Good King Wenceslas rang out on Eric’s phone. And again. And again. He’d left the phone in his pants, which Sam had probably folded up somewhere out of arm’s reach, and so the only thing for it was to pull first one pillow over his head and then another.
Mornings had never been his forte, exactly. There wasn’t a 9:00 am class he’d ever managed to attend in high school or college. After his injury, when his pride was wounded far worse than his shattered shoulder, he’d drawn the blinds and hunkered down amid the blankets for days, until his sister and Sam (then just his lawyer) had hauled him out by one ankle. But this… This should’ve been a holiday. He felt entitled to sleep in after Christmas, particularly with the Christmas they’d had, coping with Billy and trying to prevent Scot from bouncing off the ceiling with what was either happiness or a sugar high. And if this was already three days after Christmas, so what? Couldn’t a guy get some sleep in his own bed anymore?
He could tell Sam was already dressed and shaved and spick-and-span, looking around the door at his disheveled heap of a partner. Eric was the TV superstar (okay, slightly twinkling object), but Sam had never looked unkempt in his life. He’d probably worn a suit to preschool.
“You’re going to miss your flight.”
The flight. The flight that was a huge opportunity and something he should’ve grabbed like a bone thrown to a ravenous dog. Reykjavik! The World Juniors! Not croquet or women’s soccer! And he had been enthusiastic about it. Too enthusiastic, it turned out, for a couple of reasons he didn’t want to dwell on.
“I made you coffee.” One of the pillows was tugged away. Unwanted sunlight shone in. “Come on, Scot’s already waiting by the door with his suitcase.”
“I bet he is.”
Sure, Scot was a great kid. Sure, Sam was busy filing all the papers for an official adoption. But he was a little hard to take at times, and Eric hadn’t exactly thought through all the implications of being locked in a confined space with him at 33,000 feet. For six hours.
“Ryan’ll be here in half an hour.”
Eric mumbled several things he wasn’t allowed to say in the house anymore. Ryan. Scot hadn’t been the only one high on happiness in the last couple of days. Eric had been riding the fear-induced adrenaline of walking out on his boss and of more than five or six people knowing how very, very gay he was. Who cared anymore! Carpe diem! Want to come to Iceland, Scot? Sure thing! You want to bring your little psychopath friend? Awesome!
He rolled over, giving Sam his best puppy-dog eyes. “You can’t let me go by myself.”
“I absolutely can.” Sam shrugged into his jacket. “The arbitration, remember? I’ll be there in a couple of days if everything goes well.”
“Nothing is going to go well. I’m going to the land of eternal darkness with the spawn of the devil.”
A heap of clothes thumped into the mattress next to him. “Shower. Clothes. I’m almost sure you’re a responsible adult who can make sure two kids don’t cause an international incident for a few days.”
“Now it’s a few days?”
Sam cleared his throat. “Scot’s wearing that Leafs shirt you gave him.”
Eric sat up, instantly suspicious. “Does it have glitter on it?”
“Oh Eric, look!”
Enthusiasm wasn’t bad. It really wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t exactly what Eric needed, trying to shepherd two barely-pubescent boys through an airport. Even if most of the people bustling around them were in perfectly sedate suits and casual clothes, Scot still had to fixate on the few with the nutty hairstyles or flowing dresses or whatever. Now he was eagerly keeping up a running commentary on the cut of flight attendant uniforms.
“Neckerchiefs are such a subtle touch,” he told a completely uninterested Ryan, who was swinging around an imaginary hockey stick. “Classic yet modern!”
Why wasn’t Nula here? He’d asked that a lot, but life or karma or Greg – most likely Greg – were against him, and Nula had flown out two days ago with their technical crew and commentators. The go-getter young reporter who’d replaced Eric had chosen that day to come down with some kind of superflu that could pretty much literally knock you off your feet, and so Eric was out of the sin bin. At least with Nula he could’ve pretended they were all one big happy family.
“Cute kids,” the lady at check-in said, while Scot beamed up at her with his toothy grin.
“Oh…” They’re not mine was kind of an awkward response. “Thanks.”
Okay, so all three of them had different surnames on their passports, but at least Scot didn’t pipe up with “This is Eric, he’s gay!” This time.
CSTN had provided a business-class ticket for him, but they’d only been able to get economy for the two kids, and Sam had outright forbidden him from just deserting them back there among other hapless travelers. So Ryan demanded the window seat and Scot grabbed the aisle, and Eric wedged himself in between them, never mind that he was too tall and too old for any of this, and the two kids could practically fit in one seat together.
