“Ahhhh!” Whack. Punch. Kick. Slam.
Yeah, the punching bag deserved all my aggression. Fuck suicide. Fuck feelings.
Sex or punching helped, and sex was not a fucking option.
So there I was, ignoring my best friend and kicking the shit out of the old leather bag, hiding like a little bitch. I disgusted myself and kicked harder. Kate did nothing wrong, fucker. She stated the truth.
I blasted the music to the highest it would go. I hadn’t received a complaint from any neighbors yet, but I was itching for a fight. A distraction… Anything to not think about my goddamn brother. I continued until my muscles strained. I might be a dick, but I wasn’t a fool—I was not about to fuck up my throwing arm. I’d snatched a towel to wipe the sweat pouring off my face when my phone pinged.
Natalie: Are we still on for tonight?
Thank you, Jesus.
Relief coursed through me. Meaningless sex was the only answer. The escape I needed. I didn’t want to hear her talk though. Her voice annoyed the hell out of me. All high and nasally.
Brody: Sure thang, baby. When you want me to come over?
Natalie: Nine? I am sooo looking forward to being yours for the night.
Brody: I’ll be there.
She sent a picture. Goddamn. Thank you, world, for technology.
Why she sent me dirty pictures all the time, I didn’t know. But I sure as hell wasn’t complaining.
I knew what a therapist would tell me—that I used sex and exercise as a way to cope with something I would never get over. I already knew that. I didn’t need to waste time going to talk to somebody about my issues. Not when the women were willing and more into it than I was. I wasn’t a goddamn idiot. I knew why women slept with me, and I didn’t care. If they wanted to say they’d slept with me before I made it big, then sign me up. It was easier than thinking… No.
I preferred not to think about the past. Honestly, I preferred not having feelings. And most days, I didn’t.
My life had two purposes: protecting my mom and Kate, and football. Everything else was just details.
I showered and felt an inkling of regret when I found Kate setting up her room without her normal energy. She’d always been one of those annoyingly happy people. She smiled too big, too often. And she was a ray of sunshine. And that sunshine was dimmed. Because of my issues.
I was more of a storm cloud, and I owed her an apology. I knocked on the door frame, getting her attention. “Hey, can I come in?”
“Would you like a tour?” She pointed to the closet with her middle finger. Subtle, Kate. Real subtle.
“This is the closet. I hung up my five outfits. This is my bed.”
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. “Looks nice.”
“Shut up, Grody.” She blasted the music louder, some pop band I’d heard on the radio. She went about emptying her suitcase and eyed me. “Can I help you…or you just going to stand there like a creeper?”
“I came to apologize.” I squeezed the back of my neck. Finding it hard to say sorry was in my blood. I didn’t think I had ever heard my mom use those words in my life. Kate didn’t help the situation. Her mouth fell open, and her pale-blue eyes widened as she dropped everything in her hand.
“Color me shocked. You have my full attention.” She perched on the edge of the bed, the trace of a smile on her lips. The little shit’s enjoying this.
“I shouldn’t have been a dick about Brenden. I still can’t talk about it.” I joined her on the bed, and she put a hand on my shoulder. Her tiny hand barely registered when she squeezed me, but the thought was nice. “Would be real shitty of me to have our first night as roomies fighting.”
“We aren’t fighting. I don’t think it’s healthy you can’t talk about somebody we both loved. But I won’t push it.”
“So, we’re good?” I gave her a hopeful smile.
“Yes, Brody. I’m not going to throw away sixteen years of friendship over a small, albeit real, case of you being an asshole.” She patted my shoulder one more time and stood. “Now, get out. I need to shower the plane off me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I headed toward the living room. It had a small desk where I spent zero time. Maybe Kate would use it. Itching to head to Natalie’s, I busied myself with work-out plans.
