My Darling Bride: Chapter 8

GRAHAM

Jasper throws me the ball, and I run for the goal line as the other team barrels toward me. I do a fake and dodge, but a beefy linebacker catches up and tackles me to the ground with a crash. My head explodes with pain, and the impact reverberates through my bones. The world spins in dizzying circles. A body rolls over mine. And another. I’m crushed, like I’m in a giant iron vise, being squeezed and twisted until my insides beg for mercy.

I can’t breathe.

I clutch my chest.

Icy tendrils of terror take over. I’m dying. And no one is here to help me.

I scream, but no one hears me, not a single soul.

But her.

Beautiful girl.

Green eyes.

Long blonde hair.

Champagne and sunlight—

I jerk away, my chest heaving as I shove away the dream. My hands clench the covers on the bed, grappling for reality. Sweat drips from my forehead. That feeling of dread from being tackled still clings to me as I get up and head to the bathroom. I splash water on my face and look at myself in the mirror. I look ashen. That’s the second time this week. How am I supposed to play in a real game if this shit is in my head?

After putting on joggers and a hooded Pythons sweatshirt, I pad out of the bedroom and walk to the kitchen with its orange cabinets and psychedelic yellow-and-black flower-themed wallpaper, giving it a frozen-in-time look from the seventies.

The carpet in the den is shag, and the furniture is avocado green, from the couch to the club chairs. Which are newish. Someone wanted this place to look like Elvis might have lived here. The dining room table even has a disco ball over it.

I recently bought this particular apartment because Brody and Cas live on the same floor, in a smaller two-bedroom. Jasper lives here as well, but his apartment is on another floor.

After coffee, I’m at a neurologist’s office on the Upper West Side, a doctor recommended by River Tate, our wide receiver. Apparently, Dr. Moreau is a superstar brain lady.

I pull my hoodie down over my sunglasses. Not exactly a disguise, but I don’t want to be recognized in the office, or worse, videoed. There’s already enough talk about my injury.

A receptionist smiles as she opens a door to a posh exam room. “This is our VIP room, Mr. Harlan. Dr. Moreau will be with you in just a moment.”

The room has a couch and two leather chairs. On the coffee table is a to-scale model of the human brain on a stand. Made of silicone, it jiggles.

“Please don’t fondle my brain, Mr. Harlan,” says a voice with a heavy French accent.

I jerk my hand off the model like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar and turn around to see a petite woman with short white hair. Small wire glasses frame intelligent blue eyes. Her back is slightly bent, but it doesn’t stop her from hurrying over to me.

I pull my sunglasses off and tuck them into my pocket. I feel massive next to her. “Sorry, I . . .”

“I’m Dr. Moreau,” she says, cutting me off as she holds out her hand, limp wristed.

Do I shake it or kiss it? I take her fingers in an odd embrace.

She sits in one of the chairs.

I look at the other chair and then back to the couch.

“Should I sit there, or over here, or . . .”

“Just sit. There is a couch, but this is not therapy.”

Yes, ma’am. I take the couch because it’s bigger, and I need more room than she does.

She pops open her laptop. “I have looked over your most recent charts and scans. You’ve seen some of the best neuro-specialists in the city. I also see we managed to fit you in today after a cancellation. Lucky you. Some people wait months. I am, what do they say, a little unorthodox but brilliant. I speak my mind and expect you to do so as well. Now. Why see me?”

I clasp my hands together, the tension in my shoulders making me twitch. “My team cleared me to play football, but I’d like a second opinion.”

The tight end coach, Marlon, gave me the news a week ago, while I was working out with Brody and Cas. I’d nearly wept in thankfulness. Being cleared was the best news I could have hoped for, but that night, doubts crept in, and the dreams.

She nods. “I am happy to do this. What’s their latest opinion—in your words?”

“That I’m healed from the concussion.”

“You want to play very much, yes?”

“Of course,” I say, eyeing her warily.

She taps her chin. “I saw your injury on television. I lost money on you; I bet your team would lose. You did not.”

A prickle of irritation buzzes in the back of my head, but I squash it down.

She looks down at her tablet and types a quick note. “I see my insensitive comment did not bother you much.”

I lean back in my chair. “Not everyone is a fan.”

“Would you say you are easier to anger now?”

Not really. I mean, sure, I wanted to pound on Kian a while back, but I would have anyway. “No.”

“Good. This is very good. I like this. So now continue. Tell me about the physical issues you suffered.”

