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Perception

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An impartial observer would not have noticed anything amiss when Freddy Ventura, back in his hometown after 15 years' absence and an impressive pro hockey career, went into Elliott Hardware to get a key cut. 

Of course, ‘impartial’ was a relative term in Kellynch Falls. It was a small enough town. Any hometown boy who made good would have been a hero. And an NHL player! It was only too bad he'd never won the Stanley Cup and brought it round—now that would have been a day, that’s for sure—and hadn’t Freddy Ventura deserved a chance to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home with him? 

Such an impartial observer would, of course, have conveniently forgotten that the Venturas had never been made to feel very ‘at home’ in Kellynch Falls. That they lived in a rundown little bungalow at the edge of town that was never warm enough in the winter, and that Freddy's old man had gone the way of hard drugs. That Freddy had played hockey in donated gear on a charity sponsorship. That they'd all shaken their heads when he'd passed up a shot at playing in the OHL—everyone who wanted to be anyone in hockey played in the O, or the Q, or (if it came down to it) the W. That when he'd instead gotten a hockey scholarship to the States—an Ivy League school but not one you've heard of—not like Harvard or Yale—in New York State, wasn't it—but not near any of the good shopping, so nowhere KFers wanted to be—they’d all thought he was getting a bit too uppity, for a Ventura.  

But all of that was now water under the bridge. Money was scarcer and drugs commoner since the factory shut down, and anything else could be forgiven by ten years in the Big League. And what a career too! It was a real shame about that last injury—everyone had thought he had another good four or five seasons left in him. More, if he wanted to play in Europe. That check into the boards hadn't been quite legal—and that player—what was he, Finnish?—no, Swedish—well, it didn't matter, you couldn't trust a European in any event—had not received nearly a long enough suspension. And then—just imagine—all those fancy American doctors couldn't fix Freddy Ventura's knee after all that! 

Not that you could tell at first glance. Freddy Ventura's knee might never be able to handle pro hockey again, but he still looked the consummate athlete. Tall—tanned—muscular frame—he’d been a power forward, and you could see it in the way he moved. And now that he couldn't play anymore—not so surprising, playing hockey down there where they had no snow—who did these people think they were, to build an arena in all that heat and humidity—oh, the things KF folks could say about the League, trying to grow the game in places where it had no business being played, all for the sake of TV sponsorships—but in any event—since Freddy couldn’t play anymore, it of course made perfect sense that he'd come back home. 

The impartial observer might have noted Freddy Ventura's slight grimace as he entered Elliott Hardware. Well, that wasn’t unexpected—the store had gone a bit downhill lately, hadn’t it?—not like the old days. That store had been a mainstay of Kellynch Falls for a century, first a general farming implements store and later a hardware store. The Elliotts were one of the oldest families around—Loyalists—old Arthur Elliott had even gone out to the genealogist to get the official United Empire Loyalist certification. Yep, he'd been a proud man, alright, and he'd kept the store ship shape. But then old Arthur had passed on, and Walt—he liked to sign things ‘Walter A. Elliott, U.E.’ but no one had ever called him anything more formal than Walt—had more or less run the business into the ground. And then five years ago—five years ago already, eh? Time does fly—Walt had abandoned KF and abandoned the store and gone to live in the city with his oldest daughter, leaving Elliott Hardware in the hands of his son Ian. Ian Elliott was a good’un—bit odd—and too quiet—and, well, there was that other thing—still, overall a solid guy. But he was fighting a losing battle bringing Elliott Hardware back from the brink, and everyone knew it except for his sister and assistant manager, Melody. 

“Well!” This was Mel. You couldn’t expect much in the way of discretion from that area. Even the most impartial observer in Kellynch Falls knew what Melody Elliott Musgrove was like. “Look what the cat dragged in!” 

Freddy Ventura smiled, and was gorgeous. From the perspective of the impartial observer, of course. “Hey. Do you cut keys? I need a copy of my sister's spare while I crash there.” 

“You're not getting your own place?” 

“I'm only here for the summer.” 

Mel looked him up and down, from the dark sunglasses hiding his eyes to the sport sandals displaying his toes. “Hmm. Well, Ian can cut you a key. Ian!” 

The impartial observer could be forgiven for missing Ian Elliott in this scene, up until now. It was easy to miss Ian Elliott at the best of times—quiet as he was, always unobtrusively but reliably being exactly where he was supposed to be and doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. But ever since the bell on the door had jangled and Freddy Ventura had walked into the store, Ian Elliott had been still as a statue behind the counter, and therefore even less noticeable than usual. 

Freddy's smile dropped, and his head turned toward Ian in a way that, if the impartial observer were particularly astute, might suggest that Freddy had been aware of Ian's location the whole time. “How's it going?” he said, casually, as one man to another when they'd been in high school together almost twenty years ago, and hadn’t thought of one other at all since. 

“Not so bad,” Ian replied, and if it came out a bit stiff—well, he was an awkward soul, wasn't he? “If you leave the key we can do a copy.” 

