Two memorial services back-to-back.
Yesterday, I eulogized my best friend, Wes, as his parents sat in the front row of their family’s church in Montreal. It’s the same church my family and I attended when I was growing up.
It’s where I first met Wes. We were friends from the start, long before either of us knew we’d love hockey or even be good at it. Only three months apart in age, he was the man I went to for advice on everything.
I was the man he came to for the same.
And now he’s gone, and I’m shattered.
I’m sitting in the Titans’ hockey arena for a collective memorial for all the people lost in the plane crash. The organization wanted something for the public, as the massive outpouring of shock and grief was crippling to many of the fans. Season ticket holders got seats, and the remainder were opened up for a lottery.
The arena—also used for the city’s professional basketball team—was free of ice today. Upon the court flooring, rows of chairs seated family members and friends of the victims. I was afforded one of those chairs and was representing the Hollyfield family. Wes’s parents didn’t have it in them to come to this service, having just buried him yesterday.
I wish I hadn’t come.
Every person who has had a turn at the podium is like a knife driving deeper into the wound. No one can stand up there and put a positive spin on things the way you might at the memorial service for a single individual.
In that instance, it would be perfectly acceptable to say, “He’s in a better place,” or “Time will ease the pain.”
But fuck… when you have dozens of people obliterated from the face of the earth, it makes every new, sad speech about it feel like torture.
Forty-two people died when that plane crashed, and it wasn’t instantaneous for some of them. It was a horrific crash upon touchdown where the plane cartwheeled before breaking apart and catching fire.
If a plane drops out of the sky, you can guarantee death happens in a millisecond and is painless as the aircraft hits with the force of a bomb.
This plane did not fall from the sky. Some of those passengers suffered before dying.
But they all died.
Two pilots, three flight attendants, five coaches, twenty-two players, six player support staff, a general manager, a co-owner, a hockey operations analyst, and the director of team services.
Before the service concludes, I decide to make an early departure. I have no desire to stand around and talk to people. Many players from the league are here, a moratorium on all games in effect until the day after tomorrow as a league-wide mourning period.
I’m done with memorial services and grief.
I just want to get back to my life in Phoenix.
I had positioned myself in the back row in case I wanted to leave early. In safe places where I’m familiar with the terrain, I can walk without my forearm crutches. But I have them now, not only to navigate around the arena and masses of people, but because my legs have been weak with grief and shock since the crash.
I quietly move away from the seated mourners to an exit that will lead me to an elevator, which will whisk me to the main level where I’ll call an Uber. My flight back isn’t for another six hours but sitting in the airport’s club lounge is far preferable to this. I made my appearance. I grieved with everyone else.
And now I’m done.
“Mr. Oulett,” someone says before I reach the exit.
I stop, glance over my shoulder, and see a man in a dark suit striding toward me. I turn to face him.
“Mr. Oulett,” he says again when he reaches me, keeping his voice low. “I see you’re getting ready to leave, but Ms. Norcross was wondering if you would have time to talk to her. I know she was going to approach you as soon as the service concluded.”
My eyes about bug out of my head. There’s only one Ms. Norcross he can be talking about, and that’s Brienne Norcross, the co-owner of the Pittsburgh Titans. She was not on that plane, but her brother Adam—the other co-owner—was.
I have no clue how she’d even know who I was, much less why she’d want to talk to me. It’s well known across the league that while she owned fifty percent of the Titans hockey team, it was her brother who handled everything. She was more of an heiress owner than a hands-on type, although I imagine right now, she’s got no choice but to take over.
On the flip side, what in the fuck is left to manage? The entire team is dead.
“I’m not sticking around for the end,” I say to the man, presumably one of Ms. Norcross’s assistants.
“I understand, sir,” he says with a slight bow. “I can escort you to the owner’s box and you can wait there. I believe the service should be done in about fifteen minutes.”
I really want to leave, but it would be rude to do so when I’ve been specifically requested for a talk with the now-singular owner of a dead team. So I nod and follow the man as he leads me to the owner’s box.
Brienne Norcross is a beautiful woman, but I don’t know much about her other than she inherited ownership with her brother, Adam, when their father passed away two years ago. I don’t know her age, but I’d guess early thirties. She’s dressed appropriately in black, her pale-blond hair pulled back into a tight knot at the nape that accentuates every curve and angle of her face. Her eyes are a deep blue, but they’re rimmed red from tears, and dark circles indicate she hasn’t been sleeping.
Can’t blame her.
“Mr. Oulett,” she says as she strides into the owner’s box, the assistant who brought me up here on her heels. He hangs by the door. “I’m Brienne Norcross.”
She holds out her hand, and I take it, having ditched my crutches in favor of leaning an elbow on a tall table. “Ms. Norcross, I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances.”
“Please call me Brienne,” she says, and then politely asks, “May I call you Baden?”
“Sure,” I reply.
Our hands release, and she steps to the other side of the table, leaning her forearms on it and clasping her hands so she can face me.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I say, needing to get those condolences out. I have no clue what her relationship was with her brother, but by the tears swimming in her eyes, I’m assuming they were close.
She nods, faintly smiling. “Thank you. It’s still sinking in. I understand you were quite close to Wes Hollyfield.”
I’m shocked she knows such a personal tidbit about me, and it must show on my face.
“Forgive me,” she says softly. “I talked to Dominik Carlson about you yesterday, and he told me about your friendship with Wes. That’s how I knew you’d be here.”
Now I’m really fucking confused, and given the toll the last week has taken, I’m not in a good mood about it. “You talked to Dominik about me? Why?”
“I’ll need to rebuild the team, of course. And—”
I snort, hard and loud. It’s rude, and I’m unapologetic. “In case you haven’t noticed, my legs don’t work quite right. I get you need a new team, but I’m sure not your best choice for a goalie.”
Brienne’s cheeks flush pink, and she apologizes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good at what it takes to run a professional hockey team. Yes, I understand fully about your medical situation, but I’m not looking for a new goalie.”
“Then what are you looking for?” I ask tentatively.
“A new goalie coach.” Her eyes bore into mine, and there’s no apology now. “While Dominik would not give me any information on your current medical status, I’ve read a news summary of your condition. I have no clue whether you can return to play, but I wanted to offer you an alternative.”
