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The Jackson Lunta Snow Dance Song: Chapter 1

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #056 back issue.

Sammy was worried about his hands. The vibration of the engine itched through his gloves, the tips of his fingers already aching in protest of the cold as he guided the snowmobile off the buried service road and onto the trail. Last night, a storm had come ashore from Lake Superior, and the residents of Marquette had awoken to clear skies, twenty-five inches of snow, and a plunging thermometer. Sammy figured the rest of the boys were probably holed up at their billets, smart enough not to be careening around the frozen Michigan woods and endangering their precious digits; he imagined Coach’s reaction were he to lose his top-line center due to frostbite, a vision that fully justified his concern.

Sammy was even more worried about someone else’s hands, one of which was currently clutching a fistful of Sammy’s coat, the other cradled gingerly against his leg, its cast hidden inside a buckskin mitten. Sammy knew he shouldn’t have let Charlie talk him into this, not with the weather and the injury and the innumerable reasons why this excursion was a bad idea, but with the steadying warmth of his friend against his back and the drifts shimmering in the afternoon sun, Sammy kept losing the will to protest.

“Yo, left up here.” Charlie tugged at his sleeve, his voice muffled by his helmet and the motor’s drone.

“Much farther out?”

“Like, a minute, tops.”

The pines flew by on either side of them as they hit the fork and veered left, the trail narrowing, the crests and valleys of snow untouched and perilous. Sammy eased up on the gas, slowing to an idle when Charlie’s arms tightened around his waist.

“Doing okay?” Sammy asked.

“Fine.” Charlie sounded thoroughly tired of the question.

Sammy couldn’t help himself. “How’s your—”

“Forget the fucking hand,” Charlie groaned, and headbutted the goose down quilting of Sammy’s back. “We’re seriously almost there.”

Indeed, one turn, and another, and there it was: the little hiking shelter tucked behind a copse of birches. With half of its front wall open to the elements, it was more of a shed than a cabin, only marginally better than bivouacking under the stars. Sammy smiled as he dismounted—only Charlie Yoon would drag him all the way out to Harlow Lake for something like this—until he was unbalanced by a forceful nudge to his side.

“What?”

“Helmet!” Charlie inclined his head. Sammy pulled the helmet off of him, and Charlie shook his hair out. It was getting a little long around the ears—dark bangs falling in front of his eyes, shining like crow feathers. Sammy looked away.

“Sweet, right?” Charlie was smiling as they made their way inside; a real smile, not the pale imposter he’d been forcing onto his face ever since he’d come home from the hospital. “Me and Bergie found this place back in September. Snuck out here and got mad high.”

Sammy snorted. “I swear to god, the two of you…”

Charlie was distracted again, rooting around in his pockets until he found what he was looking for and tossed a pair of heat packs at Sammy’s face. Sammy caught them and slipped them inside his gloves, feeling their chemical warmth bleed into his fingers. He settled down onto the rough-hewn bench by Charlie and began to knock the snow off his boots.

“So this is it, eh? You wanted to show off your hideout?”

The smile vanished from Charlie’s mouth as quickly as it had come, a cloud across the sun. “Just needed to get out of the house, I guess. It’s been…you know.”

The sound Charlie had made when the puck struck him was still fresh in Sammy’s mind: a wounded, feral cry as he sank to his knees on the ice.

“Four to six weeks,” Charlie sighed. “Goddammit.”

Lacking a helpful reply, Sammy let his eyes wander over the raw pine walls of the shelter, the stack of firewood, the empty beer cans left over from deer season. There was indeed a nostalgic feel to the place, like a childhood memory from the time of tree forts and secret bases. Despite the drifts on the floor, he could imagine it in the warmer months—a couple of sleeping bags and a pup tent, whispers until dawn.

“We should go camping,” Sammy said, and then laughed at Charlie’s incredulous look. “Not, like, now! Late season or something.”

“Aww, you missing your roomie?”

Sammy did miss him. One week, one road trip, and all he could think about was how quiet a hotel room could be. Sammy missed the running commentary, the bad television, the accoutrements of a roadie strewn without regard for territory; he missed complaining—at Charlie’s gear invading, his shoes thrown higgledy-piggledy—and falling asleep to the barely sensical thoughts that Charlie murmured into his pillow as he refused to let the conversation die. On the previous weekend, Sammy had found himself watching the red numbers of the clock counting up toward the alarm, his ears ringing in the silence as they listened for the reassuring sound of breath from the other bed.

