Chapter One – Chip
“Set!” I called as I settled in behind Bobby, my center. I quickly checked that the team was in the right formation then yelled in my football voice, “Blue eighty, blue eighty, hut-HUT!”
I dropped back after the snap, but before I could find my target, the defensive players broke through the front line and charged straight for me in what had to be the twentieth blitz of the day. What was up with my offensive line? I scrambled out of the pocket and threw the ball out of bounds to avoid a loss.
I tried to dry my damp hands on my towel as Chandler made room for me in the huddle. Heavy mist clung to my face, but the gray sky couldn’t break my spirit. Not at my last home game as a Kent University Eagle. I just needed to get the front line as jacked up as I was.
“Guys, ain’t nobody gonna break us today. Nobody. Now put on your big-boy jocks and take care of business. Got it?!”
The guys responded with a hearty “Got it!”
“Now, regulars. Far double-wing left, hum short, sixty-six, halfback long and cross on two. Ready, break!”
The guys took their positions and waited for me to give the snap count. I backed up for a long snap. “Set. Omaha, Omaha, hut-HUT!”
The ball landed squarely in my hands as my roommate and favorite target, Travon Washington, flew down the right side of the field. The offensive line was looking for redemption and held off the defense as I stepped up, cocked the ball, and threw a perfectly timed pass to the back corner of the end zone where Travon waited undefended.
The ball dropped right into Travon’s hands but bobbled as he tried to make sure he got a foot down in bounds. A collective groan from the stands reverberated across the field when Travon went down without being able to control the ball.
How did he miss that?
I had two choices. I could dwell on that missed touchdown and jump on Travon for taking his eye off the ball, which would do no good and only make him feel bad when I needed him refocused. Or I could double down, trust him to catch the ball next time and convert this third and ten to at least get another set of downs. I motioned for a no-huddle play, then for some stupid reason, I glanced over at the sidelines. I shouldn’t have done that.
Roxanne. She was twirling her long blond hair between her fingers, head cocked to the side. Who was she flirting with now? Someone up in the stands? But what did I care? It didn’t really matter, especially since I told her…
A sudden whistle almost made me jump out of my skin.
“Delay of game! Five-yard penalty, repeat third down,” the official barked through his microphone.
Great. Thanks, Roxanne.
I took a deep breath and motioned to the guys I was okay. Coach was motioning for me to hurry from the sidelines, so I got in place behind Bobby and ran my fingers across the damp towel hanging from my waistband. The rain was picking up, but I’d played in worse weather plenty of times, so the conditions didn’t bother me. They should have.
“Blue eighty, blue eighty, hut-HUT!”
The handoff was anything but smooth, and the wet ball slipped out of my grasp and bounced twice on the turf before Bobby knocked a Holly Chapel Saints player out of the way so I could fall on the ball. Definitely not how I was expecting the last home game of my college career to go. But it was still early in the third quarter. I had time to make up for the ten-point deficit; I was practically famous for my come-from-behind wins in tight games.
I unsnapped my helmet and jogged to the bench as the punt team took the field. Travon was sitting on the sidelines looking like someone had just stolen his double cheeseburger and curly fries. Travon was one of the best wide receivers I’d ever worked with. He was funny, quick, and proud. I could tell that missed touchdown was eating him up inside.
Part of my role as captain of the team was to keep the troops’ spirits up, so I sat next to Travon.
“Hey, buddy,” I said as I patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. We’re not done here, not by a long shot. And if I know you like I think I know you, you’ll be the reason we win this game. Mark my words.”
Travon pursed his lips and nodded his head but didn’t say anything. I understood. My big ball drop on that last play could have easily derailed me, but Dad taught me years ago to let the bad plays go as soon as possible. “In the heat of the moment, focus on what you can change in the future, Son,” he’d say. “Until they invent one of those high falutin time machines, past mistakes need to remain in the past. Best to learn from them quickly and move on.”
