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Two for Slashing

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The living room of 307 Downsborough is the perfect place to watch television late at night, its window far enough from the street that intruding streetlights cannot ruin its perfect dark. And tonight, sitting atop its sagging leather couch, wrapped in four blankets and face awash in bright blue light, Laura Hollis takes full advantage. She hasn’t looked away in nearly twenty minutes, and from the speakers comes a jovial voice to clash with the tight ball of anxiety in her gut.

“About to start the third now, Randy,” it says. “And we’ve had a defensive dandy so far tonight, haven’t we?”

“Boy are you right, Craig,” the other commentator joins his fellow. The image flashes from their smiling faces to an overhead view of the teams warming up. “And we weren’t expecting this. You know, these two teams are known for pushing the rush and really trying to play outside their own zone. What we’ve seen so far has been some sloppy offensive play, and a couple of really good performances in net.”

The screen flashes again, this time to a close-up of one of the players: a woman with dark eyes and a mouth slanted so serious it might be angry. Laura’s frantic heart skips two beats and then picks back up in double time. The woman on the screen twirls the stick in her hands twice, the blade whirling in and out of view as the camera follows her brooding glide over the ice. She bites her lower lip, chewing at a bit of dead skin there or out of her own anxiety, maybe. Either way, Laura’s cheeks warm at the sight, and she finds herself very thankful for the dark (her solitude on the couch notwithstanding).

Craig intrudes then, giving commentary to her heart’s embarrassing flutters:

“Only three shots on goal for Karnstein tonight,” he says. His voice lilts up in the middle of the sentence in surprise, though he brings the end of his words back to a lower, neutral register. Laura can’t say she blames him: it is peculiar how little offense the game has seen so far. “Portland has done a good job of keeping her out of the high slot and off the breakaway. We’re used to seeing her take control of games, and there just hasn’t been much opportunity tonight.”

Laura bristles at the implication that she’s failed, sitting up straighter on the couch with a deep frown and a creased forehead. The hot anger in her chest does not abate even when Randy chimes in to defend her with highlights from the first two periods.

“Lack of opportunity is a good way to put it,” he says. “But even when she’s had chances, she’s squandered them. Big players make big plays in big games. The Panthers will be looking for more than what we saw in the first two periods from Karnstein to close things out.”

Laura watches again what she had earlier seen in real time: Carmilla a yellow streak on the ice, jumping up on the attack. An errant pass steals her momentum; she twists herself to her backhand side to catch the puck as it sails behind her, and the delay allows a red-sweatered defenseman to body her into the boards. Laura flinches at the contact, closing one eye, mouth open over her teeth in a grimace. If anything, it looks worse in slow motion, when she can see Carmilla’s frustration and pain evident on her face through the play.

The next clip: Carmilla a half stride ahead of two streaking defenders, the puck on her stick. She drags it from her forehand to the back of her blade and flicks it upward and toward the net. Laura hadn’t seen the manoeuver in real time; it had been too quick. The goalie doesn’t stand a chance – she’s still lunging from the far corner of her crease when Carmilla takes the shot – but the puck only clangs off the post and bounces wide. Carmilla takes another vicious hit from a trailing defenseman for her trouble.

“Toronto hasn’t been able to keep her out of trouble all game – she’s not used to being unprotected like this, Craig,” Randy continues when the television refocuses on the two broadcasters. He turns to Craig and opines further: “I think missing their best enforcer is starting to take its toll. Portland is flying all over the ice, hitting their forwards with impunity.”

Guilt shivers down Laura’s spine, empty and cold in place of her fiery indignation just moments earlier. She pulls her blankets closer around her, and tries with every ounce of her will not to feel as though she’s letting Carmilla down.

“I agree, Rand,” Craig nods in trite sportscaster sagacity. “The Panthers are certainly missing Hollis on the blue line tonight.”

Laura mutes the broadcast. The commentators continue to talk smilingly at each other for the next few minutes, but Laura’s eyes burn and blur with held back tears. She’d been especially weepy since leaving the team to come home. Good reason to be or not, that fact is still embarrassing.