“As the goalie coach for our team,” she adds, because I can see she’s unsure if I understand the offer.
“I’m not a coach,” I say, the denial of my potential immediate.
“You’re not a player either,” she replies coolly, and I wince. That was harsh, but accurate.
“Why me?” I ask, needing to know if I’m a charity case, needing to know if she’s making stabs in the dark, maybe not even truly caring about this team.
“Actually, my brother Adam had his eye on you.” The mention of his name causes a tiny sound to warble in her throat. She looks down at her hands until she regains her composure. When she looks back up, her eyes are watery but determined. “He was going to reach out to you to see if you wanted an assistant goalie coach position. Our current coach—I mean, our coach who was on the plane—was going to retire at the end of next season. Adam was considering bringing you on as an assistant to groom you to take over next season.”
“Oh.” My gaze cuts left to look out of the owner’s box. We’re too far back from the railing to view the entire arena floor, but I can see it’s mostly emptied out.
“I know this is a lot to process, especially after losing your friend. My goal is to rebuild the team as quickly as possible, and I’m going to need an answer soon. I have a written offer for you—”
“Rebuild?” I exclaim, interrupting what sounded like a very rehearsed speech. “How in the hell can you rebuild an entire team?”
I’m angry at the notion that they could be replaced so easily.
Or rather, that Wes could be replaced so easily.
“We’ve called up most from the minors,” she says flatly. “Others out of retirement.”
“The plane crashed a week ago,” I snap. “Maybe give people time to adjust.”
Her eyes flash with fury. “My brother died on that plane, and while I envy the luxury of taking your grief at a measured pace, I not only have a brother to mourn but I have an organization to run. I have hundreds of people relying on jobs, and this company has bills to pay. I have to get a team on the ice, or this entire organization will be dead forever.”
That effectively puts me in my place. The reminder that she lost a sibling did it, and I can’t even begin to imagine the pressures of running a professional hockey team.
Not to mention I should be flattered, if I weren’t so discombobulated that they wanted me to be an assistant coach long before the plane went down.
“I’m sorry.” My regretful tone is genuine. “It’s been hard. When do you need an answer?”
“Yesterday,” she says, her smile mirthless and without warmth. “I know this is a lot to consider—”
“I need a few days,” I tell her. “I have to talk this over with my doctors and therapists. With Dominik.”
“To see if you have a chance of playing again,” she murmurs knowingly.
“I already know I have a chance.” There’s no bitterness in my voice that the chance is one in a billion. “I just need some real talk about how realistic it is, and I have to weigh it against this opportunity.”
“Fair enough.” She looks over at her assistant lurking near the door. “If you’ll give Michael your contact information, including your email, we’ll send the formal offer immediately for you to review.”
Should make for some good reading on the plane.
Not that I’d really consider this. It’s ludicrous to think I could be a coach. It would be foolish to give up my dreams of returning to play, no matter that those dreams are probably just as ridiculous as this offer. Moreover, if I took this position, I’d have to leave the people who supported me the most and all my amazing doctors and therapists.
It would be an entirely new life, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that.
Of course, I wasn’t ready to lose my legs either, but that happened. And I’ve worked hard in my recovery. It’s still unknown if all that effort will mean anything when it comes to me returning as a goalie.
But what Brienne is offering is an entirely new life and career—one I’d never imagined before, but one that would give me security and keep me involved in the game I love as much as I love my life.
I have major decisions to make. I’ll need to talk it over with many people.
And I don’t have much time to get it all figured out.
“Mr. Carlson is able to see you now,” the receptionist says, and I lift my head from the sports magazine I’ve been reading.
I’m surprised, because I’ve only been sitting here for about ten minutes. I didn’t have an appointment, and I expected to wait much longer. A man as important and busy as Dominik doesn’t just stop his work day for someone who needs to chat.
But when I stopped by to inquire if he had any free time, the receptionist was more than glad to ask her boss. Although a multibillionaire, Dominik Carlson is quite a laid-back individual. I was more than prepared to wait for however long it took for him to have a few minutes for me.
I need to talk to him about the offer from Brienne Norcross.
True to her word, she emailed a proposed employment contract, which I read over several times on the flight back to Phoenix. It’s clutched in my hand as I follow the receptionist to Dominik’s office.
Airy, with wide windows that overlook downtown and the mountainous backdrop, sumptuously outfitted with high-end furniture and art, Dominik Carlson’s office is everything you’d expect from the owner of a highly successful hockey franchise. He also owns a professional basketball team in Los Angeles, and he brought the Arizona Vengeance from expansion team status to Cup champions in one season. The man has every reason to be stuffed full of ego, yet he is one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met.
Dominik stands from his desk and gives me a lopsided grin. The receptionist closes the door behind me, and I walk straight toward Dominik with my hand held out.
He reaches across his desk, and we shake. His grin magnifies as he teases, “Look at you… no crutches and no wobble.”
It’s true. I left my crutches at home today. I should have left them at home when I went to Pittsburgh because they were more a mental crutch than a physical one. I was afraid being in a crowded area would throw off my balance, but it was smooth sailing while attending the funerals.
I even eschewed my tricked-out handicapped van with hand paddles that I’ve been using to get around while my legs strengthened and relearned to respond to my brain’s commands. It felt good to be back in my Escalade for the drive downtown this morning, but my doctors might yell at me when I meet them later. I haven’t been officially given the go-ahead to drive, but I know what I’m capable of. If I can run three miles on a treadmill, I can most certainly operate the gas and brake pedals on my vehicle.
“Have a seat,” Dominik urges, nodding toward one of the guest chairs. He mimics my actions and lowers himself into his seat, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” I say.
“I’ll always make time for my players. What can I do for you?”
I hold up the multipage document—the Pittsburgh Titans employment contract—and wave it. “Had an interesting conversation with Brienne Norcross after the memorial service yesterday.”
Dominik nods knowingly. “I wasn’t sure they were going to make the offer, but she had reached out to ask me about you.”
“Yeah, she told me she talked to you.”
Dominik’s expression is sympathetic. “She sure has found herself in the deep end of the pool without even a life vest to clutch on to. She’s struggling to figure out what to do, so I’m trying to help her as much as I can.”
