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Winter Closing In

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Eric Lindros doesn’t take the kneecaps off the fucking goon who plays defense for the Rangers on that March night, and that's his first mistake.

That can't be it, though. 'First' is a relative word, slippery and elusive. Maybe his mistake was signing the contract for the draft. It was an overcast day in Buffalo, clouds indifferently threatening rain while he signed the papers. Two weeks later the Nordiques drafted him first out of all the kids whose names they could have picked out of a hat. Hell, it was only one year after a Czech player had broken his spine and died on ice. He should have known better than to sign his life over to a sport that revels in breaking men apart.

Or maybe there's no real beginning at all. Maybe it started when he was born, or when he first saw his father's beaming face. Maybe his real fuck-up lies back in London, Ontario. There, when he was three years old, his father flooded the backyard after the first November snow and taught his son the dual arts of skating and holding a stick. The setting sun turned the ice to strange hues of translucent orange and glowing yellow in lines and curves beneath his child-size blades before his mother had called him inside.

The question is academic now. Eric doesn’t take the kneecaps off the fucking Rangers goon when he has the chance; two minutes later the goon pastes him into the half boards on an illegal hit, and it’s all downhill after that.

---

His shoulders feel like he’s been leveled by a wrecking ball attached to a very angry crane, and after he opens his eyes, Eric can’t remember why the floor beneath him is so cold or why the lights on the ceiling seem so far away and firefly-like.

He can hear the murmured, muttered anxiety of hundreds, thousands of people, buzzing like dragonflies or perhaps like the wings to the firefly lights overhead. Closer, there are sounds of shouting. Someone is fighting, there’s a fight, but hands hold him down to the cold floor when he tries to sit up and see. The person attached to the hands is a trainer, one of the doctors. Team. Oddly, Eric wonders where his stick went, whether anyone will step on it during the fight and break it. He hopes not. It was a good stick. It had his name on it.

The trainer allows him to sit up and helps him back to the bench. The man’s shoulder feels desert-bleached and warm beneath Eric’s hands, especially after the cold floor. Ice, he’s at a hockey game, that’s why the crowd. Ice. His senses feel heightened, the smell of hotdogs and fake butter on popcorn stinging in his nostrils and against the throb at the base of his neck. When they reach the bench, the combination of his teammates’ shouted encouragement and the smell of sweat and damp equipment threatens to send him over the edge back into blackness again. He shakes his head, chasing off the dim.

“Come on, E,” says the trainer, guiding him back towards the tunnel.

The man’s burning-sand hands no longer feel comforting. His body longs for the numbness of ice again, reaches to the deep-most ingrained parts of himself for the sense memory of a clean, cold expanse where the only smell is the faint ammonia scent of the zambonis and the only sound is silence and peace and possibility.

---

The doctors call it a concussion, which is a word far too mundane for the shockwaves of consequence it causes in his life.

He is forbidden from going to the rink or to the gym, locked away between the dim, bare walls of his home. His cage is four panels of unrelieved white, never decorated; the apartment never needed to look fancy when his life was a battered black leather suitcase for weeks on the road, a vinyl Flyers-logo gym bag for home games. Home was always a 200' x 85' rink, and the promotional crews redecorated the boards weekly for him free of charge. The apartment is just a place to stay sometimes. Eric chases his painkillers with two shots of vodka and falls asleep.

The doctor at the hospital during his follow-up the next day shows too many teeth when he laughs and tells Eric he’ll be back in no time, but Eric can only hear him out of one ear. The other is choosing not to work for the time being, which the doctor says is a quirk of some concussions. His hearing comes back online completely three hours later, while he’s vegetating on the couch watching a Mission: Impossible marathon. He’s dancing along the edge of the cliff between dozing and full sleep until an explosion hits both ears at once and his brain processes the sound at full volume and in stereo. Eric falls off the couch and hits his head against the coffee table on the way down, which probably wasn’t what the doctor meant when he said that the best cure was for Eric to rest.

---

That night, he is too young for a team so he wears his older brother’s hand-me-down pads, the ones that don’t fit right through the shoulders because Eric is larger than any of the other boys his age. They leave medal-of-honor blisters on his collarbones and don’t allow enough motion to truly wind up his slapshot, but they’re better than nothing. At that age, his pads are stitched together with epoxied cracks and duct tape. His mother puts Jetsons bandaids on the blisters.