“Headaches and dizziness mostly. I’m off the pain meds I was on, mostly Tylenol, and working out. I feel great.” I haven’t had one symptom since my headache at the diner in the desert.

“I see you were diagnosed with postconcussive syndrome, very common among athletes.”

“It made me want to punch a hole in the wall,” I say grimly.

“Don’t do it in my office. And your heart?”

“Passed all my tests. There was never an issue with it.”

She types in rapid fire. “I suspect your heart issue on the field was because of the violent collision to your brain.”

I wince. “I wouldn’t say ‘violent.’”

Surprising me, she stands, picks up the brain model on the table, and slams it down on the coffee table. It makes a horrible smacking sound, ripples vibrating through the silicone model for several seconds. “This was your brain at the Super Bowl.”

“Right, but I had a helmet on. Our protective equipment in the NFL is better than in any contact sport.” I tap my temple. “And I have a skull.”

“And I’m just a little old lady throwing a brain model on a table, and you got yanked down by a three-hundred-pound lineman. Are we going to argue over this?”

I exhale. “All right, I get it. I hit my head hard.”

She sits back down and studies me from head to toe. I feel like a specimen under a microscope. “No bullshit with me, Mr. Harlan. I’ve seen people suffer the effects from this type of concussion for more than a year. We cannot know how long it will last. Just because you have no headache today does not mean it is gone.”

My jaw tics. “I am healed.”

She points a wrinkled finger at me, eyes keen. “So your brain looks good on scans. They clear you to play. Big whoop. So far you pay me for things you already know. What else should I help you with? Ask me your questions, and I will be brutally honest.”

Dread coils tighter. “I’m worried about CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

She narrows her gaze. “What did your other doctors say about CTE?”

“They told me to get off the internet.”

“True. CTE is a brain disease from repetitive trauma.” She picks up the brain model and slaps it on the coffee table three times, each smack making me cringe. “Your doctors are correct: there is no documented evidence about how many concussions increase the risk of CTE or even if the severity will increase the risk. Why is this?”

“Because they don’t know if you have it until you’re dead.”

She nods. “CTE can only be diagnosed with autopsy, so it is difficult to gather data because people usually do not want autopsy while alive. So, we have no good answer.”

She stands and shuffles over to a poster on the wall that shows two brains. Surrounding the brains are microscopic pictures and little lines pointing back to the diagrams. She points to the poster. “Two brains are here, one good, one CTE. In an MRI, you see no difference, both good brains.” She points a finger in the air. “But in autopsy we take tiny slices and look under the microscope.”

I grimace, aware that many athletes donate their bodies to science after they pass away.

She points at the microscopic pictures of the CTE brain. “This is where we see tiny black splotches between and around the cells. These areas, they do not work anymore. They have atrophied. They died because they don’t have blood flow or have a damaged neurological pathway. When you have lots of these black spots in your brain, you think differently, sometimes depressed, sometimes angry, sometimes forgetful. Maybe this is caused in a football player that has one big concussion. Maybe this is caused in a football player that has many, many little concussions. We can’t tell.”

I twist my Rolex, anxiety rippling.

She shrugs. “There are many autopsies of players that had many concussions in the record, and the doctors see no CTE. On the other hand, do you know story of Jonah Truman?”

Jonah died when he fell out of the back of a boat while on vacation. “Wide receiver for Atlanta. It was terrible what happened to him.”

“How many years did he play?”

“Not too long—I just met him a few times.”

She twirls her wrist in the air. “Four years is the right answer. He had no documented concussions in high school, college, or pro. They don’t hit Jonah so much because he was very fast on his feet. His autopsy showed CTE, minuscule, yes, but there. He never knew he had it or probably never felt any issue from it. So the correct answer is, no one knows how many concussions will be bad.”

That sucks. “So what advice do you have?”

Her gaze rakes me up and down. “I can tell you are an athletic man. You need exercise. You need to feel worthy. The most dangerous sport in the world is surprising. It is cycling. Then, football and hockey. Basketball and baseball are next. I would tell you to try swimming, but then you might hit your head on the diving board or the bottom of the pool. All sports leave you open to CTE, even going for a jog. You might trip over the sidewalk and bang your head on a fire hydrant or a street sign. Bang. Concussion. Possible traumatic brain injury, or TBI.”

“Shit.”

