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Totally amped up.
It’s only the first preseason game, but when it comes to stepping back out onto the ice for official competition, it feels like a Stanley Cup game to me every time.
I’m nearing the end of my shift, defending against the Bobcats’ power play. The Cold Fury is up 4–2 with just under six minutes left to play in the game, and I’m determined they’re not going to score here. I pass my stick from hand to hand, sweeping it on the ice as the center passes to his left winger and back again, attempting to cut off any pass they want to attempt through the crease.
I get lucky too when the center doesn’t put enough zip on the biscuit and I lunge for it, tapping it from its trajectory and into the boards. Unfortunately, not enough to knock it past the blue line, so I hustle after it.
I reach the puck a millisecond after the center, who wedges himself between me and my prize. We scrabble, throwing elbows and shoulders and even kicking at it with our skates to expel it out. It’s a hard-fought battle, probably not lasting more than a few seconds, but starting to wind me since I was at the end of my shift anyway.
I really don’t even see it coming, and it probably wasn’t intentional, but it still hurts like fuck when the dude’s stick pops upward, the end catching me just above my left eyebrow. I don’t feel the pain at first, but red, blurred vision lets me know I have blood streaming down my face. The ref blows the whistle and play stops as the penalty is called.
The pain hits me next, and I bend over at the waist, my clear eye watching as a stream of blood hits the ice and freezes. Within mere moments, a towel is covering the cut and I hear Vale say, “All right…let’s get you off the ice.”
Her hand stays steady at my back as I lift up straight, taking the towel in my own hand to hold it in place. She walks alongside me gingerly while I skate to the bench, which has an exit door on one end that will lead back to the locker room. A few of the players slap me on the shoulder as I walk past. Grant Izerman, a second-line defenseman yells out, “Get stitched up so you can come back out and kick his pansy ass.”
I can’t help but chuckle, because that’s exactly what I intend to do. A tiny cut sure as shit isn’t stopping me. Hell, I played with a fractured jaw three years ago for two periods, only accepting a face guard when the AT wouldn’t let me return to the ice without it.
It’s funny, even through the layers of my gear and thick sweater, I can actually feel the loss of Vale’s hand when it drops away so I can precede her through the exit door. I’ve been wanting to talk to her, not only to find out what she meant about loyalty to herself, but because I’ve been feeling increasingly guilty about the way I handled things with her.
I practically accosted her in my bathroom, knowing full well she had a boyfriend, then outed her to said boyfriend about the nature of our prior relationship, which I know put Vale in a bad situation. I don’t feel guilty about Todd, but I do feel guilty about Vale having to deal with the fallout. Even more so because I had purposefully set myself on a mission of not adding any more stress to her life right now. I had no fucking business touching her or demanding answers, because in the grand scheme of things, what does it fucking matter? Vale and I are over and there is nothing she could possibly say to me that will erase the pain, nor let me forget all the things I lost. I know I should just be happy with reconnecting with her and Dave, so that’s what I need to focus on. I need to let Vale be…let her get married to her toad of a boyfriend and have lots of little babies that hopefully look like Vale and who can play inside their white picket fence. This is something I need to do and let go of the other shit, and we’ll both be happier for it.
Vale slides past me, entering the locker room and heading over to the training/medical room set up for the visiting team. Our travel doc, Herman Collins, is waiting for me, having been watching the action from a TV feed back here.
“Up on the table,” he says briskly, and I watch with my one good eye as Vale starts unloading the necessary supplies from the travel case. I hop up onto the table, and in just under five minutes, Dr. Collins has my injury evaluated, lidocaine injected, and the cut closed with four stitches. The entire time, I watch Vale, who keeps her eyes solidly pinned on Dr. Collins’s hands as they work me.
I wait for her to give me a glance—not expecting any conversation due to the presence of Dr. Collins—but just something to show me what she might be feeling. I wait and wait for it, but it never comes. The minute the last suture is placed, Vale heads out of the locker room to get back to the ice.
The elevator door opens to the hotel lobby and I file out along with a few of the other players. We decided to hit up a local pizza joint that supposedly serves the world’s best deep-dish pies known to man, although I’m sure every Chicago pizza place boasts the same thing. We’re all buzzed after our final 4–2 victory, and despite the slight throbbing in the cut above my eye, I’m high on the win.
I’m heading out with Grant and Max, although a few of the other guys said they’d meet us up there. I imagine we’ll stuff our guts and then head somewhere for a few beers after.
As we head through the lobby, a small group of fans wearing Cold Fury jerseys waits for us, clamoring for autographs just before the large carousel door that leads outside. We stop and oblige, signing jerseys and scraps of paper. When I look up to the next woman waiting, my eyes slide past her face and into the restaurant that sits off the hotel lobby. I see Vale in there, eating a salad by herself and scanning something on her phone, which lies on the table beside her plate.