ONE YEAR LATER
I keep trying to sit down, but every time Northfield takes a shot, I'm up, twisting myself into position like I can actually stop a puck from here. It's impossible to watch a game from the bench where my glove and stick are completely useless. Especially after Mike Steller, our starting goalie, just let the Northfield Badgers score their second goal. In our first home game of the season.
Practically the entire town is packed into the arena right now. And after losing game one last week, the boosters and alumni have gone from smiling ass-kissers to using the stiff we'll give you one loss but that's it look. The place is so tense it's like the walls are closing in on us with every minute the opposition dominates.
The buzzer goes off, signaling the end of the second period. With a score of 2–0. Them.
I hold my breath and wait for Coach Bakowski's reaction. He flings his clipboard down the bench, and several of the guys on the team jump back.
"Goddammit, Steller!" Bakowski shouts. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Mike's skating up to the bench, his helmet tucked under his arm. If it were me, my gaze would be glued to the ice. But Steller's staring right back at Coach.
A silent argument seems to flow between them, and then Coach turns to the rest of us. "Get in the locker room, boys. Now!"
I stand up, start to follow my teammate Red, but catch Bakowski say to Mike, "You either get your head in this game or get out of my rink. I'm done with you and all your personal bullshit."
Red catches me eavesdropping and grabs the front of my jersey, pulling me away. We file into the locker room and, given the heavy silence, I can tell I'm not the only one who heard Bakowski's ultimatum.
Mike Steller's spot on the bench in front of his locker stays empty. I sit there rotating the stick in my hand, testing out my left arm — a habit more than a necessity; the bone is fully healed and has been since about a month into last season. But I have to keep myself busy, waiting for the door to swing open.
"This is bad," Jake Hammond, a junior, too, mumbles beside me.
Our senior captain, Leo, speaks up. "Steller may have let a couple of goals slip by, but that doesn't mean we can't score some of our own. Offense wins the game, right?"
Right. And the goalie loses the game.
Some grunts of encouragement follow Leo's pep talk, but they're cut off when the locker room door swings open. Coach Bakowski and his shiny black dress shoes, but no Mike Steller.
I glance beside me at Red.
Coach stops in the center of the locker room, folds his arms across his chest, and turns slowly in a circle. The dude is freakin' intimidating.
"You listen up, boys," he says. "We have one period left to play, and I swear to God if any of you even so much as thinks the name Mike Steller when our asses are on the line like this, don't even bother showing up at practice tomorrow. Got it?"
Wait ... if we aren't mentioning Mike, does that mean ...?
Red taps his stick against my skate and says, "Dude. You're in."
My heart pounds so loudly I'm sure everyone in the locker room can hear it. This is what I get for wishing earlier that I could play. I mean, I want to play, it's just ... fucking varsity.
"Tanley!" Coach swivels around quickly, stopping in front of me. "Number ten has a mean backhand, so watch out for that. Twenty-two likes to go high glove side."
Everyone in the arena will flip when they see me in goal instead of Mike. I can't be Mike Steller. Not yet. It isn't my turn.
Except it is.
Breathe, Tate. Just. Fucking. Breathe.
Coach goes over plays, tosses around insults and errors until everyone is wound so tight the guys practically explode off the benches and out of the locker room.
Me, on the other hand, I'm hoping for a minute alone so I can go barf up the thirty-two-ounce Gatorade I downed in the first period. I try to stall, but Coach grabs my helmet from the bench and shoves it into my chest.
"Let's go, Tanley, get warmed up. You ready?"
Fuck no. "Yeah, Coach. I'm ready!"
The whole walk out onto the ice is a blur, with a few moments of sharpened focus breaking through. Like passing by the Otters's Wall of Fame. I've seen these names a thousand times, but tonight they take on new meaning. Those guys walked down this same hall, suited up in JFH green and silver, then went on to play in the NHL, the Olympics, or for top NCAA teams.
My stomach twists into a tighter ball of knots. The cheering of the crowd, the familiar Otter chants, turns my attention far from the wall back to the ice.
I'm not sure I can do this. I mean, I knew I'd play in a varsity game eventually, but Steller's the senior. He's the one with college and NHL scouts watching. He's the one in the spotlight this season. Not me.
I close my eyes and draw in a deep breath. He'll be back. Mike will be back.
Except I don't actually know that for sure. He's been missing practices lately, and we lost last week. And there's his girlfriend and their —
Come on, Tate. Focus.
I can't hear the Otters radio broadcast from inside the arena — especially with all the loud chanting — but I hear the announcement inside my head, dictating the play-by-play for the rare few locals not here: Otters substitution, number forty-two Tate Tanley in for number ten Mike Steller. I'm not sure what Coach Bakowski is thinking bringing in a cold goalie when we're down by two goals. Let's hope he's got some magic planned.
