26 months ago

The brisk air was chilly and smelled of wet grass. The night sky was thick with dark clouds, ominous and moonless, but far below it, bright stadium lights towered over me, and a roaring crowd surrounded me. This was what I lived for.

There were 11 seconds left in the 4th quarter. We were down 23-28. It was 1st and goal. We had the ball on their 7-yard line. The clock was stopped, but we had no timeouts left. We couldn’t settle for another field goal this time. Needed a touchdown. And I was gonna get it for us. I’d never been surer about anything.

It wasn’t a home game. The hostile crowd was roaring as I jogged over to huddle. I was breathing hard. Everyone’s white jerseys were stained from the grass, but mine was the dirtiest of them all. The ’89’ on my back was more green than white.

I didn’t bother looking over at any of the bleachers. Mom and Dad weren’t at the game. Mom had gotten worse, and Dad was staying at her side most of the time. But Mom wouldn’t have me there with them. She wanted me to play, and I was glad. With as bad as things had gotten … it was a relief to have the game to focus on.

Our quarterback hollered the play call at us. “Singleback Ace Slants, on one, on one.”

Slants. The routes that ran receivers right into the teeth of a defense. The ball was going to come my way. Who else? The guys called me ‘No Worries’ for a reason. I wasn’t the fastest on the team, or the strongest, or the tallest, but I had the best hands. No one could catch like I could. The others would have a couple drops a game. I’d shock everyone if I had one. I worked at it constantly, at practice, at home. I would dream about football. Football was my life, and I wanted it to stay that way for years.

I jogged over to the X, the spot closest to the sideline on the quarterback’s left shoulder. The other team’s right cornerback trotted over to me. I’d been beating him all game, getting him to bite on every fake. He stared me down as he lined up across from me. I didn’t even give him a glance.

I set my feet in that perfect stance: inside foot up, back foot heel just off the ground. I slipped in my mouthguard, pulled my gloves down taut, and made sure my arm sleeves were just as snug. My chinstrap remained unfastened, the two bottom straps dangling below my helmet. I never fully fastened it. It was uncomfortable. Coach didn’t care enough to bench me if I didn’t, so I never bothered.

I looked over at our center and watched the football he held against the turf. A moment later, the quarterback barked “Hike,” the center snapped the ball, and I took off.

The cornerback reached his arms out to jam me. I hit him with the fastest club-punch of my life, batting his elbow away and slipping to his right, pushing him off to my left as I cut in and darted away. The football was already zipping towards me as I sprinted to the endzone, but it was coming high. I had to leap into the air. I raised my arms and cupped my hands with the perfect amount of space between them. The ball stuck between my gloves.

Everything after that came in slow motion. The only sound I remember hearing was the thumping of my heart.

My feet were coming down in the endzone. I started lowering my arms, bringing the ball to my chest. An outside linebacker took his final step towards me and launched himself at me head-first, leading the way with the crown of his helmet. His crown caught against the bottom of my facemask and flung my helmet off my head. When my feet finally hit the turf, my instincts commanded me to bring my head down and curl up to protect the football. As I did that, another linebacker was coming my way, lowering his shoulder, bringing it towards my head. Neither of us could react in time.

The last thing I felt was his shoulderpad cracking me in my jaw, and my head whipping back.

– – – – –

15 months ago

I was the first at my usual table in an otherwise crowded cafeteria. My new usual table. The table I’d banished myself to. I set down my paper plate with my two slices of pizza and sat to eat another lunch alone.

The headache was horrible that day. It felt like the worst one I’d had in months. The Tylenol I’d taken that morning didn’t do shit, so all I could do was try to ignore it. With how long I’d been dealing with the headaches, with how many months it had been since that game, I should’ve gotten good at ignoring the pain. But I wasn’t. I didn’t think I ever would be.

I had my sweatshirt’s hood up over my head, cloaking myself. I didn’t want to look at anyone, and I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I didn’t want to think about how I’d gone from being the approachable guy that was friends with everyone to being the grimacing loner. But I didn’t resent anyone for that. I wasn’t bitter, not at anyone else. I couldn’t blame them; I wouldn’t have wanted to be around me either.

