”

The rational part of Alex knows that it’s in Reid’s best interest to flatter him, to keep him confident no matter what he really thinks. But maybe there’s a chance it’s something simpler than that.

Maybe Reid is genuinely pleased to have him here. Wouldn’t that be novel.

 

 

New Orleans, LA. The Saints. Preseason, Week 1

Perhaps he should view it as some sort of privilege, some completion of a cosmic circle that they play their first preseason game in New Orleans, where Alex played his very last game as a San Francisco 49er. If, of course, by “played” you mean stood on the sideline and watched. The location from which, Coach Harbaugh said, Alex gave the team the best chance to win.

Nothing personal.

In New Orleans, the Chiefs are put up in the very same Hilton. From his room, Alex has a lovely view of the Superdome. Last February it was lit up like a Christmas tree, a marquee attraction. Tonight it’s dark in anticipation of tomorrow: awaiting the first kickoff of the first game, the first week of a new season.

As good an excuse for not sleeping as any.

The hallways are still, a post-curfew quiet settled over them. Alex walks to the vending machines and spends a long time contemplating his choices. The ice machine next to him hums, leaking water onto the carpet, an imperceptibly expanding pool.

Red Hots in hand, Alex takes the long way back to his room, making an aimless circuit. The evenly spaced doorways on either side all equally silent until he gets to one where, low but audible, a distinctly British announcer’s voice is narrating. Alex pauses.

The sound dims, and after a moment, the door opens.

“Shit,” Colquitt says. “I thought you were Coach. Stop skulking in the hallway and get in here.”

Inside Ryan Succop, Tom Gafford, Dexter McCluster, and Eric Fisher are sprawled across the available seating. They barely glance at him, and for a moment Alex’s brain is stuck trying to put together why a kicker, a long snapper, a wide receiver and his right tackle are all gathered in Dustin Colquitt’s hotel room in the middle of the night. Colquitt cuts across the room and Tom Gafford frowns. “Down in front.” His eyes never leave the screen.

Colquitt waves him off, settles himself in the desk chair. “Welcome to the fraternity of football players who give a fuck about the other football.”

On the screen, a man in a red jersey is lining up for a penalty kick. “Bet you ten bucks he skies it,” Succop says. The room’s only response is the light shove that Fisher gives him from his seat next to him on the bed.

“Premier League.” Colquitt’s keeping one eye on Alex, as though uncertain what he’s going to do.

Alex sits on the floor.

“Rookie,” McCluster says. “At least give the man a goddamn pillow.”

Fisher sits up fast. “Sorry.” He starts to hold it out, then reconsiders. “Or did you want to sit here, I could – ”

“It’s fine, E,” Alex says. “Just give me the pillow.”

Colquitt grins.

Alex only half-follows their conversations about transfers and relegation, watching the tiny figures run an endless length of field. When the red jerseys score, Colquitt nudges him with his foot. Alex looks up. “We’re cheering for Man U,” Colquitt says. “But only to piss off Snap.”

Gafford flips him the bird. “Don’t listen to him, Smith. You’ll only be disappointed by their inevitable mid-season decline.”

Gafford and Succop leave when Man U goes up by two, matching disgusted expressions on their faces. Fisher and McCluster last the entire game. “Night, man,” Fisher calls as he heads out.

Alex makes his way to the door as well, but he’s slow to leave, watches Colquitt stretch and flip the TV off. The screen’s dark, no more reason to stay. “Soccer, huh?”

Colquitt blinks at him, a slight, uncertain smile on his face. “Yeah. I – actually I went to school on a soccer scholarship. I didn’t start football until later.” He shrugs. “You like soccer?”

Not really. Alex was never the one who liked soccer. There’s a little twist of nerves in his chest. “I dated someone for a long time who was into soccer.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. MLS, though. Mostly.”

Colquitt nods at this. “You ever go to Earthquakes games?”

“No, we were long distance at the end. I had football in San Francisco, and – ” A part of Alex wants to just let it all spill out, to just lay out all his cards. Colquitt might – Alex swallows back the urge. He shrugs. “There was law school in San Diego.”

Colquitt nods again, more slowly this time. And maybe Alex has already been too obvious, because Colquitt’s lips are moving slightly, like he’s searching for a safe question. “How’d you meet?”

David talking nonstop during first period English, a million irrepressible opinions. The way he’d dismissed Alex – who was sitting in the back with the rest of the football players – out of hand. The way his eyes had widened when Alex said something that impressed him, turning fully around in his desk, face split in an unexpected grin. Alex smiles. “High school. First day of high school.”

“Well, you’re – ” Colquitt rubs the back of his neck. “ – you’re welcome to come over and watch soccer sometime. Any time, I mean.”

 

 

Kansas City, MO. The 49ers. Preseason, Week 2

Alex’s cosmic retribution tour continues into the second week, when they host the ‘Niners.

In the locker room before the game, Berry says, “Don’t worry, holmes. We’re going to get you this win against your old boys.” He grins, pats Alex’s arm. “We’re going to win lots of games together. You hear me? Last week – that’s old news.”

Last week, they lost.

His hand is still on Alex’s arm, light patter still going. “We’re happy to have you here. You’re doing good. San Francisco, please. Who needs San Francisco? Nobody. You’re good, you’re golden – ”

Colquitt looks up from his locker. “He’d probably be doing better if you shut up for two minutes and let him get dressed.”

“Aww, don’t hate.” Berry pats Alex’s arm again, leans in. “Don’t worry, Dusty’s happy to have you here, too. He thinks you’re pretty, you know – ”

From across the room, “Eric fucking Berry, I swear to god – ”

“Seriously, he’s like one step away from having a picture of you in his locker – ” The last bit comes out rushed as Berry ducks the shoe that comes flying at his head. He walks off grinning.

