There are probably mules who call each other as stubborn as an Ovich, so when Benji decided to fake his own death, there was nobody in the world who could possibly stop him. Adri, Katia, and Gaby all told him that it was a terrible idea - Adri perhaps a little bit more forcefully than the other two sisters - but in the end, even they can’t talk Benji out of it, no matter how hard they try. Benji doesn’t know where he’s going yet, but he knows that this is the only chance that he’ll ever have to get out of this town and find out who he is if he’s not a hockey player.
Benji is deep within the forest now, carrying a green jersey in one hand and a knife in the other. He walks further into the woods, suddenly realizing that this might be the last time that he will ever get the chance to wander through the forest. How many hours had he spent out here in his boyhood, only to leave it all now?
Benji walks off of the path, and once he’s far enough away, he tears into the jersey with the knife until it is nothing more than a pile of scraps. He leaves the scraps strewn across the forest floor, as if a wolf, or better yet, a bear, had eaten him, and this was all that was left. The “16” on Benji’s jersey faces up, like a red flag for anyone who happens to walk by. Benji, satisfied with his handiwork, walks back toward the path and heads into town. He looks sadly toward the ice rink, but he passes it by and goes straight to the train station. By the time anyone figures out what happened, Benji will be gone, on a train to somewhere far away. Anywhere that isn’t Beartown will do.
Ana trudges through the forest, already missing her best friend. She’s just come back from a martial arts training session, but that’s not what’s on her mind. Maya has already told her the news: she’s moving so that she can attend her new music school. Ana is happy for her - truly, she is - but she won’t be able to spend every night at the Anderssons’ house if they’re leaving town, and nothing will be quite the same without Ana and Maya spending every waking hour together. With Vidar dead and Maya leaving soon, Ana doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but she’ll have to find a way. She got a tattoo of a guitar and a rifle for a reason. For now, she just needs a walk through the woods to clear her mind.
Ana strays from the path, and that’s when she spots it. There’s a scrap of green fabric lying against a tree, and when she looks down, she sees another one. It doesn’t take Ana long to realize that it’s a hockey jersey that has been ripped to shreds, and when she sees the number “16,” she immediately figures out who that jersey belongs to.
“Benji?!” she shouts. “Benji, are you out there?” There is no answer. She tries again, but all Ana hears is the echo of her own voice.
Ana sprints out of the forest as quickly as she can, searching for anyone who might be able to help her. It’s Jeanette, her martial arts instructor, that she finds first. “I found Benji’s jersey in the woods,” she says, and she doesn’t need to say any more. Jeanette immediately calls Adri, and before long, there are dozens of Beartown residents gathered in the forest, circled around the torn jersey.
“Who was the last person to see Benji?” Ramona asks.
“I saw him walk into the woods, but I never saw him leave,” Gaby says, sobbing. Out of all of Benji’s family members, she is by far the most distraught. Benji’s other two sisters are making Ana wonder if they know something that she doesn’t.
“We all knew that something like this would happen one of these days,” someone says. “That boy has always been a ticking time bomb.”
“He was a good hockey player though,” someone else adds. “It’s a shame that he turned out like his father.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Katia interjects. “We don’t know if he’s dead yet.”
“Just look at that jersey,” another Beartown resident says. “Nobody could have survived that. Benji Ovich is as good as dead.”
Ana has to agree with her, and she fights back tears as she considers that this might have been her fault. Maybe if she hadn’t posted that picture, Benji might not have disappeared into the forest in the first place. Maybe he would have been able to come out of the closet on his own terms, maybe he would have played in the game against Hed, and maybe he would be here now.
There’s a sinking feeling in Ana’s stomach as she wonders if she might have been the one who killed Benji.
The residents of Beartown organize a search party, but after several days and no sign of Benji, they give up and presume that the talented young hockey player is dead. They can’t find a body, so they bury Benji’s torn jersey. Ana attends the funeral, and it breaks her heart when she sees father and son, buried side by side. When the funeral ends, she thinks that none of this would have happened, if not for her moment of weakness. Ana weeps as she thinks of everything that she could have done to stop this tragedy. She’s failed both of them - Vidar and Benji.
Ana finds Jeanette after the funeral, and Jeanette immediately gives her a hug. Then, they walk to Jeanette’s martial arts club together, and Ana will never fight harder than she does that day.
Benji is on a train heading toward the capital, sandwiched between a grizzled old man and a woman in her twenties cradling a crying infant. Already, his escape hasn’t quite gone as planned. Adri, Katia, and Gaby apparently told Maya that he would be at the train station, and now she knows that Benji isn’t dead. It had been good to see her one last time, but he would have to trust that she wouldn’t tell anyone. He holds the scrap of paper that Maya gave him and reads the words on it one more time, hoping that she’s right. He hopes that he’s the kind of person who gets a happy ending too. That’s what everyone wants, after all.
The man next to Benji tries to look over his shoulder, so he folds the paper in half and stuffs it into his pocket. The train lurches to a stop, and he stays in his seat. Thankfully, the mother and child get off of the train, giving Benji some personal space. He moves away from the old man and looks out the window, pretending to be interested in the mountains in the distance.