This doesn’t surprise me. Brienne is now the sole owner of the Pittsburgh Titans, a rival to the Arizona Vengeance. While the entire league has been mourning the loss of the team, I doubt many are going to step up to help Brienne. Not because they’re selfish or they don’t want to, but because they’re all busy running their own organizations.
“They want me to be the goalie coach,” I say, my tone indicating that I’m still as disbelieving of the offer as I was yesterday.
Dominik stares at me pointedly. “And?”
“I’m not a coach.”
Dominik continues his stoic regard of my face.
“I’m a hockey player. I’m a goalie. I don’t coach.”
Dominik leans forward and clasps his hands on his desk. “I get that you’re trying to figure out whether you have the skills to coach at the professional level. It’s unheard of for a team to bring on someone without experience, so I think it says something that Brienne offered it to you.”
I hate to make this point and risk sounding like a dick at the same time, but it must be said. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s had absolutely no experience with running that team since she and her brother inherited it. He’s done everything. How do I know she’s not making the biggest mistake of the team’s life by offering me this position?”
Dominik shrugs. “You don’t know if it’s a stupid offer. All you really know is whether you’ve got the guts to try it. But that’s not why you’re really here.”
And there it is… out on the table. Dominik is forcing me to confront the real issue that we haven’t talked about since the day I was injured seven months ago.
Whether I could potentially still play hockey at a professional level.
Dominik is not a doctor. He is not a coach. He is a businessman who owns this team and truly doesn’t get involved in player decisions. But he has stayed very involved in my medical treatment. I gave full releases to my doctors to discuss my medical condition with Dominik and any member of the coaching staff as they saw fit. Dominik knows every single thing my doctors have talked to me about. The Vengeance team doctors also have my medical files from my orthopedist, my neurosurgeon, and my therapists so they can advise me and keep Dominik in the loop.
He knows as well as I do what my chances are of returning to this league.
I just need him to validate what I already suspect.
I need him to say it.
He doesn’t make it easy for me though. “There’s a chance you could get back on the ice.”
“Not a good chance,” I mutter.
I’m sure he’s seen my most recent evaluation. I’m able to walk now without pain. I am mostly stable on my feet, hand crutches providing stability if I think I need them.
I don’t. Not really.
I am doing workouts on my lower body now. I can do squats, dead lifts and leg presses, all with much lighter weights than I used to but I’m steadily improving. I’m even doing some smaller box jumps.
I can run on the treadmill, although admittedly, I use the side rails as a confidence booster.
Sure, my stamina is shot. My legs have atrophied and need to be rebuilt to match the rest of me, but I am a walking fucking miracle.
I’m also a hard worker who will do whatever it takes to reach max potential.
The only question is… what does max potential look like for me?
“A long shot, for sure,” he says in a low voice. “There’s no way you’ll be ready for next season. You’ve got another good year of hard rehab to build yourself back up again. But I’m willing to keep you on this team and let you take that shot if you want it.”
That does not help me at all. If anything, he’s shining a spotlight on the tiniest glimmer of hope that I could return to competitive play. It’s going to take more hard work, much more than I’ve even put into myself up to this point. Grueling hours in therapy and the gym. Building up muscle and then reforming it to regain flexibility, which is crucial for a goalie. Doing drills over and over and over to regain muscle memory. And then I have to prove myself against other goalies who have perfect bodies, who are younger and hungry for the position.
“So to recap,” I drawl, “it’s going to be near to impossible that I would be able to return to competitive play as a goalie for this team. And if I do, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. I don’t know how to coach, but I do know quite a bit about being a goalie, and I’ve paid attention to the people who’ve coached me from the time I first put on skates until now. I might end up being the worst goalie coach in the league, but I could help rebuild a decimated team.”
“You didn’t even need to come in and talk to me.” Dominik laughs. “You seem to have it all figured out.”
But I don’t. Not really.
Because neither choice is easy. I could take the coaching position and turn my back on the potential for a return to competitive play. I would be putting to bed my career as a player.
I could become the goalie coach for the Pittsburgh Titans, and there’s a very good chance I might suck at it. My second career could be a miserable failure.
On the flip side, I could pour my heart and soul into getting my body back in good enough shape to attempt to get my job back on this team. I could work months and months and still not be strong or steady enough. And by then, the opportunity to enter the coaching world would be gone. I’ll be a dried-up, early retired-hockey player with only a few years of investments to carry me on through life. I’ll have to go through the league’s program to find a new career, and at this point, I have no clue what even appeals to me. All I know is that I want to be around hockey in some form or fashion.
Looking Dominik squarely in the eye, I demand to know. “What should I do?”
He shakes his head, his expression somber. “I can’t answer that for you. It’s too personal a decision.”
“Well,” I drawl, trying to hide my irritation that he won’t just tell me what to do. “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
“I’m not in your shoes, Baden.” His voice is low, sorrowful. “I can’t even begin to imagine the physical and emotional toll you’ve endured, and in a million years, I could never weed through the pros and cons of these choices. These options can only be examined through the lenses you wear, colored by your experiences. I can only tell you that you must go with your gut.”
I’d like to say Dominik was no help, but he actually was. His last words resonated… that I’ve been through so much, only I can decide what’s best for me. While neither choice is easy, and both have their perils and potential victories, I am leaning one way.
It’s why I’m having lunch with Riggs at The Sneaky Saguaro for one more opinion to make sure my leaning is correct.
After initial pleasantries, which weren’t so pleasant as I updated him on the memorial service in Pittsburgh, I told him about the job offer. He absorbed the information, asked a few questions, and then changed the subject.
While this was slightly irritating because hello, my life is hanging in the balance… I went with it.
For the past half hour, through wings and beer-battered onion rings—crappy food I would not have eaten while training my body to get back into peak shape—we’ve been talking about Veronica. Riggs’s head is in the clouds, and I let him stay there. After everything he’s been through, the dude deserves his happily ever after.
It’s when we push our plates away that Riggs locks eyes with me over the table and asks, “When are you going to ask me what to do about the Titans’ offer?”
“When are you going to stop talking about Veronica with that goofy love-struck tone of voice?” I volley.
Riggs barks out a laugh but says no more. He’s ready to hear my thoughts on the decision facing me.
One shoulder lifts in a half-hearted shrug. “I asked Dominik. He told me only I could answer that question. No one can answer it for me.”