Colquitt shakes his head at Berry’s retreating back. Then he rolls his eyes at Alex and shrugs, like, Eric Berry. What can you do? “He’s just trying to, you know, lighten the mood,” Colquitt says after a beat.

Alex leans down, picks up Colquitt’s shoe and holds it out to him. He thinks about Colquitt standing in a darkened hotel room, and suddenly he’s thinking about the kaleidoscope of possibilities of what might have happened if Alex had reached across the space. “Not bad aim. For a punter.”

Colquitt drifts over slow to take the shoe from him, and Alex holds onto it for an extra beat after he takes hold. Colquitt smiles at him, uncertain. “Thanks.”

Alex lets go, and Colquitt retreats across the room. He turns around to face his locker. The back of his neck is bright red.

 

 

From a purely anthropological standpoint, it’s fascinating to note who looks at him and who doesn’t. Who shakes his hand, and how firm, and where their eyes are when they do. Coach Harbaugh makes a point to cross the field before the game, to put a hand on his shoulder and smile, and say, “Good to see you, Alex. You look good. Real good.”

Of the three head coaches (six offensive coordinators, a bevy of quarterback coaches, and a partridge in a pear tree) who Alex served under in San Francisco, Harbaugh was by far the most competent. Alex learned how to win under Harbaugh – how to lead people past what they thought they could do, how to capitalize on luck with a ruthless, efficient urgency. And how you can, in the same friendly tone that you might use to deliver an innocuous greeting, that you might use to say, for example, Good to see you, Alex. You look good. Real good, you can also say, “We’re promoting Kaepernick. You’re our number two.”

Just business, Alex. You understand.

Just business doesn’t mean Alex had to be fine with it. And just business doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win.

But wanting to win isn’t enough. To win, you need passes to connect, you need a line that holds, you need eleven guys at the right place at the right time. Instead, Alex spends the game picking turf out of his facemask, watching drops, and pretending his shoulder doesn’t hurt. Enough three-and-outs to keep Colquitt busy, and Alex can see the headlines now, Smith struggles against former team.

Maybe not all of it’s Alex’s fault, but that’s what you do as QB: you take the blame. Back in 2010, when Coach Singletary was fired, he’d said, “Well. You gotta have the quarterback.”

There are no handshakes after the game.

Alex rubs his temples in the locker room after, chasing away a lingering ache. Guys are clearing out as quick as possible following the loss. Someone standing above him clears his throat.

“You look like you could use a drink.”

Alex looks up. Colquitt has his bag slung over his shoulder; he’s still damp and flushed from the showers. Alex does want to go out. The certainty of the feeling is surprising. “Yes,” he says. “Please.”

Colquitt takes him to a dive near the stadium, poorly lit and at the bottom of a long flight of stairs. Colquitt nods at the guy behind the bar as they come in. “Nobody’ll bother us here.” Seated at a table in the back, beers in front of them, he looks at Alex. “Which is good, because you look like shit.”

Alex glances up from tracing the dense forest of initials carved into the table’s surface. He frowns at Colquitt.

Colquitt clears his throat. “I’m actually pretty good at saying exactly the wrong thing, so I’m just going to sit here and shut up.”

Alex nods.

“So if you need to talk, or not talk, or communicate in nonverbal gestures, or – ” He trails off. “You know, Plan A was better. I’m going to go back to shutting up.” He tips his beer at Alex, takes a long sip.

Nonverbal gestures. Alex holds his gaze for a second, and then he gently lays his forehead on table.

After a beat, Colquitt laughs.

Up close the wood smells like old beer, the scarred surface is rough. Alex turns his face so he can see Colquitt. Alex smiles up at him. And then he starts to laugh.

 

 

Jacksonville, FL. The Jaguars, Week 1.

Alex tries to stay loose.

Coach Reid says, “Quick looks. Check down. Watch for the open man.” Vaguely in the background, Alex can hear music thumping; whatever his teammates have cranked sounds like unidentifiable noise, only the throb of bass filtering through. Coach Reid is a blur of red in front of him. But, well – a West Coast offense is a West Coast offense is a West Coast offense.

Alex has been doing this his entire adult life.

But this is Kansas City, not San Francisco. Different uniforms. Different team. Different rituals. Hali with his obsessive re-lacing. Sherman running his hands over the doorframe. The last thing Colquitt does before leaving the locker room is pull off the small gold cross he wears and hang it carefully in his locker.

First real game wearing the Arrowhead, not the SF crest.

In San Francisco, they knocked him down, over and over again. In San Francisco, they didn’t think he could win.

But Alex didn’t pick football because it came easy. It never came easy. Alex picked football because it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Because the challenge, the ability to throw yourself up against something and see if you come out on the other side, it’s a privilege. It’s a gift.

Alex pulls in a long breath, imagines the movement of throwing, the ball in the air, a perfect spiral, an easy catch.

Bodies press in close against his, huddled at the mouth of the tunnel. The air smells like sweat and grass, and his ears are all filled up with a white noise roar. Eric Berry puts his hand into the middle; he looks around, and he makes sure to catch Alex’s eyes when he says, “Family on three.”

In Jacksonville, his cleats dig into the turf, grip fast, and send him forward.

 

 

The plane puts them back in KC around two, lots of fist bumps from the guys and pats on the back to send him on his way. Colquitt smiles at him before he goes, a wry, curved grin. But his house is still empty when Alex gets there. He trips up unfamiliar steps in the dark, feeling across the wall for a light switch. Everything perfectly quiet, perfectly still. In San Francisco, his house would have been empty, but at least it would have been familiar. At least it would have felt like home.

He should go to bed. He should take an Ambien, try to sleep. Instead he jitters from room to room, flipping on lights as he goes, chasing away the dark, too much adrenaline to keep still. He could unpack; he should unpack, but it’s too hard to focus. Instead he opens boxes at random, hand lingering over each stray object.

