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Heaven Lies East of the Mississippi

By Anna Scott Graham

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 by Anna Scott Graham

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. It is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied, and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this novel, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at, where they can discover other works by this author. Thanks for your support.

This is a work of fiction. Names and characters, incidents and places are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

For my husband and those who have offered their love and support over the last several years, both in the writing and the living.

Chapter 1

Steel beams and concrete were the bones and blood of the stadium, but as Kendall Schultz stood on the velvet green pitch, a heart pounded under his feet. The beat rose to his ankles, up to his knees, hips, and onward. But he grimaced as that rumbling reached his chest, a fading, shallow pulse in response.

It shouldn’t be this way, he considered, staring at thousands of cheering fans. I should feel something beyond what this place stirs. He looked toward where Natalie and his parents sat, although he couldn’t make out his girlfriend and family amid a clamoring sea of FC San Diego supporters, or FCSD as everyone in San Diego who adored soccer called the team, his team. For eight years this had been Kendall’s team, but why wasn’t he as excited and nervous as at last year’s final?

He glanced down the line; Wilson Givens wore a broad, infectious smile. Trevor Harner gently scuffed his left shoe along the grass. Casey Alspach was shaking his shoulders as if trying to remove his head from the rest of his body. His blonde hair flew as though connected to the screams coming from all sides. Casey was always this jumpy until they stepped on the field to play. Then every tendon went slack, Casey the most relaxed man on the squad. Kendall flashed him a smile, then stared at the ground, wishing for that sort of energy.

I should feel something, Kendall stewed inwardly, but nothing’s burning, nothing that means this is anything other than a day job. That’s wrong, that’s impossible, that’s….

The whistle blew and Kendall looked up, then glanced at Casey; he stood perfectly straight. Wilson and Trevor were the same, as was the entire team. It lasted for seconds, during which Kendall inhaled, then exhaled, trying to conjure the magic that had dwelled within him for the last conscious twenty-five years of his life. He had been playing with a soccer ball since he was two. But from the age of five it was locked in his memories, kicking that sphere on his parents’ front lawn. His mother said it was on Christmas morning, but Kendall wasn’t aware of the date; it could have been his birthday, or Groundhog Day for that matter. It was a moment of clarity, never forgotten. Now at thirty years old, another title just ninety-plus minutes away, all that passion and awareness felt as uncertain as when it began. Had it been on Christmas? Maybe Easter, maybe his birthday. Photographs couldn’t pinpoint a season; Kendall was born and raised in San Diego, had played nearly all of his career here. Other than two years with Real Madrid, he had only lived in Southern California, where seasons were as illusory as what he felt. Maybe this was practice for a World Cup or an Olympics. Perhaps this was off-season training. Or was this Spain, when he had been just starting out, but still far above his American peers. Maybe this was high school or middle school or the first few years he ran around a large emerald expanse, learning to forget about his arms, to concentrate on his legs and feet. All that mattered were his lower limbs.

He was never this unfocused, and that drove him even further to search for something as solid as what this place was made from, once eyes left the field. Where spectators sat or stood, where concessions were sold, where offices hummed with all that occurred behind the scenes; Kendall focused on those tangible aspects of the game. It’s a game, he reminded himself, as his teammates huddled. He joined them as if by an involuntary force; all the actions were rote, what the hell? I need to focus, I need to….

“Everything all right Schultz?”

Kendall nodded to Coach Schlatter. “Yeah. Let’s play.”

Herman Schlatter nodded in his curt German manner. “Uh-huh.” Then he said something to Wilson and Trevor. Kendall stared at his coach as though Herm was speaking in his native tongue. The cadence was clipped, like all the German Kendall had heard when playing in Europe. Spanish was more fluid, how Casey now looked. An occasional twitch lingered, but as Herm Schlatter gave his last pep talk, Casey grew still.

Kendall inhaled again, waiting for the adrenaline to kick in, waiting for something to wrench him into reality, to where they were, seconds away from the start of the final game of the season. He had felt disconnected all through the playoffs, each game exacerbating his lack of focus. He had never felt so detached from this sport, his teammates, his coach. He hadn’t said anything about it, not even to Natalie. But she knew, and from Herm Schlatter’s glare, so did he.

Now, I need to be on now. Kendall cleared his throat as Schlatter stepped his way. “Schultz?”

Kendall smiled. His was the only Germanic surname, and Schlatter’s accent always accentuated it. “No worries,” Kendall said. He glanced around; I need to feel it now, I have never not felt it, the ambience and drive, that spark, the thrill. The bliss is missing, shit!

Schlatter said nothing, his thin gray hair and glasses showing his age. Otherwise his face was unlined, even after years of coaching how many teams, some great like this one, some abysmal. How many times has he stood in this position, Kendall mused, heading for the field. He was a forward, had played this position almost all of his life. His first year at Real Madrid, he was an attacking midfielder, often on the right, sometimes the left. He was moved to forward during his second season in Spain, which had angered some of his teammates, due to his nationality and youth. But he had proved his worth, and longing for home, returned to America, to California. He signed with FC San Diego, lived twenty minutes from where he grew up in La Jolla. He spoke fluent Spanish, could make out just enough French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Portuguese to ask for the bathroom or order a beer. If he stepped onto any foreign soil, he was revered for his skills. If he stepped outside FCSD’s stadium, he was often anonymous.

If he didn’t pull it together in the next several seconds…. Kendall glanced at Casey, then to Wilson and Trevor. All were in the zone, where Kendall usually resided. He stared at the opposition, D.C. United, representing the nation’s capital. Faces were familiar; it was a small sporting community, even if it gathered players from around the world. Maybe half of D.C.’s team was comprised of foreigners, about the same with San Diego’s squad. But that was the case in Europe too, lineups a mix from all over the globe. All over the planet, except in Kendall’s home nation, football was king. Football was played with a round ball for two forty-five-minute periods, give a few minutes for stoppage time. It didn’t require pads or helmets, hands were verboten except to return the ball into play. It required immense skill with one’s feet, great stamina in a player’s legs, and the entirety of one’s heart. At that moment, Kendall possessed the maximum level for all but his chest muscle. It seemed several beats behind.

