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I am going to be a star. Even you tell me so. I’m going to make it. I know that for certain, and so do you.
It’s like a drug, it really is, but I never tell you that. The bright lights, the volcanic roar from the crowd, grabbing me by the shoulders and screaming into my sweaty tough-guy face. The electricity in my veins, the stadium lights against the dark rural sky, the endless college recruiting trips filled with suspiciously delicious five-star dining food and overly ambitious cheerleaders who kiss my cheek and laugh at everything that comes out of my mouth. It’s like they know I’m going to go pro one day and they’re feeding into me, stuffing my brain like a turkey on Thanksgiving. A whole Hollywood experience injected into my senior year of high school, all because I can throw a football better than anyone in the country.
As I sit here in my ’95 Mustang that you and dad saved every penny to buy me, the Mustang that you told me to drive under the speed limit, I stare at myself in the greasy rear-view mirror, but nobody stares back. Empty black eyes, the tombs of a passionate young boy stare back, but that’s all. It’s not the old me, it’s not the boy you used to know, the boy who used to tell you he’d buy you a house one day when he’s a superstar.
On the passenger seat floor, next to the empty soda bottles and .22 pistol I stole from dad’s unsealed safe, I see the fifty-cent stress ball that you gave to me when I was in preschool. The smiley-face sack stares at me, mocking me, yellow and round, symmetrical like a balloon. I see it and I think of you, your brown eyes and imperfect spotted skin, your words of advice that I should’ve listened to, back when I was a person and not a corpse. But it’s too late for me, burning inside this freezing metal box outside of Romeo’s Pizzeria, watching the snowflakes fall like feathers, thinking about how this is nothing like the movies, how there’s no real glamour in going out shooting, how I have no choice. There’s nothing funny about having an empty bottle of pills in my lap; there’s no laughter in not having a plan B.
I’m not ready to go inside yet, to point this .22 between the eyes of the cashier, who’s the same age as me with a perfect life and smiling friends. I must go soon, I know I do, because this bottle of painkillers costs a hundred dollars to refill, and all I have is a gun and a hot sweat. I would ask you for the money, but it would make you cry, hearing how low I’ve fallen, how empty I feel when I bounce through the crowded hallways of high school. I’m not ready yet, so I pick up the smiley-face ball and squeeze it like you showed me, back when this all started, back to when I was a person.
There was only a minute left on the scoreboard and we led by twenty, but I crouched behind the center anyway. I took the snap and tiptoed back with the gracefulness and purpose of a ballerina, scanning my head left and right in search for an open target. The ten thousand screaming fans roared, an electric sea of garnet, ten thousand pairs of eyes on me. But one of the tacklers swam through my linemen, crippling me from my backside before I could release. My cleats dug deep in the soft soil, rooted like a tree, and when he hit me, the crackling sound of my ankle rang louder than the ten thousand maniacs.
An hour later I found myself sitting there in the white-walled prison of a hospital room with you squeezing my hand, stroking back my sweat-dried hair, smiling at me, telling me, “It’ll all be okay,” and meaning it. But I didn’t smile back, I shook off your hand, I didn’t squeeze back. All I could do was stare at the X-ray screen. My shattered ankle stared back.
Neither of us spoke in the car ride home, tumbling through the flat streets of Denton, Texas. The radio was off too, so the sound of the air conditioning played like music. I glared out the window. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. You cemented both your hands on the wheel, trying your best not to move, not to make a sound. I hated how easy it was for you, how you didn’t feel the hopelessness. I felt the sharp pains. I was the despair. You were just along for the ride, with sweaty palms and a frozen face.
Out the window, the town bustled in the crisp fall air, the streets lined with bushy orange trees. The ruins of the century-old Romeo’s Pizzeria sat next to the family-owned dry cleaners, squished stubbornly between perfect Mexican-style chains and high-end outlets. I saw middle-aged white women with designer pants and overly bleached hair stroll down the sidewalks, squeaking on smartphones or rushing to some stupid salon appointment. I hated them all, sitting there with my leg in a cast, I hated them more than anything. I hated them, knowing that ahead of me was four to five weeks of nothing but pizza, self-loathing, and a painkiller every six hours; I hated them, how important they thought their fake nails were. My ankle was important; my future cost more than their hair.
