Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Breakaway - Unedited Chapter 3

This is the third chapter of my upcoming hockey romance, Breakaway--still unedited, but a little something to whet your appetite. It's releasing later this month. If you missed the first two chapters, here are Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

“Drink your wine.” Eric had gone back to the kitchen, taking the half-full bottle with him. “Not enough to get drunk. Just enough to take the edge off. It’ll help.”
As soon as he said that, he downed the last of his glass.
He was right. I needed to calm down some after all of this. I was exhausted from all of my travel, from the emotional drain of talking to him about this—but I was also wired. It was a strange and decidedly uncomfortable combination.
I sipped on my wine, let it flow through my body until I was a little warm and tingly, but in a good way.
“What…uh? Damn.” He dragged his hand through his hair, mussing it up until it looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. “What do you want to do tonight?”
That question was way too open-ended. This couldn’t be all about me. He had his own life to live, too. I licked my lips, savoring the sweet taste of wine there. “What would you and Kim do when you had a night off like this?”
As soon as I said her name, I regretted it. Kim had been his girlfriend for years, so long I was sure they were going to get married any time. They looked great together, just the sort of girl a professional athlete should be with. He’d even talked to me about rings one summer. But that was before he’d come home from a road trip and found her in bed with a then-current teammate who’d been left behind to rehab a broken foot.
It’d been two years since their breakup, but still. I doubted he wanted to think about her right now. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been anyone since. He might still be hurting from it. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“We’d probably sit and watch TV together for a while.” Eric didn’t look upset to me. He should have. It would have been easier for some reason if he was upset. “She’d lean against me and I’d wrap my arms around her, hold her close. Then we’d go to bed, and either make love or just go to sleep. That’s what most of our nights in were like. Easy. Relaxed.”
That sounded exactly like the Eric I knew. He was never a flashy type, never wanted to go out and party or anything. He typically got more than enough excitement from his job; he needed comfort at home.
I swallowed hard, trying not to let my panic set in about the implications of all he’d said. “We could maybe watch TV together.”
I didn’t say anything about having his arms around me or going to bed… I couldn’t think about things like that. Not now.
“Okay.” Just like that, he went into the living room and turned on the TV.
When I joined him, he’d left me plenty of space to sit beside him on the white leather couch or, if I wanted, I could sit in one of the two recliners. But that wasn’t what I was here for—separating myself. I needed to push myself, to push my boundaries so I could break through them and come out on the other side, hopefully still in one piece.
I sat on the couch—not quite pushing myself up against the far arm of it, but close. Eric was well on the other end. Not close enough to touch me. Safe.
I didn’t know what show he turned on. I wasn’t able to focus on that just now. Just trying to remember to breathe, to keep my pulse down at a normal level—those kinds of things took up all of my focus and there was nothing left to worry about a silly TV show.
After a while, I started watching Eric instead of what was on the screen. It was easier to focus on him, anyway.
He had his right leg tucked up underneath his left, the white athletic sock sticking out beside his left knee, just like he’d always done when we were kids. I guess he’d taken his shoes off while I was upstairs. I hadn’t noticed until now.
Every time my mom would catch him sitting like that, she’d admonish him. Not about damaging the furniture or anything like that. She didn’t really care about that, or at least she knew she was fighting a losing battle with growing kids in the house. It was more about the strain he was putting on his knees and hips. “They aren’t designed to turn like that,” she’d say. “You could hurt your chances of playing professionally.”
She was right. He knew she was right. Every time he’d straighten his legs out after sitting that way, he’d wince at the pain in his knee, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from doing it. Especially when he and Brenden would play video games. He told me once that if he sat any other way, he always lost. Eric didn’t like to lose at anything. Ever.
And he still sat like that.
After a minute, he turned to me and cocked a grin. “You’re making me nervous, staring at me like that.”
I looked down at my lap almost immediately, watching my hands twist together. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to make him nervous. I never wanted to make anyone nervous. Not when I knew how it felt.
“Do you not watch this show? The Vampire Diaries? The married guys all say their wives are addicted. I just…I assumed. I shouldn’t assume. I thought you’d want to watch.”
“You can put on whatever. I don’t care.” I didn’t. With all my heightened emotion right now, I didn’t think I’d be able to watch anything and really pay attention. It would just be background noise. Something to help me get through one minute and then the next.
“You’re sure? You don’t mind if I put on NHL Tonight? I want to see what’s going on around the league. Keep up with things.”
I shook my head. Putting on something about hockey might be best, anyway. Hockey was common ground, for us. It was familiar. It was safe.
“Okay.” Eric reached for the remote and flipped the channel. “You can take your shoes off, you know. Get comfortable.”
