Catch up on the story so far: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

The Die Pridengard Chrismas Party was in full swing in the Supporter’s Group’s beer hall. Rather, it had been in full swing for several hours, and the SG’s members were holding it together the best they could. Ope and Change were leaning against each other in a corner, napping. PBIII was entertaining a group of new recruits next to a baby pool full of egg nog. Khaleesi, working on the better part of a bottle of Armagnac, was on her fourth attempt to keep track of the dues payments received that night. Even the normally cool and calculating Brenner Standish had let his guard down, drinking mulled wine from the latest MLS Cup while ignoring the pleas of SG security to put the trophy back in its case. His shirt had been removed some time before, and was nowhere to be found.

Only Jackie was apart, nursing a Chrismas stout and reading from her grandfather’s journal.

We didn’t think, in the moment, that we had a choice. But I couldn’t help but feel that, in selling them out, we’d also sold off a portion of ourselves, and I was worried there was no way to buy it back.

“Must be quite the read.”

Jackie looked up – it was Dara. Jackie quickly closed the book and stood up. 

“I, uh, I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

“Of course I was going to make it.”

Dara started to lean forward to hug Jackie and her thigh hit the table. She stumbled backward and then thought better of herself.

“Do you want a drink?” Jackie moved toward the nearest bar, but Dara stopped her.

“Let’s just sit,” Dara said. And so they did.

They started off by watching the party silently, then laughing at the antics of the SG members, and moving onto commenting on who was the most drunk, which pair (or more) might end up spending the night together, and who was going to have the toughest morning. They laughed, they smiled at each other, they looked at each other. Jackie met Dara’s eyes and they remembered what it was like to be happy together. They each, separately, wondered how to keep that feeling and reproduce it over and over again, to bring back what they’d lost. And then it was gone.

“I think I’ll have that drink,” Dara said. Jackie nodded, walked to the bar, and made Dara an Aviation. After she handed Dara the drink, Jackie turned to face the room.

“Hey! Everyone!” A few people turned, noticed Jackie trying to get everyone’s attention, and then worked to quiet down the rest of the crowd. After a moment, Jackie continued.

“You all know why we’re here. Each December, we celebrate Chrismas, the day when our Lord and Savior Chris Albright named the first successful Cincinnati FC coach in The MLS, delivering us to the promised land.”

The group cheered and applauded, and Jackie waited for them to finish before continuing.

“And after Chris showed us the path, we reached heights beyond our wildest dreams. We won cups, shields, champions leagues. Everything that we could have ever wanted is in that trophy case over there – except for the one on Brenner Standish’s head…”

The group laughed. 

“All of us in this room have given up something to help make this team what it is, and so we all deserve to enjoy ourselves tonight. But,” Jackie looked to Dara, and then faced back to the crowd, “I think that in our eagerness to sacrifice for the team, and for the SG, it’s possible to lose sight of the things that we need to hold onto. The things that, well, are more important than soccer.”

The crowd was stunned at that last bit. More important than soccer? They couldn’t process the thought.

“Which is why, after the season – which goes until the Spring because, as you all know but I will repeat, The MLS long ago adopted the European schedule, which is not a problem anymore because of climate change – after the season, which is why, wait.”

Jackie had lost her thoughts among the exposition.

“After the season,” Jackie continued, “I will be stepping down as President of Die Pridengard.”

The crowd gasped. Flashes popped throughout the hall, looking like old-timey flash bulb photography, but actually caused by the reaction of the excess oxygen from the gasps reacting with the heavily polluted atmosphere. It gave the impression that Jackie had announced something of magnitude at a press conference.

And her announcement indeed had magnitude, but the crowd and its noise blurred to the background of Jackie’s mind. All she could focus on, in the moment, was Dara’s smile.

********************************************************************************

Jackie was back on the couch that night. Dara said it was a good start, Jackie stepping back from the SG, but that it was a little early to determine that anything had, in fact, changed. Jackie said she understood, but of course she was disappointed and left a bit unsettled, in limbo. So she turned the light on next to the couch and opened the journal.

