“Stone.” Something slaps my arm. “Stone… wake up.”
“What?” I mumble, refusing to open my eyes. My tongue feels like it’s fucking glued to the top of my mouth.
“Your damn phone keeps ringing.” Female voice coming from the other side of the bed. Not all that surprising after a bender evening out.
I raise my head, a searing pain jolting through it. It’s dark and I’m disoriented, but I do hear my phone ringing on my nightstand.
Rolling that way, I nab it and squint to see who’s calling.
“Fuck that,” I mutter, tapping decline.
Tossing the phone back on the nightstand, I close my eyes and try to will the pounding headache away. I had way too much to drink last night, so much so that I honestly have no clue who’s lying in my bed.
Nor do I care.
My phone immediately starts ringing again, and my eyes snap open.
“Turn the fucking phone off,” the woman whines grumpily, and I can make out her shadowy form pulling a pillow over her head.
I grab the phone, intent on doing just as she asked. It’s my father calling again, but it finally penetrates that it’s just past two a.m., so it has to be something bad if he’s calling me at this hour.
Hell, I’d probably think it was something bad if he called me in daylight hours too. He just doesn’t reach out at all.
Despite the headache and slight buzz, I make the choice to answer.
“Yeah,” I say into the phone, my voice thick with sleep and too much beer. I cough to clear it. “What’s up?”
“Oh God,” my father wails into the phone, and it’s so full of anguish that my stomach rolls.
I fly up from the bed, swinging my legs around and fumbling with the lamp. It lights up the room, and I’m vaguely aware of the cursing woman behind me in bed.
“What’s wrong?” I demand, but I’m not sure he hears me. My father is moaning piteously, crying and sobbing.
Just one name, over and over and over again.
“Dad!” I yell, trying to get his attention—trying to talk louder than his sobs. “What the fuck happened?”
“Jesus Christ,” the woman snaps, and I glance back at her. “Can you take that call somewhere else?”
I’m normally an easygoing guy, but something life altering is happening. I’m coming off a drunk, and I have a father I barely talk to on the phone, crying about my brother. Some strange woman is in my bed—who I clearly brought home and fucked, seeing as how we’re both naked—and she’s telling me to go somewhere else.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE,” I roar, and no matter how loud that was, my dad’s crying is still somehow more clamorous.
The woman’s eyes bug out, and she scrambles off the bed, grabbing the sheet to cover herself. As she gathers her clothes from the floor, I give her my back.
“Dad.” He’s not responding, just out-of-control crying. “Dad… what’s wrong with Brooks?”
He says nothing. Only whimpers.
My heart rate is so jacked, I’m afraid I’ll stroke out. “Dad!” I scream at him, punching the wall and denting it. “Goddamn it. What’s wrong with Brooks?”
“Gone,” he keens. “Plane. Crashed.”
“No.” It can’t be. No fucking way. My heart twists, possibly tears in half.
My dad is sobbing again, and he sounds like a damn child. Completely useless, but I’m not without means to determine what’s going on. I snatch the remote from the nightstand, aim it at my thirty-two-inch TV on the dresser, and power it on. Because all I watch is ESPN, that flares to life, and I stare in horror at what looks like footage of a helicopter flying over… well, I’m not sure what.
It’s dark, but there are dozens of flashing lights. Police, ambulances, more fire trucks than I can count. And various chunks of something scattered about, blackened by fire.
It finally comes to me… I’m looking at an airport. I can see the runway lights, and my eyes focus not on what the reporter is saying but rather on the scrolling banner at the bottom.
“Pittsburgh Titans’ plane crashes upon landing at airport. Search for survivors continues.”
I stumble backward, vaguely aware that my bedroom is empty and the woman must have left. The backs of my legs hit the mattress and I sag onto it as I stare, disbelieving, at the screen.
My dad still cries on the phone. He says Brooks is gone.
Not dead, though. They’re reporting that they’re searching for survivors.
“Dad,” I bark into the phone, “have they found Brooks?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbles.
“The TV is reporting they’re looking for survivors,” I point out, turning up the volume so I can listen.
That seems to jolt him as he starts talking. “We’re watching too. The plane is destroyed. No one could have survived that. No one.”
My dad breaks down into sobs again, and I pull the phone away from my ear. I can’t stand to listen to him mourn Brooks when we don’t know for sure if he’s dead. There are ambulances out there. Rescuers searching.
He could have made it.
It’s what I feel as I sit in the front church pew next to my parents, staring blankly at my brother’s coffin.
It’s closed casket, of course. Most of the victims of the Titans’ plane crash had closed caskets or were cremated, since many were already so badly burned. Identifications were done through dental records and rapid DNA testing. It’s grisly information, but I know it because my dad asked those questions to the FBI agent assigned to oversee victim identification and felt the need to share it with the entire family via email.
I personally could have done without that information, but my dad wanted it, not to ease his mind in any way but so he could use the drama during his interviews with news stations. He may have lost a son, and I’m sure he’s grieving, but he’s also in his element with the spotlight on him.
It’s why he let reporters with cameras into the service, so they could record how much he’s suffering after losing his precious son. He sits on the other side of my mom at the end of the pew, near the aisle, so he can make sure everyone sees the pain weighing him down.
Sitting in between me and my father is my mom. Brooks was the light of her life—or so I’ve heard her say on many occasions—and she sits with shoulders hunched, tears streaming down her face.
I try to put my arm around her—some measure of comfort—but she doesn’t seem to notice. She merely murmurs over and over again, “My son… gone. My precious boy.”
The Episcopalian service is disingenuous, given that we’re not a religious family in any way. It’s only being held here because my father wants the maximum effect. My mom weeps through the entire service. The Episcopalian priest talks about Brooks as if he knew him well, but it’s obvious they’re prepared remarks—I recognize my father’s hand in all the ways the world will be dimmer without Brooks’s greatness. Then it’s a painful ten minutes while I have to listen to my father eulogize my brother in a manner I find offensive.
Of course, he lists all the accomplishments of his second but favorite son. How well he did in college, getting drafted to play professional hockey by the Pittsburgh Titans and how his star shone brighter than he ever knew possible. He talks about what a loving and devoted son Brooks was and that he will never suffer a loss as great as this one. In fact, he tells the captive audience—while looking straight into a news camera—that he’s not sure he has anything to go on for.
I’m a little prickly about my parents’ behavior, for sure. My brother was indeed a great hockey player and a good person, and I miss him so much. But those blindingly overarching compliments are nothing but a slap at me. My father never misses an opportunity to raise Brooks up and try to knock me down at the same time.
My eyes remain dry throughout the entire service, just as they’ve remained dry since the moment my father called me a week ago with news of the crash. Too many emotions pulling me in a dozen different directions to even process the finality of what’s happened.
