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The Sweetest Sounds I'll Ever Hear

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Jonathan Toews is looking for a hockey bond.

It’s the kind of news that gets splashed all over every sports blog and sports section everywhere. Hockey players don’t go looking for bonds that often—mostly they just happen, in juniors or college or rookie year, with coaches and agents helping things along if nothing’s taking. It’s basically unheard of to make a major event of it, but then, no one else has ever become a major star without a bond, until Jonathan Toews. So it’s the kind of news that has everyone talking, that has bond-eligible rookies across the whole league sharpening their skates, that has bloggers questioning whether the Blackhawks know what they’re doing, making such a public attempt to bond the one player who’s never been able to do it.

It’s the kind of news that makes a lot more work for Patrick.

He heaves the dripping mop back into the bucket and checks his watch. Normally he wouldn’t be here so late before school, but BHTV is filming something today to publicize the big event, and they want everything to be as shiny and perfect as possible. As if they’re going to have trouble convincing people to come try and bond with the great Jonathan Toews. Patrick could say no to the extra hours, but—well, they did him such a favor hiring him last year, when he was only fifteen, and he doesn’t want to give them any reason to reconsider. If he loses this job, he won’t have any money to send to his sisters.

Not to mention that he won’t have anywhere to skate.

Patrick can just see the ice from where he’s mopping one of the tunnels. It looks—God, it looks perfect, an unblemished sheet that might as well go on forever. He wishes he could go out there right now and carve the first snowy arcs into it with his blades. But, school first.

It’s only the second week of twelfth grade, and so far, this year seems a lot like last year: eight hours of classes that Patrick can’t care about at all. He would much rather draw hockey plays in the margins than pay attention. But if he doesn’t do well, what is there for him after high school? Who’s going to help his sisters get through college?

So he does pay attention, sort of—there have to be some hockey plays in the margins—and when the last bell finally rings he bursts through the doors, breathes the fresh air, and heads back to the UC for his regular afternoon shift.

This part, he kind of loves. Maybe he shouldn’t, since it’s just cleaning, but he’s cleaning the UC. Where the Blackhawks clinched the conference finals last year. Where Patrick gets to sit in the stands during games, way high up so that he’s not taking anyone else’s seat, and watch the players zip around the ice with his heart in his throat and his hands clenched on the edge of the chair. He loves this place. And he knows, while he’s scrubbing or sanding or whatever it is they need him to do that day, that every minute he works is a minute that’s bringing him closer to his time on the ice.

He finishes cleaning by seven-thirty. This is when he could go back home, but—well. His foster parents are well-meaning, they really are, and it’s not their fault Patrick feels like an intruder in their house. It’s a little more his foster brothers’ fault, but even then, Patrick gets it. It can’t be easy to have some random kid around and to be told you’re supposed to treat him like family. Anyone would have trouble with that.

It’s easier to stay at the rink, anyway. Less transit time. He sits in one of the lounges and does his homework—trig and bio, ew—and waits for the hands on the clock to crawl closer to ten.

He’s not expecting anyone to be around, not while it’s still the preseason, but evidently the filming is still going on, because there’s a rattle of footsteps and voices down the hall, and then Jonathan Toews comes into sight with a camera crew.

Patrick hunches down in his seat and pulls his hat lower on his head. It’s not that he’s not supposed to be here, but he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. Doesn’t want people to start asking questions about him.

They don’t come into the lounge, thankfully. He watches them walk by outside, catches a glimpse of Toews’s face as someone asks him questions for the camera. He looks engaged, eyes bright, spots of color high on his cheeks. Excited about whatever he’s talking about.

This is the player no one can bond with, the one who won the Calder last year and almost bagged the Art Ross. Patrick’s never spoken with him before, but he’s seen him on the ice, knows how good he is. Would never dare talk to him.

He sits quietly and waits for them to go by, and then endures the next hour and a half until it’s ten o’clock and he can officially go skate.

This was part of the bargain he struck with management when he started working here. As long as there isn’t a game or other official event, Patrick can go on the ice and skate anytime after ten p.m. or before seven a.m. His curfew is midnight, so he can’t really skate after a Hawks or Bulls game, and once the season starts he’s usually dragging himself out of bed well before the crack of dawn to get to the rink in time to get a few hours of workout in. But tonight—tonight, there’s no game, no event, nothing, and for a few blissful hours he has the ice to himself.

It’s really better than anything he could have dreamed of, a year ago when he was moved here. It doesn’t make up for being so far away from his sisters, but there was nowhere to skate at all at his last foster home. He had tried to keep playing with the rec league from his previous home, but it was too far a drive for his foster parents and he was outgrowing all his gear. They would have had to buy him all new stuff, and that was too much to ask of foster parents who were just trying to make ends meet.

