C’MON,” I SAY TO NUMBER 19, who put the late cross-check on Gord, our center. I say, “C’mon.” I skate over while Coach screams, and then my gloves are on the ice, and I’m begging Number 19 to throw down, too. The linesman has my shoulder, pulling me away, but I stay put. “C’mon,” I say. “C’mon, pussy. Throw down. Please throw down.”

After the game, me and Gord duck out past curfew to the Belleville Pub, and I drink eight beers to Gord’s five, ten to his six, twelve to his eight. Two puck bunnies sit with us, and Gord talks to the prettier one. The one who should be mine is watching him instead while he tells them how he’s chasing the record for single-season points. I want to tell my girl that she’s cute, but my tongue feels sore and swollen in my head, and I wonder when I bit it and didn’t notice.

Gord goes home with his girl. I wake up alone and sick. On the bus out of town, Coach tells everyone I’m fined for missing curfew. He saw me come in last night, wasted and puking in the garbage can by the motel office. He says nothing about Gord.

“Hey, Cementhead,” Craigie calls to me that night in Kingston Arena. “Watch out for Number 15. He’s a headhunter.”

Gord scores a first-period goal, and in his next shift, they tie him up behind the net. I skate over to help. My guts are still churning from last night, though, and I’m not watching out like Craigie told me. The stick butt comes from my blind side and catches me in the mouth, cuts my lip against my teeth. Number 15, the headhunter, works his stick like a pool cue, giving me another good one in the chest. There’s no whistle as I straighten up and spit blood.

I follow the headhunter around three or four times, circling. I can see where my spit blood turned the ice pink. Finally, I catch him in our goal crease. We butt heads before I haul him down and fall on him with my stick over his throat. I lean on the stick and grind a little until I feel that collarbone give — ka-pop. Number 15’s screaming. The Kingston fans are screaming, too. They look like animals under the lights, then, like twisted-faced monkeys. It’s the freaking Nature Channel behind the rinkside glass. They snarl and spit and howl while the ref leads me off. What’s wrong? I ask them with a look. Whatever is the matter, little monkeys?

Sitting in the penalty box, my head still hurting, I hear the voice again, just as I expected. It begins like a ringing in my ears, then turns into a close whisper that swallows the noise from the stands. I’m almost relieved to hear the voice now, not afraid anymore, like the first time it came, after I got clobbered in that home game against Stratford. I’d gone into the corner with my head down — stupid — and got boarded from behind. That was all she wrote. Good night, ladies. When they woke me with smelling salts and asked me my name and if I knew where I was, I didn’t tell anybody about the voice I heard. Later, they took me to the hospital for a CAT scan, and I paced back and forth for hours in that dumb gown until a nurse told me to lie down and rest. But I didn’t tell anybody about the voice. How could I?

 

Cindy isn’t a puck bunny or a rink rat. She doesn’t even like hockey. I met her at the Red Lobster, where she’s a hostess. She doesn’t follow Ontario Junior A or care how close Gord is to breaking the record. When I tell Cindy I’m leading the league in penalty minutes, she doesn’t even know what that means.

I start sneaking Cindy down to my basement room at night. I board with an old couple, the McQuibbans. Mr. McQuibban brags about me to his friends and brings them down to meet me, but I think Mrs. McQuibban is scared of me. I’m always polite and do my own dishes, but sometimes, when we’re alone together and I crack the ice-cube tray or clear my throat, she jumps. I try to stay downstairs as much as possible.

Cindy likes to touch the place where my teeth went through my lower lip back in Junior B. She feels it with her fingertips and sometimes asks about the other scars on my face and hands. I didn’t used to like all that. I had a girlfriend back in North Bay, in high school. We would fool around, but she never touched my scars the way Cindy does, because she knew I didn’t like it. And maybe I still don’t. But I let Cindy do it. I let her touch me however she wants, and I answer her questions.

