Leah heard her phone chirp. Sidney had texted twice since she had practically hung up on him, saved by the bell. She was a jerk for not calling back, and she knew it. But she didn’t know what to say. The flower arrangements stood like judges on her desk, scowling.
We’re okay, she had told him. That was true. They weren’t bad, they weren’t good - they were right down the middle, in between something and nothing. Friends. It had been so easy for Leah and Sidney to get there and so damned hard to stay. Cole Harbour had almost made them something else then Pittsburgh had nearly taken it all away. She was scared of disrupting their precarious balance, but it was tipping farther every time she ignored that noise.
This time the voicemail notification sounded. Leah closed her eyes, unsure if she could handle the sound of his voice. Would he be mad? Hurt? With morbid curiosity she dug the phone out - and saw a Toronto area code she didn’t recognize.
That had better not be James, she thought as she typed in her passcode.
“Leah, my name is Kevin Jefferson with the selection committee for the Soundcast Performance Contest. We received your entry and you’ve been selected as a performer for the Nova Scotia contest date, next Saturday in Halifax. Please give me a call back to confirm and check your email for the paperwork you’ll need to submit by Wednesday. Congratulations.”
Her heart pounded so loudly she missed the last sentence. Suddenly Leah was terrified. Not of the singing; after the anthem in Pittsburgh she could handle this. Some of the fear was about playing piano but the song was both simple and shorter. Lyrics she knew so well sprang to mind – it was the words that scared her.
They’re true, they’re right, she repeated in her head. The words were everything she felt and couldn’t say – not to Sidney, hardly even to herself. If she could tell them to strangers it would make them stronger; maybe strong enough to stand up to her own doubts. Leah forced herself to call Kevin Jefferson back and accept. Then she called Gina and spilled the whole thing.
“Oh my God, you’re gonna win! Two thousand dollars, Leah!”
“I’m not gonna win,” Leah laughed despite her still-racing heart. “But I am going to do it. I have to.”
“You’re gonna be Carly Rae Jepsen,” Gina insisted.
“You haven’t even heard the song! It’s not that kind of song, G.”
Her best friend in the whole world didn’t care. “Soon Sidney won’t be famous enough for you, babe.”
That night, Leah went to her sister’s house and set up in the basement. Her own apartment would not do for real practice. She plugged in her keyboard and played, then sang, then did both together. No microphone. Just her voice and the individual notes. Kate paced upstairs – Leah wouldn’t let her listen, not yet.
Friday night came and with it an odd, almost kinetic energy. Leah felt great. She went to Madigan’s with Gina and Travis, cowboy boots and all. She drank. She even asked Ricky Calvert to dance. Looking around the room, Leah saw people who thought they knew everything about her. Maybe they did. Sidney was on her mind, as always. Between this place and the club in Pittsburgh was a world of difference. Sid managed in both – not smoothly, but he managed. Leah was beginning to think that maybe Cole Harbour was too small for her after all. That called for a round of shots, then more beers. Before she knew it, last call was calling her up on stage.
“You all know Leah,” the band leader said. People clapped politely. Leah wondered if they secretly hated her for this tiny slice of spotlight, any more than some of them hated her for being so close to Sidney. She wondered if they could ever adore her like that. No way, she knew – he was superhuman, all she could do was sing. Still it was something, and it was what she had.
Better than nothing. She stepped up to the microphone as the song for the night started to play - Jo Dee Messina’s “Bye Bye.” It was the perfect song for how Leah felt tonight. A little sad, a little mad, a little over it - but in a good way. If that was possible. Also she was a bit drunk and that always made her stronger.
Boy you sure look good there standin' in the doorway in the sunset light
Maybe I read you wrong thinkin' you could be my Mr. Right
Maybe I read you wrong thinkin' you could be my Mr. Right
Let people think she was singing about Sidney. At least she wasn’t singing Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats’ or some other country done-me-wrong song. The only thing for Leah to do was get over Sidney. It would be hard, if not impossible, but Leah refused to be angry about it. She could only blame herself for falling in love with the hometown hero.
I've got pride, I'm takin' it for a ride
Bye bye, bye bye my baby, bye bye
Bye bye, bye bye my baby, bye bye
It wasn’t really goodbye, of course. Like their parting in the airport, it was a million things left unsaid and a lot of falling short. But Sidney was Sidney and Leah would take what she could get. That meant giving what she could in return – friendship. Which meant returning all his unanswered phone calls, and soon.