Here, though. Patrick steps onto the ice and feels that familiar feeling sing through him. Cold, clean ice under his blades. The freedom to move.

His skates are amazing. He won them, at the end of last year, in a raffle at the rink. He had bought a ticket and put his name in even though he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to—it’s not like he had bought a game ticket—but when they called his name, nothing could have kept him from claiming those skates. He got to meet with the Bauer people and have them fit specially to his feet, and they feel like an extension of his skin.

It’s not always very effective, practicing with no one else on the ice with him. And maybe it’s stupid to try to keep himself in hockey condition when he knows he’ll never play again, not for real. But he loves it: hitting around a puck with the old sticks the equipment guys were going to throw out, practicing his deking and dangling, pretending there are real defensemen he’s maneuvering around. The puck snaps sharply off the boards, and the UC is cavernous and empty around him, a whole arena just for Patrick.

Two hours is enough to get him sweaty and panting and sore. But he would never cut it short for anything.

***

He goes home, takes a shower, falls into bed, and gets up at four a.m. to do it all over again.

It’s not really enough sleep. But it’s skating.

It seems that Toews’ bonding search is going to be a three-day event. Unbonded rookies from all over the league are going to be there, and even some of the top draft prospects for next year. They wouldn’t be able to play yet, but if they bond with Toews, there won’t be any question about their place next year. Dozens of them will be descending on the UC the weekend after next, along with thousands of spectators: some of them fans, rooting for him to find his perfect match, and some of them gawkers who want to stare at the spectacle of a superstar with no bondmate.

There are all sorts of rumors about it. Rumors that Toews is stuck-up, unfriendly, and that’s why no one will bond with him. That he didn’t even want to try last year, because he thought he was so much better than everyone else and a bond would just slow him down. That he just won’t modify his playing style enough to make it work with anyone else.

That last one is pretty obviously crap, since he led his team to the Stanley Cup finals. You don’t do that unless you’re able to make your play work with other people’s. And Patrick knows the bonding rooms were in use a lot last year. He wasn’t down there when the players were, of course, so he doesn’t know who was in them, but there weren’t a lot of rookies on the Blackhawks. He’s pretty sure most of that was Jonny.

None of that is Patrick’s problem, though. He just has to clean up after it.

At the moment, on the ice before any of the staff gets here, he doesn’t even have to do that. He’s working on passing this morning: trying to hit the puck cleanly towards targets, since he doesn’t have anyone else to work with. He’s tried a few things in recent months to give himself moving targets—hitting one puck slowly, then skating away and hitting another towards it to try to knock it off course—but none of it is quite what he needs yet.

He’s thinking about that when he leaves school that day, about how he might get some real passing practice in, and that’s why he doesn’t notice that Chris is waiting for him.

Chris is the oldest of Patrick’s foster brothers, and the worst. They all get after him from time to time, but Chris is the most determined about it. Patrick knows better than to keep going if he sees that their paths are going to cross. But he’s thinking about how he could set up passes for himself to intercept, and so he doesn’t see Chris standing there until he’s too late.

“Hey, shrimp,” Chris says, and Patrick stops at the sound of his voice. Chris is barely an inch taller than Patrick, but he’s been calling him that all year. “Off to go figure skating?”

Patrick shoves his hands in his pockets, just in case he’s tempted to hit Chris at some point in this interaction. “That’s not what it is,” he mutters.

“I don’t know. Seems girly enough,” Chris says.

Patrick starts walking again, right past him. He’s learned a lot about putting up with taunting over the years, and he’s not always good at implementing what he knows, but ignoring someone is usually the way to go.

Not always with Chris, though. “Hey, shrimp, I’m talking to you,” Chris yells, and leans forward to grab the hat off Patrick’s head.

It shouldn’t be that big a deal—and it wouldn’t be, if it were any other hat. But this is the one Patrick picked up on the ice last fall, after Jonathan Toews’ first hat trick in the NHL. The one his boss, Louie, saw him holding afterwards and took one look at his face and told him to keep. Patrick knows better than to get attached to objects, living the life that he does, but—this hat.

Patrick gives a shout and reaches up, but of course Chris is already dancing away. He’s holding the hat out of Patrick’s reach, turning it in his hands, like he’s trying to figure out the best way to deface it.

“Ew. I think this is more shrimp sweat than hat by now,” Chris says, waving it around in the air. “Shouldn’t be allowed around normal people.”

“Give it,” Patrick says, sounding, he knows, like a stupid kid, but the panic has its claws in him by now. It’s not like he’d ever be able to get another hat like this.

“Nah, I think I’ll finish the job you started,” Chris says, and throws the hat across the parking lot.