Carmilla’s face flashes on the screen again, then. A chyron under her chin declares a scoreless tie. The camera must be close: before the screen fades to black for the last commercial break, she looks right at it. Her eyebrows lift; she crooks her mouth into a cheeky grin that has Laura grinning back at the TV, and she winks. Heat rushes up Laura’s throat to her cheeks, and not from embarrassment this time. She swallows her grin back down. There will be time for girlish swooning after the Panthers win this game.

The broadcast fades to black, and when the screen lights up again, it shows a commercial for some sugary breakfast cereal. Laura reaches for her mug on the coffee table again, and brings it to her lips. She tips it and her head all the way back before remembering that she’d finished its chocolatey contents during a particularly harrowing bit of game in which Portland seemed to set up camp in the Panther’s defensive zone.

She decides she’ll need more if she’s to survive the third period.

Laura unmutes the TV, so the start of the third period doesn’t take her by surprise, and shucks herself out of her blanket cocoon to shuffle into the dark kitchen for more cocoa. Her dad never keeps the good stuff around anymore: all she finds in the cupboards is a store-brand powder in white little packets. She selects one proclaiming to have twenty percent more mini marshmallows, plucks it from its cardboard home, and dumps its contents into her empty mug. She goes about preparing the milk next, sloshing it into a pan and leaving it to heat on the stove. Alone in the dark kitchen, she takes a frosty swig from the jug before she returns it to the fridge, and wipes the resulting, incriminating mustache off her lip with the back of her hand.

The television moves on to a car commercial. A smooth voice, speaking in an American accent, floats to the kitchen, extolling the virtues of hand-stitched leather seats and climate control. It’s quiet otherwise – Laura’s friends had invited her to watch the game at her local haunt, but she’d feigned jet lag and begged off. They had left without her, and even though she had asked them to leave her be, she remains a bit sad at how easy it had been to make them go.

Feeling abandoned by people she’d told to leave isn’t one of Laura’s finer moments, but no one is around now to begrudge her the indignation. So she lets herself feel it. It’s decidedly easier to feel than the anxiety that threatens to pull her back to the living room before the nice woman on the television is done singing praises to probiotics in banana yogurt.

She leans back against the counter opposite the stove. Its edge digs into her ass just like she remembers it. A fourth commercial strobes on the television, throwing muted, pulsing light across the kitchen floor. There couldn’t be many more before the game came back on, so Laura pushes off the counter and looms over the pot of steaming milk. She squints. It looks like it might be done, but there’s only one way to know for sure. She skims one careful finger over the liquid's surface and finds it warm, if not piping as she’d prefer.

There isn’t time to wait for it to simmer, so she makes do: pours it over the brown powder in her mug and waves off the bit of it that dusts up towards her face. Blobs of sticky brown goo float to the top, the rest of the powder already melted by the milk’s heat. She reaches below her waist and tugs open the silverware drawer – or at least what to her habit should be the silverware drawer.

Reaching inside, her fingers connect with only the sharp edge of a roll of Scotch tape, the rounded curvature of a lighter, and the looped steel handle of a potato masher. She looks down in confusion – the spoons should be in this drawer. Laura throws a glance over her shoulder at the stove, then down again at the contents of the drawer. Confirming her place in the kitchen does not help her confusion. Suddenly, she’s fighting back tears again.

There’s a sob threatening to crest in her throat, but Laura holds her breath and beats back the waves. She grips the round handle of the drawer below her much harder than she should. It strains under her force, its connection to the wood of the drawer creaking and groaning in the dark.

Before anything more dramatic can come of her momentary lapse in spatial awareness, Randy and Craig start bloviating again. She opens the adjacent drawer. The spoons are in this one, nestled in the divider with the other cutlery. She grabs a teaspoon from the pile and drops it into her mug, where it plops to the bottom and sends a small wave cresting over the lip and down her hand. Laura licks up her skin and over the side of the mug on her way back to the living room, and folds herself atop her blankets.

She stirs her cocoa while Randy and Craig go over more highlights from the first two periods, this time some fantastic saves by both goalies. Laura’s brow knots the more she watches her team’s defensemen allow shots from favorable angles, and fail to tip passes into the slot. They’re not taking the body enough on the blue line, leaving the Otters’ defensemen too much time and space to create chances for their forwards. She can only imagine how her team’s locker room must have been during the fifteen minutes between periods. The Panthers’ coach is easily annoyed, and lack of physical play annoys her maybe more than anything else.