I’m resentful of my brother, and my father has made me that way. Over the last few years, my father managed to single-handedly destroy my relationship with Brooks, and he’s apparently removed my ability to grieve or mourn his loss. I know that’s some psychological, twisted, fucked-up nonsense, but there you have it.
I’m relieved when the church service concludes. I would leave now if I weren’t a pallbearer for my brother’s coffin. So I do my duty and carry him to the hearse. I ride silently in a black sedan along with my parents to the graveside. The entire time they clutch onto each other and stare blankly ahead without even bothering to look at me.
Not once have they offered me any solace. Not even a hug when I arrived home here in Ithaca to be with the family at this terrible time. Not even an acknowledgment that I lost something too.
When we arrive at the cemetery, I help carry the coffin to the waiting grave. The priest and other mourners file in around chairs lined up in front of the casket for the family. I choose to stand at the outer edge of the crowd, counting down the minutes until this is over.
The priest offers a brief prayer, and my father has a dramatic breakdown during the words meant to comfort.
Just before the casket is lowered, people file by to lay red carnations on top. I may have been mostly estranged from my brother, but I knew him well enough to know he would hate this.
My mother flings herself on top of the coffin and wails, and my father capitalizes on the drama by grabbing her from a semi-faint. All the while, the TV cameras are rolling because my father invited the reporters to this part of the service as well. I’m sure he’ll watch the footage tonight to make sure they got the best angles on his grieving face.
It’s all more than I can handle right now, so I pivot to leave. The day is cold and the brown, frost-covered grass crunches under my feet. I don’t bother heading toward the sedan that brought me here but intend to walk out of the cemetery and pick up an Uber for a ride back to my car at the church. I have to get back to Cleveland as we have a game tomorrow, and I’ve missed too much ice time as it is.
I make it no more than a dozen paces from the crowd when I feel someone at my side. A hand slips into the crook of my elbow, and I glance down to see my Aunt Bethany. She squeezes my arm and does nothing more than walk along with me silently.
When we reach the main paved road, I stop because I know she’s not going to walk all the way out.
She tips her head back, and her kind blue eyes stare at me. “Are you sure you won’t stick around for the gathering at the house?”
The look I give her is one of gentle chastisement. “Why would I want to suffer that?”
Bethany’s smile turns sad. But it’s also understanding, because she, better than anyone, knows the mental abandonment I’ve suffered from my parents over the last few years. “Because you love your parents, despite the way they are, and you loved your brother more than anything, despite what your parents did to the two of you.”
She’s not wrong about that. Sometimes I wonder how I still have care in my heart for two people who don’t seem to have it in return for me. Deep down, I know my brother never wanted any of this and is not to blame. And yes, I loved him more than anyone in this world, just as much as I resented him.
“I can’t.” I glance back at the crowd for a moment and see that my father has managed to get my mom settled back in the chair. “This is probably the last time I’m coming home.”
She nods and sighs. “Then I guess I’ll just have to come visit you in Cleveland.”
“The door is always open for you.” I bend down and kiss her cheek before wrapping my arms around her in a bear hug.
While I forgive her for being my father’s sister, I also understand why she plays the middle ground. Regardless, she’s been a surrogate parent for me, and there’s not much I wouldn’t do for her.
“I love you.” I release her from the hug, and we stare at each other for a moment. “And I’m lucky to have you.”
“You always have me, Stone,” she replies, patting me on the cheek. She then turns and heads back to the grave site while I walk as quickly as I can toward the cemetery exit so I can leave this all behind.
Yawning, I rub my eyes. Only another forty miles to go until I get to my apartment in Cleveland. I chose to drive the five hours to Ithaca rather than fly for many reasons.
There was no connecting flight, and it would’ve taken me longer to fly than drive. I also didn’t want to be at my parents’ mercy for transportation, and I wanted my car available in case I needed to bail.
And admittedly… my brother just died in a plane crash, so I’m a little jittery about flying.
Given the emotion of the last week, the funeral services today, and the long drive home, I’m exhausted to the bone and starving as well. I can’t remember what food I have in my house, but I’m too tired to stop by the grocery store. I also know if I get home and there’s nothing there, I’m going to have to go back out.
The choice is fast food now, or do I take my chances and go home to empty cupboards?
Before I can make the decision, my phone rings. It’s a number I don’t recognize, but it’s from the Pittsburgh area code.
For a moment, I think about ignoring it, assuming it’s someone from the team to offer condolences. I know they’ve reached out to my parents on a few occasions offering to help in any way they can. My dad gladly accepted the organization’s offer to pay for the funeral expenses, even though I’m sure Brooks had insurance so that burden wouldn’t fall to them.
It was just another way for my dad to capitalize on the fame from this tragedy, proven when I saw a short interview he did with the local news about the generosity of the Pittsburgh Titans.
I connect the call, more to keep me awake during this last leg of my trip than anything. “Hello?”
“I’m looking for Stone Dumelin,” says a man with a deep timbre, unrecognizable to me.
“You got him,” I reply, trying to suppress another yawn.
“Stone… this is Callum Derringer.” That perks me up, and I sit straighter in my seat because Callum Derringer is a name everyone knows—former general manager of the Ottawa Cougars who was fired for failure to produce a winning team. “It’s not been released to the news yet, but the Titans have hired me as their new GM. I’m working closely with Brienne Norcross and a new coaching staff to put together a team to get back on the ice.”
I’m only momentarily shocked by this news. The plane crash was but a week ago, and many people are still mourning. We just buried my brother today.
But there’s a part of me that’s not surprised by the organization’s quick movement. I know the hockey industry well. While I might currently play in the minors for the Cleveland Badgers, I used to play in the majors. As a first-round draft pick, I went from college to the Boston Eagles where I played for a handful of years, even winning a Cup championship with them when I was twenty-three.
I understand that professional hockey is a for-profit industry, and without a team on the ice, everyone will lose millions. It’s not just the Norcross family—owners of the Titans—who will lose out, but also all the vendors, merchandisers, fans, and ticket holders. The city of Pittsburgh makes money off the brand and tourism. It’s an intricate web of codependency to keep everyone successful, and until the Titans get back into the game, everyone loses.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Derringer?” I’m assuming this has something to do with Brooks, although I don’t understand why he’s calling me rather than my father. He’s made himself the mouthpiece for our family’s tragedy.
“We’d actually like to extend you an offer to join the team. We’ve talked to the GM of the Badgers, and we’ve got a deal worked out. My understanding is you’re not represented right now, so I’m coming to you directly.”
I almost drive off the road. I lost faith long ago that I’d ever make it back up into the professional league, which is why I don’t have an agent representing me right now. I had accepted that I would retire as a minor league hockey player and was probably looking at doing that sooner rather than later.
