“Geno,” Guentzy said. “Geno?”
Zhenya finally, reluctantly looked up from his breakfast sandwich. Guentzy was eternally having some type of crisis, usually involving feelings, and Zhenya didn’t care and didn’t want to get involved. Let Cully deal with it. He was a dad both in nickname and in fact.
Guentzy’s wide eyes made Zhenya reconsider his feelings hypothesis. “Uh, there’s a ghost in the locker room?”
A ghost. Okay. Just your typical morning at the rink.
Zhenya sighed and dragged himself to his feet.
The ghost was sitting at Zhenya’s stall, fading in and out of visibility at high speed, so that Zhenya caught only a vague impression of dark hair and a big nose. He had played with a ghost for a while in Magnitogorsk; this one was distressed or angry.
“I mean, I’m sorry, man,” Dumo was saying. “It’s 2018. I’m not sure what to tell you.”
“It can’t be,” the ghost said. He flickered in and then back out. “It can’t—we just won the Cup. I have to—and I’m in Pittsburgh?”
“Where’s Emmanuelle?” Zhenya said to Guentzy.
“I don’t, uh—I’ll go find her,” Guentzy said, and scuttled off.
Zhenya waded in. “Go get dress,” he said to the cluster of teammates gawking at their frightened ghostly visitor. “We practice, don’t stand around. No, I’m boss, don’t argue.”
With Flower gone, there weren’t many people on the roster who resisted Zhenya’s bullying. Cully gave him an amused look but went along with it, and Phil wouldn’t start attending their informal skates until closer to training camp. Everyone else dispersed with barely a mutter.
The locker room chatter started up almost at once, providing a screen of background noise. Zhenya sat down beside the ghost. “I’m captain. Evgeni Malkin.”
“Sidney Crosby,” the ghost said. He didn’t offer his hand, which made Zhenya think he had been dead for a while, long enough to shed the ingrained habits of the living. “I’m, uh. Is it really 2018?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. The ghost’s rapid flickering slowed enough for Zhenya to get a better look at him. His clothes were weird—loose pleated trousers and a sweater vest—but his hair wouldn’t have been out of place on the hipsters Zhenya saw strolling around Lawrenceville. There was nothing new under the sun. Zhenya said, “You—what year you think?”
“It’s 1931,” Crosby said. “Or was, I guess.” He faded out, and when he faded back in, he was bent over with his hands covering his face. “I have to get back. I have to go back to my team.”
Zhenya couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, this dead man so far from his own time. How had he even gotten here? “Team has good magician. She come soon to fix, send you back. Okay?” He knew little about ghosts and even less about time travel, which he had previously thought was a myth, but surely there was an easy solution.
“Okay,” Crosby said. “A magician. Okay. You keep a magician on staff?”
Zhenya waved his hand. “You know. Curses. Can’t lace up skates. Someone misplace his dick.” Did people say ‘dick’ in 1931? Zhenya didn’t want to be crude.
But Crosby, invisible, laughed. When he faded back in, his smile lingered on his face. It was a great smile: crooked, genuine.
“What’s going on here?” Emmanuelle asked, floating into the room in her usual cloud of sandalwood and gauzy robes. Zhenya’s ideas about magicians had been formed by his childhood experiences with the sober, scientific wizards of the old USSR, and he still had trouble taking Emmanuelle seriously, even though he knew the cultures were different and she was only doing what was expected of her. But he couldn’t deny that she was an exceptional magician.
He dragged his eyes away from Crosby’s face. Emmanuelle adjusted her round spectacles and crouched on the floor at Crosby’s feet, peering up at him.
“Oh,” Crosby said. “Hello?”
“You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” Emmanuelle said. “Why don’t you come with me? Let’s see if we can get you sorted out.”
Crosby glanced at Zhenya, like he wanted permission, or maybe reassurance. He faded out again. His voice said, “I’m sorry to cause trouble for you.”
“It’s not trouble,” Emmanuelle said. She rose to her feet. “Come on, now. My office is down the hall. We can talk where it’s quiet.”
Zhenya watched them leave, and then he reached up to grab his chest protector from the shelf above his stall. A misplaced ghost was hardly the weirdest thing that had happened during Zhenya’s time with the team. Crosby was in good hands, and there was nothing more for Zhenya to think about.
The next time he was at the rink, a couple of days later, the ghost was still there.
Zhenya didn’t notice him until partway through practice. Crosby was sitting on the bench, watching the team skate: somewhat translucent, but no longer flickering in and out. Zhenya watched him as practice continued. Crosby leaned forward to watch the play, his eyes tracking the puck, his body shifting from side to side as the action moved down the ice.
He was a hockey player, Zhenya realized. Of course. The references to the Cup, to his team: Zhenya hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, too disconcerted by the sudden presence of a ghost in his locker room, but of course it was the only explanation. A time-traveling hockey-playing ghost.
Why was he here? Why now? Why hadn’t Emmanuelle sent him home?
It wasn’t Zhenya’s job to worry about these things. He was there to skate and look pretty.
Still, he took a quiet moment to say to Tanger, “Why’s ghost here?”
Tanger shrugged. “Guess he likes hockey.”
They skated seriously for about forty-five minutes, and then practice deteriorated into roughhousing and trick shots. Zhenya made no effort to get things back on track; they had done enough work. He skated over to the bench. Crosby sat up straight and smiled at him as he approached, that same gorgeous high-wattage smile from the other day.
Don’t lust after ghosts, Zhenya told himself sternly.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt,” Crosby said.
“No, it’s fine,” Zhenya said. “We done now. Why you still here? Emmanuelle can’t help?”
Crosby faded a little, along with his smile. “She thinks it’s Cup magic. She’s not sure how I got here or why. Maybe someone made a wish that misfired.”
Zhenya’s heart sank. Cup magic was a bad sign. Undoing the power of someone’s heartfelt wish wasn’t a simple task. After more than a hundred years of championships, the Cup was imbued with the highly-charged emotions of every man who had ever touched it. You had to be careful what you were thinking when you hoisted the Cup. If someone had wished Sid here, even accidentally, Emmanuelle wouldn’t have an easy time sending him home.
“How you go back?” he asked. “She send you?”
Crosby faded even further. “I don’t, ah. Time travel is a little—it’s not really. Possible. But if it’s Cup magic, maybe—she said she’ll try to figure out who made the wish and see if she can end the enchantment, and then I’ll. Maybe I’ll go back. Or—” He swallowed. “Or she said she can help to send me on.”
Ghosts never wanted to move on. It was a fact of life. Or death. Anyone who stayed after their body was in the ground had something they weren’t ready to surrender. Sad but understandable. Helping ghosts move on was a booming industry. Zhenya saw commercials on TV all the time. He didn’t know how one convinced a ghost to sacrifice its final earthly connections and move on to the afterlife, but Emmanuelle could convince a scared rookie to take off his pants and let her look at the pair of croaking frogs that had replaced his testicles; surely she could convince Crosby to go ahead instead of backward.
This was too weighty a conversation to have before lunch. Zhenya said, “Watch practice is help with magic?”
Crosby shrugged. “I’m here for now, so. Thought I might as well watch some hockey in the meantime.” He solidified, real as flesh aside from the faint glow around him. “Things sure have changed.”
After almost ninety years, professional hockey probably had only the vaguest resemblance to the game Crosby knew. “What’s your team?” Zhenya asked. He leaned against the boards. “You say you win Cup?”
“I play for the Habs,” Crosby said. “You know, the Canadiens.” He paused. “They’re still around, right?”
Zhenya grinned. “Yes, still Habs, still NHL.” He eyed Crosby. Was it rude to ask a ghost how long they had been dead? He couldn’t remember the North American etiquette. He hadn’t talked to a ghost in years. “You with Habs long time?”
“Oh, well—eighteen years,” Crosby said. “I died in 1921,” which answered that question, “and they let me stay on after that.” He sighed. “We just won our second Cup in two years. I was hoping for a third, but. Well, maybe I’ll be home soon.”
“You stay in rink?” Zhenya asked. “It’s not good here. Maybe you bored.”
“No, I’m. It’s fine,” Crosby said. “Emmanuelle showed me the television. I’ve never seen one. It’s swell.” He hesitated, and then said again, “Things sure have changed.”
Zhenya cringed to think of what Crosby was learning about modern life from reality shows. Was he going to haunt the rink and watch TV and camp out at practices until Emmanuelle finally figured out how to undo the magic that was keeping him here? That sounded like a sad way to while away the time.
It wasn’t Zhenya’s responsibility. He owed this ghost nothing. Let the coaching staff figure out what to do with him.
Crosby’s attention had wandered back to the ice and whatever foolishness Zhenya could hear going on behind him, the younger guys carrying on about something. Crosby’s expression grew wistful. It was clear how badly he wanted to be playing.
Zhenya exhaled a silent sigh. “Crosby,” he said, and waited for Crosby’s gaze to focus back on him. “You practice with us next time, okay? Tomorrow.”
Crosby’s lips parted. He was much too appealing. “Really?”
“We find you gear,” Zhenya said. “Skates. You slow, but we help you.”
“I probably will be slow,” Crosby admitted. He smiled at Zhenya. “Thank you.” He licked his upper lip—so he hadn’t shed every quirk of life. “You can call me Sid.”
“I’m Geno,” Zhenya said. “It’s hockey nickname.”
“Geno,” Sid repeated. “How’d they get that from Evgeni?”
“Long story,” Zhenya said. “Tomorrow at 10:30. We here, skate with you.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Sid said, and from the eager light in his expression, Zhenya thought that he really would.
He delivered Sid to Dana the next morning, and Sid waddled out to the ice half an hour later, suited up and looking uncomfortable about it. “There’s so much gear,” he said to Zhenya. “I can’t see anything with this helmet.”
“Be glad you don’t have a full cage,” Rusty said from behind Zhenya. “It could be way worse.”
“Oh,” Sid said. He looked past Zhenya to the guys clustered waiting on the ice, the entire roster at last. Season ticket deliveries were scheduled for the next day, and everyone was expected to be in town for that.
“Sid, here’s team,” Zhenya said. “They’re nice, go easy on you.” The whole team knew about their spectral guest by now, the news spread via word of mouth or the group chat. Zhenya had sent a stern message that morning telling everyone to behave. There were a few ghosts in the league, and many people had at least one distant relative still hanging around somewhere, but not all of these guys had ever had much interaction with a ghost. Zhenya didn’t want any of them saying stupid shit to Sid.
“Hi,” Sid said. He raised one gloved hand in a wave.
“Can you really walk through walls?” Big Rig asked.
For fuck’s sake. “Shut up, let’s skate,” Zhenya said.
He didn’t expect much from Sid. He was probably decent by 1930s standards, but Zhenya had done a little bit of research the night before to refresh his memory, had looked at pictures of guys from that era in their gear and watched some grainy game footage, and he knew Sid didn’t stand a chance. The game had changed too much.
He kept an eye on Sid as they all skated around some to warm up. Sid quickly adjusted to his skates, getting lower in his turns, experimenting with stopping and starting. He handled a puck around the ice, testing his new stick and the curve of the blade. His skating was graceful and fluid, but—as Zhenya had expected—slow.
Horny was running practice that day; the coaching staff left them to their own devices until training camp opened. He started them with a stickhandling drill, maneuvering the puck through a series of mini cones. Sid watched so intently, his brow furrowed with concentration, that Zhenya was certain he had never encountered this type of drill before. But when Horny turned to him and said, “It’s your turn, if you like to try,” Sid nodded and said, “I’ll give it a shot.”
He did it perfectly, with no hesitating: stickhandling as well as any of the guys on the team. Better than some of them. With no practice and an unfamiliar composite stick. He flickered rapidly in and out and even went fully invisible for a few seconds, an empty set of gear floating down the ice, but he didn’t lose the puck. Side conversations died down as Sid advanced through the cones and everyone realized what they were seeing: a ninety-year-old ghost with hands of silk. The kind of hands you saw a few times in a generation.
“Holy shit,” muttered Phil, standing beside Zhenya.
“Maybe he do scrimmage with us, too,” Zhenya said.
Sid was slow, and he couldn’t get the hang of passing forward, and he didn’t know most of the plays they ran, even the ones Zhenya thought of as extremely basic. But he had those silky hands and he saw everything on the ice, just absolutely incredible vision and hockey sense, like he could anticipate what guys were going to do before they had even decided to do it. He kept miscalculating his passes because his stick was different and the boards were different and even the ice was probably different, but Zhenya could see what he was trying to accomplish and knew he would remember this forever, the rest of his life and however long he lingered after. It was beautiful to see hockey played so well.
When they took a hydration break, Zhenya saw that they had acquired an audience: the entire coaching staff, and also some of the equipment guys and trainers. Word had gotten around.
“Everyone here to see your ghost,” Tanger said.
“Not my ghost,” Zhenya said. He wasn’t accepting responsibility for any of this.
“Hmm,” Tanger said.
Sid noticed the onlookers as well. He glided to a stop at Zhenya’s side and said, “I hope this isn’t, uh. I didn’t mean to cause a distraction.”
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. “It’s not practice for real now. Just skate, have fun.” He watched as Sid removed his helmet and fussed around with the straps. Was the helmet uncomfortable? What did ghosts feel? Maybe he was only bothered that he couldn’t see as much as he wanted. “Everyone like to see you skate. You do well. It’s impress.”
“Oh,” Sid said. “I thought—” He put his helmet back on and didn’t finish his sentence.
He thought they were gathered to rubberneck at a ghost, or to laugh at his quaint old-timey skating. Ridiculous. “Let’s go say hi to coach,” Zhenya said. “He like to meet you.”
“Well,” Sid said. He took off his helmet again and tucked it beneath his arm. “Okay.”
Sully, watching from the bench, leaned forward as they came near and folded his arms along the top of the boards. “You’re Sidney Crosby,” he said.
