Authors: Catherine Gayle
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either the work of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Catherine Gayle
Cover Design by Kim Killion, The Killion Group
All rights reserved under the International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
For more information:
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
NHL: National Hockey League
AHL: American Hockey League
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Cancer sucks donkey
balls. Great big, ginormous, hairy ones. There’s not really a better way of saying it, and I’d long since stopped trying to come up with one.
If anyone should know how bad cancer sucks, it was me. I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was a senior in high school. That was why I was here, at the Moda Center, where the Portland Storm played, staring out the end of the tunnel at the crowd gathered for their annual Hockey Fights Cancer night. If I could do anything to help even one person not have to go through all the crap I’d had to go through, then you could bet I was going to do it.
It might not seem like much, singing the national anthem at a hockey game, but for me it wasn’t about the singing or the game. It was about awareness. It was about raising money for research and treatments. It was about being sure everyone in this building right now knew how important finding a cure was.
The teams had already skated out for all of the pregame ceremonies, and the arena crew had gone through all of their music and video programming to get the crowd pumped up for the game. Not that they really needed to do much for that. The Storm had finally made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games, and most of last year’s key players had returned for this season. Expectations surrounding the Storm were high, regardless of the rough start they’d had. Tonight they were playing the LA Kings, one of their biggest divisional rivals for the last few seasons. With all that going on, the crowd didn’t need any extra pumping up. They were raring and ready to go, whether the team was or not.
But now, the lights dimmed and the music became more subdued, and a video started playing on the Jumbotron. Mom reached over and took my free hand, squeezing. The thing was, this video was about me.
It showed home footage and photographs that my parents and some of the Storm’s players had taken over the years, images of me at various Storm events I’d been part of, video of me skating at the team’s annual Christmas party, and other things like that.
A song by The End of All Things—a local band that had made it big, not to mention my favorite band of all time—played over the montage. I hadn’t heard this one before. It must have been from their upcoming album, which made me wonder how Tim Whitlock, the Storm’s in-arena entertainment director, had managed to get hold of it. Then again, there were connections between the team and the band. Brie Burns, one of the players’ wives, was a ballroom dancer who had worked with The End of All Things in the past.
The lyrics spoke of holding on to the best parts of life. That, combined with the images that represented some of the best parts of
life, had me getting teary-eyed. Not a good thing when I was about to have to get out there and sing in front of a crowd of eighteen thousand or so. Crying and talking was hard enough. Crying and singing? Pretty much impossible.
Now the video started getting to the point where my cancer came in. Me, bald-headed, wearing various scarves to hide the physical evidence of my chemo. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. This was why I was here. This was why they’d asked
to sing the anthem tonight instead of having the in-house singer do it. Looking away wouldn’t change anything I had been through. I’d already tried that in multiple areas of my life, and it hadn’t worked yet.
Dad put his hands on the backs of my shoulders and started to knead away some of my anxiety. Normally, at this point of the night, he would be behind the bench with the team. Dad was one of the Storm’s assistant coaches. He had been since the season after he’d retired as a player. He was my connection to the team, or at least he had been my first connection. But tonight was different. Tonight, he was with me. He’d take his spot behind the bench after this was over.
Just as he started rubbing my shoulders, an image flashed on the screen that choked me up like crazy and caused the whole crowd to
. It was one of my prom pictures. There I was, in my ice-blue dress without anything covering my head, crying while Jamie Babcock kissed me.
I hadn’t intended to go to my prom. Not until Jamie asked me.
He hadn’t even been one of my classmates. He was one of my dad’s teammates at that point, a guy who I’d had a crush on since the first moment I’d seen him. But Jamie had asked to take me, and I would have done anything to be with him, and he’d made it perfect for me even if I was bald and felt like an alien. When I was with him, I’d felt like a princess.
But I’d beat cancer, and I’d moved on with my life—going off to Hollywood to star in an ensemble
-knockoff TV show called
The Cool Kids
—and he’d moved on with his. I’d broken my own heart when I’d left, and seeing that picture right now brought a torrent of memories and emotions flooding back to life.
“Why did you give them that one?” I hissed at my mom, trying to hold back the massive wave that was threatening to turn to tears.
She arched a brow and shrugged. “I didn’t.”
“Oh, sure you didn’t,” I said. I even rolled my eyes. My sarcasm knew no bounds. No one but my mother would have given the Storm that photo. Other than me, only Jamie and my family had copies of it. I definitely hadn’t given it to the entertainment people, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that Jamie would have done it. I’d broken his heart, too, not just my own. Why would he want a reminder of that flashed in front of his eyes right before he had a game to play?
“I wouldn’t lie to you,” she insisted. “Not about something like that. I wouldn’t have given them any of those pictures. They’re too personal.”
Which was precisely my point. My mouth was open to argue with her again when Dad squeezed my upper arms from behind. “She didn’t. Your mom’s telling you the truth.”