Here is a photo of the old Seals Stadium. Here are his trophies from college. But none of it fits. None of it looks anything but strange. Each newly ripped-open box is winding him tighter, making his heart thump that much quicker. With each breath, the air feels thicker, harder to pull into his lungs.

Alex squeezes his eyes shut, presses a fist to his mouth, tries to steady himself against a creeping sense of panic. He stands in the middle of his living room, and for a minute, forces himself to just breathe.

He sounds raspy, extra loud against the silence.

He won a football game today – or at least he was there, and he helped. He did his job today. Stood, and screamed, and looked, and threw. And this is just the second half of that. He has to live here and breathe here and sleep here and be fine.

No one said it was going to be easy. Alex opens his eyes. The challenge is a gift.

He sits carefully on the couch, flips the TV on. It’s already on one of the sports channels and he flips through idly, a dry burn behind his eyes. Mutes the talking heads blathering about the football he just played – the world’s most redundant Greek chorus – but watches the highlights anyway, everything weirdly blown-up, slowed-down and Technicolor. Different faces same shit on the next channel, and the next.

On the next, there’s soccer on. Some other competition, some other triumph and heartbreak, taking place on the other side of the world. He thinks about calling Colquitt. He should not call Colquitt.

He calls Colquitt.

Colquitt picks up with a confused, “Hey?”

“There’s soccer on.”

A pause. “Smith?”

“Yeah.” Alex swallows. “There’s soccer on. Are you watching?”

“I’m not – I’m still driving home. I live kinda far out.”

“Oh.” It’s late, or early. This was ridiculous. “Sorry.”

“Who’s playing?”

Alex had already started to hang up. He brings the phone back up to his ear. “What?”

“You can entertain me on my commute. Who’s playing?”

Alex squints at the screen. “Blue versus stripes.”

Colquitt laughs. “Dark blue or light blue?”

“I don’t know. Medium blue.”

“Ah,” Colquitt says, like this means something. “What kind of stripes?”

“Like a bumblebee.”

“Like a – oh.” He pauses again. “Well don’t get your hopes up, because the bumblebees are about to get their asses kicked.”

“How do you know?”

“I know things.”

Alex pauses, a sharp little ache in his chest. “What kind of things?”

“I – ” Colquitt sounds thrown. “Well that Hull City is terrible, for one. That they can’t play defense to save their lives.” He takes a breath. “That I don’t think you called to talk about soccer.”

Alex stays quiet, breathing into the phone. “What do you think I called to talk about?”

It’s Colquitt’s turn to go quiet; Alex can hear him swallow. “We played good football today,” Colquitt says. “We won.”

Alex closes his eyes again. “Yeah.” Then there’s the sound of crunching gravel, and in the background, a car door slams. “Are you home?”

“I’m home.”

Alex rubs a hand across his face. “I’ll let you go then.”

Colquitt clears his throat. “Think about sleeping, Smith.”

“I will.”

“Good,” he says. “Good night.”

 

 

Kansas City, MO. The Cowboys. Week 2.

Third and long and they’re on the clock. In the huddle, Alex says, “Split right. F short. 324. Denver on one, ready?”


The clap sends them out, and Alex slides into position. Time is slowed by the thrum of adrenaline, and Alex is yelling over the crowd noise – they’re loud, even this early in the season, even for the offense.

The Cowboys’ line waits, held suspended, all potential energy. Crouched. Ready. This moment, before anything happens, when all outcomes are still possible, is the only moment to be afraid.

Alex breathes in, screams the count. The drop back is a dance step he could do in his sleep. In front of him, the sudden, sick crunch of bodies, and beyond that, the whirl of receivers leaping into their routes, a scattered flock of birds. He looks –

Here, in theory, is how to calculate where to throw the football:

Start with the called play:
Read the defense.
Check down the receivers.
Throw to the open man.

Here is actually how to calculate where to throw the football:

Start with the called play:
+ Slides called for by the center to adjust to the defense
- An allowance for fucked up footwork
+ Audible
Multiply by the chance the tight end will actually remember to adjust his pattern based on the audible (this is a variable between 0 and 1, and will vary by player)
+ Knowledge of the percent of time your receivers will actually run their route to the length specified and not cheat (again, varies on an individual basis)
+ Knowledge of how well the defensive line is playing.
+ The knowledge that the fullback is nursing a bum knee, and there is no way in hell he’s getting open
- An allowance for the fact that their nose tackle has been playing like shit, and is either injured or lulling everyone into a false sense of security in anticipation of third down.
+ Knowing Coach is going to be way more pissed about an interception than a sack
+ Knowing the owner has explicitly said he would like Alex to avoid being sacked, because the optics are bad
+ Knowing he’s thrown two TD passes in this game
- Knowing how much he has left in his arm
+ Realizing that this is the NFL, and thus the odds of anyone being truly open are slim to none, so as the receivers make their way downfield, project run trajectory (route x coverage x likelihood of fuckup) and begin integrating the probability of their getting at least partially open based on: foot speed (x), the foot speed of the secondary (y), which quarter of the game it is (z), how hard they were panting in the last huddle (a), wind direction (b), injury history (c), and the proportion of the receiver’s contract wrapped up in bonuses ($).

On average, Alex will have somewhere between 1 and 3 seconds to make this decision, but he will not know in advance how long he’ll get.

His heartbeat ticks away the time, louder than anything else on the field –

Fuck it. Alex runs.

They win. The game plan went to hell, but they win anyway. Alex keeps a weather eye on Reid, but Reid – still Gatorade damp – just pounds his arm. “I didn’t say I cared about making it look pretty, did I? I said I cared about the win.”

The team celebrates at some sleekly styled, predictably generic club downtown, and Alex lets himself be pulled along. “No way,” Berry said, when he saw Alex hesitating. “I’m going. You’re going. We’re all going, and you’re buying rounds.”