“You had a tremendous career with the Boston Eagles,” Derringer continues, reciting a list of my statistics. “You were the first line left-winger, and you have a Cup championship behind you.”
Fuck, that was so long ago. Well actually, only four years, but it seems like a lifetime. “I’m not that player anymore, Mr. Derringer. I’m settled into the minors.”
There’s a long pause, as if he’s attempting to gather his thoughts. When he shares them, he pulls no punches. “You’re the first player I’ve talked to with these offers who wasn’t jumping for joy. It’s almost as if you want to stay where you are.”
I imagine my lack of enthusiasm is shocking, but I truly can’t find anything to be excited about. Maybe it’s an indication of how far I’ve sunk into mediocrity that I can’t even find simple joy in the prospect of something better.
I don’t respond to his statement, instead asking a question. “Why me, and is this offer in any way because Brooks played for you?”
Because fuck if I’m going to be the next big headline for the Pittsburgh organization to show how magnanimous they are.
“It was a consideration,” he admits bluntly. “But only to the extent we weren’t sure if losing your brother would be an emotional barrier that would prevent you from playing. Our desire to have you on our team has nothing to do with your relation to Brooks but rather your talent and potential.”
“What exactly is it you are offering, Mr. Derringer?”
“Please, call me Callum,” he says genially. “Here are the terms of what we’re willing to offer.”
I settle back and listen to everything he has to say. I believe him when he reiterates that they’re making this offer because they think I can make a major contribution to the team.
Still, at the end of the conversation, I’m not overly moved.
“I’ll have to think about it,” I say when he finishes. “When do you need an answer?”
“Twenty-four hours,” he replies. “Otherwise, the offer goes to the next best left-winger on our list.”
It’s been eleven days since the Titans’ plane crashed and my brother, Brooks, was killed.
Four days since we buried him.
Three days since I accepted the Titans’ offer to come on board and rekindle my professional career.
I bet some would say it must feel like coming full circle, but it just feels fucking wrong to me.
My star soared for many years, starting when I was a young boy learning to play hockey.
Natural talent is what I heard over and over again, and because my father was a hockey player himself, he endeavored to foster my talent. It was the best camps, the best trainers, and lots of pressure from him to perform to perfection. In those days, I was the apple of my father’s eye, and Brooks—two years younger than me—luckily wasn’t browbeaten the way I was.
My dad took all the credit when I was accepted into a D1 school to play hockey, and he latched onto the limelight when I was drafted to the Boston Eagles. Brooks was ignored, for the most part, even though he had the same talent that I did. We were well-matched in all regards. In fact, Brooks essentially followed my path.
He, too, played D1 hockey and was drafted to the Titans. My father was happier than a pig in shit, and he for sure took all the credit for my brother’s accomplishments. Brooks and I would laugh about it over beers and mimic my dad and his insatiable need for the spotlight.
When I was twenty-three, the Boston Eagles won the Cup. When it was my turn to have the Cup with me for the day, I threw a party at my home in Boston. It was Brooks’s last year in college, and I told him it would only be a matter of time before he was able to hoist the coveted trophy above his head, so sure I was of his talent and determination.
Of course, we laughed because my dad pretty much clung to the Cup throughout the entire party and had my mom take a zillion pictures of him with it.
Those were the last happy days I remember. The next training camp, I injured my shoulder, and it was the start of a downward spiral. While Brooks’s star started to shine brighter, I had a hard time coming back from the injury.
I was out for months but came back to the Eagles, only to injure it again. After another rehab, I came back but wasn’t stable enough to even make the third-line cut.
At age twenty-six, my star dimmed, and I was sent down to the minors.
Can’t say that my father really noticed, though. After my injury, he’d jumped on Brooks’s bandwagon and never looked back at his injured son struggling to save his career.
It built resentment inside me, leveled mostly at my father for being so self-centered he couldn’t be just a father, and then toward my mother who parroted him in all ways. Lastly, I resented Brooks because after years of being number two, he was now finally number one, and he loved the attention from our dad. We no longer laughed over beers about Dad’s antics, and instead, Brooks staunchly defended him anytime I complained. I suppose he suffered from not having that fatherly attention all those years growing up and needed the validation.
It unfortunately caused a rift between us, and over time, we barely spoke to each other. Brooks was a star on the Titans, the second-leading scorer at left wing behind Coen Highsmith.
I played for the Cleveland Badgers, earning a whopping $92,000 a year, quite the decline from my $3 million contract with the Eagles. When I left the pros, so too did the endorsements. I was pretty much a has-been trying to hang on to a dying career. Even though I’d completely recovered from my shoulder injury and was as strong as ever, no one really remembered who Stone Dumelin was, indicating my star had completely fizzled.
Now… I’m back in the top tier with a lucrative contract freshly signed. I should be celebrating my luck, and yet, all I can think about is how fucking wrong it feels.
I arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday and moved right into a cheap, furnished apartment Aunt Bethany helped me find while I scrambled to close down my life in Cleveland. I can afford more, but I’m not interested. I’ve had the wealth and glamour, and I know how unimportant it is.
I also know how fleeting it can be, so I’m banking all my money and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Titans’ arena has always been one of my favorites to play in, and now that it’s my official place of employment, I came early today to take a better look around. Callum Derringer had front office staff prepared to give tours to all the incoming players, which was a major influx of new people to accommodate. The facilities are top-notch and luxurious, and I can say it doesn’t suck to have such nice conditions.
Currently, I’m sitting in what is aptly called the Bowl. It’s the team’s meeting room shaped, well, like a bowl. Circular rows of plush chairs rise up from the center floor with large digital screens all around the top for us to watch video.
We’ve been summoned to our first meeting as the new team, and my stomach is in knots. I wonder if I’ve made a mistake because I feel like a fraud.
Glancing around, I see some familiar faces. Gage Heyward is a veteran player, and we’ve played against each other. He’s well-respected, and I expect that’s why he’s on the team.
Coen Highsmith is another one, highly recognizable as a member of what has been referred to as the Lucky Three.
They’re the three Titans players who weren’t on the doomed plane: Coen, due to the flu, and the other two, Camden Poe and Hendrix Bateman, due to minor injuries.
Camden and Hendrix are sitting together, but Coen is off by himself in the last row opposite me. He’s slumped in his chair, surfing his phone. Definitely unapproachable, but I figure the guy has a lot of fucking weight on his shoulders.
Most of the other guys are up from the minors, and I know them from my stint there as well. Not anyone I know well, though, as relationships don’t seem to foster as thickly at that level as they do in the pros.
More players straggle in, and I take the opportunity to check my messages. Yesterday I let Bethany know I had arrived safe and sound. It’s nice to have her worry over me. She made me promise to call after my first day to tell her all the details, and I’ll do that later tonight when I get to my apartment.
