The tennis courts had been flooded for a month, but it only turned cold enough for ice on Christmas. So, when Davey McCabe finished his paper route the next day, he put on his equipment and walked over. He heard the boys from the high school team before he saw them. There were six of them with sticks and pucks. Freddie Brown was out there, flying around the ice, pushing the puck just in front of him, then blasting a slap shot off the chain link fence. Davey watched Freddie collect the puck, skate in a low circle, pivot and skate in another low circle, then shoot off the fence again.

There were nine of the older boys now, and Davey recognized them all. Jimmy Martin and his twin brother Johnny. They were on defense and seemed to never let up a goal. Pete McCann was out there. He was chasing Freddy all over the ice but couldn’t get the puck off his stick. Pucks were everywhere. Guys were going full speed down the ice and letting slap shots go. Davey watched one puck get lodged in the chain link. He couldn’t imagine shooting a puck that hard.

Davey stood up on his skates, put on his helmet, grabbed his stick, and threw a puck a few yards ahead of him, then skated after it. His stride was just wrong, though, so when his stick met the puck it kicked it off to one side instead of pushing it ahead of him. He skated, turned back in a loop, collected it cleanly this time, and hoped no one noticed. He wanted to steer clear of the bigger kids for now, but just then a puck went past him, chest high, and rattled off the fence.

He turned and saw Kevin Cash. Davey hated Kevin Cash. His house was on Davey’s paper route, and when Cash figured out Davey was the paperboy he would answer the door when Davey went to collect. He would pretend to give Davey the money but put it in his pocket instead.  Kevin would call out a thank you just loud enough for his parents to hear then close the door in Davey’s face.

Kevin seemed ready to say something to Davey but Freddie was right behind him. He skated a tight circle around both and looked at Davey. “We have nine. Play.”

Davey looked for a reaction from Kevin but he was already skating away. He nodded to Freddie and hoped his voice didn’t crack when he said, “Sure.” He said it again, a little louder. “Sure.”

Davey put his head down and skated. Freddie was halfway down the ice, his skates cutting into it.  The ice was still new and Davey could see every one of Freddie’s strides in the glassy top. The guys were gathered around, ready for Freddie to join them. “We’ve got ten.”

Davey skated up, stopped, and was glad for a little spray from his skates. He heard someone react, “Him? You’re kidding.”

They boy seemed ready to say something else, but Freddie cut him off. “I’ll take him.”

They divided teams and Davey tried to look like just one of the guys, skating with Freddie and three others to one end of the ice. He shrugged his shoulders and then bent at the waist, resting his stick across his thighs like he had seen so many of them do waiting for face-offs during games. Jimmy Martin dropped his stick and pulled one of the goals into place, lined it up with one of the tennis lines under the ice. He looked at Davey. “You play left dee.”

The puck dropped and Freddie took off straight down the middle, cut between the two defensemen and scored. Jimmy called out to him. “Brownie!” but it came out Brown-Knee and he held the second half for as long as he could and then laughed.

Someone collected the puck and the other guys came back down the ice. Freddie had been caught deep, so it was five against four, and then there was Kevin Cash, breaking wide around Davey. Davey’s skates couldn’t get in the right place and Cash skated right by him and flipped the puck high into the net.

Jimmy Martin collected the puck from the net, shoveled the puck over to Davey. “Shake it off.”

Davey found his legs and as the guys flew back and forth, he made a few decent plays. He was tall for 14 and had a long reach. A few times he got his stick in front of the puck when guys tried to shoot it. One time he stopped a shot and Jimmy collected it off Davey’s stick, took it the length of the ice and scored. When he got back next to Davey, he nodded to him. “Your assist. We’ll give you puck after.” Davey knew the puck part was a joke, but it still felt good.

Someone must have been keeping score because after another one of Freddie’s goals a few guys called out, “That’s ten,” and then someone called for a break. All the guys skated over to the corner of the ice where their varsity bags were sitting atop some snow. Davey saw some water bottles come out and Freddie threw one at him. It was one of the cool ones with the long narrow neck that hooked like a bird’s beak. You could spray the water without it touching your lips. Davey took in a long squirt.

