These were second-stringers, Doug thought, cannon fodder, and they were manhandling him. Most of them came out of amateur college programs, for Chrissake, and most of them werenít even drafted. Yet there they were, bottling the third round pick up on a sweep, leaving him nowhere to run. And there was some 350-lb. linemen, fresh from some dinky program in Minnesota or Montana or Podunk, dragging down the former all-Florida Professional Collegiate tailback from behind like he was the second coming of Mean Joe Greene or Lief Bjornson.
And now coach Brock was calling in Reggie Moorehead to play tailback with the passing platoon. Moorehead: 33-years old and with a foot in his football grave, taking reps with the second team in an exhibition game in front of 90,000 screaming Kuwaitis who didnít know American football from a soccer riot. Meanwhile, Doug and his $11 million signing bonus were jogging to the bench to hear Brockís wrath.
"You had daylight on the backside of that sweep!" Brock shouted. Brock always shouted, this time he was kind enough to remove his mouthpiece first, so his words didnít echo in Dougís helmet radio. "You should have cut back! Marshall would have made 20 yards on that play!"
Maybe you didnít notice, Coach Brock, but Major Marshall wouldnít be making 20 yards on any plays any time soon, unless it was in a jet powered wheelchair. Marshall blew out both anterior cruciate ligaments on one play when they christened the new turf at the WiseWare Dome for the start of exhibition season. The network loved the shiny gloss of the new style turf; they said it was easier to bounce 3-D holographic advertisements off between plays, but it became smooth as glass once the fibers were trampled, and guys were losing traction and landing themselves in the hospital left and right. So Marshall was out, and the tailback job was a battle between Luther Finks, the veteran backup, and Doug, the touted rookie, with Finks getting all the reps in practice and all the exhibition starts while Doug earned all the shouting from Brock.
It was hard to see the field; the fans in Kuwait City all smoked those unfiltered cigarettes, so a low fog hung over the field. But Santa Fe converted for a first down, and Brock slapped his hand against his playscreen with satisfaction. "Running platoon, get out there!" He shouted. Then to Doug: "Look sharp, Mitchell," Then over the headsets to the whole team. "Counter-tres right, V-Gun formation. I wanna see them blown off the ball"
Counter-tres: a running play as old as the game, with Doug getting the call. Another chance to redeem himself. The squad lined up in the V-Gun, with Doug seven yards behind the scrub quarterback, and they executed from a silent count. The quarterback pitched the ball to Doug, who made the requisite feign step left. He knew several of his linemen, the center and the two tackles and one of the U-backs, would be blocking left, and hopefully taking most of the defense the wrong way. Meanwhile, two 375-lb. guards left their squats, stepped back, and pulled hard to the right. They were his entourage, and Doug followed them bravely into the heart of the defense.
One of the guards, #66- it wasnít healthy to remember the names of second stringers, as they werenít often long of the team- upended a charging safety like he was brushing away a bug. The left-moving stunt had been somewhat effective, drawing the right flank of the defense out of position to stop Doug. He squared his body to cut into the space 66 had cleared for him. But the other guard - #109 Ė locked up with a big defensive end and couldnít control him. The defender slid with the blocker, cutting off the hole Doug chose.
It was right or left now; around 700 pounds of meat clogging up the main highway. Doug took the path he always took at Florida Panhandle: bounce it outside. He stopped dead in his tracks, sprung on both ankles, and spun to the right of guard 109 and his dancing partner, toward the sidelines and, hopefully, daylight ahead.
But in his tracks was that hotshot rookie cornerback for Ontario. Doug recognized him: Johnny Vanderwarden, from Orlando State. Doug tried to stutter-step, but Vanderwarden had the best footwork in the pro colleges, and he seized the opportunity to wrap Doug up while the defensive end freed himself from 109 and finished the job.
Vanderwarden put his face in front of Dougís. "Never could escape me, Mitchell. Youíve always been meat. This is like old times."
Vandermeer was always a motormouth, always trash talking.
"You should have bounced left. Your boy 66 was snow-plowiní. But Old Man Brock will fill you in."
Old Man Brock did just that after he sent Moorehead into the game to replace Doug Mitchell.
"You survived this round of cuts," Country said. "You shouldnít worry."