Before you pass judgment, you have to look at the situation from my point of view. I was a simple guy – working in middle management for a company that sells people’s social media data to consumer products firms, the NSA, and landlords – and suddenly I’m in this room with all of these powerful men. Billionaires, politicians, the commissioner of The MLS. And when they tell me how it’s going to be, the only way it’s going to be, it’s really hard not to take them at their word.

Jackie flipped through the pages of the journal, trying to figure out what exactly her grandfather was talking about. He wrote in vague terms, as if he was trying to build suspense by hinting at something rather than saying outright what it was.

Then, the lights in Jackie’s apartment went out. Jackie looked at her phone – dead, which made no sense because her phone ran on cold fusion.

“Dara?”

No response.

“Dara?” Jackie raised her voice a bit louder, but again no response.

She rose from the couch and immediately banged her knee against the coffee table. The apartment was shockingly dark – she looked out the window and it was pitch back outside. No street lights, no stars, no hover cars racing by. Then, she felt a chill, and a tap on her shoulder. She recoiled, hitting her knee on the table again.

She placed a hand on the table to orient herself and turned toward where she heard the tap. There, a glowing orange figure stood. A man, or a woman? In the glow, the figure’s face seemed to shift from man to woman and back again, over and over, while simultaneously seeming to not change at all.

“I have a gun,” Jackie said.

The figure didn’t react.

“My wife is police,” Jackie tried, “well, PC police.”

Again, the figure didn’t react. 

“You can’t be here.”

The figure raised their hands and smacked themself in the face. Glowing orange dust scattered in all directions and then gathered itself into a cloud, which shot straight at Jackie. She had time only to brace herself for impact, but when she opened her eyes—

She was outside, in an empty field. The figure stood on her right. The light of day, however, provided no greater clarity over the figure’s features, as if something was intentionally interfering with Jackie’s powers of perception.

“I am the Cincinnati Ultra,” the figure said. “I have been here before Cincinnati FC, and I will be here long after Cincinnati FC has turned to dust.”

“What do you mean you were here before Cincinnati FC? How can you be an ‘Ultra’ of a team that didn’t exist?”

The Ultra squatted to the ground and put their right hand down. “Join me,” they said, so Jackie did the same. As soon as Jackie touched the ground she looked the Ultra in the eyes.

“It’s—”

“That’s right,” the Ultra said. “Artificial. Plastic. But indistinguishable from natural grass until you actually feel it out for yourself. As it is with the Ultra.”

“I see,” Jackie said, although she did not.

“You, Jackie,” the Ultra continued, “you have lost your way. Abandoning your soccer family.”

“To spend time with my real family,” Jackie responded.

Thunder clapped. Wind gusted. The Ultra looked at Jackie with contempt.

“What is real?” they asked. “If you touch a supporter, do they not bleed?”

Jackie was puzzled. “Touch a supporter… bleed?”

“You do not yet understand,” the Ultra said, to which Jackie agreed wholeheartedly, “but I will show you.”

The Ultra slapped themself in the face again. The orange cloud again raced to Jackie’s face and, try as she might, she could not help from closing her eyes. As hard as keeping them open for a sneeze.

When she opened her eyes, she was on a highway. Rather, she was 20 feet above the highway. Below her, she saw a tire blow out on a sports car. The driver, a tall man, pulled to the shoulder, exited, and hurried to the other side of the car to survey the damage. 

“I--, I think I know him,” Jackie said.

The Ultra took Jackie’s hand and floated the two down to the hillside below the shoulder, closer to the driver now. Jackie caught a glimpse of the driver’s face and her eyes widened.

“That’s—”

“Yes,” the Ultra cut her off, “it’s him.”

“But how? And why doesn’t he acknowledge us?”

“These are shadows of the past, Jackie. You are seeing events that have already happened, and which are destined to repeat in the exact same manner for all of eternity. Fixed points in time. You do not exist on the same plane as them, and they can neither see nor hear you.”

“Is this the car trouble that causes him to miss the Open Cup game against Columbus?”

The Ultra nodded. “The same.”

