First step onto the sidewalk and my foot lands on a patch of black ice left behind from the storm three days ago. Luckily, it’s my right leg that slips out from under me and I manage to stay upright, but not without pulling my groin muscle. I grimace and take a tentative step, relieved that nothing seems to have torn. My knee feels solid.
I curse the grocery store for not doing a better job of clearing the ice from where their customers walk along slowly. So slow that I get passed by a gentleman who’s easily in his eighties and yeah… that’s humiliating.
The old man turns, his cheeks ruddy from the cold. “Need some help?”
I’m a fucking professional hockey player. I don’t need help from an octogenarian. But I’m a polite dude, so I just smile and shake my head. “Had surgery on my knee. Exercising a little caution.”
“Aah,” he says in understanding. “Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Well, good luck with your shopping,” he says, eyes twinkling with what might be a little pride he’s in better shape than me. “Once you’ve got the shopping cart before you, you’ll be steadier.”
And it gets more humiliating.
“Thanks,” I mutter, but I doubt he heard me. He’s taken off, disappearing through the sliding doors.
The trip through the market is an exercise in futility. I do as suggested, using the cart for support and make my way up and down the aisles. I wanted to cook some chili but I’ve had the worst luck. So far, they’ve been out of ground beef, canned tomatoes and kidney beans. I’ve managed to add an onion to my cart but my repertoire of recipes is so limited, I’m not confident I can do anything else with it.
“Fuck it,” I grouse as I decide not to cook and just grab some cereal. I’m tired from a long day of rehab and it’s fucking cold out. I want to get home.
As luck would have it, they’re out of my favorite cereal, and even shittier luck, out of my second favorite as well.
Not sure what cosmic forces I’ve offended, but nothing’s going right and it’s leaving me feeling unsettled. In fact, a bit of panic swells inside and I glance around the cereal aisle. Nothing dangerous lurking.
I put the onion on the shelf in the empty spot where my Lucky Charms should be. I leave the cart and make my way to the front of the store, deciding to order a pizza for dinner.
It’s gotten dark in the fifteen minutes or so I’ve been in the grocery store. Another wave of anxiety hits and I get the distinct feeling that if I step out of the safety of this building, something bad is going to happen to me.
Sucking in a long breath through my nose, I hold it for the count of two before letting it out slowly on a four count. I read online that deep breathing can help center and calm you, and I’ve tried it when I’m agitated for seemingly no reason. Honestly, it does nothing for me, but I make myself do it three more times.
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” I whisper.
Not sure if I actually believe that, but I can’t stay here all night. At some point, they’ll kick me out.
I man up and walk past the registers to the sliding doors that swish open as I near them and then out into the blustery cold evening.
Glancing around, I take in the well-lit parking lot and the customers walking in and out of the store. I see my car only ten yards away. Nothing scary out here, unless you count a rogue piece of ice, but I can see the blacktop looks dry and safe.
I feel like a fucking idiot and these instances of fear that come upon me are unexplainable. I have nothing going on in my life that should make me feel this way. Other than a near mishap on the ice, getting shown up by an eighty-year-old man and a frustrating trip around the grocery aisles, nothing’s been going on to make me feel out of control.
Everything is fine.
I’m a hockey player.
I have a great job.
A wonderful life.
“I have a wonderful life,” I repeat and just like that… the panic recedes. I simply needed to remind myself I’ve got it good.
Shaking my head, I chuckle and take a step off the curb. I barely get my other foot down before I hear the noise.
It’s so loud, I clap my hands over my ears. A piercing, whining, shrieking sound of metal on metal, but no one else seems bothered by it. People stroll in and out of the store.
It gets louder and then the air current seems to change. A foreboding, electric feeling that cranks my anxiety to full throttle. I tip my head back and at first, I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Something huge, hidden in the clouds but with blinking lights… right above me and falling fast.
My first thought is a UFO but as it breaches the clouds, I realize it’s an airplane. A massive jet hurtling out of the sky, nose-diving straight at me.
I’m powerless to move as I stare at it.
Closer and closer, until I can actually see the pilots inside, their mouths open in what I’m assuming are screams of terror. I lock eyes with one of them and I think I see sorrow in his expression. Not sure if he’s sad he’s going to die or that he’s leaving behind a family, or hell… maybe he’s sad he’s dropping a plane on my head.
I lift my hand, mesmerized by the aircraft now forty, thirty, twenty… ten feet from me. And…
Bolting straight up in bed, I bark out a cry of horror, even though I’m instantly awake and know I merely had a terrible nightmare.
It’s not my first rodeo… these planes dropping out of the sky dreams happen pretty frequently. I rub my hands over my face, not surprised to find it sweaty. Despite the immediate awareness that I’m safe and sound in my bed, it takes a few minutes for the last dredges of fear to shake out of me. The dream was so realistic and yet, in hindsight, all of it was ridiculous from the start.
My knee is fully healed, no eighty-year-old would beat me in a fast walk, there’s no way the grocery store would be out of all of those items and it’s inconceivable that a plane would drop out of the sky onto my head.
And yet the terror it produced was as real as if it had actually happened. I thought I was going to die and I wasn’t ready to go.
I flop back onto my mattress and stare at the ceiling. The moonlight shining through the window casts shadows from the bare trees outside. I consider doing the deep breathing exercises I did in my dream, in hopes of relaxing enough to go back to sleep. But they don’t work in real life either.