Now Berry is crooning, twirling around the VIP lounge. “Two and oh, two and oh.” Dragging it out, shoulders doing a little shimmy. He’s wandering the perimeter with the champagne bottle, holding it up high, so when he pours it fizzes and runs over the rim of the glass, down over Alex’s fingers. “Second win. First home win, Mr. Smith. Already matched last year’s record.” The slow grin of someone who’s gotten recently, rapidly drunk. “Not bad. Not bad, QB.”

“Yeah, boy!” Someone echoes behind him, but it’s dark in the club, all unsteady swirling lights, and it’s hard to tell who. Most of the team is here, the first hometown night of liberty. Even the married guys, and Colquitt, which seems to amuse his teammates. Alex saw him earlier, beer in hand, waving off Berry’s enthusiastic attempts to share his champagne.

From the VIP balcony, the dance floor below is a single, undulating mass. Berry leans against the rail next to him. “I told you we were going to win games,” he says.

Alex’s champagne is warm in his glass. It feels like he’s sitting in on someone else’s party. But this is bonding. Mandatory fun. Below them, Alex can spot Avery and Fisher on the dance floor, pressed up against women in brightly colored dresses. Bowe and Charles up by the bar. And Colquitt – Colquitt’s cutting through the crowd, headed for the door.

Alex frowns. “Where’s Colquitt going?”

Berry glances over his shoulder. “Dusty?” He looks sly for a second, and then he pauses. “Look, man. Sometimes Dusty’s just gotta do Dusty, you get me? Just like I gotta do me, and you gotta do you.” He waits a beat. “You understand what I’m saying?”

“Sure,” Alex says.

Berry leans in, and suddenly he looks perfectly sober, completely serious. “So I don’t want to hear about you giving him any shit, okay?” His hand squeezes Alex’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Alex says. “Okay.”

Berry releases him, slaps his arm lightly. He grins. “Good.” And then turns and walks away.

Alex waits exactly half a beat before he’s down the stairs and out the door. He still almost loses him – Colquitt’s silhouette disappearing around the corner just as Alex is pushing his way out onto the street.

The uncertainty of this fool’s errand, the spray of nerves, is worth it when he sits down next to Colquitt at the bar he rolled into, and Colquitt gives him an honest-to-god double take.

The bartender sets a Bud Light down in front of Colquitt while he’s still blinking, mouth slightly agape. Alex smiles at the bartender. “Two, please.”

Bud Light, a juke box playing Margaritaville, pool tables, and even setting all that aside, it’d be hard to get more different from the club they were at than this place.

Colquitt’s still staring. “Do you know what kind of bar you’re in?”

“A bar with shitty music?”

Colquitt’s lip twitches. He takes a long pull of his beer. “You play pool?”

Alex breaks. Sinks his first shot and misses his second.

“Big night for you,” Colquitt says, hand on his pool cue. “First hometown win.”

“You think?” Even thinking about it now, Alex is unsure how to feel. Good and strange and edgy and maybe most all – relieved. “You know, they say the only lasting effect of the Pyrrhic war was that everyone was weakened enough for Rome to take over.” Alex pauses. “One more victory like that and I shall be undone.”

Colquitt’s beer is frozen at his mouth, glass indenting his lip. “Why’d you come here?” he asks. “You queer?”

Across the pool table, Colquitt’s face is hard to read. But there’s no threat in his voice. His tone is dead even, like he has no particular feelings about Alex’s answer one way or the other. Like there’s nothing ridiculous about asking the question back-dropped by Jimmy Buffett and neon, in a gay bar in Kansas City, Bud Light in hand.

Alex doesn’t answer. Colquitt doesn’t look away. After a minute, he tips back the last of his beer, reaches out and sinks the eight ball with his free hand. “I’m done playing. How drunk are you?”

“I’m not drunk at all,” Alex says.

“Good,” Colquitt says, digging in his pocket. “You can drive me home.” He pitches the keys at Alex.

Colquitt sprawls, comfortable in the passenger seat of his giant pickup. He directs Alex down roads that get narrower and narrower but no less straight as they head out of town. Everything set at right angles, perfectly flat. “Slow down,” Colquitt says, in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch-dark countryside. And then, tipped off by no landmark Alex can see, “Turn here.” It’s another few minutes down the drive before they hit the gate, which Colquitt hops out to open and closes behind them. And another couple minutes after that before the house finally appears.

It’s an old farmhouse. The porch light reveals peeling paint, a row of neglected seedlings in milk jugs along the rail. Colquitt pauses on the porch, one hand resting on the knob. “It’s uh – I wasn’t expecting company.” He pushes the door open. Unlocked.

Alex has to step around a pile of screens in the entryway, waiting to be installed. In the kitchen, there are two cabinets gleaming and properly hung. The rest reside in various stages of assembly. Stripped but unfinished. Or finished, but unhung. Plates and glasses sit in piles. Every surface in some state of creative reconstruction.

“Doing some remodeling?” Alex asks.

“Yeah.” Colquitt shrugs. “Slowly, anyway.”

Alex glances back at him. “You doing it all yourself?”

Colquitt drags a hand across the countertop. “I guess I just like putting my stamp on it, you know?” He takes a bottle of George Dickel off the counter, holds it aloft for a moment for Alex to inspect before pouring out two shots. He passes one over, then raises his own glass. “Go Vols,” he says, wearing a sly grin.

The Vols. Tennessee. Alex cracks a smile. “You can’t honestly expect me to drink to that.”

For a second, Colquitt is very, very still. Then he reaches out, his eyes never leaving Alex’s face, takes the shot glass from his hand, and holds it up to Alex’s mouth. He’s standing close enough for Alex to see his pupils are dilated, to hear the slight catch in his breathing.

