The Understatement of the Year

By: Sarina Bowen

— September —

Faceoff: the start of play, in which the referee drops the puck between two opposing players.

— Graham

In all my favorite movies, when something bad was going happen, the protagonist usually sensed it. He saw a sign, or felt a disturbance in the force. But that’s not how my real life worked. And I’m no action hero. So you can be sure that I didn’t see it coming.

My whole life, I never had. Not when it counted, anyway.

That afternoon was the first hockey practice of the season. We were all banging around in the locker room, feeling lucky. Our lineup looked great, too. There were a couple of enormous Canadian recruits, with thick French accents and even thicker beards. We’d known them for all of a half hour, and already one of them had earned himself the nickname Pepé, like the cartoon character Pepé le Pew. And it looked like we were just going to call the other one Frenchie. Because we’re real creative like that.

I was almost done suiting up, but my practice jersey snagged on an exposed patch of Velcro on my shoulder pad. After I struggled for a moment, someone yanked it into place from behind.

“Now you’re sorted.” Both the voice and the assistance came from my friend Bella. And when I turned to face her, she gave me her trademarked apple-cheeked grin.

“Thanks, Mom,” I teased.

She kicked me in the ass, hard enough to feel it through my pads. “Graham, you’re supposed to call me Oh Great One this year,” she said. “Why don’t you practice now? Say, ‘thank you, Oh Great One.’”

Bella was a strange bird, but in the best possible way. A rich girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she was the most rabid hockey fan I’d ever met, though her snooty parents (and I’d met them) had never seen a game, let alone the inside of a locker room. Nobody knew where Bella came by her enthusiasm for the sport.

Her lust for hockey was exceeded only by her lust for the players. There weren’t exact figures, but I was pretty sure she’d slept with 75 percent of the team. Present company included.

This would be the first season that Bella was with us in an official capacity, as our student manager. The power was definitely going to her head. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but I didn’t get the chance. Because Coach James banged the hallway door open, and we all turned to give him our attention.

“Look at this room full of hooligans! Who the fuck are you guys, anyway? Slackers, all of ya. Now, I’ve got some announcements. So shut yer yawps long enough to hear ‘em all.” His wrinkled face got serious. “First the bad news. Over the summer, Bridger McCaulley dropped hockey, citing family hardship. I yelled at him for an hour, and it didn’t change things. So it must really be true.”

An unhappy murmur traveled the room. That wasn’t good. McCaulley was a solid wing, and I’d always liked the guy.

“The good news is that we have a new player, a transfer from Saint B’s. He’s a sophomore, forward line. So, the lord taketh away wings and he also giveth them back.”

Another body appeared in the open doorway, rolling a hockey bag. And when I saw that face — those big dark eyes, looking out from under a familiar mop of shiny dark hair — I have never been caught so far off guard in my life. Seriously, the edges of my vision went a little funny. And the sound of Coach’s voice began to waver, as if I were hearing him from underwater.

It was a sudden clatter that brought me back to the surface. A moment later, Bella was handing me my helmet with a puzzled look on her face. I’d actually dropped it right onto the floor with a bang.

And then the muscle memory that I’d developed from years of covering up all kinds of reactions kicked in. I took the helmet from Bella and flipped up the cage, as if opening the clips was the most fascinating thing I’d ever done.

Coach’s voice rambled on at the front of room as he introduced the new guy. “…Good foot speed and incredible stats from his season at Saint B's. He’s a terrific addition to the room. Please welcome Johnny Rikker to the team.”

The sound of his name was like a punch to the stomach. I sat down hard on the bench behind me, bending over like someone who’d been hammered into the boards. Reaching down, I tugged my skate guards free, just to give myself a reason to cower with my head between my legs. And removing the rubber strips from my skate blades was harder than it should have been, because my hands were actually shaking.