This is the next installment in what I’ve been calling a short story collection, but is really coming to resemble more of a serialized novella. I recommend reading the rest first, beginning here.
Mark rises from his bed as quietly as he can. His roommate is already snoring lightly in the next bed, but he can’t sleep. There are too many emotions, too many complicated feelings running laps around his brain. He stands before the window of his hotel room and gazes down on downtown St. Paul, dead at this hour of the night. His jersey lies strewn over the chair in the corner, carefully arranged to show off his school’s name. He’d finally taken it off two hours after the game ended, and even now is half tempted to pull it back on and sleep in it so as not to let it go. So much for all those illusions of his senior year ending in a state championship. He’s failed. But his old impossible standard for himself doesn’t have the same power anymore: he knows he’s fought valiantly, put his team on his back, made 37 saves in a losing effort tonight. He checks his reflection in the window and chances a smile for the first time since the final horn sounded. He’s done alright for himself, all in all, and even he might yet fall for all those clichés about glory days. Now, he just needs one last confirmation of his pride. He checks his phone again. The call comes on time, as it always does.
“God, thanks so much for doing this.”
“Always for you. How’s the team?”
Mark glances at his stirring roommate and pauses. Yes, this conversation is more important than the curfew. He throws on his shoes and heads for the hotel hallway.
“Down, but proud. Exactly how I want them to be,” he says as he slips out the door.
“They know their captain.”
“Did what I could, telling em I was proud of em. Even if I was pissed for all that blown coverage. Should’ve had the second one, too. But, hey, we gave it our all and I think I can accept that.”
“You’re playing for third in the state tomorrow. Hardly any shame there.”
“I know. Course I’m proud of us. And like you said at the start, it was worth coming back to be a leader, pull all those boys along. Even if it wasn’t the same without you.”
“Aww. You gonna miss it?”
“Hard to say, honestly.” Mark gathers his thoughts and finds words he knows Evan will like. “I’m ready to move on. Duluth saved my soul, but it was never entirely me, either.”
“I get that. Didn’t realize how much of a Duluth boy I was until I left.”
“Ha. It was obvious to some of us all along…”
Evan lets out a loud laugh before covering his mouth. He, too, is the only person awake now: his Fargo billet family is sound asleep, including their eleven-year-old who shares a wall with the junior hockey player he worships. Evan is sore from an hour of evening knee hockey on top of the nicks and bruises that bedevil him late in a long season, but the look on the kid’s face makes it all worth it.
“What did you tell them afterwards?” he asks.
“There wasn’t much to say. I just said thanks, said I’ll have my thoughts sorted out a little better by the banquet. I mean…God, you know how much a lot of them drove me insane. I had to learn to hide that. Had to learn your Minnesota Nice shit. But…I love em all for it, even now. It taught me a lot, how to deal with a group. Even when you’re the goalie, you’re not all alone back there. I was telling that to Carson after the game and he just sort of smirked at me like I finally figured something out that I should’ve known years ago. And maybe I did.”
“But it took this to make it real,” says Evan.
“It’s been a strange feeling. I’m just…kind of reflective about it all now. Nostalgic, you know?”
“I know exactly how you feel. It hit me hard toward the end of my senior year.”
“I even behaved myself and didn’t sexile Reuben tonight. No postgame pussy like last year.”
“I take that all back. You’re the worst.”
“I know.” Evan can picture the evil grin on Mark’s face and smiles at the thought. Prior to this year, Mark was the aloof goalie par excellence, and couldn’t be troubled to comment on his teammates’ performance unless they’d hung him out to dry. He had one job, and it was to stop the puck, to the point where he could seem indifferent to wins or losses so long as he performed to the level he expected of himself. He’d never exactly been a model teammate. Now, though, Evan can tell he’s completely invested. He’d particularly enjoyed the sequence caught on camera after the first period when Mark hunted down the referees and sent them into peals of laughter.
“What did you tell the refs at the first intermission?” he asks.
“That one kid should’ve gotten an embellishment call after Austin bumped him. I said that I could hook them up with someone from the Yale Drama School if they wanna learn how it’s done right.”
“Your chirp game’s never been your forte, Evvy. Gotta know how to work em.”
“There’s nothing worse than a chirpy goalie.”
“Hey, the team loves it, hearing that from me.”
“I don’t doubt it. Maybe that’s what made you all so good this season, just knowing how to stay loose.”
“I wasn’t always great at it, but I learned not be picky. If you can relate, relate, even if it’s on their level.”