“Bullshit,” Riggs says, and I blink in surprise. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you what I think you should do.”
“Really?” I was not expecting this. No one wants to steer me toward a decision that could end badly. Admittedly, both could end badly. But I’m curious enough to want to know what Riggs thinks. “Okay… tell me what to do.”
“Take the coaching job.” There’s no hesitation, as if he’d been mulling over this conundrum for months and had considered every angle. Which is impossible, because Veronica is the only thing he’s talked about since I told him of Brienne’s offer.
I cock a slightly jaundiced eyebrow. “And you’re basing that on what?”
Riggs’s expression is pained, but he gives me the hard truth. “Your chances of being a good goalie coach are far better than you returning to professional play in a way that would be meaningful to you. You need to take the path that gives you the best odds of success, and that’s by leaving your playing days behind.”
Christ… I was leaning that way, but it still hurts to hear him say it out loud. It makes it real that someone else—someone I trust very much—knows deep down that my return to the ice is more than a long shot.
But it also validates what my gut has been telling me since talking to Dominik.
“Let me ask you one question,” Riggs says, crossing his arms on the table and leaning forward. “What would Wes tell you to do?”
Pain lances through my chest. It’s been just over a week since he died, and I’m still trying to process my grief over losing my best friend.
“He texted me after the game in Columbus.” It was mere hours before the plane crash. “We were planning to do something here in Phoenix when the Titans were slated to play us in two weeks.”
“Did you decide on anything?” he asks.
Another shrug. “We weren’t picky about where to go to have a few beers together. But he said he had something important to tell me and wanted my advice.”
“Christ,” Riggs grumbles as he realizes the implication that I never learned what Wes wanted help with. It could’ve been a trade to another team, or that he had fallen in love, or maybe even that something horrible was going on in his life. I have no clue, only that we were going to discuss it in person when he came to Phoenix.
I smile from the rush of fondness for my best friend. “I’d like to think he’d do as you just did and tell it to me straight.”
“You’ve made up your mind,” Riggs guesses.
I nod, determined to pull the trigger. I take my phone from my pocket. “I need to make a call.”
In the email sent by Brienne Norcross’s assistant containing the offer of employment, he’d included Brienne’s cell phone number and asked me to call as soon as I’d made my decision.
Keying in the number, I lock eyes with Riggs as the phone rings. Brienne answers almost immediately. “Brienne Norcross.”
“Brienne… hi… it’s Baden Oulett.”
“Please tell me you’re accepting the offer,” she asks. Her voice sounds very tired and in need of positive news.
“I’m accepting.” Her sigh of relief is audible. “When do you need me?”
“Yesterday,” she replies, the same words she used at our first meeting. “But tomorrow would be helpful. We’re having a coaches’ meeting, and you were the last contract I’ve been waiting on. I’ve been working with Callum Derringer, our new general manager, and we’ve made most of our choices about who we’ll call up from the minors. We’ve also made offers to bring some guys out of retirement. But there are a few more decisions for which we’d like to have a collective brainstorming session.”
“Callum Derringer, huh?” I muse. He’d been fired as GM from the Ottawa Cougars a few years ago because the team “failed to thrive.” Meaning, they sucked and were one of the worst teams in the league. While he wasn’t coaching or playing, he was responsible for supplying the team with coaching and player talent.
Now he’ll basically be managing a team that’s the equivalent of the Bad News Bears, so he’s got nowhere to go but up.
“I think Callum will be a good fit here,” Brienne says diplomatically.
“I look forward to working with him,” I reply with an equal measure of politeness.
“I know you have a lot to do to relocate here, so my assistant, Michael Taft—you met him at the memorial service—can hook you up with temporary accommodations as well as a real estate agent to help you find something permanent. Whatever you need to make the transition easier, just let him know.”
“Okay… thank you.”
There’s a short silence and then Brienne says, “I’m really glad to you have you as part of the organization.”
We make our goodbyes, and I set my phone on the table. Eyes on Riggs, I say, “Looks like I’m moving to Pittsburgh tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” he says, surprised.
“They want to rebuild the team and get them on the ice as soon as possible.”
“Wow,” he murmurs, understanding what a massive and almost insurmountable task this might be. His gaze slides to the side for a moment before snapping back to me. “You know what this calls for?”
His lips curve upward, eyes flashing mischievously. “A going-away party. Tonight. I’ll arrange everything.”
“Just the gang, okay?” It’s going to be heartbreaking to leave the team, and I don’t have it in me to manage a lot of emotional goodbyes. I want to keep it small.
Riggs nods. He understands what I mean by just the gang. Not the whole team, and certainly not the rookies. Just those guys who I have the tightest bonds with. I know he has my back on this.
Movement outside my home office window catches my attention. A police car drives by slowly with its lights on but no siren. Behind it is a black hearse, followed by a black sedan with tinted windows. Behind that, a long line of cars heads toward the cemetery three blocks up from my Duquesne Heights home. All the vehicles have their headlights on.
I read in the paper yesterday that there were still several more funerals over the next few days following the memorial service at the Titans’ arena yesterday. I have no clue if this particular funeral procession is for someone who was on that plane, but it immediately brought the crash to mind. It’s all anyone is talking about.
Local TV news, the newspapers, and social media are buzzing. At first, it was abject horror over the event and the massive loss of life. Now talk is switching to what the future looks like for the Titans.
Pittsburgh is known for many things, its long-ago era of steel production replaced by banking, tech, and top-ranked medical care. Downtown streets flanked by Gothic-style buildings bustle with commerce while lovely rivers and the rolling hills that surround the city soften the steel and concrete, making it a beautiful, unique place to live.
But mostly, Pittsburgh is known for its sports, boasting professional football, baseball, and hockey teams. And the fans here are the most rabid of anywhere else—all the teams are revered regardless of their win/loss records. Go into my closet or drawers, and you’ll find T-shirts, jackets, and jerseys for every one of our teams.
The loss of the Pittsburgh Titans has been a huge blow to the city, and people are struggling because it’s part of our identity. People are looking for a glimmer of hope that all is not lost when it comes to our hockey team.
