Authors: Lila Moore
The song ended. The players skated around for a moment before taking their positions or returning to their team’s respective sides. The crowd was on their feet cheering as the game started. Astrid was at the bar, pouring a beer just as the server returned with a cart full of food.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.
“Not now, thanks,” I said.
He left us alone to enjoy the food and the game. Astrid picked up a hot dog and a pretzel, then threw herself down in one of the reclining seats and put up her feet. She seemed more interested in the food than the game. I watched her with an amused grin on my face.
“What?” she said with a mouthful of food.
I smiled. “Give me half that pretzel.”
“Get your own. There’s, like, ten of them on the cart.”
I made a plate of food and settled in beside Astrid to watch the game. I could barely eat. The game was tense. The score was tired zero to zero as the second period ended.
“Does anyone ever score in this game?” Astrid asked. She stretched out like a cat, then jumped up to pour another beer.
“Don’t tell me you’re bored. That was intense.”
“Are you kidding me? Nothing happened.”
“Sledge almost scored five times. He’s kicking ass out there, but their team’s defense is amazing.”
“Do you think Sledge will get into a fight tonight?”
“It will liven things up. I like it when the players get sweaty and angry and start throwing punches.”
I rolled my eyes as if I found her ridiculous, but in truth, I kind of liked when they fought too. Once in high school, a player from our rival team made a remark about me on the ice. When I asked Sledge what the guy said, he refused to repeat it, but Chick told me later. The guy had called me a slut and asked Sledge if all the guys on the team got to bang the coach’s daughter or just him.
Sledge responded by knocking his teeth out in the middle of the game. I’ve never seen him that angry before. He jumped the guy and beat him within an inch of his life. When I found out why he’d reacted so strongly, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of pride. No one had ever stood up for me before.
I never realized how alone I’d been until Sledge entered my life. Suddenly, we were a couple. People talked about us as a pair. We loved each other. He protected me. It was perfect.
The crowd suddenly roared. My attention was drawn back to the ice. The players were piled up on top of each other, throwing punches.
Astrid laughed. “Did you see that?”
“No, I wasn’t paying attention. What happened?”
“Some guy clothes-lined Sledge- knocked him right off his feet. Sledge got back up and jumped the guy, then everyone piled on.”
“Was he hurt?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. I mean, how can you get hurt in this game? Look at all the padding the players wear. Have you seen that hottie in Chem class? The one with long dark hair? He plays rugby. Those guys don’t use any padding. They get the fuck beat out of them every game.”
Hockey’s a violent sport. The guys get hurt all the time in spite of the protective gear they wear. I didn’t feel like arguing with Astrid though. I was too worried about Sledge. Where was he?
Slowly, the players started to skate away from the pile of people. It didn’t look like a fight so much as a group of people that had jumped on top of each other. I stood and went to the glass. I pressed my hands against the cold surface and looked down.
“Please be okay…” I whispered.
There was only one player left behind. He lay motionless on the ice. Sledge. My heart skipped a beat. A medic ran out onto the ice. The crowd was on their feet and deathly silent. I’ve never heard an arena so quiet before.
The medic slowly removed Sledge’s helmet. His eyes were closed and his lip was bleeding. Two men ran up carrying a stretcher. They carefully loaded Sledge onto it then ran off the ice. I took off running for the exit.
“Where are you going?” Astrid called after me.
I didn’t bother to respond. I had to get to Sledge and make sure he was okay. As soon as I left the stairwell, I ran straight into Chick.
“Chick! Thank God. I need you to take me to Sledge.”
“I was just coming to get you.”
Hot on my heels, Astrid asked: “What’s going on?”
“C’mon,” Chick said.
He led us to the locker room. It was empty for the moment. The game went on without Sledge. When we entered I was relieved to see he was conscious and sitting on the bench.
“Thank God,” I said a bit too loudly.
Sledge looked up at me with a smile. His lip was busted and his eyes were glassy. Sweat dripped down his face, plastering his hair to his forehead. He looked pleased to see me. I felt embarrassed by how obvious I’d been about my concern.
“He’ll be okay,” Chick whispered to me.
He wrapped an arm around my shoulders to comfort me. Chick was a sweetheart, but he was embarrassing me. I didn’t want Sledge to know how worried I was, though I suspected it was too late.
We stood back while the medics checked Sledge out. The crowd roared above us as someone scored. Shortly thereafter the game ended and the players started to file into the locker room. Astrid’s attention immediately went to the men as they started to undress.
I cleared my throat and tried to stay focused on Sledge. I won’t lie, though. I was distracted by their presence. They were totally unselfconscious as they peeled off their padding and stripped down to their jock straps. Some of the guys went further and got completely naked. It wasn’t lost on them that there were two girls in the locker room either. We garnered several curious glances and sly smiles.
Astrid returned their smiles and hard looks. She was in heaven. A completely naked guy walked right past us as he headed to the showers. Astrid’s mouth fell open as she watched him leave. I elbowed her in the side.
“You’re drooling,” I said.
She closed her mouth and gave me a harsh look. A tall, blonde guy with huge muscular thighs was standing in front of his locker and staring straight at Astrid.
“Excuse me,” she said.
I watched as she skipped off to talk to him.
“I’m fine,” Sledge protested, pushing the medics away.
The coach came over to get a closer look at him. “Concussion?” he asked.
“Probably. He won’t let us take him to the hospital to get him checked out though,” one of the medics answered.