Granted, it’s only something I’ve read about and I’ve never actually had someone show me how to do it, so I’m not sure I’m doing it correctly.
I close my eyes, the first step in returning to slumber. All that does is start a replay loop of the plane falling on me. My eyes pop back open and I watch the tree shadows above me.
Attempting a supposed tried-and-true method, I imagine sheep jumping over the branches and count each one. I make it up to twenty-seven before my mind drifts toward its inevitable path.
Not a dream catastrophe, but a real one.
The first anniversary of the Pittsburgh Titans’ plane crash is a month and a half away. While I’ve been plagued with more night terrors than I can even begin to count, they’ve gotten worse in the last two months. I have no clue why because honestly, I feel at peace with things.
I grieved, I mourned, I lamented.
I accepted that I was granted grace while others were not.
So why the fuck am I continually plagued by a plane killing me?
And it’s not always a plane falling from the sky. Often I’m on the plane and we’re in a long plummet to the earth. It’s so terrifying, I’ve vomited coming back into consciousness.
Sometimes I dream that I’m driving down the road and the plane crashes in the distance but the fireball rolls outward and engulfs my car in flames, blistering my skin painfully. I’ve come out of those dreams slapping at my body to snuff out the fire.
Christ, I’m a mess.
My head rolls on my pillow and I sigh as I take in the time: 4:03 a.m. I know I’m not going back to sleep. Close my eyes and I’ll go right back into my nightmare. Sit here with my eyes open, I’ll only think about it.
I should get out of bed and do my workout, but I’ve got no motivation at all. Instead, I nab the remote control and turn on the television. It casts the room into an immediate blue tinge—a good murder mystery is sure to take my mind off falling jets. Maybe even distract me enough that I can fall asleep. I didn’t go to bed until a little after midnight and I need more sleep to function. We have a team meeting at eight a.m. and then practice at nine.
After some surfing, I settle into a three-part docuseries about a set of interconnected murders across two states. Some would find it odd I can watch this stuff after experiencing a nightmare, but I’ve always found true crime shows and podcasts fascinating. I need my mind to be fully engaged in something other than my woes.
Ten minutes in and I know I chose wisely. I’m fully hooked and I forget about planes and friends dying. It doesn’t look like I’ll fall back to sleep, but that might be for the best anyway.
Blissfully deep in slumber, I swim upward into consciousness because of a noise that penetrates the fog. An insistent banging, almost desperate in nature. I crack an eye, slightly alarmed at how bright my room is, but I’m not sure why that would cause me distress.
Bang, bang, bang.
The other eye opens and I focus on the bedside clock.
Nine forty-one a.m.
That seems awful late for me to still be in bed.
And then it hits me all at once.
“Fuck,” I groan as I scramble out of bed, twisting up in the sheets and falling to my knees. I had surgery on the left one over a year ago and I’ve healed well, but that did not feel good.
Bang, bang, bang. “Camden… open the fucking door or I’m knocking it down.”
That’s Coach West’s voice.
I kick the sheets away, jump up from the floor and lurch out of my bedroom. I careen against a wall and stumble into my living room.
Lunging for the handle, I twist the dead bolt and throw open the door to find Coach with his fist raised.
I brace for him to scream at me because this is bad.
Very, very bad.
I missed practice and the fucking head coach is on my doorstep. This is so bad, I’m sure he’s here to fire me.
Instead, he lowers his hand as his eyes laser focus on me. I can see he doesn’t like anything he sees—a disheveled man in his boxers who probably has sheet crease marks on his face, hair standing on end and sleep gunk in his eyes.
“Get some coffee on,” he says with aplomb. “Let’s chat.”
Get some coffee on? Let’s chat.
I’m absolutely discombobulated by his composure when any other coach in the league would be yelling right now about what a colossal fuck-up this is. I’m struck mute and frozen in place, the only thing jolting me out of it is when Coach West brushes past me. He glances around and heads toward the kitchen.
“Let me put some clothes on,” I mumble.
Coach seems unperturbed by any of this. “I’ll figure out the coffee pot.”
I turn for my bedroom, my head spinning with the implications of the conversation we’re about to have. There’s a very good chance I’m going to be fired… released from my contract and the team. Best-case scenario, sent down to the minors.
I hastily put on a pair of track pants and a T-shirt. I use the restroom, wash my hands and then run them wet through my hair in an attempt to look somewhat presentable.
When I make it back to the kitchen, I see that Coach has figured out I don’t have a coffee pot but rather a fancy espresso machine. He’s either a mechanical genius or he knows his way around one, because there are two cups of coffee on the table. Not so surprising, given that his girlfriend used to be a barista.
Coach West uses his foot to kick a chair out and nods at it. I sit, pulling the coffee toward me, but make no effort to drink it. The rising steam tells me it will remove a layer of skin until it cools some.
I flush with angst as Coach West stares at me. “When you didn’t show up for the team meeting, we tried calling, but you didn’t answer.”
“I must not have heard it.” Was I that deep asleep? It’s possible since I’ve been running on fumes.