Alex parts his lips, tips back his head. He hardly has enough time to swallow, to even register the burn, before the shot glass is gone and Colquitt’s mouth is there instead, a rough scrape of stubble, and teeth clicking, and Colquitt’s hand firm on the back of his head.

Alex scrambles to grab him back, pulls him in and bites at his lip. Colquitt pulls away just long enough to throw back his own shot like an afterthought, and then he’s back, and he tastes like whiskey. It stings against the places Alex’s lips are chapped.

Colquitt slows down, his mouth just resting against Alex’s, breathing in the same air. Alex’s hands are curled in his shirt, holding him close enough to feel the rise and fall of Colquitt’s chest against his, the slow grind of his hips, one thigh braced against either side of Alex’s. Alex kisses him again, hauls him in closer. Alex braces his leg and gives Colquitt something better to grind against, and Colquitt’s breathing goes raspier, his mouth sloppier against Alex’s, the beginnings of small noises on his lips.

He gets his hands up under Alex’s shirt, a light drag across the skin of Alex’s stomach, his chest. “Fuck, you’re hot. Fuck. Why are you even here – ”

Alex presses him up against the counter, mouth on the rough stubble of his cheek, tongue sliding over the pulse in his throat, back to his mouth.

Colquitt breaks away. He tries to take a step back and Alex’s fingers tighten, holding him in place. “Hey,” Colquitt says. It’s careful, soft. “Just upstairs.”

The steps are covered in what appear to be disassembled engine pieces. “Watch your step.”

Alex kisses the back of his neck. Pulls the neck of his t-shirt askew to get at his shoulder blade. “What are those?”

“Those are – ” Colquitt’s head is listing forward. “Those belong to the riding mower, I – fuck – I got distracted – ” He grips the railing. “Sorry. The place is a mess – ”

Alex lets his teeth sink in, just a little, into the space where Colquitt’s neck and shoulder meet. “I like it.”

It feels as though Colquitt had determined that each and every aspect of the house would have his mark on it, announce itself as his own, and even in this state of flux, Colquitt seems so settled here, invested here. A celebration of chaos, like anything and everything could change and he’d thrive on it.

Colquitt’s bed is clear and made. When Alex pushes him down onto to it, Colquitt looks up at him. “Are you sure?”

Alex nods. This doesn’t feel anything like the last few years of fucking around in San Francisco. And maybe it should, but nothing about this feels uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel strange. “I like your house.” He pushes Colquitt’s shirt up. The skin normally hidden by his uniform is pale.

“Yeah?”

Alex runs his mouth across his stomach, noses into the divot of his hip. “I like you.”

Colquitt’s breathing has gone rough. Alex can feel the rise and fall of his ribs under his hands. “Oh? Good.”

It takes concentrated effort to get his pants open, to get them down, and Alex presses his face against the material of Colquitt’s boxers, breathing in cotton and soap, sweat and skin.

The taste of adrenaline is lodged in the back of Alex’s throat, and he’s riding a heady wave that’s one part nerves, one part need. Alex closes his eyes. He sucks on Colquitt’s dick through the fabric of his shorts, until it’s wet and clinging and Colquitt’s hips are rocking up to meet him, hand skimming the top of Alex’s head.

He’s apparently done talking. When Alex runs his fingers under the waistband and says, “Let’s take these off,” Colquitt just groans and lifts his hips.

More skin. More heat. More of Colquitt muttering and dragging his fingers through Alex’s hair. Everything’s slick, and he tastes like precum, and his breathing is ragged. Alex slides his fingers down, rubs the pad of his thumb across his asshole. Colquitt’s whole body hitches, he spreads his legs further apart, and Alex does it again, pressing in, just a little.

Colquitt comes – a rough, low moan, thrusting up into his mouth, fingers tightening against Alex’s skull.

He tugs on Alex’s shirt. His body is loose against Alex’s; his mouth when Alex finds it, lazy. Alex probably tastes like come. He sucks on Colquitt’s lip; puts Colquitt’s hand on his dick. Against his mouth, he can feel Colquitt’s lips turn up, grinning.

Colquitt’s hand works its way through layers of fabric. “You want something, or – like this?”

“Like this.” He can feel the rough drag of Colquitt’s callouses. He pants into Colquitt’s throat, one arm wrapped around him. Colquitt lets him press hard against him when he comes, spilling through his fingers. Alex’s mouth moving over him, muffling his noises against Colquitt’s skin. It takes a minute for his breathing to slow.

Colquitt rolls away. “You’re a mess,” he says. And then he’s back with a cloth, and he’s helping Alex – sleepy and uncoordinated – out of his clothing. Colquitt’s touch is easy and certain. Alex pulls him close, after. Holds onto him tightly. But Colquitt just sighs, twists until he’s comfortable in Alex’s hands, and closes his eyes.

 

 

Alex wakes to gray light filtering in the room. He squints at the window – no curtains, no blinds, and nothing but a flat sweep of green earth and faded sky visible. Colquitt is next to him, still asleep, chest rising and falling with slow, even breaths. He’s close enough Alex can feel the warmth radiating off his body. Close enough that Alex could reach out and run his hand over the flat of his chest, or down one arm, as though it were his right, his place to do so.

The first time he slept with David was not in a bed at all, but a tent, following a conversation they’d had three days earlier in Alex’s bedroom. In his head, he can still picture the California sunshine that came in through the windows, highlighting dust motes, the row of trophies on the window’s sill. Posters on the wall: Joe Montana. Steve Young. Pamela Anderson, in all her salt water and sand-flecked glory, leftover from the days his older brother had shared the room.

Alex was at his desk, bent over his homework. David sprawled on the bed behind him, some textbook open but forgotten in front of him, mindlessly twirling his pencil. Alex could hear the sounds of him shifting behind him, but he kept his eyes on the page. Alex was going to have straight A’s that semester, and Alex might be the high school football star, but it took work. It took work to keep up with David.

