The Jackson Lunta Snow Dance Song: Chapter 2
A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #057 back issue.
The Virtanens’ den was a throwback to decades past, pine-paneled and shag-carpeted, a cozy, wood-scented habitat in which two teenagers could while away an evening. The wind threw splashes of white against the darkened window and howled along the siding, but inside the den, Sammy and Charlie weathered the blizzard in comfort. It was times like these, thought Sammy, that people look back on when they’re old. This moment, the epitome of the good life; warm and cheerful, a friend by your side, and a plasma rifle.
“Oh, oh, oh!” Charlie bounced on the cushion. “Behind you!”
“Stop screaming in my ear.” Sammy shook himself, briefly dislodging Charlie’s grip on his shoulder.
“What? Where?” Sammy’s heart quickened in his chest, his palms leaving damp smudges where he clutched the controller.
Charlie pointed emphatically. “Bushes!”
On the screen, Sammy’s character expired in a bloody mist.
Charlie collapsed against the arm of the couch, clutching his forehead as though in empathic pain from the headshot. “You suck. You suck so bad.”
“Are you done backseat gaming?”
“Absolutely.” Charlie rolled over, sinking deeper into the faded plaid fabric. “You die too quick without me on your squad.”
“Yeah, yeah. Keep chirping. Few weeks and I’ll be back to owning your ass in PvP.”
Sammy quit to the Home screen and turned off the TV, and for a while they slumped together companionably, looking at their phones. As Sammy was finishing his Instagram rounds, he heard the sigh. Charlie was staring up at the ceiling and picking an errant fiber from the edge of his cast, offering a glimpse of another Charlie, the quiet, melancholic one that dwelt like a cryptid in the happy one’s shadow. There were so many Charlies, variable as the northern weather, emotions too sincere and vibrant to be contained within one skinny boy. Sammy loved them all.
“It’s been forever since we hung out like this,” Charlie said.
“Dude, what are you talking about? I was at your house literally two days ago.” Sammy had been planning a longer visit after practice, but worsening roads had forced him and his borrowed car to return shortly after dropping Charlie off.
“You didn’t even stay for dinner!” Charlie glared at him. “Maybe if we had had pasties…”
“Are you still mad at me about that night I ditched for T&E’s?”
“Maybe.” Charlie said, stretching his legs into Sammy’s lap, a conciliatory gesture.
Among those raised in the midst of hockey’s odd fraternal pack, there was a tendency to lose all respect for personal space. Teammates casually draped themselves over shoulders and leaned against backs, roughhousing and tumbling over each other like pups in a kennel. For Sammy, touch was a delicate balance that he navigated daily, beset by cheek kisses and impromptu grappling matches, agonizing over the ill-defined parameters of straight male conduct. Charlie didn’t mean anything by it, when, innocently skin-starved, he sought out Sammy’s affection.
Would he still, if he knew?
Sammy gently laid a hand on Charlie’s shin. He was weak, and there would be time to back away later.
Charlie, however, did not settle for long. He took a Sharpie from his pocket, offering it along with his broken hand. “Here, You haven’t drawn on me yet.”
“I can’t draw.” Sammy said.
“Just write your name or something. Gotta practice your signature for when you make the show.”
“Oh my god.”
“For real, though. You’re drafted first round, you might even be playing some with your team next year,” Charlie said, bumping his shoulder against Sammy’s. “And you’re legit going first round. You’re so fucking close to breaking this team’s points record, there’s no way the scouts aren’t watching that.”
Sammy scrawled his name on the cast, between thumb and index finger. “I play with good people.”
“With Jackson,” Charlie made a spooky noise. “Watch out, or he’s gonna, like, possess your spirit.”
“I thought he was a vampire, not a ghost. Get your story straight.”
“Oh, he’s something alright,” said Charlie, rolling his eyes. “Spooky mofo.”
Sammy kept drawing, decorating the spot where the bone was starting to knit back together, drawing little curls around Charlie’s thumb. He thought of the frost on the window, bracken crawling up the pane, a message. He had considered telling Charlie, but had decided against it. No matter how he articulated it in his head, every version the story made him sound unhinged. The last thing he wanted to do was take Charlie’s jokes and turn them into a serious discussion of something he had most likely dreamt.
“Told Martha I’m crashing here tonight. That cool?” Charlie asked.
Sammy, still chewing on the memory, was happy for the change of subject. “Sure, you can have the fold-out. There’s no way I’m driving you home in this shit.”
“Three days straight. I thought it snowed in Ontario, but damn, Michigan is another level.”
“Yeah, no, the U.P. is special,” Sammy said. “Just hope it clears up before we have to take off on Friday.”
“Oh, right,” Charlie said, snuggling further under Sammy’s arm. “Roadie time.”
They gathered in the parking lot, huddling in groups and coughing at the diesel fumes as they loaded their bags under the bus. It was the kind of early that left your stomach upset and your eyes aching, a headache-inducing hour that would dog Sammy for the rest of the day if he didn’t manage to nap on the ride. Rising before dawn on winter mornings was a routine he had grown used to long ago, but which failed to grow less miserable over time. After checking that his gear was safely stowed, Sammy hugged Mrs. Virtanen, grateful for his billet mother’s support at such an ungodly hour, and wishing he was back in her warm car, in comfortable limbo between the house and the rink.