“It’s a pleasure,” Sid said.
“Mike Sullivan,” Sully said. “I’m head coach for the Penguins. I read about you. Did you know the Habs retired your number?”
“They—no,” Sid said. “I didn’t know that.”
Why hadn’t Zhenya gone on Wikipedia? He was an idiot. He made a mental note to read about Sid as soon as he went home.
“I talked to Emmanuelle,” Sully said. “I’d be happy to have you practice with us for as long as you’re here. We’ll sign you to a PTO.”
Zhenya met Sully’s gaze and raised his eyebrows. Informal skates were one thing, but a professional tryout meant the organization was taking this at least somewhat seriously. Sully looked calmly back at him and said nothing.
“I wouldn’t want to get in the way,” Sid said.
“We can always use some extra depth at center,” Sully said.
That was that. When practice was over, Zhenya took Sid back down the hall to the equipment room and delivered the news to Dana. Sid would need a full set of equipment: a pair of skates fitted to him, a helmet with his number.
“I’ve never outfitted a ghost before,” Dana said. “What happens if I poke you with a needle?”
“I probably wouldn’t notice,” Sid said. “I can feel sensations that are intense or go on for a long time. A pinprick doesn’t even register.”
“Good to know,” Dana said. “I’ll still try not to poke you.”
Zhenya sat on the counter and drummed his heels against the cabinet door while Dana talked to Sid at length about skates. He didn’t have anything better to do. Seryozha was still in Texas, Max and Katya were still in Miami, and Zhenya had gotten brutally (deservedly) dumped in May and had nothing waiting for him at home but an empty bed and an overflowing refrigerator. Nothing on TV was as compelling as watching Sid laugh and cram his vaporous feet into various pairs of skates and generally be polite and charming and adorable.
“One last matter of business,” Dana said finally. He had gone down the hall and come back with a blank jersey—not a practice jersey, but one of the real game jerseys. “What number would you like?”
Sid chewed on his lip. “I wore 29 with the Habs. But I think.” He reached out and touched the band of white on the sleeve of the jersey. “I've been gone for eighty-seven years. So I think I’ll take number 87.”
Every time Zhenya arrived at the rink to skate, Sid was waiting out on the bench, already in his gear. He was given a stall in the overflow locker room they used during camp, which after only a few days turned into a chair in the main locker room, because Sid was chatty and everyone liked him. He spoke French, although Tanger said his accent was terrible, and he and Tanger and Brass were all attached at the hip by the time training camp was over. Flower would have liked him, Zhenya thought, with a pang of sorrow that had softened over the past year but not gone away.
Sid’s hockey improved more rapidly than Zhenya thought could be explained by an hour of practice every day or two. “I don’t sleep,” Sid said, when Zhenya questioned him about it. “I’m dead. There isn’t a lot to do all night. I spend a lot of time on the ice. It’s not like I can overwork my muscles, you know?”
Zhenya didn’t know. He didn’t have a clue about ghost physiology. He watched during practice as Sid tried a trick shot Reeser and Dom had been fooling around with the day before, lifting the puck on his stick and flipping it into the net. It was a nice shot, but he was wasting time; his biggest problem was his skating. He just wasn’t fast enough.
Who cared how fast he was? He wasn’t going to make the lineup. He was practicing with them to kill time, and because Shea and Brass were both out now and they could use another center.
That was the truth as far as Zhenya knew. But he watched Sully circling around the ice, expression unreadable, eyes on Sid as he laughed with Olli, and he wasn’t so sure.
He couldn’t worry about it. The start of the season meant interviews until his head spun, and the trainers crawling up his ass all the time about his knees, as if Zhenya didn’t know he was thirty-two and heading into the twilight years of his career. He had enough on his plate. Sid was someone else’s problem.
On the final day of training camp, when he went out onto the ice and saw Sid sitting there on the bench, bright-eyed, perfectly upright, and clutching his stick, Zhenya’s conscience finally got the better of him. Sid was a ghost, but he was still a person by every metric Zhenya knew. What would Zhenya’s mother think of him letting this poor guy roam aimlessly around the rink all night? Surely even ghosts wanted somewhere to call home.
“Good morning, Geno,” Sid said, with that goddamn smile.
Zhenya sat down beside him and leaned into him for a moment, bumping their shoulder pads together. “Sid, don’t stay here. It’s sad. You can’t live at rink. I have big house, come stay with me. You haunt my kitchen, okay?” He liked having a roommate; his house was too big for only him. Max had lived with him for years, and Zhenya couldn’t imagine Sid would be more disruptive than an idiot who had more than once run the dishwasher with dish soap and flooded the kitchen with foam.
“I don’t—I’m not haunting,” Sid said. “That’s a—we don’t actually do that.”
“Semantics,” Zhenya said in Russian. “Don’t argue, I’m captain.”
“Well.” Sid ducked his head. “That would be nice. Thank you.”
At least he’d found the one person who wouldn’t argue with him.
He took Sid home with him after practice. To his knowledge, Sid hadn’t left the rink yet, and he was alert and curious on the drive home, looking around at the cars and the billboards and the buildings they passed. Zhenya couldn’t imagine what it was like to die in one century and suddenly find yourself in another. Maybe it was a little bit like moving to a different country.
“What you think?” he asked as he exited the freeway. The 1930s weren’t the dark ages; Sid was familiar with skyscrapers and automobiles; but Zhenya knew the world had changed.
“Things are different for sure,” Sid said: the blandest possible answer, that gave no indication of his real thoughts. Zhenya let it lie. Sid barely knew him, and didn’t owe Zhenya a sincere response.
At home, Zhenya watched Sid poke around in his kitchen, turning the garbage disposal on and off and opening the microwave to peer inside. He hit the button for the ice maker on the fridge and leaped backward when a handful of ice cubes emitted and clattered to the floor.
Zhenya couldn’t hold back his laugh. “You push all button, see what they do?”
“You should have warned me,” Sid muttered.
“Don’t play in kitchen, you don’t eat, don’t need ice,” Zhenya said. He crouched to scoop up the ice cubes and toss them into the sink. “Sit at table, look outside, yard so pretty, don’t break my house.”
“I’m sorry,” Sid said. “I didn’t think it would, uh.” He tried to stick his hands in his pockets, without much success. He had switched from his loose trousers and sweater vest to a jeans and T-shirt getup that looked suspiciously like something Tanger would wear, and he hadn’t adjusted to the smaller pockets yet. Zhenya was trying not to notice the shape of his thighs in his jeans. Screwing a ghost was romantic only in novels; in the real world, it was weird and pathetic.
“It’s fine, you don’t hurt,” Zhenya said. “I show you what you can touch, okay? Everything else, don’t push.” With his luck, Sid would turn on his laptop and somehow order a baby alligator off the internet.
He took Sid through the parts of the house that would probably interest him the most: the den with the TV, which he showed Sid how to use, and the sun room, where he could sit and watch the deer come down from the woods early in the morning, and the workout room in the basement, where Zhenya had a small shooting pad. He showed Sid his office and the unused desktop computer there and said, “I teach you to use, if you like.”
“Maybe,” Sid said. He was examining the trophies lined up along the mantle. “I don’t recognize most of these.”
“Calder,” Zhenya said, touching the cup. “For best rookie. Conn Smythe, for playoff MVP.”
“You won the Hart,” Sid said, so he knew that one. “Wow.” He smiled and touched one of the miniature Stanley Cups. “And the Cup.”
“Two times,” Zhenya said. “I want more, but. Maybe no.” Time passed without slowing, not even for his heart’s desire. He was thirty-two and he was starting to think about his legacy. What he had done, what he still wanted. His full mantlepiece, his empty home.
“It’s like nothing else, eh?” Sid said. “Winning the Cup, I mean.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. After all the long years of struggle and failure, doubting himself, seeing other people doubt him, wondering if he was finished, coming so close and then losing to the Sharks in the final, lifting the Cup for the second time had brought him to tears. He hadn’t wasted his life.
“You’ve got a good team here,” Sid said. “Good group of guys.”
It was true, but they’d had a good team last season and still lost. Zhenya knew there was more to a Cup win than the roster. He patted Sid’s shoulder, or tried to: Sid’s clothes were made of ghost matter or vapor, and without his gear, there was nothing for Zhenya’s hand to touch. He passed right through, with a faint chill and a pins-and-needles prickle like a limb coming awake.
“Sorry,” Zhenya said, not sure how embarrassed he should be. Was it more like seeing someone in his underwear, or walking in on someone jerking off?
“It’s fine,” Sid said. He faded slightly, the color draining out of him. “Easy to forget.”
“Sorry,” Zhenya said again. His hand tingled. He glanced at his watch. It was still at least an hour before he could reasonably start on dinner. How did one entertain a ghost? Did Sid play chess? Did he like to read? Zhenya knew nothing about him beyond his year of origin and his occupation. And now Sid was living in his house.
Zhenya would never learn to think before he acted.
“You mind if I watch some TV?” Sid asked. “My show’s on.”
Zhenya was afraid to ask what show that was. “Anything you like,” he said, “do all,” and escaped to the kitchen, where the ice cubes were slowly melting in the sink.
Shea’s injury would keep him out of the lineup for a while. In his place, Sully inserted Sid: slow, bad on his edges, but Sully sacrificed Reeser and Guentzy to play on his wings during the first pre-season game, and Sid got the puck to them at impossible angles, through impossible traffic, like it was nothing.
Zhenya, watching the game on TV from the comfort of his couch, felt the hair stand up at the back of his neck.
Why was Sid here? Who had wished for him?
He went to the rink the next morning while the team was flying to Detroit, for a workout and to get Stew to look at his hip. He passed Emmanuelle in the hallway and gave her the same tight smile as always, acknowledging without encouraging, but she stopped in her tracks and said, “Evgeni Malkin!”
“Yes?” Zhenya said, instantly suspicious. He and Emmanuelle didn’t interact much. Only for his monthly checkup, or if he picked up some stray magic out in public and needed it removed. Nobody tried to curse him anymore; curses were for rookies, and Zhenya was long past being hazed in that way. He couldn’t think of any reason for Emmanuelle to take note of him now.
Emmanuelle squinted at him. Her hair was piled on top of her head and a small bird peeked out from the tangles. It could have been real; Zhenya wasn’t sure. “Come with me,” she said. “You have time?”
“Few minutes,” Zhenya said, and Emmanuelle nodded and said, “It won’t take long.”
He followed Emmanuelle to her office, a small cluttered space overflowing with plants, decorative trays holding loose crystals, and multiple incense burners. North Americans expected eccentricity from their magicians, and Emmanuelle had all the trappings, a bizarre juxtaposition with the serious professionalism of her demeanor.
“Sit,” Emmanuelle said, and moved a potted plant out of the way so Zhenya could sit down. She sat in the armchair she had situated behind her desk. “I won’t waste time. We’re both busy. Did you make a Cup wish, when you won last time?”
“No,” Zhenya said, and then thought about it. Had he? He was certain he hadn’t. He knew the rules. He had been careful to clear his mind before he touched the Cup on the ice. But he had been drunk a lot, in the days after, and the Cup was around all the time. Had he been careful then? And during his day with the Cup in Moscow? Had he always rigorously guarded his thoughts?
Emmanuelle sighed, probably reading his guilty uncertainty from his expression. “You aren’t sure.”
“I don’t think I do,” Zhenya said, and then finally realized what this was about and felt a cold wash of dread pass over him. “You think it’s Sid? You think he’s here for my wish?”
“I don’t know,” Emmanuelle said. “I can’t tell. I can sense you in it, but the magic’s—confused, confusing. Someone wished for him, but it’s not clear. Maybe not even someone on the team, but that makes no sense to me. Maybe many people. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “If you don’t remember wishing, it’s probably not you. To bring a ghost from his own time—that takes clear purpose. A stray thought won’t do it.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He wasn’t convinced. How could he have wished for Sid, though? He hadn’t even known Sid existed until he appeared in the locker room.
“If you remember anything, tell me,” Emmanuelle said. “If I don’t know who made the wish, it’s hard to reverse the enchantment. And I’m busy now that the season’s started, I can’t devote much time to this problem. The easiest thing is to convince Sid to move on.”
Zhenya didn’t know much about Sid, but he knew Sid wasn’t ready to move on. He had seen the joy on Sid’s face every time he was on the ice. Sid wasn’t done playing hockey. He wanted to return to his own time and his own team and win another Cup, and Zhenya could sympathize with those desires. Nobody knew what happened to ghosts in the afterlife. Maybe there would be no hockey there. In Zhenya’s opinion, moving on wasn’t worth the risk.
“What if the wish is come true?” Zhenya asked. “Then he’s go back, right?” If a wish had brought Sid here, surely its resolution would send him home.
“It should,” Emmanuelle said. “But wishes can take years.”
Zhenya’s had—the one he made in 2009, lifting the Cup for the first time. That would be a long time for Sid to wait, plucked out of his own time and missing everyone he knew. Maybe, in that case, it would be kinder to send him on.
Zhenya left Emmanuelle’s office with a heavy weight dragging at the bottom of his heart. From what Emmanuelle had said, he had played some role in bringing Sid here, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. He didn’t have a single scrap of magic, but maybe he could try to figure out who had made the wish. That wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would help Emmanuelle solve the problem, at least. And maybe it would help alleviate his guilt.
If Sid was here for a Cup wish, what had the wish been? Why had a dead hockey player been drawn out of the past? Was he someone’s distant relative? Was he someone’s future lover? Zhenya could imagine any number of implausible scenarios, but he had watched Sid enough on the ice that he knew the real reason. Sid, slow, bad on his edges, was there to help them win another Cup.
Sid couldn’t drive, and he also, disappointingly, couldn’t teleport, contrary to what Zhenya had osmosed from pop culture. Zhenya waited up after the game in Detroit and drove to the airport after midnight, just him and the radio on the quiet nighttime roads.
