He had exactly forty-eight minutes to temper himself, numb that jolt in his shoulders and come back. The sun was hiding behind the oak trees. Jack shot a couple of photos, captured the glint, and kept walking toward the lake. He chased the orange and brown landscape. No doubt autumn had broken out in Massachusetts. His memory led him to the backyard of his home in Canada, where his father raked the garden every Saturday. He would create a pile of leaves that would grow into a mountain, or so it seemed to him as a child. His father would then hand him a match and they would light a fire in the company of neighbors. They'd circle the fire as they chatted in the twilight, raising beer cans. The foliage on the path crunched under his feet reminding him of the metallic crack of the toast. A flock of birds bent a branch on its ascent; Jack surveyed the scene behind the target. He smelled the water and paused. He was fascinated by the blurred reflection of the trees, diluted sunset along the waterway. He breathed in the peaceful atmosphere, wishing to be inoculated by that peace. He wiped his sweat in his sweatshirt pocket and the zipper scratched his knuckles. From his neck hung the camera as a squirrel climbed a nearby log. The animal nibbled on a pine cone and scampered out of sight in the direction of the canopy before Jack could snap a photo. He had exactly twenty-five minutes to get back. The shore was strewn with pebbles. Jack picked out the flatter, circular ones, which turned black in his hands. He threw one, which deflected his traverse to finally get lost in the depths. He tried several times with the same result. He worried that it was a bad omen. Now, the sun's rays sought to caress him among the maples, walnut and pine trees. He jogged back at a gentle pace, to warm up. Just as the Samwell boarding school structure appeared behind the valley, the bus arrived. It parked on the esplanade. A stream of green and yellow emerged making a ruckus. Jack knew them well; the two teams had a legendary rivalry. The aftertaste of the peanut butter sandwich he had eaten earlier rose in his throat. The summer had expanded them in height and weight and, although Jack had not been left behind, he found the group of gladiators intimidating.
He had just been named captain and was still having trouble digesting it. They used the assembly hall to announce it at the beginning of the school year. It was the first time in months that Jack had visited anywhere other than the hospital or his room at the rehab center. He was overwhelmed by the unfriendly colors of the venue; the navy of the curtains, especially, made him think of a place where one could shipwreck. His colleagues paraded across the stage to cast their votes inside the ballot box, smiling at him. Still, when his name was called, perplexity settled behind his orbits. He had not prepared a speech. The words piled up on his tongue and he could only manage to rescue a “thank you” that he could not quite feel. They trusted him and his judgment when his pulse faltered. In reality, Jack made good decisions; the feeling of being wrong was there, inherent in his thinking. Sometimes he felt like a tightrope walker with no net to hold him up. Especially since Kenny wasn't sharing the position with him.
Standing behind a fir tree, Jack watched his opponents milling around Faber's entrance. They were heating up the atmosphere with their war emblems, ready to kick their asses. He noticed it in the looks following him as he made his way to a shortcut, not many knew about, to the locker room. Once there, the hectic atmosphere welcomed him. They formed an endless embrace around the board as they went over strategy, once again, before heading out. Jack thought that, behind him, someone was praying.
A roar was heard in the stands and, with a second to spare, the siren blew, ending overtime. His heart mimicked the tempo, echoing around the circumference of the hit. The electrifying sound throbbed in his ears, as a whirlwind of hormones took over the center of the ice. Both players looked at each other through the protective visors, and Jack thought the hair under his clothes was preparing to jump out and leave his skin. He imagined each hair peeling away from him to cross the fabric of the red-and-white jersey, wave goodbye to the number one between his shoulder blades, rip through the protective shields and flee. He swallowed acid saliva, the shock had caused effervescence in his esophagus. The left winger peeled away from his side, and rising, hurled an adjective intended to be humiliating. Jack ignored it.
“Good game,” he said by way of a white flag. The other dismissed the gesture and walked to the bench.
Jack scanned the crowd, examining each face to find the one that had infected his concentration, but only the empty space remained. He took a deep breath. Across the field the goalie gave him the middle finger. Shitty skated over to Jack, followed by Ransom's shaven, glistening head. Holster, on the other hand, interrupted the journey a few yards away, weighing whether to offer his hand to his partner or give the enemy fist stew for dinner.
“Jack, can you get up?” Shitty asked.
