Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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No one can hate us more than we hate ourselves.

Bold Italic is audio from a football gameday broadcast.

“As they took him off the field, you can see that he still isn’t moving, Troy. And no word out of the Texans on his condition.”

“You know, Bill, as a former player seeing a player take a hit like that just makes me cringe. Tank Tanner had just taken down two defense men so his wide receiver could get down field when the third collided with the pile. It is a shame that he was injured coming just two weeks off the best game of his career.”

“It was, Troy. The offensive tackle was going to be headed back to the Pro Bowl this year, but for special teams. He made the transition between left tackle and special teams with the focus and determination that has gained Thomas “The Tank” Tanner a reputation as being one of the hardest working players in the NFL. Let’s see the film again.”

“Bill, you can see why they call him the tank. Here, he just plows the two defensive backs like he was still playing left tackle every down. If Duncan McCosty wasn’t taken out with a sprain earlier this game, Tanner wouldn’t even have been on the field. But as every player knows, when the game in on the line, you step up and play where the coach needs you. Tanner has always played two way ball.”

“Troy, I was just handed this information. Thomas Tanner is out of surgery now. The team doctor is saying he has three fractured vertebrae in his neck, broken collar bone, and a separated shoulder. It looks like the play that cleared the way for Mike Simons to make the touchdown that won the game and sent the Texans to the next round in the playoffs, is the play that has ended Thomas ‘the Tank’ Tanner’s career.”

“Well Bill, we’ll all be praying for him. He was a good guy and a great player, and we can all hope he has a speedy recover. Now back to the game as halftime in Seattle ends...”

Tank woke up alone in a hospital. The soft beeping of the heart monitor telling him he was still alive but his whole body was strangely numb. He tried to turn his head and found he couldn’t. he tried to raise his hand and couldn’t. He couldn’t move it at all. Something metallic was attacked to his head, he could see the bars that ran down from it.

“Somebody, help.” He croaked out.

He was starting to panic when a nurse came in, smiling. “It’s okay, Mr Tanner, calm down.”

“I can’t move,” he gasped.

“You have an upper spine epidural to keep you from moving, Mr Tanner. I’ll get the doctor but you are very lucky to be alive and not permanently paralyzed,” She explained softly.

“What’s the metal thing?” He demanded.

“It’s called a Halo Orthosis Device. It is a brace used for cervical fractures. The doctor will explain everything. But I need you to calm down or we will have to sedate you again, you’ve been out for over a week.” She had a very firm but soft voice, like the one Irene used when he or T.J. was sick and for a fleeting moment, he wondered if they taught all nurses to talk like that.

“Can you call Irene and tell her I’m awake?” He asked.

“Irene? I’m sorry, Mr Tanner, I don’t know who that is. Only the team doctor and a gentleman named Luke have been here. Do you know her number and I can call her for you?” The nurse asked kindly and suddenly he realized she hadn’t come. He could have died and she hadn’t come.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll... I’ll just wait for the doctor.” He closed his eyes, breathing slowly against the pain. He didn’t realize he was crying until the nurse wiped his tears away. “Thank you... Uh, ma’am... Where am I?”

“You’re still in Miami, Mr Tanner. It was too dangerous to move you back to Texas.” She smiled kindly, and said again, “You’re a very lucky man, not many people survive the hit you took.”

She left him alone, and all he could do was wonder about what his future would hold.

Three weeks later, Tank sat in the GM’s office again. He was still in the halo and would be for a few more weeks while the bone grew around the screws in his neck. They had to fuse his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae, and C-7 and T-1 vertebrae, his collarbone had a pin in it. His shoulder had been repaired, but the prognosis was grim. They watched the film of the collision that ended his career, while the team doctor commentated.

“And here is where Smith’s momentum carried him into you. His left knee impacted right where your neck meets your shoulder. It broke your collarbone through your pads. His right thigh made direct contact with the top of your helmet. You had a concussion and actually had a seizure on the field. If Watkins, Smith, and Bull, hadn’t held you still until we got you on the board, you could have severed your own spine when you had that first seizure. I’m sorry, Tank, but even after you heal, you will never be able to play football again. Another hit like that and you’ll be dead for sure. You’re lucky not to be paralyzed.”

The GM Rick looked at him with sympathetic eyes. “The team insurance will cover anything you need and we paid out your contract to the end with a severance package of payments for the rest of your life. I am so sorry, Tank. You were one of the best players we have. You kept a lot of the younger guys away from a certain bad influence on the team, and Bull has lobbied for you to be kept on as an assistant coach or lineman trainer.”

Tank couldn’t even nod his head, so he just held out his hand. “I appreciate it, sir. But I don’t think I would be happy if I wasn’t playing. I love the game as a player, not a coach.”

The men nodded and Dr Wilson helped him to get out of the chair. As they walked down to the driver the team had hired to drive Tank around, the old team doctor worried aloud. “I’m not happy about you living alone, Tank. And I don’t want you to drink while you are on the pain meds, it could stop your heart.”

Tank sighed, he couldn’t even hang his head in shame because the Halo device kept him upright like Frankenstein. ’Sorry I let the team down, Doc.”

“You weren’t the one playing drunk that day, but he’s the 49s’ problem now.” Dr Wilson was quiet for a moment, “At least let me have a nurse come in to check on you and help you around the house.”

“No thanks, Doc. I’ve short-sold the house and going home to Colorado. There’s nothing left for me here.” Tank carefully climbed into the SUV, he was getting used to turning at the waist, instead of turning his head. Doc got in on the other side.

