Looking at the world from behind a cage does something to the brain. You see a tiger pacing back and forth and people say he’s bored. I don’t know about that. I think he’s probably just fired up. Ready to break out and take no prisoners. That’s how it is for me anyway, when I put on that helmet and see the world from behind those bars.
My cheeks feel like they’re the surface of the sun. I can feel the sweat beneath my pads, dripping down my back. I’m soaked. My muscles are burning, and I push my feet as fast as they can go. My limbs feel like rubber.
The ball is mine, safely nestled in the pocket of my stick while I barrel for the net. There’s a thumping behind me, the steady pounding of the left creaseman coming to stop me.
“Look who you got, Nick!” Coach is screaming from the bench.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see my teammate tearing up the left side. That’s who I got. But I don’t need him. Coach’ll see—I’ve got this.
And then he’s hitting me, the left crease. My right shoulder tenses as he swats at my stick with his.
“Nick!” my teammate screams. “Over here!”
I ignore him. The net is calling my name.
I drop my stick and rip an underhand shot, bottom right—their goalie can’t block it. And then a body, the left crease, cross-checks me on my right side and I’m knocked off my feet.
The whistle blows. Practice is over.
I lie there, staring at the arena’s ceiling. Banners with our team’s name on them, Maplehurst Vikings, hang down from the rafters. Coach is gonna kill me. My lungs swell until they’re ready to burst. I try to ignore the tingling where my shoulder bit the concrete.
“Nick!” My teammate stands over me and takes off his helmet. I see the shaved-head silhouette of Markus, my brother. A bead of sweat from the end of his nose drops through my face mask, and I spit. “I was wide open. What the hell, man?”
He was. I spit again.
“Markus!” shouts Coach Preston from the bench. “Get changed, then come see me.”
I’m a little relieved Coach didn’t ask for me. Then again, he’s said plenty to me today already. I guess he’s finally given up.
Markus sighs and wipes his nose on the back of his sleeve. He nudges me with his foot. “Wait for me by the car.”
When I don’t say anything, he shakes his head and follows the rest of the Vikings to the change room.
I still lie there on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
There’s this crusty smell that seeps out of my lacrosse bag. It’s always strongest after practice. Like hot dogs that have been left out in the sun for a long time. And lemons, from whatever spray my mom tries to hose it down with. Sunbaked hot dogs and lemons. That’s the after-practice stink.
I sit on one of those cement things, the kind you park your car against. Maybe I should open up my bag, air it out a little. My nose scrunches. I don’t really want to have to sit here and smell it though.
“You look glum, Nickadoo.” It’s Lindy Hilner. I know it even before I turn around to see her rolling up in her blue Acura. She’s at all our games, always volunteers to be timekeeper. Even though she’s been doing it forever, she hardly ever talks to me. But when she does, she calls me Nickadoo. She’s called me that since I was in third grade and she was in fourth with Markus. I’m in tenth now, and you’d think I wouldn’t like it. But since she lost her braces and stopped wearing overalls, it’s hard not to like.
“What?” I say, noticing the pink tank top she’s wearing.
“You look down.”
“Rough practice,” I tell her. That’s an understatement. Practice was more than rough. With provincials coming up and Maplehurst hosting this year, the town’s expecting a lot from us. The Vikings have been provincial champs for nine years in a row, and this year’s supposed to be ten. Coach has been feeling the pressure, getting on my case every minute. I wouldn’t mind if it was because I was messing up a lot, or because I was being lazy. But that isn’t his problem. The problem Coach has with me is always the same problem. The problem is, I’m not Markus.
“What are you doing?” I ask Lindy, changing the subject.
“Driving.” She shrugs.
Obviously. I laugh, but she doesn’t say anything more. Is it my turn to say something? She smiles and waits. I guess it is my turn. Two perfect dimples mark either side of her white smile. All I can think of saying is how much I like them.
Lindy tilts her head and stares at the arena doors behind me. Her brow furrows. “Do you need a ride?”
“Yeah!” I blurt out. I don’t need a ride. I drove here with Markus. I’m supposed to drive home with Markus. He’s got the keys to our van, but he’s taking forever. And a chance for one-on-one face time with Lindy Hilner doesn’t come along much for a guy like me.
I hoist my bag over my shoulder and hurry over to the passenger door. The hot dog–lemon stink wafts up to my nose. The last thing I want is to funk up Lindy Hilner’s car.
“Pop the trunk,” I say.
She points her thumb at the back seat. “Just throw it in the back.”
I look at Lindy Hilner’s pristine back seat. There’s a row of small stuffed toys lining the rear window. It’s all going to smell like hot dogs and lemons. If I keep the window down, she might not notice. It’s either that or beg her to open the trunk, and then she’ll think I’m hiding a body or something. I decide to take my chances with the window and chuck the bag in the back.
I plop down in the front beside Lindy and am immediately hit by cinnamon and flowers. Trendy Femme. She’s worn it every day since eighth grade. She keeps a bottle in her locker.
She sits there smiling at me and I smile back.
She turns away, staring out her window. Is it my turn to talk again?
“Uh, thanks so much for this,” I say. “Would’ve been rough to walk it.”
“No worries!” She’s not even looking at me. She’s facing the arena. I don’t know why we’re not moving. “How much longer is your brother going to be?”
And there it is. The reason we’re not moving. Markus. I should have known that’s why she offered me a ride. She never talks to me at our games, but as soon as her clock duties are over, she’s right there talking to Markus.
“He’s not coming,” I say. That’s not really true. He could be walking out those arena doors any second. He’s been in there with Coach for a good twenty minutes. They have to be almost done.
Lindy stares at me, blinking those big honey-brown eyes.