I can’t help the irritation that comes with merely seeing my dad’s name in my texts. The man has barely paid attention to me in three years—since I lost my footing with the Eagles—and didn’t try to offer any solace when Brooks died.
Now he won’t leave me the fuck alone.
Now that I’m on a professional team again.
His latest message is offensive. Let me know when you get family tickets. Mom and I will fly to as many games as we can if you can help us with the tickets. Otherwise, we’ll drive.
That’s it. No checking to see how I’m doing, no supportive words, no affirmation. Just wanting to know when he can be a hockey dad again now that Brooks is dead.
I turn off my phone just as one of the doors opens and Brienne Norcross strolls in with Callum Derringer behind her. I’d noticed the coaches were already seated in the front row, and I had a chance to talk to all of them when I arrived earlier. Even the goalie coach, Baden Oulett, made a point of introducing himself, although we won’t really be working together.
The room was mostly quiet before, none of the players openly talking. Now it’s dead silent as the Titans’ owner, Brienne Norcross, moves to the center. I realize that she and I have something in common… we both lost siblings on the plane. I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet, but she sent me a nice welcome email after I accepted the offer and also extended her condolences.
Brienne makes a sound low in her throat, perhaps clearing it. She looks nervous, but determined. “Gentlemen… you must know first that I owe every one of you an apology.”
I jolt in surprise—that is not what I expected for the opening line from the owner. I look left and right and see I’m not the only one perplexed by this.
But then she goes on to tell us that she is going to make mistakes, and she would ask us to bear with her.
Give her grace is what she requests.
In as humble a fashion as any multibillionaire can, she proclaims we will move forward as a team and that she will be there for us. She has put herself down on our level and let us know that whatever fumbles we have, we’ll do them together.
Her speech is refreshing, and frankly, a little inspiring. For the first time since I accepted their offer, I actually think I could enjoy being on this team.
Apparently, the others think the same as she gets a thunderous roar of approval from the men.
She then hands the reins over to Callum, who follows her with a speech just as refreshing and classy. Also humble, also asking that we give him an honest shot to be a better general manager than he was before. I like that he admits his flaws. It makes me respect him more.
He, too, gets approval from the team, and I’m clapping hard when he finishes.
“One last housekeeping matter, then I’m going to give the floor to Coach Keller.” Callum pushes his hands into his pockets, giving a slow three-sixty to look at all the players. “m, the league has voted in a points freeze retroactively to the plane crash, and we have four days to get in some shape to step out on the ice and reenter competitive play. The league just announced that they’re giving an allowance to the Titans that any trades made going forward will not be penalized by making players sit out of the playoffs.”
There’s a lot of shuffling and murmuring at this announcement. On its face, it appears to be a generous allowance the league is making, but it has repercussions.
It means that just as soon as we arrived here, we could easily be traded, because we won’t be penalized in the playoffs. I could find myself back down in the minors before I even have a chance to make my bed in my cheap little apartment.
Callum holds up his hands, asking for silence. “I know this might cause some distress, as many of you just got your call-up from the minors and you don’t want anything interfering with your shot to make it in this league. While the chances are slim, it’s possible someone could offer for one of you and then release you back to the minors. Brienne Norcross has made a commitment not to release any of you from your contracts this year. She wants your shot to be a good one, and you can’t do that with fear of that shot ending hanging over you. It doesn’t matter if a great opportunity comes our way. We are not going to sacrifice a single player in this room.”
Brienne Norcross is making a major concession to give all the players new to the team security for the rest of the season—a decision that could cost her money, especially if we suck. She’s promising that no matter what, the men in this room are safe for the remainder of the hockey season.
This is well received by the players, and there’s another round of clapping and cheering. I’m wondering why Brienne didn’t tell us this news herself, since it’s obviously her decision and she should take credit.
That probably speaks to the fact that she’s a true team player, earning her even more of my respect.
The knots in my stomach at the beginning of this meeting have loosened, and I look forward to what Coach Keller has to say as he takes center stage.
Matt Keller is, by all accounts, a great coach on paper. He’s fresh off a D1 national championship, and while a move to the pros is a bit of a big step, I’m assuming there weren’t a lot of qualified candidates. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve already bought into Brienne’s and Callum’s values—but he starts off poorly.
We’re first treated to a long-winded biography of his accomplishments, and it’s clear he’s trying to make sure he’s qualified in our eyes. It’s overkill as he won’t shut up about how much of a genius he was to win a national championship. He spouts ideals of fraternity and loyalty, which sound good on the surface, but those are things that have to be proven.
So when he says, “You show your loyalty to me, and you’ll have mine in return,” it doesn’t sit well with me.
Looking around at the hardened expressions on some of the other players’ faces, I can tell it doesn’t sit well at all with the whole.
“Now,” he says, seemingly ready to wind down his speech, “we are going to be family to each other. But we’re all relative strangers as of this day. I want to change that. So we’re going to go around the room, and I want each player to stand up and tell us a little about yourself. Maybe share a bit about your background and what led you here today. I’ve had the fortune of studying your bios, and I feel like I know each of you pretty well. But we need to share that with the others, so how about you there in the front row… Andrei Komokov.”
A young blond man warily stands, looking around before introducing himself in a thick Russian accent. His English is quite good, but his words are short, speaking more to his discomfort with being put on the spot like this.
Keller doesn’t seem to understand that was painful as he calls another player to stand, and then another. Most of these guys are truly making a step upward, but they’re nervous, and they realize they’re here only because of a horrible tragedy. None of them want to express elation over this opportunity, and yet Keller seems to want to hear that gratitude.
“Stone Dumelin,” Keller calls as his eyes search the room.
I mutter a curse as I rise from my chair, and the movement catches Keller’s eye. He smiles as if we’re old friends. “Tell everyone about yourself, Stone.”
“Stone Dumelin, left-winger. Played for the Eagles out of college, had some shoulder issues and bounced back and forth between them and the minors. Been with the Cleveland Badgers for the last year.”
I start to lower into my seat, but Matt stops me cold. “And what do you think your driving force is to be here?”
Rage slices through me, and it takes all my effort not to leap rows to get down to his level where I’d like to plant my fist in his smug fucking face.
I rein it in, though, suck air through my nostrils, and let it out in a growl. “I’d say the driving force is the fact that my brother was on the plane. His death gave me a shot at the big leagues. Fortuitous, some would say. Don’t you think?”
Tension sizzles through the room, and a few players murmur to one another. Keller’s face goes white, and I can tell he didn’t connect me to Brooks, despite the fact I know he knows my brother died in the crash. I think he had a major brain fart when he had this glorious idea for us to share our feelings.
