During my first season with the Cougars, I’d learned a lot. One thing was that no matter what the veterans tell you, there’s no honor in sitting right beside the bathroom on the bus. Also, overseeing the can of air freshener to use after one of the other players exits the bathroom is not exactly a privilege. They may tell you that it is, but it’s not. It’s just gross having to spray the bathroom with your tie held over your mouth. Being a rookie on an AHL team is tough. It’s great too, but there are some horribly pungent times.
So far, the hardest part for me has been stepping into the crease to replace August Miles. Augie had been super loved on the team. His skills had gotten him a call up to Boston, the pro team we Cougars fed into. Trying to fill his shoes—or skates, I guess I should say—has been the most difficult part of becoming the starting goalie. Aside from being the holder of the air freshener. That was for sure the worst.
All that aside, it was an amazing job because I was doing what I loved, what I had dreamed of since I was old enough to stand on skates. Growing up in Liberty Springs, Connecticut, had almost guaranteed an energetic kid like me getting into some sort of winter sport. They were big on winter sports back home. Hockey, skiing, figure skating, snowboarding. Liberty Springs—which was located near the base of Mohawk Mountain—had a great rink as well as killer ski trails. We also had an incredible snowboarding park that the Sandbeck clan had been instrumental in getting built. Thinking of home always led me to thinking of Shaun…
Shaun Sandbeck was an old friend of mine. Maybe more than a friend if I were being truthful with myself. What we were to each other now was kind of up in the air. We’d been inseparable as kids until college had led me to Boston U. while Shaun had taken his ability to hit a perfect half-cab quadruple backflip and turned it into Olympic snowboard slopestyle gold. Shaun had been one of three openly gay athletes at the games last year. Him, a skier, and a figure skater. They’d all gone on to win medals and the hearts of the world—or most of the world—for being out and proud.
It had been a couple of years since I’d seen Shaun. He kind of haunted me. Not in that classic Scooby-Doo ghost sort of way, following you around while you and Shaggy checked out creepy rooms while nervously eating Scooby snacks. More in the way that we’d been so close and then we drifted apart and then came back and got super close and then we lost each other again. It was as if the fates were making it purposely difficult for us to come together as adults. Adults who might have some sort of attraction thing maybe? Or maybe not. It was such a—
“Mitch, are you done in here?”
I glanced up from the sweater in my hand to see Sander March, our first line center, standing in the doorway, shoulder on the jamb, eyebrows raised in expectation, clad only in his boxer briefs. The hotel bathroom was still steamy from my morning shower. I’d pulled on some underwear and my jeans and then had a long walk down memory lane. I’d been doing that a lot lately, mentally slipping back to that last time Shaun and I had been together. Maybe my meandering mind was due to the knowledge I’d be back in Liberty Springs soon. Walking down Main Street, stopping at the Liberty Springs Café for coffee, and then heading to Sashing and Scrim, the quilt shop that Shaun’s grandmother ran. We’d both worked there every summer as kids, helping with the heavy bolts of material, and being fed Grandma Sandbeck’s cinnamon butter cookies. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could smell cinnamon and vanilla and hear Shaun’s mischievous laughter. Shaun and I had our first and only kiss in that quilt shop basement…
Sander cleared his throat.
“Sorry, yeah.” I tugged the sweater over my head, rammed my fingers through my hair, and called it good. Shaving could be skipped. I was glad that I’d cut my hair short and stopped dying it. The bright yellow had been cool for several months, but the upkeep was time-consuming. Now all the dark brown was in and the touch-up days were history. I could push my fingers through it and that was that. “You in a hurry to get home to Mat and Noah?”
“Yeah, I am. You heading home for the holidays?” Sander asked and moved aside to let me through.
“Soon as we get back to Cayuga, I’m packing and flying home to Liberty Springs.” I turned to look at my roommate. “The whole family will be there. All my sisters and some old friends I was kind of hoping to see.”
He glanced over his shoulder as he tugged his briefs down over his ass. I only saw one taut cheek before I glanced away. Sander was spoken for. Twice over. He was in a solid poly relationship with two men that he adored. Our team was incredibly inclusive. We had a bi coach married to a gay player, another bi player living with a transgender woman, and our previous goalie was gay and in a monogamous relationship with a man who was HIV positive. People outside our city constantly asked if there was something in the Cayuga water.
And while I’d had a sort-of thing with Shaun—if a wet kiss was considered a thing—a couple of years ago, I’d been mostly dating women because it was easier, and no man that I’d ever met or seen could compare with Shaun Sandbeck.
“Yeah? Going to head home and kiss on Shaun the snowboarder again?”
Sander was the only guy on the team that knew I was bi or about my one-time smooch with Shaun. It had been him that had kind of led me to the knowledge. Guess I’d never thought of myself as bisexual since I had only ever wanted one guy.
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot. Just…I don’t know. Maybe. I just feel like… maybe I’m not sure.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say.” Sander gave me a wink, closed the door, and turned on the shower. The memory of that kiss with Shaun heating my thoughts, I padded over to the window of our hotel room, pulled the blind aside, and pressed my nose to the cold glass, smiling deep inside as I recalled how Shaun and I would do this very thing every morning as we waited in my mother’s van for the bus. Snow and Shaun. They went together like ice and Mitch.
Could we find each other again after all this time? Would the feelings be the same? Or was I just dreaming about something that was a youthful moment of shared passion?
* * *
Home. No matter what or how much time passed, Liberty Springs remained the same. Riding beside my father through the small town, I smiled at the tiny shops, their windows filled with blinking lights that threw rainbows of color on the new snow dusting the sidewalks.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” Dad said, pulling my attention from the darkened window of Sashing and Scrim, the quilt shop that held so many memories. Grandma Sandbeck had probably turned in early to rest up for the baking that she would do tomorrow on Christmas Eve Day. The theme to Top Cat played in my ear. I paused the old Hanna-Barbara cartoon and tugged my ear buds free.
