[You Win or You Die is a never-ending novel that recaps the week in sports as chapters in a fantasy epic. It is meant to be taken very seriously, every Thursday. Or in this week’s case, Saturday. The first two chapters are here.]
Sanchez entered Maester Ryan’s chambers to find his mentor slumped over his desk, double-fisting club sandwiches. Ryan stood and beamed, until he noticed Mark’s face. His perpetual five o’clock shadow was looking more like a 5:30, six o’clock shadow on this day, as though the young Californian hadn’t slept in hours.
“Mark. Please, sit, sit, take a fucking seat,” Ryan offered.
Mark sat across from the Maester with some hesitancy—Ryan had never offered a fucking seat to anyone before.
“How fares you?” Ryan asked. He extended one of the club sandwiches to Mark.
“No thank you,” Mark said, as palpable relief washed over Ryan’s face. Mark struggled to find the words he so desperately wanted to express: I was pulled for a no-name child… who won the battle without me… stole the love of my city… my people…
“Mark, let’s have at it. We both know why you’re here.”
Mark blinked, heart plummeting. “You can’t be serious.”
“The assistant Maesters and I were unanimous in our decision. McElroy will lead the vanguard this week. You’ll serve as his back-up.”
Sanchez jumped to his feet and hurled his chair as fiercely as it could, causing it to barely tip over. “Have reason, Rex! He’s but a boy!”
“Yes, a boy. A boy blessed by the gods with the arm of David.”
“You don’t know him. He’s arrogant as he is green. He told me he’s never even had a proper boner!”
“Did he tell you that, truthfully?”
“Well, I… no…”
Ryan stood and leered at his quarterback. “Do you consider this trivial to me? Huh? You think this is a fucking game?”
“No… no, not a game, Rex… war.”
“Damn right it’s war. A war we’ve been at for four years together. After all I’ve done for you, all the times I stood by you! After those championships we went to together… you were supposed to be the one! But then it dawned on me…” Ryan trailed off.
“Go ahead Rex,” Sanchez insisted. “Say it. Say it for all the gods to hear it.”
Ryan turned his back and gazed out the window. Strike now, a small voice within Sanchez said. We’re five stories up from the parking compound. No one will be the wiser. The last thing Maester Ryan said to me before he jumped was ‘Cut McElroy.’ Yes, that’s what we’ll tell them.
But Ryan turned around, tears welling in his eyes. “You’re garbage, Mark.” He swallowed. “You’re just such garbage.”
“Talk sense, damn it.”
“You said it yourself, Mark. This is a war. But unless we win the next few battles, there isn’t going to be a war for us to win.” Ryan slammed his fist on the table. “Those men out there need a leader who can… complete a pass longer than six yards. And you’re just garbage.”
Mark nodded. “You’re making a mistake.”
“Perhaps,” Ryan conceded. “But for once, I’m doing what needs to be done.”
“I’ll see myself out then.”
When he closed the doors to Maester Ryan’s chambers, Mark found the insufferable McElroy waiting. He grinned at Mark, brushing aside his flowing autumn hair from his face.
“I was told the Maester wanted to see me.” He cocked his head to the side. “Any idea what it could be about?”
“Damn you to the seven hells, McElroy.”
McElroy stood and sauntered towards Sanchez, teeth glimmering in the hallway light. “I was wondering. They other men told me that you usually get all the tail in the city. Tell me… did you get any tail last weekend?”
Mark paused, stunned to realize that it had, in fact, been well over a week since he’d bedded a woman. “I… I did not,” he confessed.
McElroy leaned over into Sanchez’s ear. “That’s because… I was getting all the tail. That’s right, Mark. I’m the most sought-after man in the city now.”
Fury gripped Sanchez at once. His arm shot out and grabbed McElroy by the neck, pinning him to the wall.
“You take that back,” Mark hissed. “That’s my tail.”
“L-let me go,” McElroy gasped. “M-m-my shoulder.”
“You give me back my tail.”
Ryan burst out of his office. “What in the fuck chowder is going on out here?”