He pounded the middle of his upper torso, then smiled. Then he waited. Start damnit, start! As play commenced, he sighed, running with the rest. Yet Kendall’s heart hadn’t responded to the whistle.

It hadn’t answered him by half-time, and even twenty minutes into the second play period, he was still on auto-pilot, for which he was thankful, but not enthused. Only when Casey passed him the ball in the sixty-ninth minute did Kendall’s heart finally wake up. He shot the ball away from the goalie, cleanly into the back of the net. A thunderous roar swelled all around him, hollering teammates raising the din. A scoreless tie had been broken as well as a brick knocked from the wall around Kendall’s chest.

For the rest of the game he was a semblance of himself, but it was only noted by Herm Schlatter, who eyed his forward with a suspicious gaze. At the end of regulation time, the score remained 1-0, and as extra minutes ticked down, Kendall wiped sweaty brown hair from his face, staring at snippets of the crowd and his teammates, wishing to see Natalie. He needed someone who would understand, and who wouldn’t be pissed at him. Coach Schlatter couldn’t wait to rip into his star forward, even if Kendall had scored the winning and only goal.

The stadium erupted in raucous bliss, which crept up the backs of Kendall’s aching calves, sneaking into his weary quad muscles, easing along his buttocks into his lower back, then crawling so slowly along his spine. It never knocked on his rib cage, but edged forward, into his brain; another title for FCSD, another accolade for perhaps the finest male soccer player the United States of America had ever produced. Kendall didn’t tear off his shirt, but acknowledged the achievement by slapping backs, giving hugs, but not blinking away any tears. Others did; Casey Alspach wept freely, but perhaps that was also for other issues. Throughout the season Casey and his wife had tried to get pregnant. Maybe now, with the title in hand, Casey could complete other desires.

Thirty-one-year-old Wilson wanted to go home to Alabama for Christmas. Trevor hailed from Georgia, and also couldn’t wait to flee California. Like Kendall, Casey was a native of the Golden State, but he spent the off season in the Central Valley on a sprawling ranch north of Bakersfield. Kendall considered how in just a matter of days, this tight-knit group would disperse for all corners, not just of this country, but to Central and South America, Europe and Asia too. The upcoming Christmas holiday, still a few weeks away, had been on hearts and minds when the end of the season was broached. On the second of December, a title had been clinched. Within days, real-life beckoned.

But first microphones and questions were thrust into players’ faces. Kendall smiled as if he was twenty-three, twenty-six, twenty-nine even. This time last year he’d been ecstatic when FC San Diego had beaten the Houston Dynamos; was this second straight title as sweet as last year’s?

“Oh man, yeah, I mean….” Kendall’s post-game responses were perfect, from his electric American smile, his gushing yet grateful tone as he gazed between the interviewer, the stands, and the ground. Looking at his feet, Kendall had found, humbled him, as if giving thanks to the pitch upon where the victory had sprung. He was a star, had scored the only goal, but from that earth had he been given a purpose, and eventually into that earth he would return. Then he thanked his coach, his teammates, and the fans. San Diego fans were the greatest in the world.

That was a bald-faced lie, but at that moment few would call him on it. San Diego soccer fans might be the best on the West Coast, maybe within the US. Real soccer, or football, fans resided anywhere else on the planet. He wouldn’t assert which were more passionate, the Spanish or English, the Dutch, Italians, Germans, Mexicans, Brazilians, or Argentinians; the list went on and on. Americans were tepid in comparison, but he couldn’t say that on live television, not to ESPN or Fox or Sky or Telemundo or any other networks who sent reporters to cover a competition that meant…. What did soccer in America actually mean?

The US had never placed in the top three any year of World Cup play, except for a qualified third place finish in the initial tournament in 1930; no actual playoff game for losing semi-finalists had taken place, but the United States was given the nod over Yugoslavia due to tournament records. The best that America had done was in 2002, when reaching the last eight, losing to Germany 1-0. As a kid, Kendall had breathed by those facts, growing up loving soccer in a country where it ranked far below hockey, not even achieving active major league status until 1996. Living in San Diego had exposed him to Mexico’s strong football base, but even as soccer exploded as a youth sport, it hadn’t penetrated the upper echelon dominated by baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. Even hockey had more fans than soccer.

Kendall considered all that as fawning reporters asked identical questions. To those speaking Spanish, he answered in the same tongue, but he’d been doing that since his days at Real Madrid. Kendall had learned the fundamentals of that language in high school. Living so close to the Mexican border, he appreciated a cross-cultural fan base, and loved communicating with those whose passion for the game was inborn. No matter how ardent the supporter, a foreigner always outshone an American.

Except perhaps for his parents, Kendall smiled, as the last queries were posed. He then joined teammates already celebrating on the field, families gathering around Wilson and Trevor. Casey’s wife was glued to her husband’s side, and Kendall felt their joy, also small apprehensions. All season, Casey had blamed the game for interfering with their plans. Now there wouldn’t be any excuse. Scouting for Natalie, Kendall stopped by Casey, again grabbing him in a bear hug. No words were exchanged; they had seen to it that a goal had been scored, but it could have been anyone else on the team. Yet, they had the glory. As Kendall pulled away, he ruffled Casey’s thick blonde hair, then smiled at Casey’s wife Melissa, a petite brunette. What kind of coloring would their child have?

Kendall moved away, waving to Wilson and his wife. Their two small sons looked just like their father with large brown eyes, close-cropped tight brown curls and enormous smiles. Wilson hoisted the youngest; Kendall couldn’t recall the boy’s name, but he shrieked Daddy until Wilson’s wife Delia told him to hush. Wilson pointed at Kendall. “Natalie was just here, looking for you.”

“Tell her I’m looking for her,” Kendall laughed. “My parents too.”

“Good luck man,” Wilson shouted, tickling his son.

Kendall nodded, stepping toward Trevor and his wife, whose name slipped Kendall’s mind. Where was Natalie; was she waiting with his family, or was she lost in the multitudes. Trevor waved at Kendall, a tall, balding man Kendall’s age, his wife also tall, with long strawberry blonde hair. She was seven months’ pregnant, but their eldest, a girl, wasn’t there.