Sid was waiting for him on the tarmac, standing alone with no baggage. He didn’t need a suitcase; if he wanted a change of clothes, he could craft it from a thought and a wisp of air. He climbed into Zhenya’s passenger seat and said, “Thanks for coming to get me. I know it’s late.”
Zhenya could have sent him home with one of the other guys, but he didn’t trust anyone else to know how to take care of a ghost. “No problem,” he said. “I’m night bird.”
“Night owl,” Sid said, smiling. “I never was. Liked to go to bed early. Not anymore, though, eh?”
“No,” Zhenya said. He wanted to ask Sid what it was like to be dead, but that seemed like a sensitive subject. Zhenya didn’t think he would enjoy being dead. He liked eating, and taking naps on his couch after practice, and petting animals. He would miss all of those things.
“The game went pretty well,” Sid said. “We lost in overtime, though.”
“I know,” Zhenya said. “I watch on TV.”
“Oh,” Sid said. He glanced at Zhenya, and then out the window. “Right. Makes sense.”
“You played good,” Zhenya said. He had: a nice assist on Haggerty’s goal, and a couple of impressive passes. Zhenya expected to hear all about it at the captains’ meeting before practice in the morning.
“Well. Thank you,” Sid said.
They lapsed into silence. Zhenya was still thinking of his conversation with Emmanuelle. He could wait until the morning to bring it up, but that felt like delaying out of cowardice instead of courtesy. Sid wasn’t tired; he didn’t have a body that could experience exhaustion or hunger or maybe anything else. Love, longing. What did Zhenya know? He could barely look after himself.
At a red light, he said, “You talk to Emmanuelle?”
“Oh—no, not recently,” Sid said. “Why?” He straightened up in his seat. “Did she say something to you about sending me home?”
The eager hope in Sid’s voice crushed Zhenya completely. He wasn’t the right person to break this news, but who was? There was no good way to tell Sid that he might be trapped in the future for a long time to come, or maybe forever. Zhenya said, “Maybe it’s not so easy, send you back.”
“Well. I know it won’t be easy,” Sid said. “But—”
“She’s not know who made wish,” Zhenya said. He squeezed the steering wheel and then forced his hands to relax as the light turned green. “So she can’t undo.”
“Oh,” Sid said.
Zhenya didn’t want to say it, but he had to. “Maybe it’s little bit me.”
Keeping his eyes on the road was a matter of safe driving. He wasn’t at all avoiding looking at Sid’s face. But Sid said nothing for long enough that Zhenya finally did glance over. Sid had his head turned, staring out the passenger side window, and Zhenya couldn’t see his face.
“You said she didn’t know who it was,” Sid said finally.
“She think lots of people,” Zhenya said. “Maybe. I don’t know. She say it’s not sure.”
“Well,” Sid said, and fell silent again.
Neither of them spoke until Zhenya parked in the garage and turned off the engine. Into the silence, he said, “I’m sorry. We try to fix.”
“It’s not your fault,” Sid said. He turned toward Zhenya and offered a weak smile, the expression of a man in excruciating pain and trying to hide it. “You didn’t mean for this to happen. Nobody did. I don’t think anyone touched the Cup and thought, okay, I really want Sidney Crosby to come to 2018.”
“Someone wish for win another Cup,” Zhenya said. “I think you here because you help us win.” Someone: probably Zhenya, no matter what Emmanuelle said. Of course he wanted a third Cup, it was all he had wanted last season, and all he wanted now, heading into the new season. If he had brought Sid here, he was honor-bound to send him back.
Sid’s mouth drew in on itself. “That’s months from now.” He covered his face with his hands. “Fuck. I’m—sorry.” He lowered his hands. “I’ll find somewhere else to stay. I can go back to the rink. You didn’t sign on to have me stay with you for the rest of the season.”
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. It was true that he hadn’t counted on having Sid live with him for months, but he wasn’t cold-hearted enough to send Sid back to the rink. He felt responsible. Sid had only spent one night with him so far, but Zhenya couldn’t imagine he would be anything other than polite and unassuming for the duration. “Happy to have.”
“Thank you,” Sid said. “Oh, jeez. I’m stuck here, aren’t I? I’m not going to—my team, my sister—” He broke off and turned to stare out the window again.
Zhenya hadn’t thought he could possibly feel worse about this situation, but he had been wrong. Sid had seemed so calm and pragmatic this whole time, but now Zhenya thought he had been desperately clinging to the hope that Emmanuelle would send him home soon, and his good cheer had been a product of that optimism.
Zhenya was the captain. He wasn’t always good at it, but he tried to take care of his team, and Sid was part of his team, now. He didn’t know anything about magic, but he knew a lot about hockey. If winning another Cup was what it took to get Sid back to his own time, Zhenya was going to make it happen.
“We win,” he said. “This year. Then you go home.”
Sid shook his head without looking over. “You can’t promise that.”
“I promise,” Zhenya said. Sid finally turned toward him then, his face backlit by the light above the door into the house. He was dead, but he was still a person, with a team and a sister, apparently. Zhenya would figure out who had made the wish, or he would win the Cup, and either way Sid would get to go home.
In the morning, he called Max, who was still in Miami. “How do you teach an old ghost how to skate?”
“How old are we talking?” Max said. He sounded like he was eating something. “And what do you mean, how to skate?”
Zhenya gave him the brief rundown. “It’s not like he’s a raw beginner. He’s confident on the ice. But he’s slow and his edgework is garbage. They didn’t skate like that back then, I guess.” He had read about Sid online. By 1930s standards, he was extraordinary. By 2018 standards, he was still very good. But he had to fix his skating.
“They didn’t,” Max said. “Get a pen,” and he outlined three separate sets of drills to rotate through. “And get Haggy to show him how to start up and hit his stride. The technique’s different now because of the advances in skate technology. The rest of you are too slow, I don’t trust anyone else.”
“I’ll be sure to pass your good wishes along,” Zhenya said dryly. “Thanks, Max.”
“I’ll send you an invoice soon,” Max said. “Stay out of trouble, Zhenka.”
Armed with his list, Zhenya went to find Sid. He was out in the sun room, curled up in an armchair, looking out the window at the rain-drenched woods. Zhenya stopped in the doorway to watch him, the dark curve of his head, the curve of his shoulders. Where had he spent the night? Maybe right here, listening to the rain come down.
“Sid,” he said, and Sid squirmed around in the chair to face him. “Let’s go to rink.”
“It’s a day off for you,” Sid said, like Zhenya didn’t know his own schedule.
“I call my friend,” Zhenya said. “He’s power skating coach. He tell me drills we do for help you skate. So let’s go, okay?”
He watched Sid brighten at the prospect of skating. “Now?”
“Yes, let’s go,” Zhenya said, and Sid rose to his feet.
The main rink was booked up by local amateur leagues, so they skated on the secondary rink. Zhenya was familiar with all of the drills from his own work with Max over the years, and he guided Sid through the first of Max’s workouts, and then stood back and coached. Sid was a quick learner, and he’d spent enough time in his new skates that he had already adjusted his skating. He did the drills well; he only needed time until it was second nature. There was no time to think about your skating during a game. You had to react instantly, not think about what your feet were doing.
“How was it?” Sid asked him, after each drill, and Zhenya would say, “Good, but make feet a little bit wider,” or, “Do again, it’s more like, turn out, you know?” And Sid did it again, until it was perfect.
“Tomorrow we do more,” Zhenya said, satisfied with the work they had done already. “Let’s go home, it’s lunch, I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, you worked really hard this morning,” Sid said, and laughed when Zhenya threw a glove at him in disgust.
At home, Zhenya put some leftovers in the microwave and puttered around in the kitchen until the timer beeped. Rain was still falling steadily outside: the kind of day that made his house feel cozy and very far away from anything else. He had originally bought this house because the Gonchars lived nearby, but by now he liked it for itself, how he was close to Sewickley and the shops there, but also peacefully out in the woods, so that he could pretend he didn’t have any neighbors. And on days like this he could imagine he was alone in the whole world.
He wasn’t alone, though. He took his plate down the hall to the den, where Sid was watching TV on the couch. Sid glanced over as Zhenya came in the room and smiled at him, and raised the remote to lower the volume slightly. He held the remote with his elbow fully extended and his hand lifted above his head, like he thought he had to aim it at a specific point on the TV to make it work.
Zhenya didn’t correct him. He was charmed, and didn’t want to be. “Okay if I watch with you?”
“Of course,” Sid said. “We can watch something else—”
“No, it’s fine,” Zhenya said, although he didn’t know what Sid was watching. He settled on the couch with his plate. On the screen, a young couple stood in a kitchen, talking with an older woman. “What’s show?”
“They’re buying a house,” Sid said. “They looked at three different houses, and this is the one they picked.”
Zhenya grunted. He only watched American TV if it involved sports or animals, but he didn’t have any particular objection to House Hunters. He ate his lunch and watched as the episode wrapped up and cut to commercials. Sid had a lot of questions about the ads, and Zhenya found himself in the position of trying to explain big box stores and Swiffer. He was relieved when the next episode started, until he realized the prospective homebuyers were two men.
Sid had gone very quiet. Zhenya rolled his eyes in Sid’s direction without turning his head. Sid was leaning forward slightly, focused intently on the screen. He turned to look at Zhenya, and Zhenya hastily redirected his eyes to the TV and shoveled another forkful of potatoes into his mouth. Nothing interesting was going on here. There was nothing worth commenting on.
Sid cleared his throat and said, “This is, uh. They’re—a couple?”
Zhenya wasn’t sure what he would do if Sid said something homophobic. He knew Sid was from a different era, but he also didn’t want that in his home. “Yes,” he said shortly.
Sid looked at the TV, then back at Zhenya. “It doesn’t, uh. Bother you?”
“No,” Zhenya said, equally shortly. Let Sid figure it out the way the rest of the team had. Zhenya didn’t make grand pronouncements.
“Well,” Sid said. He settled back against the couch cushions. “That’s—that’s good. That they can do that.”
“Yes, it’s good,” Zhenya said, relieved that he wouldn’t have to kick Sid out of his house. Tentative approval was even better than he had hoped for.
Sid was quiet for a few minutes, staring at the TV with more focus than Zhenya thought the show either demanded or deserved. Then a car commercial prompted a question from him about highway infrastructure, which Zhenya couldn’t really answer, and after that he was back to his running commentary on people’s clothing and housing priorities. “They’re so worried about paint colors,” he said wonderingly, and Zhenya could only shrug. He still had the curtains from his home’s previous owner. He didn’t know what people cared about.
That episode ended. Sid glanced out the window. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. Zhenya checked the weather on his phone. The front was moving out; the rain would be done in an hour or so.
“Let’s go out,” Zhenya said. Sid had seen nothing of Pittsburgh aside from the airport and the freeway. He was at Zhenya’s mercy, and trapped at home unless Zhenya wanted to take him somewhere. He couldn’t watch House Hunters for the rest of his time in the 21st century. Zhenya felt responsible.
“Oh,” Sid said. “Go where?”
Zhenya shrugged. “Drive around, go where you like. Downtown, look in shops.” Maybe up the Incline, if it wasn’t too overcast.
“Okay,” Sid said, with that smile that made Zhenya’s stomach swoop. “Thanks. That sounds really great.”
“My pleasure,” Zhenya said, and didn’t let himself think at all about what he was doing or why. He was the captain; he took care of his team, and Sid was part of his team, now. He was being a good host. He was a nice guy. He liked sightseeing. Sid’s smile had nothing to do with it at all.
Zhenya was thirty-two, he had won two Stanley Cups, he had a goddaughter and three mortgages, and now he had a ghost living in his house. After a few days of adjusting to closing the bathroom door while he took a leak, having Sid around was no big deal. He cleaned up after himself and didn’t pester Zhenya while he was on the phone. As roommates went, he was close to ideal.
But he was bored. It didn’t take Zhenya long to notice the aimless way Sid drifted through the house—sometimes literally, his feet hovering a few centimeters above the floor. He went from room to room, looked out the window for a while, watched some more TV, went into the kitchen to talk quietly to Zhenya’s houseplants, and finally floated back down the hallway to begin the whole sequence again. Zhenya watched this happen four times in the course of one afternoon as he conducted his own circuit of meal prep, video games, and catching up on email, and finally when Sid came into the kitchen for the fifth time, Zhenya closed his laptop and said, “Sid, come sit. You make me nervous.”
“Sorry,” Sid said, hovering in the doorway. He sank downward until his feet touched the floor. “Didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Don’t bother,” Zhenya said. He used his foot to push a chair out from the table and waited until Sid came over and sat down. Then he said, “What you do for fun?”
“Oh,” Sid said. “Well, hockey—”
“Not hockey,” Zhenya said. “What else?”
“Well, I like—fishing,” Sid said. “Tennis. Baseball. Reading—”
“Okay, good,” Zhenya said, because one of those things would actually keep Sid occupied at home instead of making Zhenya anxious with his wandering.
He bought an e-reader for Sid and paid for overnight shipping, and when it arrived he set it up and linked it to his account and showed Sid how to use it. “It’s easy, see. You see book you like, just touch here, then you can read.”
“It’s all in there?” Sid asked. “The whole book?” He took the thing in his hands and turned it around, inspecting the underside. “So then I need a new one if I want to read a different book?”
“No, you can have lots of books,” Zhenya said. “Twenty, one hundred. I don’t know.”
“Jeez,” Sid said. He smiled uncertainly at Zhenya. “I guess this was probably—expensive—”
“I’m rich, don’t worry,” Zhenya said. “Happy to give present.”
“Okay,” Sid said. The tension melted from his smile. “Thank you, then. I appreciate it.”
“You welcome,” Zhenya said, trying not to notice the color of Sid’s eyes, and after that Sid spent a lot of time curled in an armchair in the sun room, working his way through recent decades of war novels and memoirs, and barraging Zhenya with questions over dinner. They took all of their meals together, although Sid of course didn’t eat. He just seemed to want the company.
