Authors: Sophia Henry
Aunt Vera came back into the room. “I gotta get to the bar. Good to meet you, Indie. Hope to see you again.” Without waiting for my response, she turned to Landon. “You and your buddies coming in tonight?”
“Yeah, we'll be there after the game.” Landon looked at his watch. “When are we eating? Game starts at seven.”
“I'll ask Mom.” Charlie gave Vera a kiss on the cheek and left the room. “Tell Brian I said hello.”
“Aunt Vera and Uncle Brian own a bar downtown. She's not a super lush on a strict schedule to get wasted,” Jason explained.
“Speaking of going out, do you guys want to go to the Pilots game tonight?” Landon asked.
“Wanna go?” Jason left the decision to me.
“Two hockey games in one day? I'm not sure my heart can handle that,” I joked. Jason knew I wasn't that big of a hockey fan. I liked it and had fun at games, but I wasn't a two-games-in-one-day kind of girl. “Plus, Holden can't stay up for a seven o'clock game.”
“No worries.” Jason winked. “We'll make it to another game sometime.”
“Why don't you go?” I suggested. “Holden's going to go to bed after dinner. I can catch up on reading or hang out with your mom.”
Jason and Landon both looked at me wide-eyed.
“What?” I asked. Had I said something wrong? Did their parents turn into bloodsucking vampires when their sons left?
“You just volunteered to hang out at your boyfriend's parents' house without him. You just met them,” Landon said.
“Is that not allowed? Are they gonna eat my brains when you leave?” I swiveled my head from brother to brother, eyes wide with mock fear.
“It's cool,” Jason said. “Really cool. Are you sure you don't mind if I go? I feel bad leaving you.”
“I'm exhausted. I rarely get a weekend off, and honestly, I just want to relax. Hanging out here and drinking a few more transfusions with your parents sounds like a blast.”
“Is she for real?” Landon asked right in front of me.
“I'm for real.”
“And you won't be pissed if he goes out tonight without you?”
“Why would I be pissed?” Should I be pissed? I'd been alone too long to give a shit about stuff like that. I just wanted to curl up on a couch and chill out.
“You are the coolest girl alive,” Jason told me.
“Second coolest,” Landon countered.
“Bet Gaby's never hung out with Mom and Dad without you.”
“She hangs out with them alone all the time.”
Jason laughed. “Mom and Dad shopping at Bertucci Produce when Gaby is working doesn't count as hanging out alone.”
“What are you guys planning?” Charlie asked when he came back into the room. Sharon followed behind him.
“Can I help you with anything?” I asked when Sharon pulled a long loaf of French bread out of their pantry. I felt like a complete jerk for not asking earlier.
“Nope.” She turned around and pressed a few buttons on the oven, starting the preheat process. “I just have to cut it into smaller pieces. It'll take me two seconds.” When she met my eyes, she smiled. “But thank you.”
Both Charlie and Sharon seemed excited when they heard that I'd be hanging out with them while the boys went to the Pilots game.
Charlie stood behind Jason and rubbed his shoulders. “I can't wait to get your old school pictures out,” he said to tease him.
“Go ahead. I've always been hot,” Jason said.
“Remember that one from the second grade where his pants were pulled up so high you can see them in the picture?” Sharon asked.
“On second thought, I may stay home tonight,” Jason said.
“Oh, no you don't. You're going out with your brother and I'm going to spend all night looking at embarrassing photos.” I patted his leg, giddy at being part of the wisecracking family dynamic. “I have no doubt you were a cutie.”
“Damn right. Did you see my senior picture on the wall? I was voted hottest dude to go to school ever.”
“Ever?” I asked.
“Ever,” Jason confirmed. Which brought a roar of laughter from his family.
Jason and Landon left shortly after dinner. Holden was exhausted from playing with Calvin and Nate, and he crashed not long after that. I changed into a comfy T-shirt and pajama pants and contemplated my next move. Should I go downstairs and hang out with Sharon and Charlie, or were they just being nice because I said Jason could go out without me? Was I being a weirdo for staying home when I just met them?
I glanced at the clock in the guest room, which told me it was only 7:23. I'd look like a total jerk if I didn't at least go down and say good night.
When I rounded the corner into the kitchen, the room was empty. As I listened for sound coming from another part of the house, Charlie walked in. I jumped, startled at his appearance.