Four hours a day. Stretching and yoga. Core and muscle building. I loved the hell out of working out, but it worried me. Could I handle it? The fear of not making the fifty-three-man roster in August terrified me. I didn’t know what happened after. I never thought about it. My agent gave me two things to work on this summer before training.
Work out as much as you can to build stamina.
The training camp broke some of the strongest men.
Befriend the players when working out.
It’d shocked me when he’d said it was like any other job. That who I knew and got along with played a role. It was easier to cut a draft pick if they were a party of one. It was a hell of a lot more difficult when they had a team around them, a bond.
I had gone to the gym almost every day since being drafted in late April, but I had yet to meet any of the veterans. I had to try harder. It was already June. Lost as I was in thoughts of how to be more goddamn friendly, Kate’s voice broke my focus.
“Grody, sorry to be a pain. But do you have food here, or should I go pick up something?”
I lifted my head from my half-assed notes and pointed at her Cubs shirt. “Wrong team, blondie. How you going to convince your new place of work you’re a fan?”
“I am a fan of baseball. I appreciate the beauty and romance of the sport. I also realized I have zero Diablos shirts. It’s on my list to buy some tomorrow.”
“Good call.” I stretched. “I think I have some food. I can cook us some dinner?”
“Yes!” She did a weird-ass victory dance. “I totally forgot you could cook. I just got a hell of a lot more excited about living here.”
“Yeah…we all know what happens when you get in front of a stove. I’m surprised you’re not the size of a balloon. All you eat is takeout.” I tugged the end of her hair when I walked by her. She smacked my hand away.
“Rude. And true.” She followed me and perched at the high-top table I’d recently purchased. I didn’t give two shits about furniture, but it did tie the kitchen together. “I run a lot.”
“Be careful if you go in the heat. Bring water and let me know before you leave.” I raised my voice. “I’m not being overbearing. People underestimate the heat—”
“Brody, I grew up here.”
“And you’ve lived away for a while.”
She sighed, but her blue eyes crinkled at the sides.
I cooked us a simple protein-filled dinner and fought a laugh the entire time we ate. She shoveled food into her mouth, groaning into the seasoned chicken breast. She’d been known as “the disposal” growing up, with how she devoured food, and it fit. She caught me staring at her and raised an eyebrow. “You eat with so much enthusiasm.”
“That was the nicest way to say I don’t eat like a lady.” She smiled, a little food on her mouth. “I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in ages. Forgive me for forgoing manners. Oh, and I’ve seen you lick someone else’s toothbrush as a prank.”
“Shit.” I let out a ragged laugh. “Eddy, right?”
“Yup. He deserved it, but you can’t make fun of me for ‘eating with enthusiasm’ when you’ve done weirder things.” She took another bite, crossing her eyes.
“Fair enough.” I slid the key I had for her across the table. She nodded at me but otherwise gave it no attention, food her only priority. I ate in record time. Family dinners growing up had been on the go between sporting events—I’d learned to eat a full meal in ten minutes. “You’re on clean-up duty.”
“I figured as much.” She leaned back and patted her stomach. “Best part about this is you only eat healthy shit. My body and I thank you.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Glad to help. I have some work to do before I head out later. You need anything?”
“Nope. I have a ton of shit to do too. Thanks for dinner.” She smiled, the warmth in her eyes coming from years of comfort between us.
I spent the rest of the night emailing my agent and learning the names of the other guys on the team. It was the first step. At twenty minutes to nine, I couldn’t wait to release the tension that had built up all day. Kate remained at the desk, notes and pens and papers all around her.
“I’m heading out. You good here?”
“Oh, I’m good. You go enjoy
yourself.” She shuffled some of those papers. “Use protection, my friend.”
“I might be going to get ice cream. You don’t know,” I stupidly replied. She wasn’t an idiot; I cringed.
“You’ll get cream
all right, that’s for sure.”
I burst out laughing. Same old Kate. Same old humor.
“Don’t wake me up when you stumble back with your walk of shame.”