As soon as he was back on his skates he marched toward the locker room, and once there, the tingling under his skin subsided a little. His legs catapulted him, as a matter of course, into the showers. The imprint of the impact was beginning to shadow on his side. He turned the faucet, and the water rushed over the back of his neck in thunderous bursts. White noise muffled the commotion of his teammates crowding around the benches. A legion of lumps populated his arms. He shivered, but did not turn away. Droplets slid down his black bangs, ran down his forehead, tripped over the ramped angle of his nose and disappeared at his feet. On the roof, the pipes rasped. He found he wouldn't mind if it all came crashing down at once. He imagined the explosion, the smoke of dust flying over them, dyeing their hair white. He visualized the streaks of blood flowing down their chins and felt dizzy. He lathered his head, then his body, and the world did not end. Meanwhile, the boys kicked the puddles around the drains, staggered, and almost fell. Fortunately, there were no accidents that afternoon. Wisps of mist permeated the atmosphere, yet Jack could still sense the teammates’ smiles. The wall held him up when his legs threatened to knock him down. He shifted so that the warm spray massaged the turbulence in his shoulder. He closed his eyes. If a moan came from him, no one heard it. The root of the wound resounded in his ears; the blade peeling the ice, his pads bursting against the fence. And the sweet whistle of the puck flying toward an open goal. They had won, after all. In spite of everything. Nausea pooled in his stomach because Jack didn't feel the victory was his. He wondered what Parse would say about that arbitrary throw. Thinking about him was something Jack tried to avoid. This time, however, he snuck into the shower after him. “Lucky you, eh, Zimms?” he whispered crashing his elbow into his ribs. Jack didn't hit back. Kenny massaged his skull by standing on his tiptoes “You like it like that?” Saliva left his throat. In his fantasy, the tension of his convoluted muscles unraveled in Kenny’s hands. His mental slip opened the guilt gap; Camilla was waiting for him outside, but he didn't feel like seeing her right now. Jack turned off the faucet, reached for the towel. He finished drying himself with a lump in his throat. He crossed the bathroom, lingered for a moment in the hallway leading to the laundry room, where the washing machine rumbled lightly. Next to it stood the misty mirrors. Holster wiped a circle to study his acne outbreak; he hoped the incipient beard would cover his problematic areas once the season progressed further. Ransom, next to him, let out a laugh “the problem is your face, asshole” he said standing behind him, admiring his own reflection. Jack laughed inwardly. A riot of red and white reigned everywhere; helmets and knee pads rested on the benches, the light from the fluorescent lights on the ceiling sparkled on the edge of the skates, and sweaty sweaters that hadn't ended up in the laundry basket littered the floor, conveniently skirting Samwell's "S" in the center of the room. The applause when he finally rejoined the rest altered his electronervegram. Beside him, Shitty curled his elbow around his neck, glued his temple to Jack’s and, after clearing his throat began a monologue with more F words than Jack would have preferred.
“A beautiful shot, man. I got a boner and everything,” he said pointing to his crotch. Jack was grateful that this time he was wearing pants, as it was common to find him naked at the most inopportune moments.
A wave of embarrassment began to centrifuge in his stomach. It had been pure luck. Jack had kept his eyes closed the whole time in reflex, with the rival’s number twelve pressing against his lungs. And he only knew of the puck's opportune trajectory when he heard the crowd erupt in jubilation. Jack noticed Shitty's splendorous mustache and the small shadows patching his cheeks. “You good?” Shitty asked. Jack affirmed with his chin. He practiced all those expressions that didn't come naturally to him. He trained as if his face were the ice and his lips the strategy. They all watched the slight tilt of his corners with great relief. Shitty propelled himself, and with a leap, landed on Jack’s back. Shitty’s hair dripped onto Jack's neck, who struggled to shake it off; however, they all must have taken it by way of invitation, because he ended up buried under that whole pile of bodies.
“Captain, tell me you're not overthinking it.”
Jack narrowed his eyes, wanting to ignore him.
“Please, don't call me that.”
“It’s your fault for not appreciating the noble art of nicknames.”
“Someday you'll have to tell me your first name.”