The split eyebrow and the ding over my temple are from Junior B, too. The cheekbone is from a Peewee game where a stick blade chopped right through my mask. My left knuckles are from an Oshawa defenseman’s teeth and the infection I got, but the left wrist is nothing exciting, just fryer grease from a North Bay McDonald’s. The right wrist isn’t hockey, either. When I was eleven or twelve, I got it slammed in a car door. My mom was arguing with a boyfriend and didn’t see my hand. It wasn’t really her fault, but I’m not sure Uncle Sandy saw it that way. I remember how he didn’t speak when she told him, and while he drove me to the emergency room, he kept his arm tight around my shoulders and said nothing at all. Mom was too upset to take me in. She was afraid, too, that the nurses might recognize her from a few weeks before, when I’d needed stitches on the back of my head. That hadn’t really been her fault, either. Another boyfriend — his name was Archie or Arthur or something, and he was a full-blooded Mohawk — had pushed me into a picnic table. Mom broke up with him right away.

I tell Cindy all of this, and she listens as if I’m going to give her a pop quiz after. Then she kisses me, long and slow, and I’m glad I don’t have to talk anymore.

 

Wake up, Ciemasko! Mix it up out there!” Coach is yelling at me again. He always yells, says I don’t understand him unless he does. When I’m back on the bench, he says quieter, right in my ear, “Number 21’s got to know this is our house. Ring his fucking bell.”

I jump the boards to start my next shift. Number 21’s out, too — a big, freckled farm boy. I don’t see many guys bigger than me. He watches me, and I watch him, like at a party when you spot a girl and your eyes meet through the crowd. Number 21 and I have known all night that it’s on between us. It’s just a matter of when. Now I watch him over the face-off and ask him again with my eyes, and when the whistle blows, we drop gloves and circle each other. We both get in a few good ones before he pulls my jersey up over my head. Then I’m bound up, and, boy, he whales on me good. Later, in the box, my ears are full of a sound like a vacuum cleaner in an upstairs room. And I hear the voice again, too quiet for me to understand. Still, just hearing it makes me feel better. I close my eyes and listen.

In the dressing room after the game, I sit between Gord and Picker.

“Don’t worry, Cementhead,” Picker says. “You got some good shots in. We saw it. You bloodied him.” Gord tells me the same. It’s not true, but it’s nice of them to say.

“I heard that voice again in my head,” I say. Then I remember I haven’t told them about the other times.

“Damn, he’s punchy,” Gord says. “Fucking punchy. Poor Cementhead.” Gord laughs and slaps my shoulder pads.

I laugh, too. After we shower and dress, I follow Gord out to where the press is waiting for him. I stand by while they talk to him.

“To tell you the truth,” Gord says to Barry from the Chronicle, “the record and the draft are the last things on my mind. I’m playing one game at a time here. I’m just happy I can make a contribution each day. My main priority is getting us to the playoffs. There are a lot of guys working hard with me and looking out for me. Whatever happens this season, they deserve credit as much as me.”

When Gord’s done, they thank him, and we go out and get drunk.

 

Eventually, Cindy comes to a home game. I still think maybe she shouldn’t. I’ve told her a few times she won’t like it, that she’ll be frightened if I have to scrap. And — I don’t tell her this part — it’s better if the guys don’t know that she’s with me. Not because I’m embarrassed. But once they know, there’ll be jokes and questions, mostly coming home on the bus at night, when everyone’s bored. They’ll expect me to joke, too, and I might get pissed off, which only makes it worse. They talk about girlfriends, not just pucks. Girlfriends are fair game. And then there’s the other stuff that goes on: videotapes and Polaroids and “closet cinema” and shit. It’s best if they don’t know about Cindy.

So Cindy’s in the stands today, but only I know about it. When I get a loose puck at the opponent’s blue line, I feel her up there watching. I know I shouldn’t, but I take a slap shot, and it flies way high, over the glass.

“What the hell!” Craigie is almost pissing himself, laughing. “Nice one, stone hands.”

“Jesus!” Coach is mad again. Always mad. “Pass, Cementhead!”

I only wanted one shot. That’s not so much to want. Later in the game, I rush on a power play and tuck in a rebound. It’s a bullshit goal, but it puts us one up. I ride my stick like a witch’s broom back to our end, goofing like Tiger Williams used to do when I was a kid and I’d stay up late and watch him on TV at Uncle Sandy’s. No one seems to see me, though. They’re all looking at Gord, who’s down in the corner, blood dribbling from his nose like it’s a faucet with a bad washer. Number 34 laid him out, I hear later, popped him while I was cherry-picking up front.

