The Blackhawks lost two games, then three. Viktor idly tossed his phone in one hand, sitting on his bed wondering if it was too soon to call her again. He’d called every other night, but only once right after a game. It had been the first loss and didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. Now....
“Hey,” her tone said she’d been watching.
There were hard losses in tight games where you played well and didn’t get lucky. There were bad losses where nothing went right. Tonight had been one of those.
“Sorry you had to watch that,” Viktor said.
“I’ve been watching this team lose since long before you.” The smile in Nicole’s voice was audible.
She changed the subject and talked about work, a movie she’d been to with Miranda, a fender bender that happened right in front of the store. Viktor was grateful to ignore the Hawks bad performance for a little while and discuss what shows the guys were working through on Netflix and how hard it was to eat healthy when every meal is in a restaurant. Talking to Nicole relaxed him, and somewhere around debating the merits of the last episode of Lost, the fatigue set in. Every muscle in his body ached with exhaustion and defeat.
“You sound sleepy,” she laughed. “I’ll let you go.”
“I miss you,” he said without really thinking. But he did miss her, and it was becoming more obvious in the way she helped him feel better after a night like every night seemed to be on this trip.
“I miss you too.”
In her room across the country, Nicole ended the call and lay back. It had been tough to watch the Hawks lose two games, but tonight had been worse - nothing clicked. Everyone worked hard in a purely solo effort and accomplished nothing as a unit. Nicole felt plenty drained and she’d never left the couch.
In the morning, she got the store open and set to work on her project of the moment. Unrolling a large printout on the craft table, she picked a section of the design and continued cutting pieces of colored paper into shapes she’d designated. Each piece would affix to the window in order, making a mosaic version of the printed image ten times the size. With a few additions, of course.
“Fucking fuck this shit!” Jonathan Toews, out of media ear-shot, threw his glove across the locker room. None of his teammates even lifted their heads. They’d just lost their fourth straight road game.
Better than bad, but still not good. If Viktor had to describe it.
They weren’t scoring. After a hot-ish streak that lasted nearly twenty games, Viktor was feeling the pressure to deliver. But nothing would drop. He certainly wasn’t alone - guys like Toews and Kane and Sharp made five or six times his salary and they weren’t putting up any points either.
The silence in the room was the worst. Every pep talk had long since been given.
In Chicago, Nicole put her head down on the bar next to Miranda’s empty beer. She’d hoped to shake things up and give the boys some luck by changing her routine.
“Getting superstitious, you’re turning into us,” Viktor said.
“If it works, you’ll be thanking me!”
But it didn’t work. Miranda scrolled through Facebook with a bored look on her face, the way she’d been since the second intermission. it wasn’t an insult to the company, rather to the way the Blackhawks had played.
“Well that was bullshit,” she dropped the phone into her purse. “Let’s either get out of here, or get some real drinks.”
The whole bar was deflated. Usually rowdy and boisterous during games, it now resembled the after-party for a funeral. Nicole imagined Viktor felt a hundred times worse. She paid their tab as if the losing were her fault and the girls dragged themselves home.
“Please say you didn’t watch,” Viktor said by way of a greeting.
“I watched an episode of True Blood instead. There’s a really hot Swedish guy on that show too.”
Viktor was sitting on a step in the hotel stairwell. He was sick of hearing everyone else’s voice and thought Hammer must be tired of listening to him and Nicole goof off. He’d been calling every night since the third loss and she always picked up.
Without noticing she was doing it, Nicole started collecting stories to tell Viktor when he called. If the Blackhawks won, maybe she wouldn’t need them. But they had become the backup plan, like a little escape she thought Viktor could use. There must be enough anger and frustration in the team hotel to scare all the other guests away.
“I saw a guy walking two little weiner dogs today, and they were leashed together. But he wasn’t holding the leash. They were walking each other, really. Do you think that counts for the leash law?”
Viktor laughed for the first time all day. Her next story was something from a radio morning show, about a girl who forgot her boyfriend was going to Europe for three weeks and went crazy when he disappeared. Sometime around the part where the girl was throwing his clothes onto his mom’s lawn, Viktor decided he was probably completely in love with Nicole.
“So his mom tells her the guy is in Europe - and this girl has no idea! But she wants to DIE! So she sends another email, like her fiftieth, with the subject in all caps: OPEN THIS FIRST IF YOU LOVE ME! and begs him to delete all the other emails and forgive her for being insane. So what does he do? Puts all the emails together with photos of himself in Europe and posts it on Facebook. Of course!”
Viktor didn’t quite hear the end. “When I get back, and get a day, can I take you somewhere? Away from the city?”
“Uh, sure,” Nicole said with a little surprise. She was still laughing about the Europe guy.
“I just need a little break... from all this.”
She pinched her lips together and knew she was blushing. All this trying to distract him and what Viktor probably needed most was a hug.
“I wish you were here,” she told him honestly.
“God, me too.”