I did see on the morning news that the Titans owner, Brienne Norcross, has promised she is working hard to rebuild the team as quickly as possible so our season can continue. She was very diplomatic when she said, “We are building from scratch. It might take years for us to regain our footing, but whoever we’re able to put out on that ice will carry the spirit of those talented and tenacious players we so tragically lost.”
It was a reminder that the team is going to be scraped together and will probably suck, but that we will have a team. I look forward to seeing what will happen.
I turn my attention from the funeral procession back to my laptop as I review next month’s travel schedule I’m putting together. Part of my current job is to coordinate where each of our training reps travels, as well as ensure they have proper accommodations and transportation.
The work is far too easy, making it boring and rote, but beggars can’t be choosers. I have a mortgage and car payment, along with various other bills that come along with adulting. And given my lack of choices for remote work, there’s nothing to be done but to wear a smile and press on.
I save my spreadsheet and start to exit Excel when my phone chimes with a motion-sensor alert from my security app. I hate that my heart jackhammers with fear, so I take a few deep breaths in and out as my therapist instructed. I refuse to rush to my medicine cabinet and pop a low-dose Xanax prescribed for breakthrough anxiety, and instead bravely choose to investigate what is moving outside my house.
With a few taps on my iPhone, I navigate to my security app and pull up the camera feed for the tripped motion sensor.
Tension melts away and my shoulders droop in relief when I see it’s just an alley cat sitting on a post of my six-foot privacy fence. Motion sensors cover my entire front and back yard, but it’s not a large area. Less than a tenth of an acre, to be exact, but there’s not an inch on this property that I can’t see thanks to the excellent security system. I had a local company, Jameson Force Security, install it after my attack in Phoenix last year, and it’s given me some measure of comfort over the last several months.
I tap a button acknowledging the sensor, but I know it might go off again as soon as that cat moves. I decide to go shoo it along so I’m not continually bothered by it, particularly if he takes to roaming along my fence line, which will set off other sensors. It’s not an option for me to shut off the system until the cat decides to move on. I’m never without the protection I’ve paid a small fortune for out of my savings.
Pushing my rolling chair back from my desk, I grab my empty mug. Might as well grab a refill since I’m going downstairs.
The wooden floors creak as I move out of the spare bedroom turned office and head down the staircase. Those steps creak as well, and a few even groan as if the weight is unbearable. Many would find that annoying, but I find it part of the charm of this 1940s prairie box house I bought a few years ago. I’ve been remodeling in my spare time, but I’ve preserved some of the original charm. The old, wide plank flooring was its most alluring feature. My dad and I worked room by room, stripping, staining, and sealing the gorgeous wood, and now it gleams like new.
It’s not the prettiest house, and I’m not overly fond of the tan brick and brown trim, but it’s in a great little neighborhood on the very east end of Duquesne Heights. It’s a simple box-shape home with a pyramid-shaped roof and dormer windows. Parking is in a detached two-car garage via the back alley. If I stand on my front porch, lean way over the railing on the right, and strain my neck really hard, I can see a sliver of the Pittsburgh skyline between other houses stacked side by side, dribbling down the sloped hill. My neighbors are friendly but unobtrusive, and it’s an easy jump onto I-376 and only a twenty-minute drive to the airport. This is a perk, given my job as a medical equipment rep and the amount of domestic travel I do every year.
Not that I’m traveling anymore.
Haven’t quite been able to leave the security of my hometown since my attack in Phoenix last July when I had three days of training set up. Hence, the reason I’m working as an administrative secretary to one of the managers. He has graciously allowed me to work from home since even leaving sometimes causes mild panic attacks.
Well, maybe not graciously. He’s been bugging me to get back to my regular job, and I’m running out of excuses. The whole “I’m scared to travel” isn’t cutting it with him anymore. In fact, we have a Zoom meeting at four p.m. to—in his words—discuss my transition back to a training rep. I might need a Xanax before that.
It had never been my lifelong dream to work in medical equipment sales and training. It’s not what I went to college for. I graduated four years ago from Penn State with an English degree, although I can’t really say I knew what I wanted to do with that—I just knew I loved literature. I’d considered teaching but then stumbled into my current job with Reynis, who make cardiac catheterization equipment. My college roommate and bestie, Francesca “Frankie” Dillard, got a job there and begged me to apply. The money was incredible and the opportunity for travel enticing.
This was no ordinary sales position. In fact, the sale of the equipment was handled by managers above me. After weeks of intensive training to learn everything, I would then go into hospitals and teach doctors how to use it. I thought that sounded like fun, although Frankie’s main motivation—outside of the money—was to nab a hot physician.
But that was back when traveling was something I looked forward to, and the excitement of the job was still a motivating factor.
Not so much now.
Not after Phoenix.
Being attacked by three men who had very evil ideas in mind had traumatized me for sure. Add to that, I watched my savior get viciously beaten and couldn’t do a damn thing to help him. It made my nightmares unbearable. The entire event all but destroyed who I was at my core, and I’m struggling to make my way back.
Now I’m typing up spreadsheets for a much smaller salary than before, and I’m not happy.
But I’m also not ready to do anything else.
I guess you’d say I’m sort of stuck.
I’ve gotten used to the comfort of my home, surrounded by motion sensors and security cameras and direct-dial feeds to 9-1-1 should I push any one of the panic buttons throughout my house. I don’t go out with my friends anymore, although that doesn’t stop Frankie from pushing me, and I don’t go anyplace I’m not familiar with.
I’m not a complete recluse, though. I still drive down to Mount Lebanon to visit my parents… but only in daylight hours. I also drive to visit my therapist, as that was something she insisted upon, and on occasion, I’ll go to Frankie’s. Granted, I have bad days when I can’t leave the house because my anxiety is too high, and I avoid things I should be able to do. For example, I’ve taken to ordering my groceries through a delivery service rather than make myself go, and I lie to myself, saying the convenience frees me up to do more important things. The truth is, I’m too paralyzed to move past some of my fears.
I feel like a baby sometimes and completely a fool for not recovering faster. There are times I feel brave when I travel to visit my parents, and yet when I arrive, I know I’m anything but as my dad always waits for me on the porch so I can safely move from my car to the house. He’s worried and overprotective, and I allow it.
Frankie refuses to indulge me in such things. She also thinks my dad is enabling me, and she’s probably not wrong. They have a classic good cop/bad cop juxtaposition, and I appreciate both of them for it. I need Frankie pushing me, and I need my dad treating me with care.
