“Hey, it’s me. Just saying hi. Feel like I haven’t talked to you in forever and, you know, really exciting things happen all the time here. There’s a lot to tell. So give me a call, if you can. Oh, and Sid? Good luck tomorrow.” Leah disconnected. It was their fourth or fifth message traded, but she seemed to be in the shower or a meeting whenever Sidney called back.
He always calls back, though.
Sid watched his phone light up, saw Leah’s name on the screen. It was within reach of where he lay sprawled across his bed with just a towel wrapped around his waist. He couldn’t even lift an arm to pull the blanket over himself, forget answer the phone.
His head hurt. His body hurt. Combined they hurt only about half as much as his heart.
So, so stupid, he told himself countless times. Risk was not Sidney’s style off the ice. He was more than the heart of his team, he was the poster boy for a League that really needed all the help it could get. During the lockout he’d held everything together, seemingly for both sides, and he had just managed to let it go when the whole thing ended anyway. Now he was back to being the captain of his team and the face of hockey, not to mention the pride of his city and meal ticket for more people than he cared to count. One stupid night could ruin a whole perfect life.
He groaned. That was his father’s voice in his head, the drill sergeant conscience Sidney had always carried with him. Some of it made sense, the rest was melodrama. It was just hockey. Nothing from last night could affect his ability to score goals and lead his team. At the end of the day, that’s what mattered. Sid hated himself for believing in his own hype.
There was nothing to lose. Except Leah.
How can you lose what you never had? he thought despondently. A message icon appeared. Sid pushed it away and closed his eyes.
The same ringing noise woke him again hours later.
Mario Lemieux’s voice scared the shit out of a very disoriented Sid. What time was it? Why was he sleeping face down in just a towel? Worse: Did Mario know about last night?
“Yeah, hi.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Fast asleep to hating himself in two seconds flat, Sid thought of Theresa and worst case scenarios ran through his mind: tabloid, police, pregnant. “What’s up?”
“Did you ask about someone singing the anthem?”
“Okay. The in-game entertainment office didn’t have your cell so they called me. Someone just cancelled for tomorrow. We have a backup, but they wanted to offer it to you because it could be April before another chance opens up.”
“T… tomorrow?” Sid tried to remember what day it was. “Oh Saturday. Against Carolina, right.”
Mario’s voice took on that fatherly tone. “Are you alright?”
“Fine. Groggy. Let me ask – it’s a friend from home, she’d have to fly down but it’s Saturday so maybe….”
“Their deadline is five o’clock today.”
When the call was done, Sidney flopped to the mattress and lay on his back, looking at the ceiling. Tomorrow. Saturday. Leah. The cold, foul memory of the night before crept in around the edges of his happiness, like vines growing over the only door that led to escape. Sidney shook his head. He could wipe that away. Leah could not arrive at a better time. He’d charter a jet or rent out the space shuttle if he needed to.
Swiping to unlock his phone, he saw there was a message from the night before. Leah had called while he was with that other girl.
Gross, he knew. I am gross. But there was no time for a pity party. Her message was bright and happy, just the thing he needed to erase the mistake from his mind. Leah would never know, he would compartmentalize it with other horrible things like last year’s Round One loss to the Flyer. Once Leah arrived, whatever happened, happened. Even if it was nothing Sid knew it would be better that what he’d done.
“Oh, and Sid? Good luck tomorrow,” her voice said on the message.
“You’ll be here to see it,” he told the empty room.
A phone buzzed. The vibration gave it away. Leah ignored it once, but the second time she looked displeased at the student across her desk. School had a strict policy about cell phones being off during class hours.
“It’s not mine,” the girl said.
Oh for fuck’s sake. Leah reached into the drawer by her leg, into her purse, and squeezed both sides to quiet the vibrating phone. “Sorry.”
When the meeting was over, Leah retrieved the phone. Four missed calls in an hour, all from Sidney. There was one text.
Sid: Call me nowwwwwwww pls!
Leah’s disgust for poor text grammar did not outweigh her curiosity. She closed her office door before dialing. Sid picked up on the first ring.
“Say you’re not busy tomorrow.” His voice was breathless.
“I’m not busy tomorrow?” Leah said, unsure of how to match his tone.
“Would you, Leah Hanlon, like to sing the National Anthem as the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the Carolina Hurricanes at the Consol Energy Center? In front of twenty thousand people?”
A bus could not have hit Leah harder. Tomorrow. Twenty thousand people. Sidney. Tomorrow. Sidney.
“Ohmygod,” she said quietly.
