Junior Seau:

Jim enters the master bedroom. It’s hideous, shaped like an irregular hexagon and painted an ugly cucumber green. The room’s walls curve to different angles, as if they were bending roads. The room’s sidewall is entirely made of darkly tinted glass.

To Jim, it’s more like a hotel room, like a trashy hotel from a college road game against a scrub team at a school in some hicktown. But when he tosses his head back and looks to the ceiling, he finds it’s coned to a golden dome, and he flashes to turrets and kings and Game of Thrones, medieval-type shit, which he loves, and his weary spirit lifts…

Jim places his suitcase on the king-size bed that looks attached to the wall. The bed warbles as he sits on it. He worries the bed won’t be able to withstand his weight. He’s broken beds before just sitting or lying on them. Many football players, basketball players require tailor-made furniture to fit their enormous frames.

Jim’s phone buzzes, throbs at his thigh. He fishes it from his front pant pocket only to see it’s somehow powered off.

Then the temperature in the room suddenly plummets. The room ice cold, cold as a freezer. Condensation covers the windows, and Jim can see his breath fogging in front of him, flitting and dissolving as grayish vapors.

A figure manifests itself in the corner of the room. Its outline is like a picture inside a frame. It’s murky, at first, rippling, as if a reflection on water. But then the image sharpens, and its symmetry looks familiar. “Heaven is the journey…” Jim hears a strangled voice mutter.

The form is a silhouette of a man, a hulking, muscular man, like him. There’s a smell in the room, a smell of burning plastic, a nauseating, sickening smell. Jim lifts to his feet, pulled up, commandingly, like a marionette. A stab of pain in his left knee jolts through his body. He judders, struggles fecklessly to jerk his hand to his knee. But he can’t. His arms instead lift upward to form a T. His body is frozen. He is controlled, held in an invisible lock, in a Jesus Christ pose, and the form facing him draws closer.

Jim can see the form’s head, its face. It’s his former teammate, Junior Seau. He can see Junior’s thin mustache, his curly black hair, his brown skin.

Junior’s face is tight with shame, and his warm eyes look cold and are totally blackened, like twin lumps of coal. Jim can see the gunshot wound in Junior’s chest. It’s festering and is the reddish color of an infected wound.

Jim feels a trickling drift of cold air emanating from the form, and it’s an icy air that’s humid and heavy with pain. It’s a wind of cruel reminders.

Clucking, another twist of pain seizes Jim’s body; Jim’s spinal column, his vertebrae pops and snaps as Junior hovers closer, and Jim realizes that it’s this… this being… the vision confronting him that’s the source of the sickening smell.

Jim’s eyes are then drawn to the being’s chest. Inside the bloody circle of the gunshot wound, Jim sees what appears to be a black hole in space. He sees silvery stars colliding. He sees what appears to be an explosion, like a bomb detonating, a magnificent fireball, rose-colored flames…

Then he lifts his head. He sees Junior’s mien. Bloody tears are streaming down Junior’s face. Then Junior fades to black, and his dark silhouette crumbles into a black dust cloud and tumbling gray rubble, like the fall of the World Trade Center towers.

The force that held Jim in a suspended state unlocks, releases, and Jim falls backward to the bed, collapsing in a heap. His spine snaps back into place, and a stiff shudder of pain jolts from his waist to his neck.

Then the smell is gone. The temperature returns to 67.

Jim senses a presence next to him. He shifts his head to see a shotgun lying next to him on the bed. A curl of gray smoke purls from the mouth of the barrel.

Reaching for the gun, Jim clamps his hand on the cold, hard steel, and the gun shapeshifts into a green cobra; the snake alive and writhing, its forked tongue darting at Jim; its slippery skin is slimy as an eel and colder than a block of ice. Jim snatches back his hand and the snake vanishes into the air.

Jim had never encountered anything like this. He wonders if it was a side effect of the pain pills. If it was visual hallucinations from the headaches.

Maybe it was the headaches again. The fucking headaches…

Recently he’d been having ever worsening headaches. Headaches that were like bundles of wires twisting tightly between his temples, throbbing brutally then lowering to sharp steady beats. The headaches sometimes causing him to see floaters, colored blobs, and red stars shooting into and out of walls. Maybe this was that. But worse.

Of course, too, for a second, he is thinking about the occult, the hauntings, the rumors and past of the house, every stupid horror movie he ever saw. But he quickly pushes that from his head. “That shit isn’t real,” he chides himself.

