A/N: I'm alive and updating, in case anybody was worried. :) Thanks to meadow567 and Emador for their reviews.
Herb was working us like slaves, on and off the ice, five days a week. (Johnson joked that all Herb needed was a whip to be a real slave driver. At least, I think he was joking. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Johnson.) Life became a blur of drills, film, weights, showers taken half-conscious, and Herb's voice giving orders through it all. Unless something remarkable happened, all the days seems the same in memory. It was the hardest I'd ever worked. At least we were all in it together, though. Not to say that sometimes I didn't want to smack any of the other guys; Rizzo could be encouraging to the point where almost it made you sick, and Rammer liked to hum while we were doing wall sits. I guess there are always going to be little things that drive you crazy when you spend all your time with the same group of guys—I tried thinking about what habits I had that might get on somebody's nerves and stopped when I realized that if I had to be on a team with me, I probably would hate myself before too long—but for the most part, everyone got along pretty well. The feud between Minnesota and Boston even slowly fizzled out, although Mac and OC weren't quite ready to join hands and sing "Kumbaya" together yet.
I rode home with Bah one weekend to get a break from things. It hadn't been that long, only a month or two, but as we rolled down the street toward my parents' house, it seemed like years since I'd last been there. I felt a sudden lightness, and told Bah to have a good weekend with a happy smile. Until he came to pick me up on Sunday afternoon, I was free from hockey, the team, and Herb.
The house still smelled like dinner, and I could hear my mom singing in the kitchen. Dad's recliner was empty, so I guessed he was doing some chores, or maybe at the bowling alley, though I couldn't remember when league night was. I dropped my bag by the front door and snuck toward the kitchen, doing my best to be quiet; the years of practice and my natural lack of grace canceled each other out in that respect. In the kitchen doorway I stood and watched my mother wash dishes for a moment. She was singing "Don't Fence Me In" in the slightly off-key voice that I'd inherited, and her hair looked shorter than I remembered. When she finished singing, I stepped in and said, "I hope there's leftovers."
She jumped, startled, and turned. "Phil! What are you doing here? Oh my goodness, you weren't cut, were you?" She wiped her soapy hands on a towel and came toward me with arms outstretched.
"I'm fine, Ma, I haven't been cut," I said as she reached up to hug me. "I just… wanted to see you and Dad. Where is he?"
"Oh, who knows. Probably out with the dogs." She must've read my mind, because Mom added, "And don't you even think about going out there until you've had something to eat." She pointed sternly at the table and started pulling things from the refrigerator. While she fixed my plate, she asked more questions than I could possibly answer, just as she had in college and even high school when I'd come in late from practice or a game.
"How are the boys doing? And Mark? You tell him he should come up and visit next time you come home." That's Pav for you, the kind of guy mothers everywhere want their kids to be friends with.
"Pav's doing good, Mom. He wanted to make sure I told you he said hi." She beamed. "You should see it. Herb's got him on a line with two other guys, Bah Harrington and Buzz Schneider, you remember him? We call them the Coneheads."
"That hardly seems nice, Phillip." She set a full plate and a fork in front of me, then sat scross the table and gave me a disapproving shake of her head.
"They don't care. We're not saying it to be mean. It's not like we don't like them or anything." I shoved a forkful of pot roast into my mouth. "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to like these guys."
"Speaking of hearts of stone, how is Coach Brooks?" At that I laughed so hard that I nearly choked.
"Are you trying to kill my boy, woman?" I heard my dad ask as he thumped me on the back. I coughed and took a sip of water before standing up to hug my dad briefly. Dad and I had been about the same height since I was a senior in high school, but I'd only once made the mistake of thinking that our equal height made us equal in other ways. My dad was usually calm, but if he got riled up, he could make your life miserable. Luckily, his anger was almost always short-lived, unlike mine. "Hi, Philly."
"Been here long?"
"Not too long."
"Here all weekend?"
He nodded. "Y'ought to go out and see the dogs once you're done. They'll be happy to see you." It was his way of saying that he was happy to see me, too.
I finished eating as quickly as I could, except for two little pieces of meat that I slipped into my hand. I put the plate and fork in the dishwater, not meaning for my mom to have to do it, but knowing that she would anyway. I felt a little guilty about it, but the guilt was quickly replaced by excitement as I headed into the backyard.
The sky was dark gray, and stars were beginning to blink into view. I jumped down the three steps from the back door to the yard, something I'd done ever since I was little, and sat on the bottom step, watching the stars come out. We were still far enough away from the city lights to see most of the stars on clear nights, and I tried to pick out the few constellations I knew. It was quiet, and I could hear some of the neighbor kids playing down the street. It made me smile, remembering how Mom always reminded me to be in before the street lights came on. Even now she nagged me to get enough sleep and not stay up until all hours of the night.
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees, my hands stretched out in front of me with a bit of meat in each palm. Although I couldn't actually see the dogs, I heard them rustling around the trees, and whistled quietly. They're hunting dogs, Labrador retrievers to be exact, even if they don't actually get to go hunting as much as they'd like. I wasn't really supposed to be feeding them scraps, but I couldn't help it. I always missed them when I went away. Suddenly two shapes bounded out of the darkness, and there was a single happy bark from Skippy.
"Hey, dogs," I said as they licked the leftovers out of my hands. Duke finished his treat and sat obediently at my left hand, which I wiped on my jeans and then scratched his head. Skippy, her coat shining nearly white, was still busy licking all traces of pot roast from my hand, wagging her tail the whole time. When she was finally done I sat still for a moment, and then launched off the step and tackled her. She barked again, and Duke jumped on my back and joined us in our wrestling.