“You scared a lot of people. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“I can’t believe I overslept,” I blurt with a lot more apologies rushing out. “I am so sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night so I watched some TV. I thought I would stay awake until it was time to get up but I must’ve fallen asleep. I guess I forgot to set my alarm clock or maybe I did. I don’t know, it’s just… that’s never happened to me before. I am so fucking sorry. Please don’t terminate my contract.”
Coach doesn’t say anything for a moment but picks up his cup and blows across the liquid before taking a small sip. When he sets it down, his voice is level but not unemotional. “I’m not sure what I’ve done that would lead you to believe I’d be the type of person to terminate a player for missing a practice.”
Why I feel the need to argue against this is beyond me, yet I point out, “You set very high expectations for your players when you first got here. You said you expected everyone to be on time and at every practice unless somebody was dead or dying.”
His lips curl into a half smile. “That is indeed what I said. It’s also the reason I’m here. I thought you were dead or dying.”
My face flushes hot with embarrassment. It’s humiliating. But then something occurs to me. “Why are you here? I mean… why didn’t you send one of the assistant coaches, or hell… even someone from the administrative offices to check on me?”
Coach West circles his fingertip around the edge of his coffee cup as he contemplates my question. When his eyes rise to meet mine, he says, “Again… a little disappointed you would think I’m that type of coach. First, you know damn well I delegate a lot of shit to my assistant coaches. They’re more than capable of carrying on with practice without me being there. But as head coach, I’m ultimately responsible for everyone on this team. And if you were dead or dying, by God… I was going to be the one who found you. I’m not putting that on anyone else’s doorstep. But most importantly, the reason I’m here is it’s time to have a transparent conversation about what in the hell is wrong with you.”
My eyebrows rise. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. What’s wrong with you? This isn’t the first conversation we’ve had. Your play has been off. And now you’re missing practices.”
“A practice,” I clarify hesitantly, not wanting to piss him off but not willing to be labeled as someone who’s routinely late.
Coach inclines his head as if to say touché. “I still want to know what’s wrong. You may think you’re hiding it, but you’re not. And if you want to keep your position on this team, I suggest you give me a good reason to help you figure out how to accomplish that.”
I don’t know where to begin to tell him all the things that seem wrong, so I pick up my coffee and take a sip. It immediately scalds the top of my mouth but I swallow it, burning my throat along the way.
When I set it down, I say, “I’m having a little trouble sleeping. That’s all.”
“Are you self-medicating? Drinking? Is that why you overslept?”
“No, Coach,” I exclaim, leaning forward in my chair. “I’m not doing that. Only having some bad dreams is all.”
“Because if you were self-medicating, the league has great resources to—”
“I swear I’m not doing drugs or drinking alcohol to help sleep.”
He nods and I see he accepts my declaration at face value. “Okay, then… let’s move on. Why are you having trouble sleeping?”
That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
And one I haven’t bothered to try to answer yet.
To fill the silence, Coach prods me. “When we last talked about your level of play on the ice, you said you were having some family issues. Is that it?”
My mind buzzes, trying to remember exactly what I said. He did indeed call me on the carpet about my play not being quite up to par. I think I did tell him I was dealing with some family issues, but that’s not the truth. I mean, there’s some truth to it… but they’re not the root of my sleepless nights.
I choose to be vague. “My family isn’t keeping me up at night.”
Coach West settles back in his chair, taps an index finger on the table. The way he’s looking at me is daunting, as if he can see deep into my soul.
“Is it because your friends and teammates and coaches died in a plane crash?”
And it’s noticeable.
“Are you having nightmares about plane crashes?” he asks, and I feel the blood leaving my face.
Coach West takes it in and nods with understanding. “Did you get therapy after the crash?”
I shake my head. “Not really. We had to see someone for an evaluation, but that’s all I did.”
He knows what I mean by we. Coen Highsmith, Hendrix Bateman and I are called the Lucky Three. The trio of players who weren’t on the plane. The ones who escaped death and the ones who should be grateful for the lives we have.
Coach pokes at me without hesitation. “Is there a reason you didn’t attend therapy?”
I shrug. “I thought I was handling it fine. I mean… I grieved. I mourned the losses. I asked a lot of whys and why-nots. But I handled it fine. Ask anyone who knows me.”
“I’m asking you,” he says pointedly.
“I handled it fine,” I repeat but there’s no hiding my defensive tone. “I don’t want or need therapy.”
Coach West stares at me a good long moment before giving what looks like a resigned nod. There’s a release of tension from my chest, something I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in this entire time.
“Okay,” he says, pushing up from the table and I rise as well. “I respect you don’t want to do therapy. I’d never force that. But I am going to require you to do something.”
“What’s that?” I ask suspiciously.
“Brienne created a support group for all the loved ones and friends left behind. At first, it was pretty structured with regular meetings. She had a certified counselor there to moderate discussions. Now it’s more of a social network. We meet every Sunday afternoon at a different place to get together and talk.”
“We?” I ask curiously because Coach West isn’t a loved one or friend to any of those who perished.
“Brienne invited me to one of the meetings when I first started. Wanted me to talk about overcoming loss and dealing with grief.” He shrugs with a fond smile. “I’m sort of an honorary member now.”
Coach West lost his wife to cancer several years ago. He would know all about what it’s like to mourn someone. And I knew about the support group. Brienne Norcross, the owner of the Pittsburgh Titans, emailed me, Coen and Hendrix about it. I never replied or went to any meetings.