“He wasn’t feeling well,” I lie again before I can stop myself. “Got sick before practice, went home.”
“Oh.” She tilts her head. “He didn’t seem sick in class.”
“Yeah,” I say. “So he’s gone. He’s not coming.”
I feel bad for lying. But Markus has the keys for the van—it’s not like I’m leaving him stranded.
“Okay,” she says, turning the key. The radio explodes with some Top 40 tune that sounds the way her perfume smells. She shouts something over the music.
“I said, do you think he’ll be at school tomorrow?”
I shrug. I know he will be, but I don’t like that she cares.
We fly down Devon Road at what I doubt is the legal speed. The wind smacking my face cools the sweat on my forehead and neck. I notice my hair in the side mirror, a shaggy brown mess of curls. I wish I had a hat.
“Well, if he’s not,” Lindy shouts, “tell him I can pick up his homework. We do that, me and Markus. You know, if one of us misses something in class.”
I try not to raise an eyebrow. Lindy and Markus have drama class together. How much homework can there be?
“That’s nice of you,” is all I manage.
She grins. “I do what I can.”
She watches me out of the corner of her eye. My turn again, I guess.
“I’ll tell him,” I say. “And you know, if you ever need me to bring you stuff, homework or whatever, I can—”
She starts to sing along to the music before I can finish. She shrugs her shoulders and bobs her head to the heavy bass. I try not to laugh. She sings way off-key, but she’s cute when she dances. I recognize the song—it’s the theme to that new movie Fire Heart. It’s playing at the Galaxy Screens, and I wonder if she’s seen it yet. I have—it was awful. But if Lindy hasn’t, I’d probably see it again.
She reaches over and hits the power button on the stereo. “I’m sorry, Nickadoo,” she laughs, “but that bag smells so foul.”
My cheeks heat up again.
“That’s nothing,” I say. “You should smell Markus’s.” The words just fall out of my mouth.
“It can’t be worse than that.”
“Trust me, it’s worse. Like a million old socks and a dead cat.”
She laughs. “Sick.”
I laugh too. I’ve laughed a lot in this car, and we haven’t said anything that funny. I bite the inside of my cheek. Maybe I’ve laughed too much.
Lindy turns the music back on and cranks the volume. She doesn’t say anything else until we’re in my driveway.
“Thanks for the ride!” I say and hurry to get my bag.
“Sure, no problem. Tell Markus I hope he feels better!”
There’s a grinding, rattling noise coming from down the street. There’s only one thing that sounds like that. Our van. Markus.
“Sure, I will!” I slam Lindy’s door and wave goodbye, hoping she takes off before she sees him.
“Nick!” Markus honks at us, his arm hanging out the window. “What the hell? You left!”
Lindy gets out of her car and waves at my brother. I’m busted. Having no better idea of what to do, I run inside the house, slamming the door behind me.
Standing in our dark front hall, my cheeks feel like they’re a million degrees, and I hold my breath. Lindy’s out there, talking to my brother, finding out I’m nothing but a liar.
Lindy Hilner and my brother have been standing in the driveway for ten minutes when she finally decides to leave. I take another swig of orange juice and, through the kitchen window, watch her climb into her blue Acura.
What’s got Lindy Hilner thinking Markus is such a big deal anyway? Last year’s tournament in Guelph might have done it. Markus had a broken wrist for the final two games, but he played anyway. And won it for us. Lindy was there, running the clock. He never said anything about his wrist, not until I noticed the swelling. When I pointed it out and we got word that it was a fracture, Coach Preston was more than impressed. So was the team. And apparently, so was Lindy Hilner. Markus Carver, team hero, lacrosse legend.
I hear Mom thumping down the stairs. “Markus? How was practice?”
She bursts into the kitchen and her eyes bulge when she sees me holding the orange-juice carton. “Nicholas! Are you drinking out of the carton again?”
I shake my head and swallow the juice in my cheeks. I reach for a glass to really sell the lie.
“Where’s your brother?”
“He’s coming,” I say. He sure is. I can see him coming up the front path. I’ve got about ten seconds to disappear to the bathroom before he confronts me about Lindy. I can’t go to my room. I share it with Markus. The only real place to be alone in this house is the john.
The door slams and there’s a thud as he drops his lacrosse bag. Five seconds.
I rush by Mom and nearly spill my juice. I sprint full tilt for the stairs and boom!
My juice goes flying out of my hand as Markus slams me against the banister. He pushes his lacrosse stick hard against my chest. I’m pinned—and covered in OJ.
“Boys!” Mom barks. “Not in the house!”
I struggle against him, but Markus is stronger. He’s always been stronger. I wait for him to yell at me, but he doesn’t. There’s a smirk on his face.
“Look at this, Nick,” he says. “I guess I’m feeling better.”
I push with all my might and he lets me go.
He laughs. “You said I was sick?”
I say nothing and start to head upstairs. I don’t need him making me feel more embarrassed than I already do.
“Relax, Nick,” he says. “I told her I was.”
I stop a couple of steps up and look at him. “Was what?”
He stands there in the middle of the front hall, grinning. “Sick. I told Lindy I had a stomachache and left practice to get some Tums.”
My stress melts away instantly. Lindy doesn’t know I lied.
“Wanted to get her aloooooone?” he says, puckering his lips.
“Who?” asks Mom, peeking out from the kitchen. “Who is he getting alone?”
“No one,” I say.
“No one,” agrees Markus.
Mom isn’t that interested anyway. She throws a dishtowel at Markus. “Why are you so late? I was expecting you a half hour ago.”
Markus kicks off his sandals and starts to sop up the spilled juice. “Had to talk to Coach.”
“About what? Provincials?”