“Yeah, I kind of love how this town never changes.” I gave Dad a smile. He was crawling along, letting the ride drag, and I knew why. My sisters had arrived last night. And with them their seven children. All girls. The husbands would arrive late tomorrow.
Now, don’t get me wrong; my father loves his daughters and his granddaughters. He’d worked hard to give us all college educations and heaps of love and support. It was just kind of overwhelming at times to be the only male among all that femininity. I studied his profile and wondered how he would handle me telling him that I was kind of crushing on Shaun, the man who had been like a second son to him. Would he support his only male child if that man was with another man?
“You seem kind of distracted, Mitch. Is there something wrong?”
We pulled up to the one traffic light at the end of Main Street, waiting for the red to turn green and waving at Bailey Harper who drove the township truck as he passed by spreading salt.
“No, nope. Just tired, I think. Season is long. It’s nice to get four whole days off.” I gave him a smile then eased into the question that had been nipping at me for weeks. “Any idea if Shaun is home?”
“Oh yeah, he’s been home for a couple weeks. I thought you and he were in constant contact like back in high school.”
Dad gave me a fast look then made the left leading out of town after the red turned to green.
“Not really. With both of us traveling…” I let that hang and added a shrug.
“Yeah, I can see that would make staying in contact tricky. I’m sure he knows you’re here. Mom and Patrice are still thick as thieves. You can probably catch up with him tomorrow at home or over at the park.”
“Yep, probably so.”
Dad then asked about the Cougars, our chances at the Calder Cup, and if I’d seen the new season of some western he assumed everyone in the world watched. The climb up the side of the mountain was gradual but still felt in your inner ear. The spattering of homes on this lonely stretch of road all sat on inclines, which was perfect for a kid with a snowboard and a dream. The Sandbeck ranch was higher than our place. Pulling into our driveway, I glanced up the road, saddened in a way that it was night and I’d not seen Shaun ripping down the road on that old four-wheeler of his.
Dad grabbed my bags from the back of the SUV. I tossed the duffel with all the presents over my shoulder, and we entered the sprawling ranch house. My mom was there at the door, pulling me in for a hug and kiss, followed by my sisters in order of age with Deanna, Tracie, and Rhonda. Deanna was forty and had twin girls, Trinidad and Tampico, who were thirteen. Tracie was thirty-eight and had three girls Ruby, twelve, Kayla, ten, and Anna who was eight. And rounding out the female Adams children was Rhonda who was thirty-five and had two girls, Allison who was seven and Robin who was five.
The only niece who was waiting at the door for me was Allison, Rhonda’s oldest. She and Uncle Mitch were athletes, the only ones, and so we had this crazy bond.
“Mom said you’d take me to the snow park tomorrow,” she whispered as she hung off my back like a skinny monkey. There was so much talking going on that I could barely hear myself speaking. Dad took my bags to the basement, which was his man cave but had been my room at one time. The women kind of carried me into the kitchen, all of them saying something about one thing or another. The room was packed with bodies and food. Girls ran in and out, most with earbuds in their ears, smiling up at their uncle then disappearing again.
“Uncle Mitch, you didn’t answer me,” Allison said when I backed up to a counter, and she slid off me to sit on it. I turned from the madness of four women in one kitchen and looked right into Allison’s blue eyes, eyes that were exactly like all the Adams clan, mine included.
“Sorry, I was overwhelmed with all the food.” I grabbed a couple warm cookies from a wire rack, handed her one, and shoved the whole sugar cookie into my mouth. Allison’s eyes widened and then she giggled. My mother patted me on the back, reminded me of my manners, handed me a glass of milk, and then fell back into a four-way conversation with my sisters.
“Want to go play a video game?” Allison asked after we’d washed down our cookies.
The console was in the basement where Dad was hiding.
“Yep.” I lifted her from the counter, and she scrabbled over my shoulder to resume her monkey position. We snuck away from the women and wine, slipping into the basement where it was warm and quiet. Dad was sitting on an old recliner reading a copy of the Liberty Lantern, our weekly newspaper. He peeked over his reading glasses at us, blue eyes sparkling.
“That didn’t take long,” Dad commented.
“They talk too much after the wine bottle is opened.” Allison sighed dramatically, releasing the small hands clasped around my shoulders and dropping to the floor. “And I wanted to kick Uncle Mitch’s ass in NHL ’17.”
Dad and I both chuckled at the bad word.
“Okay, little girl, this is so on.” I peeled off my coat and boots, flopped down on the sofa that used to be in the living room, and patted the cushion next to me. “Prepare to be annihilated.”
She beat me fifteen to four. At my own game. We won’t even get into how she wiped up the basement with me on a Wii snowboarding game.
I ended up following her upstairs while she sang some lame song about beating me so bad I stank like a rotten potato.
“Tomorrow we’ll go snowboarding?” she asked when we stopped outside the room all the girls were sleeping in. You could hear the whispers and giggles leaking around the door and into the hall. Just thinking of seeing Shaun made my skin feel hot.
“Tomorrow we snowboard.” I kissed her head and nudged her at the door with my hip. She pumped the air with a small fist and ran inside to tell her sisters and cousins that she was hanging out with Uncle Mitch all day tomorrow.
“So, who cares? He’s a weird goalie with dumb ears,” One of the twins replied as the door shut in my face.
Ouch. Man, teenage girls are brutal chirpers. My ears weren’t dumb. Were they?