I felt like I had been mowed over by a freight train.
There was pressure on my chest.
Something wasn’t right.
And I could smell coconuts?
And then I remembered.
It was over.
All my hard work.
All the years of relentless, grueling training sessions had been for nothing.
Because my body quit on me.
And now I was broken.
Jerking awake, I snapped my eyes open, feeling panicked and close to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
For a few moments, I stared at the ceiling, just absorbing the devastation washing through my heart like a tidal wave of destruction.
Inhaling several deep breaths, I moved to sit up, only to flop back down when I noticed the small frame curled up on the bed beside me.
“Shannon,” I croaked out, nudging her with my hand. “Wake up.”
Yawning quietly, she crept out from where she had been nestled in the crook of my arm.
“You’re awake,” she said, smiling down at me.
I nodded warily.
“You remember where you are?”
I nodded again.
“Do you remember the match?”
“I remember why I’m here,” I croaked out, feeling dry-mouthed and hoarse. “I don’t remember why you’re here.”
Shannon looked at me for a long moment and then her eyes widened and she quickly scooted off the bed.
“You wanted me to stay with you,” she explained in a quiet tone, clasping her hands together.
I frowned. “I did?”
I couldn’t remember.
It was a haze.
Shannon nodded. “Yeah, I came to see you with Gibsie this morning – well, it was like six o’ clock in the morning so I guess you could call it last night? I don’t know –”
“How long?” I interrupted her by asking.
I was feeling too damn desperate to listen to rambling.
Shannon stared blankly at me. “Huh?”
“How long am I out?” I bit out.
She checked her watch. “It’s 11:45, so close to six hours.”
“No.” I shook my head and expelled a frustrated growl. “How long am I out?”
She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“How long am I out on injury!” I hissed, clenching the bedsheets as devastation checked into my heartbreak hotel.
“Johnny, it doesn’t matter–”
“It matters, Shannon,” I snapped, voice cracking. “It matters to me.”
She just stared at me with those big eyes full of fear, and concern, and sympathy.
I couldn’t deal.
Not right now.
I didn’t want her to see me break down.
I couldn’t cope with that.
“Can you pass me that, please?” I pointed to the chart hanging off the foot of my bed. “I need to see.”
She worried her lip, glancing at my chart nervously. “Johnny, maybe you should wait for a doctor–”
“I need to see the fucking chart,” I choked out. “I need to see for myself.”
Shannon flinched and I felt worse than ever.
“Please.” I exhaled a heavy sigh. “Pass me the chart.”
Without another word, she handed me the clipboard.
She dropped her head and sniffled.
“Can you go find my Da?” I asked, desperately trying to wrangle in my emotions.
She looked up at me all lonesome and hurt. “If that’s what you want?”
I bit back a groan and nodded. “That’s what I want.”
“W-what about your Mam?”
“No, just my Da,” I warned her. “Only my Da.”
“Uh, okay,” Shannon whispered, looking uncertainly towards the door.
I held my breath, desperate not to break down in front of her.
“I’ll go?” she said, but it was more of a question.
I nodded stiffly, resisting the urge to beg her to stay and hold me and make promises neither of us could keep.
She couldn’t fix this for me, and I was terrified of losing more than I already had.
I knew she was fragile and I didn’t want to scare her away. If she stayed in this room, that’s exactly what I was going to end up doing.
If I did that – if she saw the ugly side of me, the weakness in me – I would lose her, too.
I couldn’t lose her, too.
With a hammering heart, I watched her open the door and pause in the doorway.
“Bye Johnny,” she whispered, glancing back at me one final time.
I swallowed deeply before strangling out the words, “Bye, Shannon.”
I waited until the door closed behind her before ripping the covers off my body to check the damage.
Dropping my head back on my pillow, I bit down on my fist and smothered my cry.
When my Dad walked into the room thirty minutes later, he was alone.
“Morning, Stud,” he said with a smirk.
“Da,” I choked out, tears streaming down my cheeks.