“Good luck, kiddo,” she said. “You’re sure you got all your stuff? Wallet and phone? Passport?”
The pom-pom on her toque tickled Sammy’s nose, and he realized he had perhaps grown a few more inches. When had he started towering over all the adults in his life?
“I’m not gonna forget my phone on a roadie, come on, that would be frickin’ hellish.”
She smacked him lightly on the arm at the profanity. “And if you talk to your mom, tell her hi from us, okay?”
He boarded the bus and Coach checked his name off the list. People paired off quickly with their road buddies, already planning games of euchre and sharing earbuds as they prepared to make the long trek down into central Ontario. As one of the more far-flung outposts of the O, they were used to long rides, and consoled themselves that at least they weren’t out west, driving across the prairies on week-long roadies like those poor fools in the Dub.
Just as Sammy settled on an empty pair of seats, he saw Jackson walking up the aisle, looking a little lost around the eyes. Sammy gestured at the seat beside him and shrugged in what he hoped was an inviting manner.
“Ooh, Replacement Chuckles strikes again!” said Racine, peeking over the back of his seat like a bus gargoyle. “You roomies too, eh?”
“Shut up, Racer,” Sammy said.
Jackson wavered, unsure, and for a moment Sammy imagined Charlie, who was ostensibly still asleep in the comfort of his own bed, appearing to start round two of the study hall kerfuffle.
“It’s cool, man. Go ahead. You want the window?”
Jackson answered with a grateful smile, pearly teeth as of yet mercifully untouched by the ravages of the sport. He curled up, content and cozy, and pulled his jacket over himself like a blanket, settling down to sleep as the bus pulled out of the lot.
Sammy always had trouble sleeping sitting up, his legs cramped by the seat in front of him. He would doze in fits and starts, woken by every stop and sharp turn, hoping to catch a few hours before the dawn brought his teammates back to their usual boisterousness. As Sammy waited for the highway to lull him to sleep, he got out his phone and started to compose a message to his mother back in Saginaw. It had been a week or more since they had last talked; as a nurse, her work rotations made it hard to coordinate calls, so Sammy began writing long emails on the bus. They shared their lives, time shifted, a family together on the internet until the holidays or the season’s end reunited them. Sammy had just finished writing about Jackson and the hat trick game when a notification popped in at the top of his screen.
It was a Snap from Charlie. His face was grainy in the low light. his eyes crinkling at the corners as he snuggled down into his pillow, bearing the message “Enjoy the bus lol!!!” As the timer ticked down, Sammy tried to place the insistent feeling of déjà vu, something unnervingly familiar about the image. He took a screenshot, and as the picture vanished, the answer came to him. He chuckled as he switched to text.
[Sammy] That my hoodie?
[Charlie] Bro did u just screencap that?
[Sammy] For evidence, thief. I wondered where that went.
[Charlie] Whatev u left it in my suitcase in Brampton. Finders keepers.
[Sammy] K. fine. have it. For now.
[Charlie] Good luck on the road FERDA!!!
Sammy looked up to find Jackson looking at him, his head cocked to the side like a dog’s, and he tried to school his grin into something a little more reasonable.
“Just Charlie being a dumbass.”
“You guys seem close.”
Sammy looked up abruptly, trying to figure out what, exactly, Jackson was trying to insinuate, but his face wore the same gently quizzical expression as before. “For sure. He’s my best buddy.”
“It’s gotta suck for him, I bet, being injured,” Jackson said.
“Yeah, it’s not fun. I think he feels like he’s missing out, y’know?” Sammy felt a pang, thinking of Charlie waking up in the night, just to send him luck. “What about you? You left your team and everything, your friends?”
“I’m sure we’ll survive apart for a while,” Jackson said, reclining back in his seat and stretching his long limbs. “I’ll see ’em soon enough. With hockey, you kinda gotta live in the moment, eh?”
Sammy nodded, mulling over the words. When Jackson said it, it seemed less of a cliché than usual, a motto earnestly lived. Out on the ice, he seemed so untroubled, while Sammy fought to clear his head and focus.
Scoring race. Scouting rank. First rounder. Points record. Even now, the words built like pressure in the back of his mind.
You Can Play. Pride Tape. Closeted. Gay.
In the bus’s windshield, flakes caught the headlights and flew past, tiny spark trails in the dark, like they were all speeding through space rather than down M-28. Sammy felt the stress recede a little as he took one deep breath, then another. He turned to Jackson, pointing at the warp drive window. “Yo, check out the snow.”
Jackson smiled. “It’s a good one.”
“I hope we don’t get stuck.”
“We won’t,” Jackson spoke with a peculiar confidence in his tone. He turned toward the window, pulled his parka up to his chin and within seconds seemed to fall back into a blissful doze.
Sammy watched Jackson sleep, his even breath fogging up the window. The last things he was aware of as he finally drifted off was the heater blowing softly on his damp clothes, and the many tiny sounds, the whisper and rustle of a bus full of boys, heading east through the night toward Sault Ste. Marie.
Proceed to Chapter 2, page 2–>