“Hey.”

“Hey,” he answered without looking up at me.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine.”

It was obvious that he didn’t want to talk to me and the last thing I wanted was to fight with him before a game, so I just walked away. Andy shot me a shrug and patted my shoulder as I walked past him out to the ice. The game didn’t start for a little while, so the stadium was still fairly empty except for the guys skating around and the vendors starting to set up. I stood in the doorway that led from the bench out to the ice and took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of the rink that I missed so much.

“Excuse me,” Brody said gruffly as he brushed past me. I stepped far to my right and tried to stay out of the way. A minute later, Coach Collins came out from the tunnel, too. His eyes scanned the ice as he took mental stock of everyone who was there. He was just about to walk back into the tunnel when he noticed me.

“Finkle!” A big smile grew across his face and he hurried over. “Good to see you upright without crutches!”

“Thanks,” I answered as he pulled me in for a big hug.

“How’s it feeling?”

I shrugged. “Feels great. No pain except for soreness after therapy. I’m making pretty good progress, too, and it’s only been a little over a month.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He nodded and pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Keep working hard, because we miss you out there. We’ve got some good guys, but it’s just not the same. You give this team an energy when you’re out there that no one else can replace.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

Damn, that was nice to hear.

“All right, I’ve got some stuff to do still before the game.” He started to walk away but turned back to me after a few steps. “You’re sticking around, right? We’ve lost three games in a row. We could use a shake up on the bench.”

“I’m sticking around,” I answered, trying to keep my smile in check. It felt good to hear Coach say he missed me, on both the ice and the bench.

 

Once the game started, I struggled to keep up with all the excitement. Who knew that spending a whole month lying in bed would zap your stamina and turn you into a sloth?

Thankfully, the adrenaline kicked in when the energy ran out. Before the first period was over, I was bouncing up and down the bench, slapping guys on the helmet and turning toward the crowd, waving my arms for them to stand on their feet. I knew my knee would hurt like hell the next day, but I didn’t care.

During a time-out in the second period, I was listening to Coach Collins rile the guys up when all of a sudden, the crowd started cheering loudly. I lifted my head and looked to see if someone had launched something down to the ice. Louie elbowed me and nodded up toward the big screen above the ice. My face was on the screen. The fans were cheering for me! I raised my hands above my head, pumped them in the air, and the cheers roared to a deafening level. Being in that building, being with my team, being with those fans pumped some life back into my dead heart. I felt a small piece of myself returning.

The Wild’s losing streak came to an end that night. The Wild Anthem belted from the speakers as I high-fived all the guys on their way into the tunnel, and then the celebration continued for another hour in the locker room.

 

As Andy drove me home, I couldn’t stop my mind from racing or my legs and hands from twitching. A bright blue current of electricity coursed through my veins, and I couldn’t sit still, no matter how hard I tried.

I got home and decided to scrub my kitchen top to bottom, throwing out four huge bags of garbage. I also began making a mental list of all the shit I needed to do to put my life back together.

It was no secret that the number one thing on my list was also going to be the toughest. As bad as I wanted to, I couldn’t just march in and demand my family back. Michelle was a lot of things. She was strong, she was caring, and she was forgiving . . . but I might have pushed her too far.

Even so, I knew one thing for sure. If I was going down, it wouldn’t be without the fight of a lifetime.

 

 

“Momma! Momma!” Matthew sprinted down the hall and flew onto my bed.

I blinked several times, trying to get my eyes to adjust after being startled awake. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

“Come with me.” He tugged on my arm and tried to pull me to a sitting position.

“Come with you? Where?” I glanced at my phone. “Matthew! It’s not even six o’clock yet.”

“To the window!” he said excitedly, ignoring my complaint.

While I climbed out of bed slowly, he bounced around in front of me, clapping his hands. I reached out and took his hands in mine. “No clapping. If Maura wakes up, I’ll cry. Okay?”

He gave me a huge grin and nodded as he dragged me to the window and pulled back the curtain. “Look!” he exclaimed.

“Whoa,” I said in a whisper as my eyebrows shot up and I leaned toward the glass. We’d had an unusually mild November and I knew the winter weather would be coming eventually, but apparently I’d missed the memo. A fresh blanket of snow covered the whole world outside my window. It was calm and glistening and absolutely beautiful. I’d always loved the way the snow looked first thing in the morning before the cars started driving over it and people walked through it.

“Can we go play in it?” Matthew asked.

“We can . . . in a little while. It’s still early.” I cupped his head and pulled him against me. “Hey, I have an idea.”

He pulled back and looked up at me with big blue eyes that had the power to get anything they wanted out of me.

“How about we snuggle in my bed until Maura wakes up, then we’ll have pancakes, then we’ll play in the snow?”

He knitted his brows together. “But momma, Viper makes the pancakes.”

“I know he does, honey, but he’s not here. I’ll make them for you.”

“When’s Viper coming home? He’s been gone forever.” He walked over and climbed up onto my bed, flopping down dramatically on the pillow.

Oh God. What do I say?

I took a deep breath and lay on the bed next to him. “Sweetheart, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Viper. He’s going through some really hard grown-up things right now.”