“I expect you at tomorrow’s get-together,” he says. I immediately close off, wanting to tell him to go to hell, but he adds, “If you want to keep your position on the second line, you will do this.”
That pisses me off, but I’m polite when I say, “With all due respect, not sure it’s fair to require something like that just to keep my job. I missed one practice.”
“Your play has been substandard all season and you know it,” Coach says, and gone is the affable man we all know and love. His tone is hard and unforgiving. “Now, one of the reasons I’m a great coach is because I can see beneath the surface and coax out the best in my players. You can sit there and tell me until you’re blue in the face that you’re okay, but something is weighing on you. If it’s not the crash, my apologies. You’ll still have a great time at the get-together. You’ll know a lot of people. If it is the crash, you can thank me later for pushing you to get help.”
“And if I don’t go?” I ask, so I’m very clear.
“You’ll go down to the third line until your play improves,” he says simply. “You get a pass today for missing practice. Next time, you won’t enjoy my visit.”
“Didn’t enjoy this one,” I admit truthfully.
Rather than take offense, Coach West grins. “That means I’m doing my job then.”
“Travis,” I yell up the stairs as I bend to pick up three pairs of his shoes from the living room. “Don’t forget… I want two extra layers under your coat.”
“I know,” he calls back, his tone a low drawl of frustration that I’m micromanaging his wardrobe choices.
I smile and place the shoes on the staircase, each pair on a different tread. I’m almost gleeful at the idea of when he comes down, I’m going to make him carry them back up to his room. He hates making the trek up for some reason, despite the fact he has the energy of a thousand battery-packed bunnies.
Same as he hates to unload the dishwasher and roll the trash cans out to the curb.
I turn for the kitchen, intent on filling a travel mug with coffee when I hear his pounding feet on the stairs. Swiveling back that way, I meet him before he can reach the very bottom, pointing to the shoes. “You know the rules… no leaving your shoes in a place that is not your bedroom closet.”
“Ugh,” he groans in an overly dramatic fashion. “Can’t I take them up tonight when we get back home?”
“No, you cannot.” I point upward. “Upstairs. Now.”
He mutters and grumbles but does as he’s asked, because honest to God… he’s such a great kid. I get a kick out of all these little battles as Travis ages and matures. The way he’s pushing boundaries and rules is a rite of passage.
Or so my sister, Reba, assures me—she has a son of her own, although he’s four years older than mine.
Just a few days ago, I was working on a grant proposal at the kitchen table while Travis finished his homework for the evening. He closed his math book and started to head upstairs so he could watch his allotted half hour of TV.
I didn’t even look up from my work. “Hey, bud… do me a favor and load the dishwasher?”
“No way… that’s your job,” he said. “I unload and you load.”
I lifted my head and appraised him. I had to bite my tongue not to laugh because he looked so earnest in his evaluation of how things work between a parent and a kid.
“No,” I drawled, leveling him with a smile. “Your job is to do every chore you could ever imagine in this house. In exchange, I allow you to have a roof over your head and food in your belly. I merely happen to do a lot of it for you.”
Travis rolled his eyes and then I did bust out laughing. But I pointedly jerked my head toward the dishwasher and said, “Go on… load it up for me. I’ve got more work to do.”
And the biggest heart melt occurred when he walked not to the dishwasher but to me to kiss my cheek. “You’re the best mom ever. Even if you make me do chores.”
Travis hightails it up the stairs with his shoes in hand and I can’t resist. “And don’t just throw them in there,” I yell up at him.
I hear the distinct thump of them being unceremoniously dumped and shake my head.
I’ll give him a pass on that one because he’s nine years old and the last thing I want to be considered is overbearing. After Mitch died, it was only natural to me to gather Travis in close, but sometimes I went overboard and almost proverbially suffocated him. Not with too much love, born of fear that I could lose him in the blink of an eye the way I lost my husband, but with rules and structure. I thought if I could control my environment, which included keeping Travis in a rigid box, I could keep him alive and safe.
It was only through intense counseling for me individually, Travis individually and then both of us together that I learned to loosen the reins I’d involuntarily contracted inward. It’s a victory for me to be content he put his shoes in the closet, even if they’re thrown in there without thought or care to keep it neat.
It’s also a big deal for me to be able to let him go out and be a nine-year-old without my blanket of protection around him.
God, I know it’s silly to think that if I’m not near him he’s in danger. But for some reason, I went through a period where I thought Mitch dying in a plane crash was somehow my fault. It was fucked-up thinking, but therapy helped so much.
Doesn’t mean that I still don’t have my demons scratching to get out, though.
Travis hurtles back down the stairs. I wince because I realize one of his shoes is untied and I have a fleeting image of him falling on the stairs and breaking his neck, but I stuff it away. He reaches the bottom safely and I must have that look on my face… the one that says I’m in fear mode, even if it’s brief.
It sucks the life out of me when my son sees it… recognizes it… and then throws his arms around my waist. At nine and with his dad’s height, he’s able to lay his head on my shoulder. “I love you, Mom.”
“Love you too, kiddo,” I whisper as I pull him in close. I relish these times, even if it’s my basket full of crazy thinking that prompts it. I’ve been forewarned by Reba that boys turn into monsters when they hit double digits, so I cherish this while it lasts.