I could, but I doubted I’d ever be able to really be comfortable, shoes or no. At least not so soon. Not being in his house. I’d planned to be in a hotel. Somewhere separate. Somewhere I could escape to when things got too intense. Still, I did it for his sake, getting up and placing my flats neatly by the front door before coming back to the couch.
He’d shifted a little, moved down a couple of inches closer to where I had been sitting. I didn’t think he’d done it intentionally, but the fact remained he was closer to my space.
I sat down anyway and, with no shoes, tucked both my feet up beside me—between the two of us. He still wasn’t close enough that we were touching, I was relieved to discover…but I could feel the warmth from his body rolling over my toes.
He winked at me, then returned his attention to the TV.
“With tonight’s win, Colorado moves up into a tie with Portland for that eighth spot in the West,” the announcer said, catching my attention with the mention of Eric’s team. “Portland doesn’t play again until Saturday, and by then they could have fallen out of their current playoff seeding entirely, potentially dropping as low as number twelve in the conference. It’s going to be a bumpy ride getting into the playoffs in the Western Conference, as usual. There are only six weeks left in the season, and twelve teams are still reasonably in the race.”
Then they cut to the arena cam in Denver to interview Gabriel Landeskog about the win. He said all the usual boring and predictable things hockey players are taught from a young age to say in interviews. “Big team win; great effort from the goalie; we left him out to dry a few times but we held on when it counted and managed to pick up a big two points in overtime.” All that sort of thing. Focus on the team. Talk about what you need to do better. Don’t throw a teammate under the bus even when they deserve it—that stuff stays in the room. Don’t give any sound bites that can come back to bite you in the ass. Be as boring in front of the media as the rest of the hockey players in the world.
Hockey players weren’t boring if you knew them, though. I’d never been bored being around my teammates over the years, or Brenden and Eric’s.
I stole another glimpse over at Eric but made a point not to stare this time. His jaw was set, tight. If he was facing me, I had no doubt he’d have a big crease between his brows.
He put a lot of pressure on himself to be sure the team did well. He always had. I was sure that was a big part of the reason they made him the team captain when he was so young.
With the Portland Storm missing the playoffs the last three years, and barely holding onto a spot now, this was really bad timing for me to be asking him to help me. Damn it. He needed to focus, needed to pay attention to his job, to doing whatever it took to get his team to succeed. Not to me.
“We have another final score for you just coming in,” the announcer said. “Let’s go to Nashville for the highlights.”
I watched the replay of Nashville scoring five unanswered goals against St. Louis, trouncing them pretty soundly, and felt Eric’s tension growing with each goal. It was rolling off of him, tightening his shoulders.
“So there you have it. Nashville pulls within a point of Portland and Colorado with this win, and they have two games in hand.”
Eric ground his teeth together.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He jerked his head around to look at me. “What are you sorry for?”
“This is…it’s just really bad timing. I should have realized you had more important—”
“Stop that. Stop saying you’re sorry, and don’t try to tell me a stupid game is more important than you.”
It wasn’t just a stupid game, though. It was his livelihood. Yeah, it was just a game, but it had made so many things possible for him. It was part of him, and he was part of it. I couldn’t think of what Eric would be like if he didn’t have hockey in his life. They’d always gone hand-in-hand for me.
I shivered, more from the intensity of his stare than from cold. He got up without a word and brought back a warm chenille throw, handing it to me instead of trying to cover me with it.
“Thank you.”
He nodded. “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you it’s not a tough time right now. It is. We have to get back to the playoffs this year, and frankly the possibility of that happening is looking pretty shaky. But that’s my job. My worry. That’s for me to worry about, not you. I don’t want you to worry about anything but yourself.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I unfolded the blanket and draped it over myself, carefully tucking it around my knees and feet. My toes were a little cold, actually. But Eric was full of it if he thought I would be able to not worry about anything but myself. He knew me. He knew I worried about anything and everything, especially if it wasn’t something I could control. That was part of my charm, or so Brenden had always told me. Sure, he was probably teasing me when he said that. That’s what brothers do. But still.
“Dana.” My name sounded tortured when he said it.
I met his eyes, but I couldn’t read him this time.
Then he put his hand between us, close to me, reaching for mine.
Instinct told me to jerk my hand away, to push myself back closer to the arm of the couch, to get up and move to the recliner or run upstairs and lock myself in my room or better yet run out the front door and not look back.
I didn’t.
I let him take my hand and hold it in his, resting them on the couch between us. His hand was big and warm and strong, his palm rough with a few calluses caused by hockey gloves and weight machines and God only knew what else.
My pulse was racing, hard and fast and terrifying, and I couldn’t take a full breath, and I was hot, suddenly, so very hot. With my left hand, I ripped the throw blanket off me and tossed it to the floor.