In warm-ups, Hammond gets three shots past me, and even Red, who plays defense, sinks the puck low on my glove side. I can feel the crowd growing restless.
"Come on, Tanley, move!" Leo says after I miss his shot, too.
Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with me?
I stop to adjust my gloves and glance up into the stands — my mom's still in her nurse's scrubs. Roger is beside her with his five-year-old daughter, Olivia, on his lap. Roger, my new stepfather, whose boxed-up possessions are currently scattered all over my house.
And a couple of rows down from Mom and Roger, my ex-girlfriend is all cozy with a sophomore from JV.
I shift my gaze to the section where all the former Otters in town gather. At least my dad didn't show up today. Last week he popped in on our away game, and I had to put up with all the guys on the bench going on and on about how great Keith Tanley is.
Okay, enough looking up in the stands. Hockey. Ice. Puck. Glove.
But before I even have a chance to get my head on straight, the ref is blowing the whistle. Leo and Northfield's player face off and then a few passes later, the puck is sailing toward me. I manage to stop it, but my stick gets knocked out of my hand by my own defender and I can't clear the puck out. Luckily, Jake Hammond is ready and sends the puck flying past the blue line.
I let out a sigh of relief and hold my position while the guys make the other goalie work a little. After a killer pass from Hammond, Leo blows the doors off the opposing goalie with a wicked slap shot from the point. And the Juniper Falls Otters are officially on the scoreboard!
Over the next ten minutes, my teammates help me out, clearing the puck when I'm in the wrong place. Even after we've managed to tie up the score, I can't seem to find my rhythm. I'm hesitating too much. I'm not calculating shots like I should be. I'm thinking too hard instead of just doing.
With one minute left, Northfield calls a time-out. The crowd boos in response and then more chants erupt, feet stomping. The ice is practically vibrating. Leo skates right over to me and wraps his finger around the cage of my helmet. "Look at me, Tanley!"
I look him in the eyes, trying to calm my erratic breathing and slow my sprinting heart.
"I'm gonna go down there and score a goal, and you're going to keep that puck out of our net, got it?"
I nod, and Leo gives me a shove and taps my leg pad with his stick. "That's right. You fucking got this. We got this."
True to his word, Leo takes twenty seconds to score, and then my heart is sprinting again. Number ten skates toward me, sliding and shifting the puck all the way. I talk myself through his possible shots and then I shut off all the chatter inside my head, my glove raising on its own.CHAPTER 2
It's, like, post-Rapture vacant in the bar right now. Which would be awesome if it weren't for the flood of green-and-silver-covered Otters fans on their way over any minute. I wipe down table twelve for a fourth time. Aunt Kay gives me a funny look from her spot behind the bar. I just got back last night. My dad finally got released from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where I've been camped out all summer and fall. I don't exactly know how to be here. Again. And like this. Working.
My year away at Northwestern University somehow made me forget what the bar is like on game nights. Before the crowds race over here. I'd never been one to watch every single home game, either. I went to enough; I'm not that much of an anti-joiner. Most people assumed if I wasn't at the game, I was here helping my dad, and that was mostly true. He didn't give me much work to do, but we talked a lot. Often about things I wanted to do outside this town. Things that took me far away from here at the most crucial moments.
The game commentary hums across the bar via 107.5: Otters Hockey LiveOnAir playing from the ancient radio behind the bar, but I can't make out specific details, like which period we're in or what the score is. I don't have anyone at the game I can text, either. My desire to get out of town last fall was so strong that I didn't exactly do the best job of staying in touch with anyone.
With a heavy sigh, I toss the overused rag into the bucket of soapy water. Any more table washing and I might break out the choreography and do a rendition of "It's the Hard Knock Life." I grab my coat and put it on over my personalized O'Connor's Tavern apron.
"I'm gonna check on the game," I yell to Kay.
I move briskly through the cold night air, my breath coming out in white puffs, my ugly kitchen-safe shoes pinching my toes as I cross the parking lot that sits between O'Connor's and the ice rink.
The arena is packed — no surprise there. Betty, the old lady who owns the Spark Plug, a coffee shop and bakery down at the end of the block, is leaned against the boards, watching the game.
"Is it me or is this game taking extra long tonight?" I ask.
She shushes me with a raise of her hand and swings her big old-lady purse higher on her shoulder. "Tie game, one minute left ..."
One minute left. There's my answer. I'm about to turn around and head back to the bar, but my gaze zooms in on the goalie right in front of me and, more importantly, the name on the back of the jersey: Tanley.
Tate is playing goalie tonight?
"Where's Mike Steller?" I ask Betty.
She shakes her head, her wrinkled face tensing. "I don't know. Just got here. Someone said he walked out of the building still in full gear — skates and all."