A week had passed since the Kuwait City exhibition. They were back in Santa Fe, taking a Sunday off from the grueling three-a-day practices. Only Coach Brock would stay in the desert for summer camp. The Tucson team was up in Canada practicing. But Brock was a madman.
"Only because they have an $11 million dollar bonus invested in me," Doug replied. "It wouldnít look good to cut me now."
They rode in Country Brownís new convertible, but the cloth top was up and the air conditioning was going full tilt. "Donít worry about that. This is a good organization. Theyíll work with you, help you develop."
Country left Florida Panhandle the year before Doug. He was an elite player, a 390 pound tackle with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. Country made good money in college and was among the highest paid pros, but he still thought and acted like a poor kid from the Mississippi swamps.
Doug shook his head. "I donít know if Iíll ever get used to the speed of the game at this level. I canít make the snap decisions on the field. I canít find the holes."
Country glanced over at Doug with his wide eyes, impossibly white against his impossibly dark skin. "Maybe you need additional help."
Doug looked back. "What do you mean?"
Country smiled wide, more impossible white, but with platinum tooth up front. "Chemical assistance."
Everybody knew Country and half the best linemen in the league took some kind of muscle drug, everybody but the IFL and the media, who saw no evil and spoke no evil. They would bring players into the training room, place them behind the toxin screen, and certify them as drug free before the start of every season and once per year at a random pre-game test. So what if the kid weighed 400 pounds of nothing but muscle. That can happen naturally, canít it?
But Doug never touched anything stronger than light beer, and couldnít see the point of doing so. Guys in his neighborhood back home who dosed never made it out of the neighborhood. "It doesnít work for tailbacks, Country. If I lay on 20 lbs. of muscle, it will just slow me down and make me a bigger target."
"I ainít talking about muscle drugs."
"Stims are just as bad. I canít be jumping out of my stance before the snap, and I have to keep my weight close to 200."
"You must think I just fell off the sugar barge, Dougie," Country said, rolling his eyes. "Trust Uncle Country now, Iíve been in this league for a year. I met I guy when I came out this way whoís a certifiable genius. He could be working for a big drug company back east, but instead he works out of the basement of his house and deals to athletes. Iím living proof that his shit is righteous."
Doug watched the endless flat corporate offices of Santa Fe roll by. They were in Wise Ware City now, the square mile or so owned by the computer company that owned the team. "And what would this guy have that might be good for me?"
"He said he was working on stuff. Say the word, and we roll up on his crib right now."
Doug didnít like talking about drug dealers, didnít like thinking about them, didnít like how eager Country was to introduce him to one. But he had been in the chat rooms and listened to the talk shows. They were talking about Doug Mitchell, the bust, Doug Mitchell, the waste of money. Rumors had the general manager negotiating with Luther Finks, privately increasing his salary to starterís pay. One preseason game left to make some noise. Did Countryís contact have something that worked that fast?
It was worth looking into.
The suburban track home looked nothing like a drug dealerís house, Doug thought. But this wasnít the hood of Miami, and Chamberlain wasnít a penny-ante shooting gallery operator. He was a prematurely balding little guy of about 30, chubby and pale like he never left the computer terminal to sample the New Mexico sunshine. He held a half-eaten fajita in one hand, shaking Dougís hand with the other. The mantle and coffee tables were lined with autographed photos of football, basketball, and soccer stars, guys you would never guess were customers from their gleaming public images. A crib occupied one corner of the room, and a toddler occupied the crib.
"First rule when you visit casa Chamberlain, Doug Mitchell, is that you sign something for little Gunny," Norm Chamberlain said, holding out an official IFL football.
Doug smiled and took the ball; autograph seekers had been scarce since he left Panhandle U. "I donít know if it will be worth much," he said sheepishly.
Chamberlain peered over the rim of his glasses. "Oh, I deal in the speculative market. Please, step into my office."
He checked on the little boy in the crib, then led them into a study decorated with rows of books and even more memorabilia. Some antique furniture and a hardwood wet bar completed the cozy scene. Chamberlain offered them drinks, which Doug refused, then gave them a brief tour of the latest photos, jerseys, and helmets he had collected.
"So what can you do for my brother, here," Country said, thumping Dougís back with a giant paw. "He has everything, except the ability to hit the right hole at the right time."
Chamberlain swirled the brandy in his glass. "Today, he did hit the right hole at the right time," he said. "Iíve been developing something new, something cutting edge."
"Weíre listening," Country said.
Chamberlain strode over to a wall of antique memorabilia, stuff that must have been long before his time. He slid aside an autographed portrait of Cory Dillon to reveal a wall safe. He tinkered with the combination. "When I left my sugar daddies at the pharmaceutical company, we were working on some special neuro-stimulants. The idea was that we could speed up the reaction time of the synaptic relays between parts of the brain, possibly build new chemical bonds or strengthen and reinforce tenuous bonds within the brain. The drug could be used to help stroke victims, lobotomized patients, basically anyone for whom synaptic relays werenít firing properly or whose normal neuro-chemical passages had somehow been interrupted."
Country scratched his head. "Sorry, egghead. I took football credits in college."
Chamberlain opened the safe and removed a small plastic container. "Basically, we were working on drugs that speed up thought. A brain damaged person could function properly using the drug. A healthy person, well, he could think as many thoughts in 10 seconds as he normally would in one second using the drug.
"Now, the real stuff is stuck in FDA testing, and probably will be forever," Chamberlain continued, tossing the pill container into Dougís lap. "Iíve been playing with my own recipe for about two years, and I finally feel comfortable with it. Iíve tried it on myself once or twice, and it works. I believe that I can open a market with stock car racers: they could use Twitch to speed up their reaction times."
Doug opened the container, eyeing the cargo suspiciously. "Twitch?"
Chamberlain smiled proudly. "Like the name? Whatís an illicit substance without a catchy street name? The official chemical classification has 18 syllables."
Country laughed his huge manís laugh.
"Anyway, I call it Twitch because of twitch muscle tissue, the tissue that responds directly to commands from the top of your spinal column long before your conscious brain can process stimulus and react. Itís the tissue that pulls our hand out of the flame. Great athletes seem to have some unique command over this type of reaction; it allows them to swing at 100 mph sliders or spin away from diving defenders. Well, with Twitch, your brain will be moving so quickly that it will be able to process thoughts as quickly as your nervous system can react. Your perception of the external world will actually slow down, giving you more time to react to it."
Doug took in the explanation slowly, milling over the ramifications in his head. He thought of the Kuwait City game, where there was always a hole behind him, out on the periphery of his vision and too far in the back of his mind to react to. This was a drug that wouldnít effect his body, just his mind, and it wouldnít make him some speed-freak junkie like the hopped-up losers in his old neighborhood. It would give him a chance to use his muscle-laden body and sprinterís speed for the weapons they were.
"Five grand for a trial run that gets you through the San Antonio game," Chamberlain said. "Weíll negotiate after that. After all, this stuff is new."
Doug held the green and white caplet up to the light. It looked like a cold remedy, nothing more dangerous. "Let me write you a check," he said.
Just as the doctor prescribed, Doug popped the caplet 15 minutes before kickoff. No reaction, no Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. He trotted onto the field with 40,000 fans at Southwest Netphone Stadium booing the visitors lustily. Kickoff came and went; no reaction. The Texans drove 40 yards for a field goal; Doug waited on the sidelines for something to happen.
Coach Brock was shaking things up, giving Doug some reps with the starters. Was this one last chance, or was Brock proving a point? Maybe he had to show corporate that Doug couldnít play so he could start Finks and plant the $11 million man on the bench. All Doug could do was play his best, and he felt more comfortable with the first unit, with Country blocking and veteran passer Chang Hu over center.
The first two plays were passes; Doug slipped into the safety valve for one, then provided blitz protection on the second. Brock was shaking the dust off Hu, who spent most of the exhibition season on the golf course. As he lined up for the second play, Doug noticed something. The snap count seemed a little long. He felt his body moving in slow motion, which terrified him until he saw everyone moving at the same speed. It looked a little like an IFL Films special, with the video slowed down for dramatic impact. Doug caught a blitzing linebacker coming at Huís blindside, and managed to slide across the pocket to provide just enough interference to keep Hu off the turf. As the play developed, everything kept getting slower and slower.
His perceptions were slowing down. More accurately, his thoughts were speeding up. Twitch was taking effect.
Country slapped him across the shoulder pads, the motion as if they were submerged in water. "Good cover, Dougie!" he said, his shout seemingly stretching across seconds. "I couldnít get both of them."
Coach Brock, his New York brogue a slurring caricature now, concurred over the headset. "Good blitz pickup, Mitchell. Now we have 3rd and 1. V-Gun formation, 21 Dive. Nice and simple."
21 dive: just a punch between the center and the left guard. Take the ball from Hu and slam into the line. Not the best play for little 196 lb. Doug Mitchell; Brock might have thrown Finks or Moorehead out there in a meaningful game. But Doug had earned a carry with his sweet little interference block, and this was a chance to show he could earn the big bucks inside.
Doug could think all this as he waited for the huddle to break and waited through the snap count. Everything was crawling around him, including his own motions. At first it was frustrating. He could think and analyze everything, but his body didnít react. Not even his eyes; the motion of panning them back and forth across the defense seemed to take an eternity. He relaxed himself, focused them straight ahead, then attended to what he saw in his peripheral vision. There they were: all the things he could never see clearly and react to before, the images that extended from sideline to sideline and deep down the field. The defense was in 54-Crash, nine men stacked at the line. The Texans were looking for a run up the gut, and the Vectors were about to give it to them.
Hu took the snap and labored back from center, eventually planting the ball in Dougís stomach with a motion that seemed to fuse the ball with his abdomen. Doug kept his eyes fixed forward, patiently waiting for his legs to obey his orders and charge step-by-never-ending-step into the line. Center Corey Dawson held his ground against the nose tackle, but the left guard- #66, call him Martinez now, a recent promotion- was driven back a full step by his man. Doug watched him regroup and stand his ground, shifting his weight and gaining leverage on his smaller, but more experienced, attacker. But the offensive line was getting pushed back, and a linebacker charged into the space between Dawson and Martinez: the very hole Doug was aiming for.
Change of plans, Doug thought as his left foot landed on the turf. There was no chance of juking that linebacker, not when Martinezís man could probably shed him like an old bathrobe and provide support. But the rest of the line was a mess. Only Dawson held his ground; the rest were getting driven back or allowing defenders to squirt through gaps. Doug calmly studied his peripheral vision.
There was Country, out at left tackle, shoving some poor overmatched linebacker to the ground. The left U-back had exploded off the ball, knocking Countryís man to the turf at the snap, and Country alertly had switched to mop-up duty, sealing off the left sideline. The rest of the line was in shambles, but at left end there were two big teammates with nobody to hit. Doug sent the order to his leg, and eventually he was cutting to the left, parallel to the line of scrimmage, leaving that linebacker in the 21 hole scrambling for containment.
Doug reached the corner, and Country and the U-back started a caravan. The two blockers picked off defenders trailing the play. Dougís sudden change of direction had caused the defense to commit inside; when safeties and linebackers rushed to protect their flank they found 390 pounds of trouble standing in their way as Doug scampered into the secondary.
He was downfield, away from his caravan, when the last line of the defense took an angle on him. The free safety, the designated touchdown-preventor, was the only guy who didnít get suckered out of position by Dougís move outside. This guy was like lightning racing down the middle of the field, even in Twitch-induced slow motion, but Doug could see how he devoted everything to his pursuit, how he ran leaning forward with his fists pumping. He listened to the elongated noises behind him: no footsteps, it was this free safety and no one else to beat. He gave the order to his body, and he stopped short. It felt like a half minute waiting for that defender to react, attempt to hit the brakes, and trip over his own feet, but Doug was now used to the idea that it was a fraction of a second. The last defender was out of commission, and Doug could coast for a touchdown.
The endzone celebration, the sweetest of his short career, seemed to last forever.
Water from the shower hit Dougís body before he was really braced for it. The sudden shock woke him up. Soap slipped out of his hands, and he reached to grab it after it had already hit the tub. He took his time scrubbing his body and his bald head.
"You taking all day in there?" Country asked. "I got a lot more body to clean than you do."
He was living with Country until construction was finished at his new home. Countryís place was the natural choice, not just because they were college chums, but because it was out of the way of the press and autograph seekers, and security was tight. Country knew what it was like to be the toast of Santa Fe. Doug was still getting used to it.
"Címon, Dougie," Country pleaded as Doug opened the bathroom door. The big man was a mound of ebony muscles draped in a white terrycloth robe. "I donít want to have to get a second shower installed. Not till Iím married."
Country wound up a damp towel and aimed it at Dougís bare back. The towel snapped, and then one . . . two . . . Doug stuck out a hand to block it.
"That was quick," Country said. His slow Southern drawl a bit quicker that morning.
Doug filled one of Countryís monster breakfast bowls halfway with corn crisps and opened the morning paper. He only wanted the out-of-town scores: had San Antonio beaten Acapulco in the late game? Of course, his picture was on the cover of the sports section, a photo of him crashing to earth beneath half of Mobileís defensive line. "Which Way Mitchell?" read the headline, and the chart below it outlined his progress as the season developed.
Doug scanned the chart and sighed. 125 yards and 2 TDs in week one. Over 100 yards per game all through September. Then 81 yards against the Texans, 43 against the Hackers from San Jose. A nice bounce back against the expansion team from Wisconsin, but then yesterdayís 40-yard fiasco at home against Mobile.
"Why are they lingering on me?" Doug asked as Country emerged from the shower. "We won the game. Chang threw six TD passes. But here I am as the lead story."
"This town is obsessed with itís tailbacks," Country replied, drying his head. "Theyíre used to Major Marshall."
Doug gave them four games to forget Major Marshall at the beginning of the year, but it was all falling apart. Speculation was everywhere: a minor injury, perhaps? Or were opponents studying game film and adjusting to his running style?
Only Country and Doug knew the truth, and they werenít telling the media. "Weíre going out to see Chamberlain," Country said.
"I got plenty of Twitch from him last time," Doug said.
"I know you did. Maybe too much. Catch." Country picked up a tomato and tossed it to Doug. The tomato splattered against the sink. Doug lifted his hand.
"I think youíve built a tolerance for the shit," Country said.
Doug knew that was true, although he lied to himself and tried not to believe it. But the last few games, he had been taking Twitch just to get his mind and reflexes up to full speed, not to gain an advantage. He was taking two or three pills at a time to get a quick boost. Off the field, he was trying to compensate with coffee and ginseng, but there was no denying that his mental processes were a step slow.
"Maybe you should quit," Country said. "Get back to normal. I mean, you arenít hooked on the stuff, are you?"
"No," Doug replied. He knew what addiction looked like, what it did to brothers back home. He wasnít there yet, and would never let himself get there. He was in control. Anyway, you couldnít really grow dependent on something you took once a week. Or could you? "Letís make the playoffs first. Then weíll talk about quitting."
Doug was getting accustomed to the speed of life without Twitch. It only seemed like Country was driving 200 miles per hour and talking like an auctioneer. The trip to Chamberlainís was quick, and the chemist was in his living room, playing with his son.
"Do you know these guys, Gunny?" Chamberlain said, bouncing the tot on his knee. "Thatís Aaron "Country" Brown and Doug Mitchell, two stars of the Santa Fe Vectors. Guess what: you have both their autographs!"
Gunny looked up at the two athletes, one huge, one merely large, and buried his head in daddyís shirt.
"Heís shy," Chamberlain said, apologizing.
"I ainít gonna be a star very long if you donít help me," Doug said as the entered the study. "You never told me I could build up a tolerance for Twitch."
Chamberlain chuckled. "I assumed that was obvious. You can build up a tolerance for most drugs."
"Well, this one has side effects, too. I canít think fast without it. I feel like Iím taking stupid pills all day."
Chamberlain nodded. "Interesting. I would guess that Twitch is inhibiting the production of some essential neuro-chemical. Your brain is accustomed to having the drug do all the work, so itís shut off the supply of something essential to the smooth functioning of the synaptic relays."
Doug snarled impatiently. "So this isnít a surprise to you?"
Chamberlain laughed. "Doug, if you grew a second head as a result of the drug, that might surprise me. I told you it was an experimental recipe. Thatís why itís available so cheap. Youíve been a guinea pig, so to speak."
Doug could have charged Chamberlain and beaten him senseless, but by the time he made the decision to do so, Country was between them.
"Donít take that the wrong way," Chamberlain said, holding his hands out apologetically. "What I meant by that is that youíre one of the first people to test the drug. And you must admit, it has been a phenomenal success."
Doug calmed himself, stepping out of Countryís embrace. "Yeah. Itís like Iím watching game films when Iím out there. I can pause the play, find the mistakes, correct them as I go. But the feeling is gone. Now itís all I can do to pop a couple of pills just to feel like my old self."
Chamberlain nodded, absently examining a football signed by every member of the 2008 Houston Cardinals. "Tell you what. Iím going to increase the intensity of the formula a little, make a few improvements. Iíll have it on Countryís doorstep by Friday. In a show of good faith, this will be a freebie. If not completely satisfied, youíre under no obligation."
Doug laboriously processed the offer. "Is it safe?"
Chamberlain feigned offense. "My friend, a man in my position canít afford to sell an unsafe product. Youíll love it."
Thirty minutes before kickoff, that was what the new directions said, but halfway through the first quarter nothing had happened, and Doug needed help fast. The Mexico City defense was tearing him up, and he felt like he was running with lead weights on his ankles. He misread a blitz, resulting in Chang Hu landing helmet first on the slick new turf.
"Damn it, Mitchell!" Brock screamed through the helmet speakers. "Look sharp out there or I see what Finks can do!"
Did Brockís voice slow at the end of that? It did, and the motions of the players around him were slowing too. First to normal speed, the speed at which he perceived everything for the first twenty-one years of his life, then slower still, to the speed of Twitch-enhanced thought. Thank God, Doug thought. Perfect timing.
. "Counter-tres right, V-Gun formation. I wanna see them blown off the ball," Brock ordered, Dougís perception of his voice dragging it out. It had been weeks since he felt the full rush of Twitch, the stop-motion effect that gave him his edge. He re-acclimated himself to the elongated sounds, to the feeling that everything but his mind was grinding to a halt. Things were slowing to a greater degree than usual, but that was to be expected: this was a stronger dose.
Hu took the snap and turned to execute the handoff. The wait was excruciating. Doug had never felt the motion this slowly. He watched the glacier-like motion of Martinez leaving his crouch and pulling to the right. Country crashed into his defender like one tectonic plate smashing into another. Doug sold his fake step to the left with his whole body, and he could watch as defendersí eyes moved to follow the action, watch as muscles tightened in legs and flabby bellies shook.
The ball melted into Dougís midriff, and life ground to an even more torpid pace. Dougís brain was working so quickly that it heard shouts as sustained, ugly musical notes. The feeling of Huís hand brushing him as he passed off the ball changed from a brief tickle to a persistent presence against his rib. Hu was still beside him; they were still locked in the exchange. Martinez had just taken his first eternal step toward his pulling assignment. Country was lifting up with his entire body, a giant crane carefully raising bridge pylons into place.
Doug studied the whole play, analyzing every variable, making a thousand decisions as to what cut to make where. But Hu was still just an inch away, his hand still on Dougís rib, and Country was still locked with his man, now standing a few inches more upright than he appeared when Doug last checked. And things were still slowing down, or had they stopped completely? The movements of his teammates were barely perceivable, and sound was just an incessant, unholy din. Doug noticed a droplet of sweat hanging in the air. He studied itís perfectly spherical shape. It floated to the ground deliberately, more like a soap bubble than a drop of water. Was it slowing down as it hit the ground? That wasnít right, Doug knew: things speed up under gravity, not slow down.
He couldnít feel his body move at all. In his mind, he could count off what a second felt like. He knew his perception of a second was accurate in real time; both Florida Panhandle and Santa Fe sometimes used silent snap counts, and players were trained to count in unison. He learned quickly that he couldnít rely on his mental count when he took Twitch- real seconds felt like four or five of his seconds- but his quick reactions allowed him to wait until he saw Dawson snap the ball, so it didnít affect his game. Now he went back to his old training. The game clock was visible from the corner of his eye, and the IFL, bless them, measured time in tenths of seconds. He waited for the tenth-second digit to turn, then began his silent count.
One Panhandle Two Panhandle Three Panhandle . . .
Was the game clock broken?
Eleven Santa Fe Twelve Santa Fe . . .
Huís hand was finally clear of Dougís rib, by about one-eighth of an inch.
Twenty-nine one-thousand Thirty one thousand . . .
The digit finally turned, as Doug counted his forty-sixthís silent count second. Three-fourthís of a minute Twitch time equaled one-tenth of a real second. The average running play lasted about six seconds. Assuming things werenít still slowing down (Doug had no way to tell at this level), he would be running this counter-tres for what felt like . . . forty-five minutes.