That was when McElroy’s shoulder let out a POP. McElroy screamed, an ear-piercing, girlish sound. Sanchez let the boy drop to the ground.
“My shoulder!” McElroy cried. “You’ve destroyed it!”
Mark backed away as Ryan knelt down and examined the younger quarterback. “It’s not destroyed. Calm down.”
He turned on Mark, fire in his eyes. “Do you know what you’ve done, damn it?”
Sanchez took another step back as Ryan rounded on him.
“It’s separated. He’s not going to be able to play this weekend. Do you know what that means? It means I have to activate fucking Tebow. I’ve been telling him his rib’s been broken for a month and he’s been none the wiser. But now if you go down, I have to play fucking Tebow.”
Mark was at a loss. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to… I didn’t know…”
Ryan turned his finger at both of them, McElroy still howling in agony. “You listen to me, both of you. This incident stays between us. I never thought I’d say this, but we’ve enough on our dinner plates as it is. No one else can know what happened here. Not the media, not my brother Rob, especially not the media.” He looked at Mark. “You got that?”
Mark nodded. Ryan shook his head, teeth grinding.
“If we lose this next battle, we’re done. It’s riding on you again, Sanchez. You’d best not fuck it up.”
Ryan walked back into his chambers and slammed the oak door shut. And as Mark watched McElroy hobble to his feet, slip, fall down, and re-injure the same shoulder, he asked himself whether he had everything he wanted. He was dismayed to admit that he did not have an answer.
Lovie Smith was a man of the gods, who had devoted his life to the saying that the best way to make the gods laugh was to make a gameplan.
So why did he hear them cackling at him from the heavens now?
Cutler, Lovie’s sully young troop leader, marched off the field, having just surrendered the ball and points to the opponent once again.
“I’m not reading them out there, Lovie!” Cutler shouted. “I haven’t two seconds! My guards aren’t protecting me. My fucking guards aren’t fucking protecting me, Lovie!”
Lovie nodded. Cutler had displayed talent in the field, but he was not versed in the arts of serenity the way Lovie was, despite his teachings. As a result, Cutler had alienated many of his squadron, his field-Marshall remaining his one true ally. On cue, Marshall approached Lovie.
“Shall I try to speak to him?”
Again, Lovie only nodded. He was a man of few words, a man held with an immersurable amount of esteem throughout the realm. The only of the 32 Maesters to insist that his troops call him by his birth-name, he quickly grew a reputation as a sage and a teacher—and possibly the only man in the realm who could control Cutler and nurture his talents.
Yet the pressures of the moment were weighing heavily on Lovie. The Vikings they had tried to invade were resisting, taking control of the battle thanks to Adrian Peterson, known to the common-folk as The Resurrected Beast. In addition, there were rumblings of a fierce new quarterback from the capitol, a boy with the legs of a young Vick and an arm greater than even Cutler’s. It was an uneasy time, this Age of Giants, where the Giants of the East and West both reigned as champions, leaving little space for the once-mighty Bears of the Midwest.
Serenity, Lovie, he reminded himself. All is as it is. There is no here. There is no now. We are in a moment that has happened before and will happen again. All is pre-ordained. We are but puppets to the gods, and we shall serve them with respect and serenity.
Behind him, Cutler was throwing paper water cups at his expressionless linemen, as Marshall tried to reason with him, to no avail. Lovie closed his eyes. Such anger, he thought sadly. If only I could show him… it doesn’t matter… none of it matters.
A beastly roar rang out from further up the sideline. Lovie rushed over to see what had happened.
Two soldiers were trying to restrain Urlacher, a half-giant struggling to cope in an Age of full-Giants.
“Let him go,” Lovie ordered, and the other players backed off.
“Urlacher play,” Urlacher grunted, curling his fingers into an enormous fist. “Hurt Vikings’ tiny quarterback.”
“No, Urlacher,” Lovie said gently. “Urlacher hurt, remember?”
Urlacher looked down at his knee and grimaced. “Is no matter. Urlacher play. Urlacher can smash.”
