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The Jackson Lunta Snow Dance Song: Chapter 1

***

Across a Formica tabletop at Toivo and Eino’s, Sammy watched Jackson start in on his second pasty. He ate ravenously, gulping bites like he hadn’t seen food in days, closing his eyes in ecstasy from a greasy mouthful of meat and potatoes. As Sammy tore into the crust of his own, fragrant with pepper and fat, he wondered if he was making the same faces, the ones that often led his billet mother to gently remind him not to wolf his supper.

Deep in the season, it sometimes felt like his body was devouring itself; hunger pangs gnawed at all hours of the day, growth spurts and hockey wrung every spare calorie from him until he was hollow and desperate. Regulated though it was by the team dietitian and the contents of Mrs. Virtanen’s fridge, food remained one of life’s great pleasures for Sammy.

Jackson chased the last few crumbs around the Styrofoam container with his fingers, then slid them into his mouth, sucking them clean with a hum of contentment. There was a smear of ketchup on Jackson’s face, a shock of red that drew Sammy’s eyes to where Jackson’s pale lips were pursed around his thumb.

Sammy struggled to swallow the last bite of pasty as it turned to sand in his mouth, scratching his throat on the way down.

Jackson withdrew the finger with an audible pop and sighed, that odd little half-smile on his face. “This place is legit, for sure. Gotta have a ton of rutabaga in there, ya know?”

“You’ve got a little…” Sammy tapped the corner of his mouth. There was the small, wet flash of Jackson’s tongue, and the ketchup vanished.

“Good?”

“Yeah, it’s gone.”

Sammy tossed a few extra singles on the table and grabbed his hat. He fidgeted, casting about the restaurant for something to focus on; he considered the jukebox, the menu board, a napkin holder. Was his weirdness noticeable? He looked over at Jackson, who was rolling his straw wrapper into a little ball, inscrutable as ever.

“So what now?” Sammy asked. He didn’t think his voice sounded different. He hoped it didn’t.

“Walk to the lake?” Jackson shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged.

“Why not, it’s right there. You seen the dock yet?” It wasn’t often that Sammy, a recent transplant himself, got a chance to play tour guide, but he knew at least one notable landmark that the area had to offer.

Jackson nodded. “A while ago. It’s been forever since I been down Marquette.”

It was only a few blocks to the water, but the cold was sharp and they said little. Sammy found his gait stiffening as he tried to preserve the envelope of warm air trapped between his outer layers and his skin. He was once again at a loss for words. Charlie had spoiled him; he hadn’t realized how much he’d relied on his friend’s talkativeness to mask his own conversational deficiencies.

Another block, and then they were at the parking lot, empty save for heaps of snow in its corners, streetlights wreathing them in a yellow haze. Beyond, the dock stretched into the night.

To Sammy, who had grown up surrounded by the faded glory of a car town, industrial ruins were a familiar sight, but somehow the Lower Harbor Ore Dock still managed to impress him. There was something about the sheer scale of it; lit by flood lamps, an acre-and-a-half long colonnade of rust looming high above the black water, it had once dwarfed the tankers that crossed Lake Superior to fill their bellies with its iron.

Sammy found that tonight it only deepened his melancholy. He had hoped desperately for something to take his mind off the Charlie situation. And here it was, like a wish from a monkey’s paw.

What would it feel like to take this weight off his shoulders? There were worst-case scenarios to coming out to the team, possibilities that woke him up in nighttime panic, but thought he knew the guys. They’d probably make dumb jokes, maybe get a little weird about it, but they were buddies, brothers. No, he thought, staring into the gloom inside the docks. He’d already broken one of the cardinal rules of the room, unspoken but grave in its consequences.

To fall for a boy could possibly be forgiven; to fall for a teammate, however…

A snowball exploded violently against his shoulder.

“Oh, you wanna go?” Sammy turned, arms outspread in challenge, and barely dodged Jackson’s second salvo.

Jackson made his retreat while firing, throwing snowballs as he serpentined back up the hill, laughing. For every half-formed lump that Sammy sent his way, Jackson answered twofold, until there seemed to be a never-ending stream of them from which he drew, perfect missiles that disintegrated messily on impact. The one time Sammy managed to nail him in the chest, he barely had time to register his victory before his own face was awash in powder. Sammy spat snow and ran blind, reaching out at the gray blur in front of him. Contact; a handful of coat, and they fell to the ground in a howling tangle of limbs.

