Larry’s mouth hung open like an unhinged door when Annabel walked up to the edge of the rink.
Her shoulder length hair had faded, from butterscotch to an egg-shell white but still swayed with youthful vigor. Age had added crow’s-feet and lines around her mouth; the crescent ones from too much laughing. The same amused glint filled her summer-sky eyes. She carried herself, a little plumper around the hips, less so around the breasts, as confidently as when she had been the Corn Festival Queen. The ice skates hung over her shoulders glistened with a fresh sharpening as cutting as the laughter she shared with the young woman at her side.
Pressing his hand to his sunken chest, Larry fell back onto the rickety bench and into the shadows of his milling teammates. He pulled a dirty handkerchief, marred from the sweat earned during practice, and wiped the blossoming beads at his receding hairline.
“Really? Here?” asked the young woman. She swept cornflower eyes up into the tree-line rimming the rink like an emerald necklace.
“Don’t sound so shocked. Not everything’s inside,” said Annabel.
A crisp wind bucked across the snowy field and both hunched into their sweaters.
“It’s certainly cold enough,” said the young woman.
Annabel laughed. “You’ll warm up when we get skating. Let’s find a bench and get laced up.”
Larry’s stomach cramped. He traded the handkerchief for his plastic water bottle and guzzled. He immediately wished the luke-warm water had been something stiffer when the rest of the team noticed the women’s arrival.
“Annabel Chase?” asked Ned.
“Ned Yager?” Annabel tittered and she gave the stooped shouldered man a hearty embrace. “How have you been?”
“Oh, fine, fine,” said Ned. “Still can skate and shoot a puck so I must be doing something right.”
She chuckled and traded hugs with the other three white haired and wrinkled men half out of their hockey gear.
“Who’s this here?” asked Ned once Frank, Todd and Mark had been greeted.
“Where are my manners?” Annabel grabbed the young woman’s hand and pulled her close. “This boys, is Samantha, my eldest granddaughter.”
A sequence of “Miss” ran through the quartet. Through the cracks of pudgy torso’s and padding, Larry spotted a blush on the girl’s cheeks, especially when Frank tipped a non-existent cap.
“Sammy,” said Annabel, “these are some of the boys I went to high school with out here.”
“Before you left for college?”
Annabel’s smile stiffened. “Before I left.”
“She’s was always too smart to stay out here in the sticks, Miss,” said Todd.
“Whatever happened to you?” asked Ned. “You were here that last Christmas and then poof up and vanished!”
“Oh, you boys don’t want to hear about that, at least not in the cold!”
They chuckled. A swirl cut across the rink, encouraging a foot stomps to keep the blood flowing.
“I wanted to get Sammy here out on some natural ice before it gets dark,” said Annabel. “Do they still put the benches on the southern shore?”
“That they do,” said Ned. He turned and his face lit up with a devilish mischief Larry hadn’t seen since they’d raced away with Old Man Peter’s tractor back when they were younger than the machinery. “I think you’ll find the benches nice and cozy.”
Larry thought about tossing the hockey puck at his feet right at Ned’s dentures. Instead, he balled his field-calloused hands into fists and sought out an escape route. The rink however had drifts piled around the edges, thickened by the shoveling and scraping to clear the ice throughout the winter.
A gasp made him flinch, and then Annabel, speaking his name, nearly stopped his heart. “I thought that was your old pick-up.”
Blowing out a stiff exhale, Larry looked up and met her eyes.
“See you at Snooze’s,” said Ned with a wave. He and the three others scurried away like mice, hockey sticks poking out every which way in their rush for the parking lot.
Larry scooped up the puck and winced while straightening. By then, Ned was far out of range. Annabel and Sammy, however, loomed. Pushing off his knees, Larry stood and swept his hand toward the bench.
“I was just going.”
“I’m meeting the boys at Snooze’s.” Larry turned and drowned himself in collecting the clutter he had created along the packed snow.
“Sit, Sammy,” said Annabel. The bench creaked under their weight. “Did I ever tell you about the Ice Ball?”
Larry tried pulling his head into his body like a turtle. Lacking that, he stuffed his helmet into his duffle and thought about crawling inside.
“Ice Ball?” asked Sammy.
