He sits alone in the dark sipping whiskey from a crystal glass and watches the clock. He has been cleared to play. What he wants is to celebrate; lift a few with the boys but they are not here. Hearing his father’s voice, proud and expectant was good, but not quite the cherry on the top of his day.
The second hand sweeps the face of the clock and he takes another sip of the dark amber liquid, feeling it burn on its way down. The only sound is the minute hand ticking forward and the clink of the ice in the glass, oh, and the whirr of the gears in his brain as he thinks about taking the ice, about the first face off win, the first pass and, of course, the first hit.
Will it be hard, he wonders, as he the whiskey coats his tongue and who will it be? He’s heard rumours that guys will take it easy on him but those are stories he dismisses. They have never been easy on him. His is a number that other players hunt and he knows that the next hit might end his career.
A shudder passes down his spine. The idea of never being on the ice again sits at the back of his mind, a throaty whisper in the dark like a warning phone call in a horror movie; ‘he’s in the house’. It’s like a threat written in blood. In his own blood which should make it worse, but like any warrior, it is a threat he dismisses easily. He will take the ice. They will chant his name. He will score a goal and lift his arms in the air in triumph, his teammates will pounce and he will roar like a lion over its kill.
Will she be there?
Putting the glass down he runs his fingers over the tickets as if he half expects to be burnt. His father is on his way, will be there like the proud papa bear, pounding his chest as he claims his cub. He will not put her there. He will not put her in that particular line of fire. If his mother could make she would insist on meeting Fern but luckily for all of them his sister has a game and his parents will divide their time between their offspring and he can put off that particular corner of hell until another time.
She swipes the last table with a rag and pockets the meagre tip. Tips have gone down lately in direct proportion to the swelling of her stomach. Running her forearm across her forehead, she is already thinking about the massaging showerhead and her bed. Her thoughts are so focussed on the time she can take off her shoes that she doesn’t see him sitting at the counter until she goes to put the cash in the register. The diner is almost empty, apart from a young couple at the other end of the diner sharing a banana split and two grizzled blue collar types sipping hot coffee to which they’ve added something from a flask. His broad shoulders and expensive pea coat cause him to stand out as neither college kid nor every-day-joe. No, Sidney Crosby will never be that she thinks as she closes the till.
“Thought you might need a ride home,” he says quietly, looking at her from beneath the brim of his ball cap.
“Thanks. I wasn’t looking forward to the bus,” she replies honestly, rubbing at the small of her back and wincing. It’s been a long, busy shift and being on her feet for the entire time has not agreed with her condition. “Two minutes?” she says, holding up two fingers. He nods and goes back to reading the sports section.
“It’s not for me to say but...that one...he’s been here a few times lately, rides home and what not?” the older waitress, the one that will see the diner through until the early morning shift says without looking up from the pie she is slicing before adding it to the rotating display in the corner.
“Yup,” Fern answers in the affirmative but does not offer more information than that.
“Handsome. Nice clothes. Good manners,” the woman adds, her gaze sliding down the counter. Fern has seen her husband with his motorcycle jacket and skull cap tucked under his arm, tats right up to his chin, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“Mmmmhmm,” Fern replies noncommittally, untying her apron and folding it over her arm, keeping her eyes lowered.
“So is he the one then? Got you up the spout?” the woman asks. Fern chews on her bottom lip and thinks carefully about her reply. If the woman knows who he is and she answers in the affirmative, gossip will spread like wildfire and it will be all her fault. If she does not and it’s merely an innocent question, not to answer will only lead to more questions and...
“He’s just someone I know, a friend,” she says quietly as she takes her pen and order pad and places them under the counter. “See you tomorrow.” She feels the woman’s eyes on her as she walks down the length of the counter to where he is waiting. He folds the paper and puts it back where he found it, with the sugar, ketchup, salt and pepper.