They hadn’t even taken off when some portly older guy leaned over from the seats behind: “Hey, aren’t you Eric McNally? You used to be a great fighter. And your rookie season… Never seen anything like it.”
Eric was about to at least try the “sorry, wrong guy” tack, but Ryan immediately seized the opportunity to talk hockey. Six hours, and the kid barely stopped to draw breath. Eric’s entire life had revolved around hockey since he was four or five, and he could never have mustered as many fervent discussion points. He probably would’ve used the word “faggot” a little less too.
At least Scot watched the movie, which was – thank the hockey gods – an age-appropriate Disney musical. Eric tried to sleep, or to fake sleep, which was tough with Ryan chattering on and the ever-present threat of Scot wandering off.
Somehow, by the time they got to Reykjavik, the two boys were still wide-eyed and awake, while Eric wanted nothing more than bed. Preferably his own bed, with Sam in it. They should’ve just sent the kids by themselves. Maybe then he and Sam would finally get some alone-time, which had been virtually impossible since Scot moved in. Eric couldn’t even get alone-time in the shower without Scot suddenly appearing with some inexplicably desperate need for eau de cologne.
“I miss you,” he told Sam on a bad line, hearing his own voice echoing back at him. Had he ever said that before? He’d never had to. Sam was home every night. Eric was home every night. It had been that way since they’d moved in together, which was almost immediately after Eric admitted to himself that missing Sam was even a thing that was possible.
All his relationships with anyone he wasn’t related to by blood had started out as vague things he regarded as absolutely casual and temporary. He could be traded at any time while he was still playing. And while he was still playing, there was no question of having anyone who could be defined as a boyfriend. The thing with Sam had started out with Sam looking after him, because Sam was someone the Leafs paid to look after his legal issues, and then comfort sex, because he’d needed that more badly than he needed insurance payments, and then… Then he found he could live without the Leafs and without playing pro hockey, but he couldn’t live without Sam.
Scot and Ryan’s hotel room was suspiciously tidy when Eric knocked early the next morning after a restless night. He’d imagined pillow fights and arguments and “ERIIIC HEEEELP!” screamed through the wall. Now he imagined Scot waking at the crack of dawn to frantically clean up.
“Hey boys!” Nula was waiting in the lobby, snapping photos with her phone. “Aren’t the three of you the cutest, most adorable things?”
“Tell me you have interviews lined up,” Eric said. “Maybe ones that last all day?”
Reykjavik was only about as cold as Toronto had been when they left it, but it felt colder. Maybe it was the picturesque-but-bleak scenery. Maybe it was the barely-four-hours of sunlight. Nula did have interviews scheduled with some of the players they’d marked out as great human-interest stories: kids who had struggled through adversity, overcome injuries, or were plain incredible on the ice. A lot of Eric’s job just involved watching the games, or half-watching them while flipping through a folder of notes on who these kids were and what semi-intelligent questions he might want to ask.
And then someone asked him a question. The question. “Hey, aren’t you Eric McNally?”
Eric was alone: Nula had arranged for a local girl to show Scot and Eric around the city while the sun was still barely breaking through the clouds, and Nula herself was busy doing… whatever she did that made Eric’s job so simple a lemur could do it. He looked up. This time the questioner was a young woman who seemed out of place by a hockey rink: blonde, smart suit, the air of having just come from somewhere far more glamorous than this.
She stepped forward and shook his hand. “Nicole McFadden,” she said, naming a major cable news channel. “Big surprise to see you here, Eric.”
“It was kind of a last-minute thing…” The way she was smiling at him, it was like he should’ve known her, but he was blanking. If he’d gone in for that sort of thing, he’d be wondering if he’d slept with her once. “Have we met?”
“Oh, you know. Friends in common. I’m kind of a last-minute substitute myself. So are you worried the players will treat you differently since you came out?”
Eric dropped his pen. “Since I what?”
“It’s such a brave move. Okay, you’re retired, but you know how many players in any major sports leagues are gay? I’m not thinking of any. Not even retired ones.”
“Um. I’m not-” He stopped himself. “Who told you that?”
“Like I said, friends in common. So can I get a quote? You could be such an inspiration to all these young kids. It’s a new era of equality and tolerance.”
The whole “Erica” thing must’ve spread like wildfire while he was away from the office, and his former teammates would probably confirm his lack of interest in women if they were asked to comment. Anyway, it wasn’t as if it was hard to verify he’d lived with Sam for years. He just hadn’t thought anyone outside his immediate friends and colleagues would really care. Not enough to ask him for quotes anyway.