“Come on,” Travis says with excitement as he releases me. He rushes to the door and grabs his duffel bag with his hockey gear along with the stick propped against the wall.
He glances over his shoulder at me and the sun pouring in from the side pane of glass makes his blond hair shine. My heart catches because he looks so much like Mitch, right down to the lopsided grin I’ve loved for most of my life. It’s as if I’m staring at his younger doppelgänger, back in the days when we’d go fishing together as little kids.
Travis dashes out the door and the illusion of my dead husband is broken. There’s the inevitable punch of pain as the loss hits me—although it’s not as strong as it once was—and I move on. I have an amazing son and far too much to be grateful for these days to wallow.
On the way to the outdoor ice rink, Travis chatters about the upcoming start of the youth hockey league. He was slated to begin last year but the plane crash derailed everything. We were both so out of it with grief and then all the ways our lives were disrupted financially, the start of the season passed by without me even realizing. When I mentioned it to Travis, he wasn’t interested and my heart bled. He and Mitch had looked forward to Travis playing competitively, especially since the kid had been ice skating since he could walk.
But this year’s different. When registration opened, Travis was beyond giddy about joining. I definitely had to tighten up my budget to afford it because hockey is expensive, but the smile on his face was worth it.
Today’s just a fun day on the ice with some school friends to scrimmage. It was organized by one of the youth hockey moms whose son is in Travis’s third grade class.
As we pull into the parking lot, Travis nearly jumps out of the car before I come to a full stop.
“Whoa there, buddy,” I exclaim and he groans with frustration as he looks out the window.
“Mom… they’re already on the ice.” He looks over his shoulder at me plaintively, poised to throw the door open.
I give him my best mom look. “Give me ten seconds… geez.”
He rolls his eyes, and I remind myself only half an hour ago he spontaneously hugged me with words of love. Reaching out, I ruffle his hair. “I’ll pick you up at Mikey’s house at four p.m. You can use his mom’s phone to call me if you need anything—”
“I won’t need anything.”
“—or want me to pick you up early—”
“I won’t want to be picked up early.”
“—or because you miss me and want to hear the sound of my voice.”
Travis grins. “You’re a drama queen, Mom.”
Laughing, I nod toward the rink. “Get going, brat.”
He leans backward and offers his cheek. I kiss it and then watch with misty eyes as he runs off to join his friends. He doesn’t look back at me once but that’s how it should be… a child filled with such exuberance that he can only see what’s before him and not the pain of the past.
Stone and Harlow are hosting this week’s support get-together. Comprised of loved ones—whether by blood or heart ties—who lost someone in the crash, we’ve unofficially named our group This Pucking Sucks. It was formed by Brienne Norcross, owner of the Pittsburgh Titans, about two months after the disaster. She lost her brother when the plane went down and wasn’t only grieving the loss of the team but a family member, like many of us.
The group was large when it first started. A lot of the widows and widowers stayed in the area for a while, but slowly, some moved away. Most of the players’ wives were transient, having moved to Pittsburgh for their husband’s jobs. Some—like me, though—had grown deeper roots.
Mitch moved here at eighteen to play with the Titans. I was only sixteen at that time and it was a miserable two years away from him, but I followed right along after high school graduation. You’d think that would’ve upset my parents, but to the contrary, they were supportive. They knew I wasn’t sloughing off college to “just pursue a boy.” They’d watched me and Mitch grow up together and turn from playmates to crushes to dating to falling in love.
I was accepted at Pitt and loved being a student, although admittedly, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fulfilling without Mitch by my side. I moved in with him and life was blissful.
But then we got hit with the craziest of curveballs… I got pregnant halfway through my freshman year, which sort of put a wrinkle in our plans.
Pregnancy was the last thing we wanted at this young time in our lives, and needless to say, Mitch and I were shocked. I was knocked for a bigger loop when the day following my positive pregnancy test, Mitch came home with a huge diamond ring and proposed. We’d always talked about being soul mates and being together forever, but we never specifically talked about getting engaged, married or having kids. We’d been together for pretty much forever and so it was assumed we’d always continue to be together.
And yet, when he gallantly got down on one knee and presented a ring so outlandishly enormous and sparkly, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t been talking about those things forever because it felt so natural when I threw my arms around his neck and screamed, “Yes!”
The engagement was followed by a quick but beautiful wedding attended by our families and all the Titans. I quickly learned how to be a hockey wife, having Mitch gone for days at a time. I went through my pregnancy with him by my side as much as possible but there were a few appointments he missed because he was traveling. I’d recently turned nineteen when I gave birth to Travis and Mitch was able to be there. It’s my fondest memory of him… the look on his face when he first held his son.
I was able to finish my freshman year at Pitt while pregnant, but after Travis was born, I never went back. Mitch and I decided it was better for me to be a full-time mom, which is a move I’ve never regretted once in my life.
Almost a decade later and I’m still here in Pittsburgh, even though many of the other wives, fiancées and girlfriends have drifted away. We still keep in contact and even have some support group Zoom calls where we’ll all have drinks as we catch up on each other’s lives.
But almost every Sunday, This Pucking Sucks gets together. Not everyone can make it every time. One weekend we’ll have a group of ten and the next it’s only two of us meeting for lunch. And it’s not only the wives or significant others… it’s any family member or friend who shares the same grief we do after losing a Titans member.