The minute Dad saw my expression, his smirk fell.
Placing his plastic cup on my nightstand, he sank down on the edge of my bed and pulled me into his arms.
“Johnny,” he sighed. “Let it all out, son.”
And it was right there that I cried like a fucking child on my father’s shoulder.
“What am I looking at?” I choked out when words found me.
“Six weeks minimum,” he told me with that honesty I respected him for.
“Dad, it’s gone.” I shook my head and resisted the urge to roar. “The summer campaign…The u20’s…it’s over for me!”
“Not gone,” he assured me. “Slim, but not impossible.”
“Slim,” I strangled out, feeling my heart beat so hard I thought it might stop altogether. “Fuck.”
“Don’t you forget who you are.” He stood up then and helped me to sit at the edge of my bed. “You are my son,” he added, lowering my feet to the floor. “And you are a fighter.”
I dropped my head. “I don’t fucking feel like a fighter.”
“You’ve been a fighter since the day you were born,” he corrected, tipping my chin back up, and forcing me to meet his blue-eyed gaze. “You’ve never let a thing get in the way of your goals, and you sure as hell are not going to let six weeks stop you.”
“And if I don’t make it?” I choked out, voicing my biggest fear. “If I’m not fit by then?”
“Then you don’t make it,” he replied simply.
I shook my head and released a pained sob. “Da, I can’t cope –”
“If you do not make it this summer then you do not make it this summer,” he repeated. “You are still Johnny Kavanagh. You are still an honor student. You are still a good man. And you are still my best decision.”
For the millionth time in my life, I found myself looking up at the man that raised me and thinking: will I ever be as strong as you?
I watched my father as he pulled over a chair and set it down in front of me.
“Now,” he said as he sat down and loosened his tie. “Let’s get real, son.”
“Real?” I croaked out.
Dad nodded. “Say you don’t make it onto the u20’s in June –
“Da, I can’t–”
“Hear me out,” he said calmly.
Glumly, I nodded.
“Say you don’t make it in June,” Dad continued to say, voicing my worst nightmare out loud. “It’s devastating. Your mother and I understand. You might not think we do, but we brought you into this world, and every single, painful moment in your life that you endure, and every obstacle you stumble over, we’re there, Johnny. We’re right behind you, feeling everything. Your pain and frustration and fears. It’s all mirrored back to us. Your achievements are ours and your heartache is ours. Because you are all we have, Johnny. Just you. That’s it.”
Now I felt worse than when I woke up. “Da…”
“When you’re older and you have children of your own, a son of your own, you’ll understand what I mean,” he added, calm as ever. “But for now, you’re going to have to take my word for it.”
I nodded, feeling like a piece of shit and knowing full well what was coming next.
“What you did, Johnny?” Dad said. “The danger you put yourself in?” He shook his head and exhaled a shaky breath. “There are no words to comprehend how devastated we were to get that phone call last night.” He leaned forward in his seat and clasped his hands together. “To know that our boy was risking his health and his future like that, and that he had been for months.”
My shoulders slumped in shame. “I’m sorry, Da.”
“I don’t need an apology,” Dad replied without a hint of anger in his tone. “I need you to understand. To take a step back from this dream you’ve been chasing and realize that your life is already happening.”
“I just want it so bad, Da,” I confessed, biting down on my lip. “So fucking bad.”
“And I want it for you,” he told me. “I want you to chase your dreams, Johnny. I want you to make them come true. I want every single thing you want from life to happen for you. But I need you to do all that with a steady head.” He leaned back in his chair and stared at me for a long moment before speaking again. “Even the best fall down sometimes, son. What you do next – with clear, calculated, logical thought – is what will define you.”
I got it.
I heard him.
Exhaling a heavy sigh, I rubbed a hand over my face and asked, “So what’s the plan?”
He tilted his head to one side, still smirking. “I’m just looking at my boy and feeling thankful to see the fire in his eyes again.”
I shrugged helplessly. “Was it gone?”
