My effort to fix everything was unavailing, and every day felt futile in the sense that not much mattered when you couldn’t adapt to the bitter void in your life. The feeling felt familiar but not in the way that a hug from your elderly grandmother felt after not seeing her for several years. It felt familiar like a bad dream that you’ve been in before, waking with the same paralyzing feeling of fear.
Claire hadn’t answered any of my texts or calls, and although I was trying not to seem obsessive and compulsive when it came to seeing her, I looked for her each time I crossed the campus with my backpack draped over my shoulder. I scanned the auditorium parking lot during my morning run, and every time I opened my dorm door, my stomach would fill with uneasy nerves, wondering if she was inside, ready to spar with me over everything that had happened.
Her last words to me felt as jarring to me as my helmet did slamming against the ice during practice. “Ah, fuck.” I winced, rolling onto my back. I stared at the bright lights above and cursed under my breath as Coach threw a hissy fit from across the rink.
“Wolf! What the fuck are you doing?” Then he mumbled something as I pulled myself to a sitting position and tore my gloves off, wincing at my sore muscles. “Practice is over!”
Most of the team skated off and disappeared, but ice flung up as Aasher skated over to me quickly. “Nice fall.”
I didn’t have the energy to lash out a response.
“You better not play like this at the game tomorrow night, or you can toss that try-out spot out the window, bro. No blue jersey for you.”
Aasher had no idea what had really gone down between Claire and me, and Coach had no idea that I’d all but told Tom Gardini to suck my dick if he thought I would play on his team after he came into my life and took away the one thing that made me do a double-take.
Was it all Tom’s fault that the trust between Claire and me had been ruined? Not necessarily, but he had put me in a shitty position—something he admitted himself. I’d give him props. He was a decent man with seemingly sensible morals, but how could I play for a man who was at the core of Claire’s suffering? The look of shock on her face after the party was something I felt down to my bones. It cut me like a knife against my throat when her face paled at the thought that I’d bargained her for a spot on Tom’s team.
She didn’t know me well enough if she thought I’d do something like that to her.
Ignoring Aasher’s reminder of playing like shit, I got up and snatched up my gloves and hockey stick and skated away before saying, “I’ll play fine tomorrow.”
“Even without Claire in the stands?”
I snapped a lethal glare in his direction, and he rolled his eyes. “So, it is about her. I don’t want to say I told you so, but…”
“Aasher,” I warned.
“Come on. What did you expect?” Aasher pulled me back by my jersey, and I had no fight left in me to rear back my elbow and clock him, although the thought did cross my mind. “You two were fake dating to begin with. It was never real.”
Aasher sounded a lot like Claire when she turned to me at the end of the hall while her smug ex was standing there looking as triumphant as I did after winning a hockey game. “We were never supposed to last anyway, right?”
I pushed Aasher away and mentally prepared for a lashing from Coach followed by suspicious looks from the team over my performance. I needed to get my shit together for tomorrow’s game. After all, I was going to have to start playing to impress the other scouts because I refused to be on Tom Gardini’s team.
“Thank fuck you got your shit together.” Ford threw his fist up, and I bumped my knuckles against his, forcing out a smile. “I was afraid you’d go out on the ice still mending that broken heart you’re pretending you don’t have.”
“Ford,” Emory warned. “Don’t poke fun. One day you’ll get your heart broken by a girl, and knowing you, you’ll cry.”
Ford shrugged. “Your sister is the only one who can break my heart.”
The locker room broke out in laughter as Emory stood up with anger. Ford laughed loudly as he dodged out of the way at the last minute, pissing Emory off even more.
Ford wasn’t wrong in his assumption. I was mending some fucked-up shit inside my chest, but if there was one constant about me, it was that I was able to throw my emotions onto the ice instead of allowing them to pull me under. I’d been like that since I was a young child with memories that feasted on my sleep, causing wicked nightmares.
I’d admit, though, it felt a lot better to win, knowing that Claire was in the stands, rooting for me.
“Have you seen Claire at all? She still hasn’t been back to the room?” Aasher had bent down low, trying to shield the conversation from everyone who wasn’t paying attention to Ford running around the locker room from Emory. I shook my head, avoiding eye contact.
“And she hasn’t answered your calls?”
“Nope.” My answer was backed with anger, so I brushed past everyone with my shit still half out of my hockey bag, pulled my hood up high as I slipped out Coach’s back door that he refused to let anyone use, and headed straight for my car.
The night was cold, and a fog of breath left my mouth as I sighed with frustration. I opened my car door, hopped inside, and opted to go straight to my room instead of to a party. But instead of taking a right at the stop sign to head to Dorothy Hall, I found myself turning left and driving past the auditorium first and The Bex next.
My foot slammed on the brake when I saw her old Toyota parked in the parking lot for the first time all week. Someone honked at me from behind, seeming to restart my heart, and I jumped into action and pulled into the spot beside hers. Fuck, now what?
Did I go inside and make a grand gesture? Did I get on one knee and spill my heart to her? Or did I play it cool and have her come to me? Would she even come to me? Her parting the other night definitely sounded as final as a goodbye, but surely she had more to say after she’d cooled down and figured some things out, right?
I shook my head and shoved my hoodie back, running my hands through my hair. I climbed out of my car and began walking to the door to The Bex, still having no idea what I was going to do when I saw her. My pulse rammed behind my skin as I watched the few waitresses that often worked alongside Claire hustle back and forth from the counter to the seating area, and the smell of fried food and beer filled my senses as I walked through the door. There was clapping and hollering over our win when everyone saw it was me, but I ignored them all as I searched for her.
Where are you, Bryant?
I caught a quick glimpse of Angie’s face when she saw me, and in that quick moment, I watched the sharp switch of emotions move from relief to panic. When I landed on the booth in the back corner, I stumbled backward, seeming to lose my footing.
My face stayed steady, but every one of my sore muscles screamed in agony as my body stiffened. Claire’s pretty pink lips were parted as she placed her hands on top of the table, and when I saw Chad look over his shoulder at me, I wanted to burn The Bex to ashes.
There was chaos around me. Fans came up and patted me on the shoulder, telling me, “Good game,” and asking me about the next one, but not a single word left me. I stood in the same spot and stared at Claire as she snapped my heart in two. I didn’t think it was possible to feel your heart breaking, but it was. I felt every last snap with every blink of her eye, but instead of going over and ripping her worthless ex out of the booth, I knew I was a better man than that. So, I turned around, got in my car, and went back to our dorm room, hoping she didn’t come home.
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