Today is special because the team is in town and tomorrow’s a home game, so Stone and Harlow volunteered to host at their place. Stone lost his brother, Brooks, in the crash and came up from the minors to take his place on the team.
They live in a beautiful, renovated warehouse a few blocks north of the river, just a short drive from the arena. I’m able to find a parallel spot two blocks down. As I walk toward the condo entrance, I come upon Cannon West getting out of his car. He locks it, pockets the key and nods at the bag in my hand. “What did you bring?”
“A pasta salad. You?”
He holds up a grocery bag. “Mini Snickers.”
Laughing, I step into him for a side-arm hug. “That works for me.”
The Titans’ coach comes to some of our meetings and the very first one he was at, he insisted we call him Cannon. He didn’t lose anyone in the crash, but he shows up to support us as someone who has known loss in his life. We chitchat all the way into the building and up the flight of stairs to the second level where Stone and Harlow’s unit is on the end. There’s already the sound of laughter coming down the hall, and I do love to hear that. Cannon and I share a smile.
Before he reaches the door, he asks, “How’s the new job going?”
Excitement and pleasure well up within me. “Oh my gosh… so well. I mean, there’s so much to learn but Brienne is a patient teacher.”
“She couldn’t have picked a better person to head her brother’s foundation,” Cannon murmurs.
His compliment warms me because I struggle with impostor syndrome every day. From the moment Travis was born, my job was to be his mom. Mitch made enough money I didn’t have to work and I never went back to college. My career was to make my son’s and husband’s lives as good as they could be.
It’s been a bit of a struggle since Mitch died—not just emotionally, but financially. Brienne’s job offer for me to serve as the director of a new charity she named after her brother threw me for a loop. It came at the perfect time because I was very close to throwing in the towel and heading home to Massachusetts, where my parents were more than happy to take Travis and me in.
But now I have purpose and Brienne is showing me that I can be both a mom and a working woman. She’s helping me realize that I can take care of my son in all ways and it’s empowering. After the last ten months, it feels good to be capable.
I know all the people here and yet I’m decidedly uncomfortable. When I arrive at Stone and Harlow’s, Harlow greets me at the door. She latches onto my arm and drags me into the kitchen.
“Food and drink. Get going,” she orders. “Then come join us in the living room.”
I load up a plate of various foods that people brought. There’s a bowl of Snickers and I’m guessing that’s from Coach. While I know he comes to some of these get-togethers, I’m certain he’s here today to make sure I showed up.
I didn’t bring anything because Coach West didn’t tell me to, but Harlow assured me it was okay.
In the living room, I end up by the doors to an outdoor balcony talking to Hendrix and Coen—fitting that the Lucky Three are grouped together.
You’d think such an experience would bond us tightly, but oddly, the three of us don’t talk about the crash. Sure, we supported each other in the weeks that followed—saying our goodbyes as we attended multiple funerals and memorials. But eventually, we all sort of moved on, occupied by the easy escape of continuing the season with a new team.
Hendrix and I were able to focus on hockey as the team was rebuilt. Coen, unfortunately, went off the deep end for a while and eventually was suspended. Luckily, he got his shit together over the summer and now he’s back, in love and playing better than ever.
I realize their girlfriends aren’t with them and I wonder if this is open to only those who lost loved ones. Harlow is present, but she lives here and Stone is hosting. Plus, she was best friends with his brother, Brooks.
“Where’s Stevie?” I ask Hendrix.
“Working,” he says, dipping a cucumber slice into some kind of dip.
“And Tillie?” I ask Coen.
“She wanted to come but had to get back to Coudersport. She’s running a local art show.”
Well, that answers that. Apparently, it’s open to wives and girlfriends. I notice Brienne here but not Drake, although he’s probably spending time with his boys.
It’s more than just players who were lost on the plane. I see Boyd Frazer—his wife Jessie was one of our trainers. He’s local to Pittsburgh, and I haven’t seen him in a while.
There are a handful of widows here. Maggie Pearsall, who was married to Cory, one of our defensemen. She’s still in the area because she’s local to Pittsburgh as well.
Kateryna Kozar, married to our first-line center, Maksym, is here, both of them from Ukraine. I’ve seen Kateryna around at some of the postgame parties and knew she’d stayed in Pittsburgh on a work visa with their two daughters.
And Danica Brandt, married to our second-line left-winger, Mitch. It was announced at the Titans’ Christmas party that she’d be running a new charity Brienne created and named after her brother called the Adam Norcross Charitable Foundation. It’s a fascinating concept and one I’d not thought of before. Its main goal will be to aid dependents of professional athletes and support staff who have either died or become incapacitated and can’t play anymore. It’s not only for hockey, and it’s not just for the United States but a global foundation, and Danica will be running it.
I was happy to hear this and it was good to catch up with her at the Christmas party week before last. Obviously, I know some of the loved ones better than others, but Danica I know well. Mitch and I played on the same line, so we hung out a lot more than some of the other players. Through the years playing together, I’ve been to dinners at their house, met their parents and other family members who visited and once went with him to visit Travis’s first grade class to read storybooks to the kids.
I’ve kept in loose contact with Danica. She still comes to some of the games, after-parties and team functions as Brienne makes sure to invite all the former team family members. At first, Danica didn’t come as I imagine she was lost to her grief. But this season, I’ve seen her a handful of times and it’s been nice to see her smiles getting bigger as time moves on.
