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Authors: Mariana Zapata

Kulti

BOOK: Kulti
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KULTI
Mariana Zapata
Contents

K
ulti © 2015
Mariana Zapata

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 Mariana Zapata

Book Cover Design by
Jasmine Green

Interior Formatting by
Indie Formatting Services

To my dad.

My friend, my playmate,

my champion, my co-conspirator, and

my backup any and every time I’ve ever needed you.

Any father I try to write would be

a poor replica of you.

I love you, dude.

(So stop driving like a maniac,

I need you around for a long time.)

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.

Eric, my brother, had already said, “Germany’s done,” and my dad had argued there was still time left for either team to score a point.

Clear as day, I can visualize in my head the fresh-faced, nineteen-year-old who made his way onto the field. He was the last player on the team that could possibly be put in, the guy’s first time playing on the international scene. With light brown hair that seemed even lighter because of our static-y old television, a face that was hairless and a body that was long and thin… oh man, he’d been the cutest, youngest player I’d ever seen on the Altus Cup so far.

Truthfully, Germany should have been done. The odds were against them. Hell, their own fans were probably against them by that point.

Yet, no one had seemed to have given the team the message.

At some point between the forty-five-minute marker that started the second half of the game, and the ninety-minute mark that ended normal regulation time, that skinny boy with the cute face who couldn’t have been that much older than me, but he was, managed to steal the ball from a Spanish forward attacking the German goal and ran. He ran, and ran, and ran and by some miracle avoided every opposing player that went after him.

He scored the most beautiful, ruthless goal in the top right corner of the net. The ball seemed to sail through the air with a one-way ticket to the record books.

My dad screamed. Eric yelled. The freaking stadium and the announcers lost it. This guy who had never played on such a platform had done what no one expected of him.

It was one of those moments that lifts a person’s spirit up. Sure, it wasn’t you that did anything special, but it made you feel like you had. It gave you the impression that you could do anything because this other person did.

It reminded you that anything was possible.

I know that I stood there screaming right along with my dad because he was yelling and it seemed the most appropriate thing to do. But mostly, I know I thought that this Kulti, this number eight on the German national team who looked barely old enough to drive, was the most amazing player in the world that year.

To do what no one believed you could do…

Jesus. Now, as an adult, I can look back and understand why he had such an effect on me. It makes total sense. People still talk about that goal when they bring up the best moments in Altus Cup history.

What was the turning point when I decided to follow this dream of turf, two goals, and a single, checkered white and black ball? That moment. That goal changed everything. It was the moment I decided I wanted to be like that guy—the hero.

I dedicated my life, my time and my body to the sport all because of the player I would grow to follow and support and love with all my little heart, my patron saint of soccer—Reiner Kulti. For him, it was the moment that changed his career. He became Germany’s savior, their star. Over the next twenty years of his career, he became the best, the most popular and the most hated.

Then there was the whole, I-had-posters-of-him-all-over-my-walls until I was seventeen, and the whole me-telling-everyone-I-was-going-to-marry-him thing.

Before the posters and the marriage announcements, there had been the letters I remembered writing him as a kid. ‘I’m your #1 fan,’ written on construction paper with markers and crayons. They never got a response.

But I kept that crap to myself.

Plus, it had been ten years since I’d torn down the posters in a fit of rage, when the man who had grown to become known as Reiner ‘The King’ Kulti by his fans for being one of the most explosive and creative players in the sport, got married.

I mean, hadn’t he known we were supposed to get married and have soccer-playing-super-babies together? That he was supposed to sit next to me on an airplane one day and instantly fall in love with me? Yeah, apparently he hadn’t gotten the memo, and he married some actress with boobs that seemed to defy gravity.

And then less than a year later, he did other things that I couldn’t forgive.

Gardner had no idea about any of this.

I
sat
up straight in the chair across from the same head coach I’d been working with for the last four years and shrugged.
Why was I looking like that?
Like I wasn’t excited at all? “G, you know what happened between him and my brother, right?”

At that point, I guess I was expecting him to not know, because he’d been way too excited to tell me about Reiner Kulti getting hired.

But Gardner nodded and shrugged, his face still a canvas of confusion. “Of course I know. That’s why you’re the perfect person to do this conference, Sal. Besides Jenny and Grace, you’re the most well-known and well-liked player on the team. What do they call you, ‘the home-state sweetheart?’”

Home-state sweetheart. Gross. It made me feel like I was back in high school running for homecoming queen instead of the kid that skipped every homecoming because she usually had a game.

“Kulti broke—“

“I know what he did. PR already brought up what happened with Kulti and Eric during our meeting last night when they told us he was hired. No one wants this season to be a soap opera. You going on camera and smiling and giving everyone that Sal-smile is exactly what the team needs. This isn’t a big deal, and everyone needs to get on board so that the focus is on the team and not drama from years ago. It’ll be ten, maybe twenty minutes, maximum. You, me and him. You’ll answer a few questions and that’s it. I won’t put you through this again, I swear.”

My initial thought was simple: this was all Eric’s tibia and fibula’s fault.

I wanted to bang my head against the desk that separated me from Gardner, but I managed not to. Instead, dread pooled a bloody lake in my belly. It made me cramp, and I had to press a hand over it like that would help ease my suffering. Then I sighed again and accepted the reality behind Gardner’s words.

BOOK: Kulti
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