“Yes, merde. Lots and lots of shit. But we cannot hide in a hole to protect ourselves from getting injured, because all life is a risk. You walk out of the house, and boom, you might die from a piece of the space station that falls from the sky.”

“Unlikely.”

“Anything is possible, Mr. Harlan. Do not joke.”

“Sorry.” This is what I came for. She isn’t treating me with kid gloves like the team doctors.

“You only have three recorded concussions,” Dr. Moreau continues as she glances down at her laptop. “You are not experiencing quick anger. You are not forgetful. Your brain scans are normal. If you were symptomatic, then I would say, no, that you need to heal, but you say you have no headache, no dizziness, so I say okay, fine, take a risk. It is up to you. There’s a baseball saying: you can’t steal second base without taking your foot off first.”

My breath quickens.

Football is worth the risk.

I’m already picturing myself in my uniform and on the field, Jasper passing me the ball.

“But I am not God,” she declares as she points at me. “I do not know what will happen to you in life. So, I can only give facts. The truth is, you suffered a severe concussion, Mr. Harlan. You may have the beginnings of CTE right now, even though you aren’t symptomatic.” She folds her hands in front of herself. “This is the end. Do you have questions?”

My eyes shut briefly. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”

She frowns. “No, no, don’t be relieved. Be wary. Be afraid. I do not know the future, Mr. Harlan. That is the entire point. As a doctor, I must warn you about playing this sport. I cannot see the inside of your brain. I wish I could, so I could give you a definitive answer, but it is impossible. Your next tackle might be the end.”

“Yes, I got all of that, I did, but the odds are in my favor. I’ve only had a few concussions in my life.”

“Jonah had none on his record, Mr. Harlan, and he had CTE.”

Sure, but she’s being cautious. Most doctors who aren’t affiliated with sports will always warn you against playing.

She sighs. “Life is a game of chance. Some win, some lose. I hope you win. Anyway, I promise not to bet against you next time.”

My smile is lopsided. “Right, thanks for that. Actually, if you have some time, I do have some other questions for you . . .”

She nods and motions for me to sit again.

After we get settled, I take a deep breath, hoping she doesn’t think I’m imagining what happened to me. “When I was on the field and I was . . . dead . . . something happened. It wasn’t like a light at the end of a tunnel or some kind of religious experience like you see in the movies. It was strange and weird. I’m not into any kind of psychic stuff or woo-woo science or whatever you want to call this, but . . .”

“Interesting. What was it?”

“Visions, like I was on acid. I saw my brother, my parents, a girl I used to date, but the rest of it, the part that eludes me, or comes in dreams, I don’t know, was different, almost peaceful, like another possible life I could have had. The images are hazy, and if I concentrate hard enough, I might be able to see them, but I can’t.”

“Ah, very odd. Was there a feeling associated with it? Did you think it was heaven?” She gives me a smirk. “Hell?”

“No, nothing like that, but it made me want to wake up, like I had to come back because there was someone waiting for me . . .” I sigh. “I can’t explain it. My question is: Is it normal to see things when you’re clinically dead?”

She slides down her glasses and peers at me. “I do not talk to many people who have died. You are special like this. Gold star.”

“Thanks,” I say dryly.

“This is not my field of study, but in my opinion, it is possible it was your brain gasping, much like a computer shutting down, but instead of going black, it flashes with images from your life. We refer to this phenomenon as NDEs, or near-death experiences. People who experience them often say they see scenes from their childhood, even going all the way back to being in the womb, but again, it is hard to study because there are few people who this happens to, and it is also hard to believe people. Most of us want to discount this because it seems impossible. But I do not know. What you have in common with these people is two things: it usually happens after head trauma or cardiac arrest, and they usually occur in cases where emergency medical help is required to survive.”

She gives me a tiny smile. “Like I say, no therapy here. You will find many books about the topic, about people who claim to have experienced it. Are they true? I do not know. I cannot advise on what happened when you were clinically dead, but I believe you saw what you saw. It happened. It was your experience. It is valid. There are many things we do not know about the brain—or life—after we die. Was it a sign from a higher consciousness or lack of oxygen to your brain?” She shrugs. “I do not know, but I like this peace you described. That is something, yes?”

Maybe.

It just . . . feels important.

“I want to call you and check up on you soon. I’d like to know how you are doing. Also, I’m going to find some studies about CTE and send to you.”

I tell her to call me whenever she wants.

Later, I leave her office, my mind churning. She scared the shit out of me, smacking that brain around, but my scans are fine.