“Fucking Cementhead,” Coach says. “You should’ve been there to protect him. Do your goddamn job and let Gord score the goals.”

 

I get the haircut first, after our Ottawa series, but Gord says it was his idea, that I got mine only after seeing his. Craigie could tell them. He was there when I asked the little Italian barber to buzz it all off except a piece on top, like a samurai. But people are going to believe it was Gord, anyway.

At least Cindy likes my haircut. She rubs her cheek on it and touches where the scars show through in back.

“Yeah, I’ve been knocked out a few times,” I tell her when she asks.

“That can’t be good for you,” she says quietly.

“I know. Too much of that and you gotta retire early, like Bret Lindros.”

Cindy’s touching me again, moving her hands over my head, and I wish then that my hair was just a little longer or shorter, because it’s that length where it prickles wherever she touches. Sometimes it’s nice, but other times it sends this tight feeling down through my guts that makes my teeth and fists clench. It’s like a moth fluttering around my ears and eyes. I want to swat it away. It’s the same with the noises she makes when we’re together, the little animal sounds. Sometimes they seem so beautiful, but after I come, they make me nervous, make me wish I was someplace else.

“You know,” I tell Cindy, “sometimes, after somebody really cleans my clock, I hear this voice.” I laugh because I can’t believe I’m actually telling someone.

“What does it say?”

“Oh, you don’t want to know.” But it’s hard to keep quiet when she’s staring straight into my eyes. “It says this crap. It says that I’m special. That I’m loved. That I’m being, like, watched over all the time. That’s how it talks to me. Like that.”

Cindy’s quiet for a long time. I shouldn’t have told her.

“Are you religious, Danny?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “My uncle took me to Sunday school a few times with my cousins, but I don’t remember anything much.”

She smiles and settles in beside me.

Cindy goes to the Methodist church on the highway almost every Sunday. I’d like to think the same thing she probably does about the voice, I really would, but I’m not sure that I can. After all, why would the voice be talking to me and not to all the other people who need help? Do I seem like I need it more than anybody else?

 

In a bar after a game in Toronto, Gord moves in on the wrong guy’s girlfriend, and bang-o. I get there just as the guy slaps Gord’s head down into the bar top. I let them go at it a little before pulling Gord away. He needs five stitches in his chin and is out two games. Next practice, Coach makes us skate lengths for half an hour while he gives Gord royal shit by the dressing rooms. As we’re coming off the ice, groaning and bitching, Coach drags me aside and presses his fingers hard into my arm.

“So, Cementhead, tell me. What were you doing last night while this shit was happening?”

I tell Coach that I didn’t see anything until it was too late, and he smacks me hard on the helmet.

“Listen, Cementhead: on the ice, off the ice, something happens to him, and it’s on you. Understand?” He gives me another smack. “You watch his back as long as this season is on. From now until fucking March, you watch over him like your life depends on it. Anyone messes with him, any time, anywhere, you take them the fuck out.”

I don’t like the feeling I get then, like someone’s pressing down on me and won’t get off, like I can’t breathe right. On the ice, off the ice. I want to say how it doesn’t sound fair, that it’s too much for just one guy. But instead, I tell Coach I’m sorry, that I’ll do a better job of watching over Gord for the rest of the season.

Around that same time, Cindy and I have our scare. She calls me up crying, and I ask her how it happened.

“You don’t know?”

“Of course I know how. But how could it happen?”

I shouldn’t have to ask. In ninth-grade health class they told us: no matter how careful you are, just one of them can slip through, jump the fence or sneak in the back way, and that’s all it takes. Back then, I thought they were just trying to scare us. The idea bothered me — how millions of them start out, and only one of them gets to be the big hero. Only one. The rest of them just fucking die, I guess. Who cares?

Listening to Cindy cry almost makes me say that she doesn’t have to worry anymore, because I’ll take care of her. I think I even want to say it — not just because of the situation, but because then I’d have a clear excuse to quit. No one could say I didn’t have a reason. It’s not like I need hockey. I could get a job and make some money.