“Did Holden go down okay?” he asked.
“Yes. He was exhausted.”
“Good. He had a lot of activity today.” He grabbed a bottle of red wine and some glasses from the wet bar. Then he nodded toward the room off the kitchen Calvin and Nate had come through earlier. “Come on, we're playing Rock Band.”
I didn't think I'd heard him correctly, but sure enough, when I walked into the family room in the back of the house, the Taylors had the full band set up. Calvin sat behind the drums, Sharon gripped a guitar, and Nate stood at a microphone stand.
“Grab a guitar, Indie. We need a bassist,” Sharon called, adjusting her fingers on the top buttons of her plastic guitar.
Coolest family ever.
“Have you played before?” Nate asked.
“Have I played before?” I scoffed. “Watch me rock this.”
Damien and I had played Guitar Hero at every single opportunity until we both beat the game. Technically, I'd never played Rock Band, but I was sure it was the same.
I spent my evening drinking red wine and playing a loud, crazy videogame with the Taylors. It was the coolest family experience, outside of my own, that I'd ever had.
It felt abnormal standing among the sea of Detroit Pilots jerseys at Martin Arena, though Landon had been with another team for only half a season. Since he had been traded to the Detroit Red Wings over the summer, I had no reason to see a Pilots game while visiting my family.
I'd attended Landon's first game with the winged wheel proudly displayed on his chest, but the hockey team I coached made the play-offs and I had to travel for those games. Between that schedule and work, it became almost impossible to make it to Detroit as much as I'd like.
Yet here I was on a freezing November night, because, according to Mom, Landon desperately needed brother time.
“Feel weird being back here?” I scanned the new fittings of Martin Arena.
Last season had been the Pilots' first at Martin after playing a few years in Robinson Arena, a decrepit Detroit landmark. Instead of renovating Robinson, Stan Martin, local furniture giant and owner of the Pilots, built a new arena. And he'd spared no expense.
“A little,” Landon admitted. “But I'm much happier to be at Joe Louis, ya know?”
“I'll be happier when they finish their new arena. Great memories at the Joe, but the D deserves another place like this.” I patted the Pilots-blue armrest between us.
“Right?” Landon agreed. Then he pointed his water bottle at the gigantic scoreboard hanging from the rafters. “Look at that screen.”
“So, what's up?” I asked. Enough small talk. It felt like a lame first date.
Landon swiveled to look at me. “With what?”
“I know you're pissed. So just talk to me.”
“I'm not pissed. I'm justâ¦” He paused to take a sip of his water. Then he gave me a sidelong glance. “Did you bring Indie to the wedding?”
Shit. Landon would be pissed that Indie got to go to Auden and Aleksandr's wedding when he didn't have the chance. I shifted in my seat. My brother knew the answer by my silence.
“I didn't even get to go to the wedding!”
“It was a block away from her office,” I explained.
Landon turned his head and stared at center ice with a stupid, pouty glare that made me want to smack him.
“You were in Toronto,” I continued. Landon had been on a Canadian road trip with the Wings when Auden and Aleksandr got married.
“I totally could have flown back for it,” Landon snapped.
“No. You couldn't. That's not how it works.”
He dropped his head, and his shoulders shook as he nodded. “Yeah, I know. But Sasha's my best friend and I wanted to be there. You got to bring your girlfriend.”
Sasha, as people close to Aleksandr Varenkov know him, and Landon became friends almost instantly. They'd both been drafted in the same year and played the majority of their minor-league careers together. Since moving to Bridgeland, I understood the pain of being away from my best friends.
“Indie's known Auden longer than either of us have,” I said, defending myself.
“You and Auden have been all buddy-buddy and I'm left out in the cold.” Landon's pout morphed into a scowl. “I'm losing my best friend and my brother to the same person at the same time.”
So that's what he's pissed about.
“I thought you liked Auden?”
“I do. She's awesome. And it was cool when she and Sasha started dating, but now she gets you, too. And you were at their wedding, but I couldn't be. I've known them longer.”
I swiveled my head left and right before I lowered my voice and spoke. “Dude, when was the sex change?”
“What?” He whipped his head toward me.
“You sound like a fucking girl. Get over it. You haven't lost either of us. Life isn't static. People move and travel and grow.”
“I know that,” Landon said.