Kendall skirted around other players, sometimes making eye contact, but his focus was on finding his kin, which included Natalie Koslow. Then he smiled, seeing her twenty feet away, a dense crowd between them.

Their eyes met, smiles too. Hers was like Wilson’s wife Delia, beatific and proud. His was…. Kendall wondered what his grin revealed; hopefully just fatigue. He was bone-tired, felt little relief. Why wasn’t he like everyone else on the pitch, euphoric or tearful. Behind Natalie, Kendall’s family tried to squeeze through, but she reached him first, stroking his sticky face, her gentle nod bringing a semblance of life back to him. She knows, thank God, he thought. She’s the only one who does.

Then she hugged him, not tightly, which both also understood. As Kendall pulled away, she grasped his hands. “Are you okay?”

He smiled, then nodded. Anything else would have been misunderstood. He wanted to shrug, say meh at the top of his voice. His voice was intact, not hoarse from screams of pleasure. And later, it would remain intact, even after he and Natalie had sex. He chuckled. Nothing in his life was going to plan.

“You played great,” she whispered, kissing his cheek.

Her voice was subdued; she didn’t try to infer anything but the truth. He had played well, just like always. Even if I couldn’t feel a damned thing, I went out and did my job, he sighed inwardly. I’m well paid to do it, and at least I managed that. “Thanks.”

Neither had ever been overly effusive, why they had gotten together in the first place. Yet he wished she carried more sentiment, maybe it would spark his. Maybe she could heft him into the stratosphere like all the rest. Instead she kept him grounded, just like always, which had been necessary in the past. Kendall blinked, then saw his mom, dad, sister, and brother. And his past, like this day had occurred years ago.

He smiled, but felt sick, only staying upright because Natalie gripped his hand. He closed his eyes, his mom on one side, his father on the other. His brother’s voice swirled around Kendall like a vice, while his sister’s thrilled giggles punctured Kendall’s eardrums. They called him Ken or Kenny, familial nicknames that did nothing to calm his rolling stomach. As they stood back, he opened his eyes, pretending they were reporters, that this was all part of the routine. But never in his entire life had he felt so disjointed within himself, or from his nearest and dearest.

He stared at the half-full stadium. It had been thirty minutes, at least, since time ended, since the rush of media, since, since…. “I, uh, God, I’m so tired,” he mumbled.

His mother, Brenda, clucked. “Well, it’s been a long season. Honey, are you all right?”

“Yeah, just need a minute.” He squatted, which was painful, but near the ground something resonated. He wanted to lay face-down in the grass, maybe he would melt into it. Perhaps then he could pull himself back together and stand on feet that knew what in the hell was going on. Instead he stood, grasping Natalie’s arm. He inhaled deeply, then smiled. “Okay, yeah, better. Feeling much better.”

Just walk away, please, because I’m not okay, but I only want Natalie aware. He looked at his girlfriend. The slight shift of her blonde head offered small relief. “We better let you get to the locker room. I’ll see you at home.”

“Oh yeah,” Kendall’s dad Chris said. “Will we see you guys tomorrow?”

“Yeah, or the day after.” Kendall nodded, looking at his parents, then his younger siblings. They couldn’t tell anything was amiss, other than he was fully exhausted.

“Well, take your time.” Brenda stroked his face, then smiled. “You’ve answered any remaining critics. Savor this Kenny. It’s all yours.”

Critics, he wanted to snort. She meant the media who still hounded American male players for not reaching any higher than the top eight in World Cup play. American women had won in 1999, placing within the top three slots otherwise. But the men lagged behind.

Kendall felt dogged by more than results and fatigue. Natalie gave him one kiss, then led his family away. He wanted to thank her for that courtesy, would see how she responded to his gratitude later. Later that night, once he had properly greeted and thanked everyone necessary, answered any loitering reporters, then he would drive away from the stadium; he loved driving, finally getting to use his hands for something. And if Natalie was in the mood, maybe he would use those hands to accurately tell her thanks. Maybe, he sighed, his plodding footsteps attempting to reach into the ground, retrieving any sense of purpose.

Chapter 2

When Natalie turned over, she was only half surprised to see that Kendall wasn’t beside her. For a few seconds, she stared at his empty place, then she looked at his clock; it was two in the morning.

She got up, used the toilet, washed her hands. Then she put on a robe, padding to the living room. He sat on a kitchen stool dragged near a large picture window. Blinds were mostly pulled, but he had cracked open the sliding glass door, gentle rumbles from the Pacific wafting into the dark, cavernous space. “Kendall?”

He turned, also in a robe, arms crossed over his chest. “Did I wake you?”

She came up behind him, first running fingers through his mop of hair, then setting her hands on his shoulders. He turned back to the window as she did so, but he gripped her fingers. “I had to pee,” she said. “How long’ve you been up?”

“Maybe an hour. Couldn’t sleep.”

Three months ago, Kendall wouldn’t have again faced the window. I would have stood, then embraced her, he mused, but something’s changed here too, not just on the pitch. He clutched her hands and she reciprocated. “I’m too wound up, I guess. But you should go back to bed.”

They had made a rushed but uninspired love when he got home, which hadn’t felt any differently than the last few months, just like earlier that night, running around on the field, because that’s what he did. Kendall chased a ball, had sex with Natalie. For five years they had been together, three of those spent in this spectacular house overlooking the ocean. Natalie Koslow designed exactly the kind of homes in which she and Kendall resided, imaginative living spaces wrapped into stunning nooks and crannies all along the West Coast. The couple graced magazine covers, one of those beautiful duos both in looks and careers, yet their profiles weren’t overblown, in part because Natalie didn’t crave the limelight, and that Kendall had chosen to play in America. Foreign clubs still sought his skills, but this was where Natalie wanted to live, and ultimately, Kendall did too.

“You wanna talk about it?”