When the train stops again, Benji still doesn’t move. Passing through the countryside is starting to give him second thoughts about leaving. Benji needed to get out of Beartown. He’s certain about that, but if the only alternative is starting over again in an unfamiliar city, far away from the small town that he grew up in, without his friends, teammates, or family, he’s no longer sure that he made the right choice.
But it’s too late to turn back now.
Benji closes his eyes, and the motion of the train rocks him to sleep. He only wakes up when the conductor says, “We are now approaching Stockholm, our final destination. All passengers still on the train need to disembark here.”
This time, when the train stops, Benji stands up and gets off the train with the other passengers. He’s surprised as to how easily he can blend into a crowd here: back home, he knew everyone in town, and everyone knew him. Here, he’s just another cog in the machine, and already, he doesn’t like it. He mimics the dull, bored facial expression of the businesswoman next to him in line as he walks into the train station. Benji is terrified, but he doesn’t let anyone else see it.
He doesn’t let the bastards see him cry.
News travels fast, and it isn’t long at all before the residents of Hed hear about Benji’s death. David will never forget the moment when Filip comes into practice one day and asks, “David, did you hear about Benji?” David shakes his head, and Filip tells the whole story while David listens in horror.
He doesn’t know what to say afterwards, but he knows Benji, and he thinks that everyone in Beartown has made a terrible mistake. A ripped jersey in the forest does not mean that Benji Ovich is dead. He remembers all of the times that Benji went missing back when David coached the Beartown hockey team, only for David to find him trying to start a fight somewhere.
He doesn’t tell Filip any of this, however. Instead, he simply nods along, and when Filip is done telling the story, he teaches the Hed Hockey A-team a new drill. Perhaps he’s a little harder on them than he needs to be, but perhaps that’s because not one of David’s players is playing as hard as Benji might have if he was there.
David will never let any play on any of his teams wear the number “16,” but it’s not because he thinks that Benji is dead. It’s because David still clings onto a wild hope that Benji might turn up one day and want his jersey back, and David’s terrified of what might happen if he can’t give it to him.
It’s the silence that nearly kills Benji as he walks through the streets of Stockholm. Someone had once asked him what he liked about hockey, and he had answered that he liked the sounds. In Beartown, those sounds are omnipresent. No matter where you go, you can hear the bang-bang-bang sound of players practicing or the shouts of fans cheering. In Stockholm, the whole city is dead silent, and it’s driving Benji insane. He wants nothing more than to hear one single bang as he wanders around, but there’s no sound except for his own footsteps. Hockey made Benji feel like he had wings, but the silence here is chaining him to the ground.
When Benji has had enough of the quietness, he stops walking, pulls out his phone, and texts someone that he hasn’t contacted in almost a year. “Do you still live in the capital?” he types. Benji sends the message and then shoves his phone back into his pocket, along with the scrap of paper from Maya.
Within a few seconds, Benji’s phone buzzes. He reads the response, but it isn’t the one that he was hoping for. “Who is this?” the bass player replies.
“Benji Ovich,” Benji writes. “I changed my number.”
The bass player sends Benji his address, and he goes straight to his apartment. When Benji knocks on the door, the bass player immediately lets him in. When he woke up that morning, the last thing that the bass player had expected was for Benji to show up at his door, but here he is anyways. The bass player never forgot about the boy with sad eyes and a wild heart, and in some ways, nothing has changed at all, but Benji’s eyes look far more sorrowful than he remembers.
“I have a lot of questions,” the bass player says as he watches Benji enter the apartment, the memories of all of the nights that they spent together in Hed drifting through his mind.
“I’ll explain, Lukas, but could you get me a beer first?”
When Ana arrives at Maya’s new house for the first time, Maya throws her arms around her best friend, glad to finally see her again. For those two girls, even a few days sometimes feels like a lifetime. Maya then backs away, and they do their secret handshake. As usual, Maya cracks up as Ana shouts, “And Ana is out, bitches!” Maya looks back at her friend, still giggling a little bit, but Ana suddenly has a serious look on her face. “There’s something that I need to tell you,” she says.
“What is it?” Maya asks as all of the possible things that Ana could say flicker through her mind. None of them are good.
“Benji died,” Ana says.
Maya pauses for a minute to think. At first, she believes that it’s impossible. She saw Benji alive and well at the train station. He can’t be dead. “What happened?” Maya finally asks, the ruminative expression on her face suddenly disappearing.
“I found his hockey jersey in the forest on Thursday, and it was ripped into shreds,” Ana explains, trying not to cry. “They couldn’t find the body, but the jersey was so destroyed that there’s no way that he could still be alive. Plenty of people say that he was mauled by a bear, but there are all kinds of rumors floating around. Anyways, his funeral was yesterday.”
Maya puts the timeline together in her head. She saw Benji at the train station on Thursday, and yet Ana claims that he died on that day. Something isn’t right. Maya thinks about it some more, and she soon realizes the truth. All of a sudden, she knows why the details don’t quite fit together. Why Benji was so startled when she approached him that day. Why Ana found “16” in the forest.
Yet, Maya doesn’t tell Ana, and it will haunt her for the rest of her life. She could have easily told Ana what she knew, but she stays quiet for a moment, not quite knowing why she doesn’t have the courage to say something. Maybe she still has a grudge against Ana for taking that photo. Maybe she wants her to live with the pain of thinking that she killed Benji. No matter what her motivation is, she doesn’t tell Ana that Benji is alive.
