Authors: Kristine Carlson Asselin
I love you to the moon and back. Thank you for being my biggest fan.
The rink is my own private island.
If I stretch out a hand, my fingers would just barely skim the half wall separating the ice from the viewing area. It's sanded plywood and the chance of a splinter is about 100 percent so I don't take the risk. Besides, it would slow me down too much. And I'm not planning on slowing down anytime soon. I glance at the giant clock on the wall. If I push just a smidge faster, I'll break my own record.
There are other people on the ice. But I'm like a satellite orbiting the earth. They all know I'm here, but I move too fast for anyone to really pay attention to the breeze that is Penelope Spaulding
. I risk another quick glance at the clock.
It's not like I'm going to the Olympics in my dad's twenty-five-year-old beat-up hockey skates, but twice around the rink in under a minute is pretty damn fast, thank you very much.
The breeze from my speed whips my face and the momentum pulls me faster around the turns. It blocks out the world and lets me hide in my own little bubble.
I pick a spot at the far end, and I stare at it until it's a blur as I fly past. Then I focus on another spot on the opposite wall. And so on. And so on. Keeping my body close to the outer edge of the ice, pulling my arms tight to my torso, focusing on my speed, ignoring the burn in my legs. Intuitively, I avoid my company on the ice, even if I'm pretending they aren't there. There's a small girl in a pink tutu practicing a sit spin. A mother and her son, clearly on the ice for the first time. A couple of guys from school getting ready for hockey practice. But none of them matter right now. There are only a few precious minutes left of open ice time, and today's the day I'll crush my record.
If I squint, I can blur out the rest of the skaters and forget I've got to be behind the counter at the restaurant in forty minutes, apron at the ready.
The twinge of pain in my left calf pulls me out of the zone for a second and the memory of my fight with Dad this morning breaks my concentration.
“If I'm paying, you'll go to Johnson and Wales University for the culinary program. And that's the end of the conversation!” It was at least the fifth time since Christmas that we'd had the same fight.
“I never asked you pay!” I grabbed my backpack off the chair and stomped across the kitchen. “And I'm fine with never having this conversation again!”
The look on Grams's face as the door slammed almost made me turn around. That and the fact I forgot my math book on the table. But you can't go back after stomping out of breakfast without losing all credibility.
I crouch and dig my blades into the ice, pushing myself faster. There's no room to think about anything else while I'm skating. No room for fights with parents, no room for thoughts about the stupid reality show Dad's trying to get us on, no room to think about money for college or the fact that I don't want to take over the family restaurant. No room for anything related to pizza.
Just me and the ice.
I lift my arms to celebrate, about to cross the imaginary finish line when out of nowhere something slams me into the boards. I land hard on my ass.
“What the hell?” One of the guys who had been setting up the hockey nets stares at me. It's hard to see his face from down here, so I can pretend I don't know exactly who it is.
“Didn't you hear us yelling at you? What's your problem?”
I can't believe he has the nerve to sound angry.
I'm in such shock I can't even think of a smart-ass reply. “Wh-what is my problem?” I stammer. Tears burn behind my eyes, but I'm not giving him the satisfaction of showing pain.
He takes off his helmet to expose a head of curly brown hair. No denying it to myself now. Jake Gomes. He's still talking, but he lowers his voice. “Seriously, you're a menace out here, Pen. You almost took out that kid,” he points to a six-year-old tottering on his skates. “You should wear a helmet, you know. You fall out here going that fast and you do could some serious damage.”
I think about saying it's only dangerous when someone rams you against the wall, but I'm not fast enough to get the words out. He's still talking. “I'm surprised Thompson hasn't tossed you off the ice yet.”
Finally, he seems to realize I'm on my butt. “I didn't mean to hit you so hard. We were yelling, but you didn't hear. I figured bumping you would get your attention.” He whips off his glove, and holds his hand out.
“I don't need any help,” I say, with as much frost in my voice as I can muster. Jake Gomes lives in my neighborhood, but this is easily the longest conversation we've had since sixth grade, when we used to be friends.
Remembering the last day we spoke always makes me prickly. Even four years later.
I push away his hand and haul myself up, brushing off my leggings as I steady myself. It takes a few seconds to get my bearings once I'm back on my feet. Usually I slow down gradually, not with a shot to the torso. My ribs are going to kill later.
“How are you?” he says with a grin.
I catch my breath; I'd forgotten Jake's amazing dimple.
“How's life as the Pizza Princess?” He laughs and sort of bows at the same time, but he loses his balance on his skates and almost wipes out. I'm sure it's not the effect he was going for.
I hate that nickname. My dad did not consider my high school years when he made me star in those stupid commercials when I was six. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't remind me.