The organization signed Sid to a one-year contract out of training camp, to the surprise of no one on the team but to intense media speculation and commotion. Zhenya answered a lot of questions about how he felt about playing with a ghost, as if having Sid on the team had somehow transformed Zhenya’s entire experience of hockey even though they played on different lines, until Jen eventually banned all ghost-related questions.
Zhenya understood why they had questions. Having a ghost on the team at all was a little unorthodox—there were plenty of hard-liners who didn’t think ghosts should be allowed any occupation, because it would discourage them from moving on—and Sid’s situation was more unorthodox than most. And he was good, and getting better all the time. Everyone was curious about him, reporters and fans alike. Zhenya stayed with him after every practice to work on his skating, and sometimes brought him back to the rink in the evenings and sat on the bench with his phone while Sid tirelessly ran through drills.
“How was that?” Sid would call to him, and every time Zhenya said, “Good, do again.”
Those were his favorite evenings, alone with Sid while he watched Sid skate. They spent a lot of time together, and Zhenya was getting to know him, his stolid determination, his willingness to be amused by Zhenya’s every attempt at humor. He liked to cook, and gradually relegated Zhenya to potato peeling and taste testing. Zhenya did finally show him how to use the computer, and Sid starting learning Russian, which Zhenya only discovered because he came downstairs in the middle of the night, awake after a bad dream, and heard Sid talking to himself in the office. Most of the guys on the team knew a few key phrases in Russian, but Sid had found some kind of computer software and was making a targeted attempt, and Zhenya stood in the hallway for a while and listened to him say, “The train station is next to the bridge,” and knew he was feeling things that he shouldn’t.
“How is it,” Tanger asked him, a few weeks into the season, “living with Sid? You like him?”
Zhenya shrugged. “Yes, it’s fine. He’s easy. You know.” He glanced across the locker room, where Sid was laughing about something with Olli. Sid seemed happy most of the time, but Zhenya had found him a few times sitting at a window and doing nothing, only staring through the glass with a look on his face that was a complete absence of expression, like all of his thoughts were somewhere else. Zhenya couldn’t imagine his grief and knew he wouldn’t ever understand.
“You get tired of him, Cath says he can come stay with us,” Tanger said. “Alex likes him.”
Zhenya liked him, more and more with each day that went by. He was happy to wake up in the mornings now, because Sid would be in the kitchen already, waiting for him with a cup of tea and a thousand questions about whatever he had gotten up to while Zhenya was asleep. He had recently discovered how to stream old hockey games through the TV and was full of opinions about what he watched. Zhenya would miss him a lot if he went to stay with Tanger.
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. “He’s stay with me.”
The season caught him up in its rhythm: the long-established routine of game days, the road trips, his regularly scheduled negotiations with Jen over the quantity and length of his interviews. Tucked into what free time he had, he went to dinner with friends, watched every Steelers game he could, and increasingly spent time with Sid, sometimes just taking him to the grocery store to watch him marvel at the produce and fumble adorably when fans recognized him. Zhenya never forgot what he had promised Sid, about sending him home, but it sort of—dropped to the bottom of his list, without him meaning it to. There were just so many other things to be doing.
But he was reminded toward the end of October when he went looking for Sid after practice and couldn’t find him, until finally one of the equipment guys pointed him toward Emmanuelle’s office. The door was atypically closed. Zhenya tapped on it and waited, and after a minute it opened, and Sid came out, faded to translucence. Zhenya could hardly see his face at all.
“Sorry, G,” Sid said. “I’m ready now.”
Zhenya didn’t press the issue there or in the car, and at home he let Sid disappear upstairs into the unused bedroom he had claimed for himself, somewhere he could shut the door and be alone. But Sid emerged while Zhenya was making dinner and sat at his usual place at the table and said, to Zhenya’s surprise, “I was, uh. Talking to Emmanuelle to see if she’s made any progress. You know, figuring out who wished me here.”
Zhenya set his knife on the counter and turned to face Sid. He was solid again, and Zhenya smiled to see him, glad just to see his face. “She find out?”
“No,” Sid said. “She, uh. She still doesn’t know.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Winning the Cup’s my best bet, I reckon.”
Guilt seared through Zhenya’s belly. He had been working with Sid on his skating, but he had neglected all other routes of sending Sid home. He didn’t know what he could do, but—well, he could take Sid to see Grigori, maybe.
But not tonight. After dinner, he piled the dirty dishes into the sink and said, “Come on, let’s finish game,” because they had watched half of a recorded Steelers game the previous night, before Zhenya fell asleep on the couch like the old man he was becoming.
Sid followed him down the hall and took his usual spot at the far end of the couch. Instead of taking his own spot at the other end, Zhenya unfolded the blanket on the back of the couch and shook it out, and draped it around Sid’s shoulders.
“Oh,” Sid said, blinking up at him. “What—”
“Shh,” Zhenya said. He sat beside Sid and cautiously put an arm around him. The blanket worked just as well as he had hoped. He could feel the solid breadth of Sid’s shoulders, neither warm nor cold but there, real and tangible.
Sid didn’t breathe anymore, but his shoulders shifted in some way, a subtle movement as Zhenya’s hand cupped his upper arm. He looked over at Zhenya with wide eyes. “Geno—”
“Be quiet, watch football,” Zhenya said. He picked up the remote and turned on the TV. What he was doing went beyond the bounds of friendship; he had never touched a man like this if they were only friends. But Sid needed the comfort, and he probably didn’t know what was acceptable for men to do in 2018. Zhenya could bluster straight through Sid’s hesitation. He was only looking after his ghost.
Sid remained tense and unmoving for long enough that Zhenya began to second-guess himself and was about to remove his arm and shift away, but then Sid sighed and slumped down and laid his head on Zhenya’s shoulder.
“JuJu’s looking good here,” Sid said quietly.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and his heart pounded in his chest until the clock ran down.
Grigori was a soothsayer Zhenya knew from church. Soothsaying was old magic and had been banned after the Revolution, but it had only gone underground rather than disappearing. Zhenya’s grandmother had been a believer, and he had grown up having his fortune told every year around his birthday until his mother finally caught wind of what was going on and put a stop to it. Zhenya thought it was mostly nonsense, but it couldn’t hurt.
He called Grisha and made an appointment. When they had a couple of days between games in early November, he took Sid after practice, without discussing it, only heading south toward the city instead of taking his usual exit toward home.
Sid glanced at him. “We going somewhere?”
“We go see my friend Grigori,” Zhenya said. ‘Friend’ was maybe a stretch. Acquaintance? Zhenya didn’t make it to church much. “He’s—I don’t know word. He’s know magic, maybe help you some.”
“Okay,” Sid said. He glanced at Zhenya again. “Will you tell me the word? In Russian?”
They hadn’t formally acknowledged that Sid was learning Russian, although Sid had started doing it while Zhenya was awake and wasn’t making any effort to hide what he was up to. Well, they were acknowledging it now. “Soothsayer,” Zhenya said.
“Soothsayer,” Sid repeated. His pronunciation was no good, but he was trying. “Okay.”
“Here,” Zhenya said. He took his phone from the cup holder and unlocked it and handed it to Sid. “Use app.”
For the most part, Sid was intimidated by Zhenya’s phone and didn’t want anything to do with it. But they used the translation app sometimes, and Sid reluctantly tapped at the screen and held the phone to Zhenya’s mouth for him to say, “Soothsayer.”
Sid looked at the screen. “Okay. Huh. That’s not a—well, I’ll find out, I guess.”
Zhenya grinned. “Yes, you wait, then you see.”
Grisha had a storefront in the Flats, festooned with multicolored lights around the window. The sign mounted above the doorway was in two languages, although Grisha’s clientele was, as far as Zhenya knew, exclusively from the local Russian community. He parked down the block and slowed his steps so Sid could dawdle and gawk. Everything was still exciting to Sid, and Zhenya loved how curious he was. Every mundane part of daily life was new to him through Sid’s eyes.
He opened the door to Grisha’s shop and held it for Sid. The long string of bells tied to the push-bar jingled, and Grisha came out from the back, wearing his usual long robe embroidered with ancient Slavic symbols, none of which meant anything to Zhenya. His short gray hair stuck out from his scalp in wild tufts.
“Zhenya, there you are,” Grisha said. “And your friend.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and Sid nodded politely. Without gloves on, he couldn’t shake hands.
“Hmm,” Grisha said. He looked Sid up and down, and Zhenya fought the protective urge to block Sid from Grisha’s view. “Well, come on then, I’ve got everything set up in the back.”
“We should talk in English,” Zhenya said. “He doesn’t speak any Russian.”
“I speak little bit,” Sid said, and grinned when Zhenya gave him a startled look. He hadn’t expected Sid to be able to follow the conversation.
“So I see,” Grisha said, smiling, but he switched to English anyway and said, “This way. It’s all ready.”
The front of Grisha’s shop looked like a dentist’s waiting room: beige carpet, a fake plant that hadn’t been dusted in at least a year. But through the thick velvet curtains hanging over the doorway behind the counter, the back of the shop was even more cluttered than Emmanuelle’s office, and smelled strongly of plants, not flowers or anything sweet but the deep pungent loamy scent of damp earth.
“Here, sit,” Grisha said, gesturing to the large flat pillows strewn on the floor, on top of the layered rugs there. Zhenya awkwardly sank down and folded his legs beneath him, feeling his knees protest the position. He hadn’t sat on the floor like this in years. Sid, much more gracefully, took the pillow beside him.
They waited as Grisha filled a bowl with cold water and herbs and carefully placed it on the floor before them. He sat on a cushion facing them and drew a small penknife from his robe, and said, “I need a little blood.”
Sid couldn’t. Zhenya offered his hand, and Grisha made an incision in the fleshy pad of his thumb, and squeezed three drops of blood into the bowl. The water hissed ferociously, and all the lights cut out at once.
“Good,” Grisha said, into the darkness.
All of this was familiar to Zhenya. He waited, his eyes straining for light and finding none. Grisha took a few deep breaths, inhaling the steam from the now-hot water. He made a deep humming noise and said, “Tell me what you want to know.”
Zhenya said, in Russian, “Who wished for Sid to come here? What wish brought him?”
Grisha hummed again. Zhenya was breathing shallowly through his mouth, but the herbs began to affect him anyway, making his head spin and float like a balloon on a string. He couldn’t sense Sid beside him, and he reached out blindly, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to touch Sid, but desperate anyway for some indication of his presence.
“I’m here,” Sid said quietly, and Zhenya settled.
The room was black as midnight, a black and oppressive lightlessness that pushed against Zhenya’s eyeballs. Into the darkness, Grisha said, “Evgeni Vladimirovich! Why are you here?”
“To learn what I can’t see,” Zhenya said, the traditional response.
“Sidney Patrick! Why are you here?” Grisha asked.
“Uh, because Geno brought me?” Sid said.
Grisha hummed. The darkness flexed like a sheet of thin plastic bowing outward. Zhenya’s head spun and then steadied. They were on the other side of it now, into the weird space where Grisha could listen to the soft mutter of the universe.
“Who wished for him? I know,” Grisha said. “Kristopher Allen! Patric Gösta! Bryan Peter! Marc-André! Philip Joseph! Evgeni Vladimirovich! Carl Oliver,” and on he went through the entire roster.
Zhenya’s heart sank. It was just what Emmanuelle had told him, that they were all worked into the magic. But how was it Cup magic, then? But they had all touched the Cup—but surely they hadn’t all wished for the same thing, or even wished at all, not with how Emmanuelle warned them over and over again and taught them how to clear their minds so that they wouldn’t wish by mistake. It didn’t make any sense to him, the idea that they had all done something to bring Sid here.
Grisha fell silent at last. It was the deepest, softest silence Zhenya had ever endured. He drew a breath that made no sound and said, “What was the wish?”
“Evgeni Vladimirovich!” Grisha said. “A man broke your heart. I know! There’s more love for you still. Don’t lose sight! Keep your eyes wide!”
Wrapped in the thick darkness, Zhenya sucked hard on his bottom lip. That wasn’t how he would have chosen to come out to Sid, but he couldn’t do anything about it now. Maybe Sid wasn’t paying attention.
“The wish,” Zhenya said.
“Who wished?” Grisha said. “Who wanted? Someone’s heart made a secret wish. Sidney Patrick! What is it you asked for?”
“I—I didn’t,” Sid said. “Ghosts can’t wish.”
“Who wished?” Grisha said. “I know! Don’t lose sight!”
This was going nowhere. That was the way with soothsaying. Sometimes fortunes made no sense at the time and only became clear months or years down the line. Sometimes they never made sense. Soothsaying was an art, not a science.
“I thank you for what you’ve shared,” Zhenya said formally, to take them back into the everyday world.
“Good,” Grisha said, and clapped his hands once.
The lights came on. The bowl was empty of water and blood alike. Sid was all faded out, as invisible as he had been in the darkness. Only a faint hazy outline showed where he sat.
Grisha sat blinking, and then rubbed his eyes and said, “That was a strange one. Did you get anything helpful?”
“Yes, I think,” Zhenya said. At least he knew that he alone hadn’t pulled Sid from his own time. They were all to blame, every last one of them. “Thank you, Grisha.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Grisha said. “Now help an old man to his feet. I need to start telling fortunes from a chair.”
The light was already fading, the short afternoon turning into an early short evening before night covered the earth like a dark blanket, snapped out by an expert wrist and floating slowly downward. Sid didn’t say much on the drive home. “How do you know Grisha?” he asked, and was silent for a few minutes after Zhenya finished his explanation, and then he said, “I’ve never had a fortune told.”
Zhenya tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “No? You don’t do, where you from?” He meant both Canada and the 1930s.