“We’re just about ready to get back to the action here, Craig,” Randy declares. He appears to be right: players on the screen are exiting the ice for their respective benches. The ten who remain take their places at center ice. Carmilla is the last to take her position, gliding to a stop and stooping before her counterpart across the red center line. She and the opposing center look at the referee in unison, and he takes a glance at them both in turn.

There’s a moment, then, before the referee begins to drop the puck, when Laura can almost imagine herself there. It’s in the little things that makes her palms itch: the urge to drop her stick from her knees to rest the blade on the ice, and give her gloves one last tug before the action begins. She can feel the way the ice radiates cold in the small absence of movement before the puck drops, can hear her own breathing loud in her ears. She doesn’t like being still on the ice. Especially for a defenseman, motion is the imperative. If you still, you’re lost.

Too soon for her own liking, the moment ends. The referee drops the puck, there’s a violent scuffle of sticks for its control, and the players on both sides scatter away from the center like electrons circling their nucleus.

Carmilla wins the draw: tangles her own stick with the opposing center’s and pushes up against her to hold her in place. Her left winger comes across the red line to scoop the puck out from beneath their feet and they’re off. Carmilla slides back and twists to her backhand side, spinning forward and leaving the other center a step or two behind her to join the attack.

The rubber band ball of anxiety is back in Laura’s chest.

“Here we go, Craig,” Randy says. The camera switches to a wide side angle to capture the Panthers setting up their attack. “First one to a goal wins, you think?”

“I do, Rand,” Craig says. “And if I know this Panther first line, they’re not going to want to leave that goal to the last second. I expect a good sustained attack from this first shift of the period for them.”

The attack comes quickly, and Laura is glad for it. This is much nicer than watching her goalie bail out her defense over and over. The left winger who’d taken the puck, drops it behind the net to a streaking Carmilla. She’s a comet over the goal line, sliding backwards, her head up and on a swivel. Laura has seen her survey the ice so many times, she thinks it shouldn’t move her anymore.

It does, of course: the way she pushes into the high slot like the tide, defenders welling up to meet her. She’s moved with her over the cold surface – stalking over the blue line, stick blade scraping the ice. She’s received the ticky-tack, tape-to-tape flick of a pass Carmilla now pushes to the far defenseman. And Laura has taken the long, angled shot on goal and hoped for a favor of geometry to deflect it home to the waiting twine at the back of the net.

No such luck for her stand-in. The puck sails through defense and forwards all and finds its easy home in the goalie’s glove. She covers it quickly – no room to clear it with so much noise atop the crease and just outside. Carmilla straightens from her circling back and forth to the boards. The frown is back on her face, but set more like steel now than it had been between periods. She holds her shoulders high, tense even from the odd camera angle the broadcast affords. Laura doesn’t recall ever seeing her so uncomfortable with skates on.

The defenseman who took the shot skids over to her. She’s a head and a half taller, and she’s not happy. Carmilla tries to wave her off, and Laura drops her forehead into her palm. They can’t be fighting now. Not when Laura isn’t there to play peacemaker. They’ll need to act like professionals on their own for the next eighteen minutes.

Randy agrees with her: “It looks like we’ve got some difference of opinion between Karnstein and Lawrence before this offensive zone faceoff.”

“Now’s not the time for your best forward and your only blue line sniper to be at odds,” Craig chimes in. “I hope whatever the problem is, they get it sorted out before this puck drop. Toronto can’t afford not to be firing on all cylinders here.”

Laura tries to read Danny’s lips, but picture isn’t defined enough for her to make out more than the angry slant of them. She regrets not going to the bar now – she knows for a fact there’s an enormous HD screen directly over the whiskey wall that she’s sure would have done the trick. Danny finally gets Carmilla to look at her, and Laura can’t see the smaller woman’s face, but the way she whips her head around and stops on her edges tells her that Danny hasn’t exactly defused the tension so much as set it alight.

“Come on, guys,” she whispers, pleading.