He didn’t flinch at her voice, as if he had been waiting for her to speak. The ocean’s soft rumble seemed to heighten his senses within an odd silence that wasn’t fully quiet. He had stirred from a strange dream, used the bathroom, then come out here, trying to…. What was he trying to do, find, resurrect? My heart, he sighed. “I just don’t feel it anymore.”

“I could tell. You wanted to be anywhere else tonight. Still,” she chuckled, squeezing his hands. “You managed to win the game.”

He nodded. “Don’t know how the hell it happened.” He turned, seeing her small smile. “But yeah, me and Casey somehow got it done.”

“Herm say anything to you?”

“Gave me his patented death glare.” Kendall shrugged, then grinned. “I’ll get an earful in a day or three.”

She nodded, then stared beyond him. “What do you wanna do?”

She said it as if she knew the answer. He sighed. “You ever feel this way, I mean, trying to figure out how something’s gonna come together, but you have no idea how or why.”

She met his gaze. She knows exactly what I mean, but can’t, or won’t answer me. Kendall stroked her cheek. She has the most beautiful blue eyes, she looks like the quintessential California girl, but she was born in Washington State. Yet those eyes are so deep; I used to feel safe when I looked at her. I haven’t felt that way in….

“What do you wanna do Ken?”

She rarely called him anything but Kendall. Teammates and his family used Ken or Kenny, but in getting older, he preferred his whole name. “I have no idea, I mean….”

She nodded. “I’m going back to bed.” She glanced at her bare feet, then toward the window. “My toes are cold.”

He smiled. “I’ll be right there.”

“Okay.” She brushed her cheek along his, then walked away. Kendall sat for another minute, then closed the sliding glass door, joining her in bed.

They ate a quiet breakfast on the terrace, overlooking the water. Their phones were at their elbows, but both ignored various calls and texts. Then Kendall smiled. “I wonder what would happen if I just chucked this thing in the ocean.”

“They’d still find you.”

“Mom and Herm would.”

“Your dad and Casey too.”

Kendall laughed, then picked up his phone. A long list waited on the screen, from his parents and coach to who he considered his best friend, apart from the woman seated across. Casey had passed the ball to Kendall not just because Kendall was in position, but because the men trusted each other. Kendall would have done the same if the roles were reversed.

Yet, in a matter of days their lives would be unharnessed, and not only due to Casey and his wife Melissa leaving for their ranch. In the off season, existences were unplugged from a central hub. For most of the off season, Kendall allowed. It wasn’t any different in other sports; most players didn’t live where they played, but for several months of a year they called home whatever city displayed their talents. Kendall was an exception, but then, San Diego was his actual hometown. That almost never happened.

He liked the routine; was that why he had left Real Madrid, returning to America, to SoCal? The career he could have had in Europe would have been astronomical in terms of personal success, yet, he came home, unable to sever these roots. He had two straight Major League Soccer titles to show for it. World Cup and Olympic triumphs wouldn’t have occurred no matter where he played professionally. Professionally, he had chosen his home nation, his literal childhood backyard, because this was where he had learned the fundamentals of soccer, of football. The sport’s names were interchangeable in his head, yet he preferred football, because that was what it boiled down to, his feet and one ball. All his life he had never been far away from the ball.

And not just any ball; the only ball to matter was round, nimbly skipping along the pitch due to how he placed it there. When Casey had shot him the ball, even for how empty Kendall felt inside, outwardly he knew just what to do; stopping it with his left leg, turning his body slightly, then kicking out his right leg, making direct contact, all in seconds. It takes just seconds, he considered, absently staring at the phone flashing in his hand.

“Who is it?” Natalie asked, finishing her juice.

Kendall looked at her; tousled hair brushed just past her shoulders. She was drop-dead gorgeous no matter the time of day, those eyes so knowledgeable of him. She blinked, setting the glass on the table. “What?” she asked.

Nothing mattered, not her, not whoever was desperate to speak to him. Not the ball, or any ball. Kendall gazed at the phone; it was his brother Brendan. They were probably worried; Kendall hadn’t returned any calls or texts since last night. He stared at the horizon; small clouds framed a body of water that went further than his sight. Why didn’t any of this matter?

“Here, give it to me. I’ll text them, tell them you’re still sleeping. Or in the shower.” She paused. “Kendall?”

“What? Oh, uh-huh, yeah, thanks. Actually,” he licked his lips while handing her the phone. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

In giving her the device, he felt one small flicker. He closed his eyes, inhaling, as if to draw more of a flame. But nothing altered, that small spark was extinguished. Kendall opened his eyes, then kissed the top of Natalie’s head. Sliding the screen, he walked into the living room.

When she joined him in the shower, he was pleased, something she hadn’t done in weeks. They made love, soothing and almost reaching into him. That spark sputtered, then was put out, not by the water pouring over them, but something else, which was starting to bug him. Natalie washed her hair, then rinsed off. “You gonna be in here a while?”

He shook his head, a waste of water if he couldn’t even identify what was wrong. Kendall rinsed off, then stopped the water. The shower was a large marble enclosure with glass doors. As he dripped off, she used the squeegee to wipe down the walls. Then she looked at him. “I talked to your mom, told her you were just exhausted. She said she would pass along the message.”


“She sounded a little worried.”

He nodded. “I’m getting a little worried too.”

Natalie didn’t smile. “I don’t have anything going on today. If you feel like it….”

What was there to tell her, nothing concrete, only a definite notion of his entire purpose having been sucked away. Still, that small flicker from earlier teased. He just had no idea how to fuel it.

They dressed, then she made the bed while he texted the minimum, which did not include his parents. He wrote to Herm, Casey, Wilson, and Trevor. Then again he felt the urge to throw his phone over the terrace. If it smashed into pieces, maybe something might resonate within him.

He flopped onto the sofa, staring at the enormous flat-screen TV, tablets on the coffee table. Very little clutter, but neither he nor Natalie were pack rats. All his sporting trophies were in La Jolla, stored in his old bedroom. A few distinct plaques were displayed on his parents’ walls, but he hadn’t been raised in an ostentatious home. He had been raised to excel in whatever gifts he possessed, and the day after winning the MLS title, he looked around his domain. No evidence that he was a sports star lingered.

