The first Auston noticed anything was when Mitch came out of the bathroom wiping his hands angrily on a hand towel. “Dude, your bathroom is disgusting.” That seemed unlikely. The cleaning people had just been in.
“You’re disgusting,” he said, just to have something to say.
“No, for real,” Mitch said. “Look in there.”
When he looked, the entire floor was covered in blood. Not like, droplets of blood, but like an inch of blood. “What the fuck? Did you get your period or something?”
“Ha ha,” Mitch said. “You got your period.”
Mitch threw the hand towel on the ground.
Mitch had already been kind of mad when he went to the bathroom because he was losing pretty bad at Fortnight. Still, rude, especially since the hand towel was, on closer examination, covered in blood. “It was like that when I went in there.”
“No, seriously dude, did you cut yourself or something?” Mitch didn’t look any different than normal — gym shorts and some kind of t-shirt and a redbull hat on backwards. Auston looked again. He didn’t like, look-look, but Mitch was his friend and his linemate. If Mitch was bleeding to death, that would be bad for the team and also for Auston. But Mitch’s skinny legs looked just as ghost white and un-bleeding as normal. Auston looked back at the bathroom. He wondered if you could skate on blood, like if the bathroom got super cold. That seemed like something that Hyman or Kerf would know the answer to, and for a second he thought about texting them, but then he was bored with the whole thing.
He was about to tell Mitch to use the other bathroom, but then he wondered what would happen if the other bathroom was filled with blood and then he thought well, they could always bug Freddie to let them use his bathroom and then bugging Freddie seemed better than any of the other options so why not just skip step B? Freddie had said he didn’t want to hang tonight, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t let them in in an emergency, right?
“What are you doing?” Mitch asked.
“Texting Freddie,” Mitch said in the kind of tone that was meant to suggest something, but Auston didn’t know what and he wasn’t interested in learning.
Freddie sent back the shrug emoji, which, good enough.
They were almost all the way out the door when Auston realized that Mitch had tracked blood all the way through his hallway. Like full on, Mitchell Marner aged 24 had tromped his dumb ass into the middle of a room full of blood and then tromped his way back out leaving footsteps of blood all the way through Auston’s tiled hallway. There was a name for the kind of tile that Auston had in his hallway he was pretty sure, but he couldn’t remember it. He would have been madder, but he felt like maybe Freddie needed to let him spend the night now.
“Better do something about your shoes before we get to Freddie’s, dude.”
Mitch seemed pretty upset about his shoes being ruined, but, honestly, the shoes were ugly as fuck, so maybe he shouldn’t have been such a cry baby.
Freddie seemed to feel like the blood was a big deal. Like he wanted to go see it. “What, you don’t believe me?” Freddie just looked at him with his head tilted to the side. Auston spent more time with Freddie than he spent with almost anybody else and he had no idea what was going on in Freddie’s head ninety percent of the time. Auston didn’t really want him to go see it, because honestly there wasn’t that much blood in the hallway even if Mitch’s giant feet had distributed it pretty liberally, but Freddie just stood by the door patiently.
Mitch had declined to stick around. He had said, “I’m your friend but also sometimes I get embarrassed for you and Steph is tired of hearing about it.” He had said that in the elevator and he had had his head cocked as though he were waiting for Auston to say something about it, but Auston didn’t know what Mitch was talking about and he had no intention of figuring it out. Everybody knew Mitch was the embarrassing one. Before Mitch had taken off he had hugged Freddie, real big, as though they had just won a game. That was embarrassing. Auston didn’t do shit like that.
As it turned out, Auston hadn’t needed to worry. Freddie was super-freaked out about the blood. Auston had to talk him out of calling the police. “Dude, think of the headlines,” he said, and Freddie huffed out a laugh.
Freddie made him call the cleaning service there and then, though. That was fine. It was, actually, pretty gross to have blood an inch thick on your bathroom floor.