“I'm on your side.” I leaned back into the hard, molded plastic of the arena seat. “You should have been there. But they wanted to do it before Aleksandr's next road trip. If I've learned anything about either of them, it's that they don't make sense to anyone but each other. It was probably Russian fertility day or something.”
“Did they throw salt over their shoulders and spit at mirrors or anything like that?” Landon asked.
I snorted at the tongue-in-cheek mention of Aleksandr's numerous superstitions. Aleksandr had Landon worried he'd have bad luck until he was ninety-nine, despite the fact that Landon had never even heard of half the myths Aleksandr believed in.
“No. It was pretty traditional.”
Landon leaned in and lowered his voice. “You think she's pregnant?”
“No!” I exclaimed. Though it could be true. The thought hadn't crossed my mind. I just didn't want to believe it. “Auden's just as weird as Aleksandr.”
“Why do you think she's weird?” Landon's gaze caught my eye.
“Not weird,” I said, backtracking. “Just, I don't know, different. She's got all this grief and sadness pent up. They picked that date because it was right after the anniversary of her mom's death. She literally wanted to cover something sad with something happy.”
I hadn't planned on telling Landon what Auden had confided in me, but I wanted him to understand that no one was being jerky when they couldn't reschedule a courthouse wedding for a day Landon could be there.
“Damn.” Landon shifted his eyes to the ice. “Isn't she worried she'll just be depressed for her anniversary every year?”
“That's what I said.” I knew my brother would understand. “She's a really well-adjusted person, considering everything that's happened, but she has this sad, morbid streak. Being with Sasha has helped her a little bit.”
“Yeah, he has.” Landon nodded. “She's a lot different than when he first met her.”
“And they're gonna have a party to celebrate at some point.” I changed the subject and threw my brother a bone simultaneously.
“Not sure I believe that. Last time I talked to Sasha, Auden was in the background yelling about celebrating on their fiftieth wedding anniversary,” Landon said.
“Well, Sasha talked her into a party. Soon. Then another one on their fiftieth.”
“Really?” Landon's expression softened.
“Well, that's what they said, but you never know with Auden. She's complicated.”
“You don't have to insult her for my sake. She's an awesome girl. Her complications are understandable considering her situation.”
Okay, so throwing Auden under the bus wasn't the best way to make Landon feel better. I suck at heart-to-heart talks, even with my own brother.
“Complicated is not an insult,” I said, defending myself. “Calling her a head case would be an insult.”
Landon sighed and his face morphed into a Really? expression. “She's been through a lot.”
“We all have,” I pointed out.
“You, of all people, have a reason to be pissed,” Landon told me. “But you're stronger than that, man. You've had a great life with people who love you.”
“So has she.”
Now it was my turn to stare at the massive scoreboard and avoid his eyes. I wasn't looking for sympathy. I'm allowed to be pissed at the birth mother who gave me up for adoption but kept Auden.
“Don't be like that.” Landon bumped my knee with his, which broke me out of my trance.
“Enough of the deep shit,” I said.
“You started it.”
“No, you did, by whining about not being at your boyfriend's wedding.” I lifted my fists to my eyes and pretended to cry. “I couldn't go to my best friend's wedding because we both play in the NHL.”
Landon laughed and smacked my ribs with his elbow. “Fuck you, man.”
We watched the rest of the first period in relative silence, speaking again only to a discuss a play here and there.
Landon leaned forward in his seat, watching with an eager eye. He probably longed to be out there with the Pilots, since most of those guys were still his best friends. But not enough that he'd ever give up the opportunity to be in the NHL. My brother was a player's playerâa guy that went all out for his team. He could make friends in an empty box.
Landon smacked my arm with the back of his hand, saying, “Come on.”
I glanced at the scoreboard. “There're five minutes left.”
“Yeah, I know.” Landon stood. “But I have a surprise for you.”
Indie would be amused to know surprises ran in my family. Thinking about her made me smile, and I realized how deep into her I was.
Instead of getting caught up in thoughts of how deep I wanted to be in her, I stood up and followed my brother to the concourse. Landon led me to the Zamboni entrance to the ice, where two Pilots employees stood, clutching sticks and pucks.
“What's up?” I asked.
“You get to shoot for a car!” Landon said in his best game-show-host voice.