“Yes, the Ice Ball.” Annabel leaned back while Sammy tied her laces.
Larry couldn’t help following her gaze as Annabel relayed the details. The string lights that laced the ring on that wintry night glittered like a mirage over the dusk-tinted snow. The laughter, inspired by a bit of snuck in booze; the musicians playing away in the heat of the garbage can fires; and the scrape of blades and swirl of skirts and snow jackets played against his memory.
“Sounds amazing, Grandma.”
“It was, Sammy, it was.”
Larry forced his gaze back to his bag and stared down at his wrinkled hands. Veins popped out like pipes, wrinkles cutting like trenches, all above the slight tremble now perpetual in his fingers. The vitality he remembered in his younger days seemed like dream.
“Ready?” asked Sammy.
“Go on,” said Annabel. “I want to see you out there first.”
Larry felt the young girl’s glance on his back before she rose and pushed onto the rink. She started gliding across the ice and then gained speed. The swooshing of her skates and the hush of her passing flooded the sidelines.
“How have you been, Larry?” asked Annabel, once Sammy had flown into another circuit.
“Fine, fine,” said Larry. He pocketed his last puck and closed the zipper on his bag. The quiet lingered, broken only by the scrape of Sammy’s blades and crinkle of the hardening snow. Larry cringed under the weight of the expected counter question and finally succumbed. “You?”
“Fine,” said Annabel. She chuckled, bitterness tingeing her usual hearty tone.
Larry turned despite himself as a swell of concern bubbled.
“Harold, my husband, died last year. My Paula, Sammy’s mother, is in the middle of a horrible divorce. They’ve moved in with me and it’s like my whole life’s been upturned.” She looked up at him, blinking to keep tears at bay. “I wanted to come back and remember better days.”
“You remember them that way?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then why did you stay away? Why did you leave in the first place?”
The moment of fragility vanished. Her chin rose in a defiant angle and heat kindled in her eyes. “I needed to breathe, Larry, to explore. I got my degree. I met Harold. We started our practice. I had Paula.” She shook her head. “Everything took off from there and before I knew it, it was over.”
Larry stuffed his hands into his pockets and dropped his gaze to his boots.
“I never met to hurt you, Larry.”
“I’m sorry for that then.” The bench creaked, and a moment later, her boots appeared, blunted toes pointing at his. Her mittened fingers touched his chin and Larry lifted his gaze. “I’m not sorry I ran into you.”
Larry stiffened. “I don’t think I can say the same.”
She cringed, retrieved her hand and wrapped her arms around herself in a stiff hug. Larry seized the inner-lining of his pockets, keeping himself from adding to the embrace.
“I should get going. The boys will be waiting.” He turned and shouldered his bag with woof.
“Maybe I’ll see you there.”
“You go where you like,” said Larry.
He strode past her and turned up his collar to block a frosted gust. Snow crunched under his boots as he entered the parking lot and reached his old Ford. Tossing his bag into the cabin, he heaved into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut. He grabbed the steering wheel in both hands and blew out a misted breath. The windshield fogged, softening his view of the rink where the Annabel and Sammy circled, side by side.
His face contorted with a frown and he rubbed at his suddenly runny nose. He reached for a hanky but found himself opening the glove compartment and retrieving a crumpled note wedged among the manuals.
Worn folds threatened to rip but he peeled at the edges and uncovered the brief paragraphs within. Annabel’s fine cursive had faded along with the indigo lines, but the message remained legible. The stab of pain struck with the same piercing edge as it had when he had first read her explanation of why she couldn’t accept the proposal he had made the night of their last Ice Ball.
He glanced up from the letter and found the world had turned watery. The two figures on the ice blurred and shadows wobbled, transitioning the day into wavering night.
“Wonder what’ll come next?” asked Larry, scrubbing his eyes dry. He balled the note and stuffed it back into the glove compartment before turning the ignition.
The engine turned over with a welcoming grumble. Driving out of the lot, Larry adjusted his rearview mirror. He spotted them coming off the rink. The hope they might follow, that Annabel might walk through Snooze’s door one more time, fell into his stomach like lead. He put his hands on the wheel and struggled to pretend, either way, he didn’t give a damn.