What Sammy didn’t miss was the tightness in his chest when he looked at his teammate, flushed and damp from the shower, his hair sticking up every which way, and thinking: Stop. Don’t do this to yourself.

Charlie, perhaps having caught something in his expression, poked Sammy in the cheek with the tip of his mitten. “What, don’t give me that face. You might get a single all month, lucky boy.”

“It just sucks, is all.”

“For sure. But what can ya do?”

Charlie scooted across the bench so he could tuck himself against Sammy’s side. Like this, he seemed even smaller than usual, folded up against the cold, his broken hand held to his chest. Charlie did this, sometimes, when he was feeling low—clinging like a burr until the crisis had passed. He’d never own up to it, hiding his need for comfort behind a loud mouth and a wide grin, but who among them had not felt that same loneliness, seventeen and far from home?

They talked—or rather, Charlie talked—of little things: the Leafs game, trigonometry class, the last movie they had watched on the bus. Every time the conversation began to drift toward the team, however, Charlie shied nimbly away with a non sequitur or a joke.

Sammy wasn’t particularly keen on discussing it, either. The men in the stands with the clipboards and black suits had grown in number lately, like clouds gathering on the horizon. The pressure was growing, the nervy excitement that settled in Sammy’s stomach before a game increasingly tainted with the burden of their expectations. Despite the setback of his injury, Charlie had another year before he was drafted, but Sammy, bereft of his right wing and wrestling a part of himself that was becoming harder to ignore, was headed full speed toward the inevitable fork in the road.

Sammy stared out of the shelter at the long shadows the birches cut in the amber light, dark slashes branching across the powder. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t know if he would ever be.

A sudden handful of snow down the back of his neck tore Sammy from his thoughts.

“What the hell!”

Charlie parodied his thrashing. “I said we should probably get going. It’s gonna get dark soon and you’re spacing out.”

“I’m fucking frozen, anyway.” Sammy stood up and shook his legs, checking to make sure they hadn’t turned to ice in the past half hour. “Y’ know, Martha’s gonna murder me for taking you out here.”

Charlie’s billet mother, Martha Nyqvist, was an impressively maternal old woman, who, having raised four hockey-playing sons with her husband to adulthood, had decided that she hadn’t had quite enough and now bestowed her mothering upon the foundlings of the OHL. During the season, she opened her home to Charlie and looked after him with a she-bear fierceness; dragging her injured charge out for shenanigans in the woods would probably not prove endearing.

“Hey, I didn’t say shit about snowmobiling, I just said I was going over to yours. She probably thinks I’m sitting up in your room playing chel on the Xbox or something.”

“With one hand. Yeah, okay.”

“One-handed chel. Sounds dirty.” Charlie hopped onto the seat, laughing.

They took the trail that skirted Harlow Lake—a slight detour, but picturesque enough to delay their return. The lake had frozen completely into a sparkling white plain, tinted by a changing sky. Pink clouds slid across the western horizon, and Sammy had to force himself to concentrate on the trail in front of him, guiltily snatching glimpses of the sunset through the trees as he drove. Charlie, having no such responsibility, seemed content to gawk at the scenery until he suddenly cried out.

“Wait! Stop!”

Sammy nearly crashed into a pine.

“Jesus, what?” he snapped as he pulled his helmet off. Charlie merely pointed at the ice.

There was a skater out on the lake. A boy, alone, dashed loops on a patch swept clean of snow, his skate blades catching the waning light with each stride. Stick in hand, he wove a puck about the ankles of imaginary opponents, spinning and deking, dancing like a flurry in the wind.

“Whoa,” Charlie said, awe in his voice.

“Good hands,” Sammy murmured.

“I know, right? Who is that?”

The skater’s head was bare, his slender limbs clad in nothing but a hoodie and jeans. It was as though he were immune to the cold, rejoicing in it, one with the frozen lake and sky. He seemed so alive in the midst of the blank expanse, as vibrant in his isolation as Venus rising in a starless sky. Just him and his stick and his puck, playing solitary shinny, content.