I’m not having anger issues.

I’m not forgetful.

My headaches are gone.

I’m fucking fine to play.

My phone buzzes with a call from Jasper, our quarterback. “What’s up?”

“Where are you?” he asks. “I’m outside your door to see if you wanted to hang, maybe grab some fajitas.”

I smile. “I get it. Since we’re neighbors now, you’re gonna be popping by my place all the time.”

He makes a scoffing sound. “If you’re lucky. Everyone wants a piece of me. Why would you be different? Besides, you’re my bestie. Me and you are lightning on the field, baby. Just don’t be like Tuck and get married. He left me, and I never see him anymore. Marriage is for pussies. Me and you, bachelors to the end.”

Tuck Avery was the Pythons’ star wide receiver, but he’d retired by the time I was traded to the team.

“I’m second choice?” I ask. “After winning the Super Bowl? You bought Tuck a friendship bracelet. Where’s mine?”

“Fuck right off. And you’re convenient, so don’t get a big head. Proximity is good for friendship. Are you in your apartment or not?”

I picture him stalking outside my door, curly blond hair sticking everywhere as he searches for a lunch partner.

Jasper grew up in a close-knit middle-class family from Utah. His four older sisters petted him rotten and lavished attention on him. Over Christmas, the entire family flew to New York to stay at his place, and he hired two interior decorators to make the place look like a winter wonderland. He had seven Christmas trees, each one adorned with decorations for every person in his family, including himself. He took them everywhere, the zoo, ice-skating, shopping. I tagged along when Brody and Cas were too busy for me and watched his sisters treat him like a precious doll, playing with his hair and feeding him special treats like an overgrown puppy.

“Are you ever alone, Precious?” I ask. “Do you do things by yourself?”

“I am fucking precious, so I’m not gonna fight you about the nickname. I’m a social animal. I love people. People love me. I’m pretty much a superstar. I am adored.”

“So last’s night date has already gone home, huh? Needing to feel validated?”

“Seriously, cut the shit—my stomach’s rumbling. Do you wanna grab a bite or not? I’m starving after my workout, which you missed. Where you at?”

I exit the office building, slip on my shades, and flip the hoodie back up. No way am I admitting I went to see another doctor. It would make me look scared. “Out.”

“Where is out?”

I huff out a laugh. “Do you ever give up? I’m at the dry cleaners.” I am walking past one.

“I call bullshit. You have your clothes delivered to you. What’s going on?”

I stop at the pedestrian crossing, my mind buzzing with thoughts of Dr. Moreau and all the what-ifs. I could get hit by a car today, be mugged, or come down with cancer. A subtle fear creeps in, of all the things that could happen that are out of my control, but I shove it away.

Life is about living.

Enjoying the moment.

And I don’t want to have a world without football.

Like a kid, I raise my face to the sun in appreciation and feel a slight breeze. I inhale the smells of the city, mostly oil and asphalt, but there’s also the subtle scent of flowers growing in windows and planted along the sidewalk.

New. Fresh. My injury is healed. The world is my oyster.

I cross the road, lightness in my step. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m ready to tackle it head-on.

And . . .

There’s something else—someone—I can’t give up.

Emmy Darling is the one. My gut knows it. Perhaps I was too overbearing last night, but it was a slap in the face to see her again. Something about her . . . pricks at me, like a ghost dancing down my spine. I know her from somewhere.

Regardless, it’s time for a new strategy, and I have the perfect idea.

I clutch the phone. “I’d love to eat with you, but I’m going to see my lawyer.”

“Oh shit, now we’re talking. See, this is what I mean. We need to share. What did you do? Want me to come with? I’ll be your backup.”

“Nah.”

“What’s it about?”

I stare at the sky and chuckle. Jasper is a nosy son of a bitch. He’s always poking his head in where it doesn’t belong, but his heart is golden.

“I’m planning the future.”

Jasper lowers his voice. “You’re not getting traded, are you? Fuck. If you are, I’m quitting the team.”

I laugh. He’d never. He is worshipped in New York.

“Nah, man, I hate to break the bad news over the phone, but . . .”

“What? Tell me!”

I grin. “I wish I was with you because I’d really love to see your face. I’m getting married, Precious. Don’t be mad. It happens to all of us at some point. See ya later.”

He lets out a vivid curse and yells, “Nooooooo.”

Still smiling, I click the phone off and start the walk to my lawyer’s office a few blocks away.

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset