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Authors: Keiko Kirin

Safety Net

BOOK: Safety Net
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Safety Net

by Keiko Kirin

 

 

 

 

Sakana17 Press
2013

 

Cover by x_art

 

Copyright ©2013 Keiko
Kirin

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Kirin, Keiko.
  Safety net / by Keiko Kirin.
  ISBN: 978-0-615-73564-1 (Kindle)
  ISBN: 978-0-615-73565-8 (ePub)
  1. College football players—Fiction.  2. Gay college
students—Fiction.
3. Crocker University (Imaginary organization)—Fiction.  4. San
Francisco
Bay Area (California)—Fiction.  5. Love
stories.     I. Title.
PS3611.I748  S34  2013
813—dc22

This book would not
have been possible without the encouragement and support of Lynn, Kathy, Jill,
Dorinda, and especially my editor, Kim. I also want to thank x_art for
designing the perfect cover.

 

This book is entirely
a work of fiction.

safety net
: a receiver
the quarterback can throw to when his other options aren’t open; a quarterback’s
preferred receiver.

Chapter
One

 

Erick West stood in front of his
dorm room, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, and thought,
New beginning
.

He was no longer a high school
student, a kid. Today his college career at Crocker University began -- the
first real step to his ultimate goal: the NFL. He let go of all the uneasy
memories of high school, of the mistakes he’d made, of the disappointment at
the state championship semifinals, and opened the door to meet his roommates.

The room was empty. Two large
suitcases covered one of the beds, the only sign of occupation. Deflated, Erick
dropped his duffel on another bed and left the room. A few doors down a giant
hulk of a guy -- a defensive end if ever he saw one -- pushed a large cardboard
moving box through a doorway. Erick offered to help, and together they
maneuvered it into the middle of the guy’s room.

“Thanks,” the guy said. “You one of
the new ones? Freshman?”

“Yeah,” Erick said. “I’m--”

He was interrupted by another giant
coming into the room, loudly happy about something on his phone screen, which
he shared with his roommate. They laughed about it before the new guy noticed
Erick, looked him over and said, “Let me guess: quarterback?”

Erick raised his eyebrows. “Yeah.
How did you know?”

The new guy smiled cockily. “Lyman,
outside linebacker. I can spot quarterbacks a mile away.” He gestured at his
roommate. “Me and Tadeusz here, we eat QBs for breakfast. You the new kid from
Texas?”

Erick took their swagger in stride;
he didn’t mind it coming from teammates. He flushed slightly, surprised that
word of his high school achievements had preceded him.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Ryan something, isn’t it?” Tadeusz
said.

Erick blinked. “Um, no. It’s Erick.
Erick West.”
Ryan?
They couldn’t have him confused with
that
Ryan, could they? An unpleasant memory from State drifted by, dispelled when
Lyman gave Erick a friendly fist bump and said, “West. Got it. Welcome to
Hopkins Hall. You check in with Coach yet?”

“Not yet. Was I supposed to? I just
got here.”

Tadeusz paused in opening his large
moving box. “Oh, you better get down there now.”

Lyman nodded. “He’s probably
wondering why you’re not there.”

Erick remembered Coach Bowman’s
intensity even as he was smilingly selling Crocker University to Erick and his
parents during their cold, rainy campus visit last winter. He rushed from the
dorm and jogged down to the athletic offices, expecting a long line of
freshmen. The building was quiet, most of the offices closed. Just as Erick
began to suspect the linebackers had been pulling his leg, Coach Bowman came
out of an office, carrying a couple of file folders.

He stopped when he saw Erick. “West?
Good to see you here already. You’re all moved in? Are your parents here?”

“My mother’s here, and one of my
sisters. My father couldn’t make it. School just started for them.”

“Yep, yep, I know how busy an
athletic director’s schedule can be,” Coach Bowman said, walking down the
hallway. Erick fell into step with him.

“I was...sort of told to come here.
But I guess you weren’t expecting me.”

Coach Bowman twitched a smile. “You’ve
been punked, West. But as long as you’re here... I was on my way to see Duran.
He and Ryan are out on the practice field.”

There was that
Ryan
again.
No way it could be the Ryan from State, Erick thought. What were the odds?

Coach Bowman led him to the
practice field, where a few players were talking with trainers. As they
approached, Erick recognized Terrence Duran, Crocker’s senior QB, and the guy
next to him...was Ryan Hutchinson. The quarterback who had won State. The best
high school quarterback in Texas.

Coach Bowman made some
introductions and left them with the assistant offensive coordinator, who
talked about how the practice facilities had been upgraded recently. Erick
barely heard a word he said.

Some new start
, he thought.
He had imagined coming to Crocker to be groomed for QB1 after Duran graduated,
perhaps even stepping in this year and seeing action if Duran had to leave the
field. But they had Ryan Hutchinson. What did they need Erick for?

“Want to see the stadium?” the
assistant asked them, smiling. They followed him across the practice field and
around a parking lot, entering the stadium through a service door.

As soon as they stepped onto the
field, Erick wanted this. It wasn’t the biggest or most glorious football
stadium, but there was something right about it. It was Crocker’s, and now
Crocker was his school, his team. He wanted to be on this field, winning games,
leading his team.

He could do it. All he had to do
was work hard and learn fast. Outperform Hutchinson and earn his place. One
thing about competing against the best, Erick thought, was that in order to win
he had to become better than the best.

Erick looked around the empty
stadium, imagining it full of cheering fans
.
It wasn’t going to be easy,
but it would be worth it. That’s what new beginnings were all about.

 

-----

 

“I can’t believe my big dumb
brother is going to an Ivy League school,” Kaylee Menacker said as they drove
up Crocker Boulevard under a cloudless blue sky and bright California sun.

Lowell glanced back from the
passenger seat. “It’s not an Ivy League school, stupid. Look around. Do you see
any ivy on those palm trees?”

“Their football team’s bad enough
for the Ivy League,” Kaylee countered. “What was their record last year?
One-and-eleven?”

“That was two years ago,” Lowell
muttered. “Last year was five-and-seven.”

“Whatever,” Kaylee sniffed. “Big
dumb school full of losers. Perfect for you.”

In the driver’s seat, their mother
sighed heavily. “Really? This is how you two are going to be today?”

“Sorry, Mom,” Lowell said. From the
backseat, Kaylee mumbled something that might have been an apology.

Lowell got out the campus map and
helped his mom find the dorms. They unloaded his stuff and walked around to
find a place to eat lunch. It was a beautiful day, and Lowell had no regrets
about his choice of college from a weather point-of-view. California sure beat
the Midwest.

On the other hand, Kaylee’s bratty
comments weren’t wrong: Crocker’s football record wasn’t anything to brag
about.
Yet
, he told himself. He believed in Coach Bowman’s vision for
the team, and he was impressed by the professors and students they had met
during his campus visit. Everyone was focused on the future, not the past. He
remembered what one professor had said while talking about all the Silicon
Valley start-ups he’d co-founded: “Being at the very start of something and
watching it grow is the most exciting and rewarding path you can follow.”

Maybe it was a gamble, football-wise.
But that was part of Crocker’s attraction: the big risk that might just pay
off.

 

-----

 

The first few days on campus were
both hectic and boring. There seemed to be a million orientations for freshmen:
safety on campus (mandatory), bicycle safety (optional), academic integrity
(the “don’t plagiarize” class -- mandatory), technology best practices (the “don’t
download a bunch of free movies and get a virus” class -- mandatory), campus
diversity (the “don’t be a dick to different people” class -- mandatory), and
for the athletes, an introduction to the Crocker athletic tradition (a
depressing history revealing just how few football achievements Crocker could
boast of -- optional, and Lowell really wished he’d skipped it along with most
of the other football players; the class was full of the women’s basketball
players, who had a far more impressive record).

But all of that was secondary to
the real reason for being on campus a month before classes started: training
camp. It wasn’t just for the freshmen: all the guys were there, and the seniors
looked fucking enormous and fierce, like they could eat the raccoons Lowell saw
around campus during his morning run. Training camp was competitive and
intense, but there Lowell fell in with a group of guys he recognized from the
prospective recruits’ campus visit over a year ago. There was Dave MacAdam from
Illinois (a fellow Bears fan), Ken Wotoa from San Diego, Kevin Babcock from South
Carolina, Josh Kryzinski from Los Angeles, and Ryan Hutchinson from Texas,
whose jaw-dropping high school highlights video had gone viral during senior
year.

MacAdam was a giant hulk, an
obvious defensive lineman. Babcock was a small guy, a fast runner, and one of
those funny guys everyone likes. Kryzinski had played basketball and
immediately became Lowell’s partner for shooting hoops. Wotoa was tall and
quiet and exuded calm reassurance but also the impression that he could crush
you to death. Lowell couldn’t quite figure him out, but he liked him.