“I’m fine. It’s not the first time I’ve taken a blow to the head.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” the coach replied. “You’re putting your life in your hands. Not to mention your career.”
“I don’t need to go to the hospital.” Sledge tried to stand and immediately fell back down onto the bench.
“Sledge, don’t be an idiot,” I said, stepping forward. Everyone turned to regard me, as if they were just now noticing I was in the same room. “Go to the hospital. You may have a concussion. I’ll go with you.”
As soon as I said I’d take him, he perked up. “Okay.”
They helped Sledge to a waiting ambulance. I motioned to Astrid. She waved me off, as if to say I’ll find my own way home. She must have made quite the impression on the hockey player with the meaty thighs. He was leaning in close and whispering to her. I wished them luck. At least one of us would be having fun tonight.
I followed Sledge into the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was short. We rode in silence. I tried not to look at him. I could feel his eyes drilling into me. Something about his stare made me paranoid. I was convinced if he stared at me long enough he’d discover the truth I was hiding.
When we pulled up to the hospital, the doctors greeted us at the ambulance entrance along with a team of nurses. It seemed a bit excessive to me, but Sledge was a celebrity. It wasn’t often they treated a famous athlete. They insisted he lay down on a gurney even though he’d regained his balance.
“Wait for me,” he shouted as they wheeled him off.
“I will. I promise.”
A nurse led me to a waiting area where I soon grew bored. The minutes turned to hours and there was still no word of Sledge’s condition. I decided to stretch my legs and see if I could find a vending machine. I asked the nurse where the cafeteria was. She gave me directions, but I soon found myself lost.
The hospital was huge. A maze of corridors opened up before me. I wandered around, feeling happy to be lost. At least I was happy until I came upon the nursery. I stopped in my tracks. The outside of the nursery was encased in glass. Rows of babies slept or fussed as nurses tended to them.
A man stood beside me looking in. A big, dumb grin was spread across his face as he looked down at his baby girl. I envied his happiness. I turned back to the babies. Only a few short months ago, my baby was in room like this. Nurses cared for him because my parents would not allow me to.
Then he was given away.
I was told it was a private adoption and assured that he was being raised in a good Christian home. The implication was that I was not a good Christian. My parents saw me as damaged goods now. They’d never look at me the same way again. And after the way they’d treated me, I would never look at them the same way either.
“They’re cute.” I jumped. Sledge stood behind me smiling. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Guiltily, I turned away. He joined me beside the glass.
“They’re so tiny,” he said, looking at the babies.
I cleared my throat. “How are you? Is it a concussion?”
“Yeah, but it’s minor. Nothing to worry about.”
I stared at the side of his face. His jaw seemed sharper than what I remembered. His features had become more masculine since we were in high school. He turned to me. I quickly looked away.
“Thanks for coming tonight,” he said.
“No problem. I wanted to make sure you were okay.” I looked at my watch. “It’s getting late. We should go.”
I started to walk away. Sledge grabbed my hand, stopping me. I’d forgotten how strong he could be. His grip was gentle, but I could feel the strength in his big, rough hands.
“I want to see you again,” he said. “Can I take you out? I know this great all-night diner. We could go drink some coffee, eat pancakes, like in the old days.”
The idea was tempting, but I couldn’t let Sledge get close to me. The secret I carried was too heavy a burden. If he learned the truth he would be devastated and he would hate me. It was unforgivable to keep a baby secret. He would never forgive me, or understand how much I wanted to tell him. Could he understand that it was my parents who’d forced me this secret was the best for everyone?
“I can’t,” I said.
His face fell. “Is there another guy?”
He tried to keep his voice neutral, but I could see the anger boiling beneath the surface.
“No. There hasn’t been anyone since you.”
I doubted there ever would be again. I couldn’t imagine starting a relationship with another guy. I knew I’d spend the whole time comparing him to Sledge. Would I ever meet a guy as protective as Sledge? With a smile like Sledge? Would I meet a guy with a body like his?
My eyes drifted over Sledge. He’d changed into a jersey and sweat pants before leaving for the hospital. The pants were made out of a thin material that clung to his muscles tightly. Heat rose inside me.
“There you are. I was so worried.”
Svetlana appeared at the end of the all. Her eyes immediately drifted down to Sledge’s hand. He still held mine. She glared disapprovingly. Strangely, Sledge didn’t let go. I had to pry my hand from his grip.
Svetlana wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him in for a kiss. I watched as her lips parted and her tongue slipped into his mouth. Stiffly, Sledge let her kiss him. He didn’t look like he was enjoying it much which gave me a small spark of satisfaction.
He opened his eyes and looked at me, then managed to push her away. Svetlana had a death grip on him.
“I was worried about you. I saw you get taken away off the field,” she said in a heavy Russian accent.
“It’s not a field. It’s an ice rink,” Sledge said. “And since when do you watch my games?”
“I always watch your games, silly boy. I love hockey.”
“That’s news to me.”
She slapped his chest playfully. “Such a kidder.” Then she turned to me. “Bobbi, you may leave now,” she said, dismissing me.
I didn’t appreciate being treated like the help, but I was grateful to have an excuse to leave.
“Thanks for the tickets,” I said to Sledge. “I’ll see you around.”
I turned to leave.
“Wait!” Sledge called after me. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“I’m fine. Thanks.”
“How are you going to get home?”
That was a good question. I’d have to call Astrid and have her come pick me up. She’d be pissed. I was sure she was trying to score with her hockey player. She wouldn’t want to be pulled away from him.
“I’ll get an Uber.”
“We’ll drive you.”