“Not for long,” he told me. “And the plan is recovery and bedrest. 7-10 days.”
I exhaled a ragged breath. “Jesus, Da–”
“That’s the plan, son,” Dad said sternly. “From there, we’ll move forward with rehabilitation.”
“The Academy?” I swallowed deeply. “Did Coach Dennehy contact you?”
“They are furious with you,” Dad replied, not mincing his words. “Which is to be expected when the number one ranked center in the country almost ends his career before his eighteenth birthday.”
I groaned. “Christ, don’t say it like that.”
“The truth is always better than a lie,” he shot back with a knowing smile. “More painful, but much more beneficial in the long run.”
“You’re a lawyer,” I huffed. “You’re paid a fucking fortune to lie.”
“Not to you,” Dad replied with a grin. “You get my services free of charge and one hundred percent truthful.” Smirking, he added, “If you want someone to mollify you, then you should have this talk with your mother.”
“Yeah, well,” I mumbled. “You could soften the edges a bit, Da. This stings.”
“Stings will toughen you up,” he told me. “There’s a big, bad world out there, son. It’s all sharp edges.”
“What about my academy contract?” I dared to ask.
“Still very much in effect.”
I exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
“Don’t be surprised,” Dad mused. “You are brilliant. A careless, headstrong, suicidal idiot with a brilliant mind for rugby and the talent to take you to whatever level you wish to go to. They know this, Johnny. They won’t let you go.”
When he told me this, I knew it wasn’t bullshit.
He wouldn’t bullshit me.
“Do you think I’ll make it, Da?” I asked then, staring at my father’s face. “Do you think I can do it?”
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.
My heart fluttered.
My father nodded. “Yes, Johnny. Really.”
With those words, I felt a small root of hope shoot up inside of me.
I could pull this back from the edge.
I could do it.
My dad thought I could do it.
“But you are relieved of duties,” Dad added.
I sighed heavily. “Expected.”
“And Coach Dennehy will be having a heated conversation with you.”
I grimaced. “Also expected.”
“And you will need to pass three separate evaluations before you step foot on a pitch again, be it academy, club, or school rugby,” he chimed. “And those feet are to stay firmly off the grass until May.”
“Lovely.” I ran a hand through my hair and sighed. “Jesus.”
“Don’t panic,” he said calmly. “You know the plan. It’s there. Right in front of you. Part of getting back on the squad is healing. Resting your body right now is as crucial as any other workout or rugby commitment.”
I got that.
“It just sucks,” I muttered.
“Look at it this way,” Dad offered with a smirk. “You’ll have unlimited time on your hands to spend with Gibsie.”
Dad laughed. “Who I presume will never let you live down last night.”
“Nope.” I grimaced. “He probably won’t.” I looked to him then, and asked, “So, how long am I going to be stuck in the hospital for? ”
“A couple of more days,” Dad replied. “We’ll take you home then, and you can get started on rehab.”
“You really believe I can turn this around, Da?”
Dad nodded. “If you start following the rules, then absolutely, you can turn this around.”
I shook my head again. “Why the fuck didn’t I talk to you months ago?”
“Because I’m workaholic father who should have spent more time focusing on keeping my son out of danger, rather than on keeping other father’s sons out of prison,” he replied.
“Da, stop,” I warned. “It’s not your fault. Or Ma’s.”
“No, it’s yours,” he agreed, again stinging me with the truth. “But, you’re young and green and stubborn, and I’m supposed to be there to rein you in. I will be there, Johnny,” he added then. “More.”
“I don’t blame you for loving your work,” I replied. “I’m the same.”
He smirked. “I know you are. I’ve cleared my schedule for the rest of the Easter holidays.”
My brows shot up. “You’re coming home?”
“I am, son.”
My father laughed. “Oh, Johnny, if she had her way she’d put you back in a pram and push you around with her. She’s not going to leave you out of her sight.”
“You need to earn it back, son.”
Dad nodded. “That’s right.”
“So, where is she?” I grumbled, thinking about how much crying I was going to face from my mother.
