the cost of victory

You manage to wipe the raindrops off your lenses, but your tears are more difficult to make disappear, as is the red swelling under your left eye where your glasses punctured the skin. Someone places the soccer ball a yard in front of you, setting up for the second chance, the do-over, the opportunity to turn the tide in this game. You see a teammate’s sweat sliding down her thigh and knee and soaking into her shin guard, your father drinking from a tiny paper cup in order to prime his throat for more shouts of encouragement. He has traded in his trademark scratchy, digitized camouflage and now fits right in with the other dads in their wrinkly cotton t-shirts and crew socks. This is the first game he has attended, though it is your third season playing, and his presence heightens your senses.

You put your broken glasses back on just to have something to stabilize you before taking the indirect kick. The ball veers too far left yet manages to sneak between the posts with an assist before you are swept up off your feet, up into the air, up onto shoulders of girls who understand the magic of scoring your first soccer goal. The last bit of rain lands on your tongue; you laugh with your head tipped back. Your father raises his cup in celebration, a wide, proud grin changing the landscape of his serious, suntanned face.

You assume your position at midfield once again, resting your hands on your knees to catch your breath, noticing the line of other girls who do the same. The synchronicity of it takes you by surprise – the result of intensive training and running drills for weeks. A whistle blows and you all maneuver backwards in a semicircle as the other team presses forward, a drop in the ocean spreading out in one fluid motion, building energy as it ripples.

That energy is what keeps you always moving despite the burning of your muscles and your parched throat, until an enemy sprinting towards the eighteen yard line slips on the slick field, a bone snapping as she collapses to the ground, sinking like your stomach as the ball rolls out of bounds, forgotten. Your own father stands over her in an instant, shouting orders at the members of the crowd who gasp when the girl’s river-blue eyes roll to the back of her head and she cries out for help.

You see your father as he must have been in the war: the first one to respond, the only one with complete clarity even as fierce winds whipped him, filling every crevice with sand so that he had to scrape his ears out before bed, the sun beating down so hard on him during the day that he could still feel the brutal heat like a slap to the face when he lay in his hammock at night. He rarely talks about it. But you can see it now. The way his broad shoulders sag as he stands over the fallen in her uniform. The gratitude etched on horrified onlookers’ faces, thankful he is fighting the battle so they don’t have to. The first of his many traumatic flashbacks with no pattern of triggers.

The cost of victory.

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