His mood was also working for him.
He scored three times by himself, weaving in and out and not needing an assist from any teammate. Cut’s mood had infected his team, and now all of them were on the edge, a bit more aggressive than normal. The crowd was loving it. Me, not so much. Games like this ended with someone’s blood on the ice. Blood had already been spilled, but I knew there’d be more. A full team fight was in the making, and Cut was leading the charge.
Otis leaned around his wife, his face grizzled and his beard with patches of white and black. “You know him the best. What do you think’s the reason?”
I did, but no way was I copping to that with them. Not these people. I adored them.
“I don’t know.”
Otis frowned, his wrinkles clearly defined. When I first met Otis, I’d been fanstruck thinking he was someone else. I couldn’t speak. He could’ve been Otis Taylor’s twin, a famous black musician, but they shared the first name. I’d seen recent images of Otis Taylor, and my Otis had half his hair, though both had the same blue eyes. Maisie was almost the exact opposite. Otis came to the games in a hoodie and a ball cap. Both were always torn up and shredded on the ends.
Maisie had carrot-like hair, a bright orange and red. A spray of freckles over her round cheeks. They were the couple that while Otis was gripping the team’s program to shreds during every game, Maisie pulled out her latest crocheting project. She’d done five blankets so far, and she was working on a pair of gloves for their granddaughter now. I loved these people, even though the only thing we shared in common was a love of hockey.
JJ sat behind us, and she held the two seats beside her. Sometimes she came alone, sometimes she brought friends. Today was a day she brought friends, and they were annoying me. JJ was probably ten years older than I was. Mid to upper-thirties or even younger forties. I’d never had the courage to ask, but she kept her hair gray. I overheard Maisie ask her one time if she dyed it that color, and JJ responded, “Nah. I went gray early, and I’m too cheap to keep buying hair product for it. I don’t mind the color. I kinda like it.” And that was that, but JJ spent her money on other items. She and Maisie had a full conversation about the best places to vacation in the Ozarks. From what JJ was saying, she had a big house there already. I didn’t know what JJ did for a living, but she obviously did well for herself.
She always wore the same outfit. Jeans. A Cut jersey. (I didn’t hold it against her. His was the most-sold jersey.) And a red ball cap for the local football team, too.
That always made me smile. Reminded me of Sasha and Melanie.
JJ leaned down, adding as she cupped her hand to mask her words from her friends, “That boy could be my son and I’m up here about to climax. Jay-sus, you know?” She winked, lightly touching her fist to my shoulder before leaning back.
Maisie half-turned in her seat. She beckoned.
JJ responded, leaning back down.
Maisie’s eyes shifted to JJ’s friends. “Who do you have with you today?”
JJ’s eyes turned sly and she crouched down between the seats, lowering her voice. Her breath was hot and beer-y. “I mentor the one girl, and she asked if her friend could come.”
I could feel Maisie’s excitement, but she was refraining. Or trying. She jerked in her seat, her eyes getting big, and then she let loose in a rushed breath. “What do you do? What kind of mentoring?”
“I’m an entrepreneur, and the one is opening an online, personalized styling service. We met through a business networking venture. I’m also seeing if I want to invest or not, but so far, I’m thinking no just because she’s starting to annoy me. She and her friend are more interested in trying to find where Cut Ryder hangs out after games than trying to sell me on why her business is a good investment for me.”
He hangs out at home.
I knew the answer.
I also knew he liked his downtime after games, and then he’d have a few friends over for a beer in the evening. Or he’d go to a close friend’s place for the same. Beer and chill. One beer. That was it. And now that I was thinking about it, I wasn’t any better than those girls because I knew that fact because I’d cyberstalked my stepbrother.
Chad wasn’t my brother anymore, but still.
Stepbrother that wasn’t a step, but we were extended half-siblings? We were both half-siblings with Koala Man, Hunter. So yeah. That’s how I knew about his routine and all.
Super proud moment here.
Maisie and JJ kept whispering about the two girls, but I tuned back into the game. First line was back out, and Cut was doing his thing.
He checked a guy.
Another guy was rolling up.
My stomach dropped because I knew what was coming next, and yep. It was happening as I was internally narrating.
Enforcer guy skated in, grabbed Cut’s pads and pulled him away from the boards. Words were exchanged. The crowd was standing. They were going nuts.
Fight. Fight. Fight.
A chant was starting.
And fists were up.
They were off—going back and forth.
I hated this part.
I knew the culture of the sport, knew this was part of it, knew people loved it, fed off of the physicality, but I hated it. Loathed it, and even more blood was spilled. Not the enforcer’s, Cut’s, and just like I knew it would happen, his teammates got in on the fight. The other team rushed in. Then the benches cleared. The refs were skating back to the chaos.
This wasn’t normal. The crowd was eating it up.
Normally at the time, they’d be wading in to restore order, but nope. They were looking up. The clock was done anyways, and we were at the end of the third period. Game was over. Mustangs won three to one.
Otis leaned around Maisie, who was still turned toward JJ, and caught my eye.
I leaned over.
“We’re going to grab a drink at The Way Station. Would you like to join?”
The Way Station was a popular bar that everyone knew the team sometimes stopped in. I say sometimes because only one or two had been spotted in there, and that wasn’t too common. I sort of thought that was a rumor the team liked to put out there so they could go to their actual spot, or that they just let the bar run with it while everyone went home to their wives and girlfriends, if they had them.
Either way, it wasn’t the first time I’d gone with Otis and Maisie, and today was a day I didn’t want to head home and be by myself. Home would be where I would be alone with my thoughts and those thoughts, as was inevitable, would go to where I didn’t want them to go to: a certain hockey player. I’d come a long way from years of therapy and meds, but my brain still wandered, and no amount of medication or techniques could control that all the time.
So, because of that, I nodded, and because I was nodding at Otis, I didn’t realize what was about to happen. And what was about to happen was a loud screech from behind me.
“CUT, WE WANT YOUR PHONE NUMBER!”
I cringed, shooting both of JJ’s seatmates a glare, but then icy dread settled in my bones because I knew what I was about to be confronted with.
I turned, in slow motion, and he was heading into the tunnel, just below us. His gaze was up. He had stopped, holding a helmet in one hand and his stick in the other, and he was looking up at us.