He loses his first tooth to a puck in the mouth, but a new one comes in three weeks later like magic.

The ice that his eight-year-old self plays on seems so large, a lake, an ocean, a perfect clean sheet that goes onward to the horizon and beyond. The sun is always setting for his eight-year-old self, suspended in the uncanny red halfway-state between bright and dim. He bloodies the nose of the Jefferies kid who lives next door and the ice itself is bleeding from the sun, so the bloody nose is darker: brown or purple or blue. He wakes up swinging, his feet moving as though to keep his balance on dreamspun blades. He can hear the neighbor’s dog barking at him through the wall.

---

When he was six years old, his mother had called him downstairs one winter afternoon when it was raining too hard for him to play out on the ice and showed him a game. Cat’s Cradle, she called it. Thin white strings had stretched between her fingers, and she'd shown him how to weave them into stars and dragonflies and cat’s eyes. She’d manipulate the strands, and when she’d spread her fingers there was a moment of magic when shapes would appear. He remembers the veins of her hands, as delicate as china and fluttering like butterflies as she moved them. He’d watched the slide of strings over lotion-soft skin, and imitated her movements so that his own stars and cat’s eyes came out crooked, but triumphant.

He thinks of strings now, and lines. The back of the couch on which he curls his bruised body, head aching and nauseated, is white leather and criss-crossed with spiderwebs, slender tracks like veins or skate trails left in the surface by some tiny, erratic blade -- a child's skate across the leather. He presses his eyelashes against the grain of the animal skin and recalls the tendons of his father's hand, standing out when his thick fingers wrapped around the handle of a stick, the first of the many things Eric since has learned about hockey.

---

He loses track of days, because there is no reason to keep count. His world is condensed: four walls, grey carpet, white couch. The blackness and the occasional flares of color when he closes his eyes are welcome distractions; he sleeps often. For an hour a week, the world expands to the seat of a cab and the shape of a doctor’s examination room, but each time the man in the white coat shakes his head and the world contracts again to walls and a floor too soft for comfort; he is growing to regret his choice of carpeting. Eric closes his eyes when the ever-present pounding in his head becomes too much and imagines wide lakes white with footprint-scattered snow, trees dark on the horizon and denuded of leaves, ice turning colors in the sunset and the sky a riot of every shade between deep blue and burning gold.

---

A heavy leather punching bag hangs in his bedroom. He is forbidden from setting foot in the gym, but the doctor neglected to mention whether or not he could work out at home. Eric takes out his frustrations on the bag’s lifeless form.

The first punches are scorching with raw anger at the Rangers -- “You bastards, you’ll fucking pay for this, I’ll lay every last one of you pansy-ass cowards out cold, gonna fucking kill every single one of you.” It feels good until it starts to hurt in places nowhere near his hands, the rage eating into vision and whiting out his hearing, amplifying the throbbing in his neck until he wakes up on the floor. Moodswings can cause blackouts. The doctors warned him.

The next swings are slower, measured and precise and resentful -- ”Just you try to keep me here, think you can keep me away, you’ll be sorry. I'll show every last stinking one of you.”

”I’ll be back" becomes "I’m sorry, I never meant this. I never wanted it, ever."

Resentment and desperation saturate straining muscles like water, rising and forming thunderclouds on the horizon until the thoughts are no longer coherent, just movement and punches and growls of pure, cancerous rage too ugly to need words for expression.

When the last of his voice dies to scratchy rumbles in the late afternoon, his biceps burn with overextension and his knuckles are bloody beneath the tape he’d wrapped over them -- one more thing to explain to the doctors.

The air around his lungs is so tight it’s like he’s tasting it, tongue like wrinkled snakeskin and sweat humid as swamps decaying in the corners of his mouth, his body a world away from the cleanliness of winter.