“I’m sorry, Ana,” Maya finally says, because there’s nothing else to say.
“What do you have to apologize for?” Ana asks. “You didn’t kill Benji. I did.”
“Ana, there’s nothing that you could have done,” Maya says in an attempt to comfort her friend, but it is in vain.
“You’re wrong,” Ana says. “I should have never taken that picture.”
Maya places her hand on Ana’s shoulder and says, “Listen, I know that these last few weeks have been hard on you, with Vidar and now this, but you can’t live in the past. You have so much of your life ahead of you.”
Ana stays silent for a few moments, but Maya can tell that she’s still worrying about everything that’s happened. She can’t really blame her. Maya has been through more hardship than she ever deserved in her sixteen years, but she’s never had to watch someone she loved die. She can’t imagine what it must be like for her.
“How’s your new school?” Ana asks, trying to prove that she didn’t just come to Maya’s new house to wallow in self-pity.
“It’s incredible,” Maya says. “My classes are interesting, the people are nice, the food’s not great, but it’s better than Beartown, and the best part is that I get to play the guitar every day.”
“Do you get to listen to that junkie music that you like so much too?”
“Unfortunately no, but one of my teachers likes Nirvana, which is super cool.”
“I bet the whole school sounds like this,” Ana says. She pretends to play the guitar as she whines, “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage…”
“That’s The Smashing Pumpkins, not Nirvana.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Those are two completely different bands. If your school played your music all the time, it would probably sound like this.” Maya pretends to play the synthesizer and sings, “Beep beep beep beep...YEAH! DRUGS!”
Maya and Ana both laugh. On the day that Ana saved Maya’s life, Maya declared that she had found a new friend. Now, ten years later, they still mean the world to each other, and despite everything that they’ve both gone through over all of those years, they know that nothing can break their friendship.
Benji and Lukas are sitting at the kitchen table in Lukas’ apartment, a can of beer in front of each of them. Lukas’ bass rests against the wall - he hasn’t practiced yet today, but he also hadn’t planned for Benji to show up out of nowhere. He’s pretty sure that Benji coming is a good enough excuse to skip practicing for today.
Both Lukas and Benji know that it’s late, but they’ve stopped counting the hours and are instead measuring time by the number of beers that they’ve each had. Benji is on his sixth beer, and he’s been telling the same story since he started his second. Lukas, on the other hand, is only on his third, but he’s been listening intently to every word that Benji has to say.
Benji takes a sip of his drink and continues his story. “So I told William Lyt that I was in love with Kevin, which is definitely bullshit…”
“Who’s Kevin again?” Lukas asks.
“It’s not important,” Benji insists. Lukas wants to press him further, but he can tell that he doesn’t want to talk about it, so he sits there and listens to what he has to say next. “Anyways, I needed to get out of Beartown, so I faked my death.”
“I left my hockey jersey in the forest and then took a train here. I’m sure they’ve found the jersey by now.”
Lukas finishes off his beer, gets up, and comes back with another can. “I need another fucking drink if I’m going to hear the rest of this,” he says. “Why did you come here of all places?”
“I don’t know,” Benji says. “It’s far enough away from Beartown.”
“There are lots of places that are far away from Beartown. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.”
Benji takes a deep breath, takes another sip of his drink, and admits, “I think I kind of wanted to see you again.”
“When I asked you about coming here last year, you said that you weren’t like me,” Lukas says. He still remembers that day as if it was yesterday.
“I’m not, but I’m not like them either,” Benji replies. “It took me a while to realize that.” He looks toward Lukas’ bass and asks, “Have you gotten any better?”
“I’ve been practicing,” Lukas says.
“Good,” Benji says. “You always sounded like you were tuning through the whole show every time I saw you play back in Hed.”
They both laugh, and when the room goes quiet again, Lukas says, “I haven’t played for anyone else since I was in my cousin’s band.”
“That’s a shame. I always liked watching you dance on stage.” Benji pauses, considering whether or not to ask the question that’s on his mind. “Will you play for me, Lukas?”
“Why not?” Lukas says. He gets up from the table, opens up his case, and takes out the instrument. He then sits down on the couch and strums a few chords. “What do you want me to play?”
Benji gets up from the table and sits next to Lukas. “Anything,” he answers.
“Fine. Be like that,” Lukas says as his fingers dance across the frets. “I’ll pick something.”
He chooses a gentle love song, and Benji closes his eyes, rests his head on Lukas’ shoulder, and listens to him play. The song isn’t quite what he might have chosen, but he loves it anyways. Finally, he’s found something to break through the silence of the city. It’s not quite the same as the sounds from back home. He’ll never get used to hearing the low-pitched notes from Lukas’ bass. Instead, every time he hears him play, he’ll come back to this moment, and he’ll feel like he’s flying all over again.
When Lukas finishes playing, their faces are only inches from each other. It’s Lukas who finally closes the distance between them. He kisses Benji, and when they pull apart, he says, “I missed you so much.”
“Me too,” Benji says, and he kisses him again.
Lukas doesn’t want to let him go, but he knows that he has to. “It’s getting late, and I can already tell that I’m going to have the worst hangover ever tomorrow morning,” Lukas says. “Maybe we should get to bed.” Benji reluctantly agrees, and they step away from each other, but neither of them will ever forget this night.