Evan marvels at this version of Mark he’s hearing. “Next thing I know you’ll be turning down Yale and playing for UMD so you can stay with your boys,” he cracks.
“Let’s not get too carried away. Some of them didn’t even realize this was the end, you know? Most of em will never get it the way that we do.”
“I don’t think high school’s formative for everyone as it was for me or you. We both went through a little more than most.”
“Me, you, and our daddy issues.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” says Evan. He sighs, unwilling to say more, and Mark waffles on whether to press any further. A door down the hall clicks, and he jumps in shock before recovering his poise. He slips into an alcove next to the ice machine, makes sure the coast is clear, swallows, and asks a question he’s always longed to ask.
“Evs, if you don’t want to answer you don’t have to, but…did you have any idea? Did you get a chance to say goodbye?”
“I didn’t. No.”
“Was there a note?”
“No. I didn’t see any of it coming. There was some stuff here and there maybe, looking back he probably wasn’t himself for a month or two before, but…no. Nothing. No final words. He just said bye to me that morning when I left for school like I always did. I probably didn’t even look at him, it was just…” Evan trails off, but Mark remains silent, and he can’t help but go on.
“It’s stupid. We don’t think these things matter until they suddenly do. Hell, I’m not sure he’d even made up his mind at that point.” Evan cracks, and appreciates the time Mark gives him to collect himself. He’s done everything in his power to pick up the pieces over the past five years, accept the loss of his father and give that loss a place in a well-organized life. He’s made peace as well as he can.
But one nagging worry lingers. Now that he knows loss, he can’t ever fight the sense that he’s wasting time. Every minute is vital, and every moment not spent in full pursuit is just waste on top of waste. He’s nineteen and yet he already feels like he’s let far too much time go by without doing every possible thing there is to do, without telling all the people in his life what he needs to tell them. He lives in eternal fear that his debts will come due before their time.
“Whatever you do, Marky, don’t make that same mistake,” says Evan. He doesn’t say exactly what the mistake was, but the silence on the other end of the line assures him he’s made his point.
Evan’s words weigh on Mark. He knows Evan means this broadly, but in most spheres of life this isn’t much of a concern for him. Mistakes are a rarity in his life. But his mind can’t help but turn to his father’s fortress up the shore from Duluth. He dreads every visit there, and goes only often enough to meet basic obligations. Hockey, at least, gives them something to talk about. His father does push him on colleges, and as a Yale graduate himself, that legacy tie certainly set the table for Mark. In his own way, his father’s terrifying iciness is a necessary antidote to his permissive, weak-willed mother, who only ever aims to give him exactly what he wants. If only there was some middle ground instead of these two polar extremes.
“My dad sent me a text that said ‘good job’ today. Invited me up to have dinner with him at his place next week.”
“That’s good to hear, I guess.”
“I’m not sure you get how crazy that is. He’s never said anything like that. Ever.”
“Why is it that the things we most mean to say are the hardest things to say?”
“I’m not sure how much he actually means it.”
“He does. Trust me. Whether he knows it, whether you know it…I know it’s there.”
“If you say so.” Mark wants to disbelieve Evan, but he can’t quite do so.
“Sorry to drag you down that road.”
“No. It’s good for me.”
“Seriously, how you doing beyond all that? How’s junior life lately? Wait, hang on.” Mark pokes his head out of his alcove to investigate the footfalls down the hall. One of the assistant coaches makes his way toward him with an ice bucket, stopping by each of the players’ doors to listen as he goes. Mark tenses, poised, and waits until the coach puts his head just far enough into one of the doorways that he can’t see the ice machine. He bolts for the stairwell opposite him in four bounding strides, edges the door open, and slips through. Sneaking around the homes of love interests late at night is a specialty of his, after all. Safe and back in control, he exhales and invites Evan to reply.
“Honestly? It’s been frustrating lately.”
“It’s not my style. And…I just, I don’t know. It’s kind of like what we were just saying. If I learned one thing from the shit with my dad, it’s not to take any day for granted. To always make sure I’m building toward whatever comes next. The other kids, they don’t get that. They think they have all the time in the world. I know I don’t. And too often I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels here. All for what? Just a game?” Evan surprises himself with his own fervor, the ease with which half-formed thoughts start pouring out.
“The things we do for hockey. You know you love it, though. This time we boys all get together…can’t trade that for anything. You taught me that more than anyone.”