I chuckled, locking the door behind me. She was always so damn chill about my hookups. This could end up being a hell of a summer. I just wished my dates were as easy to hang out with as Kate.
* * * *
I entered the team’s gym the following morning with a plan. The bottom floor of the stadium housed the multiuse area: weights, cardio, machines, Pilates, and a newly acquired yoga space. I felt more confident, knowing ten of the guys’ names, but it didn’t settle my heart rate when a group of older players gave me looks of loathing. I ignored them. They’d had to work just as hard to get where they were, and I needed to remember that.
No one got handed anything. Ever.
I spotted one of the other new draft picks, Xavier Linger. The tall, lean kid had hair that went in every direction. He went by X, or X-Ling, a pretty sick nickname. I’d seen him around quite a bit but never made introductions. He stood off toward the treadmill. Most of the guys spent time on the machines, hoping to gain muscle mass. I preferred to alternate exercise, and it appeared X did too. He met my eyes with a hesitant smile. Time to start the plan.
“X, right?” I held out my hand. “Brody Carlson.”
“Hey, man.” He wiped his hand on a towel before shaking mine. “Nice to officially meet you. Heard you got a hell of an arm. I’m dying to see what you got.”
“Yeah?” Pride crept its way into my chest, right behind my heart. “You got your own reputation. Hands like baskets.”
He held them up, and they were
the size of baskets. “I do what I can.”
“Want me to spot you?” I motioned toward the bench he had been sitting on.
“Yeah, appreciate it, man.”
I spotted him for two sets, him returning the favor. We chatted about trivial things, but relief shone in his eyes at our friendship—he was just as scared as I was. My heart went out to him. His family across the country, he lived in a shitty one-bedroom in the hopes of making the roster. Instinct took over.
“Do you wanna pair up and work out the rest of the summer?”
“Yeah, man.” He clapped my back. “Sounds hella good.”
I nodded, spying a group of the guys on the south end of the field, the glass wall giving us a great view of the team. They were running drills, their figures small in the distance. Carter Jameson—Jamo—the famous quarterback, stood out. He stood well over six feet and had the attitude of a bulldog. He threw bullet after bullet, never resting or pausing for feedback. Various guys dressed in pullover jerseys caught the throws, some of them dropping each pass. I cringed, X following suit.
“Are those returning players or newbs?”
“Not sure.” I squinted to get a better view. Some of them sucked. “I don’t know what would be worse.”
“Jamo isn’t slowing down. He’s firing shot after shot.” X frowned. “I know he’s a god around here, but damn. He’s making those guys look like clowns.”
“Yeah… You know a lot about the guy?”
He tilted his head. “What you mean, man?”
His tone had me pause: I never had been a gossip. Not once. But I’d heard rumors about Jamo… I shook my head. “I’m trying to scope out my competition. If I’m low man on the totem pole, I want all the info I can get.”
“I feel ya.” He nodded but then shook his head. “I gotta say, I hated when my QBs made me look like shit. That ain’t right.”
I had to agree. There were various leadership styles all QBs had. I preferred to make my teammates look better rather than myself. Once again, I knew what a therapist would say—I had a complex because I couldn’t save my brother. Shaking the thought away, I took another chance. I could regret it, but I didn’t care. “You got plans this afternoon?”
“Nope. Work out, eat, sleep. It’s on repeat until they announce the team.” A fierce determination entered his eyes. I couldn’t imagine being alone, thousands of miles away from any friends or family and doing it solo. A wave of gratitude hit me.
“My mom needs some help moving shit in her basement or something. She can cook like nobody’s business. Want a home-cooked meal?”
“Fuck, yeah.” He smiled, his white teeth contrasting with his dark skin. “I’ll mow the lawn in the middle of the summer heat for a cooked meal. I can’t eat plain chicken anymore or I’m gonna die.”
I laughed. “I feel ya. I’ll hit you up later. Here’s my number.”
My nerves calmed down a bit: I had my first friend. Fuck yeah.