It’s a small miracle when Lukas finds Benji lying next to him the following morning, snoring loudly with one arm still draped around him. At first, he can’t figure out why Benji decided to stay, but he’s glad that he did. Maybe it’s because he’s lonely or desperate. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Or maybe he’s falling in love too.
The Brewseum, a pub located on the south side of the city across from the ice rink, closed its doors today due to bankruptcy. Prior to its closure, the pub was known for its high quality brews and rowdy patrons. The Brewseum’s owner, Benjamin Ovich, declined to comment on the situation…
Lukas is lying on the couch, vacantly watching a news report and debating on whether or not to change the channel, when Benji’s face suddenly appears on the television screen. He instantly remembers everything again. Fingertips and glances. Glasses on a battered bar top, smoke in a silent forest. The way snow feels on your skin when it falls in March, and a boy with sad eyes and a wild heart teaches you to skate.
It’s hard to believe that the boy that taught Lukas to skate is a man now, and it’s even harder to believe that Benji and Lukas have been together for ten years when moments like those feel like they happened yesterday. So much has happened since the first time they met, and Lukas and Benji have made so many new memories together, yet the years have just flown by.
Lukas’ phone rings, but he ignores it when he sees that it’s Maya Andersson calling. He already knows what she’s going to ask him, and he still doesn’t have an answer. He’s purposely avoided this conversation, but he promises himself that when Benji gets home, he’ll finally ask him, after he’s figured out what exactly happened with the Brewseum.
Benji walks into the apartment and then crashes onto the couch. He’s wearing a T-shirt, showing off his bear tattoo. Nobody here knows what that tattoo means except for Lukas. “What happened this time?” Lukas asks.
“It’s the same thing that happens every time,” Benji answers. “I tried to start up something, it worked for a while, and then it didn’t.” Benji shrugs, takes the TV remote, and searches for something else to watch.
Lukas doesn’t mention that The Brewseum, like most of Benji’s projects, was never really an idea that worked in the first place. He’s been watching the pub slowly go out of business for almost a year. It was the same story with the sporting goods store, and before that, Benji had attempted to manage Lukas’ band, but that gig only lasted a week before he got into a fistfight with the band’s drummer. Lukas left the band soon afterwards, and now he’s playing the bass in Maya Andersson’s touring band. He likes to think that he has his life together now, and he wishes that Benji would do the same.
“Benji, you can’t keep doing this,” Lukas says.
“You’re twenty eight, and you clearly have no idea what you’re doing with your life. You’ve spent the last year babysitting old drunk men at that bar of yours, and I know you’re better than that. Maybe it’s time for you to find a real job.”
Benji considers this and then says, “I’ll figure something out soon.”
“I’ll break up with you if you don’t.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
The worst part is that Benji’s right. Lukas and Benji have had many arguments over their ten years together, but it’s really the same argument over and over again. Their love has always outweighed their disagreements, and there’s no reason for that to change now. Even now, after he’s just threatened to break up with him, he looks into Benji’s eyes and he knows that he could never leave him.
However, Lukas is still worried about his boyfriend. Nothing is constant in Benji’s life. He’s never been able to hold down a steady job. He and Lukas have moved around the city more times than they count. His friends are really more like drinking buddies than friends, and that circle is always shifting. Lukas is the only person who’s consistently been there for Benji since he moved to Stockholm, and sometimes, he wonders where Benji would be if he hadn’t showed up at his apartment all of those years ago.
When Benji still lived in Beartown, everyone said that he was a ticking time bomb. Sometimes, Lukas wonders if he’s the only thing keeping the bomb from going off.
After surfing through all of the channels, Benji turns off the TV and moves closer to Lukas. “How was your day?” he asks.
“It was fine,” Lukas responds. “I had a rehearsal this morning. Maya asked about you.”
“That’s nice of her,” Benji says. “What did she ask about?”
“She just wanted to know how you were doing.” Lukas pauses before finally adding, “Maya’s doing a hometown show. She said that you’re welcome to come if you want, but she also understands if you don’t want to go back to Beartown.”
“I don’t want to go,” Benji quickly responds. He doesn’t even have to think about it. As much as Benji loves seeing Lukas perform, he can’t go back to Beartown.
“Why not?” Lukas asks.
“They all think I’m dead there,” Benji explains. “That’s enough of a reason not to go.” He still remembers everything that happened that led him to leave Beartown in the first place - the way that they had all ostracized him when they saw the picture of him with the man in the polo shirt - and he doubts that anything has changed since then.
“I think it would be good for you,” Lukas says. “We can visit your sisters while we’re there.”
“It has been a while since I’ve seen them,” Benji admits. Adri, Katia, and Gaby all visit him every once in a while, but he doesn’t see his sisters as much as he’d like.
“Besides, I’ll miss you if you don’t come,” Lukas says. “You know I get lonely when the band’s on tour.”
Benji thinks about it for a while. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Please Benji?” Lukas says. “I really want you to come to Beartown with me. Don’t make me go to that frozen wasteland alone.”
Benji laughs out loud, something that he does more often than he used to. It’s hard for him to say no to Lukas when he says it like that. “I’ll come,” Benji says reluctantly, “but don’t blame me if something goes horribly wrong.”