“Right, I know. But, juniors isn’t high school…it’s a business now. Not that it wasn’t some there, but we had well-rounded lives. You don’t get that when you’re stranded on a junior team in freaking Fargo. You’re such a lucky bastard, heading straight to Yale next year.”
“You might find some willing takers if you looked east, you know.”
“Nah. I can’t leave. I’m too much of a Midwest boy, and I’m smart enough to know it.”
“You just don’t want to be too far from Bridget.” Mark pauses, expecting a rejoinder, but when none comes, suspicion sets in immediately. “She was at the game tonight, you know.”
“Yeah, we were going back and forth as it went along. Wish I could’ve been there next to her to freak out through it in person.”
“You two are such rocks,” Mark probes. Again, silence.
“It’s…shit, Mark. I hate this place I’m in. Hate it with a passion.”
“What happened?” Evan has never heard such alarm in Mark’s voice.
“I did something really fucking stupid, that’s what.”
“Oh God. Does Bridget know?”
“Not a clue.”
“Yep. Got drunk, was feeling starved, knew I could find someone…so I did.”
“That’s…that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”
Evan sniffs. “I’m a piece of trash!”
“When was this?”
“Yesterday, after watching you win in the quarters.”
“Did you know her?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What I said. She’s been around the team. We’d made small talk in a group. Nothing more.”
“Talked to her since?”
“That I did. Told her I’d made a horrible mistake and that was it.”
“That’s…well…at least you did that.” Mark cannot ever remember being this lost for words. He feels violated, as if Evan has killed some sacred trust that he’s pushed upon him ever since they first met. Evan is the saint who does not sin, the compass who orients everyone he touches toward some moral pole.
It’s laughable, now that he realizes how much he’s idolized him. Their first meeting had been at a party designed to welcome Mark, the goalie recruit with a conveniently timed divorce in the family, to Duluth. It was a debauched affair that became the subject of legend, and ended with Mark setting the reputation for licentiousness that would follow him through high school. Evan had been complicit in its creation, and was never one to avoid the party. But the morning after, with Mark feeling woozy and for once somewhat regretful of his exploits, Evan had taken him aside and grounded him on a walk through a silent, dewy ribbon of park along a dancing stream. Mark had recognized a kindred spirit instantly, and his sophomore self had the wherewithal to latch on and never let go, even if he couldn’t quite articulate why. That Evan who’d taken him under his wing was far too modest, far too responsible, to ever do what this Evan has just done. His world is broken.
“You think you’ve been bad,” Mark says. His hollow laugh echoes up the stairwell, but he refuses to cut it off. He’s forcing this too much, and he isn’t blind to the irony of a serial philanderer coaxing someone like Evan off the ledge. But he is here in this moment, and he must find a way to fill this emptiness somehow. “Remember when we went for that walk the morning after we met? When you told me relax, to not feel pressured, that you’d always have my back and we’d find a way to map out where we were both going next?”
“I was mostly just in awe of you and how you went for it the night before. I knew I couldn’t live that way, but I wanted to get to know someone with the balls to do that in my life.”
“Goes both ways,” Mark says. “You were my hero, Evs. Seriously, you did so much to ground me here. And this team’s been the world to me for the past three years. Wasn’t the same without you this year, but knowing I could pass on what you gave me on to a few of the other boys…it’s an incredible thing you did there. Don’t forget that.”
“Thanks. I needed to hear that. And I needed to tell someone this. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to Bridget now.”
“You could just…let it go. I know you won’t do this again.”
“No. I’d never live with myself. Hang on, the light just went on down here. I’ll call you back in a few.”
“Don’t mind me, I’m just standing in a freezing stairwell. Call back soon.” Evan hangs up on Mark without responding, and Mark sticks his nose back into the hallway. The coast is clear, and the hotel is silent. He rubs his forehead in shock as he tries to register everything he’s heard in the past ten minutes. If it had to come, though, this was the time. This is a moment for weighty affairs, one of those nights where he can step out of the daily drift and feel the full force of the passage of time.
Mark learned early on not to rely on anyone. His father is a mercurial tyrant, his mother a sycophant. His half-siblings ignore him. As a goaltender, he grooms himself mentally by assuming his teammates will screw up everything in front of him, and that he must rise to every occasion. He’s earned his share of vicious social media detractors over the course of high school, both for his cold dismissal of boys who can’t keep up with him and amid circles of girls for his refusal to commit to anything beyond instant gratification. He tells his friends he doesn’t care what the critics think, even as he hones in on their every critique and plots ways to prove them wrong. He always does.