“Weird,” Jackie said, “because I’ve been dreaming about him. About that game. Only, it happens differently. He makes it to the game, and receives a cross in the box, and…”

Another call pulled up behind the sports car, interrupting Jackie’s musing. Two men stepped out, a passenger and a driver who Jackie could not see.  The driver asked the player if he needed some help. The player nodded, explaining that, in a string of bad luck, someone had recently stolen his spare tire (of all things) and he hadn’t had time to replace it yet. The passenger agreed with the player that that was, indeed, bad luck, and then he knelt down to take a look at the tire. When he knelt, Jackie was able to see the driver – it was her grandfather, Prentiss Foster.

She looked at the Ultra. “What’s he doing there?”

“Because he was there,” the Ultra responded. “You are seeing events as they transpired.”

Prent told the player that he would call for help. The player nodded and bent down to look at the tire next to the passenger. Prent walked down the hill in Jackie’s direction – not seeing Jackie and the Ultra, of course – and took out his phone. But he didn’t call anyone. He just lifted the phone to his ear, spoke into it for a few seconds, and then put it down. He turned up the hill to the player and said that help would be there in a few minutes. The player thanked Prent and his companion (Landon, for the record) for their help and said that he didn’t need them to stick around. Prent and Landon shook hands with the player, got in their car, and left.

Jackie was stunned.

“They, they stranded him there?”

The Ultra nodded.

“But why?”

The Ultra shrugged. 

Jackie thought for a moment, and then continued. “So, in my dream, the player plays in the Open Cup game against Columbus. Not only does he play, he scores the winning goal.”

“There are always many possible ways that events could have gone,” the Ultra said, “but once those events occur, they will always have gone only one way.”

“What?”

The Ultra slapped themself in the face again. 

This time, when Jackie opened her eyes, she was in an empty stadium. It was Historic Crew Stadium – she recognized it from old pictures. But wait, the stadium wasn’t entirely empty, it was just mostly empty. In a corner of the stadium were about 300 Crew supporters in what was then known as the “Northern Decke.” A smattering of fans were scattered elsewhere around the stadium, but only in groups of about a half dozen or so at most. On the field, the Crew were playing Chicago Fire in a particularly lackluster affair, made moreso by the lack of any atmosphere in the stadium. The scoreboard indicated that Chicago were winning 4-0, and the game was still in the first half.

“I know this game,” Jackie said. “After the Crew beat us, they were blown out by the Chicago Fire in the worst-attended game in team history. The defeat, combined with the lack of fan support, killed any chance of stopping the Crew from moving to Austin. This stadium was leveled a year later to make room for Guy Fieri’s waterpark.”

The Ultra nodded.

“And that’s what cleared the way for Cincinnati to enter MLS,” Jackie said.

“Is it?” the Ultra asked.

“Of course it is. They were never going to admit two teams from Ohio.”

“Weren’t they?” the Ultra asked.

“What do you mean?”

The Ultra smacked themself in the face one more time, and a second later Jackie was back on the couch, coughing out an especially heavy amount of orange dust.

Jackie looked around the room. Everything was as it was before the lights went out. She thought about calling for Dara, but then thought better of it. Dara didn’t want to hear about her dreams, and Dara certainly didn’t want to hear about her dreams about soccer.

But was it a dream? Jackie paged through the journal again, looking for… something. She wasn’t sure what but she would know it when she—she found it.

And there we were with a choice. MLS was determined to move Columbus to Austin, and it didn’t want a potential rivalry with Cincinnati reigniting the interest in the Crew fandom. So I was told to do anything I could to make sure that Cincinnati loses the game, as was expected anyway. If I did that, then I was assured that we would be taken care of.

Sabotaging your own team? Siding with the league against another fanbase? Jackie couldn’t square this information with everything else she knew about her grandfather, the kind of man he was. The man who was with the team from the beginning. The man who guided the fanbase through the Wooden Ages. The man who won the Pod Wars. The man who, despite starting as a mere unaffiliated supporter, built the SG into a juggernaut. 

The man whose legacy she was now abandoning.

She looked back down to the journal. What else didn’t she know? If this was the man he really was, then maybe his legacy was worthy burying, along with any memory of him. As she was turning these thoughts around in her head, the lights went out again.

“I’m dreaming again,” she said aloud, seeing if there was any chance she would find those words convincing. 

“If you’re dreaming, then I guess that just makes me the man of your dreams.”

The lights came on and Jackie turned to the voice – this man she recognized.

“Coach?”