David, who was the sort of effortlessly smart that drove teachers crazy. David, who wouldn’t know how to study if he tried. Best friend and fiercest competitor, all in one.

Behind him, David knocked the book off the bed and it hit the ground with a sudden, loud clap. Alex twisted around in his chair. David was hanging half off the edge of the bed; he looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”

Alex rolled his eyes at him and turned back around. If S is the sum of 22, 13, 6, 3, and x, what must be the value of x, for x = 1/5S?

“Alex.”

Alex hummed an absent response. S = 44 + x

“I have to tell you something.”

5x = 44 + x. “Yeah?”

“Alex.”

Alex glanced up and fuck, David was suddenly right at his shoulder, looking down. “What?”

David’s mouth worked for a second. And he actually looked pained, looked almost scared. Alex was afraid for a moment that something was really wrong. That someone had died, or something.

“I want to kiss you.”

It hung in the air, and it was one of those moments where things tip on their side, irrevocably and utterly changed, and somehow also exactly the same. Surprising and not surprising at all. Alex said, “Eleven.”

David frowned. “What?”

“I – ” Alex shook his head. He set his pencil down. “Sorry. I mean, yeah. Okay.”

One of David’s eyebrows was climbing up, a familiar expression: one part exasperation, one part disbelief. “Okay? That’s all you’ve got?”

“Yeah.” Alex stood up, because it seemed like the sort of thing he should be standing up to do, so he was looking down at David instead of up when put his hand on David’s cheek. David’s face was warm under his palm, lip caught between his teeth in a cautious grin. His brilliant, clever, perfect best friend, who – as usual – had seen through all the bullshit, arriving without fail at the best of all possible solutions.

He kissed David, standing in his bedroom, heart thumping away in his chest, until they had been interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the stairs and Alex’s mother knocking on the door. He remembers David’s pleased look when they broke apart, his wide Cheshire smile.

That weekend they’d packed the tent, sleeping bags and marshmallows into David’s car and driven out to Joshua Tree, brushing off all their parents’ concerns of Are you sure? And, It’s still cold out there at night, you know.

They’d holed up together in that pitch-perfect, velvet darkness, their laughter echoing into what felt like emptiness. David’s body had been revealed only in the washed-out, unsteady glimpses provided by the beam of the flashlight, but touch had painted a much more complete picture. He remembers the gasping, panting sounds they had made, and the heat of their bodies against chilled air.

Alex had been certain – wildly, heedlessly certain – that they were the only people awake in the entire world, maybe the only people left in it at all, and that he was going to have David next to him for the rest of his life.

Next to him, Colquitt finally stirs, muttering and burying his face once again in the pillow.

David’s been gone a long time now.

“Colquitt,” Alex says, and when there’s no response, “Dustin?”

He rolls over and squints at Alex, hair going everywhere, and still half-asleep. He looks amused, maybe at the uncertainty in Alex’s voice. “Dustin, sure.” He smiles.

A year is only 365 days. A season is only sixteen games. A career is only as long as it lasts. A place, a home, a life –

Something cracks in Alex. Something breaks. Here he is in Kansas City, getting smiled at by a sleep-mussed punter. He reaches a hand out, lets his fingers settle on Dustin’s shoulder, stray over his arm. When he moves in close, Dustin makes space for him.

 

 

Dustin gives him a ride into practice. By the light of day, Dustin’s place is surrounded by fields. “Soy beans mostly,” he says, pointing. “It’s leased out to my neighbor.” He indicates a house on a distant rise, miniaturized by distance.

On the drive in his fingers drum across the steering wheel; he sings an utterly unselfconscious rendition of Strawberry Wine. “You know,” he says, tipping his baseball cap at Alex. “You’re gonna have to learn to start appreciating country sooner or later.”

Alex smiles because Dustin is smiling, looking intent and smugly pleased. Alex starts to laugh.

The first part of his day is walking the length of the training room, checking in on everyone who got dinged in the last game. Alex sits for a couple minutes with Jeff Allen, who was knocked out in the first quarter, went down hard, and was slow getting up. “I’m gonna play next week,” he says, with all the conviction of someone who is twenty-three years old and has been told his entire life that his fate is in his own hands.

Alex pats his uninjured leg. “Good,” he says. “Looking forward to it.”

After practice he lasts all of an hour in his own place, bouncing off empty walls, before calling Dustin. “Hey do you think – are you interested – ”

“Sure,” Dustin says. “Bring food. Nobody delivers out here.”

 

 

Philadelphia, PA. The Eagles, Week 3.

For Coach Reid’s homecoming, they push their record to 3-0.

Their flight gets back to Kansas City late. Alex feels gritty and stiff. He meets Dustin’s eyes for a moment in the parking lot before they get into separate cars.

Dustin beats him home by maybe a minute, the engine of his truck still ticking in the cool air. Alex finds him in the kitchen chugging water, and wraps around him from behind, buries his face in the nape of Dustin’s neck.

Dustin takes him by the hand and takes him upstairs.

Alex fucks him.

Dustin kneels over him first, straddling his hips. Alex runs his hands up and down his thighs, jacks his dick, Dustin rocking up to meet him. Dustin tips and falls forward, leaning down to kiss him.

Alex holds Dustin’s face in his hands, thumbs stroking across his cheeks. The details are all new – where there’s a flush staining his skin, where the stubble is coming in rough, the shape of his jaw under Alex’s hands. But it’s an easy, familiar warmth spreading in Alex’s chest.

Dustin grins under his touch. His eyes are blue. “We can’t all be pretty,” he says.

Alex smiles, opens his mouth –

Dustin laughs. “Don’t. Don’t even.”

“Fine.” Alex traces out the curve his lip makes. “But I’m still gonna think it.”