Despite my limitations, I’ve actually come a long way. For the first month after the attack, I wouldn’t leave my house for anything. I had Jameson install the security system that very first week. I made Frankie stay at my house for two weeks after that and fought daily panic attacks once she left.
I’m not a stupid woman by any means, and I knew I was suffering from PTSD, so I started therapy. I’m very big into sound mental health and was not embarrassed by my fears, even if they felt irrational at times.
Therapy helped a great deal, and I started to improve. Taking trips with Frankie or my parents to the gym and grocery store were huge victories. Because my conscience demanded I do it, I went back to Phoenix. My parents traveled with me for peace of mind, but I went to visit Baden Oulett in the rehab hospital. He was broken, paralyzed, and barely acknowledged me. I brought a stupid plant and didn’t stay more than ten minutes. It was such a crushing visit, doing nothing to soothe my guilt but rather increase it tenfold. As such, I suffered a huge setback when we returned to Pittsburgh. It was another month before I could go out of my house again.
My current issues go deeper than the terrifying thought that I might be attacked. My therapist consistently reminds me that those fears will get better as I realize the chances of it happening again are slim, but I must work to overcome the debilitating guilt I’m carrying over what happened to my rescuer. Even thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. I’m not supposed to shy away from the memories but rather confront them.
After an initial struggle to free me from two of the three men, Baden had slung me away from the group and yelled at me to run.
So I did.
I had no purse, no cell phone to call for help—those were stripped away immediately by my attackers—so by the time I made it down another block and flagged someone and we were able to get police help, the evil criminals had fled and left a battered, half-dead man sprawled on bloodied concrete. I’ll never forget the image of Baden lying there like a broken marionette while a police officer rendered aid until the ambulance arrived.
The guilt was immediate, oppressive, and suffocating as I watched, and I could feel the walls closing in on me. Closing in so hard, it was just easier to stay within those metaphorical walls—which eventually morphed into the physical walls of my house—so I could be safe and not have to deal with anything on the outside.
Even thinking about it now makes my chest heavy.
Sometimes, I’ll dream of that day, and it’s not the horror of being slapped and shoved around by those men who took my purse and who clearly wanted more from me. It was the sounds of them beating Baden as I ran away that yank me out of sleep with a silent scream on my lips and tears pouring down my face. I want to crawl into a hole and hide from the world, because I’m a coward of the worst variety.
I should have stayed to help him.
I never should’ve run.
Jolting out of those memories, I realize I’m standing in my kitchen with no recollection of making those last few steps from the stairway to here. I glance out the back-door window; the cat is nowhere in sight. No need to shoo him away.
My phone rings at that moment—from my boss’s number—so I place my cup on the counter and connect the call.
“Hi, James,” I greet cordially.
“I know we have a four p.m. Zoom meeting, but this can’t wait,” he says crisply. He’s the type who’s all business during work hours. I’ve never hung out with him outside of work, so I have no clue if he loosens up.
“That’s okay. What’s up?”
“Sharon was in an automobile accident this morning and broke her leg pretty bad. She’s going to need surgery.”
“That’s awful,” I gasp. That sounds horrendously painful.
“I know,” he grumbles. “She has training set up for the next three days. We can reschedule today’s training, but you’re going to have to cover the remainder.”
It strikes me first how callous James seems to Sharon’s injuries, but it strikes me just as quickly that he’s asking something of me I cannot give.
“But… but… she’s in Chicago,” I stammer.
“Exactly. You’ll need to catch a flight ASAP.”
“I can’t,” I say without hesitation. I know in my bones I can’t.
“You must,” he counters.
“I can’t, James. I’m not ready.”
He sighs with frustration. “It’s been seven months, Sophie. We’ve been very accommodating, made a position for you until you were ready to get back to your training position. But we can’t wait anymore. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about via Zoom today. I wanted to set a definite return date, but then this accident came up with Sharon, and it’s imperative I get you back traveling again.”
James is not wrong about the emergent nature of his request. We don’t just sell medical devices to hospitals, we go in and train the doctors how to use them. Specifically, we teach doctors how to use the machine that injects dye into coronary arteries, an ultrasound that goes into the arteries to show plaque morphology as well as previous stents to ensure they’re open, and finally, how to use the actual catheter that can determine the course of treatment for blockages. Our role is critical.
That’s what I found so exciting… that I could go in—with only the company-provided training—and teach doctors how to use our medical devices. I walked through it with them as they tested it on actual patients in actual procedures. I felt like part of the healing process.
I truly did like the work.
But not anymore. Not enough to get on a plane and leave Pittsburgh.
“I can’t,” I whisper, and I realize this is the third time I’ve said those words to him. I have nothing more to offer in explanation. I just know… I can’t.
“Sophie.” James’s voice is low with a hard edge. Gone is the empathy for my situation, and I know there’s nothing left but impatience. “I either need you to head to Chicago to take over Sharon’s appointments, or I need you to find a new job.”
“I’m sorry,” I reply softly. “But I’m just not ready.”
“So are you offering your resignation?” he snaps.
If I resign, I can’t apply for unemployment, and I’ll need that until I can find a new job. “No, I’m not resigning. I’m still willing to do the job you have me doing until such time as I’m able to return to sales.”
“Then you’re fired,” he growls. “Effective immediately.”
James hangs up on me, and I stare at my phone in shock before setting it down.
I put on a kettle to make tea as I need something relaxing, and coffee is not the drink for that. I sit at my table while I wait for it to boil. I’m now jobless, and I’ll have to do some planning. It’s what Frankie would tell me, anyway. She’d tell me to sit my ass down and figure shit out. The only reason I don’t call Frankie at this point is because I’d like to have options to discuss with her before I tell her I got canned.
Reynis paid me damn good money, and I’ve squirreled away a lot of it. I’m fine with whatever I can get on unemployment, supplemented with savings, until I can find another position. I could last a year if needed. This afternoon, I’ll start searching, and I’m confident I can come up with something as long as it allows me to work remotely.
Until I can find the courage to step back out into the world without fear.
