Kulti by Mariana Zapata

Chapter One

I blinked. Then, I blinked some more. “What did you just say?”

The man sitting across the desk from me repeated himself.

Still, I stared at him. I heard him correctly the first time. He was loud and clear. No problems. But my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the sentence that had come out of his mouth. I understood all the individual words in the sentence, but putting them together in that moment was the equivalent of telling a blind person you wanted them to see something real quick.

Basically, it wasn’t going to happen.

“I need you, Sal,” Coach Gardner, the man who was asking the impossible of me, insisted.

I sat back against the chair in his office and took in the silvering hair on his head, his smooth, unlined face and the Houston Pipers polo shirt he had on. For being in his late forties, he was still a looker. Demented and out-of-his-freaking mind, but handsome nonetheless.

Then again, Jeffrey Dahmer had been attractive, so good looks weren’t exactly the best scale of measurement for an individual’s mental health.

Calm down, take a deep breath, and get it together, Sal. Focus. I needed to focus on something else to relax. I chose his office walls.

A neat line of diplomas hung to his right. On either side were pictures with his son and a few framed photographs of the Pipers on the field over the years—my favorite was a shot of the team last year when we’d won the Women’s Professional League championship. He was in the middle of the group with the league trophy, this three-foot monstrosity, held high above his head. I was right next to him holding the game soccer ball under one arm with my other around Jenny, our team’s goalie. I had the same picture in my apartment, a constant reminder of twenty years’ worth of hard work paying off. Plus, it was my motivation on the mornings when I sat on the edge of my bed looking and feeling more dead than alive, to get up and go on my daily five-mile run.

“Sal,” the head coach of the team said my name again. “You’ve never let me down before. Come on,” he chastised me in a low, playful voice that gave the impression he was giving me a choice.

He wasn’t.

Just thinking about what he wanted me to do sent my heart pounding. My nervous system had slowed the minute he said the words ‘you’ and ‘press conference’ in the same sentence just a minute before. Then, when he said the word ‘today,’ my brain wished me good luck and shut down. I didn’t know what to do besides stare at him blankly.

Me. Press conference. Today.

I would rather get a root canal, donate my kidney and be constipated. Seriously.

I hadn’t given much thought into Gardner calling me the night before. I didn’t think twice when he asked me to come to his office at the Pipers headquarters because there was something he wanted to talk about in person. I should have pleaded a case of food poisoning or bad cramps to get out of it, but obviously it was too late now.

I’d walked right into his trap, physically and emotionally.

Cameras. So many cameras.

Oh God, I was going to puke just thinking about it.

My initial thought was: No. Please, no. Some people were scared of heights, the dark, clowns, spiders, snakes… I never made fun of anyone when they were scared of things. But this horrible fear I had of speaking in front of a camera with a group of people watching had gotten me called a wimp at least a hundred times, mostly by my brother, but that still counts.

“You’re going to tell me you can’t do it?” Coach Gardner raised an eyebrow, cementing the fact that he wasn’t giving me a choice, while also baiting me with words he knew I wouldn’t back down from. I was in his office at ten in the morning because he wanted me to be, not anyone else.

Son of a bitch.

If I were a lesser person, my lower lip would have started trembling. I might have even blinked and batted my eyes so that I wouldn’t cry because we were both well aware of the fact I couldn’t tell him no. I wouldn’t tell him no.

Even if it killed me, I’d do what he wanted. He was banking on it, too. Because I was that idiot that didn’t back down from a taunt. A broken arm after someone said I couldn’t climb up this massive tree when I was eleven, should have taught me that backing down every once in a while was the right thing to do, but it didn’t.

I mentally stepped into my Big Girl Socks—the equivalent I’d been given as a kid instead of Big Girl Panties because my dad thought that was a creepy expression.

“I’ll do it.” I grimaced, more than likely looking like I was getting an enema. “But… G, why isn’t Grace doing it? Or Jenny? You know they usually do all of the interviews and stuff.” Because I sure as hell avoided them, at least the ones in front of a camera.

“I didn’t ask Grace because I think it’d be a good idea for you to do it,” he explained, referring to the team’s veteran captain. “And Jenny isn’t arriving until Sunday.”

I blinked some more at him, on the verge of puking and shitting myself at the same time. My leg had already begun shaking and I palmed it, trying to get it to stop.

Gardner smiled tenderly, leaning across his big glass desk, hands clasped. “You haven’t even asked me what the conference is for.”

Like I freaking cared. It could have been because someone had found a cure for cancer, and it wouldn’t matter. I’d be trying not to lose it all the same. My heart just started beating faster at the mention of the ‘c’ word, but I forced myself to look like I wasn’t fighting back a panic attack. “All right, what’s it for?” I asked slowly.

Our soccer team’s preseason training started in a week and a half, so I guess I’d subconsciously assumed that was it.

But the question had barely left the head coach’s mouth when he started smiling, his brown eyes wide. He leaned forward and said something that was just as bad, if not worse, than asking me to do a press conference. Sixteen words that I hadn’t been braced to hear. Sixteen words that I had no clue were about to change my life.

“We just got confirmation that Reiner Kulti is taking the team’s assistant coach position this season,” Gardner explained, his tone implying ‘this is the best thing to ever happen.’

My face said ‘no, it’s freaking not.’

It took a minute for his smile to fall and a confused look to take over, but it happened. It fell like a Jenga tower, slowly and surely.

He gave me a look. “Why are you making that face?”

* * *

I was seven years old the first time I saw Reiner Kulti on television. I can remember the exact moment he came on the screen. It was the semi-final for the Altus Cup—the tournament that happened every three years and included every national soccer team in the world eliminating each other left and right over qualifying rounds. It was the most highly televised sporting event in the world.

Why wouldn’t it be? Soccer, also known as the ‘real’ football or futbol, was the most widely played sport across the inhabited continents. It didn’t discriminate. You could be tall, short, skinny, poor or rich. All you needed was a ball that was at least sort of inflated, and something to make a goal, which could be anything. Coffee cans. Coke cans. Trash cans. Anything. You could be a girl or a boy. Have a uniform, not have a uniform. And as my dad said, you didn’t even need shoes if you really wanted to get technical.

Because my brother played it and loved it—and for some reason back then I thought my brother was the coolest person ever—I made my parents put me on a team when I was around six. My mom on the other hand, was slightly horrified and enrolled me in karate and swimming as well. But a small part of me had always known I liked soccer more than I liked anything else.

On my dad’s side, I came from a long line of soccer fanatics. The Casillas didn’t play much, but they were big fans. With the exception of my older brother, who had supposedly showed an interest and a talent for it from the moment he was old enough to walk, everyone else just watched.

But as I remember, and from the hundred times Dad retold the story, my brother and my father had been talking about whether Spain was going to wipe the floor with Germany or not, before the game started. A little after halftime, most of the players on the German team had to be substituted because of one injury or another.

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