She smiled as she sang the most obvious line that wasn’t about her and Sidney, but should have been:
Baby what did you expect me to do
Just sit around and wait on you
Well I'm through watchin' you just skate around the truth
Just sit around and wait on you
Well I'm through watchin' you just skate around the truth
And I know it sounds trite: I’ve seen the light.
The crowd was particularly appreciative tonight – whooping and clapping. Even the band leader looked extra impressed. “You’ve been practicing,” he said.
On the way out, a few other people told her that was her best performance yet, that she sounded fantastic and confident. Gina snickered alongside her all the way to the car.
“You sound ready to win some money, baby!” she said.
Leah felt ready – not to win, just to perform. The adrenaline of a live crowd always helped, but the key was to pick a song people knew. It excited them. Singing a song no one but her bathroom mirror had ever heard before would be a whole new experience. Her song would only work if she really sold it. After tonight, Leah knew she was as ready as she’d ever be.
Speaking of things she was ready to do, Leah sat down on her bed. It was nearly two in the morning and she’d had more than enough to drink, but she was on a roll. Sidney was still the most-dialed number in her phone. Before the jitters could take over, she hit send.
It didn’t even ring. “Hey. Thanks for calling, leave a message.”
Leah always thought it was funny that Sid didn’t have his name on the recording. The reason was obvious but so was his voice – anyone calling, even a fan who got his number somehow, would know they had reached Sidney Crosby. Leah smiled at the idea of him trying to be stealthy.
“Hi. It’s Leah. I, uh, I owe you about a hundred calls. Sorry it’s so late, I just got home and I figured you’d be sleeping but I didn’t want to wait. I, um… I miss you, Sid.”
Okay stop now, she told herself.
“Call me tomorrow, okay? And not like me, when I say okay and then I don’t call. Okay?”
She disconnected, shaking her head. Word vomit onto voicemail, the classic drunk dial.
Sidney hit his alarm with his whole fist. No snooze today, there was a game in four hours. His routine called for getting up and eating right away, so he could eat again in an hour and feel full for the noon game. Damned national television.
As was his habit, he checked his phone. It had been days of calls and texts to Leah, days of disappointment when she didn’t call back. He thought he’d made progress with Valentine’s Day but had nothing to really show for it. On long nights in quiet hotels in other cities, he convinced himself it was the road games and scheduling that kept them from connecting. But home in his own bed, where she could have been and hadn’t, Sidney felt the ghost of Leah fading faster the more tightly he tried to hold on.
His message icon was blinking.
“Holy shit,” he said right out loud. If it was Colby Armstrong or Jack Johnson or some other friend from far away, he’d be disappointed. If it was Duper or Tanger or Flower, Sid would kill the guy at practice for getting him this excited.
“Hi. It’s Leah.”
His heart stopped. As if she needed to introduce herself using the voice he heard in his dreams. Now that voice was apologizing for being so distant, which was a nice way of saying she had ignored him. At least she admitted it.
“I miss you, Sid.”
He flopped back onto the pillow like he’d been hit. She wanted him to call. She didn’t say not to call at eight in the morning.
“’lo?” Came the mumble answer over the line.
“Leah, hey,” he said quietly.
“Sidney.” Her voice was soft and drowsy, like it had been twice before – the night he woke her to say the lockout was over and the morning he woke next to her before he had to leave. Best and worst moments of their short relationship, really. “I’m sorry, I never called you back, I….”
“It’s okay,” he cut in. He wanted to say ‘It’s okay, baby’ or something, but figured that was pushing his luck. At least she was on the phone. Most of the fault here was his and he wanted Leah to feel just bad enough to never disappear again. Also if she could magically teleport into his bed, instead of one twelve hundred miles away, that would go over well too.
“You have a game today.”
“Yup, couple hours.”
“You’re also leading the NHL in points too, aren’t you?”
“Mmhmmm,” he nodded. “A lot happens when we don’t talk for a week.”
He heard her roll over. “Yeah, like Neal drops out of the scoring race.”
“Oooh, I’m telling him you said that,” Sid joked. Neal was having a bit of a scoring drought and would not appreciate anyone noticing, especially anyone named Leah.