Kendall had never required those trappings, what did they mean? All that he was went with him in every step, each breath. Other than a ball and the pitch, he only needed legs, lungs, and eyes. If the day ever came when he couldn’t walk, breathe, or see, well, that would be it.

His heart had never been considered. Unlike his lungs, which needed constant training to provide enough oxygen to his muscles, his heart pumped blood no matter the level of activity. Kendall could lump his lungs in that too, but he thought of them like his legs, something to exercise. His heart had been separate; it had always supplied the appropriate blood flow and the correct intensity. Suddenly it was as precarious as the rest.

He set his palm over his chest, wondering how long he had taken this muscle for granted. As Natalie sat beside him, it wasn’t only sport for which his heart had waned. She smiled, as if aware. “What’re you thinking about?”

Her voice sounded differently, nothing seemed clear. Yesterday he had woke with that same nagging uncertainty. Today it was exacerbated. “If I told you that nothing seems to matter, would you think I’d lost my mind?”

Sex in shower had been half-way between making love and rote intercourse, the same last night when he came home. It had been that way, he allowed, since the middle of summer, but only now was it obvious. In summer and autumn, the game had come first, but merely on a list of priorities. Kendall still had priorities, but nothing to substantiate them.

Natalie grasped his hand. “Can you be more specific?”

He smiled, then winced. Her intelligence was often overshadowed by her beauty. Clients soon learned what Kendall knew from right after he met her; she was insightful, empathetic. I used to love her deeply, he thought, but that’s not even the same anymore. Now I appreciate her friendship, her presence. I can still have sex with her, but what turns it into something more has slipped away. “I love you.” He tried to relay what that now meant, but wasn’t sure if he could vocalize gratitude without sounding condescending.

She nodded, entwining her fingers with his. “It hasn’t been the same since summer.”

He exhaled loudly. “Oh my God, yeah.” He met her gaze. “It’s the game, us, everything. Everything’s just….”

He stood, slowly taking in the sparse room. Then he looked at windows, behind which the ocean waited. The lack of furnishings wasn’t the issue, the water didn’t matter. This house, as beautiful and skillfully designed as it was, held no meaning. The stadium just hours ago had felt the same, alien and empty. He turned back to her. She wasn’t crying, nor did she look sad. “I think I need to get away for a while.”

“I think you do. What will you tell Herm?”

Kendall smiled. His coach was first in both of their minds, now that Kendall had admitted it to her. “My contract is up, maybe I don’t need to say much at all.”

“You’re funny,” she chuckled.

He rejoined her, grasping her hands. “He’s gonna shit a brick.” Then Kendall laughed. “Well, if he wasn’t so damned German, he’d shit one. He’ll sigh, tap his foot, grimace. He’ll do a lot of grimacing.”

But he won’t argue with me, not vociferously. He could see it well before last night, even before the playoffs. He never said anything, not his way. But when I said goodnight to him as I left the locker room, he stared right through me. He knows me, just like Natalie does. Kendall stroked her face. “Everyone else’ll think I’ve lost it, but not Herm. Or you.”

She nodded, then gripped his fingers. “I think space will be good for us both.”

Just space or something more permanent? Kendall lifted her hand, kissing her knuckles. Previously that action had elicited an intense and immediate physical response within him. Now it felt like a goodbye. “I won’t ask you to wait for me.”

She met his gaze. “Yeah?”

Her small surprise wounded him. Maybe she doesn’t know just how disconnected I feel, from soccer and from her. “I might be gone a while.”

“How long?”

I have no idea. “Maybe, hell, I dunno.” He released her hand, then stood. Did he need to live here again, did he want to? “I’m gonna take off a year, at least.” His heart lurched, then felt to restart, albeit weakly. This is necessary, more than either of us realized. He looked in her direction, hands in her lap, her head nodding. But now she didn’t meet his gaze.

He wanted to tell her it wasn’t that he didn’t love her anymore, or the game. He cared about them both, but not as before. Nothing felt like it had months ago, some buffer had been erected. But was that shield around him, or those people and a game that had never left him empty? Kendall knelt in front of her, clasping her hands that were wet from tears. “Oh Natalie, God, I’m sorry, I’m….”

She looked up, an odd smile on her streaked face. “I’ve been wondering how long you were gonna ignore it.” She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, then sighed. “It’s just not the same anymore.”

He nodded, slightly relieved that she seemed to agree. “I want you to have the house.”


He winced again; that made it sound so final. Were they actually breaking up, or was this just a sabbatical? A few years ago, when Casey married Melissa, Kendall had considered popping the question to this woman. He had declined after they talked about what a wedding meant; her parents went through a messy divorce when Natalie was fifteen, and she wasn’t keen on exploring that avenue. Kendall had never thought of his future without Natalie, but he had never dreamed of leaving soccer. He was actually speaking of these things, but he didn’t feel ill or tired. Instead, that small flicker seemed to inch higher, still not much past a flash of heat, but more than he had felt in months.

“Natalie, I wanna sign the house over to you.” He gazed behind her to the immaculate kitchen, granite countertops gleaming. “I want you to have it and….”

She nodded, then took a deep breath. “Don’t say anymore.”

He leaned toward her, nuzzling against her brow. “For the last five years, you’ve given me a purpose, made me reach into myself where no one else’s ever been. I know it’s just a house, but it’s more than that, you know how much it means, it means….”

Everything, he didn’t say, as she gently kissed him like they were already old, good friends. She pulled back, blinking away a few last tears. “What will you do?”

“Hell if I know.” He smiled, a different ache within him. “But I need to get away, to just take a rest. God, I feel like I could sleep for ages.”

He regretted that sentence; it wasn’t only her that he needed to flee. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

She smiled, then patted the sofa. He sat beside her. “I know, I mean, you need space. I do too.”

“If I come back, I mean….” Of course I’ll come back. “When I come back, maybe, I mean, who knows?”

“Yeah, who knows?” She giggled, then sighed. “When you come back, we’ll see what happens. But unless you really wanna leave soon, I mean….”


“What about Christmas?”

