“In His Youth” by Eric Raglin

The following is an excerpt from the journal of Will Holzer, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He has been missing for the past six months and is wanted for questioning.

The Journal of Will Holzer

February 12th, 2022

This journal is my own—hidden in the closet beneath my old college jersey—but not all its words belong to me. I recognize my voice in most entries, but others feel completely alien. Even the handwriting looks different: block lettering rather than my typical chicken scratch. It scares me that I’ve seen that block lettering more often lately.

For the moment, however, my handwriting is as shitty as it should be. And while it’s still shitty and I’m still me, I’ve decided to record the events that led to this nightmare. In case I’m not around after tomorrow, I’m leaving this journal on my bed where you can find it, Mom. You’re the only one with a spare, and the only one who checks in anymore.  I hope this journal explains some things for you. I’m just worried you won’t believe me.

This started ten years ago when I was a high school senior. YOU KNOW, THE YEAR MY FOOTBALL TEAM BEAT EVENSON HIGH, THE LONG-REIGNING STATE CHAMPS, UNDER THE GREAT LEADERSHIP OF

(I’m sorry. It’s happening again).

You were working doubles at the Red Lobster to make up for what Dad refused to pay in child support. Somehow you squirreled away a couple thousand bucks for my college fund, but I still needed a football scholarship to cover the full four years. Now I think my life would have been infinitely better had I blown off college and football entirely. That probably sounds ridiculous, what, with me playing for the Packers and living in a lake house. But you’ll understand where I’m coming from soon.

Back to senior year. My team was nearing the end of its season: five wins, four losses. FOUR ON ACCOUNT OF THE OPPOSING TEAMS’ WIDESPREAD USE OF PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING DRUGS, I’M SURE OF IT.

(Goddamnit, just let me speak).

Our record wasn’t spectacular, but a fantastic player on a middling team can still go places. I intended to be that player: four years playing college ball, a lengthy NFL career after that, and then a degree in accounting to take care of me when my body could no longer play. I had my whole life planned out. AND WHAT A SPECTACULAR LIFE IT’S BEEN: TWO YEARS AS AN NFL QUARTERBACK, TWO SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONSHIPS, SPONSORSHIP DEALS WITH NIKE, GATORADE, AND

(shut up shut up shut up)

The night before my high school team’s final game, I told Coach Warner about these post-graduation ambitions. I figured his advice would help. After all, the man won the Heisman Trophy as a college player and had been poised for greatness in the NFL. Unfortunately, a severe head injury cut his career short just half a season in. He spent time in and out of rehabilitation for opioid addiction—LIES—before landing a coaching job at Jefferson High. The fact that the school hired him with full knowledge of his drug issues was a testament to his status in the world of football, A STATUS THAT WILL FOREVER BE CEMENTED IN HISTORY AFTER MY THIRD SUPER BOWL WIN TOMORROW.

(Ignore that, Mom. I promise this will make sense soon).

Coach Warner agreed to help me on the condition that I never questioned his guidance, even when it sounded strange. I should have seen that as a red flag. After all, we were alone in the weight room and still he chose to whisper, as if his words contained some taboo secret. And I know what you’re thinking, Mom, but no, he never touched me. He was a different kind of creep.

Coach and I talked long after sundown. He asked a thousand questions about my dreams and what I was willing to do to make them happen. Looking back now, I think those questions were more about assessing my obedience than understanding my goals. Do you trust me completely, Will? Would you ever question your coach’s expertise? How much are you willing to sacrifice? 

AND YOU’VE PLAYED YOUR PART WELL. DON’T FUCK IT UP NOW, SON. DON’T DO WHAT I THINK YOU’RE ABOUT TO DO.

Sorry, Mom. I’m shaking. I’ll write more when he calms down.

#

I’ll never forget the final game of my high school football career. Because of your work schedule, it was the only game you could attend that season. I happy-cried when I saw you in the stands smiling and holding a paper-bag sign with my jersey number sharpied onto it. Any other player would have been embarrassed if his mom showed up like that, but not me.

Coach Warner had something planned for me that night. He wouldn’t say what, but he’d spent much of our long conversation hammering home the importance of trusting him. As long as I kept faith, everything would turn out fine: the game would go beautifully, a recruiter would see my impressive performance, and a good college would offer me a scholarship.

