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The Jackson Lunta Snow Dance Song: Chapter 4

[Sammy] U ok?

Sammy sat in his stall, sweaty after practice, and stared at the text, unwilling to leave it and go shower lest he miss the reply. He hadn’t heard from Charlie since the party the night before. He was anxious, but he knew Charlie–when to leave him alone and when to press. This would have to suffice.

It was the right call. Charlie was typing.

[Charlie] Hey so I said some stuff the other night
[Charlie] Pls don’t freak out like
[Charlie] I know it was ALOT but seriously I hope u dont think its weird

Judging from the lack of emojis, this was Charlie at his most serious. Sammy wished he could teleport to whatever Toronto waiting room Charlie was sending these from, but for now he was stuck sending a simple reassurance.

[Sammy] Don’t worry, it’s not weird.
[Charlie] Can we talk when I get back? I dun wanna do it over text
[Sammy] Sure.

“Hey.” Racine was standing in front of Sammy’s stall, looking impatient. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Coach wants to see you.”

Rank under-armor and all, Sammy trudged down the hall to Coach’s office. He nearly bumped into Jackson on his way out; Jackson threw him a small wave as he headed back to the locker room.

“Hey, kid. Siddown,” Coach said, although he made no motion to do so himself. A bad back meant he preferred to stand and pace while he talked, animated with pent-up energy.

“Doc says Yoon might be back for practice as early as next week.”

Sammy’s heart jumped. “Really?

“How ’bout that, eh?” Coach said. “But that’s part of why I wanted to talk to ya. I just got done talking to Lunta. Y’know he’s only here as a call-up. He’s gonna play this weekend, but after that…”

“Already?” This was a conversation that Sammy had known was coming at some point, but had stubbornly refused to dwell on. With a few words, the inevitability of Jackson’s departure became heartbreakingly real.

“I know you guys are buddies, linemates, so I wanted to tell it to ya straight out. Kid plays damn good hockey, but I’m pretty sure there’s no way he can stay up with the team long-term.”

Sammy frowned. “But he’s good. Seriously, Coach, he could go pro if he wanted to, like…”

“No, see, his game’s not the issue. Guys like that…” Coach waved his hands, gesturing as though trying to summon the word from the air. “You get ’em up here sometimes, what with the trees and the lake and all. My mom called ’em haltija, she said back in Finland…”

Coach had a far-off look in his eye, as though recalling a fond memory, but his uncharacteristic wistfulness was soon broken by a lopsided, chip-toothed grin. “Ya know, he said his pop’s Heikki Lunta? Near about pissed myself laughing the first time he says it to me…”

He stopped pacing, and seemed to register the confused look on Sammy’s face.

“Flatlanders don’t know it, eh? Well, a few years back, up in Hancock, they wanted it to snow real bad, and so this guy, he makes up this little song–plays it on the radio–about this Heikki Lunta doing his dance to make the snow come down. Well, it happens–they call on ol’ Heikki, and then Heikki’s there to stay…”

He seemed to realize he was rambling; he cleared his throat. “Never mind. Anyway, just wanted to let ya know about the roster changes. Now go shower, stop stinking the place up.”

As soon as Sammy got back to his bag, he pulled out his phone. He Googled the approximate spelling of the word Coach had used, strands of the song Charlie had trolled him with looping through his head. After a few tries, he finally got somewhere: a Wikipedia entry and some folklore sites. As he read the page, his stomach swooped, freefall, like the night he saw his crush dancing in the snow.

Haltija: (n.) A spirit or elf that occupies and rules over a specific aspect of the natural world, or who guards or helps someone.

Jackson had already vanished to wherever he went after practice, but Sammy tried one last attempt at a text.

[Sammy] Cool 2 hang out tonight?
[Sammy] BTW, do you know what a haltija is?

For the first time, dots popped up. Jackson was typing a reply.

[Jackson] Yes. To both.
[Jackson] 6:00 at Sugarloaf Mountain.

***

When Sammy pulled into the empty parking area, his beams caught a figure waving at him by the trailhead. He got out of the car and picked his way over the crusted snow to where Jackson was waiting.

“Did you walk all the way out here?” Sammy asked, trying to stop his teeth from chattering.

Jackson nodded, stepping farther into the shadow of the trees. Although dusk had fallen, the days were finally starting to lengthen, and a rim of deep blue lingered along the western edge of the sky. The night was still, although a few flakes drifted slowly down, and above them, the mountain loomed against the clouds, the forest shrouded in darkness.