 

[insert illustration]

 

Sammy couldn’t tear his eyes away, his heartbeat fluttering in his throat. Hockey was Sammy’s life—watching it, playing it—but when was the last time he had found hockey breathtaking?

“He must be fuckin’ freezing out there, eh?” Charlie continued, and without waiting for a reply he floundered toward the edge of the trail, manically waving his good arm. “Hey, buddy! Hey!”

The boy on the lake stopped short, his edges scraping the ice. He clearly searched the shore for the source of the shouting, then raised a hand in greeting. Charlie grinned and waved back.

Sammy was hit by the desire to run, to pretend that they hadn’t seen. He was embarrassed by himself, as though, in his clumsiness, he had shattered a beautiful thing. If they talked to the boy, then he would be real—just another teenager on the ice, sweat and spit and reeking skates, rather than a perfect moment passing pure and mystifying into memory.

“Come on, Chuckles, we gotta go.” He pulled Charlie back up the trail, his face burning. “It’s getting dark.”

“But…c’mon, dude, wait a second.” Charlie dragged his feet in the snow, looking back over his shoulder. “Dude!”

“Seriously, you want Martha to kill me?”

“I want to know who that is, asshole.” Charlie grumbled, but dutifully slid onto the snowmobile seat behind Sammy. When he clung to Sammy’s jacket, Sammy breathed a sigh—of relief or discomfort, he didn’t know.

The tremors of the engine echoed in Sammy’s hands as he turned the snowmobile toward home.

***

The smell of the locker room could hardly be described as pleasant, a mingling of damp rubber, chlorine, and cinderblock: the industrial tang of a captive winter. Even before practice, the fug of tired bodies hung heavy in the air as the boys donned armor that carried the ground-in sweat of hundreds of hours on the ice. Perhaps it was a matter of conditioning, a Pavlovian quirk of his brain, but as Sammy drew lines in clean white tape across his stick blade, he breathed the familiar stench and was calmed.

“It has been brought to my attention,” said Racine, his marker poised over the whiteboard. “That a certain defenseman has been at it again.”

Kangaroo court was in session, and judging from the hooting and catcalling that rose from around the room, everyone knew the charge. As a general rule, Sammy liked to keep his distance from these proceedings, and continued to tape his stick as the accused exploded out of the stall beside him.

“Bullshit!” Ahlberg hollered, holding out his hands beseechingly toward the team. “Are you seriously fining me for that pic? Seriously?”

“You and The Wife gotta stop with that shit on Insta, man. Every time I open my feed, it’s like…” Racine pantomimed a sloppy kiss, which elicited hoots and whistles. Ahlberg had recently begun dating a junior on the girls’ basketball team, and they seemed keen to prove it to the world. By the code of the Marquette Mystics, such public displays had always been frowned upon, and penalized accordingly.

“Five bucks, Bergie.”

“Jealous,” Ahlberg grumbled as he handed a bill to the self-appointed magistrate, who smirked as he stuffed it in the fine box.

“Racer’s mad because he’s not getting any,” someone else declared before Racine jumped on him and attempted to shove a skate bag over his head.

In his first year, Sammy has been lucky enough not to run afoul of the court for anything other than the standard crime of being a rookie, and by the time his second season with the Mystics had rolled around, his exemplary record had won him the role of captain, leaving him unaffected by most of the byzantine laws of junior hockey. Half of his teammates’ time seemed to be spent in conquest of girls, and the other half was spent dragging each other for that obsession; Sammy’s confusion at that had been an early sign that he might not share their priorities. He had briefly considered fabricating a girlfriend back in Saginaw, but maintaining that story was more trouble than it was worth, and so he chose to keep quiet, hoping his silence would be interpreted as a sign of maturity.

Sammy looked around for Charlie, as he always did when the rest of the team got on his nerves, and found him, phone out and recording his teammate struggling to extricate himself from Racine’s bag. It was strange to see Charlie still in his street clothes, alone in a sea of pads and jerseys. It would be some time before he dressed with them, but he came to practice every day regardless, though whether for support or amusement, Sammy wasn’t sure.