“I won’t, but we’ll only be there for a few days. Nothing will go wrong,” Lukas promises. He plants a kiss on Benji’s lips, and the man with sad eyes and a wild heart kisses him back.
Benji wants to trust Lukas, but the weight of his past keeps him from fully believing him. He’s doubting himself again, something that he rarely did before he came to this city. Maybe it’s just because he’s getting older. However, Benji realizes that the show is a while away. He still has time on his side.
Time, of course, always flies. No matter how much we want to slow down and enjoy the moment, the clock keeps on ticking. There’s no way to hit the pause button on life - it keeps going, whether we want it to or not. That’s how it’s always been for Lukas and Benji, and the trip to Beartown comes much faster than either of them would have liked. It’s not long at all before they’re packing their bags and taking the train to the town that Benji grew up in.
On the train ride there, both of them are looking out the window excitedly, pointing out landmarks as the train approaches Beartown. “I forgot how beautiful this part of the country is,” Lukas says.
“Me too,” Benji says. “I used to spend a lot of time on that island over there when I was growing up.” He gestures toward the island as the train travels along the lakeshore, and he wonders whether or not he should go there with Lukas. He doubts that there will be time to show him all of the places that he loved when he was young. They only have two days here, and they’ll spend most of the second day at the concert. Benji might still have time to give Lukas a tour of his hometown, although he would have to be careful to make sure that nobody realizes that he’s not dead.
The train travels past the lake and into the town itself. Benji recognizes many of the buildings - the school looks the same, and Ramona must have rebuilt the Bearskin after the fire - but others seem new. When the train arrives at the train station and comes to a stop, Lukas and Benji grab their bags and get off of the train. They make their way through the crowd, and Benji notices that nearly everyone in the train station is wearing a green shirt that says “Beartown Against The Rest” on it. Benji looks around, searching for his sister, but he soon finds her. Gaby waves to him, and when Benji runs over to her, with Lukas following behind, she gives Benji a hug and tells him that she loves him. She’s wearing one of those T-shirts too, and so are her children.
“What are the shirts for?” Benji asks after he’s greeted his sister, nieces, and nephews.
“The girls’ hockey team is playing in the national finals,” Gaby explains. “The game is tonight.”
Lukas still seems a little bit perplexed that a youth hockey game could get all of Beartown to wear the exact same T-shirt, but for Benji, it explains everything. Gaby, Benji, Lukas, and the children leave the train station, and Gaby drives all of them to her house. Lukas and Benji unpack their bags, and they spend most of the rest of the day trading stories with Gaby, playing games with her children, and going over to the dog kennel to see Adri. Katia is the only one of Benji’s sisters that they don’t get to see that day, but Gaby promises that she’ll come to the concert the next day.
That evening, Gaby announces that she and the children are going to the hockey game. Benji’s niece’s best friend is playing in the game, but Gaby tells Lukas and Benji that they don’t have to come if they don’t want to. “You two must be tired from all of that traveling,” she says as she and the children walk out the door. “Make sure you get some rest before the show tomorrow, Lukas.”
Lukas nods, but as soon as they’re gone, Benji says, “I’m going to the hockey game.”
Benji goes into the garage and finds his old bike, but Lukas protests. “They’ll know that you’re not really dead if you do that,” he says.
“Lukas, we already walked through the train station, and nobody except for my sister recognized me. I don’t think they’ll recognize me at the hockey game either.”
Lukas is about to object again, so Benji climbs onto his bike and rides off into the night. Lukas tries to run after him, but he can’t keep up. Benji clearly hasn’t given him much of a choice. He runs back to the garage, finds an extra bike, and catches up with Benji.
Once he’s caught up, Lukas says, “You really aren’t like anyone else, Benji. You didn’t want to go to Beartown in the first place, and now you want to go to this hockey game. I just don’t get it.” Benji doesn’t respond, but in the end, that’s what Lukas loves about him. He isn’t like anyone else at all.
Lukas follows Benji until they arrive at the ice rink. It’s been renovated recently, and even though he played here for years, Benji hardly recognizes it. However, it’s more familiar when he walks inside. The stands are a little bigger, and there’s a preschool attached to the rink, which most of the girls playing tonight attended, but the ice itself is the same. On his way into the rink, Benji sees a row of pictures. There’s one from thirty years ago, and one from ten years ago. Benji spots himself in the back row of the more recent picture, standing between William and Filip. This was the last Beartown team that was as good as the one playing tonight.
However, nobody seems to notice the young man who was once a star player here. Two middle-aged women walk past Benji, and they barely notice that he’s there. Instead, they’re chatting about one of his former teammates. “I heard that Amat might come tonight,” one of the women says.
“I doubt it,” the other responds. “The Blackhawks are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, so he’s probably going to have to stay in Chicago.” She pulls out her phone and checks the stats for a team six thousand miles away from here. The two women then walk into the stands, and after a few more people pass by, Benji goes there too.
Lukas has never been here before, and he has no idea where to go, so he follows his boyfriend as he goes straight into an area of the rink filled with men in black jackets. Lukas is wearing a black jacket too, but that’s only a coincidence. Black has always been his favorite color. “Is this the Pack?” Lukas asks, remembering something that Benji mentioned to him before.
“What Pack?” Benji responds.
