"Meu amor. What is on your mind?"
His back was ruler straight and his hands cupped his bare knees. The durable, water-resistant material of his swimming trunks tickled his thighs and Tom Brady rolled his shoulders and neck. Somehow, he looked more alive after just a few days in the sun. New England winters and the stress of the AFC Championship and Super Bowl LII paled him, hallowed him out (despite how relaxed he had seemed), and just a few days after the devastating loss, Tom already showed more color and vibrancy. He'd gotten rid of the black, knit cap and matching, oversized gloves (thank goodness; Gisele always though the combination made him appear sickly) and traded them for a baseball hat to shield his eyes from the sun and a swimsuit for the beach.
"I'm thinking about the future."
"With what?" Gisele pressed. Every single time Tom uttered the word future, she felt a skip in her heart. All she wanted was for her beloved husband to retire. The game was dangerous and though he was a pliable, healthy, hydrated forty year old, he was not getting any younger. She wanted him to be around more, helping out more, taking care of his kids. He was a great father, but so often was he on the road with this game or that that his kids didn't get to see him as much as she'd have liked them to.
"The Patriots," he admitted in that pointed voice of his. English hadn't been her first language, but after many years of living with Tom and hearing the difference in accents around America, she was able to pick up on Tom's distinct manner of speech. Sometimes, she wondered whether or not he was purposely over pronouncing his words after being surrounded by native Bostonians for so long. They certainly had a language of their own. "Josh is back, so that's great. Gisele, that's great, I couldn't be happier. It's just confusing to me. Not sure if Bill has purposely left me out of things, purposely kept me in the dark."
"Like what, Tom?" she urged, sounding vaguely annoyed.
"I don't know. Malcolm. I love him. Always," Tom muttered distantly, his eyes focused on the floor to ceiling sliding, glass door that overlooked a beautiful beach. They'd only been here for a couple days, but he felt antsy. Knowing he wouldn't be playing a real game again for months made his skin crawl. "The Josh McDaniels situation. Next years roster. The free agents. Pay cuts."
Is this what retirement would feel like? A permanent state of discomfort?
"I need to make a call, meu amor," Tom said suddenly as he got to his feet and grabbed his phone. "I'll meet you in the gym later."
He didn't even hear her protests as he exited their luxurious rented home on the beach front of the Bahamas. Tom slid open his phone and exhaled a long sigh as he scrolled his contacts.
Only one person would have a semblance of understanding for what he was going through.
"Oh holy hot dog on a tin roof, that's good!"
The masseuse, a slim, young dark-skinned woman with a neat-as-a-pin bun piled onto the top of her head, dug her elbows into flesh between his shoulder blades, working out knots and tension built up over many, many years of contact sport.
"Shhyah, baby! Work it on in there!"
He was her most vocal client, so she always made sure to book his appointments with plenty of time to spare before her next came in. The last thing she needed was rumors getting out that more than a massage was happening in here.
A loud buzz suddenly erupted against the chair in the corner of the room where Peyton Manning had folded up his clothes before their session began.
"Wanna get me that? 'Less you wanna see the goods," he laughed, craning his neck. Peyton never missed a phone call.
Middle of driving in insane traffic? "Hello, Peyton speaking."
Middle of a drive-thru order? "Hello, Peyton speaking."
Middle of watching a game in the stadium? "Hello, Peyton speaking."
Middle of a funeral? "Hello, Peyton speaking."
It was the fringe benefit of being a super star.
The masseuse exhaled a silent sigh and dug through his jean pockets where she found his buzzing LG phone. She couldn't help but notice the name on the screen- Tommykins Bradykins; The Next Me- before handing it to Peyton.
"Hello, Peyton speaking."
"Hey, Peyton. It's Tom."
"I know, man, I know! How's it going, kiddo?"
Tom secretly hated that Peyton called him kiddo. He was only one year older than Tom, but it might as well have been fifteen with the way Peyton ate and lived his life, especially now that he wasn't playing. Tom would never let that be an excuse. Peyton had only made it to 39 before retiring. Now, Peyton was in every fucking commercial on television and Tom wanted to know if that was his future.
"Can we talk?"
"I'm talkin'!" Peyton waved the masseuse away as he shifted to sit up, covering his middle with the white towel that had been laid across his backside. She hated that his bare ass was on her precious, expensive massage table, but there was nothing she could do about it. Quietly, the masseuse left the room.
"I'm sure you've heard about how, you know, everyone wants me to retire. Especially my wife," Tom began. His bare feet sank into the soft sand along the beach as he walked, the hot sun absorbing into his pale skin. He'd already applied plenty of organic, coconut-oil-based sunscreen to his skin, which left him looking even more white than usual despite the layer of tan he'd achieved over a couple days in the sun. "I was just wondering, from uh-- former NFL Quarter Back to current, what is retirement really like, you know? On the other side of the game?"
"Ho-boyee! Brady, kid, you have no idea!"
"No, I don't. That's why I'm calling to ask. I don't want to retire. I've got a few more seasons in me, at least. But I gotta start thinking about it more seriously."
Tom exhaled a long sigh.
He could almost hear Peyton smiling.
A bouquet of wilted, red roses sat on Stephen Gostkowski's dining room table. He hadn't talked to Ryan since the night of the Super Bowl. The plane ride had been somber and as soon as they'd gotten to New England, Stephen pushed ahead of everyone, grabbed his belongings from his Gillette Stadium locker, and shoved it all haphazardly into his bag. He'd taken off without another word.
Everyone in the world had seen him choke.
No matter how much he was told it wasn't his fault- that the missed field goal for three points had been a result of a faulty snap- and the missed extra point wouldn't have won them the game, anyway. But Stephen knew better. If he had kicked straighter. Harder. More consistently- like Ryan knew how- maybe the game would have ended differently.
The flowers faded from red to brown and appeared deflated and dejected as they wilted over. They looked like how he felt.
It was four days after the Super Bowl when Stephen had finally crawled out of bed for longer than it took to pour himself a bowl of Wheaties. Dark circles hugged his hallow eyes and his hair was greasy tangles.
He picked up his phone and opened his text messages to Ryan. This wasn't easy. Nothing ever was. Last year had almost been as difficult, but the silver lining was his team had done their job and given New England a win. This year, as hard as each of them had tried, they hadn't pulled it off.
The Eagles had pecked them.
Stephen sighed deeply and began typing a message into his phone to send to the best man he had ever known.
Stephen [11:33AM]- Hey. Can you come over?