Someone—maybe one of the Martin twins—produced a soda bottle and the guys passed it around. They all made faces and when Kevin Cash got it he took the longest sip then shook his head like a dog that had just tasted something bad. “What kind of rotgut is that?”

Jimmy Martin smiled. “Old Thompson. My dad’s. Then I threw in some other girly shit my mom drinks.” He took the bottle from Kevin, knocked some back, then held it out to Davey. “Want some?”

Davey could only shake his head.

Kevin spit on the ice at Davey’s feet. It was brown and foamed for a minute before it iced over. “Pussy.”

Freddie got up, rapped his stick on Kevin’s shin pads. “That pussy stopped three of your shots.”

Davey felt himself turn red, but then he looked at Kevin.  Kevin had the bottle back and was staring at him. When Freddie turned, and skated away, Kevin took another long swig, never taking his eyes off Davey the whole time.

By the third game the sun was high and strong. Davey had sweat right through his shirt and pants and didn’t notice it, but Jimmy did. “Take off your helmet. You’ll cool off a little.”

Davey had never played without his helmet, but who was he to say no to Jimmy Martin? He pulled it off and tossed it to the side of the rink. He watched it skid on its top, bounce off the asphalt ridge then spin around before it finally stopped. Davey felt naked for a minute but Jimmy was right. The cold air cut right through his hair; it felt great.

The next time the other guys game down the ice, Davey was feeling it. Kevin came wide again, but Davey had his skates pointed the right way and he met Kevin stride-for-stride. When Kevin started to shoot, Davey put his shoulder into him, caught him off-balance, and watched as Kevin tumbled back onto the ice. One of the other guys laughed and called out, “That pussy just dropped your ass.”

Davey grabbed the puck, pushed it in front of him then heard a stick slapping the ice. It was Freddie and he was circling just ahead. Davey shoveled the puck to him. The pass was a little behind Freddie, but he reached back, collected it, and tore up the ice. He flew past everyone and wristed a perfect shot dead center in the goal.

Davey was skating back to his goal when he felt the puck hit his shoulder then his ear. He fell forward onto his hands and knees. Blood was already dripping from his ear and onto the ice. He threw his big glove off and grabbed at his ear and felt part of the lobe hanging off as if on a string. Black circles seemed to grow from the outside of his eyes in and he threw up.

Jimmy Martin must have scooped up some snow because he was kneeling next to Davey now, holding a ball of snow to his ear. “Put your glove back on. Hold the snow right there.” When Davey was slow to react, Jimmy told him again. “Do it. You have to keep the snow there.”

Davey gathered the snow to his ear, held it, and got off his hands and knees and sat. Another guy skated up, gave him a water bottle. Davey swished some around his mouth, spat, swished some more, and spat again. The acid from the puke was still in there.

Davey watched Jimmy skate at Kevin. Only now did Davey see just how much bigger Jimmy was and as soon as they dropped their gloves it was no match. Jimmy had Kevin by the scruff with his left hand and was whaling away with his right. Kevin never got a punch in, and Jimmy must have got in twenty before Freddie skated over and pulled Jimmy off.

“Enough,” Freddie told him. “Enough.”

The guys wanted to walk him home but Davey had to tell them his Mom wasn’t home. He was embarrassed and didn’t want any help but by then he had packed his ear at least five times. The bleeding had slowed but the end of the ear was just… there. Freddie sat next to him, unlaced his own skates, then Davey’s. “I’ll take you to the hospital.”

Freddie had a Camaro. It was the coolest car Davey had ever seen, but all he could think about was not bleeding on the seats. They were black and leather; maybe the blood wouldn’t show up. Davey shook the last of the snow off his glove and just pressed the glove to his ear before he got in.

Freddie seemed to read his mind. “Don’t worry about the car.” He smiled and the engine kicked in, roared. “That glove is a fucking mess though.”

Freddie stayed until the doctor came in. A nurse had bandaged Davey, and the doctor peeled off the bandages, slowing when he got to the lobe itself. “Well, you did a heck of job there, son. Was it a stick?”

Freddie answered for him. “A puck. An idiot shot it too high.” Davey knew what Freddie was saying. No one was getting in any more trouble today. Kevin got his beating and he got it good.