“Fuck,” Keller mumbles, ducking his head sheepishly. “I’m so sorry. I got you confused with someone else, Stone.”
That’s even fucking worse. Jesus… did he not know the names of the players who died? Was he not told who I am?
Questions I’d probably have the right to ask this very minute, but for some of the men here, this is their shot at the big leagues, and I don’t want to ruin it for them. I want them to have faith in this man. But as of this moment, I’ve decided I hate the bastard.
I sink down into my chair, not accepting his apology. Keller stammers, looking around for another victim to call upon.
“Highsmith.” Keller looks at Coen Highsmith expectantly. “Stand up and tell the team about yourself.”
I don’t know much about this dude other than he’s really talented and brash, but that describes so many players in this league.
Coen shows the first signs of active rebellion and refuses to stand. In fact, he seems to slouch even more, as if he wants to be anywhere but here.
He stares at Keller, who swallows hard. His voice is lazy, almost nonplussed. “I think everyone here knows who I am. One of the Lucky Three.”
A pointed reminder that not everyone from the former team died in the plane disaster. And by the tone of his voice, I’m guessing he’s going to be battling some ghosts.
Keller stares at Coen, expecting him to say more. To do more. To perhaps validate him as our coach.
A monkey could figure out that Coen isn’t going to say another damn word, and if I had an ounce of sympathy for Keller, I might feel a little embarrassed for him.
But I don’t.
I hope he drowns in shame for destroying the good mood Brienne and Callum brought to the room.
“Coach.” All eyes in the room slide over to Gage Heyward, who stands from his chair. “I may just be speaking for myself, but I would personally rather get to know my teammates on a one-to-one basis. But more than that, I think I can safely say that everyone in this room is eager to show you what we can do. Am I right?”
I suspect everyone in the room feels the way I do at the moment… I want to kiss the fucking dude for rescuing us.
The men agree, yelling out their desire to get the hell out of here. Someone behind me says loud enough for all to hear, “I sure as shit don’t want to do all this kumbaya stuff.”
I look back down to Keller, and he is pissed, lips pressed flat and fury etched on his face. I can tell he’s going to take it out on Gage at some point for making him look like a fool, although personally, I think Gage was very diplomatic.
The point has been made, though. The only person who thought this was a good idea was Keller, and now he has the ability to release us from this suffering.
“Okay, men… it’s clear you want some action, and I’m ready to give it. Hit the locker rooms and suit up in practice gear. Everyone on the ice in fifteen minutes.”
It’s fairly quiet as we all stand, exiting from the bottom-level door, which is but a short walk to the locker rooms. Keller stands outside the door, smiling and slapping players on the shoulders as we walk by, as if we just had an amazing bonding moment. He tries to start up a conversation, and I dread having to talk to the dude right now. I’m still pissed he leveraged my tragedy to make himself try to look good.
Before I can reach Keller, though, Gage appears at my side and engages me in conversation, speaking loud enough for all around us to hear. “Hey, man… I don’t know if you remember, but we played against each other about four years ago, and after the game, you were telling me about some nutritional supplement. I used it for a while and then stopped, and now for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of it.”
My head twists his way and my eyebrows draw inward, showing my confusion. “I’m not sure—”
“Yeah,” Gage says, a bit louder, keeping my focus on him as we pass Keller. “They were these big horse pills you swore improved metabolism or some crap.”
Just as I’m thinking this guy is bat-shit crazy, he grins and winks. In a low voice, he explains, “Figured you wanted a distraction to get past Keller.”
Dawning hits me hard, and I manage a grateful smile. “Thanks. I’m not sure what I would’ve done had he spoken to me. I need to cool down a bit.”
“Anytime,” Gage replies, claps me on the shoulder, and moves toward the locker room, leaving me to my thoughts.
The team locker room is amazing, but I only had a quick peek inside during my initial tour. It’s set in a half circle, as many are these days, which promotes a team atmosphere and provides opportunity for the coaches to address the team as a whole before, during, and after games. The Titans spared no expense in outfitting this place where many of us will spend much of our time. The showers are sleek and semiprivate, done in teak wood, and the floors are mosaic tiles of purple and silver to create the Titans’ logo.
The entire locker room floor is covered in thick, dark gray carpeting with a purple border and the Titans’ logo—at least fifteen feet in diameter—inlaid in the center. The carpet is high-end and pristine. I imagine there’s probably a team of specialized janitors who care for it.
The cubbies are massive, built wide and deep and stained a deep charcoal gray. They have hooks and shelves for gear and uniforms and a built-in bench for the players to sit on. At the top of the cubby, mounted to wood, is chrome lettering that spells out each player’s last name with purple backlighting.
None of the prior players’ names have been removed, and I wonder if that’s in tribute to them or if management is just waiting to replace them with our names.
Almost helplessly, my gaze finds my brother’s cubby, locking onto the name Dumelin at the top. The locker is empty, but I can imagine his jersey hanging there. He wore number 62.
“Can’t imagine that’s easy for you, son.” A hand comes to my shoulder, and I cringe as I recognize Keller’s voice. “You want that locker, though, it’s yours. Just say the word.”
The other guys who’d filtered in before me watch, disbelief on their faces that Keller seems determined to flaunt my brother in my face.
I decide to set a tone that will get him off my back and leave my brother in the grave where he belongs. “We weren’t that close. Give it to someone else.”
I don’t wait around for him to finish stammering. I move away, causing his hand to fall from my shoulder.
Pretending an interest in the therapy room adjacent to the shower room, I walk through the doorway and pray to God Keller doesn’t follow. If he mentions my brother again, I’m going to lose my position on the team as I’m going to end up punching him.
“Law offices of Harlow Alston,” Bonita says sweetly into the phone. “How may I help you?”
I continue flipping through the mail Bonita had opened and sorted. She lays it out on the corner of her reception desk for me every day around mid-morning. I make myself come to her desk to go through it; otherwise, I’d never get out of my chair. I’m one of those workaholics who can sit in front of a computer for hours on end until my bladder threatens to erupt if I don’t go to the bathroom.
Bonita has other methods she employs to get me out of my chair. One day, she came into my office with a file to review, and her gaze fixated on something just over my shoulder.
“That’s the biggest spider I’ve ever seen,” she’d whispered cautiously. “Move very slowly out of your chair and—”
I came flying out of it so fast, it rolled backward and slammed into the windowsill. I was all the way out of my office before I looked back to see Bonita bent over laughing and shaking her head.
Tears in her eyes, she gasped, “As long as you’re up, you might as well take a quick walk around the block.”
It never seemed to matter to my faithful receptionist/secretary/paralegal/part-time surrogate mother that I work out every morning at five a.m. and am naturally athletic. I’m in prime shape, having played volleyball in college at Duquesne, and nowadays, I play in a high-powered rec league both in the spring and fall. I run half-marathons and spend most good-weather weekends hiking the Allegheny Mountains.
