On the Fly

By: Catherine Gayle

For Sarah.

A huge thank you to my editor, Danielle Poiesz, for all your help and insight.

An even bigger thank you to all my readers—you make all the blood, sweat, and tears worth it.

My thighs had a good burn going, matched only by the burn in my lungs. I fought to take in enough oxygen to get through the laps Hammer and I were skating, trying to ignore the slight twinge in my left foot from my latest broken bone.

That hairline fracture was only one of countless injuries to keep me off the ice and out of hockey games in recent years. Ever since I’d turned pro, it seemed like injuries stalked me like a cat, waiting for another opportunity to pounce and take me out. The bone had healed now, but this was the first time I’d used my foot for anything physical, the first time I’d been able to push myself. That was the only reason it still felt a little sore, or at least that was what I told myself.

Everything on my body felt a little sore, though, and had for years.

“Two more laps around the ice, Soupy—as fast as you can go,” Hammer said. Daniel “Hammer” Hamm was one of the assistant coaches of the Portland Storm, the team I played for in the National Hockey League. Today, he’d been tasked with putting me through my paces, helping to test me to see if I was ready to return to game action. “Come on. Faster.”

Fuck. He didn’t even sound winded, and I could barely breathe.

I’d been out of commission for over five weeks. I’d gotten hurt about a month into the season on a night when we had been playing the Bruins in Boston. For some crazy reason, I’d thought it would be a good idea to block a Zdeno Chara slap shot with my foot. Admittedly, I’d never faced one of his shots before, so I didn’t know just how hard they really were. I might have been putting too much effort into proving I could hack it in the NHL, that I belonged with the big club and not in the minors. Whatever the reason behind it, blocking that shot had blown up in my face.

I probably should’ve been wearing one of those foot guards designed to give extra protection, but I hadn’t been. I’d never liked the feel of them over my skates. It was like they restricted my movement, like they slowed my skating.

Smooth skating and speed had never been areas of strength for me, a point which my dad, himself a former NHL player, was always ready to remind me of. But I couldn’t afford to lose any more speed, so I’d rebelled against the thought of wearing the guards—much like I’d rebelled against wearing a shield on my helmet because it limited my vision. I didn’t need anything else hampering my ability to succeed in this league, even if it meant maybe getting a few more stitches on my face.

Good thing I’d never been vain about my appearance.

My wrist shot and my readiness to go into the dirty areas of the ice were just about the only two things I had going for me to keep me in the NHL. Well, both of those things and a willingness to give up my body for my team. Those skills got me here, and they were what might keep me here—at least once the team’s head doctor cleared me first for contact and then to play.

I sucked in as much air as I could, churning my legs to keep up with Hammer. He had been one fast son of a bitch back in his playing days, before he started coaching. He had always skated with an effortlessness that made no sense at all given his size. Even though he’d retired as a player over a decade ago, he hadn’t lost a step in the speed department.

It was taking everything I had not to get left in his dust.

We turned around the goal and made a final push for center ice. Once I passed it and stopped, I bent over and rested my hands on my knees, heaving as much air in and out of my lungs as I could. I nearly puked, but I forced the bile down.

The rest of the team was just starting to trickle out to the ice for today’s practice. I looked up and saw Eric Zellinger, my best friend and the team captain, watching me from near the bench.

Zee wasn’t just my best friend. Not anymore. He’d started dating my sister, Dana, last season. That had created a gigantic clusterfuck in our relationship, mine and Zee’s, and things still weren’t great between us. Better, definitely, but not like before. It was mainly my fault, and I knew it. It was hard, though, thinking about anyone touching my sister after all she’d been through, knowing how for years after she’d been raped, she’d experienced massive panic attacks when any man touched her—even Dad and me.

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