“No, people do it,” Sid said. “I just haven’t.” He turned his head to look at Zhenya, a fixed, focused gaze that Zhenya couldn’t meet without taking his eyes from the road. But he could feel it, heavy as a warm exhale against his cheek, Sid’s breath that he would never feel.
“Okay?” Zhenya asked.
“Yeah,” Sid said, and that was the last he spoke until they were home.
Zhenya had things to do. He owed his parents an email, and he needed to chop some vegetables to roast for the coming week. He had a book to finish, and a dinner with the Birmans to attend. But he felt too jittery to sit and do anything useful. He roamed the house, pretending to tidy up but mostly moving things from one place to another, and finally he called George and said he wasn’t feeling well and asked if they could reschedule dinner.
The house was dark. Zhenya had lost track of Sid. He went around turning lights on. Maybe Sid had gone for dinner with someone on the team, which he did a few times a week, someone’s car pulling into Zhenya’s driveway for what Zhenya mentally referred to as ‘playdates,’ scornful to mask his jealousy that Sid wanted to spend time with anyone other than him. He was an idiot and knew it; he had been an idiot all his life.
But Sid hadn’t gone out. He was lying on the couch in the den, his e-reader abandoned on his chest, staring up at the wood-paneled ceiling. Zhenya tapped his fingernails against the doorframe, and Sid said, “I know you’re there, I heard you coming down the hall.”
“Can’t sneak like ghost,” Zhenya said. He turned on the lamps behind the couch. “You okay?”
“Just thinking,” Sid said. He sat up against the armrest so that Zhenya could take a seat at his end of the sofa. “I didn’t really think he would miraculously be able to send me home, but. That would have been nice.” He shrugged and made a rueful twist with his mouth. “At least he didn’t tell me I should really spend some time thinking seriously about moving on.”
His dry tone gave Zhenya a good idea of how many people had suggested that solution. Zhenya watched him frown at his feet, his familiar absent expression of deep thought, and felt a slow sore tender affection unfolding in his chest. He should send Sid to live with Cath and Tanger before this got any worse.
“You don’t want move on,” Zhenya said.
“No,” Sid said. “I really don’t. I want to go home.” He looked up then and met Zhenya’s eyes, and the anguish there was so powerful Zhenya had to look away for a moment, wracked by familiar guilt, and also by a brand-new and agonizing thought of what his life would be like after Sid was gone. He hadn’t considered it yet, somehow: that Sid was going to leave.
“I know,” Zhenya said. He wished he could place a comforting hand on Sid’s knee. “You—it’s okay if I ask? Why you don’t move on?”
“Well,” Sid said. He hugged his knees to his chest. “I was twenty-eight when I died. My parents and my sister were still alive, and I didn’t make a lot of money back then, not like you guys do now, but I still helped them out. And I was—well, I wasn’t done playing hockey yet, you know?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He wouldn’t be done, either, if he died tomorrow. He wished he could touch Sid’s hair, and feel its texture, soft or rough. “How you die?”
“It was—an accident,” Sid said. “I don’t really—I don’t like talking about it. If that’s okay.”
“Sorry,” Zhenya said, immediately regretting that he had asked.
“No, it’s fine,” Sid said. He smiled at Zhenya. “I don’t mind that you asked.” He went back to staring at his feet. “I feel like—you’re the only person who doesn’t tell me I should move on. Even Tanger was getting after me the other day. Like, maybe it’s for the best. It’s what all ghosts do, sooner or later. I’m just delaying the inevitable.”
Ghosts could linger for a hundred years or so, but they all frayed apart at last and passed out of the world. There were always stories of ancient ghosts, thousands of years old, but to Zhenya’s knowledge, those were only folktales. But Sid had another ninety years, give or take, and Zhenya couldn’t blame him for wanting to cling to each one. It was good to be in the world.
“I’m scared,” Sid told his feet. “I don’t know what the afterlife’s like.” He hesitated, and his voice was very quiet when he spoke again. “I really liked being alive. I wasn’t ready to die. I loved my life. I don’t want to move on.”
Zhenya swallowed to clear his throat. “Stay here. Play hockey. We send you home.”
“Maybe,” Sid said, still so quiet. His eyes darted up to catch Zhenya’s for a moment before darting away again. “I’d like to ask you something. I hope you won’t get mad.”
Zhenya’s nervous jitters returned. He laid his hands carefully on his knees to keep them from jostling around. “Okay, ask.”
“Grisha said,” Sid said, and stopped. Zhenya’s stomach churned. “He said that a—a man broke your heart. And I wanted to ask you, uh. What he meant?”
There had been no hope of escaping it. Zhenya took his phone from his pocket and scrolled through to find the pictures he had archived but not deleted. He found a sweet one, a selfie, of Tyoma kissing his cheek. Six months later, the pain had faded to a mild sting.
“Here,” he said, and offered Sid the phone. “My ex.”
“Oh,” Sid said. He held the phone carefully cupped in both hands and examined the screen, his eyes wide. He had remained solid through their whole conversation, but he began to flicker now. “He’s, um. He’s really handsome.”
Zhenya was afraid to inhale, like even that slight motion of his chest would betray every one of his feelings. “Yes,” he said.
“I couldn’t ever,” Sid blurted. “It wasn’t—a good idea, it wasn’t ever an option. I couldn’t—but I thought about it a lot.”
He was still staring at the phone, at the picture of Zhenya’s boyfriend kissing him, back when they were in love. Zhenya didn’t know what to think. He said, “Sid—”
Sid returned his phone without meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for the two of you.”
“Me too,” Zhenya said, after a moment.
“Let’s get started on dinner,” Sid said, after another moment.
Sid was subdued during dinner, but he smiled at Zhenya every time their eyes met as they moved around the kitchen together, handing off knives and the salt shaker. Zhenya’s house felt like a home again, with Sid in it, warming every room with his presence. It was a terrible thought to have, because Sid would leave, and leave him, and Zhenya would be alone again, in his house with too many bedrooms.
“Leafs game tonight,” Sid said, as Zhenya ate and Sid worked on a Sudoku puzzle. Brass had introduced him to them as an airplane activity and Sid had gotten hooked.
“Who they play?” Zhenya asked, trying to remember the schedule. “New Jersey?” Sid nodded, and Zhenya said, “Okay, let’s watch.”
Watching hockey together was an ordinary part of their routine. They had their spots on the sofa. Zhenya always claimed the ottoman, because he liked to stretch out. Sid claimed the remote because he liked to be in charge. What wasn’t ordinary at all was the way Sid picked up the blanket and shook it out and wrapped it around his shoulders before he sat down.
Was he cold? Ghosts didn’t get cold. What was he doing? Zhenya watched him settle on the couch and didn’t know what to think or do.
“Could we,” Sid said. Zhenya could see right through him to the potted plant on the side table. “Like last time?”
“Okay,” Zhenya managed, and lifted his arm to let Sid tuck himself underneath.
Sid turned on the TV. His other hand settled on Zhenya’s thigh, a gentle weight through Zhenya’s jeans. His head tipped onto Zhenya’s shoulder. Every breath was an effort, like Zhenya was drawing air from beyond the veil. He looked down at the dark curve of Sid’s head, close enough to press his lips to, and imagined that he could smell Sid’s hair.
Romancing a ghost required some planning. Zhenya knew all about how it worked in folklore and novels and summer blockbusters, but he wanted to know how it actually worked in real life. He didn’t want to do something foolish and have Sid laugh at him.
Sid probably wouldn’t laugh. But Zhenya still wanted to do it right.
He went online and learned what he needed to know. Sid had been smiling at him for a solid forty-eight hours, and they had curled up on the couch again the night before, the blanket tucked around Sid’s shoulders. Zhenya didn’t know what was going to happen, but he wanted to be prepared.
After their next practice, Sid went for coffee with Olli, and Zhenya went to the craft store near the rink. He was the only unaccompanied man in the whole place, and he slunk around the fabric section feeling uncomfortably tall and masculine. The store smelled like new T-shirts and potpourri. The Christmas decorations were out already. Zhenya sorted through the bolts of fabric lined up on the shelves, overwhelmed by how much there was. Everything seemed too thick for his purposes. He moved on to the rotating racks, and there he found what he was looking for. He picked out the thinnest, gauziest fabric he could find, white and almost perfectly see-through when he held it up to the light. He took the entire panel with him to the registers.
The checkout woman didn’t recognize him, which was always a relief, and especially when he was purchasing supplies for illicit ghost sex. “Got a big project planned, huh?” she asked, snapping her chewing gum.
“New curtains,” Zhenya said.
He beat Sid home, and spread out the fabric on the dining table to take stock. There really was way too much of it. He cut off a manageable piece, big enough to cover Sid head to foot with some extra. He felt like a creep to be so deliberately preparing for sex with Sid when they hadn’t done more than innocently cuddle on the couch a few times, and definitely hadn’t talked at all about what it meant or where this was going. He didn’t really have any indication that Sid was interested in having sex with him. But he wanted to be ready if Sid gave him the green light; he didn’t want to waste any time.
There was no way to predict who would become a ghost. People who swore fervently that they weren’t ready to die and would stay to haunt their loved ones forever often passed seamlessly into the afterlife. Sometimes people who said they would move on at once lingered instead for their full hundred years. Unfinished business was something buried in a person’s heart, rarely revealed even after death. But Sid had said I thought about it a lot, and maybe he hadn’t stayed specifically to do this, but he probably wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. He probably wouldn’t slide beneath Zhenya’s arm and nestle there if he didn’t want more, or maybe everything.
Zhenya bundled everything away in an empty drawer in the kitchen, and by the time he heard Olli’s car pull into the driveway, he was innocently folding laundry in his bedroom.
The front door opened and closed. Sid, eternally polite, liked to come find Zhenya to say hello when he got home. Zhenya paired socks and waited.
“Geno?” he heard Sid call from the top of the stairs, and he said, “I’m here.”
Sid appeared in the doorway, floating just above the ground. He had trouble with stairs, and sometimes forgot to walk normally again afterward. Zhenya watched him take in the clean clothes piled on top of the rumpled duvet, the unmade bed still showing the shape of Zhenya’s body. Sid never came into his bedroom, like it was territory too intimate to disturb.
“You have good time with Olli?” Zhenya asked.
“Yeah,” Sid said. “We went to some new place he wanted to check out. He said the coffee was good.” He watched Zhenya shake the wrinkles out of a T-shirt. “You, uh. Want any help?”
Here was his moment, a random Monday afternoon in November, with the last light gleaming through the windows. “Come here,” Zhenya said, and held out the shirt, but he didn’t release it when Sid approached and reached for it. Instead he draped it over Sid’s hand.
Sid didn’t say anything or move. Zhenya’s heart pounded as he closed his hand around Sid’s, convinced it wouldn’t work until he felt the whole broad shape of Sid’s hand in his grasp. He traced the length of Sid’s fingers and stroked his thumb across the palm, muffled by cotton, but still a touch, still his hand touching Sid’s. Sid’s eyelids fluttered shut. Zhenya bent to press his mouth to the center of Sid’s palm, right where his thumb had been, his face burning with the inescapable terror of asking for what he wanted without knowing if Sid would reciprocate.
“Geno,” Sid whispered, and when Zhenya straightened up again, Sid’s eyes were wide and his mouth was open, for one sweet moment before he got his expression under control.
Zhenya released him. Sid extracted his hand from the shirt and folded it and placed it on the bed. Cold fear gripped Zhenya’s heart. Maybe he had completely misread the situation, and Sid would move in with Tanger and smile awkwardly at Zhenya from across the locker room, one of those tight smiles that engaged his mouth but not his eyes.
“Sorry,” Zhenya said.
“No, it’s, uh. It’s fine,” Sid said. “It’s,” and he stepped closer and lifted a hand to touch Zhenya’s cheek. Zhenya felt nothing, not even a chill, not even a faint rush of air. “I wish I could touch you.”
Zhenya would have kissed him then, if he could have. He would have taken Sid in his arms and kissed him and toppled him down onto the bed and done whatever Sid would let him. But after all his preparations, he wasn’t prepared for this. He didn’t want to kiss Sid through a T-shirt, and the good fabric for it was downstairs. He hadn’t planned thoroughly enough.
“You can touch,” he said, only a little embarrassed by the raw eagerness in his voice. “Just need help.”
Sid quirked his eyebrows. “You’re gonna show me, huh? You know all about it?”
Zhenya’s body went hot. Somehow he hadn’t ever thought of Sid doing this before, not dead or alive. But that was ridiculous: he had been a grown man when he died, and he had been dead now for a decade. Surely, in all that time, he had done some experimenting.
Zhenya licked his lips. “You know?”
“Well. Not with a man,” Sid said. “But I’m assuming the basic principles are still applicable.”
The basic principles. Right. Zhenya tried to think of something clever to say and came up blank, and after a moment Sid laughed at him and said, “Maybe I’ll go start on dinner.”
Fine: Zhenya wasn’t smooth. His masterful plan of seduction had failed. But Sid smiled at him all through dinner and didn’t seem to mind—smiled at him like Zhenya had done something wonderful. And when the leftovers were put away and the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher, Zhenya went into the dining room and hauled out the whole gauzy swathe of fabric, meters of it, and took it back into the kitchen, the tail end dragging behind him. He didn’t need to be smooth. Sid would take him as he was or not at all.
Sid, hunched over the table with his Sudoku puzzle, sat up as Zhenya came in. The smile dropped from his face as he saw what Zhenya held in his arms, then returned full-force, bright as a full moon. “What’s all that?”
“You know,” Zhenya said, because he could tell that Sid was teasing him. He dumped the whole armful of fabric in Sid’s lap and grinned in helpless response to Sid’s laughter.
Sid fought his way out of the gauzy mound, still laughing. The fabric pooled in his lap and overflowed onto the floor. “When did you get this?”
“Today,” Zhenya said. “When you with Olli.” Sid’s smile made him ache. They hadn’t even kissed yet. How much worse was this going to get?