Lunch that day didn’t go the way it normally did. I didn’t stew in silent dejection for long. A few minutes later, to my shock, someone sat at the table with me, right across from me. More shocking was who it was.

It was Mariska Janssen, a girl who all I knew about was only that she had moved here over the summer. I had only heard her speak a few times, mostly to teachers. She was basically mute. I’d never even gotten a good look at her until that day. She was skinny and tall, one of the tallest girls at school. She looked like she was five-foot-ten, maybe even five-eleven. Only a couple inches shorter than me. Most of her height was her long legs. She was as pale as I was, if not paler. Her smooth, dark-brown hair fell past her shoulders. Her diamond-shaped face was sparsely flecked with faded freckles, and her lips were full and pouty. She was pretty … but there was something strange to her, something suffocating looming over her. I could see it in her posture, in her tightly bunched shoulders and slightly hung head. Her big, hazel eyes, the last thing I fixed on, were skittish and sheepish.

I watched with disbelief as she sat across from me. She set her unopened bag of pretzels and bottle of water onto the table. She gave me a half-second of eye contact before looking down to her pretzels and pulling open the bag. She reached into it and gave me another half-second glance. “Hi,” she said softly.

I almost stood up and walked away, to a different table, or to the doors. I didn’t want to talk, not to anyone. But for some reason, I didn’t go. “Hey,” I said flatly.

“My … mom … made me promise to say hi to someone,” Mariska explained, still speaking softly, just on the edge of hearing.

I was expecting her to have some exotic European accent, but she didn’t. Any subtle clues of an accent were few and far between. If it wasn’t for her name and knowing she’d just moved here, I would’ve thought she was American. “So why’d you pick me?” I asked.

Mariska shrugged.

“You could’ve just lied to her,” I said. “She’s not here. She wouldn’t know.”

Mariska shrugged again. “She just wants me to be happy.”

I knew that line all too well. Dad loved saying it to me. Like it made anything any easier. “Are you not?” I asked.

She hesitated. “I don’t know.”

I took a bite of my pizza, chewed, and swallowed. “I thought you’d have an accent,” I said. “How come you don’t?”

“My dad was born here. And … I watched a lot of American TV. And … I practiced a lot before we moved. Practiced talking like … you. I wanted to … sound normal.” Then Mariska shook her head, looking ashamed. “It’s stupid, I know.”

“That’s not stupid,” I told her. “That’s, like, the opposite of stupid. But … why do you sit alone? Why don’t you ever talk to anyone?”

Mariska looked down at her pretzels. “I … have anxiety,” she said. It seemed hard for her to admit. I figured I must’ve been the only person at school she’d told that to.

“Are you anxious right now?” I asked.

She nodded.

I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t know if I should try to comfort her, or even how I could.

Mariska stared at a pretzel she held between two fingers. “Why do you sit alone?” she asked.

I took a moment to think of what to say. That moment wasn’t worth much, because I still wasn’t sure how to put it. “Because I’m a fuckin’ wreck,” I said. “Because I’m sick in the head. Because … I don’t know how to cope.”

Mariska looked up again. This time, her eyes looked straight into mine. “Me too.”

I smiled and chuckled under my breath. Mariska gave a small, shy smile of her own. “I’m Nathaniel,” I said.

“I’m Mariska.”

We didn’t speak much more that lunch. But when the next bell rang, I had the feeling we’d be sitting together again tomorrow.

– – – – –

Present day

The pain woke me up. It pounded in my head like a drum, throb, throb, throb, until I was wide awake.

I flung off my bedsheets and grabbed my phone from my nightstand. I switched off its alarm just before the time at the top of the screen ticked to 7:50 AM. I held my phone closer. There wasn’t a text from Mariska yet. That was strange. She always woke up earlier than me, and texting me was usually the first thing she did. That little ‘Good morning!’ text she always sent was the best part of waking up. It was odd that it wasn’t there. I figured she must’ve overslept.

Bright sunlight bled from between the cracks in my window’s blinds, and I grimaced when it happened to strike my eyes. I rolled out of bed with a grumble and got onto my feet. I yawned as I looked around my bedroom.

I hated my room. It was so … lifeless. There were no posters on the walls, no framed pictures on the shelves. There was no color. It wasn’t always that way. There was personality in my room once. But the things that used to be there, that things that were me … they weren’t me anymore.