“You see this moustache? Looks silly, huh? A title like ‘coach’ carries all this assumed authority, and when a ‘coach’ walks into a room people get all uncomfortable. People see this moustache, though, it puts them at ease.”

“What?”

“A guy comes into your home at night, rustles around in your stuff, and eats your food, that’s pretty scary? Put a white beard and red suit on him and call him Santa Claus though, and that’s just good fun.”

“I’m not following.”

“I am not a Coach. But I’m wearing this look for your enjoyment. Think of it as a ribbed condom.”

“I don’t really think that’s something the coach would say,” Jackie said.

“Yeah, that one didn’t feel good coming out, like that time I ate the fish that was on sale.”

“Can you stop?”

“Stand up, then.”

Jackie stood.

“Come here.”

Jackie walked to the Coach, not entirely under her own power. Coach put his hands on her shoulders.

“It’s time for you to be a goldfish.”

Jackie looked around and she was in a room in another apartment. Around the room were pictures of famous women – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Tiffany Trump, and Jackie herself – and the furniture was vintage. Ope walked in the room, pulled her phone from the charging dock, and walked out.

“Why are we in Ope’s apartment?”

“You need to expand your perspective.”

Then Jackie found herself sitting in the back seat of Ope’s car. An alert sounded on Ope’s phone, which was sitting on the dashboard. Ope selected “accept,” and then followed the appointed route.

They ended in the parking lot of a convenience store. Ope walked up to the line outside the door and spoke to a man standing in line. Ope took the man’s place in line, and the man walked in. Ope stepped forward in the line as it moved toward and then inside the door. After about 10 minutes, the man went back to the line with his items and Ope left, going back to her car.

“What’s happening here?” Jackie asked.

“Ope needs to work,” the Coach answered.

“On Chrismas?”

“Chrismas exists for people like you because it doesn’t exist for people like Ope.”

They stayed in Ope’s car as she went through more odd jobs, anything that came through the app – bagging someone’s groceries, cleaning a kitchen, busing tables, giving out flu shots. Although people were all around her, it was clear that Ope went through her day completely alone. 

After Ope’s shift was over, they followed her back to her apartment and watched her collapse on the bed.

“Why does she have to do all this?”

“She’s lucky to do this. Many people’s social credit scores are too low to pick up these shifts.”

“Fine, but can’t she just get… a… job?”

The Coach shook his head.

“Jobs are a thing of the past. Your lives have been hacked to oblivion. You hire someone to cook your dinner because you’re too busy getting paid to put gas in someone’s car. You all have allowed yourselves to become so alienated from your lives and each other that the only thing you share with anyone is your loneliness. You tell yourselves you’re ‘hustling’ but when a rat gnaws its own leg off to escape a trap, is that hustling?”

“OK, but what does this have to do with soccer?”

“Everything is soccer,” the Coach said. “When your grandfather sold out the Crew fans, he pushed a boulder down a hill. Any chance of community, of solidarity, was gone. The fan became a consumer, The MLS just a product. Where before supporting a team was about building camaraderie with your fellow fans, about a shared experience, it became about collecting scarves and wristbands. About knowing and using terms like ‘business metrics.’”

“But,” Jackie responded, “it’s important to make sure ownership has a sustainable model.”

“Why?” the Coach asked. “When a billionaire buys a team, the billionaire has decided to buy a team because it serves his interest. He doesn’t need you to look out for him.”

“But,” Jackie said, “The MLS was always going to move the Crew. My grandfather cooperated with them so that we could have a team in Cincinnati. He didn’t have a choice.”

“Didn’t he? Your grandfather cooperated with them, yes, and they preferred that he cooperated, yes, but are you sure he had to?”

“You know, you’re not as funny as the real Coach.”

“Is the Coach funny, or is he just goofy and makes references you recognize?”

“Shut up.”

Jackie thought for a moment, and then continued.

“So what do I do? How do I change this?”

“Well, it’s like having a coffee after 9:00 p.m. It’s too late.”

“But then why show me this?”

“Think of me as your dentist, telling you to floss. It’s just a thing to say, doesn’t make a difference what you do with it.”

“You said, though, to be a goldfish. So you want me to forget?”