“Ready to go?” he asks unnecessarily. She nods and waits for him to go ahead so she can follow. He holds out his hand. She stares down at it and then up at him. His shoulders are hunched so the collar on his coat hides most of his face. The brim of his ball cap does the rest. Tentatively she slides her hand into his and feels his warm hand close around her own. It is an unusual feeling and she does her best not to grin as he guides her out of the diner towards his car. “Didn’t want you to fall, it’s icy,” he explains as he reaches past her to open the passenger door. He pauses there, his massive chest pressed to her shoulder, her hand still feeling as small as a child’s in his but something is not quite right.
“Have you been...drinking?” The scent is familiar and he is so close that she can almost taste the oak barrels the whiskey on his breath was aged in.
“I had one, before I came here,” he says defensively, letting go of her hand and moving away from her at the same time.
She shoehorns herself behind the wheel, moving the chair back and forth until her toes barely reach the pedals but her swollen belly is not pressed against the wheel. He feels guilty and turns to stare out the passenger window as she puts the big vehicle in reverse and slowly backs it out of the parking lot.
“I wondered if you’d come to the game,” he blurts out as she eases the SUV onto the street. She drives like his mother, slower than strictly necessary and with both hands gripping the wheel as if there is a chance it might get away from her.
“So you passed everything? You’re cleared to play?” she asks, he thinks, unnecessarily.
“Yeah...uh, I thought we could go somewhere, to y’know...celebrate,” he adds, although some of the flash, the shine has gone out of the idea for him now that he is not in complete control. It’s petulant and he knows it but he jams his fists into the pockets of his jacket and grinds his teeth just the same.
“I’m happy for you,” she says and by the tone in her voice he knows that she genuinely means it. He glances over at her, at the way she glances in both the rear view mirror and the side mirrors before she changes lanes, at the look of utter concentration on her face as they come to a stop at a red light. They could already have a ‘baby on board’ decal on the car she is that careful. “But I’m tired,” she sighs, shooting him a regretful look. The red reflection of the stop light shines on her face and makes her eyes seem very dark but her lips look as red as maraschino cherries and his gaze lingers there, thinking about how they might taste. “My ankles are so swollen...I just want a bath and then put my feet up,” she continues as the light turns green and she eases the Land Rover forward again.
“Well maybe we can stop at a store, get something I can make while you have your bath,” he suggests.
“You can cook?” Her mouth pulls back across her teeth and there is a playfulness in her smile that makes him swallow the immediate retort that comes to mind.
“Well no, not really,” he says honestly. “But I can heat something up or put it in the oven. I’m pretty good at that,” he adds, a smile finally pulling at the corners of his mouth as she laughs, the sound of old wind chimes filling the vehicles darkened cabin.
When she emerges from the bath it is just in time to see him lift the aluminum tray of lasagne from the oven, the cheese melted and just a little crispy around the edges. Her stomach rumbles appreciatively at the sight and he lifts his caramel coloured gaze to meet hers as he puts it down on the counter as if he can hear it. She tugs the elastic from her hair and lets it tumble down over her shoulders and shakes it out before she reaches to pull out a stool.
“I thought we’d eat at the dining room table,” he suggests with a nod towards the formal dining room. With a shrug she grabs the two plates, forks and knives and follows him into the dark room. He places the lasagne on two table savers and then pulls box of matches from his pocket and lights a pair of ivory coloured taper candles in the middle of the table. She arches an eyebrow but says nothing about the otherwise romantic ambience which includes music from his iPod plugged into the stereo system in the living room being piped into the dining room via speakers in the corner of the room.
She puts the plates out and goes back for glasses, one red wine for him and one ginger ale for her. When she gets back to the table he has moved the plates so that he is sitting at the head of the table and hers at the corner adjoining his rather than across the table from each other. She raises an eyebrow at this arrangement too but keeps her opinion to herself.