Dustin’s mouth is back on his then, groaning and biting at Alex’s lip. Alex kneads his skin, the hard muscle of his thighs, his ass. Alex brings a hand up, rubs his fingers across Dustin’s lips until they part and let him press inside. Dustin sucks on his fingers, all wet heat, and when he releases, Alex tugs at him, urges his forward. He drags slick fingers across the muscle and warm skin between his legs, teasing touches, rubbing back and forth, just barely pressing into him and then pausing. Asking.

“Yeah,” Dustin says, head sagging forward, eyes shut. “Yes. You could fuck me, if you wanted to. I’d be into that.”

Alex fucks him until Dustin is groaning, or maybe Alex is groaning, and it’s Dustin that’s panting, his face against the pillow. Their bodies are pressed so close Alex isn’t sure which way to move, except that Dustin pushes back against him, and it’s too hard to focus on anything except keeping up a rhythm. Dustin’s tensing up around him, pushing up to brace himself, to get space, one hand sliding over his dick, movements getting faster, more erratic.

Alex grabs his hips hard when he comes, and it takes several seconds to loosen his grip. He rubs at the marks lightly. Dustin slumps underneath him, mouths small, muffled moans into the sheets.

Alex stays tucked in close, nosing in at his throat, sucking at the juncture of jawline and neck. Dustin tastes like salt. He rolls to the side so he can get an arm around Alex, lets his fingers trail over Alex’s shoulders, across his back.

 

 

Alex wakes early, Dustin still solidly unconscious next to him.

He’s been here enough mornings to find the means to make coffee, even if the contents of Dustin’s kitchen seem to migrate around, eddied in a stream of creative destruction and reformation.

“It’s gonna look awesome when I’m done,” Dustin told him.

And Alex had looked around, skeptical. “You’re never going to be done.”

Dustin hummed. “Maybe not,” he’d said, like he didn’t find the prospect disturbing in the least.

Alex takes his mug of coffee out onto the porch. Everything’s damp from last night’s rain, still mostly green, although some of the trees are starting to hint at yellow and red, and no one but the rabbits at the edge of the yard around to see Alex in his boxers and t-shirt. No traffic noise, just the wind and the creak of the porch swing.

Back inside, Dustin is still asleep, lightly snoring. Alex debates waking him. Instead, he starts the laundry. Having accomplished that, he turns his attention to Dustin’s shower – because for the last week the showerhead has been lying in pieces in a bowl on the bathroom counter, soaking in vinegar, and there’s really only so much Alex should be expected to put up with. Alex pokes at them. There are only a finite number of ways they could fit together; he sets to work.

By the time he finishes, Dustin is awake, propped up in bed texting. “My brother,” he says without looking up, voice still sleep-rough. “He has a game tonight.”

Alex stretches out next to him. “I hope you’re giving him shit."

“Of course I’m giving him shit.” Dustin’s thumbs pause. “Now he’s giving me shit.”

Alex rubs a hand across his stomach. “Are you out to your family?”

One of Dustin’s hands steals up to fiddle with the cross lying at his throat. “Yes. But it’s – we don’t talk about it.” He looks at Alex. “I haven’t said anything about you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I wasn’t worried. I was just curious.”

Dustin sighs. “My dad wanted two things for us. He wanted us to be happy and he wanted us to be holy.”

Alex runs his finger across the line on Dustin’s arm where tanned flesh meets pale. “What happens when those two things conflict?”

Dustin shrugs under Alex’s hands. “That’s life, I guess.” He keeps his eyes on Alex. “Trying to figure that out is the whole point.”

“What about the guys on the team?” He takes a loose grip on Dustin’s arm, thumb smoothing across his bicep.

“Some of them know. The ones who have been around awhile.” He covers Alex’s hand with his. “They care a whole lot more about field position than who I’m having sex with.”

David had come with him to the team-sponsored events, the barbeques and Christmas parties, but Alex had never introduced him as his boyfriend. And the team, very carefully, had never asked. A compromise that made no one particularly happy.

Dustin touches his face. “Are you going in today?”

Monday: optional workouts, but Alex has guys getting treatment he needs to check in on. “Yeah. For a little bit. You coming?”

“Sure. Let me shower first.” He lets go of Alex and rolls off the bed. Alex can hear the shower start up, but Dustin’s back in just a second. He crawls back on top of Alex, lightly damp and grinning. “Did you fix my showerhead?”

Alex reaches up to slide a hand through his wet hair. “Yeah.”

Dustin leans down to kiss him quick, before heading back to the bathroom. “A quarterback and a plumber.” Dustin whistles. “There’s a joke in there, somewhere.”

“It wasn’t entirely selfless,” Alex calls after him.

Over noise of spray he can hear Dustin call out, “Good with pipe!” And then, “Excellent at working those tight passages!”

 

 

Kansas City, MO. The Giants. Week 4.

Late in the second, Damontre Moore breaks the line, jumps to block the punt, and comes down on top of Dustin’s right leg.

Dustin lies curled on the field for minute, hands wrapped around his knee.

At halftime, there is a lot of tape involved. Dustin complains bitterly about the lack of a flag, but he never once says it hurts. He punts three more times.

They take the game 31-7.

“I’m fine,” Dustin says after, sounding more than a little irritated. “If I can kick, I can definitely walk.” But he does lean on Alex when he stands to dress.

“Come on, Dusty,” Eric says. “I can give you a lift home.”

“I got him,” Alex says, and Dustin goes still.

Eric looks over at him, surprised. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Alex keeps one hand lightly on the nape of Dustin’s neck. “I got him. It’s all good.”

Dustin dozes on the car ride over, or pretends to, one hand over his eyes, each inhale slow and deliberate, that careful way you breathe when you’re managing pain. Alex stares at the tight lines around his mouth and takes them back to his place. Dustin blinks in surprise when Alex pulls up into his own driveway. He doesn’t move from the car, even after Alex kills the engine.