The Coach shook his head, and smiled. “That’s not what a goldfish does. Think of it this way though – I just gave you a bigger tank.”

Pitch black. Before she had time to process the change, Jackie realized she was lying down again. The lights came on, and she was back on the couch.

********************************************************************************

Jackie couldn’t sleep, no matter how she tried. She was still not entirely ready to accept that anything she experienced was real, but she also couldn’t explain away how real it felt.

After a little bit, though, Jackie heard someone coming down the hall and braced herself. But it was Dara.

“Can’t sleep?”

“Not really,” Jackie responded, “but I’m trying.” She performatively fluffed the pillow.

“Mind if I join you then?”

“Not at all.” Jackie sat up to make room on the couch.

“Tonight was… nice,” Dara said, “but I didn’t really feel great about how we left it.”

“Right.”

“I wanted to say that I didn’t want you to give up your club—”

“Supporter’s Group,” Jackie corrected, unable to help herself.

Dara smiled slightly. “Yes, Supporter’s Group. I didn’t want you to give it up just because you think you need to to, uh, fix things or whatever.”

Jackie didn’t say anything, so Dara continued.

“I don’t really think that’s the problem anyway. And I feel like you’re just going to resent me, eventually, and feel like you gave up something so important to you. Because things are going to stay tough. We’re going to have bad days, and have great days, and it’s going to be because of us, and because of life. And our problems now are the same – because of us, because of life.”

“But,” Jackie said, “I was thinking that if I stopped being the President of the SG, I’d have more time to work on our relationship.”

Dara shook her head. “We’re not a committee, Jackie. We’re two people sharing a life. It’s not just about budgeting time and money, or about delegating responsibilities. It’s about being connected to each other.”

“Oh. I guess I never thought we weren’t connected. I think about you all the time, Dara. When I’m in the SG Beer Hall, when I’m traveling, when I’m at the game. I’m always thinking about you.”

“I don’t see that, though. When you’re here, physically at least, you always seem somewhere else. It doesn’t matter that you’re thinking of me when you’re gone. When you’re here, I need you to be here. Present, not just around.”

“I’m here now,” Jackie said. She got closer to Dara and they looked at each other. Dara, searching Jackie’s face, questioned whether she could trust the expression, looking for any cracks or uncertainty. Then, they moved even closer toward each other to embrace, and just as their arms were ready to close on each other--

Pitch black.

When the lights came back on, Jackie was alone on the couch again. She looked around, calling for Dara. No response.

A sudden wind chilled her. She reached for the blanket, but it was gone. She sat up – but she was already standing. There was no couch. There was no room. There was nothing. Not dark, exactly, more like, empty. She could see, but there was nothing to see. An endless room, with black floors, black ceilings, black walls.

She felt a tug on her arm, and she looked down. Her arm was now connected to an IV tube. A tug on her other arm; another tube. Before she could process what was happening, she was pulled down into a chair and reclined back. On the right arm rest were a series of buttons – options included water, nutrition, nanobrew. On the left arm was a single button: ON. She pressed it.

In front of her face a hologram of a soccer field appeared. Arranged across the field were cards of various players – the starting XIs of Cincinnati FC and Austin Crew. The cards moved quickly around the field for 30 seconds, playing out the most statistically probable scenario if the players physically played the game. Cincinnati won 3-2, with two goals from a recently acquired Eastasian striker, Vladimir Hyeung. 

As soon as the simulation ended, the field was replaced with a picture: A still from the old movie Captain America, with Hyeung replacing the Captain and saying “I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY.” Above the image was a question: “DO YOU LIKE THIS MEME? SWIPE RIGHT OR LEFT.” Jackie swiped left, presuming that meant that she did not like that meme.

It was replaced with another one, of a purple-haired protester screaming in agony, with the Austin FC logo placed on their shirt. “DO YOU LIKE THIS MEME?” Jackie again swiped left.

Jackie didn’t like any of the memes offered to her. But they kept coming. So, after a few dozen rejections she swiped right, just to see what would happen. The image shook, and then she was asked another question: “WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE?” She reached out and selected “NO,” but then she was sent another question: “DON’T YOU WANT ENGAGEMENT?” She selected “NO.” But the message persisted: “ALERT: YOU ARE LOW ON ENGAGEMENT. YOU MAY WANT TO INCREASE YOUR ENGAGEMENT.” So Jackie selected yes.