I ran a few first downs throughout the night, but I didn’t think those would be enough to impress a recruiter. I waited for Coach to give me some guidance, my patience wearing thin as the clock ticked away any chance to prove myself.

In the fourth quarter, our team was down by three points with ten seconds on the clock. Coach called a timeout, and we huddled around him. What he said surprised everyone.

“Gentlemen, I want you to keep an eye on Will. He’s about to do great things. Now get back out there!”

No one moved. The other guys stared at me with blank, sweaty expressions. All I could do was shrug, just as confused as they were. Then, Coach slapped my shoulder pad and pushed me toward the field. Everyone followed as if I were a train engine and they were the cars in tow. Before the clock started again, I glanced back. Coach sat on the shadowed edge of the floodlights, breath rolling out in thick white puffs before dissipating into the November night. His eyes were closed as if in prayer. It seemed the man didn’t have a plan for me, instead counting on God to intervene on my behalf. It had been years since you had last forced me to attend church, so I doubted God would step in now.

But I wasn’t entirely convinced Coach was praying. There was the scarier possibility that his head trauma was to blame for this momentary break from reality. The team saw the effects of this trauma any time he forgot our names, laid down on the field with an incapacitating migraine, or dissociated in the middle of a team dinner at the pizza buffet. None of those moments lessened our faith in Coach, but this bizarre ten-seconds-on-the-clock huddle visibly shook us. EVEN NOW, AFTER ALL OF YOUR BODY’S VICTORIES, YOU DOUBT ME. I AM YOUR GUIDE. I AM YOUR SAVIOR. WITHOUT ME, YOU ARE

(stop stop stop stop stop stop)

I was back in position for the final play when I realized something was wrong. Every muscle in my body had been burning with the intensity of play, but that heat vanished in an instant, as if I’d been dunked in liquid nitrogen. I froze up, almost literally. Then, something slithered inside me, itchy as it seeped into each and every pore. My skin stretched in all directions like a rubber band that would either snap back into place or snap in half. My agony lasted what felt like an eternity but must have only been a second. When my skin snapped back, it didn’t return to its original shape. It hovered just above my muscles, impossibly suspended on a structure of nothing. My clothes felt tight around my swollen form, especially my shoes, which choked my feet blue.

I would have fled the field had the quarterback not thrown me the ball. Somehow I caught it. And somehow I ran through the defensive line, dodging opponents with unparalleled speed and grace. My feet carried me into the end zone and, arriving untouched, did a victory dance. I’d scored the occasional touchdown, but never with such ease and never with a victory dance to follow. After all, Mom, you taught me humility.

Eventually my feet stopped dancing and my teammates lifted me into the air. None of them commented on my new bulk, though it remained the only thought in my mind. They bounced me up and down, cheering my name. Silent, I pinched my arm to feel the empty space between skin and muscle. A restless wind circulated through my body’s hollow. I pressed my ear to my forearm and listened to its whistle, its ecstatic howl.

My gaze drifted back to Coach. He was sitting just as before, his eyes closed in calm concentration, his white breath gentle as sleep. At first, I thought he’d actually dozed off. It was only when a player ran over to tell him we’d won that I realized he wasn’t sleeping at all. Shouting in Coach’s ear became shaking his shoulder became slapping his face. The man didn’t stir.

But the wind inside me danced with joy, tickling my nerves from within. And that’s when I screamed.

#

I had to take a break from writing, Mom. It’s hard to revisit that time, especially knowing everything that came after it. But it’s useless to mourn my lost years. Like you always said, the best cure for self-pity is action, and I have a plan. Is it stupid? Yes. Wrong? Maybe. But it’s something. SOMETHING THAT WILL NEVER WORK, SO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. I MADE YOU AND I CAN DESTROY YOU. 

(This is why I’m doing it. This is why I have no other choice).

YOU WALK THE PATH OF THE FOOL.

(I walk the path of freedom).

You remember how it went, Mom. Coach fell into a coma at that final game. The coma he’s still in to this day. At least, that’s what the doctors told Coach’s sister who told ESPN. The doctors also said Coach’s brain scans are unlike anything they’d seen before. They chalked it up to his previous head injury, but I don’t buy it. I think something stranger is at play, and for as long as the doctors try to understand it with science, answers will evade them.