There’s just enough space in the standing area for Lukas and Benji. The rest of the rink is completely filled with Beartown residents. Lukas has been touring with one of the most popular guitarists in the country for a few years now, and even he has never seen so many people in one place, and they’re all cheering together for Beartown as if their minds had fused into one. He finds it all to be a little unnerving.
It’s a sound that Benji hasn’t heard in ten years. He’s watching the ice intently, even though the hockey teams are still warming up. Lukas is already on his phone, paying no attention to the game. A girl who appears to be around fifteen years old is wearing the number “61.” She takes the puck and swiftly sends it into the goal. The girl’s helmet obscures her face, but Benji still recognizes her. “LET’S GO, ALICIA!” the entire standing area screams at once.
The commotion causes Lukas to look up from his phone. “Who’s Alicia?” he asks.
“She’s the greatest player that we’ve ever seen!” a man in the row above Lukas and Benji says. He then gives Lukas a suspicious look, silently telling him that he doesn’t belong here.
The game begins, and Benji watches it all from the standing area. It’s an incredible game. One of the Beartown players speeds across the ice, knocking her opponent out of the way and sending the puck flying to the other end of the rink. One of the girls from the other team skates toward the puck, but Alicia dashes in front of her, takes the puck, and passes it to one of her teammates. The other Beartown player passes it back to Alicia, and she shoots it right into the goal. The whole rink cheers for her.
“What just happened?” Lukas asks as Benji shouts Alicia’s name.
“We scored a goal,” Benji explains.
“Oh, okay,” Lukas says. “Why was everyone cheering then?”
“Because we scored a goal.”
“I don’t understand hockey,” Lukas proclaims. “Why do people care so much? It’s just a game, isn’t it?” Benji shakes his head and goes back to watching the game, awestruck by everything that’s happening on the ice.
This isn’t the first time that Benji and Lukas have watched a hockey game together. Sometimes, when he’s in the mood for it, Benji watches professional games on TV, and Lukas always ends up curled up on the couch next to him. They’ve only watched one other game in person though, and it was nothing like this.
Shortly after Benji arrived in Stockholm, he and Lukas passed by their local ice rink, and Benji said that he wanted to watch their A-Team play. Lukas didn’t have much interest in watching hockey, but he did want to spend more time with Benji, so he came with him. They found two seats in the rink, but all throughout the first period, Benji wouldn’t stop critiquing every aspect of the game. “Number 31 is clearly the weakest player on the team,” he said. “The other team could easily take him down, but they don’t have the guts. Also, why has nobody passed to number 42 yet? He’s just sitting there in front of the goal!”
Lukas tuned him out after a few minutes, so he didn’t even notice when Benji suddenly disappeared. He searched all over the ice rink, and when he didn’t find him, he tried calling Benji, but he didn’t pick up.
Eventually, Lukas found Benji just outside the back door of the ice rink, leaning against a wall and smoking weed. “Want some?” Benji asked. Lukas nodded. “I can’t stand this town sometimes. Even hockey feels different.”
They never went back to that ice rink, and they never attended another hockey game until now. As one of the Beartown girls skates across the ice and scores a second goal for her team, Benji cheers again, losing himself in the game. He’s not sure what exactly makes this game so different from the one that he attended in Stockholm, but he soon realizes that it’s because watching the game is making him forget that he once played hockey too.
Just as first period is about to end, one of the opposing players hits the puck toward the goal, and although the Beartown goalie tries to catch it, the puck sails past her and into the goal. The score is now 2-1, but Beartown is still winning.
In between first and second period, Benji has time to see who else is in the stands. He spots his family, as well as a few other people he recognizes from when he lived on Beartown. There’s a mother with a young child who looks a little bit like one of Benji’s former teammates in the bottom row of the stands. When the child tries to run off, the mother shouts, “Ann-Katrin! Come back here right now!” The mother runs after her daughter and drags her back into the stands just as second period is about to start.
During second period, Lukas is far more interested in the clock than the game. “Benji, why does hockey have three periods?” he asks. Benji doesn’t have time to respond before he asks, “Hey, why did the clock stop?”
“Number 22 is offside,” Benji explains.
“What does that mean?”
“You’re hopeless.” Benji then goes back to watching the game and hoping for another goal from Beartown. Lukas goes back to watching the clock and hoping that it doesn’t stop again.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Bobo has.
It’s the end of second period, and just as the opposing team scores another goal, sending the puck flying into the net with a resounding bang, he looks up into the stands. The score is tied, and he knows that he needs to talk to the Beartown girls about strategy, but he wants Ann-Katrin to know that he’s here. Bobo waves to his wife and their three year old daughter, and although his wife waves back, Ann-Katrin isn’t paying much attention, desperately trying to entertain herself by running up and down the stairs. Bobo’s wife runs over to Ann-Katrin, picks her up, and points to Bobo. “Dad!” Ann-Katrin screams. Her voice is so loud that Bobo can hear her from the other end of the rink. He laughs and grins, hoping that the Beartown team will win already so that he can go home and be with his family.
Bobo walks past the standing area, and one of the men in black jackets shouts, “Hey Bobo, keep up the good work!” He smiles, but he keeps walking.