My phone buzzed and vibrated in my hand. I held it up and found a text bubble on the screen.

Mariska: Good morning!

There it was. It was late, but it brought me a smile all the same. I swiped on the text bubble and started tapping away.

Me: Good morning. U oversleep?

Her: No. Was doing stuff

Me: What stuff?

Her: Girl stuff

Me: Oh

Her: Are u getting ready?

Me: Yeah. C ya in a bit

Her: C ya

I went to my closet and opened the two sliding doors. I set my phone atop my dresser and grabbed the bottle of Tylenol. I popped off the cap and poured two pills into my hand. I cocked back my head, threw the pills to the back of my throat, and swallowed.

I left my room and went down the hall. I trotted down the staircase and made my way to the kitchen. Along the way was the living room, where I saw our tiny Christmas tree glowing red and green. It was a pathetic little plastic thing. Back in the day, we’d always had a huge, real tree straight from a farm. Dad had always hated the mess real trees made with all those shed needles, but he’d put up with it for Mom’s sake. She loved real trees. Loved the smell of them. But now … there wasn’t any point. So, plastic we went.

In the kitchen, I glanced at the countertop, where Dad usually left notes for me before leaving town for work. Sure enough, sitting on the countertop was a sheet of printing paper he’d hastily scribbled onto. A fifty-dollar bill peeked out from beneath it.


I’ll be at the airport before you wake up. Should be home Wednesday. Left $50 for takeout. Go out for dinner when I get back?

Love ya, bud.

Dad thought I resented him for his job as an airline pilot always taking him away from home. I didn’t. I was glad he was a pilot, and that it kept him busy. Always moving around like that, it must’ve made it easier to deal with losing Mom. I never took Dad for granted. I knew that if it weren’t for his six-figure salary we wouldn’t have had our nice house on Mercer Island just twenty minutes from Downtown Seattle. I had tried telling him all that, but I was never great at talking to him. Honestly, it was good that he was away from me so much. He was better off. Even though he’d tell me otherwise, I was convinced that being around me sapped the life out of him.

I left the cash under the note. I’d pick it up later, on my way out of the house.

After I got the coffee maker going, I left the kitchen and hurried back up the stairs, to the bathroom just outside my bedroom. I swung open the door, flipped up the light switch inside, and went to the tub. I swiped aside the shower curtain and reached over towards the faucet. I pulled the lowest handle all the way down, letting loose the water. Then I switched the water to the showerhead and turned the heat handle up to just a few notches below the ‘H.’ I liked my showers steaming hot.

Our water always took a while to heat up. A lot of the other homes in the suburb had installed tankless water heaters, but we hadn’t. With how often Dad was gone, it would be an expensive investment for the sake of one person. So, I used the time to brush my teeth. Steam was floating out from above the shower curtain by the time I finished brushing.

I tugged my boxers to the floor and stepped into the tub. I rested my hand against the wall and held my head right below the showerhead. The heat helped a little with the pain … but not enough. My head felt like a mess of twisted knots of throbbing flesh. It wasn’t a crippling pain, but it was an exhausting one. It wore me out. And every time it ebbed away and I started to feel normal again, it would sneak back up on me.

I had turned eighteen just before Halloween. I’d been an adult for almost two months, and yet nothing was any easier. For some reason I’d been holding out hope that it would, but … being an adult didn’t change anything.

It was always so tempting in the mornings to just get back into bed and close my eyes, but I knew better. Dad would’ve gotten a robocall from the school if I didn’t show up, and then I’d get a long talk with him over the phone on whether I was ‘okay.’ It’d happened before. One time was enough. And that wasn’t the only reason why I never skipped. If I didn’t go to school, Mariska would’ve been alone. She’d walk to school alone. She’d sit in class alone. She’d eat lunch alone. And she’d walk home alone. Thinking about that was always enough to get me out of the house.

Once I was finished up, I turned off the water. After stepping out of the tub and grabbing a towel from the cupboard behind me, I wiped the steam from the mirror, revealing the reflection.

I was tall, broad-shouldered and lean. And damn pale. Hadn’t spent much time outside lately. I had a narrow face and strong jaw. My eyes were an icy blue, with tired shadows beneath them. My unkempt, black hair was the longest it had ever been. It reached past my ears, ending just above my shoulders. I had a dark stubble all around my face. Hadn’t shaved in some days.

