Fuck it, I thought. I’ll take some more. And I popped another pill into my mouth and grabbed my jacket off one of the chairs in the kitchen and stepped out the door.

They gave me these pills to deal with my football injury. I busted up my leg. I caught a handoff and started streaking up the field, and then a guy took me out. But I landed wrong. My leg snapped. I don’t remember much:  I felt a kind of otherworldly pain, as if getting pinpricks from hell, and then I howled. And then I blacked out.

I woke to about ten faces staring down at me, blank and expectant, and I couldn’t say anything. My throat felt sore. I opened my eyes and looked around the sterile and white room and then flashed a weak smile.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m okay.”

Laughter all around.

I had to spend a few months in physical therapy, slowly learning to walk again. I’d trip. I’d collapse. I’d get pissed off and throw something at the wall, and I’d send the nurses running. One of them would be brave enough—bless her—to come up to me, calm me down, give me a hug, comfort me. It worked. Usually. Sometimes I’d tell her to go away, scream to her:  “Can you get the fuck away from me?” And she would. But then I’d wait until there were no other people in the room, and I’d collapse to the floor. I’d start to cry. Just take it easy, I’d tell myself. You can do this.

 

***

 

He never fulfilled his dreams, his ambitions. He wanted to matter. As a young kid, he’d turn on the television and watch political speeches, and he’d be held rapt. These people are important, he’d say. He was never really sure what they did, but there was something about them. They were big and powerful, like his action figures come to life. Yes, he’d say. Yes. I want to be just like them.

Or he’d hear about people going to space, people playing professional sports, maybe a musician here and there, and he’d think: Those people, too. I want to be them, too.

But he never committed. No, he never committed. He couldn’t pick just one thing. And there was so much pressure, so much fucking pressure—aunts and uncles and his parents and his friends—from these committees that would form, and they would all tell him to try this or that, and my friend is a manager of this company, go there. Why haven’t you found a job yet, man? You’re wasting your life.

So he headed to the insurance company—underwriter for 25 years, now—and he’d pop into the office day in and day out. He’d say hello to his coworkers, get them coffee, go to their gatherings. The Christmas parties were always decent—decent being the operative word. But he never felt happy.

Admittedly, he was more than a little jealous of his son, Greg. He was his only kid. But he’d absolutely clean up on the football field, and he dated all the girls, and he’d got great grades. And he was what now? 16? No. No, he just turned 17. This was a person whom he’d sired. He gave him his DNA. Was it so much to ask for Greg to be, you know, the same? Interested in everything but committed to nothing? And maybe the two of them could end up at the insurance company together, commiserating, miserable and cynical, and then they’d go out for drinks after work. They could come home late and all that.

But then the injury happened. He could still hear the shattering of the bones. He’d grown up wanting to smash the walls of finitude; stuff like this would remind him that we are all grounded to the earth.

“Tom, can you stay?” he heard from across the office. A lot of people had gone home for the day; it was him and the boss and a few other people.

“Huh?”

“Can you stay?”

“No. Sorry, no. I have to visit my son in the hospital.”

 

***

 

Before they discharged me, they gave me the prescription for my pills. Oxy. 20 mgs for three months—if needed, that is. Thanks, I said. And then I headed out with my parents.

Really, I’m just pissed I can’t play for the rest of the season. I’m a junior. I need to start preparing for college, and I know scouts were giving me looks. I’d see them sometimes in the stands, always sitting way up at the top. Like they’d figure I wouldn’t notice. Heh. Every single time I’d score, I’d run back up field and point and look right at them.

Anyway, my parents don’t know it, but I’m heading out to a huge party tonight. My buddies and a few others want to celebrate me not getting killed. The hospital gave me a boot, so I’m mobile.

And I need this. I know. I’m lucky to have received only a leg injury. I could have been paralyzed. I could have been killed.

I’m all-set. I can already feel the buzz from the Oxy. Forget the beers I’d normally drink; I’ll just stick with this.

Which is why I figured I’ll take a little more. Like I said earlier, fuck it.

 

***

 

With his Erika, his wife, and son out, he sat in front of the television, mindlessly surfing, scrolling—maybe there would be a movie on, or he could catch up on a show—until he got bored and started looking out the window.

What to do tonight? he thought. Honestly, what was there ever to do? Flip through a newspaper? Surf the computer instead of the television?

He went outside. A walk would do it. He looked at all of the houses—lights on, lights off, cars in the driveway, some empty—and he saw people sitting down to dinner, others in front of the television as he was half an hour ago, and others kissing. They looked happy, these people. They had a purpose in life; they had feeling.

Him? He play-acted at everything. Why couldn’t he feel like he belonged in this life, that he wasn’t some kind of impostor or even a ghost haunting these streets? He paused at the end of the street—the cul-de-sac and then woods—and listened. He heard the wind silently rustle the still-unfallen leaves. There was the pitter-patter of animal feet across the dirt and the grass. It was still warm enough to hear the chirp of crickets.

He thought of running deep into the woods and stripping himself of his clothes. He had a primal urge to flee from everything. Maybe then he’d feel better. After all, he wouldn’t have to worry about mattering, because he’d be totally off-the-grid.