“Alright, you.” Sammy wiped his eyes. Jackson was pinned halfway beneath him, still laughing so hard he struggled to breathe. Sammy rolled off and waited for him to settle. He sank back against the slope and let it take his shape, a flightless angel pressed into the side of a snow pile.

“That was…” Jackson broke off to gasp for breath, giggles returning. “Freakin’ funniest thing…all week.”

“Yeah, most I’ve seen you laugh all week,” Sammy said. “Actually, the only time.”

Jackson stilled. He looked out past Sammy, his eyes recalling the hurt they had shown in the lunchroom. “Still finding my feet, I guess?”

“I know the guys are a lot, but they’re a good group, ya know?”

“Yeah.” Jackson carved out his own place on the slope and nestled into it, considering. “I’m…kinda awkward, maybe? I mean, I grew up in the literal wilderness, so…”

“For real?”

A snowflake landed on Jackson’s cheek, and then another, caught and glittering in his lashes. As the snow began to fall, Sammy became aware of how cold he was, shivering hard as soon as he stopped moving. The wind off the lake was picking up, and even though they were shielded from the brunt of it, Sammy could feel it begin to chew into his flesh. He looked over at the boy beside him, breathing soft clouds and looking content to let the blizzard blanket him where he lay.

“You and me, lineys, eh?” Jackson said, stretching his arms toward the sky. “That’s gonna be some hockey.”

***

As the team marched down the tunnel, Sammy could feel the adrenaline work its way through his system, palms sweaty in his gloves and a faint nausea wrapped like a band around his stomach. He stared at the back of Vinter’s jersey, listened to the dull tread of skates on rubber. All was compressed to this interminable moment. An image came into his head, something from a television special about horses: a thoroughbred, pawing the track beneath its hooves and waiting for the gate, half mad with the desire to fly. The rafters of Lakeview Arena echoed with cheers.

The Mystics were the main event at the rink, although once upon a time it had hosted an NHL team, an honor Marquette had been granted when it was selected from among all the backwater burghs in America to represent the spirit of small-town hockey. Following the festivities and the relocation of a major junior team, Lakeview had little trouble filling seats. Through the anthem, Sammy scuffed his feet back and forth while he stared out at the blurry faces. It chafed, the heaviness of all those eyes on him. Hidden among the throng were those who watched with critical eyes, furiously taking notes, the professional catalogers of his mistakes. Next to him, Jackson stood serene, his luminous face turned toward the ceiling flags.

At Center Ice, they set up for the face-off. Sammy crouched forward, his legs taunt.

Puck drop.

Sammy won it, threw it to Vinter, but they barely made it out of the neutral zone before the puck was stolen by the Greyhounds defense and sent back from whence it came. They repeated this pattern for the rest of their shift, pressing in and being repelled, unable to muster a single shot on goal. Sammy took a hit in the corner, pasted against the boards by a large D-man, and his shoulder throbbed with it as he collapsed, winded and angry, on the bench, watching the next line dash out to continue the fruitless struggle.

Until late in the period, the boys took heart in the fact they had also held the Greyhounds at bay, but then that, too, began to fail. A sloppy pass, a turnover, and there went the opposing center, streaking down the ice unobstructed. Hasenkamp didn’t get his pads down in time and the shot sneaked between his legs. In the aftermath, he glared heavenward, arms hanging limp as if disgusted with himself, fate, and the defensemen who had hung him out to dry. It was difficult to say which of those three was to blame when less than a minute later, the red lamp behind Hasenkamp flared again, a deflection off the post.

On the bench, curses were not muttered, but shouted full-throated and indignant, as the embracing cluster of Greyhounds bumbled by. There was nothing to do but grind through the remaining seconds of the first until they could shuffle off, shoulders hunched, to get their lecture in the dressing room.

“What was that?” Coach bellowed. “What! Now, listen…”

Sammy stared at his toes. Coach’s harangue slid through his ears without sticking, and the only word that lingered was “mistake.” It rocketed around his brain, knocking all other thoughts aside.