“Well, come on, then,” Sid said. He found an edge of the fabric and drew it up over his face and head, like a wedding veil.
Zhenya’s heart lodged in his throat. He dropped to his knees at Sid’s feet, right in the puddle of fabric. The floor was hard, but he didn’t care. He set his hands on Sid’s knees, and there they were, the bony caps of them. Zhenya traced the edges with his thumbs.
Sid’s hands, wrapped in gauze, cupped Zhenya’s jaw. Even through the fabric draped over his face, Zhenya could see the warm crease of his eyes.
“Sid,” he said, and kept his eyes open as Sid leaned down and kissed him.
It was strange at first, kissing with the fabric between them, the way it bunched and slid. But then it dampened from Zhenya’s mouth and clung to his lips, and he stopped thinking about it. Sid’s mouth was the same temperature as the air, and dry, but he sucked on Zhenya’s bottom lip and stroked his face and Zhenya didn’t want anything else. This was perfect.
“Oh, Geno,” Sid whispered, and kissed him again and again, until Zhenya felt ready to melt into the floor.
He spent the whole month of November learning how to have sex with Sid. They didn’t rush it. They spent more than a week doing nothing more than making out: Sid draped in fabric with Zhenya on top of him, kissing him and touching him everywhere, learning the shape of his body and where he liked to be touched. And letting Sid touch him, pushing him over onto his back and touching him through the thin fabric, the delicate scrape of material over Zhenya’s nipples making him shiver. They both got hard and didn’t do anything about it, which made the whole experience seem even more indulgent, that they weren’t doing it for sex but only because they wanted to be close to each other.
“Can I?” Sid finally asked, one night after a game when Zhenya should have been thinking about getting ready for bed but instead was curling his toes repeatedly in the bedding as Sid kissed the inside of his knee.
Zhenya lifted his head from the pillow to squint at Sid. “Can you what?”
Sid sat up and slid both hands up Zhenya’s thighs. He didn’t stop until his palms were bracketing the base of Zhenya’s dick. “Can I touch you?”
“Okay,” Zhenya said, because it was that or beg, and Sid delicately ran his fingers along Zhenya’s cock, feeling out the shape of him while Zhenya leaked a wet spot onto the fabric.
“Like that?” Sid asked, his fingers sliding over the head.
“Yes,” Zhenya said faintly, and then gave up on dignity and said, “Sid, please, please,” reaching down to clutch at Sid’s shoulders.
Sid watched his hand moving on Zhenya, his lips parted. “Show me?”
Zhenya did, and then watched while Sid showed him, and in the morning they tried it out for the first time, touching each other, their hands on each other’s dicks, kissing while Sid laughed giddily and then moaned, until Zhenya made such a mess out of that piece of fabric that they ended up throwing it out.
They got a little more creative after that. The fabric tended to slither around while they were having sex, so that Zhenya’s hand went from gripping the glorious curve of Sid’s ass to abruptly hitting the mattress as the fabric shifted. But if one of them wore sweatpants and a shirt, they could touch almost everywhere and not have to spend any time thinking about it or readjusting.
Zhenya hadn’t spent so much time dry humping since his adolescence. It was different now, because they were grown men making the best of a non-ideal situation, but something about watching Sid pull on a too-long pair of Zhenya’s sweatpants before he climbed in the bed activated the same sweaty-palmed feelings as Zhenya’s initial teenaged fumblings. He loved it; he got off hard, grinding down against Sid, clumsily groping Sid’s erection through the sweatpants. He did a lot of laundry.
They experimented. Zhenya loved it when Sid put on a pair of Zhenya’s briefs and spread his legs and Zhenya got to touch his dick through the fabric and press at his hole, and watch Sid play with his own nipples and groan and squirm around. Condoms were perfect for handjobs and blowjobs, and then Zhenya had a lightbulb moment at the drug store and bought a box of nitrile gloves so that Sid could finger him.
“Is this, uh. Is this what you think about when you’re at the doctor?” Sid asked, grinning as he pulled on a glove. Zhenya had guessed at the sizing, but it looked like a good fit.
“No, but maybe now I do,” Zhenya said. He held one knee against his chest and tried to look smug and relaxed when really he could feel his pulse throbbing in every centimeter of his body.
“I haven’t done this before,” Sid said. He squeezed some lube onto Zhenya’s hole and ran his fingers along the crease, initially just stroking lightly at Zhenya’s hole but then growing more confident as Zhenya sighed and pushed into the touch. “So, uh—”
“You do fine,” Zhenya said. He reached down to palm his dick as Sid breached him with one finger and sank inside. He had forgotten how much he liked this—not only how it felt, but also having someone’s rapt gaze on him as he got off. Sid pushed out his lower lip with his tongue when he was really turned on, and Zhenya loved to see that, to know that Sid was enjoying himself.
Sid wanted to try everything, and he didn’t seem to have any shame about his body or the things they did together. Zhenya had been having sex for more than a decade, mostly in long-term relationships with plenty of time to grow comfortable and explore; nothing he did with Sid was new or surprising. But somehow it felt new, maybe because so much of it was new to Sid. Sid’s first time trying anal was a humiliating exercise in Zhenya coming way too soon, totally overwhelmed by the open-mouthed pleasure on Sid’s face as he slowly lowered himself onto Zhenya’s dick and shifted around to figure out what he liked.
“Guess I’m good at it, huh,” Sid said smugly, while Zhenya was still shuddering through the aftershocks, and Zhenya looked up at his sweet pleased smile and couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
The sex was incredible, but Zhenya’s favorite part—he couldn’t deny it—was that Sid started going to bed with him every night. He didn’t stay the whole night; if Zhenya woke from a dream or to use the bathroom, the bed was empty; but Sid was there when he fell asleep, and there again when he woke up, to draw the sheet up far enough to kiss his cheek and say, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Zhenya said, with the sentimental thought, every single time, that Sid was the sun, somehow here in his bedroom.
Before, on road trips, Sid had spent the night in the hotel lobby. Now he stayed in Zhenya’s room, reading quietly with the light turned down low, and Zhenya loved to wake up in the morning and turn over and press his face against Sid’s hip, where he was covered by the blankets.
He didn’t know what the team thought about it. Probably nothing. Many of them knew about Zhenya, that he liked men, but Sid wasn’t a man; he was a ghost, and nobody would jump right to the assumption that Zhenya was screwing him. Even Seryozha only made a few mild comments about how many dinner invitations Zhenya had turned down. It was hard to motivate himself to leave the house when he could sit on the couch with his head in Sid’s lap and listen to him laugh at old movies that Zhenya didn’t understand.
“What you miss about home?” Zhenya asked, midway through one of those movie nights. Maybe he could buy an old-timey radio, or track down some old out-of-print book Sid remembered. He would do anything to keep Sid happy.
“Oh, gosh,” Sid said. He glanced down at Zhenya and smiled. “Lots of things. My apartment. One of my teammates had a dog, a little terrier. There was a bakery I passed on the way to the rink, and it always smelled like baking bread.” He laid his palm flat on Zhenya’s chest, right above his heart. “It was strange to be in Montreal last month. I went to my old neighborhood and looked for my apartment, but. The building wasn’t there anymore.”
Zhenya hadn’t known he’d done that. He placed his hand over Sid’s and felt nothing but a cold tingle. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Sid said. “It’s not forever, eh? We’ll win the Cup, and then I’ll go back.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, after a moment. They were having a good season so far. There was no reason they couldn’t win. Zhenya had known when he started this that Sid wasn’t going to stay.
“And it’s not all bad, you know,” Sid went on. “There are some good things about the future.”
“Like what,” Zhenya said, fishing without shame. He had given up on watching the movie and was only watching Sid’s face.
Sid glanced at him again and made the face he did when he was trying not to smile. “Well, you’re okay, I guess.”
That was exactly what Zhenya wanted to hear, but he wanted Sid to mean it, not say it teasingly like that, like it was a joke. He looked away from Sid’s face and turned back toward the TV. The main character had very thin, very arched eyebrows, and Zhenya was grateful that particular beauty trend hadn’t made the transition to the 21st century.
They watched in silence. After a few minutes, Sid said, very quietly, “It’s going to be hard to leave you.”
Zhenya squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to never think about what it would be like after Sid was gone.
December arrived. Sid had become a fan favorite—Sid the Spook, affectionately, or Creepy Crosby, less affectionately—and Jen wanted the Pens TV crew to film a segment on Sid and Zhenya at home. “Everyone thinks it’s sweet that he lives with you,” she told Zhenya when she pitched the idea. “The Russian Bear has a soft side. The fans love it.”
“Okay fine,” he said, because if he agreed to this, he would have leverage to get out of at least two interviews, maybe three. Jen, he would say, his eyes wide, I let them into my home, and there was no way she would be able to argue with that. Absolutely worth it.
They scheduled the filming for a day off in the middle of the month. Zhenya had his housekeeper come by the day before to make sure everything was presentable, and he carefully put away all of the condoms and lube and gloves and whatnot in a drawer, and then he was ready. It wasn’t a big deal. They would edit everything to make him look good.
It turned out to be even less of a big deal than he expected, because Sid did almost all of the talking. Sid was already friends with the Pens TV guys, because he was friends with everyone, and he seemed happy to have an opportunity to hang out and chat with them. He led a guided tour of the house, and Zhenya got to trail along in his socks and eat sweet potato chips out of the bag and interject periodic one-liners that he knew were very cute and funny from the way Sid laughed at all of them.
“Here’s Geno’s freezer stash of borscht,” Sid said, opening the freezer to let the camera get a good look at the neatly stacked containers. “He thinks it’s lucky to eat after a game.”
“It’s vegetable, it’s healthy,” Zhenya said, rooting around in the bag for a decently sized chip.
Sid laughed. “How about all the sour cream you put on top, is that a vegetable, too?”
“Guys, don’t show that, okay?” Zhenya said urgently. The trainers would be after him in a heartbeat.
“Not up to us, Geno,” Jon said, hidden behind his camera equipment.
A likely story. But Zhenya was too busy watching Sid smile at him to argue.
Sid had been living with him for three months, and it was only natural that he had made himself at home in that time. But following him around as he gave the tour made Zhenya painfully aware of every sign of Sid’s presence. His Sudoku book and pencil on the kitchen table, where they always ate. His nighttime clutter on the desk in Zhenya’s study, which was now Sid’s lair for Wikipedia and Russian.
Zhenya would have to sell this house once Sid was gone. Every room would bear reminders. Sid wasn’t the first person to share Zhenya’s home, but he was maybe the best, and Zhenya already dreaded coming through the door and being greeted by the hollow quiet of Sid’s absence.
They weren’t dating. It was more than that, a total enfolding of their lives, like two paired socks turned over at the top to hold them together. Zhenya knew it was stupid and too fast, and he also knew he wasn’t going to take any steps to slow things down. His biggest regrets in life were from failing to take a risk, not from doing something that later blew up in his face. He wouldn’t stop unless Sid wanted to.
“What’s the worst thing about living with Geno?” Jon asked, turning slowly to film Zhenya’s den, the couch with the blanket folded on top, Sid’s e-reader on the end table.
“There aren’t really any bad parts,” Sid said. “I don’t know. Sometimes he’s in a bad mood after we lose a game. But I am, too, so.”
“You worse,” Zhenya said, which wasn’t true at all. “Big baby. Throw things, say bad words.”
“That’s me,” Sid said, giving Zhenya a look so fond that Zhenya wanted to hide him from the camera, but also ask Jon for the footage so he could look at it forever. “Now everyone knows the truth.”
Zhenya could feel his dopey smile but wasn’t able to do anything about it. They would have to edit this part out. “Big baby,” he said again.
Jen emailed him the raw footage a couple of days later. Looks great, Geno, she wrote. Thank you for giving us permission to film. I think this segment will be a big hit with the fans.
If she had noticed anything unusual, she didn’t mention it. But when Zhenya watched the video, all he could see was the way he and Sid looked at each other every time they spoke, a wordless checking in. Jon would ask a question and Sid would immediately look at Zhenya as he answered, and it made Zhenya feel wonderful and awful at the same time, because how was he going to live without this?
He didn’t show Sid the footage.
They had a few days off for Christmas. Zhenya and Sid stayed in Pittsburgh and spent the break skating, watching football, baking cookies, and having sex in the middle of the day with the curtains open so Zhenya could watch Sid’s face in the light. Zhenya felt shamefully transparent in his motivations, but Sid didn’t tease him about it, just watched Zhenya right back, his eyes holding Zhenya’s gaze until they fluttered shut at last as he came.
He met with Emmanuelle the day after Christmas, for the monthly update to his protection spells. Emmanuelle was Jewish and cared about Christmas as little as Zhenya did, but he brought her some cookies anyway, because everyone liked cookies. “It’s New Year tree,” he said, as she skeptically examined the conifer-shaped sugar cookies. “It’s Russian thing.”
“Oh, in that case,” she said, and ate one right then and there.
“Sid made,” Zhenya said. Sid had baked two enormous batches and then leaned wistfully against the island as Zhenya ate the first cookie, still warm off the cooling rack, and made Zhenya describe the exact flavor. Zhenya had taken him to mass at a local Catholic church on Christmas Eve, and seen something in Sid’s expression, as he gazed raptly toward the altar, that Zhenya didn’t know how to name. Last Christmas he had spent alone in Miami, getting drunk with only the TV for company, because Tyoma was in Moscow. This Christmas was better.
Emmanuelle was watching him closely. “Sid is living with you, is that right?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. This wasn’t news. Everyone in Pittsburgh knew he had a ghost for a housemate. “He’s like to cook.”
Emmanuelle took a long sip from her coffee mug. “He told me your theory, about how he’ll go back to his own time if you win the Cup. I’m not sure that’s true, and I worry that you’re giving him false hope.”
“But,” Zhenya said, baffled. “You say it’s—that if wish is come true, then he’s go home.”