“Sure,” said Melly, rolling her eyes. “You can do that and come back when you're done your other errands. Or you could stay and chat. It’s been far too long since you’ve been home, Freddy Ventura, and I know you must have a thousand stories. Of course you’ve probably been hearing all the Kellynch Falls news from your sister, but if you want to catch up—” 

Freddy Ventura, who had spoken to Mel Elliott maybe three times in his life and certainly had no need to catch up with her, dropped the key on the counter with a brief, “Thanks. I'll be back.” And then he was gone. 

No—an impartial observer would not have noticed anything amiss with that interaction. But perhaps said impartial observer would have had a different view if they’d been in the same store a week earlier, when Melly had said casually, “Did you hear Freddy Ventura’s home?” and one of the part-timers had said, “Is he really?” and Ian had dropped and smashed an entire case of energy-efficient lightbulbs.  

Because there were some things that the impartial observer didn't know. 

 


 

Small towns like to think that they know everyone’s secrets. Not like those big cities, living next door to people when you don’t know anything about them or where they come from or what their families are like. In small towns, people believe that they know everybody’s business. But there are secrets still, even in the smallest of towns. 

Here’s an example of something that nobody in Kellynch Falls knew. As far as Ian was aware, there were exactly four people in the world who knew, but until last week he had been the only one here in KF. There was Ian himself, of course; his father, who had probably forgotten by now and in any event had moved to the city; Jan Ross, who did not live in town but rather out in the little village of Ross's Grant, on land her ancestors had received two centuries earlier for their loyal service to king and empire; and—inescapably—Freddy Ventura, who hadn't set foot in Kellynch Falls between the day he packed his bags for Cornell and last week. 

So, the thing that nobody in town knew: Ian Elliott and Freddy Ventura were high school sweethearts. 

No—that sounded too mild. Too innocent. Truth be told, they were lovers. If that sounded dramatic, it was. For a year and a half—eons in high school time—they’d loved each other with the passion and intensity of first love, the obsessiveness of adolescent angst, the absolute conviction of teenagers that their romance was determined by fate, that they were soulmates, that this was destiny. And then Ian had broken both of their hearts. 

Ian first noticed Freddy Ventura when he was 12 and just starting to realize that other boys felt some kind of pull towards girls that he didn't. He'd always been a bit different—quiet and shy—and he'd missed his mother terribly. People always talked about how hard it must be for Elise and Mel to grow up without a mother—why did they never say the same thing about Ian? 

In any event, that was Ian, 12 and introverted and lonely. And then there was Freddy Ventura, 13 and practically bursting with energy and determination. Ian watched him score a game-winning goal, and witnessing the subsequent celebration—Freddy tearing off his helmet and scrubbing hands through sweat-dampened hair, grinning, glowing—had… clarified a lot of things for Ian. 

The Venturas were what you might call ethnically ambiguous, with dark hair and dark eyes and skin that stayed olive through the gloomy winter months and went golden under the summer sun. They'd come to KF from some mining town up north, and their looks were the product of the genetic makeup of such a place—French and Native and German and Italian and Polish. Freddy had been graced with a strong nose and chin, boldly slashed cheekbones, heavy black brows, and a very square jaw. These features made him striking as a man, but they'd been far too much for the small face of a 13-year-old boy. He'd barely begun to grow into them when he was 16, and Ian was 15, which was when they spoke for the first time. 

It happened like this: Ian was in the high school weight room early one morning, doing lunges and thinking about the rugby season. He played rugby, grudgingly, because Walt Elliott had decreed that any son of his had to play a sport, and rugby was the only one Ian was any good at. He genuinely enjoyed the weight room, though. It was an interesting balance—testing his body, pushing its limits, through motions so rote and routine that he was able to achieve an almost meditative state. This was before mindfulness was popular, at least in such a rural Canadian backwater as Kellynch Falls, but in later years Ian would come to recognize elements of that practice in the way he focused on each rep, feeling his muscles work, taking pleasure in perfect form. 

Into this calm ritual burst the agitated form of Freddy Ventura. He was scowling, muttering to himself, and after he had thoroughly disrupted Ian's calm he knocked over an open water bottle and said, “Oh, of fucking course!” 

“You alright over there?” Ian said, half-hoping Freddy Ventura wouldn't hear him. 

Freddy Ventura looked up from wiping up the spill and focused his gaze on Ian. “Fine. Just one of those days when the world is against me. You know?” 

Ian did, so he nodded. It was a little—disconcerting—to be at the centre of Freddy Ventura's attention. 

“I was at practice this morning,” Freddy continued, setting up a machine for hamstring curls. “And that fucking idiot Trevor MacEachern—you know MacEachern? Oh shit, he's not like your cousin or something?” 

“Not my cousin that I know of,” Ian assured him. “And if he was I'd happily cut off that branch of my family tree.” 

Freddy laughed and Ian had to remind himself to breathe. 

