By: Catherine Gayle

There wasn’t even the slightest hint of irony in his words. No sense that he was hoping to further himself or make a spectacle of himself.

I took a breath, the crisp fall air flirting with my senses. “Have you run any of this by Jim Sutter yet?”

“Not yet. I thought I’d talk to you about it first.”

Jim wouldn’t try to dissuade him, anyway. He’d encourage it. The same as I should. There wasn’t any good reason for me to be hesitant about this, beyond the possibility that it would test the strength of my protective walls. He wasn’t just asking me if I thought he should become a motivational speaker. Nicky was asking to do it through my foundation, to be even more intricately involved in the work I did than he already was. But this wasn’t an opportunity I could pass up. It had the potential to do a world of good.

“Talk to Jim,” I said, digging my fingernails into the underside of the bench so hard it was painful—a reminder to myself that I had to keep my distance. “Once you get the go-ahead, let me know and we’ll figure something out.”

He nodded, and he moved slightly toward me. There was a glimmer in his eye that made me think he was going to try to pull me into a hug. I thrust out my hand to shake. That glimmer fled as fast as it had come, and he shook my hand as I stood.

“I should—” I started. I should calm the heck down is what I should do. I felt breathless and panicky, and there was no good reason for it. None at all. I dusted my hands over my slacks, brushing away any bits of the outdoors that might have found a home there. “I should head back and get ready for the…the event.”

Ever polite, Nicky didn’t say anything about how flustered I suddenly was. He just nodded and smiled, and made me wish that the glimmer would come back into his eyes. Because that glimmer meant life. It meant hope. It meant there was something worth fighting for to keep him clean. The ones who had that bit of life in their eyes were the ones I didn’t worry about so much. They were the ones who had a chance.

His smile wasn’t enough to bring that brightness back, though. It didn’t reach his eyes. “You should go, then. I’ll see you after a while.”

I nodded and turned to leave. Halfway up the stone steps, I looked back over my shoulder to find him looking at the rocks exactly as he had been when I’d first come upon him. Or maybe not exactly the same way. Because I’d just taken one of the bricks from my protective wall and placed it on his. I hadn’t even handed it to him to let him do as he would with it. I’d just placed it there, helping him close himself off when I should be doing the opposite.

YOU’VE GOT TO earn their trust off the ice if you’re ever going to get it back on the ice, Jim had said to me just before the team left for our week of team building and bonding at Mount St. Helens. Damn if I didn’t already know that, but this week was making it clear just how deep a hole I’d dug for myself. Rock climbing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, ropes courses, zip-lining—it was supposed to be a week of the guys hanging out together and everyone getting to know—and hopefully, like—one another. In many ways, that’s what it had been to this point. But in other ways, it was proving to me just how far I still had to go in terms of reclaiming my teammates’ trust.

The guys still liked me, at least as much as teams ever really liked a goaltender. Goalies could be an odd sort, standing alone so often in the midst of a team sport, but most skaters on a team at least put up with our quirks. My friendship with the boys had never really been in question, though, so far as it went. The issue at hand was so much more complex than that.

As a goalie, I was an island of one, but I was also supposed to be the backbone of the team. The last line of defense. The foundation of it all was built around me.

It wasn’t egotistical. The fact of the matter was that Jim had been building this team with me and a couple of the other guys in mind as its core. Start with something solid in net and work your way out. That was the mantra he’d been following, right up until the point when my life and my game had gone to hell in a handbasket.

The guys had had no problem with laughing and talking and joking around with me this week. The trouble came when the coaches asked them to trust me during some of the exercises. That hadn’t gone so well so far. Every time I was asked to do something, another guy or three came along to help, supposedly to show me support, but they weren’t doing that with anyone else. It just proved that they believed I wasn’t going to be able to carry my weight. They believed, deep down, that I would disappoint them, regardless of what they might say about it. We were due to take our bus home to Portland this afternoon, but we had one final exercise to complete first.

A trust fall.

I cringed as I saw the setup and listened to the coaching staff describing what we had to do. They’d set up a riser that was about shoulder height, and each of us had to get up on it, close our eyes, cross our arms, and fall backward, trusting that the rest of the team would be there to catch him. Actually, now that I looked closer, I saw that there were three such set-ups spread throughout the clearing in the park around us.