She laughed softly, a sound that went through Sidney like a knife. Since their first date at the rink he’d been trying to make her laugh. Except when he was trying to make her gasp. It was nice to hear one of the two again. Sidney felt like this was a big step in the right direction. If she didn’t hate him, maybe she could still love him. He would take small steps.
Leah felt the familiar pull of Sidney’s gravity even from so far away. It wanted to drag her out to sea like a rip tide. The whirlpool was right where her heart should have been - she closed her eyes against the dizzy feeling rising in her chest. Traitorous thoughts flashed to mind.
Tell me you love me. Tell me this is everything and I’ll stop swimming. I will drown for you if you tell me you’re drowning too.
No no no, she told herself. Not again.
“Well you go tape your stick and sacrifice a unicorn or whatever you do before games, and I’ll watch later to see if it worked.”
“Okay,” he laughed, “only if you’re watching though. Unicorns are expensive.”
“Please. Just write Reebok on it in Sharpie and send them the bill.”
He giggled, that high pitched sound that matched nothing about him. It spread to Leah and she laughed too. That was a relief, even if she felt far from normal.
“Good luck today,” she said.
“Thanks. And Leah? I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Sid.”
“I know, you said that in your message,” he reminded her.
“Well, I was drunk,” she scoffed.
“You still meant it.”
“You also said you really want to come back to Pittsburgh and visit again.”
Leah’s blood went cold: had she said that? No way she said that. She did, of course, but it was the bad kind of true that should not be acted upon. If she went back to Pittsburgh, she would never make it out of Sidney’s house. If that’s what he wanted - well, Leah had no more illusions about that. He would have to work harder than a phone call and wait until she could keep herself together in his presence.
“Well I can’t just drop my big, important life in Cole Harbour, you know,” she said. For once that was actually true – she had things going on. “But someday, Sid.”
Sid maneuvered through the door and sat down heavily, the crowd still on its feet. He’d just had his first goal of the afternoon, to go along with two assists. Sweat fogged the inside of his visor.
“What is into you?” Neal cuffed him on the shoulder as they slid down the bench.
Sid had been saving it for a moment like this. “Leah said you should score more, you’re getting boring.”
James’ eyes went appropriately wide. “You talked to her.”
“Yeah,” Sid said like it should be obvious. Neal had been the knight in shining armor for one night, that didn’t give him the right to know everything. “This morning. From bed.”
Neal stood, ready to jump the boards for his shift. He looked back at Sid and lifted one eyebrow. “You’re in bed and she’s talking about me? Guess we know what kind of scoring she wants me to do.”
Sidney told the numbers on the back of Neal’s jersey to fuck off, but he was out of earshot. If Leah was thinking of anything it was Sidney. She thought of him in the middle of the night when she was drunk, and first thing when he woke her up. Somewhere at home in front of her TV, she was thinking of him now.
“You ready?” Kate asked.
Leah smiled at her sister. Kate and her husband Tommy, plus Gina and Travis, were the only people in Halifax to see Leah compete in the performance contest. They were the only people who knew about it.
The contest was being held at the local performing arts theater. The judges were seated on a riser in the pit where the conductor usually stood. Only about five hundred of the two thousand seats were filled, scattered throughout the bottom section. Twelve acts had been selected and Leah would be number eight. Currently, number seven was guitar soloing his way through a song Leah had not bothered to hear. She wasn’t here to win, she didn’t care about the competition. She just wanted to know that she could do this and do it out loud.
Leah smoothed the front of her dress – a new one, with coral colored overlay against a nude satin sheath. It was girly and flirty and appropriately modest for a girl about to sit at a piano. On the stage, the contest had provided a beautiful baby grand. Three of the first seven contestants used it so Leah knew it was in tune. She moved her fingers as she thought the notes in her head, mapping them out in a visualization exercise to help imprint the pattern on her mind. She’d read that hockey players used it all the time to see themselves scoring goals.
Kate hugged Leah, wishing her luck, and went back to sit in the audience. The guitar guy reached his last note. Leah felt the edges of her perception closing in, like they always did when she performed.
She thought of Sidney. The song was about him – to him, really – so he had to be there in a way. Leah used her trick from the anthem performance, picturing the back of his jersey; big name and numbers in white, the dark curls against his neckline as he lowered his head, waiting for her to sing. He would be standing still so she could just focus on him.
Outside the crowd applauded. The emcee bantered while the judges made their notes about performer number seven. The few moments of silence were perfect. Leah heard the song’s first note, holding it in her mind so she’d know just how to start. The rest would follow.