Move on. I’d be doing that soon enough.
I craned my neck and found Mom and Dad in the crowd. My dad, Charlie Inman, played in the NFL as a backup quarterback for one year until an unfortunate friendly fire tackle in practice tore his ACL and broke two vertebrae in his lower back. His NFL career ended that day.
Ever since I was a little kid, everyone and their uncle assumed I would follow in Dad’s footsteps and play for the NFL; that’s how I got my nickname. My real name is Charles Inman the Third, but since I excelled on the field early on, people started calling me a “chip” off the old block. The name stuck.
Behind Mom and Dad were Pop Pop and Memaw, my Dad’s parents, all huddled together under a big plastic sheet. I hoped they wouldn’t get too wet. They were my biggest supporters and never once missed a home game throughout my entire high school and college careers.
I loved spending time with Pop Pop and Memaw on the farm. It was my favorite place to be, even more than the football field, although I couldn’t tell Dad that. I was really good at throwing a football, I mean really good. And I had a blast on the field with my teammates, but I don’t know. There was just something about watching seeds sprout and grow into something that people could use to feed their families. Something about the smell of the animals and the color of the sky as the sun sank into the pond in the summertime. Yeah, I had fun on the football field, but being on the farm fed my soul.
I didn’t know where I’d end up after the draft that spring, but the thought of leaving Pop Pop and the farm made my heart feel as heavy as wet cement.
Three and out. The Kent University defense held the Holly Chapel players to three yards so it was time for me to get back to work. I put my helmet on and punched Travon on the arm as we ran back on the field. “Focus on the future, man.”
“Will do.” Travon chomped down on his mouthguard and positioned himself near the sidelines.
Just then the sky opened up and dumped a gazillion buckets of water on the field. Half the spectators headed for shelter, Roxanne being one of them. Good riddance.
I briefly wished I had my longer cleats on, but there had been nothing in the early December forecast about a deluge falling on Kent, South Carolina that Saturday. I got behind Bobby and ignored the cold water seeping through my jersey.
“Set! Blue eighty, blue eighty, hut-HUT!”
Thank goodness I managed to hold onto the ball. I took two steps back but immediately felt the pressure of another blitz. One of the Saints players grabbed my shirt, but I was able to spin out and break contact with the defensive end. The pocket was breaking down fast; I had no other choice but to get rid of the ball.
But I didn’t want to take a loss. Sometimes I’m stubborn like that. So, I made a move toward the sideline hoping to throw the ball out of bounds. But as soon as I got out of the pocket, three defensive players near the sidelines closed in on me leaving me no room to throw.
Travon shoved one of the players out of bounds, and that opened up a small window. If I was fast enough, I could at least get back to the line of scrimmage and not lose any yardage.
But the ground conditions had worsened, and my cleats couldn’t get any traction. As I dove forward toward the scrimmage line, I slipped at the same time one of the Saints players lunged at me, and our helmets collided with a sick thud. Then my body disappeared, and I slipped into blackness.
Chapter Two – Chip
Why couldn’t I move? My arms felt like lead pipes and my skull was as thick as a bowling ball. And what was up with all that pounding?
Thirsty. So thirsty. My mouth was as dry and prickly as a piece of burnt toast.
I tried to open my eyes, but my eyelids didn’t want to budge. Had someone glued them together while I was sleeping?
What was that beeping? I had to see where that blasted beeping was coming from.
My eyes. Back to my eyes. Focus. I had to get them open, had to figure out what that annoying beeping was. So I put all my effort into forcing my eyelids apart. But as soon as they cracked open, a fierce light pierced through and felt like a sharp stick stabbing deep into my brain. I moaned and clamped my eyes shut again to stop the assault.
“I’ll pull the curtain,” a far off voice said. Was I in a tunnel? Why was there an echo?
After some time, I gradually pried my eyes open again. That time I was greeted by a soft, filtered light.