He texted Willy after the server at Momofuku turned into a bunch of slugs, each of them screaming about his lack of defensive responsibility. Up until that point he had only talked about it with Mitch and Freddie. Freddie had been at Momofuku with him, actually, and had patted him on the hand and said, “Don’t worry, your defensive game has gotten better lately,” to which he had said, “Fuck you, my defensive game is great and has been great.” And then Freddie had made a face at him which spoke of unjustly destroyed save percentages and the sorrow thereof and Auston had said, “I mean, also I had other responsibilities,” and they had been halfway down the block slap-fighting the whole way before the weirdness of the slug thing had really sunk in.
He wasn’t sure why he chose Willy to text about it; he and Willy were friendly, but not, like, friends. But when he thought about it, Willy was kind of a good choice, because even if Willy didn’t know what he was talking about, Willy wouldn’t push it. Either Willy just didn’t notice when other people did weird things or he had just trained himself out of commenting on things other people did weird around him. Either way, it was kind of a good quality. It seemed even better in light of how Mitch could not seem to shut up about Auston’s bathroom being filled with blood. One time! It had been one time! But Mitch kept talking about it.
Anyway, Willy texted back that he hadn’t noticed anything weird happening and that was that until they were all in San Jose on their day off between California games and they were at the good mall with the Bottega Veneta — obviously the San Jose shopping was not as good as the Los Angeles shopping, but after their last California road trip the powers-that-be had decided to minimize their time in L.A. — and a cloud of birds whirled through that indoor shopping mall heading straight for Willy — yes, okay, Auston shrieked and ran away, or, more precisely, ran into the shelter of Freddie’s shoulders, and he was comfortable with that as a lifestyle choice; everyone had already seen that Carlton video so it wasn’t like there was any point in pretending to be, like, macho — and for a couple of moments Willy was entirely covered in birds and then the birds flew off and in unison pooped on the floor of the shopping mall, spelling out with their poop “Nylander Is A Floater,” which wasn’t even true, for fuck’s sake.
“That was weird,” Tyson said. “Like, that was really weird.”
“Nah,” Willy said. “It happens to me all the time.”
“What the fuck? That specific thing happens to you all the time? Like with the birds?” Auston said. He tried to not get agitated, in general. It was bad for athletic performance. That wasn’t just him; everyone he knew who had gone to a sports psychologist said they got told not get too worked up, which left him way ahead because he was super good at not getting upset. But he was prepared to make an exception this time. “What the fuck? I texted you and asked if anything weird was happening and you said no.” He must have come across super-mad, because Freddie put an arm around him.
“They’re just birds,” Willy said. He did not seem to notice that Auston was mad, which was why he was both a restful and infuriating person to spend time with.
“No,” Tyson said, shaking his head, “those were definitely not just birds.” Freddie took his arm away. Auston tried not to notice.
“I don’t know,” Mitch said. They were playing NHL ’21 and after a pretty extensive version of the same fight they always had, Mitch was the Leafs. He always argued that he should be the Leafs because they were both the team he played for and the team he grew up rooting for, and that Auston shouldn’t be the Leafs because it was no fun if they were both the same team, by which he really just meant that he was a territorial little fuck. And Auston always said that was bullshit, and then about three quarters of the time let him get away with it. This time he had really only fought so that Mitch wouldn’t get weird.
There had been another article about how Mitch was for sure the weak link, especially at his contract price, and that stuff got Mitch twitchy. Mostly when he got like that he liked the guys bringing him super-sweet coffees and calling him a glue guy and talking about how well he saw the ice, but if he thought Auston was being nice to him because of it, he got super weird and kind of mean. Auston tried not to think about it too much because wondering why people were the way they were was an epic waste of time, but tonight he had let Mitch have the Leafs all to himself and he was the Coyotes even though if the Toronto press got a hold of it he was a dead man, like, he could legitimately fit twenty-five summer of ’19 size fuck ups into the crater that fallout would create. And he had still fought enough that Mitch wouldn’t think anything was being given to him, which was the kind of heroism deserving a better reward than Mitchy having a thought, which was no joke dangerous. “Like, do you think there’s any truth to what the . . . stuff is saying?”