Junior, however, looked so real. He’d not seen Junior or even thought of him in years. They’d only briefly been teammates. They had an age difference. But they’d gotten along, been bros. Perhaps it was partially due to their shared Polynesian heritage, Jim’s maternal grandmother being Hawaiian. NFL locker rooms were often split among regional, racial lines. There were two other guys on the team with Polynesian blood, and Jim, Junior, and them had formed the “Polynesian Posse…”

Jim felt horrible that he’d not spoken with Junior before the suicide. It was a ghost he’d lived with, that memory, that emotion, how awful, how terribly guilty he felt. It was a real ghost that’d been with him since those dark days. Jim had been recovering from surgery; he’d been in rehab, limping gingerly on treadmills, shot up with numerous drugs. All he could think of was returning to the field. He’d hardly been talking with his own family much, let alone ex-teammates.

Then he saw it on the news. On a muted TV screen in the gym. When he saw what happened, he blamed himself, at first. Then he blamed his teammates. They should have kept closer tabs on Junior. They should have known that a lot of former NFL players have trouble after retirement. If they could have talked with him more, visited him, whatever, maybe he wouldn’t have… Dammit…

After the news broke, Jim was haunted. He’d think of Junior. A lot. He’d wish he could have been there to snatch the gun away from him, to intervene, to talk him down. He wanted to believe he could have been the hero and that Junior could be alive, be here today.

Selfishly, though, afterward, Jim started to worry about himself. If he’d be next. If he’d suffer the same fate. If he could control whatever motivated Junior to pull the trigger. If the same demons would plague him…

But he buried the thoughts, the sadness. He didn’t even go to the funeral. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t see Junior in a coffin. He couldn’t see Junior in the ground.

He swallowed the thoughts, the remorse, the fear of impending doom. He forced himself to forget his psychic and physical pain and focused on his recovery. He immersed himself in lifting, position-specific drills, and studying game film like never before.

It worked too. He came back better than ever, feeling superhuman, like a bionic man, and once again he was selected to the Pro Bowl…

But now Jim is the retired guy. And he’s been having worsening headaches, headaches that are like carving knives twisting into his skull. Not only that, but he’s been plagued by brain fog, unable to concentrate. He’s been increasingly forgetful. So far, it’s been minor compared to a few guys he’s heard of. But it is there. And it’s been getting worse as he’s aged.

While he’d never been diagnosed with a concussion, there were plenty of times when he “got his bell rung,” as they used to call it, after he’d clashed helmets with a defensive lineman. It’d happened a lot. There were a handful of times he was too dizzy to stand straight, got pulled out by a coach, had to sit out a few snaps. But, generally, he’d keep going, no matter what.

He was a warrior. A fucking warrior, like a gladiator or a medieval knight… He’d played football with the warrior ethos. He’d really seen himself as a gladiator. It’d be him or the other guy getting dragged dead off the field, and he’d be damned if it was him…

And he’d never want to miss a play when he got older, later in his career, no matter how dizzy or sick or hurt he was. He knew how football worked and that the coaches were drafting younger, bigger, faster, better guys from college. Young bucks just waiting to steal his roster spot. He too was a young lion once, sharpening his teeth and sniffing the old lions’ blood. He too was a predator, lying in wait, eying and sizing up the veterans.

Battles for spots on the depth chart are the most intense, heated, and cutthroat competitions in the NFL. It is livelihood versus livelihood. Mano y mano. Your life, your career, your trajectory versus his. It is about more than glory or legacy. It is a damn war. It is a fight for your family. A fight to put food in your children’s mouths. A fight for generational wealth… And it is zero-sum, this battle. It is you or it is him… Jim knew this. He knew the game. He knew the hunt. And he wasn’t going off softly, waving happily to the crowd. He wasn’t going to quit until he was carried off the field on a stretcher, or at least almost unable to walk. Fortunately, it was the latter…

Jim hadn’t thought of Junior in a while. Until today.

A chill creeps down his spine. He shivers having felt the kick of that memory. How vicious and vivid the visions were.

He rises from the bed, his knee not in pain but not well. His knee its usual achy self. Its usual tiny jabbing needles of pain.

Jim presses his eyes shut for a second, draws in a deep breath. The air in his lungs seeming colder than the air in the room. Jim opens his eyes, pats his front left pant pocket, feels for the hard lump, then fishes out a small orange tube of pills, pops it open, and eats a couple, tasting their bitter tang in his mouth before he swallows them and lets the warmth of the oxycodone surge through his body and soul. Instantly he’s more relaxed.

He shakes his head, pushes away the visions, and lumbers toward the door, walking on water, inching into the slanted hallway.

A piece of trash