That was nothing. Doug had plenty of time to do calculations as the play undulated before him at the pace of time and tide. Thirty seconds elapse between each football play. That would feel like 225 minutes, or nearly four hours. Thatís four hours of walking back to the line of scrimmage, standing in the huddle, waiting for the next forty-five minute play. A football game lasts about three hours, and Twitch worked for the full duration of a game, sometimes even longer. Three hours is 180 minutes, or 10,800 seconds, or 108,000 tenths of a second, which to him would feel like 4,860,000 seconds, which was 81,000 minutes, which was 1,350 hours, which was 56.25 days.
Two months. He would be playing this game for two months.
Could his mind stand up to that? He was trapped, unable to communicate with anyone, unable to interact properly with a world permanently on hold. Hell, he was sick to death of this play, sick of looking at every teammate in his field of vision and remembering their college fight songs and signing bonuses as he waited for their arms to move a half a centimeter. There was no way to keep his head clear for two months under these conditions. If it was only two months. If things werenít still slowing down.
There was one chance, Doug thought. Dive now. Forget the rest of the play: just take ten minute trip to the turf and go fetal. Wait the hour or two for the trainers to get out there. How long would they hold smelling salts in front of his nose when he didnít respond? Maybe three seconds. Hell, that isnít even a half hour. Doug figured he could endure the noxious tingling in his nostrils for that long. Let them carry him off in a stretcher, then there was a chance he could fall asleep in the locker room, and sleep off the drug. It was a slim chance: Twitch seemed to wire him a little, and even if he did manage to sleep, he didnít know if he would sleep in real time or Twitch time. He could crash for ten hours, only to find out that a real minute was all that had passed, and he would spend his next few perceptual days on a trainerís table in a dark locker room.
Dougís right foot planted in the turf. If he was going to start to fall, now was the time. He sent his body the order. He would lose balance in a minute or two. He had plenty of time to brace himself for contact with the slick, hard turf that had knocked Major Marshall out of action.
Country was the first player to reach the hospital after the game. A trainer had stayed with Doug the whole time, watching the rookie tailback as he made spasmodic motions and screeched incoherently. Country knelt beside his college friend. A doctor read Dougís chart and checked his vitals.
"Mr. Brown, weíll be contacting Mr. Mitchellís mother soon," the doctor said with detachment. "We believe this is a stroke, probably brought on by a concussion or other head trauma, although weíre still waiting for a toxicology report."
Country covered his face. Tears streamed from the big manís eyes. He composed himself enough to speak. "Is he able to talk?"
The doctor nodded. "He just began speaking coherently a few minutes ago," the doctor replied. "He fades in and out. His speech is garbled, almost like he canít gauge the proper speed at which to phrase syllables"
Doug turned his body toward the sound. His eyes opened suddenly. His speech was slurred, almost beyond recognition. "Coooouuuuunnnnntrrrry," he whispered.
Country looked up at the doctor. He left the room.
"Dougie, man, tell me youíre snapping out of it. You overdosed on that shit, man."
"Cooooouuuunnnntrrrry, helllllllp mmmmeeee."
"Doug, listen, Iím coming clean. Weíll get that son-of-a-bitch Chamberlain in here, heíll tell them what he gave you. Theyíll find a cure. Maybe this will wear off on itís own, man. Stay strong."
"We lost the game, buddy," Country said, gripping his hand. "Donít worry about that shit, man. Youíll be okay. Just a few hours, and youíll be good as new."
Doug tried to remember the game Country talked about, back when he was tailback for the Santa Fe Vectors. What quarter was it when he left? What was the score? It was all a dim recollection. All he remembered was two months: that was the optimistic projection of how long it would feel like he was under the influence of the drug. He had made that guess when the drug was still taking hold.
It was all so long ago, before the month he spent in the golf cart being taken off the field. Before the two years on the trainers table, waiting while they prepped the ambulance. Before the three weeks it took them to inset that IV, the pain drilling slowly into his flesh. The drug was wearing off now, although Doug barely remembered life without it. It only took Country seven hours to walk across the room and kneel at his side. The drug would wear off in six weeks, maybe seven. After 25 years of waiting, with no sleep or meaningful interaction with anyone, he could wait a little longer, although some part of him realized that was left of his brain probably wouldnít be good for much.
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