“Equality and tolerance are good.” Great. Now he sounded even more moronic than most players did during interviews, giving the same stock phrases in response to practically anything.
That of course was the moment Scot clattered down the stairs between them, bundled up in brightly-colored knitwear. There were reindeer. Pink reindeer. “Eric! Look what Johanna gave us!”
Johanna was the intern. Eric had given her money he’d thought would go toward burgers and movie tickets. Maybe Iceland didn’t have burgers and movie tickets. Even Ryan had a new tuque, but he immediately pushed past Eric to get a better view of the game.
“We went to a craft fair!” Scot was saying. “It was really interesting.”
“Probably just for tourists.”
“No, no. Look, I took pictures…” Scot grappled his phone from his pocket, and in the process remembered the plastic bag he was carrying. “I got you a sweater! I hope it’s the right size.”
The reporter was still there, watching, probably taking notes. “I didn’t know you had kids.”
“They’re… not exactly my kids.”
Scot turned his attentions on her. “Hi! I’m Scot.”
Eric was about to launch into his “don’t talk to strangers, particularly about my private life” speech when Nula appeared as if from nowhere, with Johanna lagging behind. Interview time.
“Do you know her?” Eric asked, looking back over his shoulder as Nula fast-walked him to the press area. “She was asking about my… about me… You know. The gay thing.”
“Yeah, we’ve had a few phone calls.” She consulted her clipboard. “Okay, so the Swedish team are pretty hot. Did you see the tail-end of the game earlier?”
“They’re pretty hot?”
Nula chewed on the end of her pen. “They’ve been winning a lot. They are good at this hockey thing. You know, the sticks and pucks… Where’s your head today, Eric?”
“With random reporters asking about me being some role model for gay rights! Does everyone know? Do the players know? Are they even going to talk to me?”
“They’re pretty progressive in Sweden. I think you’ll be fine.”
“I’m not just talking about Sweden!” Eric stopped and leaned back against the cold, cold wall of the hallway. “This was all a terrible idea. Coming here, bringing Scot. I’m better off with women’s soccer.”
Nula leaned in. “Are you hyperventilating? Eric, it’s okay. You’ll be fine. Not a single player here even knows who you are. They were practically babies when you were playing.”
“Great,” he told her. “I’ll concentrate on my gray hair and creaking knees instead.”
They had a late dinner at the hotel, surrounded by other foreign media, and the silence was filled by Scot teaching Ryan how to hold a fork properly and which cutlery to use in which order. It was something like the way Eric himself had been educated through Sam’s despairing glances when Sam started taking him to sophisticated restaurants and expected him to act like something other than a big hockey oaf. How Scot had learned it all was a mystery. Eric hadn’t been that different from Ryan as a kid, really: sports, more sports, plenty of fights, gotta toughen up, be a man. Had Sam been anything like Scot? The two of them definitely cared more about clothes than any other guys Eric had ever known.
He ate his steak and ordered a beer and brooded.
There were social events going on elsewhere in the city, with everyone telling him how much of a party town Reykjavik could be. But he left the kids watching subtitled cartoons in their room and threw himself onto the bed. Sam’s line was busy and he didn’t want to leave a pathetic message. Nula had given him notes to read up for the next day, and he’d get to them eventually, but…
It was stupid. It was all stupid. The segments he filmed would probably be little five-minute pieces on the network back home. Nula was right – none of these players cared who he slept with. They were from a completely different generation. Completely different countries, most of them. And anyway they were meeting him for a few moments in their busy lives. But still, there was a hint in there that some people would care. That there were stories being written about him. Maybe even about Sam and Scot.
There was a light rapping at the door. Scot, back in his Leafs shirt. “Can I come in?”
“Fall out with Ryan?”
“No, he’s asleep. Jetlag, I guess.” Scot ducked under his arm and through the doorway, bouncing onto the edge of the bed. He squinted up at Eric. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah I’m okay. Maybe a bit jetlagged too. What’s going on?” He closed the door and leaned back against it. “You should probably get some sleep. That’s what Sam would say, right?”
Scot raised his eyebrows. Point taken. “Do you like your sweater?”
“My sweater?” It was still in its bag, dumped on a chair. “Oh yeah, it’s great.”
“Eric, I think you should tell me what’s wrong. You’ll feel better.” Scot laced his fingers together. “That’s what Sam would say, right?”
God, he really was like Sam. Mini Sam. Mini Sam with orthodontic issues and less subtle fashion tastes. Eric fully intended to tell Scot to go to bed, he really did, but instead he folded his arms and stayed where he was. “You know I said not to go around telling people I’m gay?” There it was. He’d managed to put it in a sentence.