You handed me my smiley-stress ball, the ball that you would give to me after a close loss or a regretful report card. I grabbed it, still glaring out the window, and felt your strong grip on it as you squeezed it, like you were showing me how hard I had to squeeze if I wanted to get through this. I squeezed it, I tried my best to destroy it, but the squishy sand bag only condensed so much, and I let it tumble to the ground without you noticing.
When we arrived home, you managed to lay me down in my bed, in my room that you hated so much. The dirty boxers hanging from my lamp and the black walls covered by posters of fake women with even faker breasts made you cringe, but you finally stopped saying anything. My floor provided a cemetery for sweaty socks, crumpled water bottles and crusted dirt from my cleats. You opened my blinds, because sunlight is healthy, and as soon as you left I shut them again and slowly started to waste away in my fluffy coffin, clicking through television stations because I couldn’t think about anything for more than three seconds without pulling out my hair.
My leg stopped hurting, thank god. No, I shouldn’t have thanked god, I should’ve thanked the bottle of painkillers that stared at me from my dresser across the room. I felt them staring as I watched some game show moron with silver slicked-black hair. It only took twenty minutes for me to feel the dizziness listed as a side effect on the bottle, but it felt more like a kiss from an angel than nausea. I decided I liked it, but I never told you that. I smiled, but not too big. The game show host with stupid hair became more pleasant than he was a few minutes earlier. I put down the remote.
Buzz. Buzz. My phone almost danced off my nightstand, but I didn’t try to answer it. The caller I.D. showed me a gorgeous girl, a crooked head and sweet smile, brown locks of hair and hazel eyes to match. Everything about her face was planned, sculpted meticulously and with a purpose. It was Jess, my girlfriend, the one who you thought was such an angel, and so did I. She called because she cared, she was worried, etc., and she was, it was more than a gesture. I reached to answer, but my stomach was warm, my eyelids heavy, and I was almost at the gates of heaven, so I let it go.
I attempted to stand myself up and walk to the bathroom, but I looked more like a crippled dog, and I know you would’ve hated to see me like that, dragging along my shattered ankle and using all my limbs to trudge my way through the battlefield of sweaty jockstraps and body odor.
When I finally reached the mirror, holding myself up by the sink, I saw a pale boy, your boy, his blonde hair tied back, his blonde hair that you wanted him so badly to cut before he actually did, but only because he sold it for money to buy drugs, but he never told you that. He’s decorated with a thin red cut, from the top of his lip to his eyebrow, a battle wound from football that he hoped his dad would consider to be enough suffering for him to be a real man, for his dad to stop saying football would never get him anywhere. I realized that it was just me, I’m your son, but I was somewhere else, somewhere that couldn’t be reached.
I stared at my face, and watched it shrink and soften, back to when I was five, when my eyes were bigger and my hair thinner. I had that stupid bowl cut, the one you thought was so cute and snapped pictures of it to show to your friends at work. I watched you smile at me, on my first day of preschool, your hair curly and brown like a mother’s should be. You hugged me as I cried, and I can still smell your Macy’s perfume and McDonald’s breath that you only ate because I refused to eat elsewhere. Everything will be okay, you promised me, because you knew it would, because nothing is the end of the world unless you want it to be. You looked at me, and for the first time you introduced me to my smiley stress ball, and without saying a word you showed me how to hurt it, how to let all my anger and all my discontent for the world dissipate into the tiny yellow face of the stress toy. I grabbed it with my baby carrot fingers, my soft nails, and I squeezed, I crushed it until my tears stopped, until I realized I would only be without you until you came to pick me up. I watched you leave, as you smiled at me, everything will be okay, you said, and it was. I looked at my face, and watched it grow back and harden, back to my stained mirror and throbbing ankle.
You called me down for dinner that night, the night I shattered my ankle. But before I left the room, I stopped because it stared at me, the bottle of painkillers. I shouldn’t have taken anymore, mom, I know I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t want to hurt, to face my injured ankle. If you knew, you would’ve told me not to, you would’ve told me to come down to dinner with you and dad and talk about our day, you would’ve told me that I didn’t need them, that everything would pass on its own, that all I had to do was squeeze my smiley face. I came down for dinner to you that night, but not until after I took one more, and let the waft of meatloaf and potatoes carry me away, far away into your delicious meal.