Mel comes between them, then. She grabs them both by the scruff and pushes them apart. Danny acquiesces: whatever’s got her mad at Carmilla, she listens to her captain. Carmilla is less obliging. She rips Mel’s hand away and spins back to the faceoff circle. The two defensemen glare after her for a moment before they take their places as well. Mel shakes her head as she bends at the waist to ready herself for the drop.

Carmilla scrapes the inside edge of her right skate against the ice. Twice.

She’s nervous.

And loses the faceoff.

Danny and Mel circle back to their own blue line to meet the rush that follows. Carmilla is slow on the back check. Laura grits her teeth and wills her to move faster, fisting her hands in the blankets underneath her and pushing her toes into the carpet. She’s half a stride behind the puck carrier and not gaining quickly enough.

“Poke,” Laura whispers, urgent. “Come on, Carm!”

She does, and the stick check is not pretty.

The point of a poke check isn’t necessarily to hit the puck: it’s small and any good forward will protect it with her body and her stick. The point of a poke check is to hit the legs or the stick, to stall the forward long enough for her to either lose control of the puck, or pass it to someone else.

So Carmilla, of course, prods at the puck first, lancing her stick around the legs of her mark, and fails to connect. The second poke is better: she taps the blade of the opposing forward’s stick with her own – not enough to be called for hooking or slashing but enough to affect how she handles the puck. The bit of extra effort slows her feet, and Carmilla slashes into her path. Her hips, Laura thinks, are a little high when she turns to skate backwards and hassle the forward further. But she can’t argue the result: she hampers her mark enough that the other girl has to flick the puck back between her legs in the neutral zone to prevent turning it over entirely.

Carmilla is better on the forecheck. As soon as the puck slides over the red line, she’s churned a small circle in the ice and rocketed all her momentum into a forward push to pressure the defenseman who collects it. It’s pressure mostly for its own sake: the puck is sent skittering across the ice to the Otters’ second defenseman before Carmilla can reach for it with her stick. She churns another circle and retakes her place in the neutral zone after that. Laura is proud of the sequence: solid neutral zone play isn’t flashy, but it’s what keeps the other team out of the Panther’s defensive zone. Carmilla may not be a true two-way forward, but she’s lightyears from the beginning of the year, when she hardly bothered to get in front of the puck in the neutral zone at all.

Laura is, in fact, so busy watching Carmilla skate in oblong patterns after the puck like she knows what she’s doing on defense that she doesn’t notice Danny flatten the Otters’ center to the ice on the blue line. The crowd and the broadcasters alert her, the latter hissing through their teeth. The center doesn’t get up again, and it doesn’t take the refs long to stop play so she can be seen to. A hush falls over the crowd then, and the stillness lasts a few minutes before she’s helped off the ice.

Danny goes to the box for charging – “Bullshit!” Laura cries at the TV as she’s led off by the elbow – and the team readies for the biggest penalty kill of the season. Carmilla isn’t on a kill unit – it’s a wonder her plus/minus is as good as it is at even strength, frankly – so she zips her way to the bench and takes her seat to wait. The camera follows her for a moment, and Laura watches her rip one of her gloves off to shoot water into her mouth as she surveys the ice from her seat.

Her friends Craig and Randy are opining about the upcoming power play for the Otters, but Laura is too busy watching Carmilla point the nozzle of her water bottle at her forehead and douse herself to catch exactly what it is they say. She watches water run down her stupid, perfect cheekbones until the picture shifts back to the action on the ice, and then she jolts in place as though there’s anyone around to have caught her staring. She takes a rather large gulp of her cocoa and tries to ignore the heat rising in her chest and settling in her cheeks.

That heat wanes into a shivery-cold anxiety when, a minute and a half later, the Otters put the puck past the Panthers' goalie and take the lead. Danny siddles out of the penalty box with her head down. Laura tips the dregs of her cocoa into her mouth and skims the ridge of her mug with nervous teeth. She has to slap a hand to her right leg to stop it bouncing, and when even that doesn’t stop her heel from tapping the floor in a nervous, broken rhythm, she stands and paces back and forth before the TV.