He smiled. The only time she bothered to decorate was for that holiday. Boxes were stored in the guest room closet, ornaments and trinkets and an artificial tree. They spent all month sprucing the house, lights adorning the terrace as if they were married with a houseful of kids. Yearly they alternated where they ate dinner, and that year it was with his family. His siblings weren’t married, it was just grown children, but his was a unit intact. Kendall nodded, then kissed her cheek. “Sure, I’ll stay until Christmas. Mom would blow a gasket otherwise.”

“She would shit a brick,” Natalie smiled.

“Yeah, she would.” Kendall looked to the right, where the guest room, and those Christmas decorations, waited. “Maybe I’ll sleep in there until then.”

“Maybe you should.”

He nodded, wishing to hold her hand. Was that morning in the shower the last time they would have sex? “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Can I kiss you?”

She bit her lip. “Yeah Kendall, you can kiss me.”

He moved toward her, then suddenly stopped. Instead he caressed her face. “Maybe I can’t.”

“Maybe.” She placed her hand over his, still on her cheek. “I feel it too. It’s not just you.”


She traced the small scar under his lower lip. Then she stood, tucking her hair behind her ears. She faced him. “Will you still be my friend?”

“Yeah, oh yeah.” He joined her, then was in her arms. Closing his eyes, he inhaled, as she started to cry. “Natalie, I will always be your friend.”

Chapter 3

Twenty-four hours later, Kendall sat in Herm Schlatter’s office. Open windows caught a mild breeze that didn’t feel at all like December. Kendall wore shorts, a t-shirt, and old sandals. He didn’t look like a soccer star, more like a beach bum, which had been Herm’s first accusation when Kendall broke the news.

Herm didn’t stand or shake his fist. He glared at Kendall, then scribbled something on an old white legal pad. A tablet and monitor sat on the left side of Herm’s desk, but the coach always carried that relic, as Kendall and Wilson teased. Now Herm looked at Kendall with a wry smile. “They’re going to think you’re jerking them around.”

“It’s not about money.”

Herm inhaled deeply, then nodded. “I know it’s not. But they won’t believe you.”

Kendall cracked his knuckles, then stood. “I’ll sign whatever they want. This’s the only team I’ll ever play for, but I just can’t be here next year.”

Telling his coach hadn’t been as hard as Kendall imagined; what would be worse was telling Casey, Wilson, Trevor, and the rest. Then his parents, although his brother Brendan and sister Lindsay might understand. Brendan played baseball in the San Diego Padres farm system, while Lindsay was a professional cellist; all three Schultzes owned extraordinary talents, also knew the cost of those gifts. Burnout was an occasional hazard, but if Kendall didn’t walk away now…. He turned back to Herm. “Only between us will I say this. I need at least a year, maybe two. Like I said, I’ll sign whatever waiver they wanna produce; I won’t commit to any other club, not for all the money in the world. But if I don’t leave now….”

“I know, I know.” Herm stood, dressed in a Polo shirt and khaki’s. On game days he wore a casual suit, at practices track pants and crisp white t-shirts. There in the office, he looked like it was a dress down Friday, an ensemble Herm Schlatter would wear during the entire off season, except when he went home to Bavaria for Christmas. “When are you going to break it to the rest?”

Kendall smiled; he meant the team, then the media. Kendall would tell his agent next, then Sandy Schulman could inform FCSD’s owners. But it was up to Kendall to share this news with men whom he considered brothers. He would tell them even before he informed his family.

“In another day or so. Most are sticking around until the end of the week, so….” He sighed. This was real, easing his heart, also leaving permanent scars. Even when he came back, if he came back, the camaraderie wouldn’t be the same, in part because some of those men would be gone. Also that time eroded the bonds players cultivated day in and out during the season. When FC San Diego met up again next spring, Kendall would be missed, but life would go on.

“Well, that would be best. Get it finalized.” Herm adjusted his glasses, then cleared his throat. “You are one of the best players I have ever coached. Ever.” Herm didn’t smile, or raise his eyebrows. “You have always performed at the highest level, even if those surrounding you weren’t of the same caliber. A pity that you’ll never play in a World Cup final.” He permitted a small grin. “But then Beckham never did either. Sometimes it happens.”

Kendall laughed. “Something the two of us have in common, I guess.”

“One thing,” Herm smiled.

They shook hands, then Kendall chuckled. “I do feel like a bum.” He pulled at his shirt, then ran a hand through his long hair. “But at least I feel it.” He gazed to the window, then at his coach. He was my coach half an hour ago, Kendall realized, but not anymore. “I need to feel it again, you know?”

Herm Schlatter was not a hands-on sort, but he grasped Kendall’s left shoulder. “I know. Don’t come back until you do.”

Kendall nodded.

Herm released Kendall, then made a grumbling sound. “Let me know when you’ve told your agent.” He sat in his chair, making notes on the legal pad. Then he gazed at Kendall. “Then be ready for the onslaught. Not so much here,” he grinned. “But Europe will go crazy with this news.”

Kendall sighed. “I told you I wouldn’t sign….”

Herm finally laughed. “Oh, I believe you. But they won’t, not until you’re back in a San Diego kit. Be aware of that Kendall. No one in the media will believe anything you say.”

But will the ones most important believe me, Kendall wondered. “Thanks Coach.”

“Herm now. I’m not your coach anymore.”

“Herm?” Kendall looked suspicious.

“Or Mr. Schlatter, whichever you prefer.”

Kendall chuckled as he left his former coach’s office, and was still smiling as he left the stadium.

From his car, Kendall made three calls; one was to Natalie, but she didn’t pick up, and he left a message. Then to his agent, Sandy Schulman. The forty-eight-year-old was incredulous, which Kendall accepted. They argued for ten minutes, then Schulman hung up on his client. Herm’s not my coach anymore, Kendall sighed, sitting in his Mercedes in the empty stadium parking lot. Maybe I’ll fire Shulman.

Kendall called Herm, noting that the agent was aware. Then Kendall drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Sandy’s number flashed and Kendall let it ring three times, then answered it. “Yeah?”

“Are you shitting me? A whole friggin’ year?”