“She’ll be back in a bit,” Dad said. “She’s gone to get you some clothes.”
“He’s in the canteen,” he replied with a smile. “The girl behind the counter is after catching his eye.”
“I bet,” I muttered.
“Gibsie is staying with us until we take you home to Cork,” Dad said then. “And probably facing suspension when you return from Easter break.” Smirking, Dad added, “You should have heard what he called your coach when he came to the hospital earlier – that’s what took me so long to come back to you. Gerard refused point blank to go back on the bus. Apparently, he broke out of the hotel to come see you in the early hours of this morning. He’s in some serious trouble with your principal. I had to phone the school and his parents before Coach Mulcahy agreed to let him stay with us.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I groaned. “Can’t take him anywhere.”
“He’s a loyal friend to you, Johnny,” Dad replied. “You’re lucky to have him.”
I knew that.
“And Shannon?” I croaked out, flinching at the memory of how horribly I had reacted towards her when I first came around. “Is she okay? Is she in the canteen with Gibs?” I swallowed deeply, feeling incredibly exposed in this moment. “Can you go get her for me, Da? I really need to talk to her.”
Dad sighed heavily. “Shannon’s gone home, Johnny.”
My heart sank.
“She left me,” I croaked out.
This was it.
This was the start of it.
I wasn’t worth shit without rugby.
“No. She stayed with you,” Dad corrected. “When you were demented out of your head and anyone in their right mind would have run for the hills, that girl stayed right by your bedside, listening to you talk out of your arse.”
“Yeah, well, she’s gone now, isn’t she?” I muttered, feeling thoroughly fucking sorry for myself.
“When your back was to the wall last night, who sat here with you?”
I stared at him.
“Who held your hand, Johnny?”
“Who waited for the ambulance with you?”
“Who came to check on you when you were at your worst?”
I looked at him.
“Yes, I’m well aware of what happened between you two in that changing room.” Dad smirked. “Your Coach told me all about the compromising position he found you and Shannon in.”
“That fucking traitor,” I grumbled.
“He’s your teacher, Johnny. He has to report incidents of that nature. He doesn’t have a choice in the matter. It’s mandatory.”
“I would presume they are aware of the situation.”
I shook my head. “For fuck’s sake.”
He sighed heavily before adding, “I suspect she’s in quite a bit of trouble herself for sneaking over here.”
“Fuck.” I dropped my head in my hands and ignored the searing pain that shot up my legs. “Fuck, Da, I was a complete dick to her when I
“Then fix it,” he replied calmly.
“You don’t get it,” I strangled out, feeling like the worst piece of shit on the planet. “I panicked and I reacted on her, but she’s fragile, Da. She’s so… And I’m so in –
“Love with her?” Dad smirked. “Yes, we all know, Johnny. You shouted it from the rooftop last night.”
“Shite,” I groaned. “Was she freaked out?”
“Your mother certainly was,” Dad laughed. “When you told her Shannon would mother your children.”
“Jesus Christ,” I whimpered. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
“We couldn’t,” he replied. “You would only settle down for Shannon. You fell asleep in her arms.”
“I’m going to go get a coffee, and check on that best friend of yours,” Dad announced as he rose from his chair. “But can you do me a favor? When your mother comes in later, can you put her nerves at ease?” Smirking, he added, “Some of the things you were ranting on about last night shook the poor woman.”
“I don’t remember a bleeding thing,” I groaned. “Everything’s all hazy.”
“You might not remember,” Dad chuckled as he walked over to the door and opened it. “But she’ll remember for the rest of her life.”
I waited until Dad had left the room before reaching for my phone.
Why the fuck was I hearing Shannon say those words?
And why was my heart telling me it was vital?
Jesus, they must have knocked me out with some strong ass, Class A drugs.
I scrolled through my contacts with the intention of calling her to apologize, only to slump in dismay when I remembered that I didn’t have her number.
And even if I did, I couldn’t call her.
Because her father took her phone.
What was I missing here?
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