Short Story: Diesel Harper

The game had come. It was the day. The big one. College scouts. Screaming Crowds. Cheerleaders bouncing in rhythm. Gravity making fools of their breasts and perverted lechers of everyone watching. The stands were awash in red and white, streaming and waving as if pouring from Niagra. Within it, the floating detritus of signs held aloft praised players or urged the team on. Beneath the lights, late September mist glowed like evening sweat on players’ brows. Iridescent. Without time

The Reds versus the Knights, this was it; bigger than state, bigger than the Superbowl. This was what every high-school player dreamed of. But no player dreamed bigger than Devin “Diesel” Harper though. Life hinged on his moment. Not just for him, but for his whole family. Growing up in Podunk, Indiana was never going to be easy, especially for a black kid on welfare. Unlike some of the people he knew of living off government money– and he was certain race wasn’t a factor– he and his family were there rightfully, no matter how much they’d tried not to be.

Devin’s father was a truck driver doing long hauls along the interstates. The crossroads of America had taken his legs when his rig overturned outside Chicago one, snowy night. Paralyzed from the waist down, and with a wife confined to a wheel-chair from progressive M-S, there wasn’t much the elder Harper could do but swallow his pride and admit disability. The food stamps and welfare came a little later, when the M-S progressed further and medical bills racked up.

Devin thrived. Despite the pressures of life and school. He’d seen enough people fall victim to their own vises or those of a system attempting to lure them deeper into poverty. He’d so far managed to avoid them himself, graced as he was with a keen-sight and the nimble skills that had made him a star Running Back. There wasn’t a thing Devin couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. Enough people had told him as much. Football was the one thing he could use to pull his family up from the muck. So, he went at it with all cylinders firing.

The grid-iron was slick. The turf glistened. Minute pools formed in the tamps from cleats. The scoreboards showed the teams were neck and neck. 4th and nine. A single play would determine whether Diesel’s team won outright, or whether they’d pummel and hammer their way to victory in overtime. There was no other option.

Diesel was face-to-face with a wall of meat. He’d been there once before. He’d nicknamed the guy “Meat” in his head. Meat looked more like he belonged in a Mr. Universe competition than a high-school. So much mass would slow him down though. Diesel’d earned his nickname because he was a runaway truck. No-one could catch once he took off. If he got the ball, it was all over. He readied himself, planned his moves. Meat grunted steam into the air like a bull. A mix saliva and adrenaline over day-old spaghetti and fresh B-O hinted itself at Diesel’s nostrils.

Diesel heard the snap. His body worked. He juked right. Meat was too heavy. He lunged. Diesel weaved left, through a gap between defenders. He was half-way up the field when he turned back. The pigskin spiraled at him like a sidewinder missile. He leapt, snatched, clutched, tucked, and hit the ground with a roll. His elbows went down, but Meat hit him hard enough to knock the ball loose in his hands. He clutched it tighter to his body, allowed the impact to dissipate through him. He came to a stop less than ten from goal. The whistle blew. Moments remained.

It was now or never. He knew the play, saw his opening. Meat was back. He was going to go for it. 1st and goal. No other choice. Diesel wasn’t a secret weapon. He was the weapon. The only one. Unstoppable. Unbeatable. This was for Mom. Dad. Everyone. It was for the Scouts, eyeing him from around the field. Most of all, it was for himself. To pull himself out of the muck, his family with him– that was plan.

The snap came. Meat lunged. Diesel juked, weaved. Meat roared. Goal was a step away. He landed across it. His leg hit, the ball cradled against his belly. Meat hit too; a cruunnch tore away reality. He felt his elbows hit mud; the rumble of the crowd in the stands. They’d won. The team had won. The Scouts knew it was him. Before he could fully appreciate it himself, he was out. Unconscious from pain, and with a sight he somehow knew; he’d never play again.

Beneath his unconscious eyes, dreams began. They weren’t dreams as he knew them though. His dreams always involved football, cheer-leaders, in all the was a normal high-school boy might dream of such things But these dreams were different. They felt different. Most importantly, he knew they were different.

He was older, college-aged, getting recruited to the NFL. Contract signings and payday checks in the millions led to all-night parties. Mounds of drugs. Boozing. Fast, easy women. He saw Mom and Dad on holidays. They were worse off than ever, but lavished with ludicrous gifts. It pained his heart.

But the dreams did not yield. He got older, heavier, wealthier. Mom and Dad sank deeper. Their hopes sank with them. More holidays passed. He no longer lavished them. The entirety of the dreams shifted as if all at once: he was suddenly broke, selling cars, doing drugs, weeping in a rat-infested, hole-in-the-wall motel. Whatever had led him there, fame and fortune were part of it– or had been. They were certainly no longer present.

He felt it in his chest, the answer. He’d seen and heard of it through-out his life; players that went pro, formed habits too big for their money to keep up, and fell hard. He never thought he’d become one. Maybe he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t sure. No-one could know the future, after all. Let alone see it, right? He was even less sure about that.

In the end, all he knew was the undeniable feeling of relief he had on awaking in the hospital, his leg in a cast, and his body flooded with the mellow armor of painkillers. It allowed him to mull things over: he saw the path of life laid out before him while the dreams were still fresh. A nudge here. A push there. That was all it would take to set things right. Football or not, Devin’s grades were just right, and his mindset newly re-centered to still avoid tragedy. If he picked up his slack here, the career-killing injury might not turn out so bad.

Over the next few days, people showed up to congratulate him on his victory. He’d taken himself out of school to normalize himself to the pain pills he was forced to take. On a welfare living, it was tough enough to make food. Meds would be short. He felt it better to get as much healing in as possible while he still had them.

The third day of his self-imposed therapy, a girl from his geometry class appeared. She was advanced for her age, a Sophomore taking Senior classes. She’d offered to bring his homework over. They lived only a few buildings apart, had often waved or said hello between home and school. As any timid girl might, when insisted to by his mother, she lingered near his door to give him his homework. Devin wallowed in his latest dose of introspection and healing and almost missed her. When they finally said hello, she revealed her name was Amber. He thanked her.

She stuck around long enough to feel awkward before turning away. Devin stopped her, “Amber?” She turned back inquisitively. “I could use some company. And i-if you don’t mind… some help with the homework. Math’s not… my strong suit. Football is. or was.”

Imagine that, him— superstar Diesel Harper– stammering at her. Amber giggled desperately, but caught herself to keep him from feeling mocked. On the contrary, he seemed to understand things were usually the other way around. In fact, it was also the other way around.

“Ar-are you sure? I mean, if you really wa–”

“Yes. Please, stay.” Devin scooted over for her to sit. He reached for his backpack, determined to see his nightmarish dreams buffered by as much effort as humanly possible.

She sat with a shy smile. Devin smiled back, then rifled through his pack for his geometry book. They launched into work with as double the vigor Devin had used to launch himself across the goal time and again.

“You know,” Devin said during one of their breaks. “I had this dream about the future. More of a nightmare really. Now, it’s almost funny how scared I was.”

Amber’s eyes gleamed with intrigue. “What was it about?”

“Football… and math.”

They both laughed.

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