---

He cannot remember the color of his skates, even in his dreams where colors bleed phosphorescent into the landscape around him. He has tried -- closing his eyes and considering carefully, fighting away the waves of dizziness that surface like ripples behind his eyes whenever he concentrates -- but the tint of laces and blades hovers out of reach, a mundane detail of the most important objects in his life. He cannot remember whether their trim is blue or orange. He stares at the back of the white couch, anger irrational in the tunnel of his ribs, and uselessly promises the leather hide that when -- when, not if -- he ever gets back to the rink, the color of his skates will be the first thing he notices.

---

Uncounted days later, his solitude is interrupted by a knock on the door.

Like the lakes and the sunsets and the skate trails across the couch back, Eric imagines the sound. It raps in time to the throb of that day's headache, counterpoint echo in fugue with the rhythm of his fists against the hanging bag. But when the punching stops, the knocking does not. Three quick shots of vodka kill the pulsing in his head, but the knock remains, faster and insistent. Eric opens the door, his white cage expanded by fifteen square feet to include the hallway.

Into his apartment steps John LeClair, stark black hair and blue eyes and orange sweater. Eric stares at the sleeves; Flyers orange, sunset on lake ice spidered with skate trails orange. He reaches out and fingers the hem of the fabric, fascinated, then looks down at his own grey hands, skin the shade of recycled paper, bits and pieces torn apart and pieced together again.

"Holy shit, you look like ass." John hasn't acquired a sense of tact while Eric was away.

"You look," says Eric, and stops. John looks like the Sunday in January when Eric was ten and out on the frozen pond of his back yard. He'd aimed a slapshot wide of the net and into the woods, hit a tree and splintered the trunk. John looks like the raven that startled into the air as the wood fractured: an explosion of noise and motion in a world of still and silent, a violent spasm of the unexpected amongst Eric's familiar grey. Not unwelcome, though; John is his linemate and as much a part of Eric's piecemeal mind as winter lakes or strings that danced between his mother's palms.

He is still thinking of that raven and of team and of strings that tangle together when John wrinkles his nose and says, "Dude, go take a shower. I came so we could get food, but I'm not doing anything else until I don't have to smell you."

---

"I'm taking your clothes," John says as he's leaving three days later.

Eric has counted the visits carefully, stacking them up like battered nesting dolls in his memory. John has come every day since the first time, sometimes with food, sometimes to herd Eric into gym clothes and drag him out to go running. They cut the running short the first time they went out, because Eric's head began the workout by pounding in time with his steps, and ended it in a swirl of blurred colors and lights, the bile of his stomach tilted madcap and clawing at his throat.

John is patient, John is strange, a stiff Northeaster through the stagnation of Eric’s white days. There is no explanation for why John is doing this; no one else on the team has tried to contact him, not even management to ask when he will be coming back. John has come to make him go running and to steal his clothes for laundry. John is like the raven still: clever but mundane, ubiquitous, yet somehow trailing in his wake an air of the uncanny that Eric cannot puzzle out.

“I thought it would get better,” John says in the middle of a Die Hard marathon, apropos of nothing. “I thought it would get better so I didn’t come, but then they let Jonesy wear the C that night.”

Eric absorbs the information that Jones has been wearing his letter silently, watching the movie’s hero survive another explosion on the screen, smashing into a wall but standing up healthy, whole, sane. Not trapped in a world of grey rugs and white walls, strange dreams and nausea and memory.

“I thought --,” says LeClair beside him, and falls silent.

After two weeks, Eric no longer throws up in the public bathroom that marks the five mile point of their runs. John counts this as a victory; they celebrate with hamburgers against the team nutritionist’s advice. John leaves that night for a three-game road trip and Eric watches the dates on the nightly news peel away like desiccated leaves, flown off with the rest of the team like winter snowflakes, like molted feathers.

---

“You don’t have any milk.”

“I threw it away.”

“I only bought it for you three fucking days ago, it can’t have gone bad already.”

“It was too white, I got tired of it.” Eric is aware that he is making little sense.

John sighs. “Take a shower, we’ll go get more.”

“Chocolate this time.”

“Chocolate,” John agrees and smiles, crooked. Happy.

---

Eric's very own raven is stroking his hair, light fingers curled into claws, soothing the drums inside his head to background noise. They’ve quieted some lately, those drums; under John’s fingers they almost disappear -- the world hushed and sharp as fresh fallen snow.