No, Bonita thinks I sit on my ass too much during the day, and she knows damn well I take work home with me and probably sit on my ass all night, so she takes it upon herself to get me moving when she deems I need it.
“Just a minute, please,” Bonita says and puts the caller on hold. “It’s Charlie Bitterman.”
“What is it this time?” I ask, still flipping through my mail. A legal pleading I’d been waiting on catches my eye and I pull it out to start reading.
“DWI,” she replies. “His grandfather bailed him out. Hearing is next month.”
“Thousand-dollar retainer,” I reply automatically. “Have him come in and meet me the week before the hearing.”
Bonita punches the button to reconnect the call. I pick up the mail and take it back into my office to review.
The big, shaggy beast lying in the corner raises his head to look at me.
“Do you need to go potty?” I ask him. Bonita usually handles the honors when I’m deep into my work, but since I’m up…
My dog blinks, rests his head back down with a sigh, and closes his droopy eyes.
“Lazy man,” I chide, but that’s my Odin. The biggest, fluffiest, laziest Bernese Mountain Dog in the world. Bonita once told me that the only reason he’s lazy is because I sit on my ass all day to work and that he’s taken on my personality.
Also, another perk of owning your own firm—you get to bring your dog to the office, something I never could’ve done when I worked at my father’s law firm. Despite the fact he’s a dog lover too, also owning two Bernese Mountain Dogs, he’s a firm believer that they don’t belong in a professional setting.
Settling into my chair, I kick my booted feet up onto my desk. Speaking of perks, one of the best of owning my own firm? I make the rules, and my most favorite is that I can wear whatever the hell I want to practice law.
Today it’s rag & bone dark-washed, boot-cut jeans, a crisp white button-up shirt with a long, pointed collar, and a cashmere shawl in navy blue. My camel-colored Stuart Weitzman ankle boots are buttery soft with a gold-plated, three-inch heel.
Even though the total cost of today’s wardrobe is probably close to nine hundred dollars, my family would have an absolute conniption fit to see me dressed this way while practicing the prestigious career of law.
It’s why I don’t practice with them across the river in one of the modern buildings built of glass and chrome. The Alston Law Group is a family affair, consisting of my grandfather, my father, my aunt, my brother, and three cousins. Sure, there are non-Alston attorneys there, but they’re grunge workers and will never own a piece of the pie. They basically come in, get the experience and a coveted line on their résumé, and then they move on.
I tried my hand at business and contract law with my dad proudly accepting me into the ranks. But it wasn’t for me, and now I’m that lawyer across the river who helps poor people.
My family likes to give me hell about it, and while they still routinely try to get me to give up this slog and join them again, they also know I’m incredibly happy on the path I’ve chosen.
Is it hard work?
Hell yes. Sixty to eighty hours a week, and I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation.
Do I make a lot of money?
Hell no. Owning your own law firm is a grind, and there are too many attorneys and not enough clients. Luckily, the Alstons are old money spanning generations, so I’m a trust-fund kid. It launched my law firm, and now I use it to buy my fancy clothes and pay my fancy mortgage. It lets me serve the poorer masses at discounted rates. Troubled Charlie Bitterman will pinch and scrape up that thousand-dollar retainer, knowing that’s all I’ll charge him, and knowing it’s about eighty percent cheaper than other lawyers.
What he doesn’t know is that it won’t go into my pocket. It will go into the operating fund to help pay for my office lease here in Allegheny West, Bonita’s salary and benefits, as well as a modest amount into social media advertising. Truth of the matter is, though, most of my clients come from personal referrals, or they’re repeat offenders—like Charlie.
I read the pleading that had caught my attention, scoffing at the defendant’s motion to dismiss before putting it aside to look at in more detail. It’s going to take some research, and I’ll probably work on it tonight at home.
Some bills, a thank-you card from a satisfied client I helped out of foreclosure, and junk mail that killed at least a tree or two in its creation.
After tossing them into the trash can, I look down at the last piece of mail in my hand, an unopened, nine-by-twelve manila envelope. Bonita has carte blanche to open all my mail, but she didn’t open this one, and it’s because she saw who sent it.
The tears immediately well in my eyes, and I grasp the envelope against my chest. I have no clue why something has been sent from him, but it’s clearly his handwriting. That’s his name and address in the upper left-hand corner.
I pull the envelope back and look at it. It’s fairly thick and postmarked yesterday, sent from Pittsburgh.
Brooks died eleven days ago. I just attended his memorial in Ithaca, New York, four days ago. I sat in the back of the church and stood at the back of the mourners, watching as his brokenhearted family grieved.
I grieved right along with them, just as I grieve now.
“Damn you,” I murmur low, knowing my words will reach Brooks up in Heaven. “Why are you plaguing me? I’d just shed the last of my tears, you jerk.”
I can almost hear him laughing … he truly enjoyed irritating me.
Swinging my feet off my desk, I reach into my middle drawer for the letter opener. I make an efficient slit in the top and with shaking hands pull out a thick sheaf of papers.
On top is a handwritten letter from Brooks, and it charms me that he took the time to do it. Who handwrites stuff these days? It’s much faster to type.
The letter is dated last September 28. Five months ago.
Dear Little Bit …
His nickname for me, because I always took things in small increments. He was Big Bit, because he went big on everything.
I know this letter is going to come as a shock, and you’re probably going to be pissed as hell at me, but I’m hoping you’ll forgive the favor I’m about to ask.
Enclosed with this letter is my Revocable Trust with a Last Will and Testament I had an attorney draw up for me. This is probably something that’ll never come to pass, as I hope to live a very long life complete with grandkids and rocking chairs, but God forbid something does happen before then, I wanted to make sure things were taken care of. I want you to handle my estate.
No, I need you to handle my estate because, as you well know, it’s going to be a bitch.
I know I should ask your permission first, even though I know you’ll say yes, but the truth is, I’m almost too embarrassed to put this on your shoulders. If you receive this letter, it means I’m dead and beyond embarrassment, so that’s some solace, I suppose. I’ve asked the attorney who drafted these documents to mail them to you after my funeral.
I trust you to make sure my wishes are carried out. I’ve made you the trustee because I know there’s going to be dissension among family members over this, and I know you’re strong enough to make sure what needs to be done is done. You’ll know what I mean when you read the documents.
We’ve talked about it enough, so I know this probably won’t be a shock. More importantly than the trust, though… I need you to make sure he gets the journals. Please make him read them.
He’s going to fight you every step of the way.
Be stronger. I know you can.
Also tell him I love him.
Make him believe it.