The team visited Coach in the hospital every week until the end of the school year. I never joined, but in a way, it didn’t matter. I was always with Coach in a way my teammates would never be. Some gave me shit for not visiting. I stopped talking to them after that, figuring it didn’t matter if our friendships faded. My situation was impossible to explain without sounding insane, and we’d all go our separate ways after graduation anyway. Life would go on.

I soon learned a recruiter had seen my performance at that final game. When the scholarship letter came in the mail, I felt nothing, though the wind inside me danced for hours. HOW COULD YOU FEEL NOTHING? UNGRATEFUL. UNWORTHY.

(I won’t have to deal with this after today).

I played three years of college football. Or rather, my body did, blown wherever the wind fancied with me as its dissociating passenger. BLOWN TOWARD VICTORY. I also started sleepwalking again, but it wasn’t like when I did it as a kid. I sometimes woke up to find myself bench pressing at the gym. It was always startling to open my eyes and find 250 pounds of iron hovering inches above my chest. I never got injured though. The wind made sure of that. It seemed to have infinite energy while I had none.

A mental fog stalked me through all my classes. I could barely process even the most basic accounting concepts, and more often than not, I fell asleep during class. Once, I woke up to an empty lecture hall. The class had ended and no one had bothered to wake me. I cried a little, then got ready for football practice. The wind took over after that, blowing with as much power as ever.

The only thing that could suppress it was a handful of oxy. Coach was addicted to the stuff, after all. Hell, so am I. The discovery was purely accidental. I sprained my ankle at practice, and a doctor wrote me a prescription for the pain. Those pills only lasted a week, but it was the most lucid week of my college career. After that, I spent most of my free, uncontrolled time searching for pills wherever I could find them. Any effort to salvage my academic career vanished.

But ultimately, it didn’t matter that my grades were shit. My body played football so beautifully that the college let everything else slide. The NCAA would have come down hard on the athletic department, but my college coach thought the risk was worth the reward. For the three years I was there, our team won every college bowl game. We were unstoppable. THANKS TO ME. I remember seeing you in the stands at my last game before the Packers drafted me. You smiled and cheered and wore my same jersey. It broke my heart. I wanted to tell you about my pain, Mom. I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time. I just didn’t know how.

#

LISTEN, MISS HOLZER. IF ANYONE IS THE VILLAIN HERE, IT IS YOUR SON. HE DEMONIZES THE MAN WHO MADE HIM A SUPERSTAR, THE MAN WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN A SUPERSTAR HIMSELF, THE MAN WHO HAS NEVER RECEIVED CREDIT FOR HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

REMEMBER WHEN YOUR SON PAID OFF YOUR HOUSE AND CAR? THAT WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT ME. BUT THERE ARE STILL PLENTY OF DEBTS TO PAY, AREN’T THERE? I’VE HEARD HIM TALK ABOUT YOUR MEDICAL BILLS AND THE RUIN THEY’VE MADE OF YOUR RETIREMENT. WOULDN’T IT BE NICE TO STOP SERVING AT RED LOBSTER 60 HOURS A WEEK? TO SIT BACK AND RELAX WITHOUT FINANCIAL WORRY?

JUST REMEMBER: IF YOUR SON GETS RID OF ME, HE’LL ONLY BE HARMING YOU. 

#

I’m getting rid of him right after this entry. You probably won’t see me again. Or if you do, it’ll be behind bars. Ironic that prison is where I’ll find my freedom. But I can’t let him keep doing this. Even now, I feel his wind gusting inside me, trying to pin me down so I can’t leave my home. But I just downed a few oxy. Well, more than a few.

Even with the sedation, I know he’ll try to take control again when I get to the hospital. STOP. He’ll try to make me turn back before I reach his room on the ninth floor. DON’T. He’ll try to stop me from picking up a pillow and approaching his comatose body. YOU WOULDN’T. All I need is a few minutes of privacy and control. All I need is to press down hard. YOU’LL BE EMPTY WITHOUT ME. And maybe, just maybe, when that last breath leaves his body, his soul will leave mine. NEVER. I can only hope.

Published by ericraglin

I’m a speculative/horror fiction writer from Nebraska. I also teach high school English, host the podcast Cursed Morsels, and make music under the name Ecovengeance.

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