Son of a bitch!
I hung my head as Big Mike’s hands flew up in the air in celebration.
“Nice shot,” I congratulated as we met in the middle again.
“Thank you. Wanna just concede now and save yourself any more humiliation?” He laughed.
“Fuck that. Let’s go.” I crouched down again, impatiently waiting for Louie to drop his arm.
The black flash of the puck was barely in front me for a millisecond before I was swinging at it, trying to gain control, but once again, Big Mike was too fast. He swatted the puck off toward Brody this time, and we were in a full-on sprint to see who would get to it first. Mike beat me to it by no more than two seconds, and rather than swipe at it and steal it from him, I did what I know how to do. Lowering my shoulder, I crashed into Mike as hard as I could, sending him flying backward and landing on his ass. As his brain registered that this wasn’t just some cordial hockey game, but a game of pride, he glared at me and scrambled to his feet. I hooked the puck and skated backward just a little bit to put space between us again. My handling wasn’t good enough to get close to Brody and try and fake him out. I needed to shoot from as far away as I could and hope that Brody would make a mistake. I wound up and shot it as hard as I could.
“Damn it!” I yelled out loud this time as my head hung low again, and I slowly made my way back to the center of the rink.
“Wow, Finkle.” Big Mike was already there as I skated up. “Didn’t know we were going all out like that. Thought this was just a friendly little one on one.”
“I go hard every game, no matter who I’m playing. Wanna quit?” I was pissed, embarrassed. This match was my idea, and I was losing miserably.
He scoffed, “Hell no I’m not quitting.”
We got into position again, and just like the three times before, my body shook as I stared at the ice, waiting to jump on the puck. My heart was racing, but not like it raced in a normal game. There was way more at stake here than just the humiliation of parading around in a pink tutu for a week. I didn’t want to look like a loser in front of Louie or Brody, and I didn’t want Big Mike to see me as weak.
I was so lost in my head thinking about what could go wrong if I lost that I nearly missed the puck drop. Big Mike easily gained control of it that time, but it gave me a chance to skate a little ahead of him and try to block his attempt at a close shot. Mike’s eyes bore into mine as he moved the puck back and forth, weaving closer and closer to the goal. His top half went left, but I knew that was a ploy, so I went right. Sure enough, he ended up taking a shot from his right hip. It flew over my stick and, thankfully, bounced off Brody’s glove. Before Brody could pick it up and slide it back to Louie, I caught it with my stick and moved back toward the middle of the ice. Out of nowhere, Mike came barreling at me. As he snuck an arm around me to try and steal the puck, his elbow collided hard with my bottom lip, jolting my head backward. Bright white stars dotted my vision as Mike skated away with the puck, going head-to-head with Brody once again.
I looked down at my practice jersey, which had a long line of dark red blood down the front of it. Slipping my glove off, I lifted my hand to my mouth and wiped my lip as the taste of blood coated my tongue.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Finkle,” Big Mike said sincerely, a concerned look on his face. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
“No problem, baby!” I whooped. “It’s all part of the game. Let’s go.”
Mike was up two to nothing, but no fucking way was I going to let him shut me out completely. The next goal was mine. Period. It felt like it took the puck ten whole minutes to fall from Louie’s hand to the ice, but once it did, Mike and I were a mess of sticks and limbs. I got control this time, and I would fight like hell to keep it.
I skated around in full control of the puck as Mike camped out in front of Brody, waiting for me to make my move. It was hard enough to get through Mike, but getting through Brody at the same time would be tough. I kept skating close to Mike and then pulling back, hoping to draw him out farther onto the ice where I could skate around behind him and battle it out with Brody alone. After three circles in, Mike finally took the bait and skated out toward me, but my plan backfired. Instead of skating around him, he was able to reach in and poke the puck away from me, out the other side. I skated past it and he cut in behind and took control once again. That was it.
He was gonna score again.
He was gonna win.
I used every drop of adrenaline in my body and skated toward him like a freight train, determined to get that puck back before he got to Brody. He glided effortlessly along the ice, his eyes set on Brody and the goal, not even paying attention to me. Coming in from behind, I pulled my shoulder in tight and rammed into Big Mike as hard as I could. His body went flying toward the boards, abandoning the puck completely. I took control of it and in one swift motion, smacked it as hard as I could toward Brody, who barely had time to make a move for it.
I threw my hands up in the air and cheered in celebration as loud as I could.
“Finally!” I roared, my voice echoing through the empty arena. I turned immediately to heckle Brody, but he was frozen, staring past me. I turned around, following his eyes, and there was Mike, lying in a heap on the ice.
I FELT LIKE I was in a movie. Brody, Louie, and I all skated over to Mike as fast as we could.
“Mike, you okay?” I heard my own voice, but I didn’t feel like I was talking. “Get up, man.” He didn’t move. He didn’t respond. Pulling his shoulder gently, I tried to roll him over.
“Stop!” Brody grabbed my arm roughly. “You can’t move him. Louie, go get Pete! And call 911.”
Louie stood up and tried to skate away so fast his feet kept flying out from under him. Eventually he gained control and skated across the rink to go get Pete, the team trainer.
I’d heard people talk about a “stomach-sinking” feeling before, but until that moment, I’d never actually experienced it. But they were absolutely right. Inside I felt like I was falling, but in reality I wasn’t moving at all.
“What happened?” My voice cracked, exposing the sheer panic coursing through my system. “I hit him and then went for the puck. I didn’t even see what happened.”
“I’m not really sure.” Brody put his fingers on Mike’s neck, checking for a pulse.
Holy fuck. A Pulse. How can he not have a pulse?
“I saw you hit him,” he continued, “and then I watched the puck for about half a second before his body sliding across the ice caught my attention. He crashed into the boards pretty hard, Viper. I think he might have been out at that point already.”
I didn’t think it was possible for my stomach to sink any lower, but it did.
Just then, Louie and Pete came racing across the ice.
“What happened?” Pete yelled, sliding to a stop next to Mike. Just like Brody, he checked for a pulse on Mike’s wrist.
I swallowed hard and took a shaky breath. “I hit him.”
Brody’s eyes flew up to look at me, but I couldn’t look back at him, so I just stared at Mike, silently begging my friend to wake up, to talk, to move an arm… anything.
Pete moved around to the other side of him and shined a light in his eyes as we heard the faint sound of a siren getting louder and louder. It felt like an hour later but was probably only seconds before a small team of paramedics slid across the ice as carefully as they could.