Watching Danica now, I don’t know exactly how the past year has been for her. I’m somewhat surprised she stayed in the area since it’s just her and Travis. I know all her family—and Mitch’s, for that matter—are in Massachusetts.
Of course, I never bothered to ask specifically her reasons for not returning home. Our talks have been short, some just in passing at events, but she seems to be doing well as far as I can tell.
Same as me.
“Dude.” A hand clamps down on my shoulder and I turn to see Stone. “Coach said you were coming. Glad you’re here.”
He’s clearly surprised by my presence. It’s been ten and a half months since the crash and I’ve never been to one of these nor have I talked to Stone about the crash other than to extend my condolences about his brother.
“Coach sort of mandated it,” I say.
Stone’s hand falls away and he nods. “Because you missed practice yesterday.”
I shrug as I glance at Coen and Hendrix, who stare back at me with no judgment and apparent understanding. But how can they comprehend anything when I don’t even know what’s happening to me?
“Look,” he says, drawing my attention. “You know all these people. No one’s a stranger. Nothing to fear. Go hang out and enjoy yourself.”
“Fine,” I say with a pointed stare, a half-smile on my face so he knows I’m teasing. “But if anyone asks me to share or get touchy-feely, I’m out of here.”
Stone tips his head back and laughs. “It’s not like that, my man. And there’s not a person in this room that you couldn’t trust with your sorrow. Everyone understands it. They’d all have your back.”
Okay… feeling awkward. I didn’t come to discuss my feelings. “I’m good, Stone. Truly.”
“Well, I’m not.” I blink in surprise at the admission because, for months, he’s seemed to be loving life. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my brother. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel guilty for being here on this team when he’s not.”
“Same,” Coen says quietly and Hendrix nods.
I’m rendered speechless by these three men casually talking about continued struggles from the crash. They seem so well-adjusted.
Same as me.
Coen smiles. “It takes a long time to heal from the loss of a loved one. You and I… we lost lots of them on that day. If you need to talk, I’m always here for you. But to ease your mind, this is a social get-together. More camaraderie than anything.”
My gaze cuts to Coach West. That’s not the impression he gave me but hanging out with people I like doesn’t sound so bad. I’m a social guy by nature. Coach is deep in discussion with Brienne about something and it makes me wonder if they’re discussing my missed practice. Not really something that would be brought to the attention of the team’s owner but Brienne is closely involved with her players.
“Camden.” A soft voice behind me has me turning—Danica Brandt. She grins and steps in, arms spread wide for a hug. “It’s so good to see you.”
I pull her in with one arm since my other hand is occupied with my plate. “Twice in less than two weeks. Must be my lucky day.”
Danica laughs, gives an extra squeeze and I release her so she steps back. I notice the guys have meandered off, leaving us alone.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, her gentle brown eyes smiling with easy affection.
I nod toward Coen and Hendrix who are catching up with Boyd. “Guess better late than never, huh?”
She glances over at them and then back to me. “This is Hendrix’s first time. Coen’s been to a few gatherings this season.” That surprises me. I assumed when I saw them both here that they were regulars. She must read that on my face because she adds, “I talked to Hendrix about it at the Christmas party. It came up in conversation and I pushed him to come.”
Danica and I talked for a bit at that same gathering and she never mentioned this support group. I mean… I knew about it.
But since I was never interested in something like this, I sort of pushed it away. I wonder if she could tell that about me, or maybe it came up in innocent conversation with Hendrix so she made the invite.
Regardless, I find myself admitting, “Coach made me come.”
Danica Brandt is an incredibly beautiful woman. One of those pretty, girl-next-door types with glossy, caramel-colored hair that complements her olive skin tone and doe-brown eyes. Those eyes soften even more with an insider’s knowledge that I might be having struggles because of the crash.
I brace for her push but instead she sweeps a fond glance around the room before she looks at me again. “This is absolutely a safe place for you, not only to talk about your experiences, but also to be silent if you want. Sometimes simply being around like-minded people is enough. So my advice to you? Enjoy reconnecting with old friends.”
And just like that, a massive release sweeps through my body and what had been previously pent-up tension floats away. I hadn’t realized how scared I was to actually be in an environment where I might have to talk about the crash and my feelings. And while Coen basically said the same thing to me two minutes ago, for some reason, I trust it more coming from Danica.
She sees the relief in my expression, telling me how intuitive she is and gives me a tiny nudge with her elbow. “Easy as pie.”
I decide to take her advice and use this time to connect. While we’d talked at the party, it was in a group of people and I didn’t get one-on-one. It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to catch up. “What’s Travis doing today?”
Her smile breaks wide, revealing two dimples I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed before, or if I had, they hadn’t made an impression. I’m momentarily dazzled. “He starts youth hockey next week so he’s at the rink today with his buddies getting in some practice. He’s so excited, it’s all he’s talked about for days.”
“Going to be a winger like his dad,” I say assuredly, knowing that won’t offend but not sure if it will sadden. I’ve seen Travis skate, and he’s got the same speed and agility Mitch had.
Danica’s smile doesn’t lessen but I see a brief flash of grief. “That’s what he says. He’s nervous, though, since he didn’t play last year. All the other boys have an entire season on him.”