“Thompson should kick
off the ice for unsportsmanlike conduct,” I say, giving him the stare Lori calls “the BITCH.” It looks better on her than on me, but she'll be proud I tried.
With a jolt in my gut, I glance at my watch and then at the clock on the rink wall. It's almost four, and I'm done. Speed records will have to wait. Mom will be in the parking lot in ten minutes and then it's back to work. I'm going to have to deal with Dad eventually, and I still don't know what to say to him after my hissy fit this morning.
My usual MO is to ignore a fight until it goes away. But this one isn't going anywhere. Dad's called in a favor to get me an interview at Johnson and Wales. But I want to go to Columbia for â¦ something that's not culinary. Maybe writing. Or communications. I'll figure it out. But there is no compromise with Dad. It's culinary school or nothing, as far as he's concerned.
“How on earth will you run Slice someday without a culinary background?” he always says, cocking his eyebrow like he can't believe I'd suggest such a thing.
Jake surprises me when he glides next to me heading for the exit. “You know,” he says with a sideways glance. “You're a decent skater, ever thought of playing hockey?”
I actually laugh out loud before I catch myself. It sort of comes out like a snort and I cover my mouth. “No,” I say, hoping he realizes it's a laugh not a belch. “Why?”
“I don't know.” He shrugs. “Just that you're pretty fast. And you're here a lot. Two necessary requirements for a hockey player.”
“Not that it's any of your business, but my dad would kill me if I picked up a hockey stick. He just barely tolerates this.” I gesture around the rink and realize the other skaters have pretty much cleared out. Jake doesn't need to know it's my own personal rebellion against Dad's rules to “forget” my helmet. Or that I'm wearing my dad's ancient hockey skates on my feet. I look down reflexively, and for the first time I feel self-conscious about the dirty tattered laces and the beat-up leather uppers.
Jake looks offended, like I insulted his mother or something. “Well, you're pretty good, but â¦” He shrugs. “You probably couldn't hit a puck anyway.”
He's baiting me.
Unbelievable. He hasn't changed since we were eleven.
“I could totally hit a puck.” I'm not exactly sure I could, but Jake Gomes isn't going to tell me what I can and can't do. Even if he is staring at me with the darkest chocolate-brown eyes I've ever seen.
Wow. When did his eyes get so intense?
“C'mon Foams!” a kid yells from the other side of the ice. “Coach wants us in the locker room for a pep talk before practice!”
“Shut it, Carter! I'll be there in a minute!” He notices the confused look on my face. “Don't ask. I had a bad experience with a washing machine on one of our overnights last year. Carter thinks it hysterical, 'cause
“Yeah, interestingly enough, I'd picked up on that rhyming thing.” For some reason, I get a vision of a washing machine full of boys' underwear and feel the blush work its way up my face.
I look over at Carter, who's now making an exaggerated beckoning gesture. Ignoring him, Jake skates over to the penalty box and opens the door.
Strange place to keep equipment, but whatever. A bunch of sticks fall out onto the ice. He reaches into the small, confined area and pulls out a bucket with a few pucks. He tosses them onto the ice at my feet. “Prove it.”
Jake Gomes still knows how to push my buttons. I'll regret this, but something about his dare makes me want to prove him wrong. He shoves a stick at me. “Usually, you'd have gloves on, but you get the idea.”
Holding the stick makes me feel like a rebel and I almost drop it. Jake pushes the stick back into my hand. “It's not a teacupâit won't break. Hold it tight.”
Dad's stubborn fixation on culinary college flashes through my head, and I take a swing like he's standing in front of me. I completely miss and just barely keep from landing on my butt again.
“Nice, whiff,” Jake says, chuckling. But he stops laughing when he sees the expression on my face. “No big deal. That happens all the time around here. Hold it like this.” He leans toward me and pulls my left hand about half way down the stick. “Don't swing it like a golf club; keep the stick on the ice in the direction you're moving.”
I open my mouth to make a snarky comment about where to put the stick, but the serious look on his face makes me stop.
It feels weird, but he's right. I get the idea.
He throws down another puck.
I'm dying to try hitting the puck again, but I'm not really the rebel I'm pretending to be. “Wasn't your friend looking for you? Doesn't practice start soon?” I'm supposed to be at work in twenty minutes, but I'm embarrassed to say so, especially after the Pizza Princess comment.
Jake's dark hair falls across his face and he shakes his head to get it out of his eyes. He looks a little like Lars DeVaney from the Five Heartbeats in the posters covering my bedroom wall and the thought makes me blush. An old memory flashes through my head of racing him across the playground and laughing hysterically over backyard make-believe.
Something in Jake's eyes makes me want to hang around a little longer. There's an intensity there that goes beyond his features. I figure I'm already in trouble, so what the hell. And I really want to hit another puck.