“I thought we could stay here,” Alex says. “It’s closer.”

Dustin shakes his head. “Sure. That’s fine.” He rolls his eyes when Alex tries to help him out of the car. “I’m fine. I said I was fine.” But he does accept aspirin and water.

On the couch, Dustin tips his head back and looks around. “You haven’t made much progress moving in.”

“Yeah, well. I haven’t been here much.” Mostly he’s been at Dustin’s. Or playing football. Alex shoves the coffee table closer. “Put your leg up.”

Dustin’s mouth thins, but he complies. His good leg taps out a restless rhythm on the floor. He leans forward and starts sifting through the contents of one of the smaller boxes on the table.

Alex pushes it out of reach. The last thing he needs is Dustin giving him shit about all the things he hasn’t managed to put away. “You want to watch TV?”

Dustin frowns. “I don’t care.”

Alex has been injured. Alex knows that feeling – pissed at the world, pissed at the situation, and most of all, pissed at yourself. “We could – ”

“I’m not really up for fucking, if that’s what you’re gonna ask.” Dustin’s voice is low.

“That wasn’t what I was going to ask,” Alex says. It comes out sharper than he meant.

Dustin rolls his eyes, one hand coming up to rub at his temples. “Fine. TV. Whatever.”

“Hey,” Alex says. “Ease up.”

Dustin’s hand drops away from his face. “Do you not want me here?”

Alex blinks in surprise. “What?”

“It’s just – we never come here. You never talk about your life outside Kansas City.” Dustin gestures at the box on the table. “You don’t even want me to look at your things.”

“That’s not – ” Alex stops. “I don’t want you to think that.”

“What am I supposed to think?”

Alex’s throat hurts. There’s a weight on his chest. He grabs the box on the table, pushes it toward Dustin. “You can look, it’s just – ” Alex shrugs.

Dustin makes no move to take it, just keeps watching Alex.

“It’s just hard to talk about.” Alex reaches in for him, hauls out a book, a stack of photos. He lets them slide from his hands and fan out across the table. “This stuff makes me think about San Francisco, and some of it – ” He stops. There on the top is a picture of David, looking so young and so fucking happy –

Alex picks it up.

“Hey.” When Alex looks up, Dustin has a very careful expression on his face. Alex’s eyes are burning.

Dustin swallows, nods at the picture in Alex’s hand. “Is that your law student?”

Alex is cradling the picture in two hands. “Yeah.”

Dustin bites his lip, the pause stretching out. “Is he still in San Diego?”

David must be 22 or so in the photo, windblown, toes in the sand, the whole expanse of the Pacific behind him. David, who will never, ever be any older than 24. “No.”

Dustin stays quiet.

“He died,” Alex says. “In 2008.” The year of Alex’s shoulder surgery, the year he didn’t play, and the year David died. Triple bonus feature.

Dustin’s jaw works. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“He killed himself.”

Dustin’s touch to his arm is light, careful, but Alex flinches anyway.

Dustin doesn’t take his hand away, his thumb stroking carefully across Alex’s wrist. “Alex, I’m sorry.”

Alex forces a smile. “It was a long time ago.”

“Still.”

Alex has a lover who died. A job he lost. A team that sent him away. It all rushes up, presses down his throat, squeezing tight. All of it suddenly consolidated like lead on his chest.

“Alex?” He can feel Dustin’s hand on his.

All of that followed him out here. Or rather, Alex packed all of that up, and dragged it out here with him. Looking around, this isn’t a home. This is a fucking mausoleum. Alex blows out a long breath. “I hate everything in this house. Can we please go back to your place?”

“Yeah.” Dustin says. “Yeah, of course.”

 

 

In week 5, they win in Tennessee.

In week 6, they beat the Raiders. Soundly.

In week 7, they beat Houston 17-16. Denver loses to the Colts, making Kansas City the last undefeated team in football.

In the locker room, Alex goes down the line, checking in with the members of his team.

“Aliens?” Dexter McCluster asks, staring down at Sherman like he’s crazy. “Well, shit, then I’ll take Alex. The man knows how to pull out a win.”

Alex grins on his way past. “That’s what I like to hear, Dex. You get touches next game.”

“You better tell coach that!” McCluster calls after him.

“Fantastic,” is what Coach Reid says. “We make it to 7 and 0 without a target on our back, and everybody’s still talking about Denver. Fantastic.”

 

 

Kansas City, MO. The Browns. Week 8.

In the morning, they wake up to frost on the ground, but Dustin is warm against his side. And bribable: “I’ll blow you if you make the coffee.”

Some of Alex’s things have migrated here. Like refugees from a storm, just one more note in the general disarray. Dustin catches him rearranging books, reconfiguring to try for more space, and Alex blushes. “Do you mind?”

Dustin scoffs. “Please. If I’d minded, I’d of said something a month ago. You know, when you moved in?” He leans in close to Alex, mouth near his ear. “I’ll build you more shelves this spring. If you want.”

Kansas City is flat and endless rolling past the windows on the drive into the stadium. Nothing like the San Francisco of his memory, that sloping, gray-fogged polyglot of a city. Kansas City divides herself into neat and orderly rows, stockyards and gridded streets, and a slow, meandering river. So flat you can see the curl of the horizon, an endless, unfolding patchwork. Settled by people who stopped where the rivers came together, and dreamed of opportunity under all that sky.

Dustin keeps one hand resting on Alex’s leg, the whole drive in.

Kansas City is solid and steady underfoot.

“We’re going to go out there,” Berry says in the locker room, “and own.” Everything about the room is in focus. Berry’s words sound sharp and clear. Each of teammates vivid, and across the huddle, Dustin, smiling. “We’ve got this,” Berry says. He puts his hand into the center of the room. “Family on three.”