The doctor eyed Davey. “A puck? Is that right?” Davey nodded and the doctor seemed satisfied. “How hard did it hit your head? Did you black out?”

“Maybe. No. I started to. Then I threw up.”

By the time Davey’s mom got there they had done a cat scan and were cleaning the cut. Davey was laying back and a nurse had a basin next to Davey’s head. She had poured bottle after bottle of what he guessed was water over the ear but it came in a marked bottle. When she emptied the basin for maybe the fifth time she said, “I bet your mom hopes you pick another sport.” The nurse and his mom must have looked at each other because the nurse added, “Well, I guess you love to play.”

The doctor came back with a plastic surgeon who only looked at the ear for a minute. Davey was propped up on the bed and a nurse had found a chair for his mother. The surgeon was tall, good looking, and younger than Davey’s mom. He grabbed a stool with wheels and produced a pad of paper from his pocket. He drew a surprisingly good version of an ear. Davey wasn’t sure if it was his ear or not.

They had two options. They could sew it back on and hope for the best—Davey liked that one. It could get infected and they could lose it still. It would scar, but Davey though a scar might look kind of cool.

“Or,” the doctor said. “We could remove it now, and a little bit more of the lobe, and create a normal line.”  He drew a line showing where the earlobe would end and handed the pad to Davey’s mom. She looked at it a long time before she finally said what Davey hoped she would say.

“Let’s try to save it.”

They told Davey he would be awake while they worked on his ear, but they gave him a sedative and painkillers. He must have been asleep for a long time because when he woke up it was in a hospital room and the windows were dark. His mom was sitting next to him drinking coffee from a small paper cup. Davey had to pee but it had been a long time since he shared that kind of thing with his mother. He stirred and she looked over at him.

“You’re awake.”

Davey couldn’t think of what to say, so he nodded instead and felt a wave swoosh through his head, so he stopped himself and closed his eyes.

Davey’s mom finished her coffee, looked for a place to throw the paper cup away. When she couldn’t find it, she crumpled it and put it in the pocket of her nurse’s uniform.

“You’re going to have to stay tonight. You might have a concussion.” She paused for a few beats. “How do you feel?”

“Like I got hit in the head with a hockey puck.” He was afraid it came out too sarcastic, but she started laughing.

“I bet you do.” She was patting the other pockets of her uniform out of habit. He knew she wanted a cigarette. “Who was the boy who brought you?”

“Freddie. Freddie Brown. He’s a senior.”

“Is he the one who hit you?”

Part of Davey wanted to tell his mom, but then he remembered Freddie. No one was getting in trouble today. “Someone just shot it too high. Not Freddie. He drove me here.” Davey felt tears well up for the first time all day. “He’s the captain of the team, Mom.”

A nurse came in and Davey’s mom stood. “I need to step outside for a few minutes.” She looked at Davey. “You’ll be OK?”

After she left, Davey could admit he needed to pee.

“I can get a bedpan for you or I can help you get into the bathroom. Your choice.”

It wasn’t hard for Davey to decide, but it was hard for him to get to the bathroom. She steered him by the elbow, with one hand behind his back. She got him standing over the toilet. “Maybe you should sit.”

Davey was ready to argue but then he felt that swoosh in his head again. Still, it was humiliating. The nurse was young, maybe not much older than Freddie. She even untied the gown in back and helped him pull his underwear down. He was glad when she shut the door.

Back in bed, Davey relaxed with a cold cloth across his forehead. The nurse had wrapped an ice bag in a towel and left it resting next to his ear. They both felt good. He felt himself drift back into sleep but kept picturing himself on his knees, the blood dripping down on the ice and mixing with his puke.

He fought the image off. Instead he saw himself grab the puck and start to push it up ice. He heard a stick slapping the ice. He hit Freddie with a perfect pass this time. He felt the cold air on his head as he watched Freddie skate past everyone and wrist a perfect shot into the goal.

 

Bill Trippe

Bill Trippe lives near Boston, where he works in academic publishing and teaches writing. He recently completed a novel and is at work on a collection of short stories, some of which are new or upcoming in "Ascent," "The Hawai'i Review," and "Penny Shorts." He blogs at https://digitalcompendium.org/ and is on Twitter, @billtrippe.

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