Eric has showered from their run that day, they have eaten, they are on the couch. The air of the bizarre that flutters around John has not dissipated with time; it has grown and softened to encompass the petting, legitimizing the too-personal touch with a sort of dream-logic that Eric understands instinctively in the animal parts of himself. The deep places in his psyche that can still recall the rifle-shot sound of the first goal he ever scored ache for this touch, crave it, and John seems content to provide without questioning. The moment between them hovers delicate and queer, so far outside the normal boundaries of their professional relationship that it wraps itself back around to acceptable.

Eric shifts his head so that his ear is no longer being crushed in John’s lap, and the hand lifts, hesitates. Eric concentrates very hard on what the touch had felt like before, and after a few deep breaths the stroking continues.

---

At night, he is twelve years old and the skies above the lake are angry and low, ponderous gods watching over them with bellies full of snow yet to fall. Needle-edged winds prickle through the waving arms of bare trees, scream across the open expanse of ice and whip the fringes of his scarf across his face and into his eyes. There are eleven boys and three girls gathered for the Sunday game, two orange trash bins wedged into opposite snowbanks, a rink marked out with branches for boundaries.

Eric passes to Lisa Burke, a year younger than the rest of them and smaller but also fast and with clever hands for the puck. The black circle bounces over the wind-sculpted ripples in the ice, catches briefly against a fraying edge on the duct tape that holds her blade together.

“Lindy,” she shouts into the teeth of the breeze, her voice faint by the time it reaches his cold-reddened ears. “Linds!”

The puck comes back his way. Lisa's neat passing is one of the reasons he likes her, picks her first when they let him play captain. It takes a funny hop and curves a bit, but he pulls it to his backhand anyway and fires a shot that goes in, whooping in a voice that cracks high with the cold and his awkward, in-between age. Lisa tackles him to the ice and giggles; they’ve won, the first team to get to fifteen goals yet again.

He wakes to John shaking him, the dream still crisp and alive at the corners of his eyes, just out of range of his vision. John’s hand is larger than Lisa’s and twisted from injuries, his voice deeper and empty of laughter against the howl of wind. The bedroom isn’t cold at all, and somehow this is what feels like the dream, with none of the joy or the game or the winter to make him feel alive.

“You were yelling,” John says, perching on the edge of the bed, a bird sitting on wires to survey its domain. John scrubs his nose across the shoulder of his t-shirt to scratch an itch, stubble on his jaw rasping against fabric.

“It was a dream.”

A hand on his shoulder.

“I was playing pond hockey. Felt like I was really there.”

“Not a bad dream?”

“No. I just scored a goal.” The dregs of sleep still clinging to his mind distill his tone to wistfulness.

“That’s good then.” John bites his lip, chewing at a bit of chapped skin, then shoves Eric to the other side of the bed, more forcefully than necessary, laying down with an air of near-defiance.

John says nothing, even after a long time. Eric sleeps and hopes to dream again.

---

The headaches and dreams remain, but the nausea and dizziness are gone when the doctors clear him for workouts. The next day's skate is optional, but Eric arrives an hour early anyway, dragging John along and prodding him quickly into gear so they can skate together again. His skates are black with orange stripes, the blades dull gunmetal grey; knowing this settles something important in the cauldron of his stomach. His jersey is pristine lake-sunset orange on its hanger in his stall, the white C stitched to the left shoulder where it belongs. There is also a C on Jonesy’s shoulder. Eric isn’t even cleared for contact drills yet, the team will still be without him for a few more games. Eric averts his eyes.

The first step on the ice aches like being born must have, perfect flat sheet just waiting for him, holding its breath for the marks that he will carve onto it. The edges of his blades swoop and slice, leave silvery trails behind him sure as strings or spiderwebs.

---

Working out again with the team means he watches games from the press box and is forced to deal politely with the reporters.

“Eric, what’s the timetable on your return for the Flyers?”

He doesn’t know, his focus is on getting better and getting healthy again. He’ll come back when he can.

“Are you still experiencing symptoms?”

The drums in his head are fever pitch and throbbing from the noise and lights and motion of the arena, but the press are eagles instead of ravens, eyes full of avarice and talons meant only to wound, so in place of the pain he'll give them a mask of a smile. As far as the reporters know, he's fine. Of course he's fine.