I wait for myself to speak, but nothing comes out. I’m still waiting when Cindy hangs up.

The scare is over nothing, as it turns out. I hear from Cindy’s friend that she’s all right, after all. But Cindy doesn’t call me after that. And I don’t call her.

 

In Plymouth, news travels fast down the bench: pro scouts somewhere in the stands, in the south end. We stretch our necks, searching for clipboards or stopwatches or laptop computers.

“Skills showcase, boys,” Craigie says.

Gord does all right that game, puts in two sweet goals early. Craigie picks up both assists. Me, I chase Paresi, the Plymouth center, around all night. He’s this skinny pussy I remember from a few weeks back, when I cut him over the eye. The scar is still there; I see it when we tie up in his end. It’s pink with some pretty yellows and oranges around the edges.

“Still having bad dreams about me?” I ask Paresi. He skates off, and I catch up to him in our end, grab him, and give him a few pokes. Paresi’s looking around for his big man to protect him. “C’mon,” I say, in his ear. “C’mon, bitch.” But he doesn’t bite. I chase him back up to his goal, where his big man swings on me. I get most of the good shots in before they pull us apart. The other guy gets two extra minutes in the box for instigation. Picker scores on our power play.

Later in the game, when I break Paresi’s jaw, it’s on a fair hit — no penalty — but the locals go mental anyway. After Paresi goes out on the stretcher, the fans stand and start throwing bottles. Some come pretty close to hitting me. I wave and smile, which just makes it worse. A few assholes act like they’re going to jump over the boards. I wave them on. C’mon, mad little monkey-faces. Sorry you spent your paycheck on this game and all that skunky beer you drank. C’mon down and have some real fun. I wish they’d try. Finally, the local constable hops the boards and slides toward me in his black shoes and striped pants, hands out for balance.

“C’mon, Number 3,” he says.

“What’d I do?” I say. “It was a fair check.” Another bottle almost wings me and breaks on the ice between us.

Coach is scared now, leaning out and watching the crowd. “What’s going on?” he shouts.

The constable talks to the officials, and they talk to Coach. We’re all watching the fans, who are crowding forward, hanging over the glass and beating on it with their fists. It’s a goddamn monkey house. Coach nods once and sits back down at our bench. He won’t look me in the eye.

“I gotta get you out of here, Number 3,” the constable whispers. He’s my Uncle Sandy’s age, with a graying mustache and little glasses. “If you stay, they’re going to tear this place up.”

I let him cuff me behind my back. Even though it’s just for show, it still makes me mad. The Plymouth fans cheer as he leads me off. They throw programs and ice cubes and empty cups — but no bottles, luckily. I’d like to knock down their sad little auditorium, punch out a few beams and bring the whole works down on their heads.

In the locker room, the constable uncuffs me and lets me grab my stuff, then leads me out to our bus and tells me to keep out of sight until after everyone’s gone home. He sits with me for a while, even brings me a cup of coffee and a bag of Doritos.

“Where you from?” he asks.

“North Bay.”

“You get home much?”

“No, sir.”

“You get homesick?”

I’m not sure why he would ask me that. I wonder what about me made him think to ask. I say I don’t usually, except sometimes I kind of miss having someone I know up in the stands. Back home, I always had my Uncle Sandy up there pulling for me.

“Paresi was our top scorer,” the constable says. “You really screwed us. A month from the goddamn playoffs, too.”

I don’t know what to say, but he just laughs. He’s not really angry. We talk about the NHL and the draft, and he smokes two cigarettes, keeping them low and out of sight. He has two grown sons who played city league when they were young. When he tells me that, I picture him driving a station wagon with equipment bags in the back at 6 a.m., or sipping coffee from a thermos up in the stands, just like Uncle Sandy, before he had to stop taking me to practices. When the constable leaves, I wish he could’ve stayed just a little longer.

 

I spot Cindy hanging around the rink after a home game. At first, I think she’s come to see me, but when we meet, she just smiles and walks off. That’s OK. Later, I see her waiting with the other women on the soggy rubber matting by the dressing-room doors, all of them making like they’re not waiting, just talking or smoking or looking in their purses for change. Before our next home game, I see Cindy dropping Gord off out front. That’s fine with me, I think while I suit up. Maybe it’s a relief. She’s on him now.