“He’s got enough talent to make up for it,” I assure her. Again, I’ve seen the kid skate and handle a puck, goofing off with his dad and some of us on the team enough to know where he’s going. “If he wants some extra practice, though, I’m glad to help him out.”
“Really?” she asks, the drawl of surprise and gratitude in her voice surprising me. It’s the sound of someone who doesn’t ask for help often and seems shocked when it’s offered.
A flash of guilt runs through me. Have I done enough for her after Mitch died? Did I do enough for any of the loved ones?
“Absolutely. I’d love to help him out. We’ve got a home game tomorrow and an away game on Wednesday. I could do Thursday afternoon. What time does he get out of school?”
Danica seems dumbstruck for a moment but recovers. “I pick him up at three.”
“I’ll come by at three thirty to get him and have him home by five thirty. Is that good?”
She nods effusively. “Yes, that would be great. He’ll be so excited. You know I play in the driveway with him, letting him slap plastic pucks at me, but I can’t give him pointers the way his dad could have.”
I laugh. “You know your fair share of hockey, but I admit… I am a professional.”
She laughs in return. “I’ll text you our new address.”
My brows draw inward. “You moved?”
“Um… yeah,” she says, tucking her hair behind her ear. “That house was too big for us, you know.”
I do know. They lived in a monstrous custom-built home in a gated community but I wonder if maybe it held too many memories. Regardless, I can see the subject makes her a little tense so I don’t delve.
“I get it,” I assure her.
“Listen,” she says hesitantly and steps in a bit closer. “There’s something I did want to ask your help with.”
I dip my head closer to compensate for the softness in her tone. “What’s that?”
“I’m not good at soliciting but as the director of the new foundation, part of my job is keeping it funded.”
“You want money? I’m happy to donate.”
She grins at me, dimples popping and fuck… I shouldn’t think that makes her prettier. “Yes, I’ll take your money but that wasn’t what I was going to ask for. I’m trying to secure a big corporate sponsor and the CEO is throwing his sixteen-year-old son a birthday party. He’s hinted—quite strongly—that he’d join as a sponsor if I can show him some Titans love.”
“Aagh,” I drawl with a knowing lift of my chin. “Sure… what can I do?”
“Come to the party with me. Maybe a signed jersey for the kid. Take some pictures with the others, sign a few autographs. It’s Saturday and I know it’s between home games so it’s your time off… it’s a big ask and—”
“I’m there,” I say, somewhat surprising myself. I cherish my downtime and hanging out at a teen’s birthday party isn’t my idea of relaxing. “Find out how many kids are there and I’ll snag jerseys for all of them.”
“Oh no,” she says, shaking her head and holding out her palms. “I can’t ask you to pay for that.”
Chuckling, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeeze. “I’m not paying for it. Brienne will be, but this is her foundation so I know she’ll be glad to. You’ve got to think bigger picture, Dani.”
Her nickname just slips out, a testament that I knew this woman far better than I even remembered. Years of playing on the same line with Mitch, dozens of team events, parties, birthday celebrations. Many of her friends call her that.
“I know,” she says with mock self-loathing. “I told you I hate asking for stuff. I don’t like being a bother to people.”
“Trust me.” My hand falls away but I give her an encouraging smile. “Asking rich people for donations or sponsorships or time in helping isn’t a bother to them. It’s the price of being wealthy. You need to lose that fear.”
Her smile is wry. “I’ll remember your advice.”
Coach West approaches and when Danica sees him, her smile brightens to full wattage. “Cannon.” She jabs him playfully with her elbow. “And I didn’t ask you earlier, but I heard you’ve got a new sweetheart. I need to meet her.”
“You will,” he says, the husky affection in his voice sounding very right for him. He’s had a tough road with losing his wife to cancer but he seems to have found something amazing with Ava.
Coach’s gaze comes to me. “Glad you could make it.”
As if I had a choice.
I smile, giving a half shrug. “Thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.” My gaze drops to Danica. “It’s been nice to connect with old friends.”
“Very nice,” she agrees. “Now, I’m going to catch up with some others. I’ll see you Thursday. I can’t wait to tell Travis.”
“See you then.”
After Danica moves off, Coach West turns to me. “See… I told you this would be a nice time.”
“No,” I reply with an emphatic shake of my head. “You most certainly didn’t say that.”
He snorts and glances back toward Danica. “Nice to rekindle friendships, huh?”
“I guess. Travis is starting youth hockey next week. Going to help him out. And I got suckered into helping out with securing a sponsor for the foundation.”
Coach claps me on the shoulder. “Trust me… we’re all going to get suckered by Danica into doing something at some point.”
I watch as Danica laughs in her conversation with one of the wives. “Well, she needs to up her courage to ask. She’s struggling with that a bit.”
“She’ll figure it out,” he muses thoughtfully. “She’s done a remarkable job of keeping things together for her and Travis after the crash. She’s had a tough time but still going strong.”
“Yeah.” I glance around the room again, and really take everyone in. No one looks sad. Some are in deep conversations, others laugh the way Danica does. But this isn’t a melancholy gathering of people sharing their pain.
It seems like people have healed or are healing well. I wonder how much is because of this group of peers that leaned on one another from the beginning.
Would I not have nightmares about planes killing me had I done something early on?
Guess I’ll never know but I’ve fulfilled my obligation to Coach West by attending this gathering.