Sid was still in his bed, where the whisper of her voice went right through him like a knife. It was the kind of thing she said in bed, full of surprise and almost reverence. Short of saying ‘I love you,’ it was about the best thing she could have done at that moment. Sidney needed this – needed her, needed absolution for his sin – more than he imagined.
“Please,” he added.
“Yes. I, wow. Yes. Of course, Sid.” The words tumbled out in rush. “How?”
“I’ll find you a flight. Or a plane. Reindeer, maybe? I think it’s their off-season.” He joked as nervous energy filled his veins. This was really happening.
She giggled. “Is that okay? I don’t want to put you out….”
Sid cut her off. “I can’t wait to see you.”
Leah looked skeptically around the store. She had not done a lick of work after Sid’s call besides print out the American anthem and read it ten thousand times. At final bell rang she sprinted for her car, raced to the mall and nearly ran over Gina waiting in front.
“I’m going to wear jeans and a… jersey or something to sing,” she said, looking around the store they were in.
Gina pulled her head out from a rack of clothing. “His jersey?”
“Uh, I don’t know. A blank jersey, maybe? I’m sure I can borrow one down there.”
“You should wear his jersey. A big, authentic one that looks like he just took it off so everyone will know.” Gina brandished a hanger. “And this underneath it.”
Leah rolled her eyes. She did not need a peach colored satin push-up bra with darker peach lace overlay, the matching barely-there thong laid on the table or the thigh high stockings that Gina had picked out.
“It’s a hockey game, not a strip club.”
Gina smiled broadly. “Not until you get to his house.”
Truth be told, Leah already felt fluttery. She rationally told herself that Sid was her friend, even though they’d hooked up, and visiting each other was something friends did. If it lead to more, that was fine too. She wasn’t counting on it and that’s certainly not why she was going all the way to Pittsburgh. Gina’s expression said are you shitting me?
“You’re not flying halfway across America on a day’s notice to see one of Hello! Canada’s most beautiful people in old underwear from Target! I am not running a second rate escort service, Leah. That is final.”
Leah laughed and gave Gina her credit card. They discussed post-game activities, which Gina insisted would involved a bar or club, and what to wear.
“What if they lose? No one will want to go out,” Leah said.
“A) They’re not going to lose. B) If they do, that’s what the underwear is for. C) If they win, you need a dress to go over the underwear. It’s like a cake. The better they do, the more layers he gets to enjoy.” Gina dragged Leah toward another department.
“He’s seen me out here in jeans so many times. I’ll be fine!” Leah protested.
Gina marched right to a display and pulled down a metallic, light gold colored dress. It wasn’t too tight, too short or too low cut, but it was definitely a big night dress. She held it up between them.
“Jeans are fine for Madigan’s and boys you went to school with. You know Sid likes you that way. But jeans are not fine in a club full of catty bitches who want to get knocked up by your man. And jeans in a club will not go over well on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, 25 Stanley or the blog I am starting for this occasion. You have to think about this stuff now, babe.”
“You are demented.”
Gina yanked the dress away. “Remember New Year’s Eve, when you wore that blue dress?”
“Yes,” Leah kicked a spot on the ground.
“Remember when Sidney almost punched your ex-boyfriend that night? When he couldn’t resist kissing you then chased you into the freezing cold night to beg your forgiveness?”
Gina nodded. “A dress it is, then.”
Sidney circled the airport for the fourth time. He was nervous, and early. He was early when he was nervous. Parking and going inside was not an option. Sid didn’t know what he’d do when he saw Leah but it couldn’t happen in front of people. He needed time to adjust.
I’ll hug her.
I’m not going to kiss her.
What if she kisses me?
I’m going to throw her into this backseat and park on the median then climb back there with her and…
His phone rang. Sidney jumped so hard he nearly rear-ended the airport taxi in front of him. Hitting the Bluetooth button, he angled around the traffic.
“I’m here!” Leah sang. In fact she’d been on the ground in Pittsburgh for a few minutes. After wheeling her carry-on from the plane, she went into the first bathroom, closed herself in a stall and freaked out for a good thirty seconds. It was only the second time she’d done that today, and the airplane bathroom had been too small for a proper spaz attack. Then she finger-combed her hair, checked her makeup and tried not to be sick.
“Which door are you near? I’ll pull up.”
Sid peered ahead, watching the airline names overhead. He found United – she wasn’t at the first sign. Or the second. Then suddenly there was Leah, in the same bright green parks and high black winter boots she’d been wearing the night they met at the rink. Her hair was redder than he remembered, curlier too, as if the shiniest its of her had been worn down by memory. She spotted him and smiled, Sid’s heart nearly stopped.