When the Beartown girls’ team wins, which it almost always does, and it almost always has since Bobo started coaching these girls ten years ago, people in this town say that Bobo is brilliant. He knows this isn’t true: he still can’t skate, and when someone makes a joke, Bobo is always the last one to get it. Amat, who plays hockey in Chicago now and sometimes calls Bobo in the middle of the night, is brilliant. Zacharias, the professional gamer, is brilliant. Elisabeth Zackell, the coach of the A-team, is brilliant. The girls on the Beartown team are definitely brilliant. Bobo is not, but somehow, the girls’ team keeps on winning, and everyone in Beartown keeps telling him that he’s the one who coached them to victory. Bobo eventually gives the Pack the same response that he usually gives people. “It’s not me. It’s the girls.”
When Bobo looks up at the Pack, he recognizes almost every face in the standing area. However, there are two men that he has never seen here before. One of them has a thin frame and black hair, and he looks like he’d rather be boiled alive than have to watch the third period of this hockey game. He’s wearing a black jacket, but Bobo’s sure that it’s entirely by accident. The other man is far more excited about the game, and he looks strangely familiar. His face has aged quite a bit since the last time Bobo saw him, but there’s no other explanation. The man in the standing area has to be Benji Ovich.
Bobo still remembers the day when Alicia asked to wear Benji’s number. He was still new to coaching back then, and Elisabeth Zackell had given him a group of girls to work with, most of whom were recent graduates from the ice rink preschool. It was the day of their first game, and Bobo asked Alicia which number she wanted on her jersey. “Sixteen,” she responded.
“You can’t have number sixteen,” Bobo said.
“Why not?” Alicia asked.
How do you even begin to explain death to a child? Bobo froze, unable to say a word. “It’s...no, it was...it was Benji’s number,” he said. He still struggled to use the past tense when he was talking about his teammates. His last memory with Benji was playing hockey on the lake with him, Zacharias, and Amat, and as long as he was still involved in hockey, that memory would always exist in the present.
“Who’s Benji?” Alicia asked.
That was the hardest part: knowing that Alicia had forgotten Benji already. Hadn’t he been there when she first learned to skate? It seemed impossible that Alicia could just forget about all of that, but children were magical in that way.
When Bobo didn’t respond, Alicia asked, “Can I ask Zackell if I can wear ‘16?’”
“Go ahead, but she’ll say the same thing that I did,” Bobo said.
As it turned out, Alicia did ask Zackell, and she said the exact same thing that Bobo did, although much more bluntly. Alicia ran back to Bobo crying, and in a desperate attempt to comfort the little girl, he said, “You can have ‘61’ if you want.”
Now, “61” is the best player on the Beartown girls’ team. She knows the whole story of what happened to Benji, even if she doesn’t remember him. Bobo is on his way to tell her team why they should score another goal in the third period of the national finals, although it should be obvious to anyone who’s made it this far, and Benji, strangely enough, is back from the dead.
Alicia pokes her head out from the locker room. “Bobo!” she yells. “What’s taking you so long?”
“I’ll be there soon,” Bobo responds. He looks into the standing area one last time, and he realizes that the man in the standing area may look a lot like Benji, but it’s not him. Benji Ovich has been dead for ten years. Maybe he’s Benji’s long-lost twin brother, or a cousin of the Ovich family. Or maybe Bobo just saw a ghost.
Sometimes, Bobo swears that he can feel the ghosts of his old teammates when he arrives at the rink each day. It’s not just Benji: it’s all of the boys that he once played with. Vidar is dead too, and there are others who have seriously messed up their lives in the ten years that have gone by since Bobo stopped playing hockey. There’s a coach who had to move to Hed Hockey, a general manager who couldn’t stand the politics, a mother who died too soon, and a girl who had her childhood cut short. No matter how many times they renovate the ice rink, the ghosts of Beartown Hockey will never leave.
Bobo goes into the locker room, and he tells the Beartown girls’ team exactly what they need to do to win the game. When the game starts again, Bobo watches the girls on the ice. He doesn’t realize that Benji is on the other side of the rink, doing the exact same thing.
Third period seems to go on forever without either team scoring. The two teams skate around the ice, and they each make several shots on goal, but the score doesn’t change. It’s still tied, 2-2. In the last few minutes of the third period, there’s some talk in the standing area of the game going into overtime. “Why does this game need to go on even longer?” Lukas complains.
“If the teams are tied at the end of third period, the game goes into overtime,” Benji says. “That’s just how it works.”
Just as third period is about to end, Alicia takes the puck and skates to the other end of the rink, pushing past several players from the opposing team. She slaps the puck toward the goal, and it flies past the goalie and lands in the net.
The buzzer goes off, and everyone in the stands cheers while the Beartown girls’ team celebrates on the ice. They’ve finally done what no Beartown team ever has: win a national tournament.
The standing area starts up a cheer, and Benji joins in. “WE ARE THE BEARS, WE ARE THE BEARS, WE ARE THE BEARS! THE BEARS FROM BEARTOWN!”
The excitement doesn’t stop as the fans begin to exit the rink. The Pack keeps chanting, and nothing can stop them. A group of Beartown residents has surrounded Bobo, asking him questions that he doesn’t know how to answer. The kids from the ice rink preschool are asking for pictures with Alicia and her teammates. Benji and Lukas make their way through the crowd, find their bicycles, and leave the ice rink. When they’re far away enough from the noise and the chaos, Lukas laughs and says, “I always knew you were a small town guy at heart.”
