Landon leaned forward on the bench, waiting for the tap that meant he was next. Waiting for his guys to score, hoping they’d claim the hardest trophy in sports to win. Adrenaline coursed through his veins, his leg jiggled, he rolled his mouth guard between his teeth.
Various exclamations and encouragements hurtled toward his teammates. The noise from the crowd roared over the ice.
The clock ticked down. The end of the second overtime bore down on them. Everyone was exhausted. Anxious. Ready to win.
Bouchy settled into his crouch at the dot, stick at the ready. He won the face off, but the puck bounced past Rossy and into the corner. Everyone scrambled after it.
In the crease, Hennessey squared himself to the action, shifting his feet back and forth, ready to block anything incoming.
Landon groaned when Engström came up with the puck and sent it hurtling down the ice and out of the Generals’ offensive zone. The crowd cheered for the home team’s momentary respite.
Mäki corralled the puck while players from both teams flew toward the bench.
At the tap on his shoulder—finally—Landon threw a leg over the boards, ready to tussle.
The second Rossy stepped through the gate, Landon hit the ice and rocketed toward Mäki, took control of the puck.
VW and Pointer took up position moments later.
Poulin, Cordonnier, and Smolek streaked across the neutral zone.
Landon looped behind the net, took a breath, reached cruising speed. Everyone sped up ice.
He passed through the face-off circle, whisked the puck across to Pointer. Pointer caught it, zoomed forward.
The thwack of puck hitting blade was swallowed by the skrutch-skrutch-skrutch of six skaters hurtling forward.
Expletives and calls of instruction pin-balled between them.
The Lumberjacks’ three players cycled the zone, blocked lanes.
Crucial seconds ticked by.
Landon hauled in air, kept his focus on the shifting puck.
Pointer passed to VW, VW passed it back.
Landon planted himself on the edge of the crease, blocking Hennessey’s view as best he could without getting called for interference.
Pointer skated around the net, head on a swivel, looking for an opening to get the puck to VW maneuvering up and down the half boards. There wasn’t one.
Landon swallowed, shifted back and forth in front of the goalie. His pulse thrummed in his ears. His gaze met VW’s. VW pulled his stick back and sent a shot right at him. Landon had a split second to determine if he needed to tip the puck in or if the puck was going in on its own.
Poulin scooted up and shoved his stick forward, deflecting the puck high into the netting. The whistle blew.
Landon gulped for air. Shit. They’d used their timeout in the third. They got no reprieve to rest their legs or catch their breaths except for the time it took for the face off reset. Landon and his counterpart bumped padded hips, jockeyed for advantage.
The ref dropped the puck. VW won the draw, chucked it to Landon.
Landon sent it to Pointer. Pointer sent it back to VW.
Cordonnier intercepted it and took off toward Mäki.
Landon’s gut twisted in on itself.
Everyone flew after Cordonnier.
The crowd cheered.
Mäki slid to the edge of the crease, made himself big in front of the net.
Cordonnier was a beast of a winger. He dragged a toe and swung his stick.
The puck skittered across the last forty feet of ice. VW dove, hoping to block. Puck went five hole.
Goal horn blew. The crowd roared.
Gloves, sticks, and helmets went flying. The Lumberjacks shed themselves of their gear and clung to one another in a living breathing mass of euphoria.
Shouts of joy, of happiness echoed across the ice.
The noise hit Landon like a tidal wave and he slid backward a few inches. He dropped to a knee, bereft. His lungs heaved, his eyes burned, his nose stung.
The Generals had lost.
They’d lost. Even worse, they couldn’t leave the ice until someone started the handshake line.
Fuck. He hated that tradition.
Landon closed his eyes and rested his head against his upright stick, gloved hands clasped tightly around it.
They’d lost. They’d lost. All that hard work…for fucking nothing.
Defeat sat like a Zamboni on his chest.
Two years ago, they’d finished dead last in the league. Last year, they missed the playoffs by a fucking point. This year they’d gone all the way.
He scrunched his face against the tears, breathed deep. His heart fractured into a million pieces.
The sun slanting across his face woke Landon and he groaned. Slapping around for his watch, he squinted one eye open and peered at the platinum face. After nine? His mother usually had the whole house up and running by seven am, weekday or weekend. The fact that he’d woken up on his own was a shock.
He rolled his face into the pillow. He was home and he just wasn’t sure he was up for dealing with his mother this summer even though two weeks had passed since the loss. Fourteen freaking years in the league and not once had she said something complimentary. Not offered a single sympathetic sentiment. Just issued admonishment to ‘stop wallowing and be better.’
He’d taken her words at face value every time and done his best to be better.
Maybe this year would be different.
This year, the Generals had gone all the way to the Finals. To double overtime in a game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Aside from actually winning the Cup, what more could she ask for? If getting that far, a result of luck as much as of skill, couldn’t earn him an “atta boy” from his mother, he didn’t know what would. But he’d give her a chance. She was his mother, after all. His parents were already in bed when he’d crept in late last night, so she hadn’t had the opportunity.
