She sits up abruptly, and groggily looks around until finding me. It takes her a moment to wipe the sleep from her eyes. She blinks several times until her gaze seems to focus.
She hits me with rapid fire questions. “How’s your leg?”
“It’s fine. Numb, I think.”
“What’s your pain level?”
“Can you move your toes?”
I demonstrate by giving them a wiggle beneath the blanket.
She lets out a sigh of relief and gets up. There’s a carafe of water beside my bed that I hadn’t seen. She pours some into a plastic cup with a bent straw and brings it to my lips. I don’t think water has ever tasted this good. I chug it greedily until my mouth feels hydrated enough to work properly.
My voice is back to its old self when I ask, “I need you to give me the news straight.”
“The damage wasn’t nearly as bad as I initially thought. You’ll walk again.” Her mouth curves into a frown and my stomach sinks. “But AJ, I hate to have to tell you this, your days of playing football are over, I’m afraid.”
Though it’s not the news I wanted to hear, I already knew my days on the field were numbered. It was just a matter of time.
I sigh. “I had a feeling. I knew the moment that kid hit me that my time had come.”
My eyes start to blur again, but this time with tears. They come sudden and unexpected. Even though I was expecting this result, it doesn’t hurt any less. My whole life has been about this game. Now it’s over.
A few tears slide down my cheek. I wipe them away and glance at Claire to see if she saw them. I’m surprised to find her crying as well.
I reach out to her. She climbs into the bed beside me, careful of my leg and careful not to disturb the different tubes and wires stuck to me.
As soon as she wraps her arms around me, I lose control. I’m weeping all of my pain and loss and disappointment into her hair. My future is stretched out before me, and for the first time in my life, football isn’t a part of it. I don’t know who I am without it. I feel lost. Knowing that mine and Claire’s fake engagement will soon come to an end, I’ll have nothing.
I squeeze her. Maybe a little too hard. I hear the breath rush from her lungs. But she doesn’t protest or try to pull away. I just need to hold her right now. This moment is all I have left of her and I want to keep it with me for as long as I can, memorizing the smell of her, the feel of her skin, the way just being in her presence makes everything better. She clings to me just as hard as if she might be doing the same thing. But I know she’s not. She’s ready to get out from under the spotlight so she can have her life back. With this career-ending injury, I’ll soon be just another retired pro. The public focus will shift to some up and coming rookie, possibly the one who ended me. And Claire will be able to step away, into the shadows without anyone noticing. Except for me.
“Stay with me,” I say in a last ditch effort to hold onto this dream of us that I’ve held onto for so long.
“Always,” she says.
The shock of her words hardly register before she’s kissing me. I kiss her back, pouring every ounce of love I have for her into it. There’s no mistaking the love she gives back.13ClaireThis is my favorite part of the day, when the sun is coming through the blinds, growing brighter and brighter as it reflects off Lake Michigan. It’s the perfect way to wake up on my day off, gradual, natural, without the scream of an alarm going off in my ear. And the best part yet is AJ’s warm body next to mine on a crisp September morning. I know as soon as I get out of bed the floor will be cold and the house will be chilly, so I’m in no hurry to get up.
When AJ was released from the hospital, he needed help. He was too proud to allow a nurse to stay with him fulltime, so I moved in. Seriously, I let down my walls a little and that’s it, I go all in. He did agree to allow someone to come over during the day when I am at work, though. That was a hard-fought win. Another hard-fought win was getting AJ to allow me to incorporate some of my own furniture into this gorgeous house, but really, he pretends to put up a fight, but he’s putty in my hands.
I curl up on my side, carefully arranging myself under AJ’s arm. It’s still the early stage of his recovery, and I need to be careful not to bump him or cause him any pain. Lying tucked into AJ, I stare out over the lake and see a flock of cranes flying in a V formation. I could fall asleep again staring at the view, but I force myself to get up. I have a lot of things I need to do today.