“The stuff?” He just said that to fuck with Mitch; he knew exactly what the stuff was. Except — had the stuff even said anything to Mitch? The other day the statue of Mats Sundin had come to life and had been chasing Auston around chanting something about not cheating on offense and leadership qualities in a way not at all consistent with the actual Mats Sundin who was, in Auston’s experience, a pretty chill dude who had complimented him on his mustache. Even less consistent with the actual Mats Sundin had been the part where the statue-come-to-life had taken off his shirt to show his still bronze-in-color stomach and the giant bronze-colored mouth with fangs that seemed to occupy most of said stomach.
But Auston hadn’t heard anything about Mitch.
“Well,” Mitch said.
“C’mon, spit it out, I don’t have all day.”
“So this morning my toilet started talking to me.”
That was disgusting. Auston drew on his inner strength and did not ask if anything had been in the toilet at the time. It was the exact same skillset as not taking stupid penalties or not paying attention to whatever the Star was saying now.
Having dropped that bombshell, Mitch clammed up. Auston wanted to prod him, but instead he just waited. His own breath echoed in the headphones, dog-heavy.
“It said, ‘Anyone looks good playing next to Tavares. Doesn’t mean you have to pay them accordingly.’”
“Wow,” Auston said. “Your toilet is more articulate than like, half the guys in the league.”
“Shut up,” Mitch said.
“No, you shut up. Your toilet really used the word ‘accordingly?’”
“Yeah,” Mitch said. He giggled a little.
Auston felt good about that. After they had made Tavares captain — well, he had fucked up and he had fucked up again in not telling the team and it wasn’t like it was a surprise which way that was going to go, but then he had been left wondering if he could do it it at all, ever. But here he was, talking Mitch down. If JT had been involved there probably would have been super-serious eye contact, but this worked too. In Auston’s opinion.
They didn’t talk about it anymore and Auston wiped the floor with Mitch and Mitch accused him of being disloyal to the Leafs and Auston got actually a little mad about that and then when it was over Auston went down to Freddie’s. He didn’t text first. He knew he should text first but, like, lately he just hadn’t. He didn’t know if he wanted to catch Freddie with somebody over or if he just wanted to know that Freddie wasn’t having people over or if he thought that Freddie was more likely to let him in if he just showed up. Knowing the answer seemed like it would be even less helpful than asking the question, so he just tried not to think about it.
Freddie was watching golf on tv. “Oh,” Auston said, “picking up some tips? Here’s one, how about you aim at the green instead of the moon?”
“Ha ha,” Freddie said.
They were sitting maybe arm’s length apart on the couch, but Auston had long arms. He poked Freddie in the thigh. Freddie’s thighs were extremely pokeable. Even if Auston had been farther away, he might have tried to reach.
“Yes?” Freddie said. The tone was meant to suggest that he was being patient but that his patience wasn’t inexhaustible. Auston was pretty sure that that was a lie. He hadn’t gotten to the bottom of Freddie’s patience yet. If it was going to happen it would have happened already.
“Do you think I would have made a good captain?”
“Sure,” Freddie said.
“What does that mean?” He felt kind of flushed and hot all over; he wished he hadn’t asked the question. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to, that was one of his life mottoes, and here he had just asked Freddie the question that he sometimes thought about in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep, which was kind of the definition of a question that he didn’t want to know the answer to.
Freddie looked at him. “I think you’d be fine.”
“Do you think I’d be as good as JT?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Right now.” He was maybe going to throw up. There was the exit from this conversation right in front of him, but had he taken it? No, he had not.
Freddie turned so he was looking at him full on. “Not right now.”
The whole time he was puking in Freddie’s bathroom he kept waiting for the toilet to say something to him, but it didn’t. It was just the misery of being a gross human fleshsack, no bonus required.
After he had been in there for twenty minutes Freddie came and knocked on the door. “Dude, are you ok in there?” There wasn’t anything inherently funny about Freddie saying dude, but it made Auston laugh every time anyway.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m fine.” It wasn’t what he wanted to say, but this wasn’t his first rodeo. There were rules, when you were throwing up in somebody else’s bathroom. “I bet J.T. wouldn’t throw up in your bathroom, anyway,” he said.
There was a candle in Freddie’s bathroom, a real fancy one, and a box of matches next to it. At some point Auston had lit the candle. It didn’t smell really good with the smell of puke, but it didn’t smell as bad as it could have either. He wondered if somebody had given it to Freddie or if Freddie had gone out and gotten it for himself. He tried to focus on the flame so he wouldn’t puke again.
And then he did. Freddie was saying something, and he really wanted to know what it was, but he couldn’t hear over the noise of the puking and then the toilet flushing and then the faucet running while he made sure no puke had wound up in the stache. They didn’t tell you about that when you started growing facial hair, for sure.
“What was that, dude?” he said through the bathroom door. It had, honestly, been an effort to actually go through all the puke cleaning steps before asking, because it had felt, when he heard Freddie’s voice, that maybe he was going to say something really important, something that Auston would want to hear.
“I said I like you better anyway.”
That shouldn’t have made him puke again, but it did.
Freddie rode with him and Tys the next day after practice and after they had dropped Tys off at the car, Freddie still in the back seat where he had refused to fight over shotgun, had not claimed best-friend privileges or any of the dumbshit that had flickered through Auston’s mind when Freddie announced that he was driving back with them, Freddie said, “Something I should have said last night.”
Auston wanted to say don’t worry about it, he wanted to say let’s talk about something else, he should have said, don’t make me puke in my car, I like my car, but his throat was all seized up and so he couldn’t say anything at all, just had to sit there on his heated seat and let Freddie say whatever he was going to say.
Which turned out to be, “I would be a shitty captain, myself. Like, way worse than you.” And then he was grateful Freddie was in the back like that because there was no way to look him in the eye.
Freddie said, “Wow, are you getting choked up?”
And Auston took a long moment to think about what to say, and then he said, “Yeah. I totally am.” He laughed a little, just to give Freddie an out, and he felt Freddie’s hand come on to the top of his shoulder and that felt really good, that felt like the most comforting thing in the world.
“It felt dumb telling you that,” Freddie said.
“Like, I kept thinking, well, he already knows that, but I don’t know. I just wanted to make sure you know.”
“Hey J.T.,” Auston said. “I just wanted to say, you’re a really good captain. Like, the best.” Auston had made a list of things he could do better, and this was one of the things on it. There had been a couple of substantial donations already, and maybe it was cheap to do things with money, but like, what did he have? A sweet, sweet wrister, awesome taste in clothes, and a boatload of money. And he didn’t really know how to leverage the other two into making things better. But some things you couldn’t do with money, which was why he had facetimed J.T. He had thought, honestly, about doing it over text, but, like, that seemed too easy.
“Wow,” Tavares said. “That’s really nice to hear.” It was sometimes hard to tell with him, but he sounded sincere.
There was a pause.
“Did you mean that?” Tavares said.
“Yeah,” Auston said. “It’s not, like, a new opinion either.”
“That means a lot. Like, with how it all went down . . . I don’t know. Like it was awesome but then you read the newspapers and it’s like, well, did I just get it because . . . ?” and then you could see J.T. realizing there was no good way to end that sentence and then he started laughing in that dorky guffawing way he had and normally Auston would have resisted the pull to start laughing too, but not this time, so they just sat there for a couple of minutes, laughing like dorks.
It was nice. It was a nice moment.
It kind of seemed like things should have been fixed after that but instead: the Goat fell through the ice at practice, and, like, they weren’t out there on open water, it should have just been a matter of . . . what was even underneath the ice? Pipes or something? But instead he went all the way down so that just his head was sticking out and he was screaming help help help in his accent and frankly Auston was impressed that he was able to stick with English under those circumstances and the whole time a voice was booming out, “You’ve got that fucking size and what are you using it for? You’re not a good enough skater to be a skill guy.” And. Keefe started having these dark circles under his eyes, and obviously Auston wasn’t going to ask his coach what was up, but given what the guy had dealt with and also how nonchalant he had been with the Toronto media, you had to figure it was something bad. And then Hollsy showed up to practice with cuts all over his body and they spelled out, Not Really An NHL Player, which was obviously bullshit but must have hurt like hell in the getting. Hollsy seemed pretty good-humored about it, though, surprise surprise. “Yeah,” he said, when Spezz asked him, “I’m thinking of getting it tattooed in. Like, permanently.”