No. No, he couldn’t do it. And he wouldn’t want to, honestly. But then he thought of Greg and the pills he had. He could snag one or two of them, maybe a little more, and these would take him away from the insurance company, away from his home, and bring him into a land where none of this mattered. Or so he hoped. At least they might take his mind off things for a few hours.

Why not? he said. I’ll try them. And he shoved his hands into his pockets, lowered his head, and slowly made his way back to his house.

 

***

 

I don’t even know where I am anymore. But what a great party. What a fantastic party. I haven’t been able to move well, but I’ve pretty much seen the whole town here. Word spread about the party. It usually does. A ton of people crashed it, and they’ve all come up to me and asked me how I was doing— “I broke my leg like that once; it hurt like a bitch,” one dude told me—and stuff. It’s nice. Actually, it’s awesome.

Hey, I’ll admit something: normally, there’s a part of me—a small part—that feels lonely at these things. I don’t know. I see all of these people, and some of them are annoying. Some of them I’ve never met before. And they’re all like:  Wow. You’re so good. And honestly, I enjoy it. Like with the leg and all that.

It’s fake, though. All of it. Do these people know me? Do they take the time to sit down and talk to me? Do they want to have a real conversation?

But forget it for now. I’m having too much fun.

 

***

 

Thank God no one was home. He took the pills out of Greg’s room and into the kitchen, where he stared at them and laughed to himself. These tiny things, he said, will be the keys to my happiness. I don’t care if it lasts for only a few hours. It’s something.

He sighed. He counted the pills—one, two, three—and then he poured himself a glass of water and downed them.

He recognized he was at a precipice, that he might not be able to turn back from this, but so what? So what? He thought of the times he’d tried to look for new jobs. There were hours spent at the computer, mindlessly clicking through sites, only stopping when he had to join the rest of the family for dinner. He’d put in the effort once. Everything seemed to rebuff him. He just didn’t care anymore.

He walked into his room and went to lie down and waited for the joy to kick in.

And soon he was asleep. Dreaming.

 

***

 

This is easily the best party I’ve ever been to. I am on another planet, in another dimension, in a state of pure bliss.

Don’t stop. Please. Don’t stop now. I want to keep going; I want to make all of this permanent. Wouldn’t all of you like it if I spent the rest of my days living out these moments constantly? Where I have given up football—the thing I love—for this joy, perpetual and self-sustaining, that never fails me?

 

***

 

Tom was walking along the coastline, listening to the seagulls, watching the people rollerblade or jog by, and then he looked at the blue and cloudless sky and felt his mouth drop in horror as it turned red. The people disappeared. The birds stopped calling. A massive hole opened up below him, as if the whole world were collapsing in on itself, and swallowed him into the darkness.

 

***

 

3 a.m. Stumbling back to my house. The high is gone. I feel horrible. I want to throw up. But I’m keeping it together—trying to—and I’m dragging my stupid boot across the sidewalks, because none of my friends could drive me home.

My stomach is about to burst, and my head is throbbing, throbbing. I feel like I’m going to die.

Come on. You can do this. Keep pushing. There isn’t much longer. Cars occasionally whoosh by but none stop. None see me. Or maybe they do, and they think I’m some sort of vagrant. When they realize they’ve driven by the top running back in the state in his hour of need, they’ll laugh. Oh, they’ll laugh. Especially because they probably know—somewhere in their hearts, as I do—that I’ll never be the same. But you didn’t hear that.

I breathe deep. I shake my head. I slap my face. Just a mile to go. One more mile. You’ve been here before:  you’ve been down this road before, man. You’ve single-handedly led comebacks against teams everyone thought would crush you.

Suck it up. Breathe again. And then get home.

 

***

 

Part of him hoped that whole thing was real. But when he jolted awake, body covered in sweat and sheets and covers tossed to the floor, he realized it was only a dream. He looked out the window. It was still dark.

He rose slowly because he didn’t want to wake Erika, and then the minute he stood up, he fell over. Damn it, he muttered. She stirred at the noise and turned over but remained asleep.

The pain. Everything hurt. But he didn’t regret it. No, not at all. He only wished he hadn’t passed out.

What time is it? he thought. He saw the clock: 3:10 a.m. Could he take more? Is it too soon? He paused for a second and considered it. And then he smiled. Why not?

 

***

 

I’ve made it. I’m basically crashing through the door, barely able to walk, and I’m immediately thinking of more. Give me more of this stuff. It was so good, and I need to kill this pain. My leg feels like it’s going to explode. Actually, more like my whole body.

And my head. My head is throbbing, and I don’t want to think about the time after this cast comes off, because then I’ll have to get back on the field. I’ll disappoint the fans, my coaches, the whole town. All of them will look at me, and they’ll see me as a has-been, and maybe they’ll say I deserved it. He’s a joke, they’ll say. Plus, he’s an athlete. What life will he have after his career ends? There was something about that break. I don’t know. Maybe I’m being pessimistic.

 

***

 

He had forgotten about his son. In the quiet of the house and in his single-minded desire to have another dose, he had forgotten about everything.

 

***

 

The two plowed ahead toward the pills, each unaware of the other, each anticipating the momentary joy the Oxy would bring, and then they bumped into each other, paused, and looked up.

 

THE END

***

Photo by Schwarz Johann