“Come on.” Jackson looked over his shoulder, impatient.

“You want me to hike that at night?” Sammy was incredulous.

“It’s stairs the whole way. Fifteen minutes, tops.” Jackson set off ahead with a determined stride, and Sammy hurried after him.

They ascended in silence, up a twisting wooden walkway through the trees, the wood in its winter sleep save the soft rasp of bare branches moving in the breeze. Giving thanks for the resilience of hockey thighs as he climbed flight after flight, Sammy picked his way over patches of ice, holding tight to the railing. Every interaction with Jackson had a certain surreal quality to it, doubly so now that Sammy had seen him working actual magic, and at this point it was easier to just treat it all like a dream over which he had no control.

Just when his legs were starting to burn in earnest, Sammy reached the top and saw Jackson standing by the railing of the overlook, his arm outstretched. Beneath them, the lights of Marquette twinkled like a stellar carpet along the dark Lake Superior shore.

Sammy felt his breath catch. Sometimes, despite its isolation–or because of it–this little northern city became a place of almost painful beauty. He went to stand by Jackson, side by side, looking out at the town that had become his winter home. All his problems, his victories, best friends and adopted family–reduced to fragile specs of light, so small from up here.

“Pretty cool, eh?” Jackson put his arm around Sammy, and Sammy leaned into him, cold but content. “You wanted to talk?”

“Yeah, I…” Sammy paused, all the questions that had been pent up for the past few days vying for attention. “You said you would tell me about…y’know.”

Jackson scooped up a handful of snow from the railing and looked at it pensively, before tossing it in the air.

“The snow dance?” Jackson asked.

“The magic, yeah.”

“I guess you could call it that,” Jackson replied, clearly thoughtful. “It’s more just who I am.”

“But who are you?” Sammy begged.

“For now? Jackson Lunta. Just a kid who wants to play hockey and dance in the snow and kiss boys.” Jackson laughed and kicked up a flurry of powder, turning it around him in ribbons, looping it around his wrists. “I’m something else, too. But you already knew that.”

Jackson looked right at Sammy, his face painted in blue and gray, eyes glowing like the fading western sky, and again Sammy was conscious of something beyond the boy who stood before him,–something as ancient as the rock on which they stood, cold and deep as the lake.

“We sing the wind, we dance the snow. We’re everywhere, in everything,” Jackson continued. “Sometimes your people call for us. Sometimes we appear.”

A suspicion was beginning to take hold in Sammy’s mind, looking at the force before him in the body of a junior hockey boy. Why he found such chemistry on Sammy’s wing, why he kissed…

“It was me?” asked Sammy, quietly.

“You called, and so I came.”

Jackson stepped closer, drew Sammy into his arms as snow whirled around them. Sammy let himself be held.

“You love the ice; the ice loves you back.” Jackson pressed a gentle kiss to Sammy’s mouth and then let him go, backing up toward the trees. “You needed me, at least for a little while.”

“Jackson…” Sammy called after him, his lips numb.

“See you at the game,” said Jackson’s voice from the darkness, a gentle laugh carried on the wind.

And then Sammy was alone.

***

Sunday. Game time.

In the interest of avoiding anxiety, Sammy usually tried to avoid looking at the audience–but tonight he raised his head during O Canada and let it wash over him. The pre-game adrenaline was still there, but as he stared up at the crowd in their copper green jerseys, he felt inexplicably calm. It didn’t matter who was watching him; in this game, he wanted to savor every second he had left to play with Jackson. With a blizzard in his mind and his skates sharp on the ice, he was ready.

They won the draw, immediately going on the attack, the team hungry and fierce. As soon as Sammy went over the boards for his second shift, there was a turnover at the blue line, and he got his chance. Snagging the puck, he flew, going coast to coast around the Sudbury defense, stick-handling like a maniac. His feet felt so light–slicing faster than thought, muscle memory taking hold.

He passed the puck off to Jackson and swung around behind the net, shaking his pursuers, just in time to receive Jackson’s return pass on his tape. Time seemed to slow as he watched the goalie dive toward Jackson, realize his miscalculation, and struggle–too late–to correct his trajectory. Sammy buried it in the corner of the net, top shelf.