Eric moved to let go of my hand, but I grabbed onto him and wouldn’t let go.
“Not yet. Let me see if it’ll pass.” I could hear the desperation in my own voice, and the fear. Always the fear.
But he stopped pulling away.
I closed my eyes, focused on taking a breath in through my nose, out through my mouth, in, out, in, out, counting them in my head and trying to ignore how hard my body was shaking.
It was no good. I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t get enough air, and my head was pounding, pounding, screaming with the pain of not getting enough oxygen until I knew, without a doubt, I’d end up with a migraine from it if I couldn’t get it under control and fast.
“Dana, I can’t. I can’t watch you go through this. I can’t be the cause of it.”
Eric tried to pull his hand away again, but I couldn’t let him. I couldn’t give in so fast, so easily. I dug in with my fingers so hard it hurt. I doubted it hurt him, but it was enough to get his attention. He could still pull away if he wanted to, though. He was stronger than me by a longshot.
“Just hold me. Please.” Every word was torture because of the breath required. “Hold my hand.”
He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t let go.
I tried counting my breaths again, in and out, reminding myself that it was Eric holding my hand. Eric Zellinger. Brenden’s best friend. I’d asked him to do this. I trusted him. I was safe with him.
Gradually, the shaking slowed down. The sweating stopped, but then I was wet and cold, shivering. I reached down to the floor and pulled the blanket back up onto me.
Eric didn’t let go of my hand through all of that.
Once my breaths weren’t quite so shallow anymore, the pounding in my head lessened and slowly went away.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I had to make a joke of it, make light of it, or I’d fall to pieces.
Eric didn’t respond, though.
I looked up at him, desperate to hear him laugh it off, too. He wasn’t laughing. I’d never seen him look so tortured, so pained, so—broken was the only word that seemed to fit.
“That was hell.”

An hour later, I didn’t know if it was Dana still shaking, or if it was me.
But I was still holding her hand.
She’d hardly moved a muscle in all that time, not to pull away from me, but not to move closer either. I wanted to twine my fingers with hers, to smooth the pad of my thumb over the back of her hand, calming, soothing, but I didn’t know if she could handle that. How much was too much, too soon? Where was the line? Would she even let me back away from the line in time, or would she insist on trying to push through her attacks until she actually did stop breathing? I just didn’t know.
But I didn’t let go, and neither did she.
Dana yawned. She had to be beyond exhausted. Jet lag, a day of travel, not to mention the panic attack. Those all took a lot out of her individually. Combined, though?
I was about to suggest she call it a night and go up to bed when the front door opened and Babs came in, laughing. He wasn’t alone. Razor was with him—Ray Chambers, one of the other rookies on the team this year.
Dana jumped, and I could tell she wanted to pull her hand away, she wanted to run, but she didn’t.
I should have told Babs about Dana when he texted earlier. I should have let him know it wasn’t a good night to bring anyone else in for a late-night snack or a drink or a video game, or anything. It was going to be hard enough for her to meet him tonight. This was asking too much.
The inside of her wrist was pressed against my arm. I could feel her pulse pounding, racing, nearly bursting through her veins. Damn it.
Babs went into the kitchen for a couple of waters from the fridge. “Sorry, man, she wasn’t looking at you.”
“Nah, bro. She wanted me, eh.” Razor was oblivious to the two of us as he came into the living room and plopped down on the first recliner. “Not you. You’re cute, like Bieber or a puppy or something. They want to pet you, but that’s about it. But me? Girls dig me. Tell him, Zee.”
Babs came back and tossed the bottled water at Razor, trying to hit him in the head with it. It almost worked, but Razor tossed up his hands at the last second and caught it.
Then he looked over at me, and saw Dana. “Oh. Sorry, Zee. I didn’t… Damn, Babs, why didn’t you say he had a girl here?”
Babs just gave him a how-the-hell-was-I-supposed-to-know look, then brushed his hands through his hair, trying to straighten himself up like if his mom was around or something.
Dana, however, was strung so tight I knew she was going to blow at any moment…not in anger, but in panic.
I tightened my grip on her hand, trying to reassure her. “Guys, this is my girlfriend Dana. Dana, that’s Babs on the left and Razor on the right. And Razor was just on his way out.”
“I—” Razor thought twice about arguing that point. Smart move. “Yeah, right. See ya in the morning, boys. See ya around, Dana.”
Babs followed him to the door and locked it behind him. He had a huge, sheepish grin on his face when he came back. “Sorry, Zee. I didn’t…” He shrugged. “You’ve been keeping quite a secret from the boys, there.”