But here I am, watching the snowflakes fall gently on the rusted car, the car that you and dad bought me. The snowflakes hold a frosty shape for a brief second before melting away. I tap my fingers- no; I pound them- on the steering wheel, staring inside Romeo’s Pizzeria through the sharp December air. The shop illuminates the winter darkness, a haven for anyone brave enough to venture out into the deadly night. Inside it is empty, other than the cashier and the two chefs’ in the back, all absorbed in some stupid shit on their phones. Morons.
Even though it’s fifteen degrees outside and the heat is broken inside my sad excuse of a car, I’m still sweating beads. You’d hate to see me cold like this, tortured, you’d say, but I don’t care. My neck itches, then my calf, then my rib, then my neck again, and before I know it I’m itching my whole damn body at the same time. You don’t know I’m here, sitting in my car, the world leaning like a thousand pounds on my head. I close my eyes and breath, slowly, and I feel the weight of the world slowly leave me. I feel the manufactured plastic in my hands, the failure of a childproof lock on the pill bottle. With one swift swallow of pride, I finish the last painkiller, and grab the .22 pistol from the passenger floor.
The car door handle is cold on my hands, and it stops me in my tracks. I bear my forehead on the driver’s window, watching my breath fog up, building a cloud, bigger and bigger. My heart thumps through my chest; my hand sweats on the cold metal of the gun I stole from dad’s closet. Dad, who tells me I sleep too much. And you, mom, who tells me I’m acting weird, I’m not the same. You, who I hear crying on the phone everyday, whispering to grandma how there’s something wrong with me, something I won’t talk to you about. Both of you who tell me that you miss the old me, the old me who loves to talk after school about what I did that day, the old me who wouldn’t shut up about that joke Jess told me. Jess, who told me, through tears streaming down her perfectly set cheekbones and sharp lips that she would break up with me if I kept taking those pills, those damned pills that ruined me. Jess, who I haven’t seen in weeks, after she walked away into her dad’s car, her washed jeans fitted perfectly around her curved thighs, her bushel of brown locks bouncing against her back, gone, gone forever.
But those days are over; those feelings are gone, dead, more extinct than the money in my wallet. Painkillers are expensive, and without a job, I will do whatever I can to stop the pain, to push away the image of Jess’s stupid little smile from crowding my brain. It’s too late, mom, I’m sorry. I have no choice, no choice but to put the barrel of this .22 in that cashier’s face, and empty the box of cash into my pillow case.
One day, when I’m living in a mansion, surrounded by my trophies and plaques of MVP awards, I’ll be able to afford hundreds of these pills, no problem. Everyone will be crying as I laugh, looking down at them from the television, scoring touchdowns and driving sports cars, telling dad how I never needed school. One more week and I’ll be back to the field. My ankle barely hurts anymore, and there are talks of Alabama coaches coming to the next game. I am going to be a star, after I get this over with. I’m going to be a star, and I don’t care what it takes.
The shop is well lit, too bright for me to be comfortable, even though the heat instantly warms me. Grease and sausage fill the air, and I do my best not to get hungry. It’s game time. “Welcome to Romeo’s. Can I take your order?” The moron’s face is shiny, and his smile takes up too much room on his oval face. His eyes are big, and I see a gold cross hanging around his neck. My hands sweat so much that my fingertips start to wrinkle, and the gun in my jacket pocket grows heavier. I start to talk, but his stupid smile vacuums all the noise out of me, straight from my gut. In my jacket pocket, I feel my pillowcase that you washed the week before, warning me to change it once a week so I don’t get acne. I try to focus, and the only distraction is the fan from the ceiling, blowing air on my forehead and drying my sweat. I feel the itchy cotton of the ski mask I forgot to put on. It doesn’t matter though, I’m going to get this money, and I’m going to stop this pain.
“Sir?” The gun weighs a thousand pounds now, but I can still carry it. I try not to, mom, I try not to cry, but I don’t know if I can stop it. I feel the tears build up, building pressure from underneath my eyelids and down into my chest. I see your face, when I watched you leave me at preschool, watched you smile at me, telling me everything would be okay, as I squeezed the smiling stress ball. I feel the weight of the gun, the sweat from the pain killers, the green from the cash register, the rest of my life in front of me, the firmness of the smiley face stress ball, the sand filled elastic, squishing it, squeezing.
I want to point this .22 in the moron’s face, but all I can see is his stupid smile, that yellow mocking smile, your smile.