“Here, let me take her.” Brody laughed. “You don’t have much of a lap left.”
Kacie straightened her back and rubbed her side with her hand. “Thank God. I’m ready to be done and meet this little girlie.”
“How much longer now?” Michelle looked at Kacie as she pulled Matthew’s hoodie off over his head. His blond hair shot out in a hundred different directions, but he grinned up at me without a care in the world. I reached over and smoothed his hair, gently leaning down and touching my forehead to his without saying a word.
“Six weeks,” Kacie sighed.
I turned back toward Brody. “Whose idea was it to have this baby during the season anyway?”
“Um…” Brody quickly glanced at Kacie and back to me. “My penis’s.”
“Ear muffs! Ear muffs!” Michelle yelled out as she covered Matthew’s ears.
“Yeah, seriously!” Kacie glared at him as Lucy and Piper covered their mouths and giggled behind her.
“Sorry.” Brody laughed as Portland walked up to the table.
“Hey, guys! Oooh, you brought the little ones today?” She looked from Lucy to Piper to Matthew to Emma.
“Yep. The boys had their opening game tonight, so we’re celebrating.” Kacie smiled proudly.
“Oh, that’s right. We watched it on TV. Way to go! You guys want a pitcher?” she asked.
“Uh, no beer for me. I’ll have—”
“A root beer?” She grinned at me.
“Yep.” I bent down toward Matthew. “You want a root beer too?”
“Wait,” Michelle spoke up, “he’s never had pop before.”
“Please, Mom?” he whined as he looked up at her with big blue puppy-dog eyes. “I want a root beer like Viper.”
“Fine.” She sighed. “Just one, but you’re not gonna like it.”
Brody ordered a beer and Kacie got lemonade for herself and the girls. “What do you guys wanna do for food? Pizza?” she asked as her eyes scanned the menu.
“Sounds good to me.” I folded my hands in front of my face and stared up at the TV above us, hoping to catch the highlights from the game.
“Matthew, do you like pizza?” Kacie asked.
Michelle immediately looked up at me, and the second we made eye contact, I laughed out loud.
“Stop it!” she yelled playfully, wadding up a napkin and throwing it at me. “Don’t you dare say a word.”
My head fell onto my arm on the table. I was laughing so hard I thought I might puke. As if the whole innocent pizza comment weren’t funny enough, the fact that Michelle knew what I was laughing at without me even having to say anything made it one hundred times better.
“What did we miss?” Brody asked, looking back and forth between me and Michelle.
Michelle licked her lips and shook her head, still trying not to laugh as she rolled her eyes. “Nothing. Viper’s a brat, but I’m sure you already knew that. He likes to tease me about ordering too much pizza because I don’t know how to cook, even though I have yet to see him make something as simple as a sandwich.” She looked at me and raised her eyebrows, taunting me.
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” I held my hands up. “I can cook, damn it. I can cook good.”
She leaned forward and batted her eyelashes at me. “Prove it.”
Challenge motherfucking accepted.
I was on the ice during morning drills and heard the sound of my name. I glanced up toward the bench to see Mia, Coach Collins’s assistant, standing in the box, waving her arms to get my attention.
“What’s up?” I called out as I skated over.
“Coach wants to have a quick word with you before practice starts.” She smiled and walked away.
What the fuck is this about?
“All right, I’ll be there in a minute,” I hollered back.
It would have been nice had he called this little meeting before I put my skates and pads on, but he’s the boss, so I couldn’t tell him no. I went to the locker room and spent ten minutes taking all my crap off before making my way to his office upstairs.
“Come in!” he yelled after I knocked on the door.
I opened it and walked through, prepared for anything.
“Hey, Viper.” He gave me a tight smile as he pointed to the chair by his desk. “Have a seat.”
My stomach sank. I was already pissed off and he hadn’t even started talking yet. Why the hell would they have let me start the season if they were going to let me go? What city was I going to end up in? I’d have to move and take Gam with me. What about Matthew? My mind raced with questions as Collins stared at me for a long time without saying anything.
He finally relaxed back into his seat. “Well, I’m impressed.”
“We had a phone conference with Dr. Roberts this morning. She told us how well you’re doing with therapy, and she gave the green light for you to go ahead and continue with the season.” His chair squeaked as he rocked back and forth with his fingers locked behind his head.
“Wait. You talked to Dr. Roberts? About me?” Panic welled up in my chest. I didn’t want anyone, certainly not my coach, knowing what Dr. Roberts and I had talked about in that office.
“Well, about you in general. No specifics. She just let us know that you hadn’t missed one meeting and that she felt you were progressing nicely. The head honchos in the office are happy, which makes me happy. So, well done. You can continue to see her or stop, that part is completely up to you, but in terms of your probationary period… that’s over.”
“Oh.” I nodded slowly, staring at the pen on his desk. “That’s good to know.”
“I’m proud of you. Now, go practice.” He stood up and held his hand out for me to shake, which I did. Then I quickly left his office.
When I was a kid, there were a million things in the world that could make me feel sick to my stomach. Breaking a neighbor’s window, scratching the side of my dad’s new car with my bike, having a sealed envelope in my backpack that I had to give to my parents to sign and bring back to school the next day. None of these things even began to compare to being called down to the principal’s office, and that’s how I’d felt every time I was called up to Collins’s office, but not that time. That time, I left his office with a smile on my face and a Star Student of the Week kick in my step.
In my haste to get to the rink that morning, I’d forgotten to send my typical morning text to Michelle. The minute practice was over, I grabbed my phone.
I’m a little late today, but how’s it going over there?
I gathered up my sweaty clothes and shoved them into my bag as I waited for her response.
M: Awful. I tried to make chocolate chip pancakes this morning and started a small fire. The kitchen is a total loss. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
For the second time that day, my heart sank.
Holy shit. Are you serious? What can I do? You guys can come stay at my place for now.
My hands shook so hard I almost dropped my phone twice. I sat down on the bench and stared down at it, silently begging it to beep. I needed her to respond.