The image appeared again, and then stars blinked around it.

“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE OBTAINED ENGAGEMENT.”

She felt liquid move through the IV on her left arm, and she felt happy. For only a moment though. Then she felt empty, like she had just gotten home from a party she hadn’t been ready to leave.

“WOULD YOU LIKE ADDITIONAL ENGAGEMENT?”

Jackie selected yes, and then scrolled through another assortment of memes. She shared one – more stars, more happy juice.

Another message: “LOOK AT THIS. DOESN’T THIS MAKE YOU MAD?”

Below the message was a social media post from an Austin supporter: “Cincinnati doesn’t just buy the best players, it buys the refs. 8/10 times Austin wins that game.”

Her left arm tingled again where the IV was inserted, and she felt irritated. A keyboard appeared, and she typed a response. Her response appeared on the screen, shook, and received its stars. More happy juice.

Another message: “DON’T FORGET TO HYDRATE.”

Jackie looked at the buttons on her right armrest. Her hand hovered between the water and nanobrew options. She looked up to the screen, at the memes being shared and the post-game conversation, and then selected the nanobrew. The liquid came through the IV connected to her right arm, and she felt calm.

Suddenly, she had been there for three hours. And she would have continued, if not for the next image that appeared: Gary.

Well, it was somewhat recognizable as Gary, but an extremely unappealing version. This Gary was sporting a giant hoop earring on his left ear, a skull bandana, and aviator sunglasses, while smoking a cigarette. A tattoo reading “DOWN BADJI,” apparently a reference to FC’s first 30-goal striker, was visible on Gary’s exposed upper arm. And he had a sneer on his face that indicated he wasn’t someone you really wanted to learn more information about. Below the image was a caption: GARY GANG.

Jackie swiped left on the image, but nothing happened. She tried again, and again nothing. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to make the image go away. Almost as if reading her mind, another message appeared: “DO YOU WANT GARY TO GO AWAY?” She selected yes. “DO YOU WANT TO JOIN GARY GANG?” She selected no. “ARE YOU SURE YOU DO NOT WANT TO JOIN GARY GANG?” She selected yes.

But the image didn’t go away. Instead, Gary turned his head to look at you.

“This is what you like. This is what you want,” he said.

Liquid now came through both IVs. She became dizzy from the mood swings from her left IV and the alcohol from the right. She tried swiping at the hologram, sharing memes as fast as she could, but nothing worked. Gary, hovering in front of her, was laughing at her. She looked to Gary, looked to the posts, and then back again. She looked at the buttons on her armrest, and to the IVs in her arms. There was only one thing she could think to do.

She yanked the IVs out. She winced from the pain and felt lightheaded. In her daze, she saw a fuzzy image of Gary, looking normal now, nodding at her and smiling. 

********************************************************************************

The next day, on Chrismas morning, Jackie woke up on the couch feeling surprisingly well-rested. The first one in the house awake, she had time to make coffee and breakfast while she thought about what had happened the night before. And she had accepted that, yes, she had not dreamed her experience. But she didn’t know exactly what it meant, or what to do about it.

“Mmmm, Improbable Bacon, my favorite.”

Jackie turned around and saw Dara, fully dressed, smiling.

“You want some coffee?” Jackie asked. 

Dara nodded, and Jackie made her a cup. Dara sat down at the table while Jackie finished making breakfast.

“Kenny?”

“Still sleeping,” Dara responded.

Jackie prepared two plates and brought them to the table.

“So,” Dara said, between bites, “I was thinking. Maybe my mom watches Kenny for the day, and we pick him up tomorrow?”

Jackie looked up from her food. “That sounds nice.”

They spent the day together. Walked through a park, visited some museums, had drinks on the river, and finished with a dinner at the new Spanish restaurant, owned by the same people who owned the previous Spanish restaurant. When they got home, they went straight for the kitchen to open a bottle of wine.

“Would you like a coffee? I think I’m going to have one,” Dara said.

Jackie looked at her watch. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. “Isn’t it too late?” she asked.

“No,” Dara replied, “it’s not too late.”