Patrick runs for it. He’s ashamed of it, hates himself while he does, but he can’t help it. He runs to where he saw the hat fall, just past the rows of cars, and sees it—

Right at the edge of the lot, buried rim-deep in mud.

Patrick sticks two fingers in and fishes it out. It’s shiny mud, reflecting rainbows, like it was made with dirt and engine oil. Someone’s crappy school car has been leaking oil into the dirt at the edge of the lot.

He hears Chris’s laughter across the parking lot. Hot tears spring to the corners of his eyes. The mud drips off the hat in globs and lands at his feet.

He has to go to work. He makes his way to the subway in a daze, telling himself not to be stupid, it’s just a hat, it doesn’t matter. He’s given up trying to have nice stuff he gets to keep, moving from house to house the way he does. It’s just his skates and—this hat. But it doesn’t matter. There are so many bigger things in his life that have gone wrong, and this is a stupid one to cry over. He shouldn’t have let himself get attached.

The mud has dried kind of crusty by now. Patrick’s looking down at it as he goes into the rink, blinking hard, and that’s why he doesn’t see the other person until he bumps into him.

Patrick takes a step back, and it’s Jonathan Toews.

Patrick feels himself flush red right away. “Oh—I’m sorry—”

“No, no, my fault, it’s okay,” Toews says. Then, “Hey. Are you okay?”

Patrick ducks his head. He doesn’t know what he looks like, but he’s sure there are tear tracks on his face, maybe some mud. He feels like such an idiot: a sixteen-year-old crying over a hat. “Yeah, it’s nothing.”

“Okay,” Toews says. He’s hovering awkwardly. Patrick doesn’t know why he doesn’t just go away. “I mean, if you—um.”

He’s staring at the hat. Patrick’s sure it looks gross, can see that it does, and feels his cheeks burn hotter. He feels like he needs to explain, even though—

“It’s, uh, from your first hat trick,” he says, and immediately feels stupider than if he’d said nothing at all. “I was there, and, uh—God, sorry, I’m being so stupid.” He swipes angrily at the tears that are trickling down his cheeks again, probably getting more mud on his face. Why can’t he just keep it together, in front of the star of the Blackhawks?

“No, hey.” Toews’ voice is closer, and Patrick startles at the touch of a hand on his shoulder. Toews is right next to him now, and, wow. Patrick’s seen so many interviews with him; how did he never realize his eyes looked like this? They’re this beautiful clear brown that makes Patrick forget to breathe for a minute.

“I don’t know if this will help,” Toews says, “but, uh, here. If you want.”

He takes the hat off his head, the Blackhawks cap with the Indian head logo in the front, and holds it out to Patrick. Patrick stares at it.

“I’ll just—“ Toews puts the hat on Patrick’s head, sliding it down over the curls. “There.” He gives a tentative smile. “Okay?”

“Um. Yeah.” Patrick’s trying to remember to breathe again. Jonny grins at him, wider this time, and takes off down the hall.

Patrick stares after him. Jonathan Toews just gave him his hat. The hat off his head. He saw Patrick being a sniveling mess and—and actually cared. Wanted to make it better.

And this is the player no one can bond with. Patrick would think they’d be lining up around the block.

***

The next week is crazy. The whole maintenance staff is working overtime, and Patrick has school, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to pull his weight. It just means he works extra hours after school and during the weekend.

It also means he’s not home very often. When he drags himself home on Saturday night, after he’s scrubbed what felt like a hundred thousand square feet of stadium risers, his foster mom is waiting in the kitchen for him.

“Patrick,” she says when he walks in the door, and he knows he’s in trouble.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he says. “It’s not curfew yet or anything, right?” He twists his wrist to look at his watch.

“It’s not curfew,” his foster mom says. “But you know, curfew is just a limit. It’s not an encouragement to stay out until midnight.”

Right. Patrick knows that. They’ve had variations on this conversation before, when he was out skating too much, or when he tried to take public transportation to visit his sisters and was away for fifteen hours. “Sorry. It was just work.”

“Right,” she says. “Chris and Kyle did your share of the laundry this week.”

Patrick freezes. Fuck—he forgot about the laundry. He’s been trying to keep up with his chores this week, after coming home from the rink, but there just hasn’t been enough time. He hasn’t even been skating as much as he wants to. And if Chris and Kyle had to do his chores, he’ll never hear the end of it from them. “Oh God, I’m so sorry,” he says.

“They were happy to do it,” she says, which he knows is a lie, even if she doesn’t. “But you need to learn to be responsible, Patrick. You can start by doing their share of the laundry tomorrow, and raking the lawn.”

Patrick can do that. If he gets to the rink earlier than usual, he can leave early and do the lawn. “Right, of course.”

“All right.” She seems mollified, but her mouth is still turned down. “Here, I saved some dinner for you.”