Jack immersed himself in the daily routine that hovered over the night. He was amused by the rush to dress up of some who intended to go out, in contrast to the calmness of those who intended to stay in and read at the dorms. From Friday to Sunday afternoons they were allowed to leave the center. They could even return to their homes, if they had enough money for the flight. And for those who stayed, they were offered a handful of hours to calm the prison effect that escorted their weeks. Male students were allowed to return at twelve o'clock, while female students, however, had to return to the premises an hour earlier. “Because we're still in the fucking fifteenth century, apparently,” complained Shitty last term, when most reached the appropriate age to enjoy the privilege. Jack was one of those who had a book waiting for him by the bedside. Nursey was rubbing his tummy as he asked what was for dinner that night. Jack was about to answer when he was overtaken by another guy. Displeasure rose between them as they learned the answer. Jack held his nose as Chowder sprayed a cloud of deodorant under his armpits. That artificial stench lingered in the air, sweet and dry, which brought a cough from him. They were silent when they heard Coach Murray approaching from the trainer's room. As the door opened, the smell came out. He waved to the team and stopped before the “S.” “And here, this is where the magic happens, Bittle” he pointed out addressing the boy following behind him. He grabbed him by the arm before he could land a single foot on the letter, causing Bittle to lurch forward bowing. The scent of cherries and cinnamon sweetened the air. Jack inhaled out of inertia. He salivated. He remembered the first Sunday of every month, when he still lived with his parents and allowed himself to cheat on his diet. He thought he recognized that new face smiling straight at him. Jack looked down. He finally understood why the rehearsed maneuver had faded from his mind. He saw him in the stands, an instant in which hope took precedence over doubt. He noticed that there was a certain similarity in him to Kenny. A little. Not enough, he now confirmed. His heart stumbled and he had the urge to touch his chest. Bittle swept over them with his thick southern accent. He scanned the room with his brown eyes. Kenny's varied to gray, green, brown depending on his mood or temperature. If Jack kissed him they turned black, a void in which he looked at his reflection and moaned.
Bittle stood very still in front of those huge hockey players. He expected more chaos, more testosterone. He was used to condescension, to being annoyed by their mere presence, yet he only sensed curiosity. After a throat clearing, the coach proceeded to introduce him. Jack gazed at him behind Nursey. He measured his short stature, weighing whether he could be advantageous on the ice. Bittle's sweat-soaked fingers slipped through the wicker of the basket he carried. He had studied long and hard whether it was a good idea to bring pies. On the one hand, he didn't want his excellent baking skills to be a source of ridicule, but on the other, his manners would not allow him to arrive empty-handed. He fiddled with the tea towel covering the sweets as he told them, “Good Lord, please call me Eric or Bittle. Congratulations on the win, it was very exciting to see you. I hope I don't let you down,” he swung his chin between Jack and the coach, from the coach to the rest of the heads, “Oh, I almost forgot, I brought fruit tarts for after dinner, but if you want, Goodness gracious me do not let me stop you from trying them now.” Hunger encouraged the avalanche, and the basket fell from him. Chowder, the goalie, rescued several before they touched the ground. With a mouthful of crumbs, Shitty offered Jack a piece, which he refused without batting an eye, using his award-winning willpower. As the others satiated their voracious post-game appetites, Jack couldn't help but calculate how long it would take for anyone to knock the new guy out of the game.
Bittle knew what kind of thoughts he aroused in others. The constant taunting at his locker door was a daily reminder, and the rumors, though distant, crept behind his ear. Although he went out of his way to please, he was greeted at school only out of politeness. The rest of the time he didn't exist, as if when the bell rang he evaporated. That was the reason why, ever since he learned to bake, he only hung out with his mother's friends from the book club. Bittle didn't read; it was enough to keep up with his class reading list. He did, however, enjoy listening to them and offering cupcakes or new recipes that otherwise he wouldn't know if they would work or not. He thoroughly enjoyed watching them savor their dishes, and the succession of compliments as they slowly closed their books, drank tea and gossiped with their lips still behind the cup. The large dining room was painfully distant from his little sitting room, and suddenly he was drowned in all that space that hosted the murmurs of three hundred students at dinner. He sat with the team, next to Shitty, who kept complaining under his breath about the food, swelling with bread.
“This isn't real steak, but the food industry has got you brainwashed.”
Bittle agreed and spent some time explaining to them that Cordon Bleu was traditionally cooked with veal, and that he had his doubts about where the meat came from, as it was not usually greenish. The rest of the conversation shifted to hockey.
“In my old team, checking wasn't allowed,” he interjected with a whisper.
“You'll have to get used to it,” Jack said, pushing the potatoes away from his plate to join the breaded skin he had separated from the meat.