They ride back to Gaby’s house, but Benji can’t get those words out of his mind. Lukas is right: coming to the hockey game proved that. His heart is still racing from the rush of being in an ice rink again. Was leaving Beartown a mistake? He’s not sure. There are so many things that he misses about living here.
When they arrive at Gaby’s house, her car isn’t in the driveway. She’s still at the hockey game. Lukas and Benji leave their bikes in the garage, and they go into the house. Lukas takes Benji’s hand. Benji’s knuckles are scarred from all of those years of fighting back when he played hockey, and tonight has brought back some of those memories, but if he had to choose between Lukas and Beartown, he would make the same choice every time. When he looks into Lukas’ eyes, he knows that he feels the same way.
Benji returns to the ice rink the next day, but this time, it’s not for a hockey game. He’s in the middle of a crowd, most of whom are still talking about the game last night. There’s a poster in front of the ice rink advertising a concert. Maya Andersson, the famous guitarist, is performing here tonight. Lukas isn’t here with Benji, because he’s performing too.
Benji stands in line for hours before he finally makes it into the ice rink. A security guard asks him for his ticket, and he hands it over. He then enters the rink, which has now been transformed into a stage for the concert. Instead of going into the stands, however, he walks toward the locker room, where some of Maya’s devoted fans are waiting outside, trying to get a glimpse of the artist.
A woman in her twenties with a tattoo of a guitar and a rifle pushes past the fans. Her eyes meet Benji’s for a moment, but she doesn’t seem to recognize him. A security guard tries to stop the woman, but Maya says, “That’s my best friend. Let her in.”
The security guard lets Ana through, and she and Maya do some crazy handshake and then laugh hysterically. “It’s so good to see you!” Ana exclaims. “How have you been?”
“Touring has been wild,” Maya says. She lowers her voice and then says, “I saw Kevin in a parking lot last week.”
“You saw Kevin?” Ana says incredulously. “What happened?”
“Nothing, really,” Maya says. “I could have done something…”
“You should have done something,” Ana says.
“...but I didn’t. I just went and played the show. It was probably for the best.”
All of a sudden, Ana notices the guitar that Maya is tuning. “That’s the guitar I gave you, isn’t it?” she asks with a smile.
Maya nods. “It’s the only guitar that I ever play.”
“It still sounds good after all these years,” Ana says. “Did you see the hockey game last night?”
“I heard about it,” Maya says. “Were you there?”
“I was,” Ana says. “It was a fun game to watch. Alicia scored a goal in the last minute of the game.”
“Maya Andersson, sign my guitar pick!” a budding young guitarist shouts as she throws her guitar pick into the locker room.
A security guard tries to keep the girl away, but Maya takes the pick, signs it, and politely hands it back to the young guitarist. “I think this is a sign that you’ve made it, Maya,” Ana says.
All of the chaos gives Benji an opportunity to get closer to the locker room. He looks inside and finds Lukas tuning in a corner. He waves to him, and Lukas beams. Just knowing that Benji is here gives Lukas the strength that he needs to play in front of all of these people.
Benji walks away and finds a seat in the stands in between two girls wearing identical Maya Andersson T-shirts. He waits through the opening act, an undertalented group that Lukas has complained about before. In between the two acts, the crowd seems lukewarm about seeing Maya Andersson perform, but they are still excited about the hockey game. The group of people in the row above Benji are talking about the final goal of the game yet again.
Beartown is a hockey town. Not even Maya Andersson can change that.
The lights go down in the ice rink, and Maya takes the stage by storm. She sings her heart out, and when she hits the chorus, the whole ice rink sings along with her. There isn’t a single person in the stands who doesn’t know every lyric to this song. Her guitar solo is extraordinary, but when the rest of the audience is watching her, Benji is watching the bass player. Lukas is dancing like nobody's watching, and Benji still remembers the day when he taught him to dance like that, all of those years ago.
The last chord of the song rings throughout the ice rink. When the echoes have died down, Maya shouts, “How are you doing tonight, Beartown?” The crowd cheers in response. “That song was called ‘The Island,’ and I wrote it for my best friend.”
Benji is one of the few people who isn’t onstage who knows about the island. He was the one who showed it to Maya and Ana, after all. He’s glad that something good has come out of that place.
Maya starts to play a riff on her guitar as she continues to banter. “I heard you guys won a hockey game last night,” she says, and the crowd roars. “You know, I’m from Beartown too, and so is my bass player, Lukas.”
“I’ve literally never been here before,” Lukas says. Maya rolls her eyes, and the crowd laughs.
“Whatever,” Maya finally says. “Beartown against the rest!” Everyone screams, and once the noise has died down again, Maya introduces her next song. She begins to play, and Lukas joins in, swaying back and forth to the beat.
As the band plays, Benji thinks of the words that Maya wrote for him ten years ago. As far as he knows, that scrap of paper is still in the pocket of his jacket, back in Stockholm. I hope you’re the kind of person who gets a happy ending. Benji still wasn’t sure if he was that kind of person, or if he ever would be, but he’s only twenty eight. He still has all the time in the world.
Flashing lights and walls of guitar sounds fill the ice rink tonight. Before long, Benji gets up and joins the rest of the crowd. Beartown is and always will be a hockey town, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t dance and sing along when the music starts playing.
Everyone in Beartown thinks that Benji is dead, but he has never felt so alive.