Mistakemistakemistake.

“Hey.”

A whisper broke the loop, and he lifted his head, dazed. Coach had moved on and was drawing diagrams on the whiteboard for the D-corps, but Jackson was at Sammy’s side, peering out of Charlie’s stall. It was jarring seeing him there—expecting one face and finding another, like a dream where the familiar is rendered slightly uncanny.

“You’re hyperventilating,” Jackson whispered. “I can hear.”

“What? No!”

“Worried?”

“Yeah, well, we’re fucking down 2-0, so whatever?” Sammy hissed.

“Look, I’m not messing with you, just…” Jackson leaned closer, his voice the same even whisper, and touched his hand to Sammy’s forehead. Caught off guard, by the time Sammy registered the strangeness of the gesture, he had already accepted it, caught by the feeling of the calloused palm chilly against his skin. It recalled the burning of childhood fevers, his mother’s hand on his head providing momentary relief.

“Just breathe.”

Sammy obediently closed his eyes and tried to deepen and slow his breath—in through the nose and out through the mouth. He felt Jackson withdraw his hand and mourned the loss of contact.

“When I’m freaking out, I’ve got a way to stop thinking so I can just kinda…be, you know?”

Sammy opened one eye. “You sound like a stoner.”

“No, I’m serious—try it.” Jackson moved closer. “Okay, so…picture a blizzard.”

Sammy supposed, at that point, that it couldn’t hurt. After a season up north, he had plenty of material to draw from.

“Complete whiteout,” Jackson continued. “Biggest you ever saw. And you’re right in the middle of it.”

Sammy was standing in his billet’s driveway at dusk during the first big blow of the year. He tried to make out the line of trees that bordered the back of the property without success; he squinted down at his gloves, and watched them flicker with each gust. There was no color but blue darkness and snow, no sound but the wind.

“Now, let it block out everything.”

It was a small step to extrapolate from the memory, to let the snow fall until it obscured the world, white upon white upon white. And all around him…

Nothing.

“Alright! Let’s see some sisu outta you boys! Some of dat grit, eh?” Coach was hollering again, startling the breath from Sammy. How long had he been sitting like that? No one seemed to be looking at him, however, save Jackson, who raised an eyebrow.

“You good?”

Sammy stretched, considering. It was almost alarming how much better he felt. “I think it worked.”

“Right?” Jackson began tightening his laces. “We got this. We’ll make it happen.”

The breeze in the tunnel eddied about Sammy, drying his burning cheeks and stirring the hair on the back of his neck. He drew a chestful of chilly air, the world sharp in a way he hadn’t realized he’d been missing. Inhale. Exhale. The weight had fallen away, like the feeling of stepping from the mat onto the ice, clumsy feet grown swift into the glare of the lights.

Sammy could tell immediately that this period would be different. Their line had come alive, and then—as though buoyed by Sammy’s mood—the rest of the team seemed to wake with them. In between shifts, Sammy watched Hasenkamp stand alone in his crease, sweeping snow while his counterpart across the ice performed desperate acrobatics against the Mystics’ barrage.

Jackson conducted the play like a symphony, a maestro bringing order to the chaos. This was the boy Sammy had seen on the frozen lake—joy in every movement of his body, always where Sammy needed him but rarely exactly where he expected him. He was laughing.

Sammy sent it around the boards to Jackson, and scrambled to get into position by the goal. There was a blur in the periphery of his vision and then the puck was on his stick, a perfect tape-to-tape pass. All he had to do was tap it into the corner of the net, and then his boys were on him, a smelly, jubilant mass. Jackson’s nose pressed against his neck, freezing cold, as he spun Sammy in celebration.

“Go again?” Jackson asked, his breath damp behind Sammy’s ear.

It didn’t take long. No more than thirty seconds later, Jackson set Sammy up for a one-timer. The puck grazed the crossbar and sailed over the goalie’s blocker to tie it.

“Fucking amazing!” Sammy crashed into Jackson.

Jackson gave a one-shouldered shrug, half cocky, half modest. “One more?”

“Yes, please!”