By the time I finish reading the letter, I’m sobbing again. Odin rises from the floor—the dog bed I bought him two years ago ignored because the floor is cooler and he’s a mountain dog—and pads over to me. He sets his big head in my lap, and my fingers bury into his fur for comfort. Bonita pokes her head in my office before bringing me a box of tissues. She backs out quietly as I reread the letter, shutting the door behind her. She’s such a gem, she’ll immediately head to the break room to brew tea.
I take out the trust documents and peruse them with a heavy heart. They were drawn up by a well-known estate firm downtown, and I have indeed been listed as the trustee. Brooks didn’t ask me to draw up this paperwork because he knew estate work wasn’t my specialty. With an estate the size of his, he needed lawyers who knew how to make the thing unbreakable and as advantageous tax-wise as possible.
I am, however, more than qualified to assume the role of trustee. I don’t have to. I could petition the court to appoint someone else, but the asshole—with all due affection—handwrote me a letter and implored me to carry out these wishes.
There’s no way I can say no.
Besides, he’d probably haunt me if I did.
Setting the documents down on the desk, I take Odin’s head in my hands and lift him up so we’re eye-to-eye. “I should have let you bite Brooks that first time you met him.”
His dark brown eyes seem to say he understands.
But truly, I’m not mad at Brooks’s request. I’d do anything to help him, and I hope if he’s watching over me, this gives him peace knowing I’ll do all I can to carry out his wishes.
Bending down, I place a kiss on Odin’s snout and then give him a gentle push away. He moves over to his water bowl and laps it up before settling down beside my desk.
I flip through the trust documents again, identify the information I need, and then pull up my email.
Many attorneys prefer to send documents via snail mail, but I think it’s a ridiculous way to communicate if you have an email address.
I type in the subject line, Brooks Dumelin Estate, and then move to the body of the email.
Dear Mr. Dumelin,
I’m reaching out on behalf of your brother, Brooks, who has appointed me trustee of his estate.
It takes me over an hour to compose what should’ve been a very simple email. But I know Stone Dumelin is not going to welcome this correspondence. Over the two years I’ve been friends with Brooks, I’m well aware of the toxicity running through the Dumelin family and that Stone was all but an outcast. I also know that Brooks has long wanted to make things right, but he never quite knew how.
Maybe now is the time.
I only hope Stone Dumelin will respond to me so I can make good on his dead brother’s wishes.
Christ, my nerves are sizzling. First game as a Titan.
And not just any first game.
The first game with a new team after the old team died.
First game against a powerhouse—the Washington Breakers—who are third in our conference. I think we’re all anticipating a slaughter.
And yet, the knowledge that we’re a hastily thrown together group of hockey players who will probably flub a lot of shit tonight hasn’t diminished the fans’ excitement. Since the arena doors opened, we’ve listened to the crowd’s almost nonstop cheering.
Not a bad thing, I might add.
Stepping onto the ice for warm-ups weakened my legs a little. Normally, most fans are out on the concourse before the game starts, socializing and getting food and drinks. Sure, there are those who like to watch us warm up, but it’s typically quiet outside of the music that’s pumped in.
But so far, tonight’s been different from anything I’ve ever seen.
Almost the entire arena was already packed with fans on their feet, screaming in a frenzy as we did our warm-up drills. Little kids with inspirational signs stood at the glass, watching us with big eyes. Several of us flipped pucks over the top of the glass to them, earning gap-toothed grins and shrieks of excitement.
And now it’s the final quiet before the storm. Warm-up is complete, and we’re back in the locker room for last-minute prep—taping sticks, adjusting laces and pads, listening to Coach Keller’s bullet points about the Breakers.
I sit on my cubby bench, elbows on my knees, and listen to Keller. He runs hot and cold with his messaging, whether it’s on the ice, passing in the hall, or here in the locker room. Sometimes he’s all praise and positive affirmation, proclaiming us the hope and future of Pittsburgh. Other times he’s blowing his lid over something insignificant and calling us a bunch of rejects. There’s absolutely no consistency, and I can tell it’s unsettling to many of the players.
He probably got away with that at the college level, but regardless if we’re pros or minors, we’re paid employees. No one takes that well from their boss.
I don’t give a shit because not much penetrates these days. I’m here to ride this wave as long as I can, fully expecting I’ll be back down in the minors at some point.
At least for tonight, Keller’s caught up in the history we’re making here today and is attempting to be genuinely inspirational. I keep half an ear on what he’s saying.
I glance around the half-moon shape of the room, most of the players sitting the same as I am. Operations moved fast this past week, removing the chrome names of the victims from the tops of the lockers, replacing them with the names of those here today.
A young winger the team picked up from the Czech Republic sits at the cubby that used to be my brother’s. There was an attempt made by the owner of the team to see if I wanted Brooks’s cubby. Brienne Norcross approached me not long after we had our first team meeting, clearly not having received the message from Keller that I didn’t want to sit at my brother’s place. She pulled me aside and expressed another round of condolences for the loss of Brooks.
I thought it ironic when she said, “I didn’t know your brother…”
And I wanted to say, “Same, Brienne. Same.”
Whereas Keller had no tact in asking me about the cubby, Brienne was savvy enough to know that it could be a comfort or a hindrance, and I appreciated that she wanted my thoughts on the matter rather than making a unilateral decision.
It was still a quick choice—I told her I didn’t want it. I was already having too much impostor syndrome trying to sit on his bench.
They instead gave me a spot seven down from his, and rather than the name Dumelin above mine, they put S. Dumelin so there was no mistaking I’m not my brother.
It was something I appreciated because it kept feelings at bay.
It’s more than I can say for the annoying attorney Harlow Alston who isn’t getting the hint when I ignore her outreach. She sent another email today and has left two voicemails. After the first email, I sent a curt reply basically telling her to leave me out of it. I graciously gave her my parents’ contact information. But she wrote again, saying she didn’t want to speak with my parents, that she had explicit instructions to deal with me.
But I don’t want to deal with her. I don’t want to think about my brother anymore.
So I’m ignoring her.
Whatever is going on with Brooks’s estate is none of my business, and I’ve got no desire to step in to manage it or whatever the fuck she wants me to do. She can get my father on board, and I’m sure he’d be more than glad to dive in. I’m sure he and my mother are the sole beneficiaries anyway, so there’s no reason for me to get involved.
Keller finishes his remarks, and it’s time to go back out on the ice. We’re greeted with a big, formal introduction with strobes, flashing lights, a raucous AC/DC song, and one of the league’s best announcers to whip up the crowd.
I missed this part while down in the minors. We didn’t get this level of fanfare, but at least the hockey was good.