Maybe he's hurt and went to the hospital. But I know Mike Steller, and I don't see him agreeing to a trip to the hospital if he could still walk.
The ref blows the whistle and then proceeds to argue with Northfield's coach over sticking or tripping or something. I turn my attention back to our goalie. Maybe it's all the pads, but I can't see any sign of the lanky, skinny arms he used to have. He looks close to six feet now. A flash of the younger, shorter Tate from last fall hits me.
I told him not to change. He promised me.
"Promise me something, Tate?"
"Don't change, okay?"
"Yeah, I know. You wrote that in my yearbook."
"But I mean it now. Promise me you won't become another varsity hockey player."
The crowd erupts in a fit of desperate cheers. They're already panicking at the tie game, and I can feel a rush of nerves.
Leo comes over and gives Tate a loud pep talk, and then the clock starts again. My eyes are glued to the goalie. Tate stays moving and alert while his teammates are at the opposite end of the ice. And then Leo scores a goal. The crowd jumps to their feet and Northfield's five players charge at us. Well, they're charging at Tate, but they look huge and fierce and it feels like they're coming at Betty and me. She reaches over and grasps my hand, her grip tight.
Two of Northfield's players are screening Tate, blocking his view of number nine, who is about to shoot. I suck in a breath and lift my free hand, half covering my face. There's a space near Tate's left skate, but he quickly spreads his legs apart, covering the area, and then his glove rises, meeting the puck right on time.
The buzzer goes off, and the volume from where we're standing magnifies to an almost intolerable level. The Otters pile on top of one another, tossing their sticks onto the ice while the fans in the bleachers cheer and dance to the school's game-winning anthem the pep band is playing.
Betty releases my hand and then pats it once more before turning to face me. "Well, that's a relief. Nothing worse than Saturday morning customers after a loss at home."
I groan. "Nothing worse than Friday night drunks after a win at home." It's all coming back to me now. Of course I know that we need the business. The off-season is always hell for my parents' finances, but add a huge stack of medical bills all during the slow summer months, and yeah, things are bad.
"Okay, you got me beat there, dear." Betty smiles, and then it quickly fades. "How's your father doing? Did he get the pastries I sent?"
He got the pastries. Not that he ate them. Or much of anything. When I left the house this morning, the entire island in our kitchen was covered in casseroles, baked goods, and freezer meals. Haley Stevenson, along with her mom, was walking over from their house two doors down, each carrying a large dish. When I get home later, all of it will probably still be there, untouched.
I plaster on my grateful for life's miracles face. "He's doing better, and he said thanks for the treats."
While the guys celebrate the victory, I notice Tate still staring at the puck in his glove. Leo and Red skate over to him, ripping off his helmet and attempting to lift him off the ice. He allows his helmet to fall on top of the net but shakes out of their grip. Then he turns around to grab it, and suddenly his gaze meets mine.
I take a couple of steps backward. My heart picks up speed.
That's definitely Tate. But it's not Jody's scrawny little brother with a mouth full of braces. That kid couldn't have stood under these bright arena lights carrying the weight of all six thousand people in town like this new Tate did.
With his eyes on me, his mouth falls open, either in shock or because he's about to say something to me through the Plexiglas wall. But then three of his teammates pounce on him, and before he can even anticipate what's happening, he's on the bottom of an Otters pileup. I guess his arm healed. I wonder if he ever told anyone about —
I shake my head and quickly exit the arena.
My dad is recovering from a supposed-to-be-inoperable brain tumor, enduring radiation and chemotherapy treatments, "just in case they didn't get it all" during the surgery. My school friends are all knee-deep into the fall quarter without me. Northwestern fall musical auditions have come and passed already — no Claire O'Connor on the cast list. The only place I'm singing now is in the shower.
I can't get caught up worrying about Tate Tanley and something that happened a year ago.CHAPTER 3
Jamie Isaacs, one of our senior defenders, takes a foot off the frozen pond and steps in my direction. "Tanley, where's the fucking chainsaw?"
I've got my cell in one hand, a can of beer in the other. I glance over my shoulder at Jake's truck and then back at my phone, quickly reading a text from earlier.
HALEY: need to talk about NYE asap! call me back or I'll find u after thegame
I stuff the phone in my pocket and head over to the red truck backed up just feet from the edge of Juniper Falls Pond. I'm not responding to Haley. Even though I'm not willing to say it out loud, I'm still too hurt and confused to be around her. She's the one who said two months ago that we needed a break, so why do I need to discuss New Year's Eve with her? This is Haley's thing. She doesn't know when to give in. But tonight, it's not working. I've got a different girl on my mind.
I'd heard she was coming home, but I haven't seen her since last fall. Since that awkward moment in the car after my broken arm had been straightened out, when she called me cute and innocent and made me promise to stay that way.