Where was I?
As my blurry vision cleared, I tried to make sense of my surroundings. There was a window, but I didn’t remember it being on that side of the room. Why was there a machine by my bed, and why was it beeping?
I willed my fingers to stretch and felt some contraption clamped to my index finger. What was going on? Why did my brain feel like lumpy mashed potatoes?
I squinted and made out a small table across the room. Who were the flowers and balloons for? Was it my birthday?
Crying. Who was crying?
I let my head slowly roll to the side. Beside me was a woman with a silver-gray bob haircut and red-rimmed eyes.
“Chip…Chip, my darling. Wake up for Mom, okay?” The woman grabbed my hand and stroked it as tears slid down her cheeks.
I rolled my head to the other side. A woman in light blue scrubs was notating something on a clipboard. Was she a nurse? Why did I need a nurse?
“Who…” I tried to speak but had trouble getting my voice past my parched lips. “Who is she?” I finally whispered to the nurse.
“She’s you’re mama, sweetie. You’ve got yourself a real good one. She hasn’t left your side in two days.”
Two days? I’d been out of it for two days?
The gray-haired woman tightened her grip on my hand. “Chip, you’re in the hospital, honey. You got hit in the head during the game, but you’re going to be okay…” She choked on the last word.
Game? What game?
My bones suddenly felt heavy, and I couldn’t resist the downward sinking of my eyelids.
“Why didn’t he recognize me?” I heard a panicked voice echo through the tunnel.
“This is fairly common. It’s called post-traumatic amnesia, and it’s usually temporary.”
I became one with the darkness again.
Chapter Three – Greta
The little girl with the bald head squealed when I brought Sammie into her hospital room. Sammie, my Golden Retriever therapy dog extraordinaire, and I were regular volunteers at the Children’s Cancer Ward at Kent Memorial. It was good for the children to have access to animals since so many of them had to leave their pets behind to come for extended treatments. I knew from experience the benefits of having a therapy dog around.
I first became acquainted with therapy dogs as a child in therapy after my father died; I would’ve been a bona fide mess if I hadn’t been able to confide my deepest fears and sadness to Trixie, my therapists’ dog, during my weekly sessions.
“Sammie!” the girl called as she reached her arms out.
Sammie bolted to the bed and let the girl wrap herself around his neck and bury her nose in his fur. I leaned against the doorframe and watched Sammie work his magic; he was a special one. He never failed to make a child laugh.
Sammie was getting older and had the mask to prove it, but he was still cute as a button with a big grin and sporting his blue and red “Therapy Dog” vest. He slept more than he used to, but seemed to have more pep on my days off; it’s like he knew when I slept in it was volunteer day, and he couldn’t wait to get to work.
After we made our rounds, Sammie and I headed to the main lobby of the hospital so I could turn in my temporary security badge. As I walked down the long hall, I couldn’t help but wonder if Chip had been released from the hospital yet. The school media hadn’t publicly shared many details of his time in the hospital, only stated he would recover.
Lucy, my boss at the Fuzzy Buttz Grooming Salon, had a TV in the grooming area so she could keep up with her soap operas during the week. But on Saturdays, I could usually get Lucy to turn on the Kent University home games during football season. The previous Saturday was the last home game, and we had it playing in the background of the salon as we worked.
I was clipping a Chihuahua’s nails when I heard the announcer say Chip wasn’t getting up. What did that mean? I carried the dog with me over to the TV and watched the replay. Chip made it to the sidelines then got a nasty hit to the head. I think he must have been out cold before he hit the ground because when he collapsed he looked like a rag doll hitting cement. His head bounced off the ground and then nothing. He didn’t move.
My heart jumped into my throat and stayed there all bunched up in a tight wad until the university tweeted the next day that Chip had been admitted to the hospital as a safety precaution, but that he’d recover.