Auston didn’t know why that was what broke him, but it did. He stood up. He said, “Fuck this.”
People looked at him in surprise and he almost just sat back down, but Freddie was looking at him with some kind of expression. He couldn’t tell for sure what it meant, but he was pretty sure it was something good. “We need to figure out what’s going on and we need to stop it.”
“Yeah?” Mitchy said. “And how are we going to do that, exactly?”
And Auston didn’t know that he had been thinking about it, but obviously he had been thinking about it because without any hesitation he said, “We need to summon whatever’s making this happen.” And Mitchy had just opened his mouth to ask about how he was planning on doing that, but Auston had an answer to that so he just kept going. “I’m going to give an interview after practice and I’m going to say that this year I just plan to focus on the individual awards and that I think the focus on team play and defense is really holding me back.”
Spezza laughed out loud, that dumb guffaw.
“Wait, is this a dumb idea?” Auston said.
“No, no, fuck no. It’s just going to be hilarious, that’s all.”
“I mean, if someone else has a better idea?” Like, he wasn’t trying to get himself carved up by the Toronto media for nothing. But he wasn’t going to let this go on forever.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” Mitch said.
That was nice. That was a really nice thing to hear.
Auston was in the middle of earnestly telling Kristen Shilton his feeling that this year the Rocket Richard was his whatever the cost to the team as far as standings when something came swirling out of the locker room vents. That was pretty unsurprising, as was the fact that it had Bab’s head. Like, Auston was pretty sure all of them had put two and two together on that one.
He had to give the PR people a lot of credit; they got the dressing room closed down pretty quick. In fairness, they probably had started edging that way based on his comments even before some shadowy re-creation of the Maple Leafs’ $50 million former head coach took up residence in the center of the room. Auston had idly wondered a time or two if Babcock had put the hair dye down since exiting the public eye — he wasn’t sure if this was an exact recreation but if it was the answer to that question was no. You had to admire the guy’s commitment, if not necessarily his aesthetic impulses.
(Freddie, later — “I’m not sure anyone with that mustache should be talking.” “Oh,” Auston said, “and what are you planning on doing about it?”)
Auston had come up with the first part of the plan, vis a vis the summoning, but it had been Tavares’s idea that once they had the creature there they needed to make it small by exorcising their demons. Mango had asked what that meant, and Tavares had said, “That’s a question everybody needs to answer for themselves.” And then he had paused and said, “Except you, Rasmus, because I’m pretty sure you don’t have any demons.” And everyone had laughed and Tavares had looked confused.
Willy was the first one into the fray. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” he was saying, with all appearance of earnestness. “I’m sure you had a lot to teach guys back in your era.” The Babcock-creature looked as baffled as everyone else.
“Willy should do a dance,” Tyson was saying from the outskirts. “That’ll really freak him out.” You could see the creature get a little less substantial, that lantern jaw starting to drift into mist.
Mitchy said, “I want you to know that you can’t measure hard work on outside appearance. You don’t know what anyone else is going through.” His voice was really quiet and his eyes were really big; it was that little-orphan-Mitchy look that got him all the endorsement deals, that would put his face front-and-center all over this town twenty-five, fifty years from now, whether or not the team ever won anything. But it didn’t make what he was saying untrue, or unimportant.
The creature got even fainter, and Auston thought for a moment that was it. Better men than Babcock had run up against the tide of Mitch’s earnestness and lost. But the creature gave a mighty roar and its mouth settled more firmly into its downward tilt and it grew so that it stretched to the top of the dressing room.
Spezza said, just the way he would if he were talking to somebody at a bar, not as if there was a ghostly projection of Babs looming over him, “You know, you fuck with enough people for no reason and that’s going to hurt you down the road. You’re a smart guy, you should have known that.”
And then it was like the Babcock creature put all its effort into one last shot at corporeality and stretched out a tentacle and grabbed for Freddie. Auston would have thought Freddie would have been able to break free easily. Like, Auston tried for his own health not to think about how big Freddie was, but you would think it would be an asset in this situation. Instead there he was struggling and struggling and getting nowhere.