What makes it extra special as I step onto the ice—feeling the familiar rush of adrenaline amping up my excitement and actually morphing that sizzle of nerves into energy—is the fact that my Aunt Bethany is in the stands. She came in from Ithaca yesterday and is staying at my apartment for a few days, insisting she needs to get me adequately set up. Today was spent buying curtains, towels, sheets, and other homey touches that don’t mean anything to me, but it makes her feel good to be able to help.
Of course, giving Bethany a ticket to this game was a no-brainer. I really had to think about what to do with my father’s repetitive requests for tickets. Ultimately, I had to tell him I couldn’t swing it but maybe some other time.
This was followed by repeated demands via text, email, and voicemail wanting to know why, simply not understanding, I didn’t secure season tickets for him already. He wanted to assure me they’d be coming to most of the home games. It’s like they’ve already forgotten Brooks.
I’m starting to understand that it wasn’t necessarily their younger son they decided to focus on to the exclusion of the older so much as they were attracted to his star power and what it could do for them.
It seems I’ve become that surrogate, and it makes my gut burn. My goal is to ignore my father and hope he gets the message and backs off.
As I circle the ice before the national anthem plays, I look around the stands. It’s just a sea of people—anonymous faces—all cheering at the top of their lungs. I have no idea where Bethany’s seat is, but I know she’s here. She texted me when she arrived, having taken an Uber. I was able to get her a pass to come down to the family waiting area after the game, and she’ll ride home with me. No going out and partying afterward, no matter the outcome.
Just a quiet night at home with the one family member who truly matters.
We’re scored on within the first twenty-four seconds of the game against the Washington Breakers, and I can’t help but think we’re on our way to a bloodbath. But the fans aren’t put out in the slightest. Normally, an arena will go quiet when the home guys are scored upon, but fuck me… they seem to get louder than they were before the game even started. The fans chant their team’s name: Titans, Titans, Titans.
It’s a battle cry from the fans telling us they’re our seventh player out on the ice, and they aren’t giving up.
Gage skates over to Patrik, has some words, and then motions the rest of the team in while the Breakers celebrate. Gage isn’t our captain—that honor was given to Coen by Coach Keller—but he doesn’t hesitate to show the icy calm that comes from being a veteran in this league.
“Not a big deal,” he says, and it’s not lip service. I can tell he let that goal roll off his back, and he wants us to do the same. “These fans are with us. No matter what, we have them, so let’s show them our resilience. Dig deep, give it your all for them. Got it?”
Everyone echoes his sentiments, except Coen. He doesn’t say a word, face impassive, and merely skates off to the bench as we disperse for the new line to come on for the restart of play.
We battle it out for two periods and go into that last intermission only down 2–0. Not much Keller can say because we’re holding our own. Our goalie, Patrik Senlund, is a bit of a basket case, and he’s doing an awful lot of complaining that the defensemen are getting in his way and he can’t see what’s going on, but other than that… we’re not doing that bad.
Over the last four practices, I earned and settled into the first line with Gage Heyward at right wing and Coen Highsmith at center, as well as Nolan Carrier and Kirill Zucker as our defensemen. Patrik got the call to be in net tonight, but I know Jesper is going to get a shot at the next game. They’ve been fairly even in practices, and I think it’ll come down to temperament.
On the ice, I have to admit that Gage, Coen, and I are gelling. It’s always a little rocky to join a new line, and here we are putting three distinct styles together to form the offense. But for whatever reason, our speed, pacing, and strategy seem well-matched. While we run well-rehearsed plays, if there’s a bobble, we seem to be able to pivot together well.
About the only thing not quite working up to par is Coen. He earned his spot on the first line because he’s not only a good player but because he was on that line before the plane went down. While he’s smooth and confident on the ice, he’s just not operating at quite the same level of skill as he was prior to the crash. His personality seems to have changed, at least from what I’ve heard about him.
At times, he’s withdrawn and moody, and he doesn’t engage the other players in any meaningful way. If he gets frustrated by someone or something, he doesn’t rant or rail. He ignores it almost to the extent I wonder if he feels anything at all. In my mind, I’ve likened him to a zombie off the ice because he seems to be stumbling aimlessly with nothing going on between the ears.
Regardless of these issues, we seem to be fairly in sync. That’s probably more due to the fact we’re experienced players and not rookies. We’ve got the shots on goal to stay competitive—it’s just that their goalie is in the zone tonight and seems to be stopping everything with a sixth sense.
It’s the start of the third period, and the Breakers score quickly, capitalizing on a missed pass from our third line. Disheartening, but clearly the difference between seasoned professionals going up against players still trying to find their footing. This type of mistake doesn’t bother me and will only improve with more practice.
The red light comes on at the center-ice booth indicating a TV time-out. Our first line will be handling the face-off after, so I stand on the ice, leaning against the boards. I normally don’t pay attention to the fans, but I let my gaze roam, taking in the atmosphere. In all the games I’ve played in the professional league, including during Cup playoffs, I’ve never heard fans be as consistently loud in their cheers. Normally, there’s waxing and waning, but these Titan proud haven’t stopped giving their all to let us know they’re with us. It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve seen in a long time.
The red light dims, and we head out to the face-off circle, settling into our places while the ref prepares to drop the puck. Coen is taking the battle, and I watch the ice where the puck will fall, ready to grab it if it shoots my way. He’s going to try to get it on Gage’s stick who is standing to his left near the top of the circle, but if he’s beat on the draw, I’m ready to jump on it.
Coen wins the draw, but it shoots past Gage and gets trapped against the boards. He scrabbles at it, pushing and shoving against a Breaker for possession. Gage rams an elbow back hard into the guy’s ribs, which stuns him enough through the padding that Gage is able to poke the puck away with his stick.
Kirill picks it up, along with the Breaker who was just on Gage. He spins and dumps it back to Gage as I’m skating toward the blue line. Coen’s on the opposite side, not two feet behind me.
Gage slides it across to me, and I push it into the Breakers’ zone with Coen following right behind over the blue line. I dump it behind me to him, continuing to streak over to the left side of the net. Gage is on the right, near the boards but cutting in fast to the net. Our defenders are only a skate’s length off, but they seem more like troublesome gnats than anything.
Coen executes a sharp pass to me, and my blade is already connecting in a pass right across the center of the Breaker’s zone to hit Gage crashing in. He flips it over the goalie’s right shoulder, and the arena erupts in a roar of victory so loud I swear the rafters are shaking.
The five of us come together in a big-ass group hug, and I swear I even seen Coen’s lip curl slightly, which might indicate this goal stirred some level of happiness.
And thus, the new Titans have put their first points on the board. A goal by Gage and an assist by me.
It feels fucking fantastic.
Stone (Pittsburgh Titans, Book #2) is a standalone contemporary hockey romance within The Pittsburgh Titans series. See the full details and get your copy HERE.