Bittle nodded slowly, wondering if he could overcome a push of that caliber, or if he would be able to thrust with the vehemence demanded. He diluted the lump in his throat with a little water. As he nibbled on a soft, gritty pear, Jack yawned goodnight. His room was at the end of the hallway and was the only one on the entire floor that had three windows due to an architectural error. So, as he entered, he was greeted by his taciturn silhouette in the glass. In the common room, the soundtrack of a war movie was playing and reached his ears. Seared popcorn thinned the air. He closed the door before Shitty stuck out his mustache to drag him out or, worse, invited himself in. He was tempted to join the rest, skip the diet and send the rigidity of his schedule to hell. But on weekends he had an habit of facetiming his parents. His mother was holding a glass of red wine when she asked him if he liked the new pajamas they'd sent him. His father noted that it brought out the blue in his eyes. Jack said yes, even though the fabric scratched him. It had marked folds and, while his mother complained about the last script his manager had sent her, he ran his fingers over all those lines, trying to iron them with his warmth and the wetness of his nerves. Alicia left the screen and Bob took advantage of that moment alone with his son to ask about the game. Jack showed him his bruised side, Bob the scar on his elbow. “Bonne nuit maman, bonne nuit papa, je les aime beaucoup” and they hung up. The smile fell to his feet, he pulled his shirt over his head, scratched his chest and the red spot grew. With his pants at his ankles he checked that there were also irritated areas down his legs. He looked for something else to wear and it didn't take long. The boarding school students defined his room as neat, with everything in order. Or so they began to adjectivize it after Kent Parson left. The floor was now nothing but dust, with not a single garment in sight. He used to find a trail of socks, breadcrumbs to never get lost, from Kent's bed to the door. It disarmed him to see the quilt without a wrinkle or crease. No evidence of ever having existed here. He succumbed the urge to unravel it and crawl inside. How many times had he lied to himself arguing that he slept on it because it was more comfortable. How many times he'd caught himself thinking he was just keeping it warm. As if he would ever come back. Kenny occupied his bed often, telling him “I'm warming your sheets, Zimms, and soaking them so you can't sleep unless it's by smelling me.”
“Son of a bitch,” Jack mumbled, hugging the pillow.
They were in the habit of snuggling together after games, when Kent discovered that if he held Jack tightly, his breathing returned to normal. And it was like that for a while. Who kissed whom first was something Jack never managed to discern. He thinks it was an unspoken approach, probably mapped out over months. In every mile traveled by bus. In weeks of camping near the lake. In every shower together after a workout. In the evenings sharing space, shortening centimeters between their arms. That afternoon the puck traveled from one to the other and they won. One more victory since they connected on the rink. They showered in a hurry, dressed hesitantly as if they knew the life span of those pajamas was about to expire. Tucked in the darkness of the room both mouths probed each other. Kenny burrowed into his chest, wanting to warm his heart. Life surfaced between his legs, and Kenny watered his skin with his saliva, paraded his lips where he knew it would make him sigh. And Jack sighed, mortified, against his palm. “Don't do that, I want to hear you,” he chided him softly. They touched without fail, without looking at each other, with the same intuition they gave off on the ice. Kent won, shivering with Jack's hand tracing circles on his stomach, and his nose sucking between Kent’s thighs, "so you're just as fast at everything," Jack chirped him. Kenny made a point of wiping the smile off his face. And it was still missing since he hadn't been drafted, but Kent had.
Two floors down, it still seemed unimaginable to Bittle to have three hockey players, no less, taking the trouble to navigate him through the center. They had visited the gym and the olympic-sized pool, and now they were heading to the boys' area. They were talking about Lardo, who won the last hot dog eating contest, only to vomit it up all like a sprinkler.
“And it all finished with a burp,” said Holster.
“It made a crack in the glass,” added Ransom. Shitty's laughter echoed among the four of them.
The endlessness of the corridor quickened their steps, or was it the somewhat gloomy lighting. At the far end, a huge window promised plenty of morning light. The curtains, still drawn, swept the floor. They were navy blue, just like the sky in Madison that time on the soccer field, lying on the grass next to the team captain, gazing at the stars. The black window box, so dark, reminded him of the inside of his old locker. Still, the general tone seemed welcoming. He couldn't decide if it was the wallpaper on the walls or perhaps the arrangement of the furniture, which stretched across the space in a homey way. A crooked picture cluttered the perspective; Bittle oriented the frame with his forefinger, admired the painting, and kept walking. The rattling of his suitcase echoed through the corridors of Samwell. His ears were ringing with Shitty's intemperate use of expletives. A talkative fellow. His anti-establishment verbiage accompanied them for a while longer, until Bittle commanded him to shut up when they entered the kitchen.