The creature’s head swiveled side to side and for the first time it spoke out of its ghostly Babs mouth. “I’m taking him with me. You’re wasting him, playing him on the back end of back-to-backs, not playing defense. Not playing the game the right way. Not building camaraderie. No teamwork. No pride.”
Auston felt his hand clenching at his side. And then Tavares caught his eye and gave him a little nod and it was like, he wasn’t just some kid who had to sit there and take it. He had some things to say.
“Hey,” he said, “Babs.”
The creature had been about to scuttle down the hallway, Freddie still in his grasp, but its swiveling head turned back towards Auston.
“This team, it’s a good team.” It felt like his tongue was going to burn with the effort of saying it. He could only imagine what Tyson would have to say about it later, what Freddie would, for that matter. But he had to get it out. He couldn’t let it go unsaid anymore. “It’s a good team that can do great things. And I’m . . . .” He didn’t think he could say it. It was too embarrassing. But Freddie’s eyes were on him. That was a good thing. He thought it was a good thing. “I’m proud to be a part of this team. I’m grateful to be a part of this team. I love this team.”
“Oh,” the Babs creature said. “Why didn’t you say so?” The tentacle unwrapped from Freddie. The only sign Freddie gave of having been released from supernatural and disgusting custody was a little cough. He didn’t even step away from the thing which, now Auston came to think of it, smelled absolutely disgusting.
“I didn’t think I had to say it,” Auston said. “But I was wrong. Also,” he said, “I’m kind of an asshole.” That was hard to say too. He had said it or something like it in other contexts, where he had meant it as kind of a good thing, a cool thing about himself, and it had been easy to say, but now it choked in his throat a little bit.
“Yeah you are,” the creature said.
“I am.” They looked in each other’s eyes for a moment. Auston wondered if somewhere the actual Mike Babcock felt some weird energy pass into him before he went back to lassoing moose on his Saskatoon estate or whatever the fuck he was doing. “Doesn’t mean you weren’t also kind of a shitty coach.”
J.T. clapped his hands together. “I think what we’re saying, Coach, is that we all appreciate your time and your energy.” This was why he was a great captain. Not only was he saying that with a straight face, but there was at least an eighty percent chance he meant it. “But I think now it’s time for us to make the jump to the next level. To dig deep within ourselves and find that capacity to do better.” Auston was still facing Freddie, and, okay, he still couldn’t tell what Freddie was thinking most of the time, but he was pretty sure he knew what Freddie was thinking right now. The wink helped. Auston would have winked back, but he still wasn’t very good at it. Maybe that would go on the list of skill development. “This has been some great energy on everyone’s parts. Let’s build on this.”
This time Freddie claimed shotgun for the ride home. Tyson said, “Oh man,” and then paused and said, “Actually, I think I’m going to take the subway.” On the one hand, it seemed a little bit wrong for the guy to be taking public transportation after being part of the resounding defeat of a supernatural monster. On the other hand, Auston wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Okay,” he said, “stay safe.”
In the car, Freddie said, “That was a pretty good speech.”
“Thanks.” He swallowed, hard, and thought about keeping his mouth shut. But if this went wrong, better that it go wrong in his car. He could always get a different car, but he didn’t want to get a different condo, and he was pretty sure if he went down in flames he would not be able to look at the place it happened the same ever again. This was the problem with wanting things, right? Anything, a Stanley Cup, a Hart, an Olympic medal, the captaincy, a person’s heart. You wanted it so much and then if you didn’t get it you had to live with that for the rest of your life. You had to wake up in the morning not having it and go to sleep at night not having it, and that sucked and it went on sucking each and every day.
On the other hand, if this whole thing had taught him anything, it was that the alternative wasn’t any better.
“The team’s not the only thing I love.”
“Well, yeah,” Freddie said. “You love fashion and Russell Westbrook and you’re contractually obligated to love Nike . . .”
“Oh, look who’s talking.” Freddie wasn’t going to make this even a little bit easy for him. Which, maybe that was all the information he needed. But he was going to say it anyway. Or . . . Freddie’s hand was snaking across the center console, was landing on his knee in a pretty definitive kind of way. Maybe he didn’t have to say anything after all.
“Yeah,” Freddie said. “Me too.”