“Jesus,” Leah said under her breath. Even from ten yards away behind the windshield of a car, Sidney had the most intense gaze she’d ever seen. His face lit up with a huge, goofy grin, all awk shucks and white teeth. The ground swayed like an earthquake. His black Range Rover rolled to a stop and she opened the passenger door.
“Hi.” She stood there, staring.
“Hi.” He started back.
“Oh, right, sorry.” She snapped to attention and fumbled her suitcase, reaching for the back door. The small wheelie laid easily on the backseat. Leah climbed into the front and closed herself in, sneaking a deep breath before turning to look at Sid.
It was the night sky. The ocean. Something else you could look at for a hundred years and never see it all, something you could memorize but never accurately describe to another person. Sidney tried to take in every detail of Leah at once to reconfirm the picture he’d kept all this time in his head. It turned out he was a bad artist, he hadn’t been doing her justice.
“Hi,” she said again.
He pulled away from the curb, into the left lane and made for the highway ramp. Once he was on it, Sid got up to speed before he let go of the gearshift and reached for Leah’s hand.
She wrapped her slender fingers between his thick ones, freshly nicked and bruised as they were despite his hockey gloves. Without a thought in her head, she lifted his hand and kissed the back of it. His skin was as warm as she remembered. Sid pulled their hands to his lips and brushed them across her knuckles, sending a shiver down her spine.
They barely said a word the whole way home.
Sid as surprised when the red brick front of his house came into view. He couldn’t have said how he got them home. All he remembered was holding her hand and having no idea what else to do. Auto pilot had brought them home before he could figure it out.
“Wow, look at this place,” Leah said, leaning to see out the window as they pulled into the drive.
It’s yours, he wanted to say. It’s new, I had it built and it’s yours if you’ll have it. Along with everything inside, including me. He bit his lip instead. Now that Leah was here, Sid could not imagine ever letting her leave. They weren’t even to the front door.
Leah knew Sid was rich. She even had an idea of the amount of money he might have but seeing the house was something else. It wasn’t opulent, wasn’t a palace. A mansion, maybe, but she’d seen bigger and shinier. What struck her was that this house was his, bought and paid for at the age of twenty-five. He could have ten houses and twenty cars in theory, but the reality of this one brought her own life into sharp contrast. It made her feel like a child despite her own accomplishments.
That disappeared the minute Sid opened her door. She’d been daydreaming while he got out and went around the car. Suddenly he was standing there, one arm out to the door handle like he was half-ready for a hug. But he got a whole one. Leah jumped out of the SUV and into his arms without her feet ever touching the ground.
Sid caught her, wrapped around her and held both Leah and his breath for a long moment. When he did risk it, the scent he remembered from all their time together came rushing in like a tidal wave. Vanilla and ruby red. He felt it down to his toes.
“I missed you,” she said into the front of his coat.
I need you, she thought.
“I missed you too,” he said, thinking, I love you.
Leah was afraid to pull back. She would be inches from his mouth, defenseless and senseless. The size and weight and warmth of him was enough to sink her, so she clung to him like a raft. Eventually Sid realized she wasn’t letting go. Not that he minded, but it did make him chuckle softly.
“Do you want to come inside?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the voice from near his neck. Her face was tucked in there, hidden.
“Do you want to come inside today?” he tried.
“What are you waiting for?”
He laughed and started to let go. “So, if I….”
Leah cinched her arms tight, trying to pull him back in. It worked – sort off. Sid leaned left, dipping her toward the ground. She held on but her head tipped back.
He hadn’t planned to kiss her. But then nothing with Leah had ever gone according to plan. Their lips touched and stuck, closed but still very much a kiss that could mean anything at all.
It’s a good thing Sid was holding her up, it meant he couldn’t let go. Otherwise he’d have dropped them both to the floor. Leah felt lightheaded, upside-down, spinning. She wrapped a hand around the back of Sid’s neck and pulled herself up with him.
“Come inside,” he said. Leah could barely hear over the sight of his gorgeous mouth.
“Okay.” She smiled shakily, her hand still clutching the nape of his neck. Sid wanted her to never be any farther away than she was right then.
He reached for her suitcase, unlocked the door and held it open for her. Light and heat beckoned like sparkles from inside. Leah crossed the threshold.
Absolutely nothing was settled.