No future, no past–all that mattered was this one moment, the puck in the net and Jackson in his arms. Hockey was the hardest thing in Sammy’s life. It owned so much of him, mind and body; it chewed him up and spit him out and made him hurt in so many different ways. But right now, this was the moment where he knew why he gave himself to hockey. This was Sammy’s own dance: playing for the game, for the team, for the sheer, pure joy of it. His game, brutal and beautiful; a perfect goal, the speed, the magic that dwelled in the look on a man’s bearded face as he roared to the heavens, lifting a silver cup above his head.

This is what it means to have ice love you, he thought.

And he loved it back.

***

Back in the locker room, a handful of local journalists were clamoring for Sammy, their phones and recorders shoved into his face as soon as he sat down. If juniors was meant as preparation for the big leagues, this, too, he needed to practice. He tried to provide a few decent quotes for the next day’s Mining Journal and the various OHL blogs, and by the time they finished with him, the majority of his teammates had already washed and dressed. He toweled off in the empty showers and gathered his things, hoping to catch Jackson before the Virtanens were ready to leave, but after checking around the hallways and lobby, Jackson was nowhere to be found.

It was snowing again when Sammy finally spotted a lone figure across the parking lot, lingering on the edge of the trees. Sammy could feel his wet hair freezing into stiff spikes across his forehead as he pushed through the gusts.

“Jackson!” Sammy waved at him. “Don’t you dare take off without saying goodbye.”

Jackson jogged toward him, waving, and met him in a hug. “Just waiting for my dad.”

“Good game, bud.” Sammy thumped Jackson’s back. “Fucking wild.”

“You, too.”

“Hey.” Something in Sammy’s chest clenched like a fist. He wasn’t ready for this. “You’re really going?”

Jackson took Sammy’s face between his palms, callouses rough against his cheeks. “Sammy, listen. Spring’s coming. I know it sucks, but you can do this without me.”

“I know, but…” There was a burning in the bridge of Sammy’s nose, and the world began to blur.

“You’ve got tons of people who care about you,” Jackson continued, toying with the frozen strands of hair at the back of Sammy’s neck. “Plus, it’s not like I’m gone-gone. Where there’s ice…”

He stopped, looking beyond Sammy’s shoulder. “Guess my ride’s here.”

Headlights pierced through the snow, then slowed to a stop beside them, the old pickup’s engine rattling as its wipers slashed at full speed. Sammy could barely make out the bearded profile of the old woodsman behind the wheel; sung into being, still living in the back of the local consciousness. The man who dances the snow down.

“See ya, Sammy. Good luck, eh?”

“Bye, Jackson.” Sammy did his best to smile.

“Oh, and bro?” Climbing up on the truck’s runner, Jackson paused with the door half open. “Tell him.”

Jackson shut the door. Sammy watched as the taillights vanished into the gale, and then stood there for a while longer, until the cold was too much to bear.

***

Sammy woke to the sun on his face and the steady drip of icicles on the drainpipe. Looking up at the slice of blue sky framed by the window, Sammy wrestled with complicated emotions: loss, gratitude, and determination flaring up and merging together within him.

Sammy had to do this.

Downstairs, he accepted some toast from Julie Virtanen on his way out the door, waded in his waterproof boots through the mush in the driveway. As he drove down sloppy roads to the Nyqvists’, he thought of Jackson: his first kiss, the first person who had made Sammy truly feel seen. Jackson had been a storm that blew everything awry in Sammy’s life, and now he was gone, leaving the thaw in his wake.

Martha Nyqvist hollered upstairs for Charlie as soon as she saw Sammy on the stoop. A thumping, scampering sound, and then there he was, descending the stairs three at a time, sleep-rumpled in his Leafs pajamas.

His cast was off–a lightweight brace in its place–but before Sammy could register much more Charlie was crashing into him, nearly knocking him back out of the foyer. As Sammy put his arms around him, welcoming his bare shoulders into the folds of his jacket, he was overcome by a surge of hope.

Spring was coming, and they would be on a line together, chasing the dream of the Memorial Cup. The draft didn’t feel that intimating now; it wasn’t like he had to face it alone. Maybe in the off-season, he could go visit Charlie in Mississauga, go on a road trip, go on a date. No matter what the future held, right now, in the moment, he would try for happiness.

Charlie smiled up at him, radiant, and Sammy took a breath.

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

End

Ebook and paperback editions coming early 2019.

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