But the whole game, I’m thinking of how she’s up there, seeing me now and again, but each time her eyes are slipping off to find him. I’m not playing so good. I save Craigie’s ass back of their net, but I get trapped there, and the two defensemen double-team me, really bang me up good. While they’re whaling on me, I’m thinking the strangest things: wondering if she’s watching, if she’ll hurry down to the bench to see if I’m OK, if she might come by my place later to touch the places where they’ve bruised and cut me.

I’m still thinking about that long after the game, on my way home, alone. My face is beat to shit, and I have some bruised ribs that hurt even when I’m standing still. Mrs. McQuibban watches me come in with her eyes wide. She brings me down some microwaved spaghetti and smiles once before hurrying back upstairs. That night, I have to take four Tylenol-3s and drink five beers just to get comfortable in bed. I fall into a half sleep, and I hear it then, clear as a bell:

You are much loved, Son. Don’t be sad or afraid.

“I don’t want this,” I whisper out loud, facing the ceiling in the dark. “I can’t do it anymore.”

You are watched over. You are loved. Your suffering is not meaningless.

The voice makes me want to cry. I want to believe it, to believe that it’s not just something wrong with my head. I beg it, “Please don’t fool with me. Don’t tell me all those things if they’re not true. Please don’t.” 

 

I’m just sitting at home, flipping channels, when I get the call from Craigie. “Closet cinema at Gord’s,” he says. “Show starts at eleven o’clock.”

I shouldn’t go. When I’ve gone before, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others. And I especially shouldn’t go to Gord’s. I sit drinking beer and flipping channels for a while, and then I get up and pace. I hear the McQuibbans walking around over my head, back and forth: her light steps and his big, stomping ones. I put on my jacket and head out.

I walk to Gord’s basement apartment. One of the team sponsors set him up with it. Craigie and Picker are already there. We look at Gord’s trophies and drink his beers while we wait. By 10:45, I start to get the panicky feeling in my guts that I knew would come. I should leave, but I don’t know what excuse to make. I could hurt myself, maybe have an accident and have to go home. “Cementhead was here, too,” they’d tell Gord and laugh, “but he sliced his fucking hand open. Poor Cementhead.” That would get me out of this, I think. I start looking around for something to trip over or fall into.

Craigie and Picker are trying to remember all the closet-cinema rules. There are so many by now: The host gets twenty points just for a show. Then there’s an extra ten for other things, like if he can get the girl to call him “Daddy” or “cowboy” or “my big soldier.” Twenty extra if he can get her to bark like a dog or let him spank her ass. I drink another of Gord’s beers while Craigie and Picker argue about the rules. I still haven’t figured out a way to leave. And then it’s too late: we’re cramming into the bedroom closet. It barely holds the three of us. We stand ankle deep in Gord’s smelly laundry, waiting.

Gord comes in at 11:15. I recognize the other voice right away. I guess I came tonight only to see if it would be her, and it is. So what do I do now? I feel myself starting to walk out, but Craigie grabs me by the shoulder, and Picker holds my other arm and whispers, “What are you doing?” I could crack their skulls together and drag them both out with me, but all of a sudden I’m weak.

Gord brings her into the bedroom. It’s quiet for a while, and I think maybe Gord’s not going to score any points after all. But then it starts.

I don’t think she ever made those sounds — those hoots and shrieks — with me. Maybe she did, but I didn’t want to hear them, because you know how if you listen too much, it can make you come too quick. Or sometimes it can make you feel a little strange or sick, like you have no business doing what you’re doing. Craigie opens the door a crack and looks; then Picker, who has to hold a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. Then it’s my turn. I’m not going to look, but I do.

Gord is behind Cindy on the bed, and she’s down on her elbows, her face twisted like a baboon’s, making quiet little grunts. I want to throw something, like maybe the heaps of stinking laundry we’re standing in. Gord is looking my way. I don’t know if he can see my eye, or just darkness where the closet door is open a crack. He smiles and leans forward, pressing down on her back while he works.

“Tell your daddy to fuck you now,” he says, right into her ear. “Tell Daddy to fuck you.”