“I wish you’d stay until we get that contraption off and through your physical therapy.” Dr Wilson had always been a good friend, he had tried to warn Tank about Mike as had Nate and Bull. “You could take T.J. back to the lake this summer or Rick’s got a nice place down near Island’s End where they are going to build that resort.”

“Irene won’t let me see him. We... we had a fight. I didn’t realize they came to the Christmas game. I went home after the game and got drunk. Her dad was an alcoholic, the violent kind. She hates it when people drink.” He bent forward at the waist, trying to bow his head in shame, “When they came to the house, I was already wasted, and I said some things I never should have because I wanted to hurt her. The worst part is, T.J. overheard. I assumed something I shouldn’t have, accused her of things just to hurt her, and she said until I am sober, I can’t see my son. She didn’t even call while I was in Florida.”

“Thomas, she called every day to ask how you were.” Dr Wilson assured him. “She was very worried.”

“No... no, she didn’t. Look, I know you’re just trying to be nice, Doc, and I appreciate it. I called when I got back and her brother answered. He told me, she wanted me not to call again.” Tank sounded defeated because he was defeated. The Bauman family had closed ranks around Irene and T.J. and he would be lucky to see his son ever again without dragging him through a custody hearing. He didn’t want to do that to his son.

“Sorry, I just hate to see see young people who love each other as much as you and Irene do...”

“Did.” Tank interrupts. “That’s over, Doc.” He opened the door as soon as the driver stopped in front of his house and got out by himself. “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, Doc. I’ll have my new doctor call you.” He walked stiffly to his front door and went in alone.

Looking around at the empty house, Tank saw the realtor had all the furniture except his bed and new lift recliner removed. In two days, he would have to figure out how to drive himself to Colorado. Irene’s house would no longer be his as of Thursday. The four thousand square foot home felt like a tomb. Going to the garage, he noticed the remaining boxes of T.J.’s baby things were gone, but the totes of their wedding stuff and college life remained.

Carefully kneeling, he opened one of them. Lifting our the plastic bag that had her wedding dress, he opened it and smelled it, the velvet was so soft, like her skin. Carefully folding it back, he zipped up the bag and closed the tote. He went back into the house and turned off the light, sitting at the kitchen island, he wept, wishing he had died on the field in Miami.

Sitting in his recliner, he wasn’t listening to Sports Center talk about the Super Bowl, he was listening to the echo in the giant empty house. He remembered how excited he was to surprise her with it, and how shocked she was at the size and cost. They never even used half of it. Two of the guestrooms had only been used the Christmas eve and Christmas night of their wedding and had never been slept in again. Her mother in one and his pappy in the other. Irene had moved into the room her mother had stayed in. He had even slept in there for a while. He couldn’t even go upstairs to look at the empty rooms, his bed was in the only downstairs guest room.

Suddenly he felt like he couldn’t stay there another night. Getting up, he went to the phone and called the movers. They would be here in an hour to put his bed in the moving pod that contained his furniture and workout equipment, clothes and kitchenware. He decided he would have them put his lift-chair in the back of his truck. He ate while he waited wishing for a shot of whiskey. As he stuffed clothes in a suitcase, he thought about what he would say to her.

After the movers left with the shipping Pod on a flatbed, he dialed Irene’s number one last time.

She didn’t pick up so he hung up and called back just to listen to her voice, then left a message.

“Irene, it’s Thomas. I... I just wanted to say... I’m sorry and I loved you more than anything...and I’m... I’m sorry I screwed things up. I set up an account for T.J.’s college and anything he needs. You should get an email about it and a letter from the bank. I sold the house for less than I owe and will pay off the short sale through my monthly disability settlement from the team, don’t worry about it, it will all be on me. Tell... Tell my son... tell him being his dad was the best time of my life and I love him.” He had to stop for a moment and breathe, he could feel the last of is hope dying. He couldn’t force everything he felt into words so he simply said two more before he hung up. “Goodbye, Irene.

Tank left the house keys on the island and went out the garage. He left the garage door remote on the shelf just inside the door and watched it come down, he couldn’t get back inside without breaking in now. He had no choice so he eased himself up into his truck. Turning off his cell, he tossed it into the glove box. The sun was just setting as he started the long drive home to Colorado.

He had rented a long-stay motel room near St Mary’s in Durango. He wasn’t ready to go home and face his grandfather. He lived on steak and eggs he made for himself in the kitchenette, or take-out and beer. He had dropped nearly 60lbs of muscle since he couldn’t workout more than a non-jarring slow walk on a treadmill. So walk he did. The team’s medical insurance paid for the best equipment on the market, he programmed it for all the 14ers in Colorado. Train now, climb them for real later. He had nothing else to do, so he walked as the video of the trails played. When one ended, he started another one. Everyday, he walked until his legs gave out. The painkillers numbed his body, but they did nothing for his mind, every step was one more away from the life he wanted to run back to.

As soon as the halo came off and then he quit the painkillers in favor of whiskey. Turning his neck the first day was excruciating, but the physical therapist was very kind and let him use the whirlpool. He went every day for the first two weeks then three times a week for a month, then twice a week, then once. He bought a lighter set of free weights, and began rebuilding his chest and shoulder muscles. The pain from his collarbone and reconstructed shoulder was almost unbearable by the end of every day, but he drank and iced his pain away. He didn’t call anyone for four months.

Every Saturday found him in a local club and every Sunday found him waking up with a woman whose name he couldn’t remember. He hated himself, he was becoming his father or worse Irene’s father, but he couldn’t seem to stop. He just wanted to feel loved again but it never felt right, because the person he wanted to be loved by, was the one he had betrayed and was betraying every weekend, with every drink and every tryst.

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