Part One. “Line of Scrimmage.”
Drew kept his head down, waiting for the snap of the ball that would pull him from his left guard position, around the left end on a sweep. He’d lead the way for Kyle Jensen, his best friend, and tailback. Drew would mow down the first guy from Southern’s team that came before him, and he hoped it would be their linebacker, Marty Floyd, the guy they called “the Flood.” Floyd was a big, strong guy and liked to hit his man high, show how strong he was. Drew knew that he was stronger and would get under Floyd’s pads and bury him in the turf. Drew smiled at the thought of seeing Kyle’s shoes flash past him on his way to a touchdown and a victory, the first of the season. Kyle hadn’t been right all game, as far as Drew was concerned. He was mad at nothing and couldn’t seem to concentrate, but Drew just knew that when he stopped “The Flood,” the right side guard who pulled too would pick up the cornerback’s rush, Kyle would get going, and no one would bring him down.
The nose tackle opposite him snorted and pawed the ground, mumbling something under his breath and staring at Drew, who had held him out of the backfield all day. On running plays, Drew had put that boy on his back three times. Drew looked at him and winked, just as the ball snapped, and Drew was simply not there. The center drove that nose tackle into the ground, and Drew saw out of the corner of his eye that his quarterback was just about to pitch the ball to Kyle. Drew hammered around the tackle, low and hard. The Flood came just as fast as Drew, having seen him pull, but it was perfect. He came high, roaring, like it made any difference, and Drew dropped under him, way below his pads. He loved this part, the drive.
The Flood might weigh two twenty, but Drew was over two forty and the strongest kid in Jefferson county. Hands inside, driving up into Floyd’s chest, Drew poured his power through his man. Marty Floyd made a high pitched noise as his feet left the ground. Though he tugges at Drew’s pad and helmet, he could do nothing but follow the curve of Drew’s arc of power. Floyd went flat on his back and Dawson, the right guard, pancaked the corner. Kyle thundered past with Drew roaring “Go,” at the top of his lungs.
Ten yards down the field, Kyle’s steps faltered, and Drew gasped. No one was around Kyle, and it looked like suddenly he had forgotten how to run. One knee rammed into the other and Kyle went down on his face. The ball popped loose, and Drew was on his feet and there in an instant. Knocking aside the other cornerback, he dove for the ball which was just under Kyle’s shaking hand, though he didn’t try to grab it. Kyle’s mouth was wide, eyes squinting tight, as though he screamed in agony, but no sound came, and Drew got as scared as he had ever been.
Drew got one hand on the ball and the other on Kyle’s shoulder and pulled both of them to his chest as players piled atop him. He was almost face to face with Kyle at the bottom of the heap of bodies and the mask of frozen agony on his friend’s face had not faded. The Flood rammed into him from behind, punching hard at Drew’s sides and arms, but Drew held on, looking at Kyle in horror.
Floyd kneed him on the back, and Drew’s anger flared, even as the officials were signaling first down. Drew turned his horror fueled anger on Marty Floyd, picking him up by his jersey and slamming him back down to the ground. Official whistles screamed and flags flew. The Flood lay on the ground clutching his misshapen arm to his chest. But Drew turned to Kyle and knelt down beside him.
The rictus of agony had fled his friend’s face, but his arms and legs were knotted at his joints as though all of them spasmed at once. Drew slid Kyle’s helmet off and looked into his friend’s still face. Is he dead? Drew wondered. The coach and trainer were there by then, and a stretcher came out behind them. Drew got tossed out of the game for breaking Marty Floyd’s arm, but that reality never dawned on him. Helping to lift Kyle onto a stretcher and carry him off the field, he was one step away from Kyle right up to the time that they admitted Kyle to the hospital.
Head down, sitting in the waiting room in pads and cleats, Drew finally ran out of tears and sat in a dull, frowning stupor, his only thought that he had failed, somehow, to protect his best friend. That’s what Kyle asked him to do, months before, when he found out how strong this odd, lonely boy, Drew Skolnick was. Kyle had broken intro Drew’s quiet world of books and weights and asked for his strength, first, and then, having found a kindred soul, gave him his friendship. Learning the game hadn’t been hard, for Drew was as studious as he was ugly. And Drew had found something like acceptance for the first time in his life, even though he was not a good looking, affable boy, like Kyle.