“I said maybe,” Emmanuelle said, “and I’m not sure why you decided the wish must be for another Stanley Cup.”
Zhenya stared at her. Of course the wish was for another Cup. What else would any hockey player wish for, touching the Cup?
“Yes, I see how you’re looking at me,” Emmanuelle said. “But I’m familiar with the literature on this subject. The rate of wishes for another Cup is under 40%.”
“Okay, but still some people do,” Zhenya said, recovering from this setback. “So we win, and then—”
“I’m not convinced it’s Cup magic,” Emmanuelle said. “I thought so initially, but I’ve read more and spoken with some colleagues, and it seems unlikely that so many of your teammates could be involved in a Cup wish. Maybe one person’s wish, enhanced somehow, but—” She waved a hand in the air. “That’s not likely.”
Zhenya put a cookie in his mouth and chewed. It crumbled into a flavorless paste. If he was wrong, then Sid wouldn’t leave. Zhenya wanted what was best for Sid, and that meant sending him home, but secretly, shamefully, he wanted Sid to stay with him forever.
“He needs to move on,” Emmanuelle said. “It’s no good for him to be here, killing time.”
“Why?” Zhenya demanded. Everyone talked so much about how Sid needed to move on, but Zhenya couldn’t see any reason for it. “He play hockey, he’s happy. Leave him alone.”
“Is he happy?” Emmanuelle said. “Away from his team and everyone he knows? Think of how you would feel, sent to some distant time with no way to get home. A ghost is a malfunction. Something went wrong at the time of death. I can’t send him back, and you shouldn’t encourage him to stay. He needs to move on.”
“I don’t encourage,” Zhenya said, but guilt pricked at him. What if Emmanuelle was right? Zhenya didn’t have any magical training, and no particular wisdom beyond what his intuition told him. What if he had it all wrong?
But Sid was happy—or happy enough. He greeted Zhenya at the door when he got home, smiling, holding a piece of fabric in his hands so that Zhenya could kiss him. “Did she like the cookies?” he asked.
Zhenya kissed him thoroughly. He wished he could taste Sid’s mouth, or his come, or smell his body when he was a little sweaty. But Sid didn’t taste or smell like anything. He wasn’t alive. Zhenya would never feel his warmth or the softness of his skin or kiss him without a barrier between them. Was he doing the right thing? He didn’t know.
“What’s wrong?” Sid asked, frowning up at him.
“Nothing,” Zhenya said. “Emmanuelle said cookies are very good.”
He stewed over it into the new year. He had reached a dead end: he didn’t know how to solve this problem. Winning the Cup was within his wheelhouse, but if that wasn’t the solution, he didn’t know where to turn. He was useless.
The team was playing well, at least. They went on a road trip and won all three games, and came home in the new year and won again, a total blowout against the Jets. Sid, promoted to the third line, got two points, and in the car after the game, Zhenya said, “We get home, you go upstairs, put on clothes.”
“You’ve got big plans, eh?” Sid asked. He slumped down in his seat and spread his thighs. Zhenya stepped on the gas.
He wanted a quick hard fuck to burn off the adrenaline from the game and get out of his own head for a while. And it started like that, with Sid tugging down the waistband of his sweatpants and rolling a condom onto his dick, and Zhenya straddling his hips and sinking down on him without more than a quick press of his own fingers to lube himself up. He wanted the stretch, and the way Sid groaned at how tight he was.
“Geno, fuck,” Sid said, which delighted Zhenya every time, because Sid was mostly too polite to curse. He groped for Zhenya’s hips, but Zhenya was nude, and there was nothing for Sid to touch. “Geno—”
“Don’t talk, give me your dick,” Zhenya said. He shifted around, settling in, sighing a little at the angle and how deep he could take Sid in this position.
“I am,” Sid protested, and then groaned again as Zhenya started to move.
He planted his hands on Sid’s shoulders with every intention of riding him into the bed. But instead he found himself moving slowly, a deep grind instead of a rough fuck, and watching Sid’s face. He wished Sid had put gloves on, and as soon as he had the thought he pulled off and crawled over to the other side of the bed, where the box sat on the nightstand.
“Yeah, come on,” Sid said, and put on the gloves as soon as Zhenya tossed them at him. And Zhenya took out a square of fabric, too, and brought that back with him.
Lowering himself onto Sid’s cock again made him shiver, the way his body opened for it so easily. And now he could kiss Sid’s mouth and feel Sid’s hands on his thighs and his back, and all of his urgency drained away. He wanted this to go on forever, bent over Sid as they moved together, their chests pressed together, Sid moaning softly each time Zhenya pushed back onto his cock.
“Geno,” Sid whispered, one hand in Zhenya’s hair and the other on his ass, helping him move. He started saying things in Russian that Zhenya couldn’t bear to hear, sweet endearments that were more real and more painful than they would have been in English. Zhenya kissed him until he was quiet, and then tucked his face in the crook of Sid’s neck and moved until they were both moaning.
One good thing about sex with a ghost was that there was half as much cleanup. Sid stripped off the condom and tucked himself back in his sweatpants, and then Zhenya could cuddle up against him with no further messing around. Sid left the gloves on so he could stroke Zhenya’s hair.
It was late. Zhenya started to drift off, although he really needed to get up and brush his teeth. But the bed was so comfortable, and he was so warm and relaxed after his orgasm. Then Sid said, “Are you feeling okay? You’ve been kind of quiet lately.”
Zhenya groaned and flopped more thoroughly onto Sid’s belly. “Don’t talk about now, it’s late.”
“So there is something wrong,” Sid said. “Are you mad at me?”
Zhenya groaned again. “No, not mad. I’m talk to Emmanuelle, and she’s, ah.” He took a breath and turned his face into Sid’s chest. He didn’t want to say it. “She say, maybe I’m wrong, maybe if we win Cup it won’t send you back.”
“I know,” Sid said. “She told me that a while ago.”
Zhenya levered himself up on one elbow to stare at Sid. His eyes looked dark in the lamplight, always changeable, never one color for long. “When?”
“A few weeks ago,” Sid said. “It doesn’t matter, it’s. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“You not upset?” Zhenya said tentatively.
“Of course I’m upset, but not with you,” Sid said. “And it isn’t—it’s not like I’ve given up. But I’m also, uh. I guess I feel more detached from things now. Since I’m dead. I don’t get as worked up, you know?”
Zhenya didn’t know and couldn’t imagine. He was worked up about everything all the time. He lowered himself back onto Sid’s chest. He wished he could feel Sid breathe beneath him. “Emmanuelle say, it’s bad you stay here. She say you need to move on.”
What he really wanted to say, that he wondered if she was right, he couldn’t find the words for. But Sid was silent for so long that Zhenya thought he had probably read between the lines. Finally he said, “My family wanted me to move on. My parents and sister. We argued about it a lot.” He sighed. “I hope they think that’s what happened to me. That I decided to move on. So they aren’t worried.”
Zhenya pushed up again so he could look at Sid’s face. “Why they want?”
“All the usual reasons,” Sid said. “It’s unnatural. It’s no good for me. They worried about me.” He sighed again. “They’re pretty religious. Especially my parents. So I think they felt like I was, you know. Rejecting my eternal reward in heaven.”
“You religious,” Zhenya said, because had he or had he not sat through an entire Catholic mass on Christmas Eve?
“I’m not ready,” Sid said. “I miss being alive. There are so many—I wish I could smell you. I spend a lot of time thinking about that. I wish I could eat food, I wish I could feel the cold air at the rink. But it’s still good, you know? It’s good to be here. I’m sorry I died, but I don’t want to move on. So I hope you won’t ask me to.”
His hand cupped Zhenya’s cheek. Zhenya turned his head and kissed Sid’s fingers, cased in nitrile. “I don’t ask.”
Sid stroked Zhenya’s cheek. He was solid and real, and he shone with a pale glow. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It scares me. But it’s not your fault, okay? It’s not your responsibility to send me back.”
“I want you to be happy,” Zhenya said, because he did; he wanted that so much, even more than he wanted his own happiness. He wanted Sid to go home.
“I am,” Sid said. “Geno…” He trailed off. Zhenya could see it in his eyes, the words he wanted to say, the natural conclusion of the things he had said to Zhenya during sex. Zhenya held his breath, wanting to hear it but also afraid, because Sid had called him my heart and he was going to leave.
But Sid didn’t say it. He lapsed into silence. Zhenya lay down again, his head pillowed on Sid’s chest. He didn’t get up to brush his teeth, and Sid stroked his hair until Zhenya fell asleep.
The final All Star rosters were announced a couple of weeks before the game. Zhenya called Flower at once from his hotel room in Anaheim, because they had both been chosen, to give him a hard time about it, and to make plans to have dinner when the Penguins were in Vegas the next week. He wanted to congratulate Vero on the baby in person.
“Oui, allo,” Flower said when he answered the phone, deliberately being a dick, because of course he had Zhenya’s number saved.
“Zdravstvuyte,” Zhenya said, to be a dick in return. He sat on the bed and stretched out. “Okay Flower, you see All Star roster? We’re in San Jose—”
“Yes, I saw, I know,” Flower said. “Do you think I can get injured between now and then?”
“We beat you in Vegas, then you need one month at least for heal your pride,” Zhenya said. “You welcome.”
Flower laughed. “I’ll look forward to it. No, it will be fun, we’ll have a good time. Dinner the first night?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, glad that matter was settled. “And we in Vegas soon—”
“You’ll come for dinner, of course,” Flower said. “Vero and the girls are expecting you and Kris at the very least.”
“Happy to see you, spend time,” Zhenya said. He and Flower weren’t close the way Flower and Tanger were, but they had been friends for a long time, growing up together on the team and in Pittsburgh. Zhenya missed him and probably would forever.
They spent a while catching up and gossiping about the state of the league. Sid had gone shopping with Tanger before dinner, and Zhenya had at least an hour before Sid returned and wanted to tell Zhenya about every single thing he had seen on their outing. Flower told a few adorable stories about his daughters. Zhenya gave him the full update on everyone’s babies and complained a little about the rookies, who seemed younger every year. Then Flower said, “Kris told me that ghost is living with you.”
Zhenya grunted. “Tanger’s nosy. Why he care? He want Sid to live with him so it’s like, free babysit.”
“Oh, Sid,” Flower said. “Of course, my mistake.” Zhenya heard a door close. Flower said, “I thought you were trying to figure out how to send him back.”
“It’s complicate,” Zhenya said. God, and getting more complicated all the time. “He’s—Flower, maybe I’m, like. Maybe I love him.”
“You—Geno!” Flower laughed once, sharply, and then lowered his voice, like he thought someone might overhear. Zhenya didn’t know where he was. At home, probably, at this time of day. “Are you shitting with me? You’re screwing a ghost?”
“Yes, okay, it’s like—few month now,” Zhenya said. “I don’t know, Flower. He’s—I have feelings, you know?” His eyes caught on his luggage and Sid’s sitting together against the wall: Zhenya’s duffel and Sid’s smaller bag, with his e-reader and his collection of Sudoku books. He and Sid were together all the time. If anyone wanted to know where Sid was, they asked Zhenya, and Zhenya always knew. He was an idiot.
Flower swore under his breath in French. “Well, bring him to dinner next week, then. So I can inspect him more closely.” He breathed in and out. “What happens when he leaves?”
“Maybe he can’t,” Zhenya said, and told Flower the whole story about Grisha and what Emmanuelle had said and how it maybe wasn’t Cup magic after all. “And he’s like, he’s not want to move on, so—”
“Wait,” Flower said. “You told me it was Cup magic.”
“No, Emmanuelle think maybe she’s wrong,” Zhenya said. “It’s like—whole team is wish, maybe. So can’t be from Cup.”
“The whole team,” Flower repeated slowly. “But she doesn’t know what it is?”
“No, she’s busy,” Zhenya said. “You know, she’s try to figure, but it’s hard, it’s take time.”
“And you’re sleeping with him,” Flower said. “You’re dating.”
“It’s serious,” Zhenya said begrudgingly. “It’s, like. It’s real. He’s best for me, you know?”
“Shit,” Flower muttered. “Geno, I think—maybe I know what brought Sid here.”
He didn’t tell Sid about Flower’s hypothesis until they were home from that road trip, more than a week later. He couldn’t do anything about it until they were back in Pittsburgh. And he wanted to savor his final days with Sid—to have Sid fully with him, enjoying each new city they visited and the stupid shooter game the guys had gotten him hooked on, napping with Zhenya before every game, as alive as anyone. But not alive at all.
They landed in Pittsburgh in the middle of the night, one of those deep low hours in the hollow between midnight and dawn. Sid didn’t sleep, but he was quieter at night, slower, and he leaned against the passenger side door as Zhenya drove them home and looked out the window and didn’t speak. It wasn’t a sad or sullen silence. Only the shared quiet of two people who knew each other so well they didn’t need to talk. A close and safe silence.
Zhenya would tell him in the morning, he decided.
He slept late, and for once the bed was empty when he woke. But he could hear Sid in the kitchen as he went downstairs, clattering things around with the radio on, and Sid smiled at him when Zhenya shuffled into the room. “Hungry?”
Sid had emptied the entire contents of Zhenya’s fridge onto the counter and was packing everything into coolers. They were supposed to leave for Florida that afternoon, for the bye week before the All Star Game, and Zhenya had booked a private jet because commercial airlines were iffy about letting ghosts fly. Sid had apparently decided to take all the food in the house with them.
“We grocery shop in Miami,” Zhenya said, and then rubbed his hands over his face and said, “Maybe you don’t like to go, though.”
Sid frowned at him. “What? Why wouldn’t I?”
“I need tell you something,” Zhenya said.