“Oh my god!” A little girl took a step in front of me, knocking me backward. “Landon Taylor! Can I please have your autograph? Please?”
Nice hip check, kid.
“Sure.” Landon grinned and took the Pilots game program she'd thrust out to him.
“I don't have a pen.” Her long, brown ponytail smacked against my chest as her head turned and her eyes darted from side to side, searching for something for Landon to sign with. “Oh no! I don't have a pen.”
Landon reached out and touched her shoulder. “It's okay.” He turned to one of the Pilots employees I recognized from previous events and used his hand to mimic writing. “Jess, do you have a pen?”
“Yeah, of course,” Jess answered. After digging around for a moment, she produced a black Sharpie from the Pilots backpack hitched over one of her shoulders.
“Thanks,” Landon said, taking the marker from her. He turned back to the excited little girl. “What's your name?”
Landon scribbled and handed it back to her. “Here you go, Safina.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” The girl clutched the program to her chest.
Just then, a furry, white, cat-looking thing with an oversized head snuck up behind me.
Orville, the Pilots' creepy-ass mascot.
I didn't even know what animal Orville was supposed to be. But his name came from the Wright Brothers. Stan Martin liked his teams to stick with North Carolina's “First in Flight” theme. Wilbur, the Pilots' creepy-ass mascot's twin brother, was in Charlotte, entertaining Aviators fans. The mascots dressed almost identically, wearing jerseys representing their respective teams and old-time aviator goggles sitting on top of their heads.
The horn sounded to end the first period. Jessica waited at the entrance, giving the players time to clear the ice and head toward their respective locker rooms before she unhooked the latches on the doors and swung them open.
“Okay.” She cleared her throat. “Orville's gonna lead you guys out there. You'll take two shots each. Good luck!”
The Pilots employee standing next to Jessica, a young dude with a shaggy, blond mullet (sometimes known as “hockey hair”), handed sticks to Safina and me. I nodded my thanks, then bent down and gripped it like I would if I were taking a shot. The shine of my shoes caught my eye while my head was down.
Fuck. My shoes had absolutely no traction. Which would pose a problem when walking on the ice. I silently cursed Landon for not giving me the heads-up so I could have worn a different pair.
It would be super fucking embarrassing to fall on my ass in front of the crowd that stayed in the stands during intermission.
Completely missing the net would be equally embarrassing. I could hear the chirping already: No wonder Landon Taylor's brother never made it to the big leagues.
I let Safina go ahead of me, and made sure to take careful steps as I followed Orville across the ice. Jessica and the other Pilots employee walked behind us, carrying the pucks.
Neither of poor little Safina's shots even made it to the goal, but she got a huge round of applause from the crowd anyway. They should've let her move up a bit so she had a chance.
But rules are rules. Move aside, kid.
Jessica set the puck down in front of me on the blue line, then backed away. When I looked at the net to line up my shot, Orville was there, dancing in front of it, hopping from one foot to the other and waving his grimy arms.
Stupid cat-thing hadn't done that to Safina. No worries.
I bent over, drew my arms back, and sent a sick slap shot at the net.
I should explain that it's virtually impossible to make this shot. The entire goal is covered by a huge plank of wood, with a tiny rectangular cutout in the bottom center, just an inch or so taller and wider than the size of a puck. I mean, even Pavel Datsyuk might have a hard time making that shot. Notice I said might. He is the Magic Man and all.
The puck slid across the ice straight toward its target. The crowd seemed to take in a collective breath.
Then it careened off the wooden barrier just to the left of the tiny opening.
I released a breath along with the fans. And the cheering began. Hooting and hollering from every angle.
The shot missed, but it was a great try.
I had a better chance of winning the lottery than hitting as close to the opening in my second attempt as I had in my first, so instead of lining it up, I flicked a wrist shot toward the goal.
The puck caught a tiny bit of air and bounced off Orville's shin. He cocked his fat head at me and then raised his arms up as if to say “What the fuck?”
The fans roared as Orville skated toward me with his dukes up, ready to fake a fight.
At least, that's what I thought, until he got close enough for me to hear him.
“Why the fuck would you shoot the puck at me?” Orville yelled, his voice muffled by the mesh of the costume's mouth opening. “I'm gonna kick your fucking ass!”
Then he charged me and I had to bat his nappy paws away.
Oh, it's on, mofo.