“Then who did?” I demanded.
“I gave it to them.”
“What?” Mom and I said in shocked unison. I spun around to glare at him. Dad had been opposed to every guy I’d ever dated, some of them more than others. He’d just about blown a gasket when Jamie had asked me to prom. Why would he put that memory, that relationship, right up at the forefront of my mind at a time like this?
Dad shrugged. “Tim asked us for pictures that meant something, that would have an impact on the crowd.” He nodded his head toward the open end of the tunnel, indicating all the people out there who were watching in rapt silence. “That one meant the most to me, so I thought it would get the biggest reaction from them.”
I swallowed hard.
The song finished, the video came to a close, and Tim’s familiar voice echoed over the PA system in the cavernous arena. He introduced the Storm’s starters for the night, who each skated out to take their positions. The Kings’ starting line went out, as well. Then he introduced the Little Starter of the game before taking a moment to talk about the military veteran being honored tonight. Both the Little Starter and the vet were also cancer survivors. They headed out on cue, and the vet stood on his mark. The boy skated over to stand next to Jamie, who patted him on the head and said something that no one could hear but the two of them.
Then Tim introduced me. “Katie Weber has been a member of the Portland Storm family for close to a decade now. Her father, David Weber, played for the Storm for a number of years before becoming one of our assistant coaches. Katie spent her teen years here, and it was here that she was diagnosed with—and beat—leukemia. Our organization was given the task of seeing her through her own personal storm. We watched her grow up, and we watched her leave to become a star bright enough to shine over a much bigger world than Portland. She will always be part of our family, no matter how far away life takes her. Now she’s returned, at least for this one very special night. Storm fans, please join me in giving Katie Weber a big welcome back to Portland.”
That was my cue. I white-knuckled my microphone with both hands and headed out of the tunnel to the purple carpet that had been laid on the ice. The entire arena was on its feet, applauding and screaming. I’d always loved being in front of a crowd, but I still got stage fright. Being on
The Cool Kids
hadn’t helped with that at all. If anything, it had made it worse. For the last four years, I’d been doing all of my acting and singing in front of cameras and crew. But these days when I did something in public, the audiences were bigger, and everyone seemed to think they knew
, not the character I’d played. That was clear enough from the number of people in the stands wiping tears from their eyes.
Most of the people in the audience wore the typical purple-and-silver Storm jerseys I’d come to expect during my years here, but a few people had the road whites on, and a smattering had on Kings black and silver. It was easy to spot the pink Hockey Fights Cancer version of the Storm’s jerseys in the crowd, like the one I was wearing. The whole crowd was holding up signs they’d been given when they’d come in tonight, bearing the names of people they loved who had cancer, or maybe people they’d lost to cancer.
Mom and Dad followed me to the carpet. Both of their signs had my name on them.
I smiled and waved, trying not to let the turbulence of my emotions swallow me whole, but it seemed like a daunting—maybe impossible—prospect. I felt as if I would fall to pieces the moment I opened my mouth to sing, but this was different from my usual stage fright. It was bigger and more confusing, like a giant ball made up of rubber bands, each one representing a new, massive, devastating emotion, and the bands were contracting in on themselves. It was squeezing the life out of me.
“Please rise and remove your caps,” Tim said, not that there was any need for his reminder. Everyone was already on their feet. The rest of his words were drowned out in the unending applause. He was in the scorer’s box, the small space across the ice from the team benches that separated the two penalty boxes. I caught his eye across the distance, and he gave me a nod.
Nerves or not, it was time. I took out my pitch pipe, blew into it to find my key, shoved it back into my pocket, and did what I’d come to do. Somehow I got through the anthem without completely shattering, which I considered an absolute coup. Now that I was done, though, all I wanted was to run off the ice and find somewhere I could break down for a minute. But it wasn’t time for that yet.
Tonight, the Storm had planned a ceremonial puck drop to go along with all of the other special events, and they’d asked me to do it. Dad took the mic and pressed the puck into my hands. He kissed my cheek before taking his spot behind the bench. Mom hugged me and headed down the tunnel. I wanted to go with her. I wanted to be anywhere but here, doing anything but what I was about to do.
Because it meant I would be inches away from Jamie.
Dustin Brown, the Kings’ captain, came out and took his spot on one side of me. He said something, looking right at me, but my head was filled with the buzzing of a horde of bees, and I couldn’t make his words out. I couldn’t pay attention to him with Jamie skating over to stand across from him on my opposite side. All my attention focused in on Jamie like a laser beam.
In his skates, he was even taller than normal, towering over me despite my Jimmy Choos. His hockey pads only emphasized his muscle, making him seem larger than life. Even with a bit of distance between us, I could see the creases in his cheeks where his dimples always came through. With every year that passed, he looked less like a boy and more like a man, but I hoped he would never lose those dimples.