They sat together at the table. Zhenya ate the breakfast sandwich Sid had made for him and put in the oven to keep warm, and tried not to look at Sid’s face too closely. “Flower tell me he did magic when he leave here. He’s make amulet,” which fortunately was the same word in Russian as it was in English. “It’s like, ah—”
But Sid was nodding. “Yeah, I’m familiar. It’s a French Canadian thing.”
“He make for luck for team,” Zhenya said. “So we’re happy. And he hide in his stall at rink and arena—”
“And they’ve been there this whole time?” Sid said. Zhenya could see him putting it together. He was a sharp guy. “So he thinks—oh. You talked to him before the game yesterday. You told him it isn’t Cup magic.”
Zhenya was happy to let that small misconception about the timing of his conversation with Flower pass uncorrected. “Yes. So then he say, maybe it’s because of amulet. That’s why it’s whole team, because our wishes, like, go inside amulet. And he tell me where they are. So if we break—”
“Then maybe I’ll go home,” Sid said. He turned to look out the window, and faded until he was only a fuzzy outline.
This was the part Zhenya had been trying not to think about. He set down his sandwich on his plate. “We do today,” he said. The words were so hard to speak. “Then you go home.”
“But we’re going to Miami,” Sid said.
“I go alone,” Zhenya said, and had to stop for a moment and swallow a few times before he could continue. “And you go back.”
He watched Sid’s hazy shape rise to his feet and return to the counter, and start packing the coolers once more. “Waiting a week won’t hurt anything, will it? I’d like to, uh.” A container of yogurt floated through the air. “I’d like some time to say goodbye.”
Don’t ever leave me, Zhenya thought. Out loud, he said, “It’s your choice. We do what you like.”
“The plane leaves in a few hours,” Sid said, still invisible. “You should go pack.”
Who was Zhenya to argue with him? They went to Miami. On the flight down, Sid said, “Can we just—have a nice week? And not talk about it? If that’s okay with you.”
Zhenya was still wearing his gloves. He took Sid’s hand. “Yes, it’s okay.” It was exactly what he wanted.
They spent five days together in Miami and didn’t talk about the future, the past, or anything much at all. Zhenya lay on a lounge chair by the pool and watched Sid try to decide if he was able to swim. They went fishing twice. Zhenya went to lunch with friends a few times. Mostly they stayed in the condo and were together: reading on the couch, or watching hockey, or lying tangled in bed after sex, with the windows open and the curtains blowing in the breeze.
“Do you think,” Sid began once, and then stopped.
Zhenya glanced up from the sandwich he was making. “Yes?”
“Nothing.” Sid shook his head. “Never mind.”
The day before they left, Zhenya came home from a morning at the banya with some friends and found Sid waiting for him in bed, curled up in the pillows with his e-reader. He greeted Zhenya with one of the smiles that had been Zhenya’s first indication of potential danger, and that still made his stomach clench with longing. “Did you have fun?” Sid asked, and turned to set his e-reader on the nightstand.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He undressed and changed into the shorts and T-shirt they had been using for sex, and climbed into bed. Sid rolled toward him. Zhenya had brought a length of fabric to drape over Sid’s head and shoulders. They kissed, light and soft at first, then more urgently.
“Geno,” Sid breathed, and Zhenya had to kiss him again, the perfect shape of his mouth.
They lay on their sides with Sid’s legs around Zhenya’s waist, and Zhenya fucked him as slow and deep as he could, sweating inside his clothes with the sweet effort. Sunlight filled the room. Zhenya held Sid close and kissed his ear and whispered to him, in Russian, “My heart.”
He went to San Jose alone, for the All Star Game, and took the red-eye home after the game. He had practice in the morning.
The sky was faintly pink in the east as his plane landed. He could see the line of the horizon growing lighter from the air, the edge of the world rimmed in red light. Sid was waiting for him at home, with a smile and a kiss, like it was any ordinary day, and not the start of their last day together.
“Sleep a while longer,” Sid said. “I’ll wake you when it’s time for practice.”
Zhenya did sleep, to his surprise. He woke before Sid came to rouse him and lay there for a while, feeling like a huge slab of stone sat on his chest, crushing him down into the bed. He wouldn’t die, but right now he felt like he might.
Practice was boisterous after the break. Everyone was full of stories about what they had done with their week off. Zhenya didn’t want to tell the requisite funny stories about the All Star Game, but he wanted to explain his bad mood even less, so he faked it. “Yes great to see Flower,” he said, “yes it’s dumb we lose,” and everyone was happy. He didn’t look at Sid across the locker room, grinning as he talked to Tanger. He didn’t think about how it was over.
He talked to the press for a while after practice, a convenient fifteen-minute delay that meant everyone else was gone after he finished his routine of weights and stretching and taking a long shower to ease the nagging ache in his upper back. Only Sid lingered, perched at his locker in the change room when Zhenya came out from the showers.
Zhenya stopped in the doorway to look at him for a moment, just to see his face.
“Should we?” Sid asked, and Zhenya nodded.
The amulet was right where Flower had said it would be, taped to the back corner of the cubby beneath the bench at his old stall. Zhenya carefully picked away the tape and took the amulet in his hand to show it to Sid. It was a woman’s necklace, a pendant of some pale hazy stone, with the chain wrapped in multicolored thread and woven through with narrow dried leaves. Zhenya took a tentative sniff. It was lavender.
“Here,” he said. He held it out, and Sid took it.
“A thread for each of you,” Sid said quietly, inspecting the chain. “For your heart’s desire.”
“That’s why you here,” Zhenya said. “Not for hockey.” That was why Grisha had mentioned Tyoma: Flower’s magic had brought Zhenya someone to love.
“Geno, don’t,” Sid said, without looking up, and Zhenya had to get up and do a lap of the room so he wouldn’t start crying.
Outside, the sky looked low and heavy, thick soft gray clouds that spoke of coming snow. Sid offered the amulet to Zhenya, and he took it and carefully zipped it into the inside pocket of his coat. Sid said, “Let’s go home so you can eat. And then—”
“Yes, we go downtown,” Zhenya said. There was a second amulet at the arena. They would need to destroy both for Sid to return.
“It doesn’t have to be today,” Sid said. “We’ll be there tomorrow for the game. Another day or two—”
“Sid, I can’t,” Zhenya said. Any further delay would kill him. He needed this to be over.
“Okay,” Sid said. He squeezed Zhenya’s elbow through his coat. “We’ll go today.”
A light snow had started by the time they left the house again after lunch. They drove to the arena in silence. Zhenya kept thinking of things he wanted to say and stifling them. There was no point. Sid already knew.
The second amulet was harder to find. Zhenya fumbled around in the cubby for a while and started panicking when he couldn’t find it. But then his fingers caught an unexpected soft edge, and he realized Flower had inserted a piece of cardboard to serve as a false back. The amulet was tucked behind it, a purple stone this time.
He gave it to Sid along with the other one. Sid wrapped the chains around his hand and closed the stones in his fist. He had faded so much that Zhenya could barely see him. “Let’s go out to the ice.”
“Just do now,” Zhenya said, because they could drag this out forever if they wanted to. “Dana has hammer in skate room, I go get—”
“Please,” Sid said. He flickered back into shape for a brief moment. The raw grief on his face silenced Zhenya’s objections. This wasn’t easy for either of them.
He followed Sid down the hall and down the runway toward the ice. At the boards, Sid hesitated for a few moments, and then turned aside to sit on the bench. Zhenya sat beside him and watched Sid study the amulets in his hand.
“Maybe it won’t work,” Sid said.
Zhenya shrugged. “You think?”
“No,” Sid said. “I think it’ll work.”
“It’s good you go back,” Zhenya said. “Everyone happy to see you. Friends, family. Teammates.”
“They won’t even know I was gone,” Sid said. “I’ll go back to the same moment I left.” He made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “I should just—” He stopped. Zhenya waited. Sid’s voice cracked as he said, “Ask me to stay.”
Zhenya’s throat closed. He bent forward, unable to stop his tears this time. They flowed from him, hot and painful. He would never be the same, after this. He would carry Sid with him forever. But he knew Sid couldn’t stay.
He felt a gentle pressure as Sid leaned into his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Sid said quietly. “It isn’t fair of me to ask that of you.”
Zhenya took a few shuddering breaths. “No,” he said. “You need to go home.”
They sat for a few minutes, their shoulders pressed together. Zhenya had spent so many years sitting on this bench, waiting for his turn to go on the ice. And four months sitting on this bench with Sid. And there would be years ahead of him without Sid, but still with hockey, and friends, and all of the good things in his good life. Maybe he would never win another Cup, but two was a good legacy, or not bad, at least. He couldn’t complain.
“I don’t want you to be here when I do it,” Sid said at last. “You should go home.”
Zhenya didn’t really want to see it. Would Sid fade out, or disappear at once? Zhenya didn’t want to know. He wanted to be able to imagine Sid still here in some way, haunting the bench. He would feel Sid’s presence during every game. An invisible touch at his shoulder, encouraging him to play his best.
“I stay if you like,” he said.
Sid shook his head. “No. Go home. We’ve said our goodbyes already, right?” He smiled at Zhenya, only a little lopsided. “Win another Cup for me.”
“Sid, I love you,” Zhenya said, unable to stop himself. He did, so much, a big, stupid, earth-shaking kind of love. Like it was his very first.
Sid made a choked noise and hunched over his amulets. “Geno—”
“Okay, I go now,” Zhenya said. He forced himself to stand, and forced his feet to move him along toward the gate and through it, and down the runway. He forced himself not to turn back.
Snow fell in thick flakes as he drove home alone.
His house was empty when he woke up, for the first time in months. He went downstairs to the empty kitchen and ate some instant oatmeal, all he could handle preparing. Sid usually made him eggs in the morning, or kasha, lovingly adorned with berries and chopped pecans. Oatmeal would do.
He walked around the house with a cardboard box in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, intending to put away Sid’s things. But it was good to see Sid’s Russian notebook beside the computer, like he might come back and pick up right where he had left off. Zhenya flipped through the pages, smiling at Sid’s handwriting. On the last page, Sid had written, Hi, Zhenya, and doodled a smiley face and a heart.
Zhenya ran his fingertips over the words, this message Sid had left for him. “Hi, Sid,” he whispered.
He put the box away still empty. He didn’t want to erase Sid’s presence, or sell his house. He would eat dinner at his kitchen table and remember every meal with Sid, and sleep in his bed and remember waking up with Sid beside him. He would move on, in time, but he didn’t want to forget.
Several centimeters of snow had fallen overnight, but the roads were clear as he drove to the arena for morning skate. They were playing the Devils that night, and Zhenya was determined to win. His entire chest cavity felt hollow, like someone had opened him up overnight and scooped out all of his organs, a midnight surgery while he slept. A good win would give him something to tuck inside where it echoed.
He wasn’t the first to arrive at the arena, but he wasn’t the last, either. He stopped in the lounge to eat some fruit and scavenge half of Olli’s very tempting breakfast sandwich, ignoring Olli’s protests, and stopped by the trainers’ room to collect his money from Stew, who had foolishly bet against him on the Pro Bowl. When Seryozha and Rex started wandering around to rope people in for skating, Zhenya meandered at last toward the locker room. He was thinking about taking the option today, but it was good to put in some face time and make sure the rookies were still afraid of him.
“There’s the big man,” Horny called as Zhenya came into the room, and Zhenya flipped him off, the only appropriate response.
His gaze went toward Sid’s stall out of sheer force of habit. For a moment he thought he was hallucinating. He blinked a few times, waiting for his vision to correct itself.
The apparition lingered, smiling at him, strapping on its elbow pads.
“Why are you trying to give Sid the evil eye?” Guentzy asked him.
Zhenya ignored that pitiful sally. He crossed the room, toward Sid. At his stall, Sid had given up on getting dressed and was only sitting there, watching Zhenya approach, smiling until his eyes almost disappeared.
“Sid,” Zhenya croaked. He sat down beside him at Rusty’s empty stall, more because his knees couldn’t hold him than from any deliberate decision-making process. He hadn’t thought he would ever see Sid’s crooked smile again. “It’s not work?”
Sid reached up and took a small pouch from the shelf above his stall. He unzipped it and showed Zhenya the contents: the two amulets, nestled carefully in part of a Gatorade towel.
Zhenya’s heart throbbed out of time, one missed beat and then two in quick succession.
“I didn’t try,” Sid said. “I don’t want to leave.”
Zhenya swallowed, his throat tight. He couldn’t cry in the locker room. He would have to assess so many fines.
“I love you,” Sid said in Russian. “Geno, I want to stay.”
Zhenya sucked in a shaky breath. His eyes felt hot. His hollow chest was overflowing now, stuffed so full he could hardly breathe.
“I won’t move on until you do,” Sid said. His expression matched his words, so fond and full of love that Zhenya felt the tears start to spill over. “Whenever that happens. Not for a long time, I hope.”
Zhenya gave up. He bent forward and covered his face with his hands and wept.
“The hell’s wrong with Geno?” he heard Guentzy say.
“Leave him alone or he’ll fine you,” Cully said. Zhenya was going to fine Guentzy anyway for having the audacity to look at him.
Finally he got himself back under control. He wiped his eyes on his sleeves and sat up. Everyone was carefully avoiding looking in his direction, except for Sid, who was still sitting there smiling at him, waiting for him to finish.
Zhenya cleared his throat. “Let’s win tonight.”
“Sure,” Sid said. He zipped the case closed and returned it to its spot on the shelf. They would have to find somewhere very safe to keep the amulets. Maybe each one in a different place, for added security.
“And then we go home,” Zhenya said challengingly. “To my house.” He didn’t want Sid getting any ideas about moving in with Tanger.
“That’s the plan,” Sid said. He took down his shin guards and bent to strap them on. Like it was any ordinary day.
“Okay,” Zhenya said. His eyes were watering again. “Sid,” he said, and then said it again, because he wanted to hear it.
“I’m here,” Sid said, smiling, haloed in pale light. He pulled on his gloves so that Zhenya could reach over and take his hand.