And yet, through it all, he’s found himself a home here in high school, if only for a little while. More than a few people have earned his gratitude, in spite of his moody swings and high demands. He’s grown over these past three years, and Evan has, too, even if he’s just made a colossal mistake. Evan was there for him in his darkest hours, and now it is his turn to return the favor.
Evan, meanwhile, quietly assures his billet mother that everything is fine, that he’s chatting with one of his old high school teammates after the game, that Mark kid he’s told her all about. She smiles at his loyal friendship and wishes him a good night, and he breathes a sigh of relief to know she hadn’t overheard any of his angst. He can’t let them think he’s anything less than perfect. A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but Evan will never apologize for setting standards for himself. It’s who he is. He really is the decent, reliable one. The one who’s adopted their kid as the younger brother he never had. The one who shovels the stoop for them without being asked. The one who goes to parties only out of a sense of duty to his teammates, who always comes home sober and safe. The one who calls his high school sweetheart every night.
Even though he knows Mark is waiting, he doesn’t call back right away. He needs a moment to collect himself, to get over his instinct to recoil in horror as he again probes the depths of the male sex drive, this crude desire for conquest that can consume even his well-ordered mind. It’s always loomed there, ready to take control of him whether he wants it to or not. Not for the first time, Evan thinks this ethical high ground he’s tried to carve out is a wishful illusion. He was timid with Bridget, careful to do it right, and worried about the consequences, but never on any profound level did he judge his acts as immoral. He wanted to have it all, just as Mark said he should, and now he’s not sure he can ever make it.
Where has he made it? A basement bedroom in a nondescript split-level somewhere out on the prairie, hours from any of the people he values above all else. Maybe he should just hang up his skates and move on with life, scholarship chase be damned. He can go back to his people, back to the cradle in Duluth where everything had been fine before it wasn’t. But that’s all gone now. He has to soldier on. He can already guess what Mark will counsel, but he needs to hear it anyway.
“Okay, I’m back. Host mom didn’t hear any of what I said.”
“Good, good. Now, what are we going to do about you?”
“I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been…ejected from the womb or something. I’m not a kid anymore, Marks.”
“You don’t think your childhood died with your dad? I always thought mine did when my parents’ marriage fell apart.”
“Maybe it did. I wasn’t exactly innocent…but I felt like there was always this sense of direction to what I was doing. I never felt bad about screwing Bridget because that was genuine. But then that became normal, and the appetite just got bigger, and…”
“You don’t need to tell me that story.”
“Can you really separate that our ambitions out from…that?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“God, humans suck.”
“Well, I don’t know if you can separate it. But you can probably channel it.”
“Like into sports?”
“Exactly. Put all that testosterone to good use.”
“Maybe. I like that. But I also don’t think I would’ve jumped in so quickly if I hadn’t been around all that locker room shit and teammates who were getting it before I was.”
“Maybe not, but you would’ve gotten there eventually. We don’t stay kids forever.”
“I’ve always had this side of me, but I thought I could control it. Turns out I can’t.”
Mark pauses in frustration. This isn’t going the way it needs to go. He paces up and down the stairs and makes a few false starts before he finds the words he wants.
“You sound like you’re drowning in guilt. Guilt and shame. That’s not healthy. There was a lot of that in the world I grew up in. You’ve gotta move past that.”
“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t—”
“No, no. You dug yourself a grave. But it is what it is. We fall, but then fuck it, we get back up and find a way to keep going.”
“I can’t just shrug this off.”
“No, you can’t. You’ve gotta atone or something. But…whatever you do, don’t be a victim. Don’t ever let yourself think you are one, even if you are. Suffering isn’t a virtue. Learning from it is.”
Evan smiles to himself. He can hear the fire in Mark’s voice, and bathes himself the righteousness he preaches. He’s not sure if the voice he hears is some philosopher off of Mark’s reading list or just the unrelenting ego of a kid who knows how to push his mind and body to their utmost limits, but either way, it has set him ablaze. He will make things right. He just needs to settle it all, to ground himself and remember everything he stands for.
“Appreciate that,” he says. “You’re right, of course. But…what do I fall back on? I think I should know how to do things, but I don’t, and when I fail, I can’t even say why I’ve failed, or how I can fix it. My mom spent half her days meditating after my dad died, my aunt tried recommending Bible passages…I don’t have anything like that. I believe in a God, you know that, but not one who gives me easy answers. I just feel alone.”