She passes him a plate of meatloaf and vegetables, and Patrick hadn’t realized how hungry he was until now. He tries to find time to buy lunch while he’s working, but sometimes he’s concentrating and forgets, and he tries to save what money he can. And being so active all day means he’s hungry all the time.

“Do you think—could I call my sisters?” he asks when he’s halfway through the plate.

She considers him for a moment. “It’s late. You can call them tomorrow,” she says.

***

Patrick does call them tomorrow, when he’s folding laundry. He waits while their house phone rings.

Jackie’s the one who answers. “Patty!” she says, and he feels his face break into a smile. It’s the biggest he’s smiled all week.

“Hey, chipmunk,” he says. “How’s it going?”

“Good,” Jackie says. “But Jess won’t let me have my turn with the jump rope.”

“Tell Jess she should be nice to you because I’m not there to do it,” Patrick says.

“I’ll try,” she says doubtfully. “Guess what? I can jump for five minutes without stopping now.”

“Wow,” he says. “I don’t know if I can do that much.” He definitely can; it’s something he’s worked on at the gym in the UC basement, as an endurance exercise. But the lie is worth it for how she giggles. “Did you get the money I sent you guys?”

“I think Erica did,” she says. “She took it to the bank after school.”

“No one else on the account, right?” Patrick says. “Just you guys?”

“Just us,” Jackie says. “I want to save up to buy a house.”

Patrick laughs. “A house?” he says. “What would you do with a house?”

“Have you live in it with us,” she says, and all of a sudden Patrick has to stop folding, has to screw up his face against the tears that are trying to spill out.

He knows how the foster system works. Knows that sometimes people want just boys or just girls, that four is a lot of kids to place, that they’re lucky to have found one family that would take all three of his sisters. But he hasn’t lived with them since he was thirteen, since the car accident that changed everything, and sometimes he just wants. A room with all four of them bundled together. A door he can lock.

“Patty?” Jackie asks.

“Yeah,” he says, only gasping a little. “Yeah, chipmunk, I’m here.”

“Do you want to talk to Jessica?” she asks. “She’s pulling on my sleeve.”

“Of course I do.”

He talks to Jess and Erica, hears about Jess’s crappy math teacher and interrogates Erica about the money—“You guys are saving it, right?” “Yes, Patty, what kind of idiots do you think we are?”—and tells them about the new passing drills he’s working on and the craziness surrounding the bonding event. He doesn’t tell them about the long hours or his foster mom bugging him. They don’t need to hear that.

“Hey, are you okay?” Erica asks him near the end of the call.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. You just sound a little off.”

Patrick tugs on his hat, the Jonathan Toews hat. He knows he looks like an idiot, wearing it indoors, but he’s only taken it off to sleep or shower. It makes him feel better, having it on. “Just—Jackie. You know.”

“Yeah.” He knows Erica gets it. Jackie’s young enough to still stay stuff that cuts them deep without knowing it.

“You know she wants to buy a house for all of us?”

Erica laughs. “Yeah. She drew a floor plan. The top floor has four bedrooms and one big cuddle room.”

Patrick tries to smile, but he’s not sure that’s exactly what his face is doing. “Okay, I’ll totally fund that.

“Yeah,” Erica says quietly. “I know you would.”

***

He doesn’t know if it makes him feel better or worse, talking to his sisters. Mostly it just makes him want to talk to them more.

One more year. Just over a year until he’s eighteen, and then—well. They don’t usually let eighteen-year-olds with part-time jobs assume custody of three underage siblings. But Patrick’s trying not to think that far ahead.

Work keeps on being crazy, and school keeps on being boring and more difficult than it should be. Twice Patrick actually falls asleep in his Psychology class. He knows it would make his life easier if he stopped skating, at least until the craziness of this bond event is over, but then—what would be the point? He has to have something to look forward to. He can’t go to sleep just to wake up and go to sleep again. He has to be on the ice.

Thursday, the night before the big event, they’re there late putting up big pictures of Toews’s face all over the UC. Patrick thinks they chose a kind of dumb one. It makes Toews look overly serious and intense, like all he cares about is winning or something. Patrick knows he can look like that, out on the ice during a faceoff, but he likes it better when Toews looks softer, when he’s smiling and a little embarrassed. Like he was when he gave Patrick the hat. Patrick doesn’t know; maybe they’re going for a serious hockey angle, here. But he thinks whoever bonds with Toews should know about the softer side, too.

Of course, what does he know? He’s just the one applying the glue.

He doesn’t have time to skate that night. He has to run out of the UC when they’re done and hop on the El to get home just before curfew. Then he has to do his chores, and by the time he’s done, it’s after two and he can’t even think about setting the alarm early enough to skate before seven.

When he wakes up the next morning, it’s the first day of the bonding search.