And then there was Hutchinson.
During the recruits’ visit, Lowell and Hutchinson had met on the bus sent to
pick them up at the airport, and had talked about all the schools they were
considering and the teams they were playing now. They had stuck together a lot
during the visit, and Hutchinson had been a nice kid. Now, though, Hutchinson
was being a conceited asshole and treating training camp like everyone else had
to prove themselves to him, not the other way around. Like the fact that he
wasn’t in high school anymore, wasn’t the Texas high school player of the year
anymore, hadn’t sunk in yet. Lowell still felt a vague loyalty to him, wishing
he’d get his head on straight before it was too late.

The days were long, tough, and
scary as hell as a swarm of coaches yelled or stared or shook their heads.
Every day ended with sweat, exhaustion, and anticipation, and Lowell and
Kryzinski hurried back to their dorm to shoot hoops for a while to wind down.

After two weeks of training camp
routine, it wasn’t as frightening even if it was more exhausting. They mixed
with the upperclassmen more, and Lowell was gradually putting names to jersey
numbers to faces. He’d been all-Indiana best tight end his senior year and was
training with the other tight ends: Breitenstein, a junior; Mullin and Rolla,
seniors; and Lee, the other freshman. It was a good group overall, but
Breitenstein was the stand-out among them. Even the seniors acknowledged him as
top TE. Lowell watched him and learned. He respected the guy and his firsthand
knowledge of how Crocker played on the field.

Coach Bowman was always a presence,
but rarely interacted one-on-one with the players during camp. This made him
more intense and formidable, and it was therefore nerve-racking on the morning
when Bowman marched up to the tight ends and glared at Lowell.

“You. You also played tackle in
high school. Come with me.”

Lowell cast a frantic look at the
others before attempting to meet Coach Bowman’s gaze head-on. “Um, no, sir. I
never played tackle in high school.”

There was a soul-crushing pause,
Coach Bowman’s stance and glare never wavering, before Lee hitched his
shoulders and said, “That was me, coach. I played offensive tackle before I
played tight end.”

Coach Bowman snapped to Lee, “I
need a tackle. Come with me.”

Lowell let out a breath and tried
to shake the feeling that he was now permanently etched in Coach Bowman’s
awareness as the-guy-who-never-played-tackle-and-was-therefore-useless-to-me.
He felt marginally relieved a couple of hours later when Lee came jogging back
to train with the tight ends. “Whatever tackle he needed, I guess it wasn’t me,”
Lee said with a shrug.

Later that day, Lowell, Lee, and
Breitenstein spent a breather watching the quarterbacks. Kryzinski fell in with
them.

“Hutchinson’s arm isn’t making up
for his douche-itude yet,” Breitenstein commented. Lowell winced, sort of
wanting to defend Hutchinson but not finding much he could say.

“I don’t know,” Kryzinski said. “That
damn video wasn’t faked. I think it’s all there, we’re just not seeing it.”

Lowell watched the senior, Duran,
Crocker’s starting QB for the past two seasons. He’d had a very good season two
years ago, but last season he’d lost momentum. The sports blogs kept calling him
“Crocker’s troubled quarterback” or “Crocker’s disappointing quarterback.” Duran
looked good now, especially compared to Hutchinson, but that didn’t mean
anything. Lowell couldn’t imagine what the pressure must be like for Duran to
try to top his own best performance from two years ago.

The guy next to Duran caught Lowell’s
attention. He was tall, with dark hair in an all-over buzz cut, sun freckles
across his face, and a confident stance with every throw.

“Who’s that?” Lowell asked.

“That’s Erick West,” said Lee, with
meaning.

Lowell glanced to Kryzinski to show
his ignorance. Kryzinski supplied, “Supposed to be a real hotshot out of Texas.”

“I thought Hutchinson was the only
hotshot out of Texas,” Breitenstein murmured.

“According to Hutchinson,” said Kryzinski.

“West’s a freshman?” asked Lowell.

“Yep.”

“Two hotshot freshmen
quarterbacks--?” Lowell focused on West and Hutchinson, comparing them. West
looked like he knew exactly what he was doing at all times. Hutchinson, for all
his talent, appeared lost and frustrated.

Breitenstein sighed. “I don’t see
how this can end well.”

 

-----

 

Just when everyone was hitting
their stride, training camp was over. The campus had gradually become more
populated as the upperclassmen and grad students came back, and the dorm was
full and busy. Registering for classes was easy because they were all required
courses; no decisions necessary. Lowell met with an undergraduate adviser,
admitted that he had no idea what to major in, and was relieved when the
adviser said it wasn’t unusual for freshmen, even Crocker freshmen. Her parting
word of advice was not to forget to get an education while playing football.

BOOK: Safety Net
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