She won’t do it at first, but then he gets going harder, and finally she does.

 

I consider myself more of a team player,” I tell Barry from the Chronicle. I talk and he writes in his notebook. “I’m not a goal scorer, but I know my responsibilities. I’ve always been the kind of guy who would rather stay in the background and not get all the attention, not be in the spotlight. I’m just glad if I can help out however I can. If we make it to the playoffs or if he breaks the record, I’m going to feel like I had my part in that, like I made my contribution.”

 

It’s close, but Gord breaks the record by one point, with three assists in our final regular-season game. In the NHL draft at the Hamilton Civic Center, he gets picked third overall, by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Craigie goes in the second round to the Edmonton Oilers. He comes back to his seat wearing his Oilers cap and too-big jersey. He’s been giving those beauty-pageant smiles all afternoon while they took photos, but now he’s pissed. I tell Craigie not to worry, that Edmonton’s got potential. Gord’s still over in the press area with his dad, surrounded by reporters.

I sit in my suit and tie and wait until all the names are called and the photos are taken and the hands are shaken and the NHL teams start packing up their booths and rolling up their banners. Craigie’s dad comes by and sits with me awhile. He tells me how there were just too many big kids in the draft this year and that another year of Junior A will help me hone my skills. He says Craigie’s summer job on his construction crew is open, and I’m welcome to it. I tell him thanks.

I called Uncle Sandy last week to see if he could come to Hamilton for the draft, and he said he couldn’t make it. I was disappointed then, but now I’m glad he isn’t sitting beside me as the place clears out. Uncle Sandy wanted very much to come, he said, except my cousin Shawn has a city-league tournament. I told him I understood — the same way I understood years ago, when Sandy told me that he couldn’t take me to practice as much anymore because Shawn was starting Peewee. Uncle Sandy looked worried, like I might be angry with him, and he put his arm around my shoulders. But I understood. Sure, I missed him driving me in the mornings, and seeing him sitting and smoking up in the stands with the dads, and hearing him call my name, but I got used to him not being there. I got used to bumming rides. I got over it. After all, when it comes down to it, how can I ask a guy to choose me over his own son?

 

The season is finally over. We made it to the semifinals, our best showing in three years. Tonight we’re celebrating at Craigie’s house, drinking all night.

“I’m keeping up with you tonight, bro,” Gord tells me, and he downs five shots to my five, seven to my seven, nine to my nine. By ten o’clock, we’re both ripped and sitting in the jacuzzi with a puck named Sheila, but she gets bored with our shoptalk and goes into the kitchen with Craigie. Sheila brought some Percodans with her. I didn’t want to, but Gord said, “Why not? The season’s over.” So we took two apiece.

“Here’s to the Mighty Fucks,” I say and toast Gord. My shot glass slips out of my hand. By the time I grab it, it’s half Seagram’s and half jacuzzi water, but I drink it anyway.

“Couldn’t have done it without you, Cementhead.” Gord looks sleepy and worn-out. That’s how I feel, too: beat-up and spent, like a juiced orange or something.

Gord is quiet for a long time. Then he says, “I’m nervous as shit, Cementhead. Anaheim. Like, fucking Disneyland, you know? I don’t know if I can live there.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

He says he’ll have to buy a house there, but he wants to have a place and a boat up here for the off-season. He’ll need somebody to live in his house up here while he’s away — rent-free, of course. He says I can if I want. Gord laughs at how he’s never even thought about buying a house, and now, all of a sudden, he’s got to buy two.

“It felt so good at first,” he says in a wasted voice, “but now there’s all this shit to worry about.”

“Don’t worry,” I tell him again. “I don’t worry about anything anymore.”

That’s when I let Gord in on my little secret. I tell him about the voice and how it talks to me when I’m down or in trouble, tells me not to let things get to me, because I’m being looked out for. I haven’t decided whose voice it is, I say, but someone or something cares for me, and that’s the main thing. Because of it, I tell him, I know that no matter how much they hurt my body, they can’t touch the part of me inside that’s loved. “Maybe you’ve got something like that, too,” I tell him. “You just can’t hear it.”

Gord looks at me with his eyes half closed. I don’t even know if he’s been listening. Then he says, “You’re fucked in the head, Ciemasko.”