Sighing, I berate myself for having so many conditions all based on the trauma from my attack. I know I need to get my shit together. I don’t want to be this way. I’ve always been an adventurer—hiking, skydiving, scuba diving, traveling the world, you name it. I loved club-hopping with my friends and taking road trips. I want to do all those things again, and I’m still willing to work hard on myself to attain those things.
It’s just that every time I think about doing exciting, adventurous things—or even normal, everyday things—I ask myself… can Baden do it? Does the man who risked his very life to save me have the same pleasures that I’d be seeking? It doesn’t seem fair for me to have an unencumbered life when Baden doesn’t.
There’s no secret that my guilt over what happened to Baden Oulett drives my inability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. My penance is to suffer the way he must be suffering. While I have no idea how he’s doing these days, in my mind, it’s not well. I base that on the one and only time I visited him following the attack.
That stupid plant I brought. Like I thought that could make things better for him.
It was such a painful meeting while my parents waited down in the lobby. Baden could barely look at me. Conversation was one-sided with me rambling my gratitude and only ended when he said he was tired.
The absolution I needed was not given, and I remain a prisoner of my own guilt and self-flagellation.
The kettle shrills on the stove, and I prepare my tea, setting it aside to steep. When it’s ready, I’ll hit the computer and start looking for a new job. I hope I can find something fast before my parents hear I’m unemployed. Otherwise, they’ll pressure me to join the family business. Trust me when I say I have no desire to work there. I love my mom and dad to distraction, but there’s no way I want to sell furniture for a living.
My phone rings again, and before I can reach for it, I wonder if it’s James calling me back to tell me he’s had a change of heart. When I see the caller ID, my heart sinks not only because it’s not James but because it’s a Phoenix area code, and that can only mean one thing.
I don’t want to answer, but I know I must. “Hello.”
“Sophie… this is Detective Gilmore.” I recognize his voice as he’s been leading the investigation into the attack. We’ve talked quite a bit over the past seven months.
“Hi.” I cringe, waiting to see what type of news he’ll deliver. No matter what it’s regarding, it will traumatize me all over again. I just want it all to go away.
“We have two more suspects,” he says gently, because he knows even though this should be good news, it’s hard on me. “I know you don’t want to come here, so I’m going to need you to do another photo lineup down at your local precinct.”
I’ve been through this drill before with the first suspect they brought in. I wouldn’t travel back to Phoenix for an in-person lineup, so they sent the suspect’s photo to the Pittsburgh Police Department. They, in turn, let me come in and look at the photo alongside five other mug shots of similar-looking men to make it fair. I couldn’t make a positive identification, and I felt like such a failure.
“Sophie,” Detective Gilmore says, “can you do that? Go down to the precinct? I’ve already sent the photos, and you can see the same officer who helped you last time… Josh Kapersky.”
“Um, yes… I can do that,” I say, even though I want to tell him to leave me alone and leave me out of all this. And yet, I can’t help but ask, “Did Mr. Oulett do the lineup yet?”
“I’m actually calling him next,” he replies casually.
He offers me no other information, and I’m too scared to ask. Detective Gilmore would know how Baden is doing, but I’m afraid to know the answer.
“I’ll go to the precinct today, Detective.” I’ll do my part, which I know will ultimately be very little. I can’t remember much about that day; my therapist says I’ve blocked it out.
But I’ll try.
He thanks me and we disconnect.
With a sigh, I call my dad to see if he’ll drive me downtown.
I’m late to the party, but I have a good excuse. I received an unexpected call a few hours ago from Detective Gilmore at the Phoenix PD. They had two more suspects to my beating in custody, and they wanted me to come down to look at a photo lineup.
About three weeks ago, I successfully identified one of my attackers, and his arrest had apparently led Detective Gilmore to these potential suspects.
My trip to the police station was somewhat successful. From two separate lineups, I was able to identify another one of my attackers. Like the one I’d picked out a few weeks ago, this guy was easy to remember. When I came upon the men attacking Sophie, I was able to pull her free from two of them. They immediately turned on me, and the one I identified today had a knife in his hand. He slashed out too fast for me to avoid, and the blade cut me from temple to jaw. I didn’t even feel it, but I did feel the rush of blood pouring out. Then the knife went into my stomach, and that I felt. I was staring right at the guy when he pulled it out, so yeah, I remembered him with clarity.
It was then that I yelled for Sophie to run, and the last thing I remember was the indecision on her face before pain exploded in the back of my head and my world went dark.
I was not able to identify anyone in the second lineup today because the third attacker hit me from behind, so I never saw him. The doctors didn’t know if he used a tire iron or a crowbar, but they found flecks of rusted metal in the head wound and embedded into the skull fracture. It created a minor brain bleed, which is what threw me into blessed unconsciousness.
The fact that I was unaware and unable to fight back didn’t stop the savagery, and my attackers continued their assault. I expect they were pissed that I saved the girl and spoiled their fun. They stabbed me again and used their metal weapon to strike me in my lower back.
I lost my spleen in emergency surgery when the surgeons worked to patch up the stab wounds, but all my other organs remained blessedly intact. There was nothing they could do at first for the spinal cord contusion. I was paralyzed from the waist down, and they had to wait for the swelling to subside.
Seems like a lifetime ago.
But it’s only been seven months, and I’ve worked my ass off to battle back in my recovery. The doctors have always given me hope to strive for. After a second surgery to stabilize my spine, I was told chances were good I’d walk again. They wanted that to be my goal, but that wasn’t good enough.
I wanted to get back on the ice.
Funny how things work out. Instead, I am heading to Pittsburgh in the morning to become the new goalie coach for the Titans.
Things are happening fast. I can’t believe I only decided a few hours ago to take the job. I’m appreciative of Riggs’s straight talk, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for helping me come to a decision. The jury is still out whether it was the right decision, but I feel good about it. I’m sad about it, too, because I’m leaving what has become my family.
The party is at our captain’s house. Bishop Scott has been an amazing influence on my career with this team. I was not the primary goalie—that honor went to Legend Bay, and you’ll never hear me bemoan the fact that I was backup to him. He’s one of the best this league will ever see.
As the backup goalie, I always had to be ready to go in. It means I had to train and be at the top of my game, as close to Legend’s abilities as I could be without having the benefit of playing in the same number of games for real-time practice. The pressure and expectations of the backup goalie are high, and Bishop is almost solely responsible for keeping my focus on doing my job well. While not acting as a coach per se, he was very much a mentor, and I will take that experience with me into my new job.