Was Chip still there at Kent Memorial? I would have loved to see him, but too much time had passed. Besides, I never ran with his crowd. He wouldn’t care about seeing me.
The woman at the front desk took my badge then leaned over and said with a wink directed at my dog, “See ya next time, Sammie!”
I rubbed the top of his head. Everybody loved Sammie.
“Greta? Greta Griffin?”
Who was calling my name?
I turned and saw Celeste Inman, Chip’s mom.
I always liked Mrs. Inman with her straight premature silver hair, twinkling blue eyes, and daily baking habit; she made a mean oatmeal raisin cookie.
“Hi, Mrs. Inman.”
“How nice to see you, Greta. And…” she gestured to Sammie with a bouncing index finger.
“Sammie! That’s right. It was on the tip of my tongue.”
“Sammie and I volunteer at the cancer ward, don’t we, boy?” I said as I rubbed his head.
I wondered if I should ask her about Chip?
Before I had a chance to, Mrs. Inman’s eyes lit up. “Do you have a little more time? Chip is here for a couple more days, and I think seeing someone from the past might help jog his memory.”
What did she mean, jog his memory?
I twisted Sammie’s leash around my hand. “I, uh, heard about his injury. I hope he’s going to be okay.”
Mrs. Inman’s eyebrows inched closer together. “He’s going to be fine,” she said with a strong conviction that could have been put on; I couldn’t tell. “But he has certain…certain challenges at the moment. Please come with me to see him.”
How could I say no to a pleading woman?
Mrs. Inman placed a round tin on the counter. “Here, Irene. White chocolate and macadamia nut cookies. I hope you like them.”
The woman at the desk cracked open the tin and took a deep sniff. “That smells divine, Celeste. Simply divine!”
I asked Irene for my security badge back and followed Mrs. Inman to the elevator. And just like that, the butterflies I always got in high school whenever I knew I was about to see Chip chose that exact moment to return. And they brought friends.
As soon as the elevator door closed Mrs. Inman started talking, a nervous run-on kind of talk, and didn’t stop until we reached the sixth floor. It was as if she hadn’t talked to anyone in days.
“I can’t believe it’s only been three days since Chip got here,” she said. “It seems like a lifetime. I’ve been with him night and day until earlier today when Charlie insisted I go home and at least get a shower, said he’d stay with him for a while. I was probably getting a little ripe, but there was no way I was going to leave my firstborn son alone until he woke up. So, of course, while I’ve been here, Charlie had to be at home to look after the boys who are chomping at the bits to come see him. But I don’t want them to see him until he gets back to normal. It might scare them…”
Scare them? What was she talking about? Why would visiting their brother scare them?
When the elevator doors opened, Mrs. Inman practically ran down the hall, pausing only long enough to drop off another cookie tin at the nurses’ station.
“Thought this might give y’all a little afternoon pep,” she called over her shoulder as she hurried on, not even waiting to hear the thank yous from the three nurses behind the counter.
Mrs. Inman opened a door halfway down the hall, then said in a low tone, “Let’s hope this works.”
Let’s hope what works? And why was it so dark in there?
I hung back at the door and let my sight travel through the dim light to the bed at the far side of the room. Even though my eyes were still adjusting, there was no mistaking who was in that bed.
The Chip Inman who made my heart race from afar for as long as I could remember. The Chip Inman with strong, broad shoulders and sandy-colored hair that stuck up in the front intensifying his boyish charm. The Chip Inman who once punched a guy for making fun of me.
Mr. Inman kissed his wife on the cheek. “Feel better, Cookie?”
“I do. Thanks for staying with him while I was gone.” Mrs. Inman went to the bed and brushed Chip’s hair back with her fingers. “I brought your favorite cookies, Chip. Chocolate chip oatmeal with coconut and cinnamon,” she said as she placed a cookie tin on the blanket beside him.
Chip glanced at the tin. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry right now.”
His voice sounded off, like he wasn’t sure how to use it anymore.
