Leah left. Just like that. And Sid didn’t stop her. He watched until she was through the airport security line and out of sight. Slowly, he turned around. James was still standing behind him, far enough that he hadn’t heard what Sidney said. Or didn’t say.
James was slack-jawed and wide-eye. He lifted his arms, palms up, as if asking, What the fuck did you just do?
Sid didn’t even know. He was frozen.
With a disgusted shake of his head, James turned and walked away.
Leah stared straight ahead as she moved robotically through the airport. She didn’t want to see a single Penguins item or God forbid the name of someone she’d just left standing in the departures area. She found a seat near the gate and closed her eyes. When the plane finally boarded, she took her place and closed her eyes again.
The danger of seeing Sidney’s name did not diminish as she deplaned in Halifax. Keeping her gaze narrow, she went right to her car. Eyes on the road. But she didn’t go home.
The same salesman who’d helped her last time was behind the music store counter again. Next to him hung the same musical competition flyer he’d given Leah before. She’d told him she didn’t really play.
“I need a microphone,” she said. “One I can use to record on my computer.”
It didn’t take much, just a small microphone covered in a sphere of black padding with an extendable stand. Leah went home, left her suitcase at the foot of the bed and plugged the USB cable into her laptop. The software installed itself. She pulled up her recording program – also not very fancy – and enabled the microphone drive.
“Why are boys so dumb?” she sang into the mic. Her voice registered on the screen, showing her pitch and frequency on the modulation table to confirm the recording. She played it back.
“Why are boys so dumb?” it sang. Sounded good too.
She unplugged the microphone – there was much to do before actually recording anything. Now she needed her keyboard and a notebook and that melody that had been in her head for weeks. Leah finally had something to say.
Sidney sat in his living room that Leah hated. He got a glass of water from his kitchen that Leah had cooked in. He had come in on driveway where he’d kissed her like it was all so easy and fun. Upstairs was the room where he’d seen what she packed to wear for him. All around him the house was emptier than ever before.
He shook his head. Nothing had felt right since Cole Harbour, the morning the lockout ended. It wasn’t climbing in next to Leah or even being with her for the first time that he remembered most – though he remembered every second. It was the moment, after he was already in the bed, kissing her, with one handful of her hair and another of her soft body, that Leah had reached for him in return. The instant that Sidney felt like Leah needed him too.
He’d gotten carried away, drunk on that feeling, pursuing her in his typical half-assed fashion. She told him to cool it, he responded by showing up on her doorstep and taking advantage of their last night together. Leah had wanted it too – that made Sid feel like Superman. Then she’d told him to go away, and stay away, and not look back.
That’s where Sid fell apart.
He didn’t trust himself because he’d lied to Leah. He told her he wanted to be friends. He said he would go, move on and not wait for her. Too bad he’d been doing exactly that since the night he stood outside the rink, hoping she’d decipher his code and show up for the worst first date in history. And she had! What more did he want? Then, even then, Sid had chickened out and not kissed her.
Coming back to Pittsburgh, he had cowardly tried to hide his feelings for Leah by burying them in Theresa. He had cowardly failed to tell Theresa goodbye. And when Leah turned up, smiling and singing, and taken a big bite out of all the things he was scared of, Sidney had cowardly failed to tell her the truth.
Dragging himself upstairs, Sid did the only thing he could. He put his phone on the bedside table in hopes that it would ring in exactly as many minutes as it took to fly from Pittsburgh to Nova Scotia, and went to sleep.
The phone had not rung. Sidney had slept much longer than he intended as his body tried to protect his heart. The result of such a long afternoon nap was a night of tossing and turning, sleeping fitfully and thinking about Leah the whole time anyway. He typed out a hundred texts and deleted them all. It would have been so easy to write what he wanted to say, but Sidney felt he didn’t deserve the easy way out.
Morning finally came and with it practice. Sid grumbled a hello at someone as he pushed through the locker room door at Southpointe. Neal lifted his head, saw Sid and immediately found some reason to leave the room.
Fine, fuck you, Sid thought. The fewer people around who knew he’d been an asshole, the better. Then he walked right into Dupuis.
“So that went well,” Pascal said in the sarcastic tone he used when his kids tried to eat crayons or drink from the toilet. Sid opened his mouth to retort but Pascal was already steering him out of the team’s earshot. Sid couldn’t remember who’d been at Diesel on either the first night, with Theresa, or the second, with Leah – presumably everyone. They’d probably all watched the scene play out from a mile away, what Sid could not see from up close. Then they’d all watched Leah leave with James. Sid sighed heavily and leaned against the wall, prepared for a lecture.
“I take it you two didn’t kiss and make up.”
Sid shook his head. “She left.”
“Before you had a chance?” Dupuis looked surprised, like he’d expected better from Leah.
“No, no,” Sid rushed to defend her even now. “I had a chance. I just… blew it.”
The concern on Dupuis face made Sid feel worse. “She turned you down?” Pascal asked.