“Come on, chill, Coach is gonna be here in a minute,” Sammy said, punctuating the reprimand with a final tug on his skate laces.

“Killjoy!” several teammates howled.

“Shut up, it’s Sammy’s job to be the good boy,” Charlie said, lowering his phone. “Oh, man, Bergie, guess what me and Sammy saw yesterday…”

His anecdote was interrupted by a booming voice from the door. “Boys! Quit your nonsense or I’ll bag skate every one of ya!”

“Hi, Coach!” said Charlie.

“Yoon! You come in here just to make trouble? Wipe that grin off your face and sit down!”

Charlie sat.

Coach Niemi was not a large man, but he had a presence that could quiet a room of unruly boys in an instant. Age had boiled him away throughout the decades, toughening him, condensing his cantankerous nature into a squat little vessel decorated with the scars of a minor-league career. Born a Yooper and returned home once more, he spoke in the round vowels of the north, his gray beard bristling, stalking the dressing room like a general addressing the ranks of the enlisted men. A hush fell; his troops waited for his command.

“So,” Coach began. “We’re pre’ner halfway through the season, and we’re all banged up.”

The boys nodded. Their numbers were dwindling, the roster scraping the barrel of healthy players. Heads turned in Charlie’s direction, but his injury was by no means the worst. Earhart had torn his knee, and Joliet had been sent home a month earlier, puking his guts out from a concussion, doomed to a season of dark rooms and doctor’s appointments.

“We keep up like this, it’s not lookin’ good, eh? Office thought it was about time for some call-ups.” Coach Niemi beckoned at the door, and Sammy became aware of the figure lingering at the threshold.

The first thing that struck Sammy was an absence of color—translucent skin and hair a bleached-bone blond, cloud gray hoodie and ragged jeans through which his knees peeked like slivers of the moon. Thin and tall, the boy held tight to the doorframe, timid posture failing to conceal the breadth of his shoulders. The blood rose in Sammy’s face, recognition taking hold.

It has to be. No way; it just has to be.

“This here’s Jackson Lunta.” Coach thrust a thumb over his shoulder. “Looked through the list, he’s one of our stronger prospects, so we’re giving him a shot.”

There was silence, a collective inhalation, and then the dressing room erupted with noise, dozens of questions and greetings shouted over each other. The mysterious Jackson turned his head from stall to stall, clearly overwhelmed, until his blue eyes found Sammy, still in the middle of tying his skate, staring open-mouthed at the new kid like a fool.

So. Off to a good start.

***

“Come’n Vints, give ‘er tarpaper! Hustle, hustle!”

As Coach harangued them from the corner with his bucket of pucks, Sammy tore across the ice for Vinter’s pass. Arriving a little too late, he cursed and sent it onward. Jackson caught the puck tidily and rushed at the net, tucking it past the goalie once again. Sammy, as he circled back, saw Hasenkamp raise his glove in defeat and mutter, with great feeling, “Oh, goddamnit.”

Coach’s whistle cut the air, signaling the end of the passing drill, and the boys drifted to the blue line sharing surreptitious glances and whispers. Although Sammy could not hear their words, today there was only one topic to gossip about. He couldn’t really blame them.

Even in practice, the newcomer Jackson was a revelation. In shooting drills, he had put so many pucks in the back of the net that Hasenkamp had stopped chirping him on the approach and started regarding him through his mask with steely-eyed stoicism. He was fast, too, wheeling around, making the speedier Mystics look wooden beside him. Even Sammy found himself gasping for breath as he fought Jackson for the puck during a forechecking drill, and came up empty, watching Jackson fly away victorious, ready to beat him again. His passes were elegant, precise, and his hands, oh god, his hands…

“Okay.” Coach clapped. “Gonna wrap things up with a five-on-five scrimmage. Usual lines, but Lunta in for Yoon on Nilson’s wing.”

“But I thought…” A look from Coach quelled the rest of Racine’s protest.

As he returned to the line, Sammy could see Racine’s mouth silently shape “What the fuck,” but he was wise enough to drop the argument.