Lovie smiled sadly. “Urlacher may need to accept that Urlacher’s “playing” days are over. Urlacher has won many great battles. Urlacher has much to be proud of.”
Urlacher’s face went red, then purple, as if he had forgotten how to breathe. Then he started sobbing. My gentle giant, Lovie thought.
“Urlacher never stop playing, Love-man. Urlacher want Lump Party. Shiny Lump Party. Urlacher will raise it high!”
I want nothing more than to give you that, old friend, Lovie wanted to tell him. But it’s out of my hands… unless… could it be? Have I been a fool this whole time? A faux instrument, playing all the proper notes for improper gods?
The final buzzer went off. The Vikings had taken the day. Four of the last five battles, now, had been surrendered by the Bears.
Lovie looked down at his clipboard. Where other Maesters had intricate strategies, X’s and O’s, routes on top of routes, Lovie had only two things written on a white sheet of paper: “Serenity” and “out-route to Forte.” Lovie thought for a moment, took the paper out of the clipboard, and ripped it in two.
The Grand Tourney was on the line, and the Packers were traveling back south with them to try to sack Chicago. It may get the gods laughing, but perhaps it was time… to make a gameplan.
He was back in the city of Miami. It was late, his vision blurry from both drink and rain. Lights adorned the strip aside the ocean, vivid, neon pastels in pink and green. He was in the passengers’ seat, where he should have been, but it mattered not who was driving, it did not. The man came from out of nowhere. There was no avoiding-
Just like that, he was back in Foxborough, up three scores, the crowd both quiet and deafening all at once.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He wasn’t supposed to have another chance. He still dealt with constant murmurs of people on the street and on internet forums, mocking him behind his back. Dante Murderworth. Slaughterwoth. One had called him Manslaughter Stallworth, which didn’t make much sense—it was just what he did followed by his last name—but it stung him all the same. Many called him Finslayer, referring to the Dolphins that guard Miami. That name angered Dante more than any other. I am no killer. And that man was no Dolphin. He was drunker than I.
But suddenly, he had a chance to change all that. One final chance at redemption. He had gotten the call earlier that week from Belichick, his old Maester, a man who many claimed to be a dark wizard. Belichick told Dante that they had lost their Edelman, and were down to mere regular men. Rumors of mighty Texans from the south invading were swirling around Foxborough, and he requested Dante’s services.
And now he was back in the huddle, the Golden Boy Tom Brady barking orders.
“Men, as some of the veterans here know well, we once had a dynasty,” Brady said. He looked to Dante, who nodded. “We have tried to rebuild that dynasty, only to have it smashed apart time and again by the Giants from the east.”
Brady pulled back his helmet and spit blood. “Today, I intend to resume construction of that dynasty. But I can’t go it alone. I need your help. Wes—are you with me, my friend?”
Wes Welker, a small man whose performance often exceeded his natural ability, stepped forward. “I am, sir.”
“Hernandez, you brute, will you help me rebuild our dynasty?”
“I will, sir.”
Then The Golden Boy looked Dante straight in the eyes. “Dante—my old ally—do you stand with me as well?”
“Aye, m’lord. Now and until the end of times.”
“Do you remember what a fly route is?”
Dante paused a moment. “Is it that one where I run in a straight line and catch the touchdown?”
“Aye. Can you still run it?”
“I- it’s been quite a while, m’lord.”
The Golden Boy walked up to him and grabbed him by the faceguard. “Can you still run it?”
Dante took his spot to the far right of the line. He stared at the Texan guarding him, and for a moment, the Texan became the Miami man.
“You never gave me a chance,” he said. “You think you can find redemption? There’s no redeeming men like you.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Dante murmured.
“What?” the Texan defender said.
“It was not my fault!”
Dante blew past the defender. He cleared five yards of space. He looked over his shoulder. The Golden Boy’s ball was already on its way. Redemption, Dante continued to repeat to himself, as the ball fell effortlessly into his arms and the stands erupted around him.
He ran into the endzone, wishing it would stretch on forever, so that he would never have to stop running. And then perhaps, just perhaps, he could run until he found a place where he could rest.
He was on his way.