“Some things you gotta handle alone. As for the Bible, I’ve read the whole damn thing, and you know what I think of it. But you know what the one bit of good advice is in there? The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ part. It’s what we do. We take control. And, know what, the fall has to happen when you say that. And wrecking the garden is fun.”
Evan laughs. “Of course you’d say that. I’ve fallen alright.”
“Let Bridget be the judge of how far. Getting through that would be its own conquest, wouldn’t you think?”
“She deserves better.”
“Lovers are never deserved. They’re earned.”
“It’ll take a while for me to trust myself again. I feel so alone here.”
“You’ve got me anytime you want. And I guess if I’m not good enough, you’ve got your God for shit like this, don’t you?”
“Don’t be too respectful of my faith now.”
“I’m serious, man. Shouldn’t you go to confession or something?”
“I’m not Catholic…”
“You know what I mean. Go sit in a church somewhere and clear it all out. I mean it. It’s what you do.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“All I ask.”
“Love ya, Marky. Thanks so much for this.”
“Likewise. Let’s talk again tomorrow. Night.”
Mark heads back to his room, more awake than ever but certain he’s done his duty in a way that not even his performance in goal tonight could account for. Two-hundred fifty miles away in Fargo, Evan turns off his phone and wanders his bedroom in his billet home as he flows through rapid cycles of despair and anger and resolve and love, over and over again.
He flashes back to a rainy summer day in high school, a moment when he’d wrestled up the courage to admit to his mother that he and Bridget were copulating with some regularity. He’d paced around the house for half an hour before he found the courage to track her down on the front porch. He’d brought them both some tea and for a while they just stood and listened to the tinkling on the wind chimes, a sound forever seared in his mind. He could tell she knew he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear, but she hadn’t forced it. Evan’s confession poured out of him in a few quick lines. He steeled himself for disappointment or anger, but was in no way prepared for the breakdown that followed, his mother lamenting the end of her son’s innocence. She’d cried into his shoulder and he’d stood there and taken it, offered what little hollow consolation he could, and that had been that. She’d conceded his adulthood and welcomed Bridget into her life.
‘Love you,’ he writes in a quick text to his mother. It seems woefully inadequate, perhaps even cause for concern on her part to get this sudden expression of emotion at two in the morning. But he can’t help himself. He can’t go back to the cradle, but so long as he knows this, he needn’t fear the wisdom that comes with the instinct. That woman had moved heaven on earth to protect and guide him after she’d lost her husband. She was the one who’d always ordered him to treat girls with respect, to resist the base instincts that consumed so many of his friends and be the model young man he knew he could be. He can’t fail her again.
He’s tempted to send Bridget the same message, but that’s not nearly enough. He’s going to drive to the Twin Cities tomorrow. He’ll pick her up from their dorm at the University of Minnesota and take her for a walk around the St. Paul Cathedral, say whatever he can say, and if she has some mercy within her, they’ll go watch Mark play in the third place game together. He’ll miss a game, but no matter. He could tell his coach he’s sick, but no, there will be no lies. He will either understand or Evan will pay the price. This is a cross worth dying on.
Mark said he needed a church, but this bedroom seems sufficiently spare to lay himself bare. Whatever deity may be out there, he will hear now from his haunted sinner, and will have to deem whether to offer some counsel or leave him in silence. Evan sinks to his knees at the side of his bed, clasps his hands in front of his forehead, and renews his search.
Mark makes his way back to his room and slips in, but he’s too restless for bed. He has far too many thoughts to ponder, so much of this night to commit to memory. It’s as if his body knows not to waste one second of this day, one of the few when he’s lived to his fullest extent. He brushes his hand over his jersey again, and turns his eyes to his soundly sleeping sophomore roommate. The kid is a Mark disciple, a charmed natural who’s barely known a day of adversity in his life. He’ll learn before long, though. Nothing lasts forever, and all he can do is keep fighting his way forward toward some unseen doom.
Mark grabs a pen and paper from the hotel desk and lets his thoughts flow forth. He writes by the light of the urban glow at the window, and doesn’t bother to re-read any of it. He knows it will all flow out exactly as it should. ‘Open after the last game of your senior year,’ he writes on the outside. He tucks it into the kid’s bag and settles into bed, his normal pride replaced by something much warmer, a gentle tingling sensation that flows through his whole body. Is this what Evan feels when he talks of his god? he wonders. No matter: he’ll milk it for all it’s worth. This sensation can carry him through to the morning, sleep or no sleep, and carry him it will.