In other words, I need to be as much a mental coach as a physical coach to my goalies.
I ring the doorbell to Bishop’s house, but no one answers. I turn the knob, push open the door, and step across the threshold. Through the foyer and across the large living area, I can see straight out into the backyard through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Even though the sun is setting, the guys are sitting around the patio where apparently this party will be happening.
I join my teammates—actually, I suppose they’re former teammates now— out on the patio, the smell of cigar smoke wafting my way.
“About damn time you showed up,” Erik says from a low-slung chair. He waves his cigar in one hand and lifts his highball glass filled with amber liquid in the other.
“Grab a drink and a stogie and join us, dude.”
I pass on the cigar, but I do pour myself a drink. Bishop has set up a variety of cocktail ingredients, but I fix a simple Jack and Coke. It will be my only drink of the night, but I don’t need to get drunk to make this a good going-away party.
I take a seat in one of the patio chairs, noting that Riggs did me right and only kept it to my closest friends.
Bishop, Erik, Legend, Dax, Tacker, Aaron, Jett, Bane, Jim, and Riggs. Looking at these men, they’re easy to identify as the first and second lines for the Arizona Vengeance. But that’s not how friendships are divided on a team. It just so happens that these two lines have become close over the past year and a half as individual friendships between a few crossed over to form this tight-knit group.
My gaze goes to Bishop. “I’m assuming we’re outside to hide the cigar smoke?”
Bishop snorts. “Brooke would kill me if she knew. I’ll have to wash these clothes before she gets home tonight.”
I look around and ask of no one in particular, “Are all the women hanging out tonight?”
Bishop shakes his head. “Women apparently are incapable of impromptu get-togethers and all had plans. But Brooke is hanging with her dad to give us a true guys’ night.”
I smile fondly at the mention of Coach Perron, who happens to be Brooke’s dad. I stopped by his office today to inform him in person of my decision to leave the team. He gave me some great pointers that I’ll take to heart, but he didn’t seem surprised by my decision. That tells me I’m going with the most beneficial choice.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving us,” Bane says. “You and I are the only single dudes in our group. I’m going to be such an outsider.”
Tacker, ever the leader, employs a good measure of wisdom. “Enjoy being single, Bane. Because when love decides to hit you, there’s no going back.”
Jett laughs and adds his own advice. “Yeah, and you also have to stop banging all those puck bunnies.”
Bane grimaces. “No way I’m ready to stop doing that yet.”
We laugh. It tends to be one of the perks of being a professional athlete. Women throw themselves at you.
Not that I’ve experienced that lately. Sex has been a nonissue in my life. For many months, I was simply incapable due to my injuries. Once I started to recover, living in a hospital and then a rehab center really impinged on my opportunities. Thereafter, I spent every bit of spare energy conditioning myself to get better and didn’t have time to get laid.
Now that my legs are working again, I’m assuming my dick will remember what to do if the opportunity presents itself. Somehow, I don’t think that’s on my horizon. I have a feeling I’m going to be busy in my new job, and there won’t be time for anything else.
Legend clears his throat and lifts his glass. “I’d like to make the first toast of the evening to Baden. I don’t think anyone will disagree that he has been the glue holding this team together. Not only is he our most prized clutch player but even his recovery has brought us closer than ever.”
Damn it, I was afraid heartfelt toasts were on the agenda, and they aren’t without effect on me. But Legend isn’t finished.
He holds his glass higher. “You’re a fucking awesome goalie. I believe you’re going to be an awesome coach. You have that one quality that is absolutely necessary, and that is inspiration. The ability to create hope and motivate. The Titans are a lucky organization, and any goalie you coach is going to flourish, I guarantee it. We’re going to miss you, buddy.”
All the men voice their agreement, and we sip whatever drink we’re holding.
And so it goes for the next hour. I take the smallest of sips and manage to stretch my drink. The toasts get longer and sappier, and I love every minute of it.
But unfortunately, there comes a time when I have to call an end to the party. I have to leave in the morning, and I still have packing to do.
It takes another fifteen minutes after I announce my need to depart for more hugs, handshakes, backslaps, and a hard slap on my ass from Jett. It’s Riggs, though, who walks me out to my car.
I pause at the driver’s door of my Escalade after unlocking it. While my friendship with Riggs has only deepened over the past several weeks, he’s the one I’ll miss the most. I think it’s because we have such an easy time talking to each other. He reminds me of Wes, and I’m fortunate to have him in my life.
I turn to face my friend, and he asks, “You need a ride to the airport tomorrow morning?”
I shake my head. “I have to be there super early, and I don’t want to impose. I’ll take an Uber.”
Riggs doesn’t argue, and I appreciate it. I wouldn’t let him change my mind, anyway, and we both know it’s not a matter of imposition. I want to say my goodbyes today.
“Thank you for helping me come to the right decision.” I hold out my hand, and he shakes it, then pulls me in for a bro hug.
Riggs chuckles when he releases me. “I’m glad you think it’s the right decision. If it’s not, I’m gonna feel like shit.”
My hand reaches for the door, but I freeze when Riggs asks, “Are you going to look Sophie up?”
Sophie Winters… the woman I rescued in the attack.
I frown, looking at him in question. “Why would I?”
Riggs frowns back at me, the lines in his forehead deepening. “Why would you not? You two shared a horrible experience. She lives in Pittsburgh. You’re the type of guy who checks in on people. I just assumed you would.”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it. I’ve had so much on my plate, I’d forgotten she even lived in Pittsburgh.
I’ve certainly thought about Sophie as the months have ticked by and I’ve grown stronger. She came to visit me not long after I was attacked, and it was horrible. I didn’t want to talk to her, and I’m quite sure I scared her off. She’s never attempted to contact me since, and I’ve never tried to reach out to her.
But maybe I should. She was doing a photo lineup of the same suspects I looked at today. If she’s able to identify even one of them, we might be well on our way to putting all of this to rest. Detective Gilmore seems to think they’ll enter guilty pleas if we have good identifications.
It would be something recent to talk about, since it’s a bit awkward that we’ve gone months without contact.
So, yeah… maybe I’ll look her up and see how she’s doing.