When her name was called, she walked right out on stage.
Leah held her finger to the key, letting the last note evaporate like a drop of water. Her song was over. Almost before it had begun, she had finished without any trouble. Rising applause met the dying music and only Leah felt the tiny moment of silence in between. In that moment, she let the image of Sidney fade from her mind’s eye. Then she blinked toward the judges and crowd and smiled.
Gina was on her feet, screaming. Kate, Tommy and Travis quickly followed suit. Leah loved them so much for that. Around them, everyone else was also clapping and a few more stood.
I guess it was good, Leah thought, grin growing wider.
The emcee appeared from between curtains and congratulated her like he had everyone else. She carefully stood, bobbed a little bow and made her way off stage like someone else was controlling her body. It wasn’t until she passed out of the lighting and into the wings that her self-awareness came rushing back.
“Nice job!” someone passing by squeezed her arm. Performer number nine said it was great. A production assistant handed her a small bottle of water and Leah gulped a sip down a throat she hadn’t realized was dry.
Suddenly, a pair of arms seized her from behind. “Oh my God!” Gina said. “That was amazing!”
Leah wiggled free to turn around – Gina hugged her again from the front, Travis wrapped around them both.
“Thank you. It was so weird, I…,” she stopped. “What?”
Gina had tears in her eyes. Kate had a look on her face like someone had stepped on her heart.
“Oh honey,” Kate pulled her in. She didn’t say anything else.
Leah hadn’t told them what the song was about. She hadn’t told them anything, really, about herself and Sidney. Gina and Travis knew some of the racier details but Leah had never once said she loved him. She assumed they could tell. She had also assumed he felt the same way. Now Leah knew: like that moment she was stood in the airport waiting for Sidney to say it, hearing the words out loud changed everything.
This time, Leah had changed it for herself.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m okay. I promise.”
Most of the five hundred spectators had stayed to the end, believing their friend or family member had a chance at the top spot and prize. Ten minutes after the last singer finished the emcee announced the votes were all in. He asked all the contestants to line up on stage in order of performance. Leah stepped in next to number nine, the girl who’d complimented her coming off stage.
“You’re going to win,” the girl whispered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us today. Soundcast is very proud to sponsor this event and six like it across Canada. As you know, Nova Scotia is our last stop and the finals are next weekend in Toronto. Today’s winner will receive a two thousand dollar cash prize and be invited, along with our second place finisher, to perform in those for the grand prize of ten thousand dollars. Everyone here today has been fantastic, and we thank you all for coming out to support them. Now without further ado, judges, may I please have the names?”
The judges were lined up at the corner of the stage. Leah wondered if they had a hard time choosing – she’d barely heard any of the other songs. Her own performance had been such an out of body experience, maybe afterward she could ask the judges what they’d thought.
“Today’s second place finisher, joining us for the finals in Toronto, is… David Matelem.”
The fourth performer in line stepped forward, a young guy in a button down who Leah remembered had also played the piano. The emcee asked David where he was from, what inspired his song choice and said he’d see them again in a week.
“And tonight’s first place prize of two thousand dollars and a chance to sing for ten thousand in our final event is… Leah Hanlon.”
Leah froze. Surely she had imagined that. Right? Next to her performer nine was whooping and grabbing her arm. Performer seven patted her on the back. The emcee motioned for her to step forward. As Leah put one foot in front of the other and broke the line, sound came rushing back.
It was Gina. Screaming at the top of her lungs.
Leah roused herself and moved up next to the host.
“Uhhh, yeah,” she admitted with a giggle. “I am.”
“Well your performance today was no surprise, since we only select the best for Soundcast. Tell us, where are you from?”
“Ahhhhh, figures,” he said knowingly.
Don’t don’t don’t…, Leah thought.
“Nova Scotia’s most famous hometown. You win the finals next week and you might give that Sidney Crosby guy a run for his title.”
Everyone laughed. Leah tried not to die. Her song didn’t mention Sid by name but anyone who remembered the lyrics could put it together now. There were reporters here too, people who could ask around about her. Now she’d be singing this song to a crowd in Toronto… well, that will be better, Leah knew. More people, more possibilities. She’d be anonymous there, just another girl with a love song.
“So, tell us. That very personal song of yours, who’s it about?” the emcee asked.
Leah gave him a real smile. “No one you know.”