“Do you expect any retaliation when you play the Rangers again next month?

Well, we won't go looking for a fight, but it'll be in the back of our minds. Maybe we'll hit a little harder with the extra motivation.

Afterwards, John drives him home. They take off their suits; Eric hangs his on the left side of the closet, John hangs his in the clear space on the right, where it has lived for the past two weeks. They shower. They sleep.

---

“Do you want to go running?” Eric asks, bowing his spine to tug the laces of his trainers tight. John’s glasses shift down his nose as he looks up from the book he is reading, nested secure among the pillows and rumpled blankets of Eric’s bed.

“I guess.” They have three hours before they need to be at practice.

Eric reaches over and pushes gently, sliding the wire frames back up to settle in their proper place against the bridge of John’s nose. “Come on then.” He adjusts the arm of the glasses so that the earpiece slots more firmly around one ear, then rearranges John’s hair to cover it again. “I’m not waiting more than ten minutes.”

---

It shocks him during the first intermission of the second game since his return: they’re living together.

Eric hacks up his Gatorade and what feels like half a lung as well, then tells his stomach firmly that this is not the time for a return to the nausea of previous weeks. John slants a questioning glance at him across the dressing room, and Eric shakes his head that everything is fine.

It happens so gradually that he barely notices. After he is finally allowed to skate again, he thinks only of returning to the roster. When the coach clears him to play, he thinks only of the game, of proving that he still deserves his letter and his spot on the team. After his first game back is over, exhausted beyond speech and with the drums in his head pounding a fissure into the inner walls of his temples, there is no question that John will drive him home.

That night, he is sixteen in juniors again, slashing snow at the bench as he skates in for a change; he is glowing and triumphant and strong, laughing at the way his coach holds his breath until he turns purple during the last thirty seconds of every game. Superstition, and no one questions it since they’re winning. Eric is invincible again, once more the most celebrated player in Juniors since Gretzky.

John wakes him with a glass of water and two of the lighter sleeping pills he switched to recently, then climbs back into the other side of the bed, asleep and snoring before the pills kick in.

They only talk about it once.

"Why is the peanut butter in the fridge?" Eric asks.

"Aren't you supposed to stick it in the fridge once you open the jar?" John is doing the word-find puzzle in Eric's copy of the Times.

"No. You never need to refrigerate peanut butter."

"Well, leave it there anyway. I like it better cold."

A pause. Eric studies the jar in his hand, the outline of fingerprints in fog on the chilled glass, then replaces it to the fridge.

"You're wearing my shirt," says Eric.

"So I am." John's tone is not the least bit apologetic. The wrinkled flannel settles naturally against the flat of his stomach.

---

It's the first round of the playoffs, and Eric Lindros scores the game-winning goal in the second game against the Sabres. For the first time since the big hit laid him out, hockey feels natural again.

When the red goal lights come on, twenty thousand Flyers fans ignite in cheers so loud they rattle the glass and quiver the ice beneath his feet. John skates over from the wing and engulfs him in a bearhug that smells overpoweringly of sweat and stick wax and the aerosol of helmet defogger. All the stimuli around him are only lights and sounds and scents, though; even the deafening commotion of the crowd doesn’t shred along his nerves or flash lightning sparks of pain behind his eyes anymore.

“Yeah, E.” John’s lips brush the shell of his ear below the line of the helmet, voice barely audible in the tumult around them, intimacy forgivable in the joy of celebration.

Eric pats him on the head to show he’s heard. When they skate back to the bench for fist bumps from the team, it feels like flying again.

After the game, when the flashbulbs and the interviews are over, he and John head out for his Jeep, walking close enough that their jacket shoulders sometimes rub, not quite touching.

The sky is black and low above the lights of the arena, devoid of stars. A late winter storm is on its way and the frigid air tastes of the expectant tang of coming snow. Eric watches the electrical poles flash by as they speed down the road.

John parks outside the door to their apartment and Eric takes deep breaths as they make their way up the walk, shoes crunching in the slush, wetting pants hems. John’s warm fingers feather across the back of his hand with each step -- brush, retreat, brush again. The world around them is breathlessly still and snowbound, clean and sharp as ice and whole.