Two goals are probably too much to hope for, but the way things are going now, she doesn’t exactly have a good feeling about overtime. Carmilla steps on the ice again for the first shift after the power play goal, and instead of taking her place immediately at center ice, she glides over to Danny’s spot in the circle. Laura freezes mid-stride, and Danny on the screen straightens in what she’s sure is the same anticipatory anxiety.

This game will be the death of her, Laura is sure of that.

“Don’t be an ass,” she pleads like Carmilla can hear her through the TV and over three thousand miles away. Like she’d listen even if she could.

But Carmilla smiles – or at least her mouth curls as close to one as it ever does – and she says something that has Danny laughing. She punches Carmilla in the shoulder, the way she hits Laura when she’s approving of something she’s done, and Carm lets the blow push her back to the center of the rink, her grin wider even than before. It doesn’t relieve all of the fear Laura feels – and she starts pacing again – but there’s a little bubble of hope in her belly now, too.

If Danny and Carmilla are getting along, the rest of the period should be very interesting at least.

Carmilla wins the faceoff, but she also takes an elbow to the chin when she turns up ice to join the attack. Laura shouts at the TV again, furious at the ref letting the teams play on in the face of such an egregious assault. Carmilla manages to keep her feet moving, opening her jaw wide as she can to test it as she flies over the blue line to the net. She gets there in time to deflect a pass from the point towards the goal, but her lateness means the goalie has time to set up shop before she shoots. It’s an easy stick save for her, and a rebound taken by the Otters. Carmilla grimaces on screen – from the pain in her jaw or in disapproval in her shot attempt, Laura can’t be sure.

She hustles on the back check, but luckily doesn’t get far. Danny makes a stunning play in the neutral zone, taking the puck from the Otter’s best winger. She skips it across the ice to Carmilla, who’s waiting just onside at the edge of the offensive zone. Laura stops her pacing to lean closer to the TV and watch.

She’ll think later that maybe she should have kept it up. Jinxes and good luck charms are not to be trifled with.

There is an Otter near Carmilla, but she’s at too sharp an angle to poke at the puck or hit her cleanly. So, she grabs Carmilla by the elbow. The ref can’t ignore this infraction – he signals for a penalty – but Carmilla still has the puck, so she keeps on the attack. She wrenches her arm free from the defenseman’s grip, snapping it away. Her sweater sleeve bunches at the wrist: getting free has knocked her elbow pad loose and dropped it from the joint it’s meant to protect.

The defenseman follows her, streaking towards the goalie in a desperate attempt to prevent a penalty from becoming a goal. She panics then, Laura thinks, because she doesn’t look at the puck as Carmilla starts deking from one side of the crease to the other. Instead, she brings her stick slashing across Carmilla’s body from behind. The hook of the blade catches at her unprotected elbow. When the defenseman tries to pull it free, she pulls Carmilla, who already has only one skate on the ice in the middle of her handle, down and backwards.

Later, Laura will watch the replay and realize that Carmilla getting a shot off at all after that slash is a goddamn miracle. But she does one better, even: being dragged backwards to the ice, on one skate, stick held in only one hand, Carmilla manages to score.

Everything happens at once. The puck hits the net, Carmilla hits the ice and then the goalie, the goal horn blares, and the crowd goes off like a bomb.

Laura launches herself into the air, fists raised and howling: “Tied, it’s tied!

Her teammates swarm to the net, where Carmilla and the goalie are still trying to disentangle from one another. Danny gets there first, pushing Otters out of the way with probably more force than is necessary. When she gets to the two-woman scrum in the crease, the Otter’s goalie is already on her feet. And she’s – Laura has to squint to make sure she’s not seeing things – the goalie is waving to the Panther’s bench.

Danny looks to her feet, and makes a face like maybe she’ll be sick. Then she’s frantically hailing the bench, too. The players around her form a loose circle, with Danny, the goalie, and Carmilla in its center. Danny gestures broadly, yelling something now that maybe Laura would be able to lip-read, if she focused.

But her focus is not on Danny’s wild gesticulation. Laura focuses instead on the girl at her feet, laying there on her side with her back to the camera. The trainer makes his way from the bench and shuffle-slides over the ice to her, concern etched on his face.

Carmilla doesn’t get up.