“Maybe two.” Kendall smiled, but kept his voice somber.

“Two fucking years? Shit!”

Kendall stifled a laugh as a crash resounded in the background.

“Sandy, I need time off. Now I understand this’s outta the blue, I haven’t even told my parents yet, but….”

“Who the hell have you told?”

“Natalie and Herm Schlatter.” Not Mr. Schlatter, Kendall decided there and then.

“Well shit.” Something else clanged to the floor. “All right, listen, whatever you do, doesn’t fucking sign anything until I read it. They’ll probably give you a waiver or something but….”

“Sandy, when I play again, it’ll only be with San Diego.”

“Shit Kendall, just slit my throat, all right?”

I’d fire you now if I could, Kendall fumed. “Look, I’ve got things to do. Tell them I’m not gonna sign with any other team, not in the States or abroad. I just need some time, I need to….” Kendall sighed. He wouldn’t tell his long-time agent he needed to get his head together. Sandy would just tell him to pull it out of his ass.

“Yeah, yeah, all right, shit. Listen Kendall, I mean it about whatever they want you to sign. I look it over first.”

“I’ll think about it.” Kendall hung up on his agent, then turned off his phone.

Kendall drove around San Diego freeways that he knew almost as well as a soccer pitch. The 8, 808 and the 5 were second homes as well as interweaving lanes of concrete curving around palm trees and hilly neighborhoods, all easily navigable in the late morning. The top was down on his cobalt blue 1997 Mercedes 500 SL, a custom paint job on a car that he had owned for the last three years. He hadn’t wanted a new Benz, preferring a vehicle from before the company merged with Chrysler. Kendall also owned a silver Volkswagen Golf, for commuting. But the 500 SL was his baby.

He’d had his license since turning sixteen, and had driven in Spain during his time at Real Madrid. Where soccer demanded only his feet, within a vehicle Kendall could employ hands that ached to be used. He loved gripping the wheel and gear shift, or fiddling with knobs and buttons. Driving was instinctive, as if all those hours spent in training left his hands severely underutilized. He didn’t feel so compelled when surfing the web, and he rarely typed anything, didn’t have a Facebook. He did have an Instagram account, but not even snapping pictures provided the relief that commanding a car offered. Yet, there were only so many roadways, even in San Diego. Kendall took some exits, then found himself in an exclusive enclave. He pulled up near a gated community, then turned back on his phone. A flurry of calls and texts waited; none were from Natalie, the only one Kendall might have wished to hear from. He pulled up Casey’s number, then let the phone ring.

No answer on the first try, but Kendall wouldn’t be deterred. He texted Casey Alspach, then called him again. Then Kendall got out of his car, stood by the door, and called again, leaving a message. “Pick up your goddamn phone, asshole.” Unlike Sandy Schulman, Kendall wasn’t prone to using profanities, but occasionally they made a point. Casey called back less than a minute later.

“Kenny, what the hell?”

“Are you presentable or have you and Melissa been practicing?”

“Uh, sure, shit. Kenny, is something wrong?”

Kendall took a deep breath, then got back in his car. “Not life or death, but I need to talk to you.”

Kendall fought a smile as it sounded like Casey was getting dressed. “Yeah, okay. Shit. All right. Mel’ll let you in. But this better be good Schultz.”

Good was a relative description, Kendall sighed, as the gate opened. He set down his phone, started the car, then drove up the hill, the gate slowly sliding shut behind him.

Casey and Melissa Alspach spent most of the year in their four thousand square foot residence, five bedrooms, six bathrooms, a pool and hot tub in the spacious backyard. It wasn’t as clutter-free as Kendall and Natalie’s place, but without children, it lacked a sense of home. Kendall smiled as Melissa offered him iced tea, her hair a little messy, her color high. Yet she didn’t seem caught-out, although Casey looked like he’d just tumbled out of bed, or was on the sidelines, his blonde mane in tangles. He was dressed like Kendall, in shorts and an old t-shirt, but was barefoot. The men sat on the patio, the pool to the right, a vast green lawn bordered by shrubs and citrus trees. Kendall imagined that as soon as a baby arrived, a swing set and sandbox wouldn’t be far behind.

“So what couldn’t wait huh?” Casey drank his tea, then stared at Kendall. “God, you sounded like someone was dying.”

“I’m leaving the team.”

Casey spat iced tea all over his shirt and the table. “You’re what?”

Kendall chuckled as Melissa came running from the kitchen. “Honey, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m….” Casey wiped his chin with the bottom of his shirt, then stared at Kendall. “Did you say you’re leaving the team?”

Melissa looked at Kendall. “You’re leaving, oh my God why?”

“I need to get away, I need to….” Kendall stood, admiring the clear blue water, the smooth green grass, trees heavy with ripening oranges, lemons, and limes. Who cared for this place when Casey and Melissa were at their ranch, and for how much longer would they have two distinct homes? Maybe only one main residence after they had a baby; this would be where little Alspach Junior would race and roam. Kendall gazed back at the couple; Melissa sat on Casey’s lap, her face buried in his damp t-shirt. She was crying, which struck Kendall; he wasn’t only leaving the sport, but another family too.

“Hey, listen, I just need some time away.” He knelt beside Casey’s chair. “If I don’t take some time off now….”

“How much time?” Casey asked, stroking his wife’s head, but looking at Kendall.

“A year. At least.” Kendall thought it would be more like two, but wouldn’t add to the couple’s turmoil. It wasn’t just Melissa, still teary. Casey’s gray eyes were wide, his face ashen. Kendall nodded, silently confirming the shock. The rest of his teammates would be just as shaken.

“I haven’t even told my parents,” Kendall said, standing. He pulled his chair close to them, then sat down. Melissa looked his way, and his heart was pinched. His mother would probably appear as equally wounded. “But I needed to tell you guys first.”

“Who knows?” Slowly Casey reached for his glass. He took a sip, then offered it to his wife.

“Just you guys, Herm, my agent, and Natalie.”

Casey snorted. “I bet Schulman was pissed.”

“Yeah, that’s putting it mildly.”