Sid took Leah’s bag from her hand and placed it against the wall in the entryway, then nearly snapped the handle of when he saw her peeling off her coat. That puffy, soft green jacket gave way to her true shape, one he remembered as well as if he’d designed her himself. A simple white sweater had never looked better. It ended just above the design stitched into the back pockets of her jeans. Her hair seemed longer, well past her shoulder blades. Sid clenched the suitcase handle to keep from reaching out and touching her.
The kiss had been unavoidable, but now that it was done that might be it. Sid wasn’t sure he had anything more to look forward to than twenty four hours of proximity torture and the inevitable loss of this dream. But first, a tour.
“The living room is this way,” he said.
From room to room – big living room with a bigger TV, kitchen with a gleaming marble counter, den full of Penguins memorabilia – Leah saw hints of Sidney scattered around. A messy stack of papers sat on the desk. An appointment card stuck to the fridge, a pair of sunglasses next to the phone, an issue of GQ on the coffee table. It wasn’t much, but after weeks of seeing hints of Sidney in every place she went, Leah was accustomed to finding them.
The rest of the place was straight out of a catalog. It was a beautiful space, more home-y than its size suggested, but it was not lived in. Sidney could not occupy all this space himself and he clearly had no help. It made Leah a little sad – the matching throw pillows, the area rug that perfectly matched the accent wall. She might have chosen the same things, because they looked great, but in this house Leah thought they felt empty.
Sid’s life felt empty.
“You don’t like it.” Sid had been watching her face carefully as she surveyed his house like she was looking for something. Should he have had a photo of her? Of them? He didn’t have any photos at all, except hockey. It was spotless too - he wasn’t in most of the rooms enough to make a mess, but the housekeeper came once a week anyway. So why was she frowning?
“No.” A flash of fear crossed her face, Leah did not want him to misunderstand. “It’s beautiful, Sid. It’s just… so big. For you. Alone.”
“Well I won’t be alone forever,” he said defensively, then added, “I hope.”
She was at his side, hand on his arm. Through the sleeve she could have burned his skin. “I didn’t mean that.”
He still bristled a little. “It’s okay.”
“No,” she repeated. Being close to him made it hard for Leah to speak – she was looking at his mouth, not thinking about her own. Right now, his was tight. “I’m sorry. I….” She took a deep breath to sync up her brain with her words. “I worry about you, Sid. Down here in this big place by yourself, I know you want to hide away. Or you used to.”
His dark brown doe eyes were glued to hers. Sid listened with his entire body, intensely, searching for a word in what she said that was the key he needed.
Leah tried a little smile. “Maybe not anymore.”
No, not anymore, he thought as she stood in the place he wanted her to stay.
Leah squeezed Sid’s arm, breaking the tension. She’d have to be more careful with her words and more comfortable in Sid’s space. To start, she walked over to the couch, picked up two patterned accent pillows from their carefully angled spots and dropped them both onto the floor.
Sid stopped at the top of the stairs. There were four bedrooms, three baths and a hallway. The last and largest was his.
“Which one’s mine?” Leah asked as if reading his mind.
“Any one you want,” Sid said. Including mine. But he had things to do, rituals to observe that could not be messed with even because Leah was there. Especially not because he intended to play the best game of his life in front of her tonight.
“I do need to take a nap soon,” he looked at the closed doors. Some host, bringing a friend down for a day and spending part of the perfectly good day sleeping.
Leah had expected nothing less. “Oh I know all about your superstitions. Show me.”
He opened the door to each guest room as they passed. The one closest to his was the second-largest with an en suite bath. He put her suitcase outside that doorway, between that room and his own. Leah smiled at the gesture but said nothing.
This is more like it. His bedroom had light gray walls with white moulding. A dark headboard anchored a king size bed that made her mouth dry. The white and charcoal striped duvet was slightly rumpled, the pillows heaped atop it. Leah saw a million signs of life. Half a glass of water rested on the bedside table, next to a phone charger and a Chapstick she would have sworn was cherry flavored. He’d cleaned this room himself – a stock stuck out of the closed top drawer, the watches on a velvet-lined tray where in a pile. It even smelled like him.
Sid glanced sideways, afraid his face would give away every crazy thing he was thinking. Mad ideas like maybe he could go without his pre-game nap, maybe he could break the no sex on game day rule, maybe he could call in sick to the game and just keep her here until she missed her flight tomorrow. The corner of her lip curled enticingly, like she was thinking something good too.
“This looks like home,” she said.
Sid saw his room, but more importantly Leah in his room. “Yeah, it does.”