Mrs. Inman took the tin and put it on a table that was already crammed to capacity with flowers, cards, and balloons. Then she gestured for me and Sammie to come in. My heart jumped into my throat again.
“Someone is here to see you, Chip.”
Why didn’t my legs want to move?
Sammie solved the problem by dragging me halfway across the room, then plopping his paws on the bed and nudging Chip’s arm with his nose.
The corners of Chip’s mouth turned upward as he rubbed Sammie under his chin. “Is this my dog?”
Chip didn’t have a dog, at least not when I knew him in high school. Why would he think Sammie was his dog?
“No, honey. Sammie here is Greta’s dog. Do you remember Greta?”
My cheeks caught fire when Chip’s gaze met mine. It felt as if his eyes were two laser beams burning a hole straight through my heart.
“Is she my girlfriend?” he asked.
Girlfriend? It took every ounce of willpower for me not to fan myself. But things were becoming clearer. That knock on the head had made Chip forget things. And by the looks of it, a lot of things.
“You’ll have to excuse him, Greta. He suffered a level four concussion and is having a little trouble putting things back together in his mind,” Mrs. Inman said apologetically. “Chip, honey, Greta here tutored you in high school. She’s the reason you graduated.”
Chip nodded then turned his attention back to Sammie. “You have a nice dog.”
I cleared my throat. “I…I think he remembers you.”
No one said anything for a while. Chip continued petting Sammie, and Mr. and Mrs. Inman kept staring at him, willing him to remember something.
Then, almost under his breath, Chip began humming the tune to the Rolling Stones song, Satisfaction. My breath hitched. “You used to sing that song to try and distract me, to delay studying,” I said hopefully.
Mrs. Inman clasped her hands together. “Do you remember? Do you remember that, Chip?”
Chip stopped humming as his eyes rolled up and to the side. After a moment he said, “Not really.”
“That’s okay, son,” Mr. Inman said in a strong voice. “It won’t be long before you’re remembering how pesky your younger brothers are and wishing you could forget again.”
No one laughed at his joke.
“Well, Sammie and I better be going,” I said as I tugged on Sammie’s leash.
“I think that was a big success, don’t you, Charlie?” Mrs. Inman asked Mr. Inman.
“It’s a good start,” Mr. Inman said as he walked Sammie and me to the door and into the hall.
“Thanks for coming, Greta,” he said once we were out of Chip’s room. “You were good for Chip in high school helping him graduate and all, and here you are being good for him again all these years later. That song he hummed in there was the first thing he’s been able to retrieve from his memory bank since he got hit, and it was a memory associated with you.”
I looked down at my toes. I’m sure I wasn’t the reason Chip hummed that Stones tune. Maybe it was on his pre-game playlist or something.
“I’m sure he’ll remember other things soon, Mr. Inman.”
“Still…” Mr. Inman hesitated, then said, “I wouldn’t want to put you out, but do you think you and your dog there could come back and see him? Spend some time with him? He seemed to really respond to the two of you. Maybe you can help him remember some things from high school. The doctor said he’d most likely remember things out of order, but we don’t care as long as he remembers something. I’d like to pay you for your time.”
He was willing to pay me to spend time with Chip? God really did answer prayers because Lucy was about to close the salon for two weeks to visit her daughter and new grandson in Memphis for the holidays, which meant I had no job until she got back, and things were already tight. At the rate I was going, I’d never save up enough money to get my first real service dog to train.
“We’d be happy to.”
Sammie wagged his tail, and I tried to quiet the butterflies that were still knocking around in my stomach. I was about to get what I’d always wanted, which was good and bad.
Good, because I’d pined for Chip Inman for more years than I’d like to admit, and the thought of being near him again made goosebumps spontaneously break out all over my body.
Bad, because he would eventually remember that I was a nobody.
If you want to find out if Chip gets his memory back, you can preorder After the Blitz HERE!