Game five of the six-game road trip and Nicole was home, alone. Miranda had picked up an extra shift at work, but Nicole figured she just didn’t want to be around for anymore carnage. So pizza for two because pizza for one.
If they win, I’ll save half, Nicole promised herself.
They didn’t win.
Across the country, the Blackhawks had some life. A little pep in their steps that had not been present for the four previous loses. Fat lot of good it did them, in the end. Viktor hung his head. He really wanted to put his head through the boards, but there was no way to get enough momentum from his seat on the bench. Dave Bolland bumped him over, sliding down, as if making room for a line change could do anything about this game. Two minutes later the final horn sounded on the Blackhawks fifth consecutive loss.
Nicole felt like she was standing in a hurricane holding an umbrella. Except it was really the second half of her pizza, and it didn’t last long.
“I don’t want to talk,” Viktor said as soon as she answered the phone.
“Then I’m glad you called, because I have another idea.”
Five minutes later, both laying in front of their respective laptops, they were watching Modern Family on Hulu together. The episode was hilarious, twenty-two minutes long and just enough to get Viktor over the worst of his post-loss funk. When it was done, Nicole closed the computer.
“Are you in bed?” she asked.
“Yes.” Pause. “Are you?”
“What are you wearing?” Viktor laughed even as he said it.
“Hmmm.” Nicole peeked under the covers though she knew full well she had on pants and a t-shirt. “Something to would make you very sad we stopped that night before you left.”
Viktor closed his eyes. He didn’t have the strength for this, nor what there a chance in hell he’d tell her to stop if she wanted to go on. More likely he’d hop a plane back to Chicago in the morning - wasn’t like he was contributing to the team anyway. “I’ve been sad about that since the moment I left.”
“You’re coming home soon.”
Not soon enough, he thought. “Three days.”
“One more game.”
“Ugh,” they both said at the same time. That killed the mood.
Abby Sharp plopped into a chair at the coffee shop, still amazed to be free of her baby weight. She was back into most of her pre-maternity clothes and feeling like a million dollars. Little Maddy, almost two months old, gurgled happily at the warm and cozy environment.
Lucky kid, the new mom thought. She had no idea her dad and the Blackhawks were like a car speeding off a cliff. The mood of the city had changed in the last few days. People were starting to dismiss the Blackhawks as a lost cause, giving them up for the season.
“Here you go,” Fiona handed Abby a tall latte and claimed the seat across the table.
Fiona pushed her dark hair back from her shoulders and sipped her steaming coffee. “Grumpy. Not that we’re talking - he calls and sits in silence, so I just let him. Haven’t talked in a few days, and I don’t expect to until they come home. Or win.”
“Last night was better. I think they’re going to win the last one. Patrick sounds more hopeful, at least. It was really bad there for a while.”
Fiona just shrugged. She cared about the guys, and about the game by extension. But she didn’t pretend to have the years of experience with ups and downs that other WAGs had. She’d been around for this season, the year after the year after they won the Cup. It wouldn’t be the same for her. Until she saw them win and saw how high they could be, she wouldn’t fully grasp how low they could go.
“We should watch it together,” Abby suggested. “Let the guys know we’re not giving up on them. I feel like some of the other girls could use it. It’s Valentine’s Day, they’re probably moping because the guys are away.”
“Want to do it at the bar?”
Fiona’s uncle owned a downtown bar, and Fiona ran it for him. The Blackhawks had liked the bar before Fiona, and loved it since she started working there. It was how she’d met Jon and in the two months they’d been together he was a much more regular fixture.
“It could help,” Fiona continued. “People have been pretty depressed in there lately, and business for the games is definitely down. But some of the regulars have stuck around.”
“Let’s do it. Reward them for sticking with it. Jesus people, it’s only five games! We’ve got a long way to go!”
Maddy squealed at her mom’s excitement, and Fiona raised her coffee cup like a pint glass. They discussed who to invite and how to reach them, plus bringing in some extras like Valentine’s cupcakes for dessert. Fiona ran through a list of her regular customers that would be thrilled to be invited, even though they’d probably be at the bar for the game anyway.
“Home team,” Abby said, squeezing Maddy’s cheek.
They left the coffee shop with time to kill, going left instead of right to make their walk longer. It didn’t take much to put the party together so they discussed which wives and girlfriends were likely to come and which would beg off, either for good reasons like kids at home or other reasons like they were bitches that didn’t care a whit about hockey.
“Hey, look at that!”
In the window of a stationary store, a Valentine’s display had been transformed. Taking up most of the ground-to-ceiling plate glass window was a huge Blackhawks logo comprised entirely of paper hearts. They were cut in different sizes and layered, with edges overlapping to create a solid picture from the shaped papers. It was unusual and creative and really, really cool.
“Cor, that took forever,” Fiona guessed.
Abby nodded. “Someone wants to come to our party.”
I know, I'm taking forever. But more is coming shortly and I've finally got more time for writing! *Juliet