Dana was squirming, and the temperature of her hand shot up fast. In no time, it was covered in sweat. She tossed the blanket off her lap again and looked at me with wild eyes.
“A pretty secret, though.”
Babs should have kept his damn mouth shut.
Dana jerked her hand out of mine and bolted up the stairs. I only counted to three from the moment she left until I heard her bedroom door slam closed.
“Did I say something wrong? Chicks are crazy. Maybe I should have left Razor to it, if this is what they’re like.”
Getting mad at Babs wouldn’t help anything, but I needed somewhere to vent. Not on him, though. He didn’t know better.
“Dana isn’t crazy.” I picked up the throw blanket and tossed it back onto the sofa. “She’s going to live here. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.” Then I went up the stairs behind her.
“Yeah… I’m sorry, Zee. ‘Night.”
In the morning, on our way into practice, I’d tell him more than I intended to tell the other guys. If he and Dana were going to live in the same house, there were things he’d have to understand. But I trusted Babs. Like I’d told Dana, he was a good kid. He’d never do anything to intentionally hurt anyone. But, he was a kid.
When I got to her door, I knocked.
No answer.
I could hear her struggling for her breath just on the other side of the door, down near the floor. I dropped to my knees, pressed my ear up against it.
“It’s just me. Are you… Do you need anything?”
“I’m s-s-sorry.”
“Please stop apologizing, kid.”
Times like this, I just wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her until it passed. I’d done that before. When she was twelve, Soupy got hurt bad in a game we were playing. Got knocked out cold. They took him to the hospital in an ambulance, and her parents went with him and left her with me and my folks. She was terrified. We both were. She cried and cried, and all I could do was hold her tight for hours, until we heard. Until we knew he would be okay.
But I couldn’t do that now. Even if she would let me in, even if she hadn’t locked the door to protect herself, I couldn’t. Not yet. Maybe, if she was right, if this plan worked how she hoped it would…maybe someday.
But for now, all I could do was sit on the floor by her door and hate myself for not being able to protect her from her demons.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, sitting by her door. When Soupy and I went home for Christmas our senior year, the first time we’d seen her after… She couldn’t bring herself to come out of her bedroom that whole break.
Her parents tried to just go on about their lives, hoping that she’d snap out of it.
Soupy couldn’t take it. He went to the gym for hours at a time, coming home with bruised and bloodied knuckles because he spent too long beating up punching bags.
But me? I sat by her door a lot, listening, waiting, hoping maybe she would tell me what I could do, ask me for help. Anything.
She didn’t.
She was better by summer, at least if you consider how she was now better. She wouldn’t let us hug her anymore, and she couldn’t look me in the eye. There were no more kisses on the cheek or arm wrestling contests, none of the things we used to do. But she would come out of her room again.
That was progress. That was all we could really ask for, I suppose—progress.
My knees hurt, so I dropped lower until I was actually sitting on the floor instead of kneeling. I leaned my back against the wall and dropped my head back, listening to be sure she started breathing normally again.
I had to wait a long time.
It scared me, the breathing thing. Especially since she had locked the door. I had a key, but it would just take more time if we had to get in there. I racked my mind, trying to remember exactly where I’d put the key. Just in case.
It was probably in the drawer of my nightstand. But I wasn’t sure. I was debating with myself over whether I should go make sure that’s where it was or whether I should stay put, making sure she was breathing, when I heard it.
“Eric?” Just a tiny voice.
“Yeah? I’m still here.” I’d be here as long as it took.
“I need water to take my meds.”
She sounded more normal. Calmer. She wasn’t crying anymore, at least.
“Okay. I’ll be right back with it.”
I took the stairs two at a time. Babs had gone off to his room, whether to play video games or watch porn or sleep, I didn’t know. I didn’t care.
I grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge and took them back up, setting them on the floor just outside the door.
“They’re right here when you open the door. And there’s a flashlight and pepper spray in the nightstand.”
“I know.” She sounded a little stronger. Less shaky. “I found them earlier. Thank you.”
“Do you…do you need anything else?” I wanted her to say yes. I wanted her to need something that would force her to open the door and let me see her, let me see with my own eyes that she was better again, or at least on her way to being better.
“No, I…”
Please need me.
“I’ll be fine.” She sounded firm on that, damn it. “I’ll see you in the morning, Eric. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“All right. But wake me, whatever time it is if you need anything.”
“Good night, Eric.”
Now was not the time to push. “Good night, Dana.”
I went back down the hall to my room and closed the door, and I waited. A minute later, I heard her lock turn and the door open, then just as quickly she closed it again and locked it.
Instead of going to bed, though, I threw every pillow I had across the room, ripped the sheets back off the bed, pounded the mattress.
It didn’t help.
And now I had to make my bed.

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