“Good one. Yeah, so anyway. This morning at practice MacEachern was jawing at me.—I think I’m so great but why aren't I playing major junior. Maybe it's because I can't take the pressure, or I want to be a big fish in a little pond or whatever.—That kind of shit. And then one of his little friends said maybe I’m not Canadian enough to be any good at hockey, maybe I’m too Italian for that. Like what the fuck even? Do you think Phil motherfucking Esposito had to deal with this bullshit?”

“I… wouldn’t be surprised, actually,” said Ian. 

Freddy lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe at his face and Ian stared, spellbound, at the glimpse of olive skin above the waistband of his shorts. “I mean,” Freddy continued, and Ian snapped to attention, “I can manage the mafia jokes, the lasagna jokes, the Super Mario jokes, even the Ace-Ventura-fucking-pet-detective jokes. And I’m only like a quarter Italian at most! But this—fuck this. Fuck them. Fuck all of them. I'm going to show them.” 

And he started doing hamstring curls at a speed that was alarming to Ian. 

“Um,” Ian said after a minute, hoping conversation would keep Freddy from injuring himself, or breaking the machine. “Out of curiosity. Why aren't you playing major junior? You're good enough.” 

Thankfully Freddy slowed down. “I am,” he said. “More than good enough. It's tempting. I could play somewhere far away from this godforsaken hellhole. Hopefully they'd billet me with a nice family and not a bunch of inbred, xenophobic fuckfaces. But if you play major junior you can't play NCAA. US college hockey.” 

“You want to play college hockey?” Ian asked, trying to work through what he knew about Freddy Ventura, besides the fact that he was hot and poor and foul-mouthed and great at hockey. 

“Yeah.” Freddy had stopped his reps entirely and looked across at Ian. “I have this talent, and that's one thing I can do with it—knock on wood. If I can get a hockey scholarship in the States, I can get an education for free. Then it doesn't even matter if I have what it takes to make it in the NHL. I'll find a good job. A stable job. And I'll never be poor again.” 

“You don't want to play in the NHL?” 

Freddy sighed. “Of course I want to play in the NHL. That's the dream, right? Get a hockey scholarship, get an education while playing hockey in front of pro scouts. After graduating, sign on and play for as long as I can—NHL, AHL, doesn't matter. I'd even consider Europe if I had to. And then—when I can't play anymore—I still have that education. And if I get injured or I'm not as good as I think and I never make pro—I still have that education. That's the main thing. This is my best shot to set myself up for the rest of my life.” 

“That makes sense,” Ian said. “I don't know what's wrong with MacEachern.” 

“What isn't wrong with MacEachern,” said Freddy, with a grin that left Ian feeling almost dizzy. “I can’t even make a joke about him having a stick up his ass because he’s so tightly clenched. But I didn't tell him about any of this stuff. Honestly, I don't even know why I'm telling you.” 

“Because I'm nobody?” Ian suggested. “I'm nobody so it doesn't matter if I know or not. Maybe you forgot I'm here and you're actually talking to yourself.” 

Freddy frowned. “You're not nobody. And just ‘cause you don't say much, doesn't make you forgettable.” 

“You didn't even notice me when you came in.” 

“Yes, I did. It looked like you were in the zone so I tried not to disturb you, but I guess I ended up doing it anyway.” 

“I guess.” 

Freddy smiled again, and resumed doing his hamstring curls at a more normal pace. “I do feel better now, actually. Thanks for listening, Ian.” 

Ian could only stare. Of course, it was a small school, and a small town. Even though Ian was a year younger and awkward and quiet, it shouldn't be a shock that Freddy Ventura knew his name. But...

He couldn't keep himself from sneaking peeks Freddy's way as he progressed from hamstring curls to a shoulder press. Freddy's quads and glutes were just as good as you'd expect from a hockey player, but his arms and shoulders were very well-defined, too. And his smile was dazzling. And he knew Ian's name. And he had a plan for his life—

Freddy stopped suddenly and Ian knew he'd been caught looking. 

“Nice delts for a hockey player,” he said as casually as he could manage. Another benefit of being known to hang out in the weight room—his interest in lifting was a built-in excuse if he ever got caught looking too intently for too long at another guy’s physique. 

“Uh huh,” said Freddy, and when Ian dared look at his face, it wasn't confusion or disgust or mockery that he saw there. Instead, Freddy's eyes were lit with—interest? Curiosity? 

“Gotta go,” said Ian, and high-tailed it out of there before Freddy could pursue that thought. It wasn’t—it couldn’t be—even if—Freddy was gorgeous, ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ as Ian’s sisters would say, and Ian was pale and freckled and gingery. Whatever Freddy had been thinking it certainly—wasn’t—that

But the next morning when Ian arrived at the weight room, Freddy was already there, wearing a cocky grin and the tightest gym shorts the high school weight room had probably ever seen. “Hey, Ian. Want to spot me?” 

And that was how it began.