The rest of the period yielded little for their line, but there was a third goal by Ahlberg, and by the time they headed back to the dressing room, the boys were bouncing off the walls.

“You see Sammy go bardown back there?”

“Fuckin’ eh.”

“So sick.”

“Filthy!”

“Settle down! Another period to play,” Coach said, unable to stop the smile intruding at the corner of his mouth.

“And this kid!” Racine threw an arm around Jackson and ruffled his hair, no trace of his earlier animosity. “You’re somethin’ else, Snowman.”

“Thanks.” Red-faced and disheveled, Jackson looked up at Sammy from under Racine’s armpit and mouthed the words. “One more.”

How does this person exist? wondered Sammy. How is he real?

The third period started, the Greyhounds grim-faced and quiet as they set up for the face-off. The tide had turned, the audience growing louder as the clock ticked down.

In the waning minutes, their chance came. They were battling through the neutral zone when Jackson dodged a check and threw Sammy the puck.

“Now!”

Sammy took off like a rocket. There was the hiss of his pursuers’ skates at his back as he sped down the open ice, colors blurring around him. No one could touch him; the world was narrowing, the net a singularity drawing him in. He let the puck fly, and the goalie was lunging, the crowd roaring, it was…

The red light switched on. Goal.

He blindly found Jackson’s arms. They clung together as the hats came down, as the rest of the boys on the ice joined in, and the ice crew began to gather the offerings of exuberant fans.

“Gonna be some cold ears tonight, eh?” Jackson said.

He was toying with his mouthguard. His lips, raw and spit-slick, shone as they worked the plastic and Sammy froze, the impulse to touch them passing through him like a shiver. He imagined pressing his own mouth to Jackson’s, the embrace deepening, tongues sliding together, and a jolt of panic shot through his gut.

The cheering of the fans rang hollow in his ears as he let go and skated away.

***

The sounds of celebration echoed off the tile as the Mystics showered and dressed. As Sammy stepped out of the din and into the hall in search of his billet family, he breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe I should try that blizzard trick again, he thought, but his mind refused to settle—jumping from victory to anxiety, to Charlie and Jackson and the impossibility of it all.

“Ye-ah!”

Charlie himself was barreling toward him, yelling at the top of his lungs. He threw his arms exuberantly around Sammy’s neck. “You beauty!”

“Don’t hurt yourself.” Sammy gave in and dropped his gear bag, wrapping Charlie in a tight hug. “Or me.”

“You were so awesome! Hat trick, baby!”

“It wasn’t just me. Jackson, with all those assists…

“Stop with that humble shit.” Charlie wrinkled his nose. “Just let me pump those tires.”

Even through his parka, Sammy could feel the contours of Charlie’s shoulder blades, his bony back so familiar. As their billet families—the Virtanens and Nyqvists—caught up, Sammy turned from Charlie and shouldered his bag, simultaneously grateful and disappointed as they made their way out of the lobby.

Beyond the front door, the wind hit Sammy with enough force to push him back on his heels.

“Holy whaa!” Julie Virtanen raised a hand, shielding her face from the blowing snow.

“Getting nasty out, eh?” Mrs. Nyqvist said.

“Yah, thank god the truck has good snow tires!”

They stumbled their way across the parking lot, trying to pick out their cars. Through the gale, Sammy could barely make out a couple of silhouettes under the inconstant glow of a streetlight. One appeared to be waving.

“I’ll be back.” Sammy broke into a jog, dragging his heavy boots through the snow. Jackson was waiting in the lee of a battered pickup.

“Thanks again for those goals, bro!” Sammy shouted to be heard above the storm.

Jackson looked down, bashful. “I just read the ice, you did the work.”

The other figure ceased sweeping snow from the truck’s hood and raised a hand.

“Um, Sammy, my dad.”

Sammy squinted into the wind. Snow glittered in the man’s grizzled beard, swirled in the lamplight like a halo. He seemed to share his son’s indifference to the cold; his flannel jacket was rolled up his wrists, a sleeveless down vest and the Kromer on his head the only concessions to the weather.

Sammy extended his gloved hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lunta,”

“Heikki.” He shook. “Helluva game.”

“Thank you.”