“I was wondering,” he begins as he dishes the cheesy pasta onto the plates, “if you’d thought about names.” Sliding into the chair meant for her she picks up her glass and takes a sip before she replies.
“I have,” she begins putting her glass down again and waiting for him to sit. “If it had been a girl I’ve always liked the names Emily or Hannah but for a boy...,” she glances up at him but he is looking down at his plate, his fork already embedded in the cheese and meat, “I thought Anthony or Simon.” She waits for his reaction, searching his handsome features as he brings his fork up to his mouth. There is hardly any change to his expression until his gaze meets hers right before he puts the food in his mouth.
“As long as it’s not something they can make fun of, like mine,” he adds with a fleeting grin before he slides the food between his lips and begins to chew. She looks down at the food on her plate and tries to school the smile that tugs at the corners of her lips. She can hear the school yard taunts in her mind and knows from what she’s read that it’s true but she can’t quite stop herself from smiling at the idea that the man sitting next to her now was once a boy smaller than the rest who was the prey to school bullies.
“Don’t you have any ideas?” she asks and when he stops chewing and stares back at her blankly she laughs, lifting her hand to cover her mouth. “Well he is yours too, I think you should have a say in what he’s called.” He appears to think about this for a moment and then shrugs as he sticks his fork back in his food.
“Well it’s not gonna be Troy, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says quietly. Her heart squeezes in her chest painfully for him, for the angry downturn to his full lips and the way that he stabs at his food. There is no use asking about grandfathers. She knows he has none.
“Maybe a player?” she suggests quietly. He pokes at his food and then shrugs again.
She is almost asleep as the opening credits to the movie they have chosen begin. She covers a yawn but her eyes are drooping despite her best efforts to keep them open. He watches her from a safe distance down the couch as she forces her eyes to open wide as Channing Tatum, in his Roman legionnaire’s uniform appears on the screen.
“Feet,” he says, holding his hands out. She looks at his hands and shakes her head. “C’mon, you said your feet were sore. I have trainers that do this all the time. Feet,” he insists, flexing his fingers until a pale foot emerges from beneath the afghan. He slides closer to her and puts her foot in his lap and begins to work at it, digging his fingers into her instep, listening to the fine cracking of the small bones of her feet as he drags his thumbs over the top of her small foot. She sighs and leans back and gives him a sheepish smile. “Watch the movie,” he instructs. She turns her attention back to his big screen TV, affording him a long look at the pale line of her throat where he watches her pulse beating steadily in her neck.
When he digs both thumbs into her instep she makes a noise that he’s almost sure he’s heard, once before and he turns his gaze quickly to the screen but doesn’t see action on it. He shifts so that he is almost sitting sideways, so that her foot does not accidentally brush the near erection as his cock rises to the sound of her submission.
“Other foot,” he commands quietly and she shifts so that the first foot disappears under the throw and the second emerges, pale and small, and slides into his hand. As she shifts, so does the strap on the tank top she is wearing. It falls from her shoulder so that the graceful line of her neck is unfettered. He stares at the long line of exposed flesh and wonders how something so ordinary can make his mouth become dry.
He runs his hands up the back of her heel towards her calf and her gaze shifts to meet his. He knows his eyes are too wide, as if he’s been caught doing something that he should not, but he does not stop. He massages her calf muscle, working at the tight knot behind her knee and watches while she bites down on her bottom lip, at how she drags it into her mouth, at how the pulse in her throat quickens.
It would be simple, he thinks, to slide his hands further up her leg, to press her back into the couch and generate more of those little noises and part of him wants to. The other part of him drags his fingers down to her foot again and forces his attention back to the screen. Someone’s head is rolling across a dusty road. A battle is ensuing.
She tries to withdraw her foot but he holds onto it, working his fingers gently but firmly up the outside edges of her foot. The screen goes to black as the main character is run over by a chariot. He glances over at her. Her eyes are closed. He takes a deep breath and turns his eyes back to the screen. His moment of weakness has passed.