Rolling back over, chin tucked over one corner of his pillow, hand tucked under, Landon looked out the window at the bright blue sky and the white fluffy clouds.
The thought of retiring flitted through his mind again. Every now and then throughout the season, even though the Generals had had a good year, the idea had occurred to him.
Professional hockey was a young man’s game. Requiring young, fast legs. Boundless energy. A fast metabolism. Skill. Things he no longer had or things he had to work twice as hard to keep. He was just plain tired of the grind. Eighty-two regular season games. Post season games if you were lucky enough to qualify. Criss-crossing the continent and four time zones on a monthly basis.
Without someone to share it with, his journey had often been specious and hollow. But hockey was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. He’d been skilled enough as a child that his parents had invested a lot of time and money into his career even before they had any inkling he could make the big leagues. Once he had, quitting seemed like a slap to his parents’ face, especially his mother’s.
Having a relationship though… As much as he’d love to be in one, being gay in his family was probably worse than being gay in the NHL. By some mutual understanding, his parents had never asked and he’d never offered an explanation for his singleness aside from “focusing on hockey.”
Maybe they’d taken that at face value, maybe they hadn’t. As long as he didn’t appear to act on his desires—which he never did while home in Minnesota—then they could ignore the fact that Landon was gay. According to Grandfather Clarke, a relationship with another man meant a fast-track ticket straight to hell. Thanks to Grandfather Clarke’s five decades of pulpit beating, Mom believed the same.
Landon sighed. He just didn’t know. Despite thirteen years of Sunday school and weekly attendance at church as a kid, he’d always had a hard time buying into the whole notion of gays going to hell. The belief rendered him damned no matter what he did. Was the purported “God of love” really that heartless?
Nevertheless, Landon knew which side his hockey bread had been buttered on and acted accordingly. All he’d wanted to do was play, and there was only one path to doing so. He’d kept his mouth shut, his grades up, and his reputation clean.
Rolling from bed—laying there and ruminating into his pillow was getting him nowhere—Landon pulled on shorts and a tee-shirt and stumbled out in search of caffeine. His mother allowed one vice, at least. He blinked at the sight of his dad sitting at the kitchen table, newspaper wide open and a steaming cup of coffee within reach. “Dad?”
He peeked around the paper, offering Landon a smile, before folding the paper up and setting it aside. “Morning, son.”
“Where’s Mom?” He wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved, but Mom had always preached duty and responsibility, so expecting her to be home was unrealistic. Not only that, but he still felt a bit raw, so maybe her absence was for the best.
“She’s at the office. Still works half days filing and organizing down at City Hall.”
Landon poured and prepped a cup of coffee before joining his dad at the octagonal faux-wood table. It was newish, as were the castored chairs, but almost identical to the table before it and the one before that. “And what about you?”
A glow of pride and elation took over his face as he smiled. “I’m retired now.”
Landon blinked in surprise. Wow, okay, he hadn’t seen that coming, but he couldn’t help his answering grin. “Did you tell me this and I forgot?”
Dad shook his head and finger-combed the few wisps of hair into place across his mostly-bald head. “Nope. Decided a few months ago and was a free man as of June first.”
“That’s awesome, Dad.” Honestly, Landon had expected his dad to die in his office. “You deserve to take it easy after all those years working and supporting us. Thank you for that, by the way.”
Dad looked abashed, but picked up his cup of coffee and smiled from behind it.
“You keeping busy then?” Landon blew across his cup, sipped.
Nodding, Dad said, “Started a summer garden and getting ready to be a grandfather. I worked over fifty years to provide for your mother and you kids, and now I don’t have to no more. Your mother did a bang-up job socking away our money, and you paying off the mortgage and adding to our retirement fund was a blessing and a boon. I’m going to be seventy-six years old in a few months’ time and I’m going to enjoy being a grandpa while I can.”
Huh. Landon took another sip. His mother had always ruled the roost with a firm hand, and his father’s sense of freedom blew his mind. Dad had always been quiet, bending to the will of his dominant wife. Had gone to work and come home, dutifully handling the responsibilities of homeowner and father on the weekends as directed by Mom. Landon’d have loved to have been secretly on speaker phone during the conversation between his parents about Dad retiring. Landon was glad though. Dad deserved his rest.
“Thanks for letting me crash here for a few days.” His condo had sold sooner than expected and the house he’d inherited from Grandpop wasn’t quite ready for occupancy.
“It’s no problem, son. It’s good to have you back in the house.” They both sipped coffee.
“You’re coming to the Independence Day picnic over at Fitzgerald Park, right?”
Landon nodded. “With Mom being one of the organizers? There’d be heck to pay if I didn’t.”