It was no secret that the vacancy Charlie Yoon had left in the top line had been highly coveted. All season, it had been Sammy himself, Charlie, and Vinter—who at just sixteen received cheers when he took the ice as a visiting player in his native Ottawa—and Coach had kept it just so because it worked. After all, this was the line that enthralled the prospects blogs, had them throwing around phrases like “chemistry” and “scoring title” and “high first round.” No one said it openly, but the tragedy of losing Charlie’s wizardry for a few months meant that some other lucky soul could try their hand at making magic; it had been the general sentiment that Racine would be the one tapped for promotion.

Sammy huffed. So concerned with a chance to raise their draft stock, and here he was, trying to think one game at a time, weary of the demands of the future. He knew he should be grateful for the attention. This was all just temporary, a stop on the way to bigger things. He knew.

He had an agent now.

The whistle blew, the puck dropped, and he lost himself again in hockey.

***

“We could call him Lunty, maybe?” Ahlberg squinted out across the rink at where Jackson was gathering the pylons from practice.

“Shut up, Bergie.” Racine shook his head in disgust. “I mean, where did they even find this guy?”

“Lunts?” Ahlberg continued, undeterred. “No, maybe…Jacks? Jackie?”

“Quit with the fucking nicknames, seriously. He’s not going to be here long enough to get a nickname.”

“God, I hope not.” Charlie draped himself over the boards.

A handful of them loitered by the bench, the gossip too fresh to be shared post-shower, Racine livid and the rest connoisseurs of drama. Sammy, compelled by a captain’s duty to fight mutiny within the ranks, grudgingly joined them.

“How’d he get listed? Junior A? Or is he freakin’ USHL or something, crossing leagues in the middle of the damn season?”

“Not even. I Googled him,” Charlie said, smirking. “It’s like…nothing. Best I can tell, he played for this high school in the Keewenaw…”

“What the fuck.” Racine spat on the ice.

“You guys are making me nuts,” Sammy said. “Why does it matter how he made the list, anyway?”

“Yeah, like, why does it matter?” Sammy recognized the mocking tone. It was his least favorite of all Charlie voices—rarely used, a prelude to pettiness. “Weird dude just shows up out of nowhere, and you’re not even a little skep?”

“You gonna look me in the eye and tell me he’s not good enough?” Sammy’s face grew hot. Charlie turned away. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Ahlberg, oblivious, finally abandoned his brainstorming. “I’m gonna ask him about his name.”

“What? No!”

“Hey! Hey, Lunta!”

Across the ice, Jackson raised his silvery head. He cut an arc toward them, pulled up fast, his skates throwing a shower of powder. Sammy shrank back as his teammates did, some glaring at the affront, and Jackson shrugged sheepishly.

“I’ve got it,” said Ahlberg.

Everyone turned to hear the naming.

“Snowman.”

***

The peace broke during study hall. It had lasted for all of three days, three uneventful practices, enough to fool Sammy into thinking he wouldn’t have to settle a feud. “Snowman” was quiet—didn’t chirp, kept to his own off the ice—and despite some foul humor, Racine seemed to have taken the line changes in stride.

Everything, while not perfect, was at least stable, and as Sammy waited for Charlie to take his usual seat in the desk beside his, he was possessed by a rare sense of calm. They would go to practice together, and then—as was tradition before a test—head back to Charlie’s to study. Sammy’s ostensible role was to keep Charlie focused on his work, and while he wondered—as they threw pencils and shared YouTube videos on their phones—if he was more distraction than cure, it still seemed worthwhile. All was right with the world.

An abrupt breeze rifled the pages of Sammy’s textbook. He looked up, ready to complain to whomever had opened the window and disturbed his exceptional mood, to see Jackson Lunta sauntering down the aisle. He slid into the empty desk beside Sammy’s, his mouth quirking in that little half-smile that was starting to become familiar.

“Hey.”

That’s Charlie’s desk. Sammy caught the words before they left his mouth and swallowed them back down.

“’Sup.” Sammy grasped for something with which to make friendly conversation, and landed on the textbook Jackson had withdrawn from his bag. “You, uh, Earth Science?” he asked, and cringed internally.

“Yeah, it’s pretty much my only good—”

Jackson was cut off as Charlie appeared, grinning belligerently.

“Dude,” Charlie said. “Dude.”

“Charlie…”

“You’re kinda in my seat.”

“Sorry, I didn’t…” Jackson rose.