Dad had decided when I was in junior high that he needed a good hunting dog, one that he'd trained himself, so he got a little brown puppy he named Duke. Duke was quiet and patient and smart, and he learned really quickly how to fetch and heel and stay. In high school Dad thought that I needed my own dog, so he came home one day with a wiggly yellow puppy that liked to bark, pee, and chew. If Duke was like my dad, Skippy was like me, loud and not too smart. I managed to teach her not to eat people's shoes and not to bark, although sometimes she just couldn't help herself. It was funny to see Duke sitting calmly in the yard while Skippy raced around chasing squirrels. There was nothing I liked better than to come home and roll around with Skippy and Duke. I loved them, and they loved me, and no matter how crazy anything else got, it would always be that simple.
I woke up on Saturday morning with the sun shining on my face and the sound of lawnmowers running. It was only just past nine, but I'd already slept in over two hours. When I glanced at the clock, a brief feeling of frozen panic washed over me. I was late for practice and Herb was going to kill me, slowly and very, very painfully. Then I heard Mom's voice in the hall and I remembered that I was at home, that it was Saturday, that I didn't have practice, and that hell, I could go back to sleep if I wanted to. Or at least I could have if I hadn't just felt pure adrenaline pumping through my veins and seen my entire life flash before my eyes. I got up and wandered into the kitchen.
Dad was there, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He nodded at me as I opened the refrigerator and stared in. If I were with the team, there would be some leftover pizza somewhere, or maybe even some meatballs—Rizzo always made a ridiculous amount of meatballs. I settled for some orange juice and a bowl of cereal.
I heard Dad finish his coffee and rinse out his mug behind me. "Your mother's out at a garage sale, but I'll be mowing the lawn if you need anything," he said.
"I can do it," I offered. He looked at me a little funny, so I said, "Really, I'd like to, if you don't mind."
Dad smiled a little and shrugged. "If you really want to. Finish your breakfast first."
After I mowed the lawn, front and back, I washed the car, and then washed the dogs, since I was washing stuff. Duke was never too fond of being washed, so I had to chase him around the yard for a while before I could catch him and chain him up. Skippy seemed to think that if Duke ran away from me, she should too, and once I had her chained up she snapped at the water coming out of the hose. "Herb would find a way to make a drill out of you two," I muttered as they shook their wet coats off.
When Mom got back I was hanging a load of clean laundry on the clothesline out back. "Phillip, have you done something wrong?" she asked.
I looked at the laundry with a frown. "I don't think so. I washed them in cold water, and I checked all the pockets before I put the pants in..."
"I meant the fact that you've cut the grass, washed the car--" Skippy ran up to her and she added "--and the dogs, and you've done laundry. You usually don't do chores like this unless you feel guilty about something."
"Well, if you don't want me to help, I could stop. I could let the dogs get all dirty and then let them roll around on my clothes and drive the car down a dirt road." I hung up some socks and then grinned. "But I can't undo cutting the grass."
Mom rolled her eyes. "Okay, smart guy. You certainly have a lot of energy, don't you? I thought you'd like to spend your weekend off relaxing, not doing chores. You don't have to do any of this, you know."
I did have a lot of energy, and I don't think I could have sat still even if I tried. I went with Mom when she ran errands that afternoon, happily pushing the cart at the grocery store and carrying bags of fertilizer at the nursery. After dinner I felt some of my restlessness fade away as we sat on the front porch until the sun went down.
On Sunday I was a little less frenetic. Dad and I cleaned some of his guns and then took them and the dogs out to the range and checked the sights. Except for the crack as we fired, it was a quiet time, neither one of us saying much. Back at home, Mom was in the kitchen again, doing who knows what. She'd also done the rest of my laundry, so I watched football with Dad.
Just after dinner the doorbell rang and Mom let Bah in while I was getting my bag. He grinned when I walked in, looking strangely relieved, and I felt the same. I ran out back and hugged the dogs quickly, then my parents. Dad talked with Bah a little about the game on TV while Mom clutched at me. "Hold on one minute," she ordered, hurrying into the kitchen and coming back with a large cardboard box which she pushed into my arms.
"What is this?" I asked, trying to look inside.
She smiled. "Just a little something to share with your teammates, especially the ones who can't just drive home for the weekend, those poor boys." I rolled my eyes. "I hope you all like oatmeal raisin," she told Bah.
"You made cookies for the whole team?"
"Mrs. Verchota, we will eat anything, but especially cookies," Bah assured her. "Thanks. I know the rest of the team will appreciate it."
I hugged Mom and Dad again and then finally got out the door. I threw my bag in the back of Bah's car and then set the box down more carefully. My parents stood at the front door and waved as we drove away, and I waved back until we turned the corner. I turned to Bah.
"Did you have a good weekend, Bah?"
A complicated look crossed Bah's face, and he didn't answer for a minute. Finally he said, "Yeah. It was good to see my parents, and sleep in my own bed--"
"And eat something other than pizza and meatballs?"
He laughed, then paused before saying somewhat hesitantly, "But, you know, call me crazy... but I missed the team."
I shook my head. "You're not crazy."
It probably was crazy, really, but if it was, we would at least be crazy together. In a few days I'd forget about how quiet and empty the house seemed, and those little habits would start getting on my nerves again. But as we walked up the stairs and I heard the guys' voices, I felt that sudden lightness again.
"Hey, what's in the box, Verchota?" Rizzo asked.
Bah smirked. "Phil's mommy made us all cookies."
Heads started popping out of doorways. "Did somebody say cookies?" Cox asked, mustache bristling as he sniffed the air. The boys started coming toward me, so I set the box down in the middle of the hall and backed away.
Pav smiled. "Welcome back, Phil."
"Aw, did you miss me?"
He rolled his eyes. "We missed you ever so much," he deadpanned. "It just wasn't the same without you."
I looked around at the guys. "I know exactly what you mean."