Drew had dark, uncombable hair, which, at this moment, lay matted to the shape of his helmet’s rigging. It gave him the look of a crazy man. His blunt, frowning features typically caused people to stay away from him, and that became his lot again as he sat in the St. Joseph’s waiting room. Blood, too, had dried on his face from where his helmet cut into the bridge of his nose as Floyd had tried to wrench it off. His knuckles were bloody as well, and the way he clasped and unclasped his hands in frustration had kept even the most caring medical staff away from him. He jumped with a startle when his sneakers, jeans, and sweatshirt dropped to the floor in front of his eyes.
There stood Mary Beth Stevens, Kyle’s girlfriend, and Kyle’s sister, Emma. They were both crying and sat down on either side of him, both putting their arms around him. Being embraced by the two prettiest girls he knew would have seemed to him a miracle a year ago. It only happened now, he thought, because they were both saddened by whatever had happened to Kyle. He glanced up at the waiting room clock and saw that he had been there for six hours, empty, waiting to hear the name of that monstrous thing that had reached out of the night and turned his perfect friend into a twitching mass of palsied limbs.
And after they had both gone quiet, MaryBeth stood up and dragged at Drew’s hands, urging him to his feet.
“C’mon Drew. Let’s get you cleaned up,” she said. He had grown stiff, sitting there, and he protested at first, but Mary Beth insisted and dragged him to a nearby men’s room, where she ushered him within, as Emma brought his clothes. They made an odd assembly, two beautiful women, Mary Beth dark haired, Doris Jensen blond, like her brother, and ungainly, massive, filthy, and bloody Drew Skolnick, who had never experienced this sort of contact with a girl before. It was a tiny restroom with a sink and a toilet in a stall. They worked off his jersey, shoulder pads, and cleats. Both of them washed his hands and face, removing the caked on blood. Drew stood silent, charmed by the simple act, which brought fresh tears to his eyes. Mary Beth shoved him into the stall and said, “Put these on,” handing him his jeans.
While he sat on the toilet, working off his lower pads and pants, he found enough voice to ask, “What are they saying about Kyle?”
Mary Beth managed to say, “They’re…calling in a…specialist,” before her voice broke and she cried again. Drew pulled on his jeans and padded out onto the cold tile in his jeans and the sweat-soaked t-shirt he always wore under his pads. He stared at them. Emma hugged Mary Beth to her. They are so perfect, Drew thought, like he was, just seven hours ago.
Emma looked at him and extended her hand. Drew moved closer to them, and she pulled him into her embrace with Mary Beth. Drew was aware of how bad he must smell, since fresh, pretty scents came from them both, but they hugged him anyway. With her eyes closed, Emma’s voice said slowly, as though they were all praying together, “There are three doctors taking care of him now. Wh-when he woke up, he looked at Mom and Dad like they…like they were strangers, and he hasn’t said anything to anybody yet. And, and…” Emma took a deep, steadying breath, “he doesn’t seem to have control of his arms and legs. Drew, they said, g-given what they think this is, he might never be able to talk to us…again.”
Half an hour later, Emma and Mary Beth led Drew to the room where Kyle Jensen lay, his arms and legs fastened to the hospital bed with soft, strong restraints. Kyle’s neck and upper torso were twisted away from them, and Mary Beth went to the other side of the bed and placed her tender hands around Kyle’s face.
“He can hear us, the Doctor’s say,” Emma said.
“Kyle?” Drew asked.
“Hey man,” Kyle said in a soft voice. “Things look pretty bad right?”
“Yeah, but I’m relieved that you can even say that,” Drew said, leaning onto the edge of the bed.
“Say what?” MaryBeth asked.
“He just said,’Things look pretty bad.’ You didn’t hear him?”
“Drew, I’m looking at his face. He hasn’t said a word.”
“What do you mean? I just hea—“
“Give it up, Buddy. They can’t hear me,” Kyle’s voice said, and Drew was looking at Kyle’s face as he said it. The twisted mouth had not moved, but the room began to spin around Drew, and he dropped to the bedside
“I know, I know. Weird, right?” Kyle asked.
Stay tuned for part two and let me know what you think!