“No, she... well, I… kind of?” Sidney stuttered. The conversation in the airport was like a picture he was too close to see clearly. He remembered colors and smells, the feel of her in his arms and the way she was too heavy, not right. He remembered feeling sad. “I told her I wanted to be with her.”
Duper raised his eyebrows.
“And she said I needed to do something else.”
The eyebrows stayed up.
“That’s it,” Sid said.
Pascal closed his eyes, another habit of a father talking to small people that supposedly spoke his language but did not always understand. “What do you think she meant, something else?”
“She means I need to get a life here. I need to figure out….”
Dupuis cut in. “I didn’t say what does she mean, I said what did she mean. At the airport. What was the something else she wanted you to do?”
Do? Sid thought. What? What was I supposed to do besides tell her I wanted to be with her?
“I should’ve told her I love her,” he mumbled, kicking the carpet with one sneaker.
Duper clicked his tongue. “You think too much, Kid.”
“WHAT?!” Sidney cried, probably drawing every ear from the other room. He was grumpy and exhausted, it was no time for guessing games. “What was I supposed to do?”
It hit him. It swung out of thin air and punched Sidney in the gut before he had time to tense up. The thing he couldn’t do, shouldn’t do, the thing he never seemed to ever do at the right time.
“I should’ve kissed her,” he said, almost to himself.
Pascal flicked his fingers hard against Sidney’s forehead and stormed off.
Sid hadn’t kissed Leah at the rink, when he should have. Instead he kissed her on New Year’s in a room full of gossiping smalltowners when he shouldn’t have. He’d kissed her when he got scared because the lockout ended, then again on Leah’s doorstep when he was completely terrified of leaving without seeing her again. One last time at the airport, before he left, saying that he’d do it in public for everyone to see. And he had. Maybe that one was the right time. But they were making a joke of it.
The last time Sidney kissed Leah was in his driveway. In the other place he called home, with the one person who felt more like home than anything in Pittsburgh. That kiss was supposed to be the start of a whole new everything. It had been the end.
Sid pictured Leah’s face in the airport, forcing the blurry scene to sharpen in his mind’s eye. Leah: beautiful, upset, blue eyes flashing. Sunlight pouring in the windows from a world outside where things still worked right.
“I was the one waiting for you,” she had said. She was waiting right there in front of him.
“I’m an asshole,” Sid said under his breath, just as someone walked by.
“Yup,” Neal called over his shoulder.
Leah hummed all day at school. The tune sounded happier than it felt, and Leah was glad for the disguise. Every single person in school asked her how the anthem had gone. Almost all had watched it. It was on YouTube – they showed her twenty times. When they watched, they saw her confidently belting out a song. When Leah watched, she saw her eyes focused on a point off-camera, never wavering. Never even looking at the words. She’d been looking at Sidney.
Everyone wanted to know about him, of course. She told them honestly about the game, his goal, how exciting it had been. A few teachers looked surprised to see her at all, as if they’d been taking bets on whether or not Crosby could really be attached to a girl from back home. Leah thought about demanding a cut of the money from whoever had bet against her.
The minute she got home, she pulled her keyboard and notebook out again. Words had poured out of her the night before, and she’d been crafting them into lyrics, a poem to go along with the music. Fine tuning the bridge was a little rough because she wasn’t sure exactly how much to say. Leah figured it was best to put all the words in then take out what she didn’t want to share.
The length bothered her; barely three minutes long but the song felt complete. She tried for another verse but everything seemed clunky and extraneous. All the things she felt were there on the paper, nothing else was needed. Leah played it through again, singing quietly to herself. It wasn’t perfect but she had to admit it felt good to say some things out loud.
She found the flyer from the music store and logged on to the completion website. Entries for the Nova Scotia portion of the contest were due by midnight that night. It was seven thirty.
Four hours, Leah told herself. She took her notebook into the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, she read the lyrics out loud to herself like a speech, over and over again until they blended together like batter for a cake. A few words were tweaked, a few erased. One or two were added. By the fortieth read through, she had it memorized. The notebook went face down on the counter.
Leah looked herself in the eye and recited the words.
Her voice cracked. She started again. And again. Always from the beginning until she could get through the whole thing without a quiver creeping into her voice.
They’re going to know. Everyone in Nova Scotia who heard her song would know who and what she was singing about. Leah shook her head.
They already know.
She’d been kidding herself since the day she met Sidney, that anyone in this town could think she was less than in love with him. If they’d been surprised to see her stay, or better yet come back, she’d give them something to be surprised about with this song.
That took a few tries. When it was all there, at the tip of her tongue and ready to deliver with just as much emotion as she wanted to reveal, Leah brought her computer right into the bathroom. It had the best acoustics in her apartment. She plugged in the microphone and settled her eyes on the notebook the way she’d settled them on Sidney’s back before she performed the Anthem. She didn’t need to see the words. She just needed to sing.