“No, don’t listen to him, it’s not like there’s assigned seating.” Sammy frowned up at Charlie. “Pick another desk.”

“Eh, guess this one’s okay,” Charlie said, and threw himself into Sammy’s lap.

A glimpse of the cast poking out from Charlie’s Mystics hoodie was the only thing that stopped Sammy from dumping him to the floor. “Get off!”

“Nope, this is where I sit now.” Charlie sprawled across Sammy, all sharp elbows and vicious glee.

“Come on, there’s literally a seat right behind me.” Sammy winced as Charlie dug into a particularly tender bruise on his rib. He grabbed Charlie beneath the armpits and hauled him to his feet. “You’re so obnoxious!”

“Dude, stop, you know I’m ticklish!” Charlie twisted in Sammy’s grip, laughing, as Sammy deposited him in the empty chair and the monitor began to glare in their direction. Sammy slid back into his own seat, red-faced, and risked a peek at Jackson.

Jackson was reading, but his eyes kept darting nervously to the side, looking between Sammy and Charlie. The burn crept down Sammy’s cheeks and around the back of his neck, his body a conflagration of shame. His back pocket buzzed with a text.

[Charlie] im changing ur name in my contacts from Good Boy to No Fun Boy.

Sammy glanced over his shoulder as surreptitiously as possible. Charlie was pecking away at his phone.

[Sammy] Fuck off. What is ur deal w/Lunta?
[Charlie] whats urs? *side-eye emoji*
[Sammy] just lay off the rook okay?
[Charlie] ill think about it
[Charlie] sooooooo…
[Charlie] ur face is red.

Despite a sudden, desperate desire to hurl his phone against the wall, Sammy managed to reply “STFU” before shoving it back in his pocket. For the rest of study hall, Sammy ignored its insistent vibration, and then, eventually, the dull thump of Charlie kicking the book-bin under his chair.

By the time the bell finally released them, Sammy was feeling disinclined toward a truce, but he decided he might as well offer one last olive branch.

“You guys wanna go get something to eat after practice?” Sammy asked, looking between the two of them. Maybe he could work this out. Maybe, with a bit of team bonding…

“I’m good,” Charlie mumbled, and fled.

Jackson watched Charlie’s retreating back with a pained expression, his hands clenched around nothing. Sammy shook his head.

“Forget about him, he’s just… Anyway, I know this real good pasty place?”

“Sure.” Jackson’s pale eyelashes cast inconstant shadows on his cheeks.

“Cool. See you at the rink.” Sammy waved from the door and then tore down the stairs, four at a time, to Charlie’s locker. He found him violently shoving books onto the shelf like they had caused a personal affront.

“Two things. One, you need to chill.” Sammy leaned in, close enough that even if Charlie refused to look at him, he couldn’t ignore his presence.

“Whatev,” Charlie mumbled as he slammed his locker, and then seemed to relent, his shoulders dropping, his forehead pressed to the blue metal. “Okay. Okay, I’m sorry.”

“You’re being a dick.”

“Yeah, probably.” Charlie looked up at him, contrite. He held out his good hand. “Buds?”

“Buds forever.” Sammy couldn’t keep the fondness from his voice as he bumped the proffered fist.

“And two?” Charlie asked.

“Two, you need to tell me what your beef is with Lunta.”

“He’s… I dunno, don’t you think he seems a little…” Charlie paused, his hand marking circles in the air as he searched for the words. “Off?”

“He’s shy! New school, new team—give the guy a break!”

“But, like…Okay, you know those vampire movies where in the beginning this weird new kid shows up to school, and it turns out he’s drinking everybody’s blood or some shit?”

“Wait, hold up. You think Lunta’s a vampire?” Sammy was unable to keep the exasperation from his voice.

“No!” Charlie considered for a moment. “Vampire-ish, maybe?”

“What are you smoking?

“No? You’ve never seen…”

By this point, Sammy was laughing. “Chuckles, seriously. Just come with us to T&E’s for dinner.”

“Nah, I’ve gotta study for trig. See ya at practice, I guess.” Charlie gave him the smallest of smiles, and vanished into the crowd. It took Sammy a moment to remember.

Charlie disliked studying alone.
Proceed to Chapter 1, page 2–>

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