Chapter 22


I STAND IN front of shelves lined with small cast-iron casserole pots in a rainbow of colors. “What the hell do you use these for,” I ask Gray.

In the act of crouching down to inspect a much larger pumpkin colored pot, Gray glances up. “Individual servings.”

“For who? Barbie and Ken?”

Gray snorts and stands. “Probably. I don’t know, I guess you’d use it for an appetizer. Soup, maybe?” And now the little doll pots are the center of his attention.

When Gray picks up a bright blue individual pot, his hand nearly engulfs it. He frowns and sets it back on the shelf. “Yep. It’s f**king dumb. I don’t even want a soup serving that small.”

With assured authority, he moves on, and I follow with all the awkwardness of a guy who is in foreign territory. I roll my stiff shoulders, feeling like an ox in a dollhouse. Women cast wary glances our way. We’re not the only guys in the kitchen supply store, but we are the youngest, biggest, and scruffiest with our battered sneakers and worn jeans.

Gray’s irritated expression shifts to thoughtful. “Man, wherever I get drafted, it had better be to a city that gets cold enough for soup.”

“Soup? That’s your criteria?” I don’t know if Gray has an actual team and city in mind. It’s an unwritten rule that you do not say what team you want to play on. The disappointment would be too harsh if it didn’t happen, and chances are it won’t. For that reason alone, I’ve never stuck my hopes on any one team.

“Never underestimate the power of soup.” Gray shrugs one shoulder. “I like cold weather. Fall. Winter. I don’t want some tropical shit.” He flashes a grin. “Even if it means freezing my ass off playing in the snow.”

“So you won’t say no to Green Bay then?”

“Let’s not go crazy now. I’d like to refrain from freezing my balls off too.”

“Man, please. We’re from Chicago. It’s a miracle we got through puberty without freezing our balls off.”

We both snicker.

“What about you?” Gray sounds almost melancholy. I get that. We’re so close to it now. Early on, when the NFL was more of a distant fantasy, we would entertain ourselves by lying around and talking about what we wanted from our careers: Super Bowl, MVP, passing records, yardage records. In short, the obvious stuff. Now, it’s only months away. And though we’ve both been courted by scouts from just about every team, in all likelihood, we’ll no longer be playing together. Which sucks.

“Honestly? I want the team dynamic. I want the same synergy.”

“Dude, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.”

“Not going to.” Because we both know that the NFL is a hard ass business. The best get paid insane amounts to keep it going. Not many teams are going to be able to shell out for top talent in all positions. Not to mention the egos involved, which always adds another level of shit that you have to deal with. I rub my sternum and pick up a spatula that resembles a Mickey Mouse head before dropping it back in the bin. “I want a big city that has diehard fans, coaches that don’t suck, and a GM that doesn’t have his head in his ass.”

“An owner that doesn’t want to play backseat coach would be cherry too.” Gray’s grin is wide and wry.

We make our way toward the opposite side of the store.

“So, Anna…?” Gray waves a hand in lazy fashion as if waiting for me to fill in the blanks. “What’s going on with you two? Something’s changed, that’s for damn sure.”

A goofy grin pulls at my mouth. I can’t hide it.

He rolls his eyes. “That bad?”

“Nothing bad about it.” In fact, it’s so good, I wonder if a person can die from pleasure. I’m willing to test the theory. As soon as I can get her to myself again.

We stop before a row of the gleaming steel appliances.

Gray’s eyes narrow. “I don’t understand you, putting this much effort into a girl. It’s like you’ve gone mental.”

I finger a price tag. $1,500 dollars. As a rule, I don’t spend much on myself. On Anna? I wouldn’t balk at $15,000. Does that make me insane? I don’t care. Making Anna happy makes me happy.

“Can you explain to me how it feels to take the ball down the field for a TD?” I ask, not looking up.

“You’re trying to equate the perfection of playing football to getting laid?” He shakes his head. “Are you shitting me? Seriously?”

I smile then, partly because I’m thinking of Anna, but mostly because I know I’m going to freak Gray out, which is always fun. “No. I’m explaining the perfection of being with Anna to playing football.”

“I’m going to be sick. All over you,” he adds with a sour look.

“That’s your problem, Gray. You don’t know what it feels like to fall for a girl. If you did, you wouldn’t question it.” I slap his shoulder. “Now, help me pick this shit out, will you?”

FUNNY THING ABOUT life, it’s so easy to view it from the outside in. We can see the exact point where our friends f**k up, do the wrong thing, are blind to what’s right in front of them. As in, why the f**k won’t they just listen to us and take our advice instead of bumbling all over the place?

We watch horror movies and know when to shout at the dumb girl who goes in the basement to investigate that noise; we revel in her stupidity, feel superior to it. If it were us, we assure ourselves, we wouldn’t be so stupid.

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