He stroked the countertops with his fingertips, horrified at how they clung to the sticky surface. Dense droplets of grease hung from the range hood. He planned a thorough cleaning for the next day. The stove call to him like a mermaid song. On it rested a saucepan with a blackish paste on the bottom, “Good Lord, what was this supposed to be?” He bent down to promise the oven a sour apple pie the next afternoon. “I'll take care of you, you poor thing,” he waved goodbye.
“Here you can cook whatever you want. We are free to use the facilities, but not to come back at one minute past twelve at night,” Shitty said, “it's crazy! They just want to oppress us, hold us by the balls. Or by the pussy. Fuck, you know what happens if you come in half a minute after curfew, Bitty?”
The new nickname landed on them naturally. Bittle looked at him puzzled. He started opening drawers so he knew where he stood and if he should ask his mother to send kitchen utensils the sooner the better. He peeked inside the cabinets and frowned at the array of ketchup jars and protein shakes on every shelf.
“Here we go. Man, have you heard about moving on?”
“And have you heard my farts? Listen to me, Bitty. If you're ever late, say goodbye to playing until the next Saturday. You're left there dustered on the fuckin' bench chewin' your fuckin' nails. Not cool, bro.”
“And, besides, there's Jack,” Ransom pointed out, “believe me, you don't want to piss off the captain.”
Holster colored the conversation with anecdotes about the legends they had studied here. Bad Bob Zimmermann, for starters. Jack's father, who donated $1.3 million to the boarding school in 1991, the year he won his third Stanley Cup. Shitty showed him a photograph of the moment and Bittle had to stifle a laugh.
“Jack is the only person in the world who has ever crapped inside the Stanley Cup. Twice.”
“That we know of.”
“Hey, Bitty, what room did they put you in?”
Bittle looked at his arm and replied one hundred and fifteenth, which they reached in two more strides. The boys said good-bye just as he invited them in. He passed through and found Jack lying on what, he understood, was to be his bed for the next few months. He moved tentatively. A notch in the wood caught his eye. It was crescent-shaped, from when Jack collapsed face down, cracking his tooth against the floor. Officially, Jack's visit to the dentist was from an accident during a game where the visor failed to protect his mouth. Or at least that's what you could read in Samwell's newspaper, next to an article of the best-looking jocks at the boarding school, Kent Parson topping the list. In front of him, beneath the windows, a double desk stretched out. The portrait of Jack and his family was illuminated by the flicker of a candle on the nightstand to the left. Bittle would hang his on the wall, next to one of Beyoncé. Jack turned to him and, red-faced to the roots of his hair, apologized. “It's all right, how are your ribs?” Bittle began to weigh what he liked and disliked about the decoration. “Fine, it just hurts a little.” When they rammed Jack, Bittle's skin prickled, foretelling that he might not be able to get up so gracefully afterwards. He placed the suitcase next to the dresser and carefully opened it. Jack was amazed at his diligence, but the truth was he just wanted to look good. His mother described his room in Madison as orderly chaos, and he never disagreed with his mother. They chatted for a while in the semi-darkness. Jack learned that Bittle was a figure skater, but had quit. He didn't inquire why, but imagined flowery maneuvers on the ice for the next game. He felt as if he were hungry, a mute complaint in his nearly empty stomach. He ignored the sensation by fixating on the soft droop of his eyelids and that sleepy smile as he prattled on, jumping from one topic to the next. Jack studied his pixie nose, weighed whether it was precisely that trait that undid his resemblance to Parse, and decided it did. Bittle spoke quieter and quieter, with a sedate pace. When he heard Jack sleeping, he blew out the candle and tucked in up to his nose. Jack's after-shave lotion disrupted his sleep's journey. And that little corner of the room, reserved for his privacy and rest, felt invaded. However, he had no desire to uncover and leave, but sank even deeper into the mattress, letting his warmth, and Jack's remaining warmth, converge on his back. He waited for the sleep to come by staring at the ceiling, his heart drumming insistently against his chest.