As I fell, I realized I should have listened. Back in Doc’s office though, the news had been too dire to comprehend and far too hard to accept.
Not as hard or as that last slam into the boards, however.
I snorted, then cringed when the pain laced down my back. It ended at my waist although I sensed the echo trailing into my legs. Legs that had moments before been burning with effort in my breakout skate toward goal.
Their right defenseman had succumbed to my feint. He’d swooped off, stick out, hoping to intercept the puck, but I had pressed on. The second charged, and I’d dropped low, pulled the puck in tight by my blades and spun. He’d swiped at my skate and tipped me off balance. I remember barreling into a third, one of their wingers and the one who finally tossed me into the boards.
His weight had smashed the breath out of me, like so many before. But when the defensemen I’d duped joined in, I’d heard the crack. That’s when the stuffing had gone out of my knees, when I’d realized only the two thugs pinning me against plastic were keeping me upright.
While the crowd pounded and roared on the other side, the winger kicked the puck out from between my feet and they’d dropped back once it’d spun free. I’d watched them skate down the rink, pass up to their center who’d threaded Race and Erikson, and then raced by Valdimir and who’d flung the puck into the net past Grable. The wail of the buzzer had filled my ears as ice smacked into my shoulder and I’d sagged onto my back.
The referee’s whistle blew, and I wondered if they’d call off the goal. We’d been down a man, so it seemed only fair.
Gazing up at the scoreboard, I willed the numbers not to change while the cold soaked through my jersey and padding and coated my skin. My helmet had fallen off at some point and the chill ate into the back of my skull as I stared. The score stayed tied, two to two, and the clock stopped with ten minutes forty-three seconds left in the third.
From nearby the ice shook, blades cut, and snow fell upon my chest. Their goalie towered over me, his mask with its eagle beak lifted up to reveal a bearded face and scowl. One of the defensemen, by his number the one I’d spun past, showed up, stick held like staff in his gloved hand.
The goalie’s Russian accent muddied the words, but the intent seemed genuine. His concern also spiked a worry in me when I couldn’t quite figure out how to answer.
In the rink’s stunned quiet, soled shoes tread onto the shaved surface in delicate thumps.
“Is he conscious?”
Doc, led by a gliding linesman, waddled between my two opponents and knelt at my side. His sweater’s high collar covered his neck, leaving his head hanging above evergreen like a peach in a tree. His fancy flashlight flashed in my eyes and I winced. I raise a hand to brush him away and found my stick still clasped. I let go and worked out of the sweat of my glove in order to wipe more sweat from my eyes.
“I’m here, Doc,” I said, although with my tongue felt so sluggish I imagine they heard only mumbling.
The evidence, however, remained the same.
“And how do you feel?”
I swallowed and found myself not wanting to answer. “You tell me.”
He sighed and raked a hand across his balding pate. “Get a backboard and neck brace. I want everything now!”
I grabbed his free hand, suddenly needing to hear some kind of diagnosis. “Doc?”
Doc stared at me, then cast his gaze to the ice and rubbed at his temple. By then, the referee had called for time and Ted and Coach had arrived.
“How bad is it?”
Doc looked up and I kept staring at him, hard, like I’d stared down goalies during penalty shots. Sighing, he pointed down my legs, the legs I couldn’t confirm were there.
“Get a boot off, Ted.”
Coach glowered. “We should get him off the ice.”
“I need to know,” I muttered.
Coach knelt by Doc’s side and smoothed his tie against his button down shirt. “You’re awake.”
I would have nodded but a materializing pair of medics pinned my head between these bright yellow pieces of foam and started lashing them around my head.
“I’m awake Coach.”
His glove-sized hand landed on my shoulder, the pads beneath my jersey making a thud.
“Almost there,” said Ted.
Coach and Doc turned to look down at where he worked at my laces. I couldn’t feel him, of course, but I saw the damp strings flinging from my right boot. Ted bowed his head, bangs obscuring the grimace I imagined joining his grunts of effort. Freeing the boot, he inched back, letting Doc have access at what I could confirm would be a corn-chip ripeness.
With a wobbly walk, Doc squatted by my socked foot.
“Close your eyes,” he said, “then tell me what you feel.”
With a sigh, I did like he told me to, like I had in his office when he’d explained what another thumping in line with what defensemen A and winger B had delivered might do. Behind my shut lids, I’d blotted the picture of vertebrae he’d shoved under my nose and the articulated spine model he’d waggled, showing me how the disks between the bones could be offset and cause damage to the cord threading my back. I heard him suggesting I stop skating, to explore other avenues in the sport.
By the time I’d left his office, however, I’d already made up my mind. This game was my life and as long as I could stand, I’d be playing.
But now, I wasn’t standing. Now I was lying on my back beneath an audible quiet while the hushed crowd waited, while Coach waited, while the referees, linesmen, and even the opposition waited for me to see how I was doing.
I closed my eyes tighter and tried to figure out an answer.
And then, I felt the pressure on my big toe, felt the warmth of Doc’s pinching fingertips, felt the blood returning to my legs as if a shower had been turned on.
“This little piggy,” I said and opened my eyes.
Coach thumped my shoulder again and grinned.
“He’s got feeling at least,” said Doc, his professional tone untouched by my sarcasm.
“Damn right I do. I just need to walk this off.” I tried to get up but the two medics by my head stopped me.
“No,” said Coach, “we’ll take it from here. You’re done for tonight.”
“Maybe longer,” said Doc.
I ignored the implication in Doc’s grim statement and stared up at the ceiling. While he gave directions for getting me on the backboard, I wondered when I’d take my next shot on goal.