I laugh. Gord’s probably right: if anyone’s going to be fucked in the head, it’s me.

“There’s one good thing about Anaheim,” Gord says. His eyes are just slits now with a little pink showing through. “They got all those honeys down there. I’d like to find a nice girl, not one of these rink whores. I want a real woman. You know what I’m saying?” His voice is dragging a little, like his tongue’s gone thick on him. “You know when they show the players’ wives on TV, sitting all together in the stands? And sometimes, when a guy scores, they show a close-up of his wife looking happy? That’s what I want.”

He talks on for a while longer, but he’s mumbling and not making sense, and I’m out of it and not listening. After a time, I notice two things: first, how Gord’s not talking anymore; and second, how his head’s tilting forward, so slowly that I have to look real close to see it. I watch until his chin is under the water, then a corner of his mouth, then all of it. I feel his knees bump mine underwater. His arms are still straight out along the edge of the jacuzzi, but his head is hanging forward. It almost looks funny, like he’s goofing around, except I know he’s not. I stare at the top of his head and wonder why I’m sitting still.

I hear Coach’s voice in my mind — on the ice, off the ice — and I know I should be doing something, but it’s like that part of me is shut off. I climb out and sit on the edge, then stand up. Outside of the tub, I get cold fast. I stand with my toes on the plastic rim of the jacuzzi and squeeze my eyes shut. The season’s over, I think to myself. It’s over.

After a while — I don’t know how long — I open my eyes, walk around, and pull Gord’s head up by the hair. Water pours out of his mouth like he’s one of those statues in a fountain. I let his head fall back on the edge of the jacuzzi and turn toward the kitchen. Craigie and Sheila are still in there.

I walk in, crying. “Holy shit,” I say. I’m buck naked and dripping all over Craigie’s parents’ floor. Craigie turns around fast and pulls up his shorts. Sheila gets up off her knees and stares. They both look scared. I say it again: “Holy shit.”

 

The season’s over. I think later at the hospital. No one can say I didn’t do my job when I had to. Even Coach can’t say that. He’s at the hospital, too, with his pajamas on under his parka. He asked me what happened, and I told him how I got out of the tub for just five minutes, to get a towel, and when I came back, I found him like that. I could imagine it happening that way, could see each moment — leaving, coming back, finding him — like scenes in a movie. Coach patted my back and nodded. He wasn’t really listening, just staring down the corridor. I keep worrying that somebody will ask me again how it happened, but no one does. In the waiting area, I bite the inside of my mouth until I bleed. I swallow the blood, and it makes me feel better. The season’s over, I keep thinking to myself. It’s over. Isn’t it?

 

It’s September, and our new starting center is Jiri, a kid from the Czech Republic who doesn’t speak English. He’s a great player, and we all like him. He grins at us when we get him drunk and shave his eyebrows off, along with all the other rookies. The European scouting reports say Jiri might be even better than Gord was, might break all kinds of records.

Some of the guys wanted to wear black armbands this season instead of just the black number 9 sewn on our sleeves, but Coach said you can’t wear armbands unless the person is dead. The guys who’ve seen Gord say he might as well be, that he needs machines for everything. I haven’t gone to visit. I don’t even like wearing his number on my arm. I can’t suit up in front of a mirror anymore because of it.

Gord is just a body now; they’re keeping his body alive, but whatever was inside is gone. I’m lucky: I know it doesn’t matter what happens to my body. However they cut it or crush it or tear it up, however they make it hurt and bleed, they can’t touch the part of me inside that hears the voice and knows that something is watching over me.

In our home opener against Peterborough, Jiri scores right from the opening face-off, fakes out both defensemen and flips it into the top corner, pretty as you please. On the next play, Number 10 from the Petes knocks Jiri down, hooks his legs hard.

I don’t even wait for Coach to yell. I skate over and break my stick over Number 10’s helmet. He goes down in a heap, and I beat him with the broken shaft. Our fans go crazy while the linesman leads me off the ice. Jiri gets up and watches me with his eyes wide. He doesn’t speak our language, and I don’t speak his, but I want to make him understand what I’m telling him: that he doesn’t have to worry anymore.