“Well I didn’t stick to my own advice and everything’s going to go to hell. Is going to hell. Right here and now.”
Scot gazed around the room. “It doesn’t look like-”
“Yeah, okay wiseguy.” Eric didn’t need an eleven-year-old getting all literal on him. “It’s a lot easier to get away with being weird in middle school, okay? Everyone’s weird in middle school. But I work in sports. I might as well be wearing ribbons in my hair.”
Scot, of course, turned a critical eye toward the top of his head. “It’s not long enough for ribbons. But I like the product you use. Smells like toffee.”
“That isn’t-” Eric shoved himself upright. “How do you do it? How do you just go around being yourself when you get laughed at and made fun of and beat up? It’s not like I’m saying it’s smart all the time to do that, but it is pretty brave. Brave or stupid. Okay, let’s say brave, because I know you’re not stupid. All I ever wanted to do was be part of the team. Exactly like twenty other guys. You’re… You’re wearing your poodle belt and a charm bracelet.”
“I got you a sweater,” Scot said.
“Uh huh.” If it had poodles on it, Eric never wanted to know. “See, you’re being yourself. I really admire you, Scot, I really do. But I don’t know how to do that without messing up my whole life.”
Scot shrugged. “Maybe it needs to be messed up.”
“I messed it up. I bet Sam messed it up. You have to be yourself, Eric! Who else are you going to be?”
The door swung open, hitting Eric in the back. “This is the gayest hotel I’ve ever seen,” Ryan said. “Where do I get a Coke?”
He wore the sweater. There were reindeer. None of them were pink.
“Greg liked the interviews from yesterday,” Nula reported. “We need to catch some of our hometown heroes today, though. Their English might not be as good as the Swedes, but we can at least try to get more than grunts out of them…”
Ryan and Scot were rapt at rink side when Eric left them and hunted down Nicole McFadden. Every niggling doubt he had that she wasn’t really interested in him at all vanished when she caught sight of him. “Eric, hi!”
“Still want a quote?”
She was already beckoning over her camera guy. “Sure thing. Nice sweater, by the way.”
Sam called him a couple of hours later, when he’d finished shooting the last of Nula’s scheduled interviews. The complete lack of the sky falling on his head had lulled him into a false sense that maybe no one really did care about his private life. Not with all the other stuff that was going on in the world.
“My Google Alerts just exploded,” Sam said. “You’re on CNN.”
“You have a Google Alert set up for me?”
“Eric, you’re on CNN! We have it on in reception, and maybe it’s a slow news day, but everyone’s just… I am so proud of you.”
Eric glanced at the ESPN crew across the lobby, who also had phones to their ears. “How did the arbitration go?”
“Oh, good, good. Great. Look, I’m flying out tonight, okay? Are the kids all right?”
“They’re having a ball.” Suddenly he was getting some interested looks. Maybe he was just being paranoid, but he ducked back down the hallway. “You’re proud of me? Really?”
“This would’ve made such a difference when I was a kid,” Sam said. “It’s going to make a huge difference to the gay kids playing hockey now. And a lot of people at my office have just realized how very, very handsome you are. Nice sweater, by the way.”
The interview clip had been edited down to a 30-second soundbite, but it was still playing by the time Sam made it to Reykjavik. The four of them sat in the room with room service breakfast and discussed all the talking heads on the TV. Eric’s phone was on silent. It vibrated almost constantly. He’d already had Nula slipping him multiple interview requests from TV networks and LGBT associations.
“This is so cool,” Scot said, hugging one of Eric’s arms. “So, so cool.”
“Gaaaaaay,” Ryan added. “So, so gay.”
“I have to go back out there soon.” Eric’s other arm was around Sam, who was wearing a MCNALLY Leafs shirt that had probably been stuck in a drawer for five years. “Pretend I’m not the news for a second. Nula’s got a dozen things for me to do.”
Scot tightened his grip. “Can we come?”
“Yeah, you can all come. But the two of you need to shower first, okay? And not together!” he added while they scurried away.
“You’re such a good dad.” There was a hint of laughter in Sam’s voice.
“Sure,” Eric said. “Didn’t you hear? I’m a goddamn role model.”
That evening, after Eric had run the media gauntlet, they set the kids up with a good movie, locked the door, and shut off Good King Wenceslas. It was New Year’s Eve, the calendar rolling over to 2008 in a few hours, and they had reason to celebrate. Mornings weren’t Eric’s forte at all. But nights with his boyfriend? As far as he was concerned, those could last forever.