Jackson bumped Sammy’s shoulder. “Well, I guess I’ll see you?”

As the two Luntas climbed into their truck, Sammy yelled to them in parting.

“Get home safe in the snow!”

Jackson’s father paused, one foot in the driver’s side door. Despite the dark and the blizzard, Sammy could see that the eyes looking down at him were the same startling blue as Jackson’s, and that Heikki was laughing, a little quirk in his mouth, his piercing eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Ya, youbetcha,” he said, shaking his head and still smiling at some secret joke.

Before Sammy could reply, they had gone.

***

Although Sammy never described himself as a morning person, on the days when he was allowed to sleep in, there was a sublime period before he was completely awake when he was the most comfortable. He loved his slow return to the world, sensation trickling into the liminality between dreams and reality.

He could smell coffee brewing—the Virtanens preferring it black and strong enough to make you shiver in true northern fashion—and the smoke of bacon fat, the ticking of the heat pipes along the baseboard, the soft murmur of voices beyond the walls. It was morning on a rest-day; he could wait a little longer.

Sammy stretched, feeling his joints pop, the ache in his left thigh where he had taken a slash in the third period, a tweaked muscle from practice the previous week. Sometimes he wondered if this was what it was like to be old, so aware of your body and the various ways in which it betrayed you—but other times he almost found these transient aches and pains gratifying, proof of life thoroughly lived. Like the scar on his jaw—a high stick and two stitches—that made him picture the Sarnia diner where Charlie had treated him to milkshakes in the aftermath. Like the stripe down his forearm obtained from hanging off the back of the garage last year, to remind him of the way the boys had stood around laughing and cringing as he dabbed the scrape with an alcohol wipe from the first aid kit.

The warmth of sunlight fell across his face. Unable to prolong the inevitable, Sammy opened his eyes.

There was a message on the window.

Sammy blinked, trying to clear his bleary eyes, and rubbed them until he saw stars, but the words remained. They weren’t carved into the frost, but were part of it, the letters branching into fractals, swirling and looping in a crystalline calligraphy.

Sammy pressed close to the pane and looked down to see if the snow was deep enough to afford access to his second-story window, ready to explain away as a prank what he already knew was beyond the capabilities of his teammates. But no, his window was still far too high for human hands to reach, if they were even capable of coaxing frost patterns into words.

The window said: Sweet Hatty!

Sammy stumbled back from the glass.

Am I losing it? he wondered as he threw on a hoodie and barreled down the stairs. I need someone to tell me I’m not…

Sammy rounded the corner to the kitchen violently, his bare feet skidding on the cold linoleum, but his veteran billet parents were attuned to the graceless bustle of teenage boys. Gary Virtanen merely raised a quizzical eyebrow and went back to his crossword, while Julie waved over her shoulder and continued to tend to breakfast. Layla, in her booster seat, didn’t look up at all, as she was engrossed in the capture of dry Cheerios that had fallen onto her placemat, her fine motor control not yet developed enough to permit multitasking.

“Julie, Julie, you have to come look at this!”

Julie Virtanen turned from the stove. “At what, now?”

“The frost on the window!”

She gestured, laughing, at the bacon sputtering in the skillet, but Gary held his hand out for the spatula, and she followed Sammy upstairs.

The sun was coming in full force, a brief pause in the blizzard, and already the words had faded. Holes had formed throughout, erasing the middle part from the center of the warming window. Sammy traced his finger over the S, all alone now among spiraling ferns.

“Aww, that’s pretty! I always love it when there’s patterns in the frost.” Julie smiled at him with the same smile she used when Layla did something sweet.

“But…they look like letters, right?” Sammy tried to keep the pleading from his voice.

“Yah, for sure. That curly bit there looks just like an S, eh? Y’know, I’ve been telling Gary we should get some more insulated windows like we have in the den, but I’ll miss seeing the ice crawlin’ up the glass.” Julie chuckled as she walked out into the hall, leaving Sammy still staring at the remnants of the message.

He watched the sun melt away the rest of the impossible letter beneath his finger.

There was a ringing in his ears, like he’d taken a bad hit and the world had gone askew. Everything felt a little…

Off.

To be continued in Chapter 2.

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