I reached for my razor, but I stopped myself. Didn’t care enough to bother with a smooth shave, and Dad wasn’t there to nag me about it. If I knew what Mariska would’ve liked better, then maybe … but … we were just friends.

– – – – –

Mariska’s house was on the northeast side of Mercer Island, close to the East Channel. I pulled into her driveway in my black 2006 Monte Carlo, an old coupe that was still going strong. My car was one of the few things from that ‘Before’ time that I managed to keep in my life after everything happened. It was the last big thing Mom had ever taken me to buy. It had been kind of an old car, even at the time, but I didn’t care. It had been in good shape, and I liked how it looked. Now it was special to me, and always would be. I didn’t think I’d ever want to replace it. We’d be together until one of us died.

I kept the heat off while I waited. It was a crisp 59 degrees outside, an almost record warmth for a December day in Seattle; it was plenty comfortable. The thin sheet of dust-like snow from the day before was long gone. I had on a standard crisp-Seattle-weather outfit: spring jacket, long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and sneakers.

I spent the wait thinking about what Mariska and I would do over the weekend. Or, rather, what we’d binge-watch. The throbbing in my head started ebbing away. It always did around that time. The pain worked in waves, coming and going. Some parts of the day were always worse than others. Driving to school with Mariska was never one of those times.

Minutes passed, and that was odd. Mariska was usually ready the second I pulled in. If she wasn’t out soon, we weren’t going to be able to grab breakfast at a drive-through. That was something we did every Friday. It was a ritual of ours, our first little taste of the leisure of the weekend. After the next seven hours or so, for a few wonderful days we could relax and laze together all we wanted. Sharing a breakfast in a peaceful parking lot was only the start of it.

A few years ago, when I was about to be a freshman, I’d been amazed when I heard that the high school was moving its start time to forty-five minutes later. I’d always been so damn tired in the mornings back in junior high. But little did I know that in Amsterdam, where Mariska was born, schools had started at 8:30 since forever. Lucky them.

After another few minutes, Mariska finally slipped out of her front door and started down the walkway. She was wearing a white hoodie, blue, baggy jeans, white-and-pink sneakers, and a heavy backpack strapped over each of her shoulders. Her long, chocolate-brown hair cascaded down her back, covering her ears. Her eyebrows were trimmed but still looked thick, in a good way. She had on the same minimal makeup as always: pale pink lip gloss, a touch of mascara, and a single stroke of eyeliner along each of her lashlines. If she ever wore any foundation, I couldn’t tell. She never covered her freckles. I was glad she didn’t. I liked them.

To me, she was a walking dream. Slender and tall, with long, long legs. Yet she never wore skirts or skinny jeans or leggings, even though she definitely could. Those were about showing off, and Mariska only ever did the opposite. She would hide herself. She didn’t see herself like I did. I wished she would. I don’t know what she thought she saw whenever she looked into a mirror, but she was wrong. She was beautiful, from head to toe … and it only seemed like she was more beautiful with every passing day. Sometimes, when she and I were together, I had to just stop and admire the sight of her. I couldn’t help it. It felt like I was under a spell. And I guess I was.

As she got closer to my car, Mariska’s hazel eyes met mine through my windshield. She smiled at me. I smiled back.

I was in love with her. Had been for a while. There was a time where I tried denying it, but that was over. There was no denying what I felt for her. There was no denying that it was stronger than anything I’d ever felt for a girl.

Mariska popped open my car’s passenger-side door and plopped her backpack into the space in front of the seat.

“Hi, Nathaniel,” she said as she sat down, still smiling.

“Hey,” I said.

Mariska had never once called me ‘Nate.’ ‘Nathaniel’ was what Mom had named me, but most everyone else called me Nate. Dad, the guys on the football team, my cousins, everyone. Everyone except for Mom. It didn’t bug me to be called Nate, whenever someone asked if they could call me that, I said sure. But Mom had made something special about Nathaniel. Even more so now that she was gone. Way back when I had told Mariska that most everyone called me Nate, she did something no one else ever had: she asked me what I liked being called more.