Melissa untangled herself from her husband, then wiped her face with her hand. “Listen, I’ll, uh, let you guys hash this out.” She hastily kissed the top of Kendall’s head, then scurried into the house.

Kendall watched her close the sliding glass door, then he faced Casey. “Listen, I’m really sorry, I just wanted to tell you.”

Casey stood, then took a breath. “We’d spent the morning just relaxing, you know.” He laughed, then faced Kendall. “Man, I know what it’s like, feeling the weight of the world, I mean, shit. I’m glad we won, don’t get me wrong, but now there’s other things I wanna do.” Casey smiled, then glanced at the house. Then he looked at Kendall. “But quitting, walking away? Dude, are you serious?”

“Is she okay?” Kendall turned around; the sliding glass door was still closed.

“Are you okay?” Casey returned to his chair, leaning forward. “Kenny, is something wrong with you and Natalie?”

Kendall shook his head. Over that issue, he definitely wanted to tell his parents first. “No man, it’s just me. I haven’t felt right since summer. I need a break, just something different.”

Casey nodded. “God, don’t I know that!”

They laughed, drank their tea. Then Casey sighed. “Listen, come to the ranch this winter. That’ll clear your head.”

“What, and listen to you two go at it all night? No thanks.”

Casey smiled. “Hell, at the rate we’re going, not gonna make any fucking difference where we get it on.”

Kendall nearly asked if Melissa had started her period; just last week Casey had alluded that they were waiting, but he hadn’t sounded hopeful. Kendall had never seen Melissa so upset. “Is she….”

“We’re not pregnant. Again.” Casey threw up his hands. “If nothing happens in January, we’ll probably see a specialist.”

Kendall didn’t smile, but felt that wouldn’t be necessary. Most of that year had been spent with Casey trembling on sidelines or covering every inch of a football pitch. This couple just needed copious amounts of solitude. Yet, Kendall might drive to Bakersfield in the new year, once Casey and Melissa had enjoyed a few weeks to themselves. He wouldn’t take the Mercedes, then he winced. Where would he keep the Benz?

Not in Natalie’s garage. Kendall stood, then stretched. “Listen, don’t think about that now. You’ve got all winter to….” He smiled. “Have fun with your wife and take it easy. I’ll hang out with you guys once Christmas is over.” But I’ll need somewhere to stay in the interim, Kendall then mused.

Casey joined him, hands thrust into his pockets. “Are you really gonna just walk away?”

Kendall stared straight ahead. “If I don’t, I don’t know what’ll happen.”

Casey started shaking his head. “Shit man, I don’t know what to say. God, are you sure?”

Kendall turned to his friend, his best friend. Casey was jerky as if right before a match. Kendall set his hands on Casey’s shoulders. “You ever feel like nothing means anything?”

“Kenny, what is it?”

Kendall dropped his arms to his sides, then scuffed his sandal along the concrete. “All I’ve ever lived for is the game. Since I can remember, and I mean it, soccer was all that mattered. I love Natalie, but….” I do still love her, but even that’s changed. Trying to kiss her yesterday after we talked would have been like kissing my sister. How in the hell did we have sex in the shower? How does life change so quickly, like there’s no time to think or breathe?

Casey’s long sigh made Kendall smile. “But you need something different. Mel and I need something different, shit. If we don’t get pregnant this month, Christ!”

Then Casey stared at Kendall. “Are you sure everything’s okay with Natalie, are you guys….”

“We’re fine.” Kendall cleared his throat. “I just need a break.”

“You’re contract’s up, you thinking about….”

“I wouldn’t sign with anyone but San Diego.”

“You wouldn’t or you won’t?”

“I won’t.” But when is a big question. “Case, there’s nowhere else I wanna play. I just need to wanna play again.”

They stared at each other, then to the house, as the sliding glass door opened. “Case, your phone!”

“You think everyone knows?” Casey asked Kendall.

“They might. Schulman’s got a big mouth. I really wanted to tell the guys first.” Not to mention my family, Kendall inwardly fumed. Maybe I’ll fire Sandy Schulman, what a prick.

“Come on, it’s probably just my parents, bugging the hell outta me. God, we better get pregnant soon or my mother’s gonna camp out in the living room.” Casey laughed as they walked toward where Melissa stood in the doorway, her husband’s phone in her hand.

Kendall was relieved that it was only Casey’s relatives, still congratulating him on the title. That championship seemed far away to Kendall, who only stayed a few more minutes. Melissa hugged him tightly and told him not to be a stranger. They were heading to their ranch in another week, leaving this house in the care of a property manager. They would be back after Christmas, just to start harvesting the plentiful citrus trees, and she said if he and Natalie wanted anything to call the agency watching the house. Someone could meet them at the main gate and let them in the backyard.

Exiting that gate, Kendall pulled off the street, trying Natalie. They spoke briefly; she was glad for his conversations with Herm and Casey, but hadn’t been surprised about Schulman’s diatribe. And as far as the internet showed, Kendall Schultz was still at FC San Diego.

Kendall didn’t feel like a member of the club, and didn’t assume he and Natalie were any more than close friends, the way he was with Casey. He would do anything for either of them, except play soccer and stay in this city. Maybe he would spend a few weeks on Casey’s ranch, maybe a month. Or maybe he would hop on a jet, fly wherever the wind took him. He could go anywhere he wanted, money was no object, but in many places he wouldn’t be left alone, which was what he wanted most. He needed to be distanced from sport and California. Maybe Casey’s ranch would be a pit stop; they wouldn’t be able to avoid talking about the game and eventually Casey would pull out a ball and they would kick it back and forth, like in practice. Kendall sighed, wondering if his parents might store his Mercedes. He didn’t care about the Golf, would sell it. But the Benz….

His car mattered, and he smiled, taking the off-ramp to where he still lived. He would call Wilson and Trevor, see if they could all meet together. The rest of the team was lumped under an umbrella that could learn this news right before the rest of the world did. Kendall reached his street, taking corners slowly. The Benz growled, but he didn’t care. He parked in the driveway, Natalie’s BMW waiting. These cars had been together for three years. But not everything lasted.

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