June’s Story of the Week was called Shinny. Shinny is the name Canadians – and some eastern Washingtonians, I’ve since learned – give to pick-up hockey.
It was super cold that day, but Will decided to cut school to go play shinny on the skating pond anyway. The ice’d be good and hard and slick, and skating would warm him up fast enough. He ate breakfast as quick as he could, remembering what he’d been dreaming right before he woke up. It was the usual dream, sudden-death overtime in the gold medal game in the Olympics, a pass across the ice to him, and like his stick had eyes of its own, he flicked the puck into the net for the win. He’d been dreaming about it for as long as he could remember, which at age ten was not that long, but still.
The best thing about the dream wasn’t the sound of the puck sliding across the ice into the net or the roar of the crowd. It was the feeling of being so in control of his mind and body that he could make his hands and feet do just what he wanted them to do. Skate to the right place on the ice without tripping or falling down; move the stick at just the angle and speed he wanted, knowing exactly what he needed to get the puck by the goalie and into the net.
It was so different than real life, when his hands and feet, and his mind, for that matter, always seemed to be in the wrong place. At school everyone else seemed quicker than him, and his teacher saw it too; she tried to be kind, but in some ways that only made it worse. When she gave him extra time at the chalkboard to work a math problem, he would feel the eyes of the other kids staring at him, and his cheeks burned. He wished his teacher would just let him sit; a lot of the boys weren’t good in school, or at least pretended not to be, and that wasn’t so bad. Only she saw he had “potential,” and treated him that way, that’s what set him apart from the others.
When he got to the shinny pond no one else was around, and that was a relief. On weekends the older boys, teenagers who were driving and dating and seemed always on the verge of rage, would take over the pond and play rough until the smaller ones left. Will’s dad said he should stay in and fight, that’s how you grew up to be a man. Will didn’t understand why something as wonderful as hockey couldn’t grow you up to be a man all by itself. But then again he didn’t understand most of the things his dad told him.
He used a frozen cow pie as a puck, and skated around the ice, using his stick to keep it in front of him, dancing with it almost, trying a between-the-legs or behind-the-back pass now and then, not caring when it went wild into the tall grass at the edge of the pond, because no one could see and because he knew each mistake would make him better. He could feel his feet and hands responding each time, learning what they’d done wrong, and figuring out how to correct it.
He could see the steam his breath made, and as he watched it, he wondered if he would ever be this happy as a grown-up.
“Hey! Don’t flick that cow pie at me!” The voice startled him, and he felt a stab of anxiety, thinking the teenage boys were arriving after all.
“Sorry! I thought –“ Will looked around, and saw something he’d never seen on the shinny pond before. And when he did see it, it made him curious as to why he’d never seen it before, because it wasn’t anything so strange, it wasn’t like an alien had landed on the pond, all green skin and bulging eyes, or like a frog had just opened its mouth to speak to him.
It was just a girl.
A girl about his age, or his size anyway, sitting on a nearby log lacing up her skates. Not figure skates. Hockey skates.
“Who are you?” Will blurted.
“My name’s Holliday, with two l’s, like the jazz singer, but no one calls me that,” the girl said.
“Do they call you Holly?” Will asked.
“Not a second time,” she replied. “You want to play?”
Will knew his dad wouldn’t approve. His dad was forever reminding his mom that girls were generally useless outside the house. But he was eager for any kind of opponent. “Sure,” he said.
“Then you can call me Hal,” she said, and took the ice.
Later on, much later, when Will was a grown-up, working in an office in Toronto and trying to find time to write on evenings and weekends, he’d remember that day. He’d think about what a great story it would make if he and Hal skated their hearts out, evenly matched, trying new things, new ways to move the puck where they wanted it to go, new ways to prevent the other from doing so, exhausting themselves in the process, until one finally bested the other.
But also later on, much later, when Will was a grown-up, he knew very well that real life didn’t always make the best stories.
Hal was terrible. She could barely stay on her skates, and her stick was always between someone’s legs, her own or his. Sometimes he’d have to stand there for what seemed like hours waiting for her to untangle herself, get up, and get going again. She always did come back for more, he had to give her that.
But worst of all, she talked.
She talked constantly. Asking him questions. At first they were about hockey, at least. Then they were about him.
The next day, when his father read out an item in the paper that described how a young girl visiting family in the area had been struck and killed by a car as she walked home from the skating pond, and when his father said while he felt for her parents, it was another good example of how girls shouldn’t be allowed out by themselves, they always cause trouble one way or another, and, what was that, Will? Her name? Let me look…now that’s a funny name. Holliday, with two l’s, like the jazz singer, why do you ask, and when Will walked to his room without seeing anything along the way, not sure how he even got there, when he found himself lying on his back on his bed, he could only think of the last question she’d asked him.
What do you want most in this world, Will?
To score the winning goal in the Olympics in overtime, he said immediately.
Now that brought Will up short. Winning the Olympic gold medal in overtime seemed entirely self-sufficient as a desire. It didn’t seem to need another, more hidden desire deep down beneath it.
But to his surprise, there was one.
Hal watched him through a squint. I think I know, she said.
Even at ten, Will knew enough to be surprised by the image that flashed in his mind. He knew he should see the faces of his parents, finally beaming with pride. That’s not what Will saw.
Will saw himself in the middle of his teammates, a mass of joyous shouting and hugging and slapping. He saw himself, finally, not alone.
That’s what I thought, Hal said, although Will did not remember saying anything out loud.