Darqueze sat in his locker room stall, fixating on the snaps that connected his chinstrap with the rest of his vibrantly striped helmet.
Snap—on. Snap—off. Snap—on. Snap—off.
Keep your head down, he thought, just focus on this. Clear your mind. Think about football, about your assignments, about their tendency to tip their slant routes with inwardly slanted feet.
Think about the rush you’ll feel in a few minutes when you walk out of that tunnel, about the way your pads are currently chafing against your hip. Concentrate on the sound of the hip-hop blaring in the corner, on your fellow designated back mumbling along out of rhythm.
Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap.
Whatever you do, don’t look up. Don’t give legitimacy to what you know is there but what none of your teammates can see.
Even with his head down, Darqueze could sense the jungle cat slithering between his blissfully ignorant teammates. He could feel it slink past Andy, the QB unwittingly brushing off his leg before going back to applying eye black.
Finally, Darqueze couldn’t take resist the urge any longer. He lifted his head, and the tiger’s yellow eyes rose to meet his gaze.
The animal almost smiled at him, if such a thing is possible—then again, this already existed well outside the boundaries of reality.
Darqueze had long since accepted that he could see things that others didn’t, that his perception was on a different plane than those around him.
The visions started when he was just a kid in Dry Branch, Georgia, playing make-believe in the woods with his friends.
Some would call this imagination. Native Americans darting behind trees during less-than-P.C. games of Cowboys & Indians, their war cries sending chills down his spine. Great, long-necked beasts rose out of ponds to wave hello, and pterodactyls swirled overhead before diving almost close enough to touch.
But eventually, his buddies stopped playing along.
“Nothing is there, Dar,” Mike said one day when Darqueze called out to the chimpanzee crashing through the trees about their head, his tone more than a little bit scared. The spell had broken.
Eventually, Darqueze came to understand that he was different. He clung to the ways he could still connect with his classmates.
He threw himself into his studies at school, joined every after-school program he could. During his seventh-grade year, the kid captained the debate team, played trombone in the school band, suited up for seven different sports squads and brokered peace between warring factions of lunch ladies as class president.
Darqueze did everything but stop, everything to ignore the figures constantly dancing around the edges of his vision.
Most of the characters came and went, making only cameo appearances, like the Civil War general that rattled him during the SATs. Others, though, hung around for years.
Darqueze eventually grew to associate certain figments with specific tasks and moods. The black cloak covering a blank face stepped from the shadows only when he was going through a breakup, or fighting with his folks. The cymbals-clashing monkey with his little red top hat sat in on literature lessons during his college days, popping up only in one specific lecture hall.
Football was our protagonist’s favorite sport, the only place that he could totally lose himself. The game was so demanding, so overwhelming, that everything else was pushed to the edges. For four quarters, Darqueze was one with the sport, breathing it through his nostrils and emptying his mind.
He loved that feeling, that crisp blank slate every time he stepped over a chalk sideline and took his place opposite a receiver. He had a reputation as the cheeriest shit-talker in the AFC North, the dude whose smile was never as wide as it was when cracking wise about yo momma’s bra size. On the field, the DB was truly, deliriously happy.
But the sport also summoned the only figures Darqueze actually feared. Experience had taught him that his visions couldn’t cause any harm to others, no matter how fearsome they lurked.
In high school, his avatar was a giant snake that churned around equipment bags and between feet. The cobra never stopped, never raised his head at exposed heel, silent movement that Darqueze eventually just ignored. In college, a long-dead Greek soldier banged his shield off bathroom stalls and hurled his spear through walls.
The tiger was new, unnerving, sinister. It fed off the emotions Darqueze required to prepare for a game. Each jump in testosterone levels would summon the jungle cat, set it stalking about the locker room anxiously.
The animal actually appeared most threatening when things were going well. Winning streaks caused it to get more aggressive, more daring in approaching Darqueze’s unwitting teammates.
The 3-0 start made it extra feisty, though Darqueze did his best to ignore this unfortunate correlation.
Breathe, man. You know what to do. Relax, and it’ll fade. Just seven minutes and 43 seconds until we hit the tunnel and it’s all good.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
Darqueze looked up, saw the cat poised to strike next to Gio Bernard, coiled to pounce while his teammate tied his shoes. He closed his eyes, looked away.
Snap. Snap. Snap.