At eleven thirty, Leah played the finished song one more time. Two tracks, laid over each other, wove together through her headphones. They sounded seemless. It had taken endless tries, both the music and vocal tracks, to set them together perfectly. Leah had tried doing both at once but balanced on the edge of her bathtub it was too complicated. Live, she could sit at a real piano and play this song – she would have to, if she got that far. For now she needed a little technological help to beat the midnight deadline.
It’s good, she thought. The song was a little piece of her heart, carefully cut out and the ragged edge stitched back together. Now it went in a box and went off, via email, to some people that had no idea what Leah was singing about. She hoped the song would still work on them.
Once the email was sent, she went straight to bed without a glance at her phone, or the text waiting there.
Sidney: How’s home?
It had taken Sid a lot of nerve to send that message. He felt like a prize idiot for many things, especially if Pascal had been right and he’d been one kiss away from fixing all of this. Of course, Sidney knew better. He couldn’t get a girl like Leah with one kiss – that had always been the problem. But if one kiss could tip the scale, it was worth trying. He just needed to load a few other weighty things back on his side first.
Leah didn’t answer. Sid frowned at the phone in the darkness of his room, in the emptiness of his house. But he didn’t feel so beaten.
Try again tomorrow, he told himself.
Leah smiled as she approached her office at school. Five or six small envelopes were wedged into the windowframe – Valentine’s Day cards from students. Mostly they were senior girls she’d gotten to know quite well, the kind who made things off Pinterest or sent old fashioned snail mail because they thought it was cute. Leah agreed. She stood there, reading them for a few minutes before opening her door.
Two bouquets sat in the middle of her desk. One was roses – six white, six red in a beautiful clear vase with a wide, bias-cut neck that made them flare out dramatically above a knot of perfectly tied pink and white gingham ribbon. The other was one of those chocolate covered pineapple and strawberry deals, cut to look like flowers, wrapped in plastic. A card was set carefully in front of them, part of the display.
She closed the door and burst into tears. If they were from Sidney she might die. If they weren’t, she might also die. Whatever happened, no one in the outer office or hallways could see. It was bad enough someone else had brought them here. Leah looked at the arrangements for a long time, wondering if it was better or worse of Sid to do this. There’s no way it was anyone else. Taking a few deep breaths for emotional stability, Leah sat carefully in her chair and reached for the car.
I don’t always make the best decisions.
Leah put her head down on the desk. Fresh tears welled in her eyes, but this time she was also laughing.
“Me neither, Sid,” she said out loud.
Sidney looked at his phone so many times he thought it might levitate. It was ten in the morning, Leah had been at school for hours. She’d gotten the gifts – he’d called Taylor, who still knew teachers there, and faciliated getting the bouquets put on her desk by someone Taylor swore they could trust not to say anything. Let Leah wonder.
But also let her call. Please let her call.
The Pens had beaten Ottawa the night before. Sid had a goal, James had two. Of course he did. Sid pictured Leah in her living room, on that same small couch where she’d sat him down and knelt in front of him and… had her way, then she climbed into his lap and let him have his own. Right on that couch where Sid had lied to her again, saying “I won’t. I promise.” when he knew full well he already had fallen iredeemably hard. That’s where Leah would have been watching the game. He wondered if she cheered for him, if she guessed he was thinking about her too.
He checked his phone again. Nothing.
Leah hadn’t returned his text from the other night, asking how things were in Cole Harbour. He hadn’t really expected her too – she had every right to be upset. But this Valentine’s gift was the true test. If she didn’t call today, Sidney didn’t want to think what that meant.
He was thinking about it anyway when his phone buzzed.
Leah: They’re beautiful. And delicious.
Sid: What? I can’t hear you.
Ten seconds later, the phone rang. Sid leaned against the counter in his kitchen and pictured Leah at the stove, making chicken and pasta. He hadn’t touched her, hadn’t kissed her for fear of so many things, and so sure he’d have plenty of other chances. Now it was time to get some of those chances back.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.
Leah felt his voice as much as she heard it. It vibrated across her skin, through every nerve in her body like a tuning fork pinged at exactly the right pitch. He’d be leaning against something, she knew, wearing jeans and a t-shirt like he it wasn’t a sin to hide the body underneath.
“Thanks, Sid. For the presents.”
At the other end of the line, Sid took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for the other night.”
She felt smaller and shrinking with every word. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay, Leah. I’m so….”
Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring. The bell rang outside her office.
Leah gasped, shaky with surprise. She was sure Sid was about to be sweet and awkward and he might as well have left the thornes on the roses he sent for how much that would hurt. She loved him. She couldn’t have him. She certainly couldn’t keep doing this… not anymore than she could tell him to stop calling. Powerless, helpless – Leah took the easy out.
“I have a meeting Sid, sorry.”
“Oh, okay. Well I, um….”
“We’re okay, Sid. I promise,” she lied.
“Alright. Okay. I, er, I miss you,” he said clumsily. The only words on his tongue were a carefully practiced apology – this interruption threw Sid for a loop. He panicked. “Call me later, okay. Please?”
“Okay. Bye Sid.”
Leah had to push the END button twice, her hands were shaking so hard.